Time, Choice and Response

What do you do poorly?

Me?  I am completely disorganized with my clothes.  On any given day you can walk into my bedroom and find piles and piles of clothes, some dirty, some clean, none properly put away.

I have tried various strategies to improve the organization of my clothes, but have yet to find anything that I follow through with consistently!  I have gotten new systems in place time after time only to be left with the same damn piles of clothes everywhere.  I know this is a weakness for me.  I feel it everyday as I scrounge through those piles in an effort to find that one item of clothing that I “must” have that is lost in the sea of black on my dresser.

Now imagine someone reminding you every day of this weakness.  I imagine everyone entering my bedroom, heads shaking in disapproval of what a colossal slob I really am. Would this motivate me to get better at it?  I think not.

And yet that seems to be the mindset we are working with in our schools everyday.  We are so focused on the deficits, or supposed deficits and weakness that there is little time to point out what is going well!  Where is the delight and wonder in what we see in each student?  Where are the high fives and the specific feedback that might just actually motivate our students?

My son, now a junior in High School, has never seen himself as a student.  He does the bare minimum to get by.  He is rarely engaged in school academically, but is a social magnet.  He is a good kid.  But he just doesn’t care.


This year he bumped himself up to an Honors level Composition class with the idea that he would not have to do any reading!  He HATES to read and he loves to tell me that on every occasion that he can.  I laughed inside, knowing he would also be reading, but supporting him in his choice. 

So here we are, the end of October and Zach starts out strong just like every year and then his grades start to fall.  He loses interest.  But one day he came home and told me that his English teacher conferred with him  and told him he was a really great writer, perhaps one of the best writers in the class, and that he starts out strong with every piece, but then he looses steam and it progressively gets less and less strong.  He was surprised to hear this teacher nail his lack of writing stamina exactly.  He said, “You are absolutely right.  That is how writing has always been for me.  I get a good idea and then I don’t know what to do with it!”  She told him to just try to do more of what he does in the beginning and to leave it and then to go back to it. She started with what he did well and then made a suggestion for how he could improve his writing.  It was that simple.  It was that meaningful.

So his next piece was to be a compare and contrast essay.  His first paragraph was quite well done and that is where the brilliance stopped.  He was frustrated and lost in the compare and contrast structure that was limiting his vision of all of the possibilities of the piece.  He was frustrated and ended up going to school with less than a page written when he was supposed to have 2.  I worried.

He came home that night and talked about how they had peer conferences and how this one student was actually telling a story within the confines of the compare and contrast structure.  This model allowed him to envision his piece with new eyes.  He came home, actually told me about it.  (Which unless you have a 16-year-old boy does not seem like such a big thing, but trust me this is HUGE!).  And so he sat with the piece after gaining some feedback and began to write, and rewrite and play.  It was almost 11 at night and as I walked into the kitchen he exclaimed, “This is actually fun!  Trying to get this to say what I want it to say!” 

And yes, as a mother, as a teacher of writing, as a teacher period, I felt the warmth of a smile spread over my body with a heavy sigh of delight…thinking…he is finally engaged in something from school that has brought him into the zone.  Oh how I wish these moments were more frequent!!  But I will take what I can get!

Fast forward a couple of days and there is Zach, brimming with pride.  “You know what, I turned in my paper and I told my teacher, this is the BEST writing I have ever done for this class!”  And he was right as he went on to tell me that he got the best grade in the class, an A- on this essay that he had spent so much time with and actually enjoyed working on!

This story is one that I want to hold onto and remember, because the subtle moves of this teacher along with the structure of the classroom is designed not to point out over and over what he is doing poorly and harping on it and red penning it to death, but to identify FIRST what is done well and then suggesting some writerly moves for improvement.  The peer conference in this case was also powerful as it gave him a more concrete mentor text to consider.  The unfortunate part is that this is not the norm.  I don’t think Zach has had a Writing Workshop since fourth grade.  Writing instruction has just not been a regular part of his education…

And you know what, it is NOT rocket science.  We learn through models, practice and giving and receiving feedback.  Whether you are learning to ski or to write, it is essentially the same process.  All Zach needed was time, choice, direct teaching and authentic responses to his work to move him forward in the process.  Why must we muddy up the waters with so many minute details that just get in the way of student success? 

 I have written many horror stories about Zachary’s experiences in school, and this time, it is a delight to focus on something that went well, that made sense, that gave him the time he needed to make the changes he wanted to make and create something that he felt good about.  He was a part of the process, instead of being outside of the typical assign and assess model.  Just imagine if this was “common” for all of our students.  What a wonderful world it would be!

