You are a writer.
That’s a sentence I’ve used for almost a decade in my classroom. It’s on my class site. It’s in the opening day presentation; it is the first thing parents see at Meet The Teacher Night. It’s my first answer to every student who says he/she is struggling with a piece. And, more importantly, it’s the most honest answer I can give to a kid.
That four word sentence evolved in my classroom at sort of a crossroads in my teaching career. It came at a time when I wasn’t really sure I was cut out for the job.
I was 11 years into my teaching career when my Principal called me into his office in late June. I know that evokes horror in many teachers, but I am lucky to work for a Principal who doesn’t create that environment. A year earlier I was called in and told that he wanted me to create an alternative English curriculum for a group of ninth graders who would be taking English and Social Studies for the second time the following year. In other words, the students failed their courses and summer school wasn’t going to be an option.
With two groups of ninth grade repeaters and three 10th grade sections, I navigated the year in what had been my typical method. I was still young enough–33 years old–to be current with them. I knew their music. I knew their jokes. I knew sports, played video games, and could get away with the joke that the teacher down the hall couldn’t. In other words, I had my schtick.
And, honestly, it was perfectly fine by most standards. Kids liked coming to class, I was having fun, and there was never really an issue. Looking back, it was perfectly fine because I always put kids first, even if I wasn’t sure I was meant to do this teaching thing. In my view, many of my colleagues were better teachers because they had these strict standards and approaches. Homework every night. Essays must be written in a certain way. Questions about literature that required rote memorization.
I didn’t have that in me. Therefore, I didn’t think I could be considered a good teacher. I hated rows. I hated giving homework every night. I loved Socratic Seminar and hearing what kids thought. I loved reading a piece of literature and asking kids what they thought. I would sneak those things in when I thought I could. But, mostly, I plowed along with a quick wit and doing what was expected.
I also loved teaching writing, but I wasn’t confident enough to break out of the mold of the typical writing teacher. Most English Teachers fight a battle with standards. Because of the art form that is writing, teaching it is difficult. It’s a process; it’s messy. And, I love every minute of it. That messiness leads many teachers to trying to make things streamlined–I’m being kind–for kids. In other words, there is a formula. Kids aren’t required to think with a formula; writing becomes more of a fill in the blank exercise.
Then, there is the grading. Most default to the red pen and showing a kid every single mistake in a paper. It is mostly well-intentioned, but it is rooted in the idea that kids don’t know how to write and that mechanics are far more important than the story. So, kids would get their writing pieces back covered in red ink, showing every single grammar error with corrections. They would see their sentences crossed out and a correct version of what they “meant” to say. “What” they said didn’t have any value.
Sadly, I fell in line. While I always made sure to give positive comments, I know that kids only looked at the red scribble and thought, “Why did I even bother?”
The meeting started out the typical way. We talked Yankees for a few minutes and then went over the ninth grade program. It was successful. They were all moving on to 10th grade in both subjects. I was in the middle of the victory lap when he told me what was next. Nine years later, I still remember this conversation word for word.
“Listen, you did a great job with the program, but I’m moving you out of it.”
“Ok, going back to 10 Honors?”
“You’re going to take over the ESL program.”
I didn’t respond. I stared at him, processing what he just said. So, he kept talking.
“Listen, the program is struggling. Their regents scores aren’t even close to the grades they are getting in class. I’m putting you in my greatest area of need.”
“I don’t speak Spanish. How will I do my thing with them?”
“You don’t need to speak Spanish. Go teach them. I’m trusting you with this.”
He was trusting me?
I thought he was punishing me.
How did I, in a two year span, go from teaching four honors classes to two repeater classes to, now, four ESL classes? He was also taking away what I thought were my best assets: my wit and connection to what’s happening.
His decision turned out to be the single best thing for my teaching career, even if it took a while to realize it.
It didn’t help that when we came back in September for our first day that the first thing I heard from a teacher in my department was, “Wow, ESL? What did you do to Mike (the Principal)?”
I’d love to write that the first day and week was this beautiful amalgamation of me finding my new way of teaching and getting these students, who were deathly afraid of this guy who was talking about standards and not letting up, to buy in. It was the opposite. I wasn’t teaching. I was filling their 42 minutes with texts and leading them in discussion. And, when I thought they didn’t understand, I’d tell them what it meant. Writing instruction was working on simple sentence structure.
I was miserable. They were miserable. I was giving them failing grades. They weren’t failing though; I was.
