At the end of our first week of school, as I do each new year of our sixth grade writing workshop, I gathered my sixth grader’s writing surveys, writer’s notebooks, and sat down to begin figuring out what I had learned about each student. I sketched out some notes, jotted down some observations, and tried to bring each writer into teaching focus: what would be some writing goals we could set? how could I help guide this particular writer?
I happily made my way from student to student… and then I came to TJ, who:
*hated to write (he made note of this eight times in his writing survey and first quick write)
*never knew what to write about
*never wrote anything he liked or was proud of
*never finished a writing piece
*never, EVER, chose to write just because he had something important he wanted to say
*he had trouble holding a pencil and writing
*his writing was close to being illegible.
TJ said that writing made him want to cry. As TJ’s writing teacher for the year, I wanted to cry, too.
All of us who teach have students like TJ, and more often than not there are any number of TJs in our classroom at one time in any given year. These are the students we have to work extra hard for, the ones who stretch us as teachers, and the ones we wind up learning the most from. Here’s what I learned from TJ:
The journey towards the right writing tool is the longest and the hardest: Working with pencil and paper were torture for TJ. We tried a laptop, but he typed with two fingers and laboriously. I brought in my iPad, but that was no better. We tried using the voice app on his phone, but that made him self conscious. And then, one blessedly lucky day, when we were both at the end of our personal ropes, TJ made a bashful admission: he could “text like crazy fast”. He was right – he could text at blinding speed. “I game a lot”, he admitted, embarrassed. But I was thrilled: we had found the right writing tool! Now, TJ drafts on his phone, and copies and pastes it on Google docs to revise and edit. TJ’s biggest hurdle was discovering the writing power in his thumbs!
Not every student needs to plan: Planning was really, really hard for TJ. We tried storyboarding with post its, any number of graphic organizers, talking and sketching out ideas. Each led to bouts of frustration and then a complete shut down. TJ discovered that if he “just downloaded” all his thoughts as a text to himself, he could then go back and highlight certain kernels of thought that could then become the framework of what he wanted to write. TJ learned that he had plenty to say, but he had to plan a very little bit at a time with very broad strokes.
Focus on one goal at a time: No one was more conscious of the distance he needed to travel as a writer than TJ himself. I lost count of the number of times he said, “I’m so BAD at this!“. We learned that TJ learned best when we focused on one goal at a time: decide on the writing idea, stretch the idea, download it, stretch and elaborate the idea, work on vocabulary, work on dialogue, work on conventions. Each step stood alone so that he could focus on just that. In this area, it was I who struggled the most to stay consistently focused on just one thing at the expense of all the other things that needed to get done. One goal at a time, that’s what worked for TJ.
The gift of praise: Maybe it’s because I have reached a certain advanced age and have truly become the “old lady teacher” that my students once spoke of, but I think we over praise our kids.Everything they do is awesome, worthy of awards. gifts and praise…or so it seems to me. I believe praise should be earned, and judiciously dispensed. But, in the case of TJ, every little bit mattered, every step of the way. He writing journey was so fraught with issues to be figured out and overcome, and his sense of self worth as a writer had been so undermined, that it was absolutely essential to praise every effort. At first he was surprised, then embarrassed (after all, everyone else in the class seemed to have done this already and years ago), and then proud. “Yeah, I can do this!” – this became the point of the praise, and its reward.
Over the last few weeks, TJ has been working on his multi genre writing pieces: a poem, a persuasive letter, a slice of life, and a photo essay about a topic near and dear to his heart – #GetTJADogIn2016.
We are ending our writing year on a celebratory note, TJ and I. Of this, I am certain: he taught me much more than I taught him. That is the joy of this teaching life.