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!