And, then, I had my first department meeting.
I really despised department meetings. That’s actually a funny sentence because I now lead these meetings in my new role and try to make them the opposite of everything I despised. But, then, I was merely attending. I’d take my seat in the back and had my usual plan to just sit and endure the meeting. The topic of the meeting was regents scores. Our Department Coordinator went through each teacher who had 11th grade classes. I had two, both ESL. But, she didn’t call my name. I was forced to speak so my groups would be on her list.
“Umm, I have two 11th grade classes.”
“Oh, that’s right. You have the ESL classes. Don’t worry, there’s not much you can do.”
I really have this thing about being told that there is nothing I can do.
Another colleague chimed in, “None of them passed last year.” The room agreed. Five minutes later, the room was still talking about how they had no chance. Maybe they were trying to make me feel better. It had the opposite effect. If we were going to lose, we were going to at least lose on my terms and doing things the way I’ve always wanted to.
The next day, the kids arrived to the room with the desks arranged in a circle. We sat down and I started with an apology. I told them that everything I did that first month was wrong and that I was really just feeling awkward and lost in the room. I ripped up the grade book (it sounds dramatic, but I did really do that).
They stared at me. I continued by telling them that I was angry. They thought it was directed at them. When I told them about the department meeting, they were relieved that they didn’t make me mad. But, then they got mad. I told them that it was “Us” against everyone and that I liked our odds. We would all pass the regents and, more importantly, that they would each realize one thing.
You are a writer.
And, with that, I began our creative writing and narrative writing. For creative writing, we first created a character. They even drew their character. Little did they know, this character would go through a lot. We’d come up with weird scenarios and they would write about them. If I wanted them to work and learn about setting, we would have a prompt that had their character locked inside a small space. They would spend a little time describing that space. After a few entries, we would work on other things like having their characters yell at their enemy. They didn’t realize we were working on dialogue, but we were. And, it didn’t matter what language they were written in at first. The story was most important. What they thought was most important.
All the while, we worked on telling our story through our narrative writing. First, it started as them telling me a story. One kid told me that he worked an overnight job as a custodian to support his family. That certainly explained why he sometimes couldn’t keep his eyes open. Another student told me about when she had to choose whether or not to stay with her mother in the Dominican Republic. They had amazing stories to tell; I wasted a month not asking them. That was my loss, but we made up for that lost time. As they told their stories and I valued them, their confidence grew. And, I earned their trust.
If a colleague looked in, he/she would think we were doing nothing. The class was loud and I was only sitting with one kid.
In reality, there was so much going on. Kids were working on their narratives with each other. Some wrote it in their native languages, some were confident enough to write it in English. We would spend a few minutes going through short story narratives as models and, of course, using our creative journals with our characters.
I then instituted my policy of not writing on their papers. Those were their words, their work. It wasn’t my place to tarnish that. We conferenced and I told them all of the things they did well in their story. If they wanted it written down, post it notes worked fine.
Truthfully, that wasn’t hard. They were telling rich, emotional stories. Was the grammar perfect? No. Is that more important than their ability to tell a story and having the confidence to actually get words down? No way. So, we would work on one thing with their grammar. And, the best part–at least to them–they could rewrite it until they got a 100 percent. Slowly, but steadily, the native language was changed to English. It was happening.
Their confidence grew. We followed the same process with other genres of writing. As a result, when we read difficult text, they were confident enough to try. But, I wasn’t sure if this would translate to Regents success. Could the process of writing and allowing them to develop their own voice overcome a lack of exposure to standardized test writing? In May, we entered Regents bootcamp. It was their first time even seeing a Regents prompt. Yes, I went against the department practice of giving regents prep all year. My rationale was simple. If kids could develop their voice and know how to write, they could write in any situation.
Honestly, I had no idea if it would work. As we read through the test and its two writing prompts, they were scared. But, as I told them, nobody worked harder than them. Not only did they have to translate everything in their head, analyze it, and then write it in English, they were expected to get the same grade as someone who had been in the United States for their entire life. I concluded the Rocky speech with two things:
“There’s no group I would rather bet on than you.”
And…wait for it…
“You are writers.”
Corny, yet honest, speeches aside, they put in the work. Those first year 11th graders took the regents. 96 percent of them passed. The couple that didn’t, passed it in the summer. The other two ESL classes that I taught that year were 10th grade. I got to work with them the following year in 11th grade. All of them passed the regents on the first try.
