I will never forget Jacob. While abundant with thoughts and opinions, Jacob was a sailor stranded at sea during writing time. After a full year of writing instruction, I still don’t think I was able to truly teach him to be a stronger writer. For this, I will remember him.
Now, Jacob was a great kid. His eyes twinkled every time the subject turned to fishing; he was a walking encyclopedia of fishing knowledge. From species to lures, he was the go-to guy. His math skills were impressive and there wasn’t a science lesson that didn’t have him on the edge of his seat. Why, then, did Jacob struggle so much during writing?
“I am not a writer,” he professed. That should have been my first clue. Jacob did not wear the identity of “writer” like he did “mathematician,” “scientist,” and “fisherman.” Had I known what I know now about identity, I would have known what power there may have been in truly lending Jacob the identity of “writer.” Naming him that and lending him that identity may have been the first step in making Jacob a successful writer. For that, I will remember him.
There wasn’t a day in writing workshop where Jacob didn’t find his way, usually within the first five minutes, to my conferencing table. In fact, it became such a routine it was as if it was his assigned seat. Helping Jacob every day during writing was fulfilling for me. I felt like I knew him so well that I could lead him to a product, line by line and step by step. What I didn’t realize was that, while I may have been providing thoughtful and well planned scaffolds for him, I had zero exit strategy. Sure, I was helping Jacob to strengthen his writing muscles, but it was as if I told him he could only do the work if I was there to spot him. At no point in time did I consider how to mindfully pull back my support and hand the reins over to him. For this, I will remember him.
Jacob sought my praise and I doled it out willingly. Every time he would produce a fraction of what his peers did, we celebrated. While this praise may have been quite motivating for Jacob, it wasn’t crafted in the way that I know now would have made a bigger difference. You see, I needed to provide recognition for Jacob’s learning, not just what he was able to produce. All feedback should have been tailored around his process instead of his product. For that, I will remember him.
Sure, I will remember Jacob because of that twinkle in his eye and the bond we formed across my writing conference table, but more importantly, I will remember Jacob because of the lessons he taught me as a writing mentor and teacher.
Perhaps there is a Jacob sitting in your classroom today. Reluctant writers can send us into a tailspin and test our every trick we have as a teacher of writing. When you find yourself in that place, know you are not alone. There isn’t one right way to address struggling writers, but here is an arsenal of tactics that may help your students to become independent and strategic writers:
Stop and Step Back
Reluctant writers often struggle with knowing what you are expecting of them. Perhaps they are uncertain of what you want them to know and be able to do. When a student is struggling, teachers must look first to themselves. Does the student need more clarification? A different instructional support? Do they know what that looks like?
As teachers of writing, we often hone our own craft. We become such proficient writers that we forget what it feels like to be a novice writer. Start by taking a step back and gaining more data about where the struggle is rather than assuming the student is being lazy or defiant.
Models, Modeling and More Models
We cannot expect students to produce something if they have no idea what it looks like OR what it looks like to produce such a thing. Be a mentor writer to your students. If you are not opening up your thinking on a very regular basis and articulating your metacognition, students assume you just “get it.” This isolates struggling writers. They need to see your process and study others’ writing. While mentor texts from out in the published world are helpful, students also need to use works in progress as models. Sometimes, the best learning comes from teaching. Let students pick apart a piece that isn’t perfect and allow them to provide the feedback.
The Power of Choice, Purpose and Audience
The power of choice is well documented. This choice may not be wide open, rather, it may be choice within structure. In a unit of study around a text type/purpose, there is still ample room for student choice. Engaging students in topics where they find their identity (for Jacob, that would have been fishing), they have a voice.
Choice is even more important as we push students to clearly articulate who they are writing a piece for and why. The writing process should be heavily influenced at every stage by audience and purpose. We need to lift students out of “playing the game of school.” School writing (think writing for a grade, to satisfy our teacher) is not the authentic work we want students to do.
Working Your Way Into A New Identity
Lending students the identity of a writer starts with positioning them as a writer on a regular basis. Well planned scaffolds lift them into this identity. Take the teaching stance that each writer you work with is capable and competent. While scaffolding instruction, plan the least restrictive instruction and sit on your hands! Carefully coaching students’ writing includes being mindful of PROCESS over product.
I will always remember Jacob not only for that twinkle in his eye but because I wish I had a “do over.” My work as a mentor and teacher of writing has been profoundly influenced by this young man. I think he taught me more than I taught him.