It was in the early days of school this September, and my third grade students were creating inside/outside self-portraits (inspired by Kelsey’s must-read post: A School Can Be The Change) and writing “I am….I am not” statements (inspired by Sarah K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change). Max* sat at his table, staring ahead, papers blank. I stopped to talk with him, to ask him to tell me some things about himself. He shrugged and continued to say nothing, write nothing.
Max is a student who has been through difficult times, to say the least. He is in a foster care situation and has experienced homelessness. The cover of his notebook does not have family pictures from the Magic Kingdom or summer camp. He most certainly has stories to tell, but will he feel safe to tell them? Does he believe he matters and his words matter too?
So many of us have children like Max in our classes. Children who have experienced trauma. Children who have seen and heard too much. Children in legal disputes. Children whose parents have been deported. Children who do not have enough to eat at home. Writing workshop can be a difficult time of day for children who don’t find it safe or comfortable to tap into memories, to write about their lives, or to share their personal expertise. Even being able to express characteristics they have can be a challenge, as in Max’s case. He couldn’t tell me anything positive about himself for our “I am…I am not” statements.”
Dear TWT Reader, I wish I could tell you I had all the answers for students like Max and solutions for how to get them to use writing as a tool for expression and healing. I don’t. I can share what I am doing in my classroom to make my writers feel safe and to encourage expression, to move them further towards picking up the pen than staring into the distance.
Lead with an understanding heart.
It can’t all be about the curriculum, test scores, and the day’s lesson plan. I fear I am preaching to the choir here, but I must say the first thing a teacher can do is to understand that the students in front of you want to do well but have obstacles to overcome. Marina’s beautiful post, Putting Away the Deficit Lens on Culturally Diverse Classrooms, really speaks to the importance of building trust and being mindful of our facial expressions and body language when talking with students about their work. Making students do the writing work they didn’t do during writing workshop for homework or at recess time isn’t a good idea. Shaming students (“Third graders write more than this!”) is also a damaging practice and will certainly not build relationships with students who are coming to you from a traumatic background. When a student isn’t writing and seems reluctant to talk to you about his ideas, we cannot demand compliance or show anger.
Create rituals and routines that make every student feel welcome and valued.
Before you get to writing workshop, there are rituals and routines you can build into the day that set the tone for the type of classroom you have and whose voices matter (Everyone’s). I am a believer in starting each day with a morning meeting. Each day, my third graders sit in a circle and greet each other. This year, students have taken it upon themselves to research different languages and ways to say hello. They’ve greeted each other in Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Russian so far. Each student looks the other in the eye and says that child’s name when saying hello. It is a small thing, but powerful to me. Everyone is recognized and greeted. We have class jobs like “Chief Inspiration Officer” where that student selects an inspiring quote from a binder of quotes I’ve collected and reads it to the class. Filling our classroom with positive words from people who have overcome challenges in life is just another way to infuse energy around the idea of resilience.
Make supplies available.
To give the pencil or not give the pencil? I always give the pencil. I know there are some classrooms where teachers want to hold students responsible for having all their supplies and if you don’t have a pencil or pen to write with, you are out of luck. When working with students who live in financially-insecure homes, I feel it is important to have everything they need to do their work available to them. As a class, we pick up all the lost pencils at the end of the day and think about taking care of our materials, but I will always provide a pencil to a student who doesn’t have one when it comes time to write.
Enlist the help of school psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors.
When given your class list, you don’t see the history behind every student. Some teachers prefer to not read notes from previous years before meeting the students. Once you do know your students a little bit, it can be helpful to talk with your school psychologist, social worker, or guidance counselor to find out more about a students’s past and the approach that should be taken. How much should a teacher push for the child to make an attempt? What has worked well for this child before?
In Max’s case, I spoke with our school social worker who has been an active presence in helping Max and his family for the last year. He advised me that Max does need firmness and should not be allowed to simply sit there. The thing is, Max was able to do many of the other class assignments. It was the ones where he had to write about himself where he froze, stared in the distance, shrugged when I asked him questions.
Build a bridge from writing nothing to writing something.