Honestly, the regents scores are great, but that’s not what I remember. I remember their stories. I remember them working on their narratives, even when I didn’t assign homework. I remember the conversations in the room. I remember celebrating with them when Bartolo Colon made the New York Yankees. I remember the look in their eyes when I told them their stories were good. Because their voice and their story was finally heard, they had the confidence to look at the grammar and sentence structure. They were valued.
After four years in the program, I had to give it up because of a state license change in the newly renamed ENL requirements. It’s funny; when I knew I wasn’t coming back to the program, I was devastated. The group that I, at first, dreaded helped me find my own voice in a classroom. They helped me find the confidence to do things that I believe are best for kids, even if it goes against tradition. And, they led me to where I am today.
This past September, I stood in front of a group of parents and said, “I actually love my job.”
I’ve had that feeling since I met my ESL crew, but their lessons led me saying that out loud. They led me to being able to tell my classes that all the time.
Since working with my crew, I have been fortunate enough to work with so many great kids on so many levels. I’ve worked with 7th grade summer students, 9th grade summer students, 10th grade regents and honors students, 11th grade regents and honors students, and 10th grade Advanced Placement students.
Each group gets the same message: “You are a writer.”
And, each group teaches me the same thing, “they all have a story.”
Those stories are amazing. If we all could bet on kids, we would see that they have incredible voice, incredible passion, and an incredible vision for the world.
That group of students taught me that a teacher’s job isn’t to assign a topic to a student. It isn’t even about teaching them ‘how’ to write something. It’s giving them the freedom to write and explore things will spark a passion in them. That passion will drive their language development. It will drive them to want to write deeply. It will allow them to be so passionate that they will commit to a writing project outside of the regular class when they are taking a full course load like two of my classes did a few years ago. It allows a kid to have the courage to put herself out there as a sophomore and write about such a difficult, personal topic.
It allows another group of sophomores to create a research project that includes a research paper and presentation without being forced to write about something they were assigned.
So, my classroom is probably the loudest in the building. And, I’m never really in front of the room. Usually, you’ll find me sitting with a kid and talking about their writing. The rest of the class will be working on either their group project, individual writing, or whatever task we have going on. The traditional lecture still has its place, but it is a rare occurrence. Kids are writing and reading more about things they care about. I get to read more of their work with them every day rather than being relegated to judging final products in one big pile or Google Drive file.
Those conversations are the best moments of my day. Each one is different as kids are all at different stages of writing and development. They are getting individual instruction and I am getting to know them better. Nine years ago, I didn’t have the courage to follow this path. But, a Principal made a career defining decision for me. And, a group of kids inspired me to put their stories first.
20 years into this gig, I am finally in a spot where I can say that I am proud of the work that goes on in my room. I’m also finally comfortable enough to share my experiences. I’m also comfortable to say to colleagues and students that I don’t know things. I don’t have all the answers; I never will.
We, as an industry, have an obligation to give kids every opportunity to develop their own, unique voice. They are capable. They will amaze. They just have to be given the platform. They have to be given the opportunity to truly think, make sense of something, synthesize all of that, and then solve. And, truthfully, the world needs them to have the type of confidence to do all of that. They will be the ones left to solve the problems we’ve left for them.
I’ll bet on the kids every time.
Ok, if you’re still with me, I want to offer one writing approach/activity that you could try with kids in each column I write. I’ll keep this one simple, since I mentioned it a few times: Conferencing.
The writer’s conference is the backbone of writing instruction. Many criticize it because they think it takes too much time and instruction suffers. Detractors are wrong for two reasons. One, conferencing is instruction. You are, literally, sitting with a kid and helping him/her with his/her writing. You are giving suggestions in direction, giving grammar help, or offering revision options. That is teaching at it’s finest. I despise jargon, but we’ll use it here: it’s differentiated instruction.
They are also wrong because, most likely, they are doing it inefficiently. A conference is not an end game. Conferences should be had all through the writing process. Students should have to check in a few times during their writing. That way, you are reading bits of writing, not the entire piece in one shot.
The value to a student is huge. If a teacher waits to conference with a student until the end of the writing process and the student didn’t quite get to the heart of the piece, he/she essentially has to start over. That is deflating to a kid and will most likely lead to him/her not revising. That was a lot of time invested in something only to be trashed and started again. But, if a student is guided early in the process, he/she will revise along the way, making for a much more polished piece at the end.