Every teacher has had challenging students. Some of the tough stuff I’ve had to navigate with my students has ranged from living in an unsafe community to missing an incarcerated parent to a parent dying of cancer to coping with the long-term effects of being born addicted to drugs to navigating life in a new place after fleeing from an abusive parent. These are a handful of the challenges some students in today’s classrooms are facing. How do we, as educators, positively impact children who’ve experienced trauma in their lives?
Ruth Ayres offers practical ideas for reaching children from troubled backgrounds through writing in Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers. Her book is divided into three parts: understanding kids who need to be enticed to write (which includes easy-to-understand information about brain research), setting the stage to entice students to write, and moves to entice students to write. In the span of the text, Ruth offers compelling family stories and gripping vignettes from her teaching life to help teachers reach children who seem unapproachable and unwilling to write. Naturally, Ruth makes the case for being a teacher who writes since that’s what often “turns the tide of disengagement.” She also posits that we entice students to write by helping “them to become faithful and fearless writers” since the world craves strong stories. When we do this, kids “find the joy in having written.”
I found myself annotating Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers as I read in an effort to hold on to all of Ruth’s wisdom about reaching students who are hiding – physically or emotionally – in our classrooms. As a result, I asked Ruth to answer a bunch of my burning questions about her book, which you need to put on your summer reading list!
Stacey: In chapter three, you talked about an exasperating conversation with your son’s fifth-grade math teacher since he wasn’t completing homework. The teacher’s expectations were high and it didn’t seem like you were being heard. How do you suggest teachers and parents work as partners to make sure we’re meeting children’s needs when they’ve had tough starts in life?
Ruth: This is an important question for all parents to ask…and I think the flip question is important too. How do I, as a teacher, not alienate the parent? We all know it takes a village to raise a child…in the book I mention that it takes a village to heal a child. For me, the heart of establishing a partnership between school and home is always thinking the best of one another. I believe that teachers are doing the best they can to meet the needs of my kids. When teachers believe the best in me as a parent, then we have firm footing to move forward. As a teacher, I always remember that parents are sending us the best they have — even when things are hard, it’s important to believe the best in one another.
Stacey: On pages 48-49, you explain why teachers must be teacher-writers. Seeing as you’ve walked this walk and talked this talk for years, what are some practical tips you can share to help teachers — new to teaching writing workshop and new to cultivating a writing practice themselves — get started and see the power of being a teacher-writer?
Ruth: For me, an online tribe came years after I was a teacher writer. The heart of workshop instruction lies in genuinely working as writers. If I was going to run a writing workshop in my classroom, then I needed to write what I asked my students to write. I also needed to share it with my students. As teachers write alongside their students and then share their writing and their process in minilessons, conferences and share sessions, they will experience the power of being a teacher writer.
There are days when we don’t want to write. We do it anyway because we know there is a greater good. This is dogged resolve.
Stacey: You talked about the “buffet” of lesson-planning resources available in places like Pinterest. How do you suggest our profession combats this since cute doesn’t mean that it will entice writers?
Ruth: Most educators turn to Pinterest and similar sites because they want the best for their students. They want to be organized and they want students to feel proud of their final products. The thing to keep in mind is how will the activities we’re asking kids to engage in lead to transfer to other writing projects. How will a cute activity allow a student to have a voice and skills to navigate complex conversations or advocate for social justice issues? The writing process isn’t formulaic, nor is it tidy. It is, however, proven to develop highly skilled and passionate communicators. This is the long game of enticing writers.
Stacey: On page 98, you discussed the way we can reframe responses to students who declare “I’m done” as a way to celebrate and encourage rather than respond in a less-than-encouraging way. Would you say a little more about this (since it’s a common problem in writing workshops)?
Ruth: Don Graves talked about watching children as they write. If we watch children — really observe them at length as they are composing as writers — then we gain an appreciation for the work they do as writers. After hearing this idea, I challenged myself to observe a child in the act of writing for 10 – 15 minutes once a week for six months. I promised myself I would not interfere — even if I saw a perfect teachable moment, even if the child wasn’t doing the “right thing” as a writer. The purpose was to learn from the child. Don insisted if we watch children, we would learn everything we need to know about teaching them to become capable writers.
I’m glad I had the self-control to stay silent and watch. In those observations, I learned to trust children as writers. I realized when they are engaged in meaningful work and creating important writing projects, then they naturally continued working as writers. It was only when the teacher was mandating requirements that young writers began to engage in “I’m done,” mentalities. They were done with the cute activity.
When we shift our focus to teach the student as a writer, rather than completing a writing activity, students are compelled to continue working as a writer. This is why our response to the statement “I’m done” is critical. We must trust students to keep working as writers.
Stacey: On page 147, you cited a text that talked about the importance 6:1 (positive:negative) feedback ratio. You informed that positive feedback opens new pathways to the brain. How do you suggest teachers use this information to reach hard-to-reach writers when there are so many kids in any given classroom and limited opportunities to praise each child this often?
Ruth: I think it’s important to realize it’s not our job to fix or save students. As teachers, we get to join students for one leg of the journey. Knowing the research and the importance of positive feedback helps me be more intentional about angling my feedback in a positive way. We have opportunities every day to respond with kindness and in a positive light. Sure, we might not be able to offer six affirmations to every child every day, but over the course of a week and a month and a school year, we can offer more affirmations than what students are accustomed to receiving. This has the ability to be a game changer when we consider the neuroplasticity of the brain and the impact that positive feedback has on people.
Stacey: You recently changed professional roles. Tell us more about the work you’re presently doing.
Ruth: I’m the director of a consortium of schools called The Lead Learners. It was formerly known as All Write. There are over 30 public and private school districts as well as higher ed institutions in our consortiums. As director, I plan professional learning events for consortium members. We offer national presenters, as well as local workshops. We are also beginning to offer online learning experiences. You can check us out at our new website, The Lead Learners. We are gearing up for our summer institute, with an amazing lineup, including: Todd Nesloney, Steph Harvey, Kristin Ziemeke, Kristi Mraz, Colby Sharp, Gravity Goldberg, Sue O’Connell and Katherine Sokolowski. Maybe you want to join us in Indiana on June 21-22?
I wanted a few more items from Ruth before I close this post. First, here’s a look at some living examples of Ruth’s writer’s notebooks, which :
Second, since proper use of conventions matters to so many people, the letter Ruth shared on pages 106-7 of her book stood out to me. (Stenhouse Publishers provided me with a PDF, which you can view by clicking here, of those pages.) In the brilliant missive Ruth shared, she reflects how teachers must defend student writing posted on bulletin boards so that passers-by understand it shows growth rather than perfection?
Each and every one of us – whether we’re a teacher, coach, or administrator – needs strategies for enticing children who have had or are presently dealing with challenging life situations. If you’re the kind of educator who refuses to give up on students who want to push you away, then Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers will provide you with the tools you need to have a positive impact on all of your students.
This giveaway is for a copy of Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copyfor one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers, please leave a comment about this post by Monday, May 21st at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, May 23rd. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post yourcomment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – ENTICING HTRW. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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Julie A. Parker’s commenter number was selected using a random number generator so she wins a copy of Enticing Hard to Reach Writers.