Here’s what I did to help Max have writing to accompany his self-portrait. After several attempts to get Max to say something he is for an “I am” statement, I sat next to him with a piece of paper and wrote down all the things I think he is. I wrote brave, kind, smart, strong, and helpful. I told him I see all of those things in him and I know his other teachers would all agree. I asked him to pick one of those words. I decided to let go of the “I am not” portion of the assignment. I walked away to help another student, but Max looked at the list and finally wrote “I am smart.”
My experience in school, and in life, has differed greatly from Max. Reading and writing came easily to me. They were subjects I enjoyed and understood and I received positive feedback for my work. I’ve always seen value in reading and writing and felt capable at both.
Recently, I had an experience where I felt totally useless, incapable and completely at a loss. I was at my daughter’s Daisy troop meeting and all the parents were helping their daughters to put together a little wooden house by using a hammer and nail. I stared at the directions but didn’t understand the first step. I moved things around the table just to look busy. I mostly froze and made no attempt to put the house together, all the while thinking the other parents must be judging me for being such a clod and my own children were the only ones without an assembled house. I wrote about it on my personal blog here.
This experience gave me new insight and empathy for students who find writing like I find woodworking- impossible. It is painful to see everyone around you able to jump right in, know what to do, and produce quality results. When you don’t even know how to take the first step, for whatever reason, it really makes the difference to know that someone will help you. Someone will show you examples of what it could look like, walk you through the first steps, model it then you have try. Show you the end result and the steps to get there in multiple ways. Different people explaining it to you if the one person’s version isn’t clear for you. In writing workshop, this can look like:
- Examples of finished products in the genre you are studying
- Teacher think aloud and modeling of writing pieces
- Interactive or shared writing where students have an opportunity to write together with a teacher guiding them
- Writing progressions
- Writing partnerships
Melanie Meehan’s book, Every Child Can Write, has an entire section devoted to finding entry points and building bridges for students who need more support. Learning progressions, checklists, paper choices, and classroom charts are all described in detail as entry points and bridges for students who might not know where to begin. This is the perfect professional text for helping students move from writing nothing to being capable writers.
Blogging as a way to build writing identity and voice.
I think blogging is helpful for students who sometimes struggle in writing workshop. Blogging allows the writer to select the topic and the genre. Students who can’t think of what to write are often inspired by classmates’ posts. They can comment on each other’s writing which is still practicing writing. Students enjoy the choices they have in selecting images, background, font style, color, etc.
This year, one of my students moved due to a divorce. She has been having a difficult time settling into her new school; writing workshop is not easy for her. She slumps in her seat, picks at her jeans, writes a word then stops for long periods of time. Blogging, however, has been a source of excitement. She has shared stories about her new room and is thrilled when I comment on her writing. She loves to comment on her classmates’ posts, which is helping her to get to know her new classmates better, forging some friendships.
If you are interested in getting started with blogging, check out these links:
We all have a Max in our classroom or we will someday. Brave, strong and resilient children who have endured more than anyone ever should, who don’t always want to write. Leading with an understanding heart, creating a safe space through rituals and routines, making materials readily available, enlisting the help of support staff, building bridges and finding entry points, and giving students a platform like blogging can make a difference for Max and other children who need writing as a tool in their lives but our support to make that happen. How have you found ways to reach your writers?
Resources for further exploration:
- Ruth Ayres’ book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers (Stenhouse Publishers 2017), Ayres focuses on students from traumatic backgrounds and specific ways to reach them and help them as writers.
- Patty McGee’s book Feedback That Moves Writers Forward (Corwin 2017) includes a chapter on what to do when writers are stuck. She writes, “Perhaps the toughest part of supporting writers comes when it seems like they are just not doing anything at all…Writing requires vulnerability, and stuck writers let their fear stop them” (95).
- Melanie Meehan’s new book, Every Child Can Write (Corwin 2019) focuses on all the ways we can help the students in our class who are striving writers and need different entry points and pathways to success.
- Each other! I would love to hear in the comments about how you have found ways to reach students like Max. What approaches and strategies have been effective in showing these students that they do indeed have words worth sharing?
*Names have been changed to protect students identities.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Every Child Can Write by Melanie Meehan. Thanks to Corwin Publishers for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
- For a chance to win this copy of Every Child Can Write, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 17th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 20th.
- Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book 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, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EVERY CHILD CAN WRITE within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.