SOL Reflection: Making the Writing Box Bigger

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Slice of Life hosted by Two Writing Teachers makes Tuesdays wonderful. If you’d like to join in the slicing, check out this link.

The very nature of goal setting is to challenge ourselves, to reach for more, to measure our progress, to prove or affirm our place, to keep up, to be acknowledged or some combination of all of the above.  Certain people are goal-oriented; they are driven by the need to succeed. Certain types of activities are based on achieving goals: think sales or sports.

This is all fine and dandy, but it makes me wonder about those times when we don’t succeed and label it failure. It seems so final.

Nerdlution, part 1 had many people saying they had failed.  This tweet from Franki Sibberson made me think:  “I wonder what our #nerdlutions failures mean in terms of our expectations of students and their goals?”  Hmmm… I wonder too.

There are some students in my class that succeed in traditional school ways. But there are some that don’t. For various reasons they don’t fit into the box we call school. They are bright kids and can succeed, but not in the school way. In organization, writing, reading, math — certain students hit walls. Success based on standard measures doesn’t happen for them, yet. They know it and feel bad about it. They feel bad about themselves because they fail to succeed. It isn’t a life sentence, just school. So how can we make the box that means success a little bigger?

Last week we drafted our memoirs.

Forty minutes had passed. One student hunkers over his paper. I walk over. He has written four lines. His piece is all about how he hates writing.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“This is so hard.” His writing tells me more. Writing was easy in first grade, but now it is so hard because there is so much more to pay attention to. Really something worth pursuing with him, but not now. Poor kid’s in a panic.

While he has only written a few lines, what he has done is beautiful. Ironic, I think. This child who hates to write has a gift for it. He knows how to put words together. But at the same time, he feels he has failed. In mis mind he hasn’t written enough.

He says, “I can’t do this, I don’t know what else to say.”

I tell him I know the feeling. I tell him his style reminds me of so many memoir texts that start out, “When I was…” and then continue with a string of “when I was…” moving toward the present.

I ask him if he remembers writing in second grade, or third or fourth? How was it then?

His eyes perk up, “I remember second grade. It was ok then. Things got much more difficult in fourth grade.”

“Ok,” I say, “Start in second grade, then work your way forward, grade by grade. See if that can get you a little more and perhaps you could figure out something along the way.”

He sits back down, leans over his work, and writes. Ten minutes pass. Four more lines written. He seems better with this product, and better with himself.

As we walk to recess, I tell him that he has grit.

“What’s that?”

“That’s when you keep working, even when it’s hard. Extremely hard.  When you do this you have grit. You don’t give up.”

“Oh, sort of like perseverance?”

“But doesn’t it sound cooler – grit?”

“Yeah, kind of like getting messy in the dirt,” he says.

“Exactly,” I say. “You have a way with words.”

And then he runs off to recess.

While I want him to love to write, this year might just be about making writing a little less painful. The real question in in my mind is how he feels about himself and his abilities.

He is being asked to do a school thing defined by a unit of study.  There are other opportunities to write. But this is how he defines writing. Let’s face it, this is how we have defined it. After all, it’s called Writer’s Workshop. The process of writing overwhelms him. There is just too much to remember, to organize and then a deadline on top of it makes it even more disturbing. Bottom line, this type of work makes him feel like a failure.

He doesn’t fit into this particular writing box, and because of this he hates writing. Regardless of what the Common Core says, for the sake of our students, writing needs to be seen as something we do everywhere. Our definition of writing and what we present as writing opportunities needs to expand dramatically.  The box needs to get bigger, making room for students to find a writing space that fits and equals success.

18 thoughts on “SOL Reflection: Making the Writing Box Bigger

  1. What a great post and so important to remember, too.
    This last line resonated with me: “The box needs to get bigger, making room for students to find a writing space that fits and equals success.”
    Yes, I agree.
    Kevin

  2. “You have grit.” I LOVE that you told him that. I’m going to steal that phrase…I know just the student who needs to hear it. I love how gentle and understanding you are with your writers. Thank you for sharing! Thanks for your grit!

  3. I loved that you asked him. We found with our nerdlutions that talking about the process of meeting our goals was critical. Sometimes we need to redefine success in order to be successful. It may be the same with writing for this writer. Thanks for sharing and causing us to think more about writing in our classrooms.
    Clare and Tammy

  4. Oh, you are so good. To recognize that you need to make him feel good about writing again is an important first step in getting him to write. And to notice in four lines that he has a gift of words. Nice. I have a feeling this boy will do lots of writing for you. You both have grit.

  5. Keep expanding the box, stepping out of it, looking at it from different angles. Your slice is like visiting a classroom to observe a teacher-student interaction, with the bonus of visible teacher’s thought bubbles. What a wonderful learning opportunity for me.

  6. This is not only a beautiful post, but an important one as well. We make many boxes for our students to fit into throughout the day. What a gift you’re giving this student (and I am sure many others like him). You’re accepting who he is, where he came from, all the whole nudging him towards wanting and needing more for himself.

  7. Julieanne,
    I love that you automatically jumped back several grades to second grade and asked this student “how it was then?” That search for a “positive response” to writing was what this young lad needed for an additional nudge.

    As many have said, you both have grit. We really can only deal with what we know. By voicing the fact that “this child knows how to put words together” you have begun to build his wall of fame and success in writing. Some might spend time searching for the “root cause” but the most important thing is to continue to move forward with success!

    Thanks for sharing this story of expectations!

  8. I love that you are working hard toward flexibility, changing expectations to meet the needs where the student is rather than where all those ‘outside’ factors say he should be. Good for you, and terrific for his writing! Love “how can we make the box that means success a little bigger?”

  9. I must remember your message! As I only work with students who struggle (as they are all learning English) it is good to remember to look outside the box. Besides “grit” is a lot easier word for my students than perseverance! Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  10. You are so wise! I loved the way you guided him and recognized his abilities, even when he doubted. This was a special post to read. Like I said, you are wise.

  11. This is a great reminder of what is important. We need to make sure the box is always big enough to include the diversity of our classrooms. Thanks for a post that will stay with me all week – and beyond,

  12. Wow, so many posts I’ve read today have reminded me of the many different ways that our students can feel unsuccessful in the educational setting. I love how you guided your student to feel good about the hard work he was doing. I’m always inspired by SOL.

  13. I had a student like this once. So talented but “hated to write.” In fact, his mom told me at PTCs that I was ruining his life. However, I kept pushing. I did a lot of the things you’re doing with this student who doesn’t fit into the writing box. You know what? He did the SOLSC in March 2008 and finished it. He found himself as a writer as a result and then soared. Now he’s a sophomore in high school who LOVES to write. (And his mom and I are friends on Facebook.) All because I kept pushing and helped him realize he had grit (though I didn’t call it that at the time). Therefore, I KNOW you’re going to get through to this student. He’s going to soar. And you will be responsible for his success. Doesn’t that feel great?

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