In order to gather my thoughts I tend to think in figurative language. Analogies, metaphors, similes, idioms. Here goes. I began my adventures with students learning to write on a mountain top. I can see in all directions for what seems like infinity. Since I see myself as a good writer, I have no fear of heights. But when I look at my students, hoping to share the joy of the panorama from this spectacular vantage point, I see young writers who don’t see themselves as writers. They are terrified, clinging to each other and grasping at me and each other for support. They are afraid to express any thought on paper for fear of being wrong, but are willing to share ideas in groups where the media is speech. Not like a written speech, but the speaking and listening that can occur when they gather in a group to exchange ideas. I have such high hopes for these struggling writers, but they have such a fear of the act of writing that this fear is debilitating. In order to reach these students, I am first going to have to calm their fears. The only way I can see to do this is to”come down from the mountain” to a level plain. I am going to have to take baby steps, and convince these writers that they aren’t going to be judged by their errors, but by their courage in their willingness to put pencil to paper.
During these last few years that I have been immersed in literacy studies, I have learned/rediscovered a few basic truths: PEOPLE, not just students, need choices, opportunities, examples such as mentor texts, positive support, constructive feedback, and encouragement. LOTS of encouragement. My students are no different, but it seems like this year’s crop of writers are less confident in their abilities as writers than most students who have passed through my doors. This past week was very eye-opening for me. For example: I KNOW that using mentor texts is a best practice as is choice and collaboration, but I was very pressed for time, and so I “modified” the original lesson plan to eliminate the mentor text and limit the amount of choices the students would actually have. I KNOW that mentor texts are an integral part of any lesson, but I truly believed that I was beginning my instruction from a solid foundation in their prior knowledge. I wanted them to basically have the same topic so that there would be greater collaboration.
I began my lesson by having a whole class discussion comparing and contrasting opinion and persuasive writing. At first, only a few students were willing to contribute to the conversation, so I asked them to take a few minutes to form groups to talk about this, and everyone should be ready to contribute to the discussion when we came back together. I listened in to their discussions and was pleased to hear words and phrases such as “emotions, personal beliefs, talk them (parents) into, just what I think, reasons, and facts versus opinions.” At this point, I brought their attention back to the whole group discussion and we listed our ideas on the board so that we had a community of thought for the students to refer back to when they began their writing. At this point I introduced the topic, “In your opinion, what is the best way to spend your class reward points?” Hands flew up everywhere. I was feeling good about the lesson. Students shared their ideas and I had the students once again form groups, this time with students with the same opinion as themselves. I asked them to talk to each other about the reasoning behind their opinions so that when they began to write, they would have their own thoughts and the thought of their peers to draw upon. The room buzzed with muted conversations. As I once again listened in on conversations, I heard good comments and ideas, but didn’t see any one writing notes.
After a few minutes, I asked them to wrap up their conversations and return to their seats to begin writing. Within just a few minutes, almost every hand was in the air. I pretended not to notice the number of hands in the air and suggested that they share what they had written so far with a friend. “Show a friend how you introduced your opinion.” Crickets. Blank stares. No one sharing. Hands back in the air. There was a common problem: everyone knew what he or she wanted to say, but was unsure of how to get started. The old debilitating fear was back, and I had failed to offer the scaffolding they needed. They needed examples through the use of mentor texts, but in my assumption that they knew enough without their use I had not made sure that my students would find success as writers. Instead, I inadvertently reaffirmed their belief that writing is a scary activity that should be avoided.