12 thoughts on “Time, Choice and Response

  1. This a fabulous story, but it is more than a story- it’s a clear example of how teachers can make or break the student experience with choice of words. I hope this teacher gets to read this post because I am sure he or she will exhale, feeling that rare feeling in teaching that your actions are verified. I am sure the look on your son’s face and the experience of the teacher reading the piece adds to this as well.
    Perhaps he will start to use the stamina strategy in other areas!

    • I sent it to his teacher and he already replied!! His intern does much of the teaching in this class, but he was thrilled that I passed it on! YES, we have to let teahers know when they are doing something that impacts a student in any way shape or form!! I can only hope the stamina will grow as well! Thanks jaclyn!

  2. Hello, my cooperating teacher sent this link to me, and I cannot thank you enough for this amazing post! I teach Zach’s class, and I was beyond excited when Zach arrived in class with his compare and contrast essay. I stand by my words–he is a great writer–but I also know how it feels to find inspiration and then get stuck in a rut. It happens to the best of us. Zach definitely made a breakthrough, and as I told him on his essay, I am so proud of the work he has done! The best part is that it’s only October, so I cannot wait to see the progress he will continue to make throughout the year. Hard work does pay off! Thank you again for this post–and for being involved in his writing process. I am always happy to hear when students share their work with their parents! He told me he’ll have an A+ revision for me on Monday, which I’m looking forward to!

    • Jackie,
      Thanks for reading and responding and it is SO great to know there are new teachers on the horizon out there who embrace, understand and are practicing the Writing Workshop model! You are an inspiration more than you know! I also got the chance to meet your roommate last week and well…you guys are quite a duo! I am interested in knowing whether you had learned of the Writer’s Workshop before working with Mr. Violette or if you had any classes prior to your internship. Am hoping all UNH interns are out therw with this theory!!
      Thanks for all you are doing with Zach!

  3. In New Hampshire I learned how to teach writing for the first time. I was so excited! I could hardly wait to get to writing with my class every day. When I moved to Texas, I tried to continue with what I had learned. Every year it got harder as more and more scripted writing instruction was required. The precious little time I had for writing was often focused on test writing. When I did work on writing journals and used “writing models,” my teaching was meaningful and my students enjoyed writing and sharing. However this was only possible a few times each week. I retired this year and I miss working with students. I wish teachers that are being mentored today could have the same experience as my students and me. It’s sad that so many students and teachers are missing the joy in learning.

    • Pat,
      Yes, it was the best of times in so many ways and we didn’t even know it…or did we? I remember long afternoons in your first grade classroom where there was this incredible sense of calm and real work happening everywhere from sketching to writing. I, myself, did some of my all time favorite sketches with you and your students. You created this space and yet, these spaces are becoming extinct. We NEED more writing workshops!! What are you thinking for yourself next? Perhaps you should offer your own workshops to your local districts on the Workshop with sketching and get them all involved!!

  4. I think an important takeaway from this story is the power of 1:1 conferencing. It is one of the hardest things to work into my schedule as it requires the other 19-20 students to be on task. I have the conferences at a table with comfortable chairs that sits away from other students and do my best to give them my undivided attention. What I see when I get to speak to one student is much different than when I’m speaking to the class (even though I might be saying the same thing in some cases), or even if I’m at their desk with other students partially listening in. I give feedback back on what they have and then before they leave give them one or two things to prioritize. I take these times very seriously, I ask questions about their writing, give suggestions, share with them the struggle of analyzing a text and trying to convey how that analysis makes sense. The look they get when what I’m saying connects to their writing and they realize that I’m acknowledging how difficult writing can be is one of relief and amazement – they feel better that struggling is part of the process. I think they appreciate it; I know it helps many of them.

  5. This message is so right on for those kids with learning challenges as well. Being a mother of a kid diagnosed with Dyslexia, and seeing him in a public school being reminded day in and day out of his weakness is so painful. Now to see him blossom in an atmosphere where someone is pointing out his strengths, which come to find out he is very talented in Math, is such a wonderful experience. Another great piece, Tomasen. I would like to forward it to the folks at Landmark, if that’s ok with you.

    • Yes Bebe!! Please do!! The more readers the better!! I have decided it is time to get as many readers as possible!! Please send along to anyone you think might be interested and encourage them to follow!!
      There are so many stories, similar to yours, that need to be told. We NEED to bring the kids back into their own educations! I am SO glad you were able to find Henry what he needed. The difference is night and day…right?
      Don’t blow away! Winds are picking up here…still have power at the moment. You?

      • Yes it is night and day, but that’s because it’s private school education. The wind is picking up and the lights keep flickering. We have a generator, so we should be good. But the kids have decided that they are just going to shut off the tv and play games anyway. It’s kind of funny.

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