It’s the first day of a new school year. As students file into my room, I can hear the “Mission Impossible” theme music playing in my head (dunt dunt dadadunt dunt dadadunt dunt). Looking weary and nervous, they take their seats, eye each other, and then begin the whispering. “What do you know about her?” and “She doesn’t look too scary.” I don’t do anything but smile. I have heard it all before. Instead, I hand out a piece of paper called “My English Expectations.” I ask if anyone needs a writing utensil. The bell rings, and I ask if they received the handout. When I am sure that everyone has what they need, I simply say, “time to write.” I always hope for complete silence and moving pens at this point, but instead I hear groans and see eyes roll.
Why do students groan about a simple quick write like this? Well, because it’s not simple to them. Writing it tedious, painful, and down right boring to them in September. They consider it hard work, and they are sick of constant five-paragraph essay assignments. It’s time consuming, and rarely do they see the grades they want up at the top of their papers. When I read over my students’ expectations, however, I see that ALL of them mention that they need help improving their writing. Three of the most common responses I receive every year are:
1. My writing sucks.
2. I need to improve my spelling.
3. I can’t write “good.”
These responses may be vague, but one positive is that all of my students acknowledge their writing skills are weak. They know this. So, this is where we begin. This is my mission, if I choose to accept it.
The first few months steal up 99% of my patience. I’m in early at 7:00am and don’t leave until 4:00pm. My students come to realize that they have to write every day. Volume matters. We don’t do the same task over and over. Choice is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. I spend free periods discussing assignments and giving feedback. I don’t have time for lunch most days, so I shovel down food while conferring with students.
One particular student, Cole, spent a lot of his Study Halls with me. He entered high school as a new student, making him shy around his classmates. His first writing task that he completed–which was the quick write above–did not include any punctuation or capital letters. He stated at the end of his quick write, “i will never be good at writting anything and I now that.” Our first conference was mostly me talking. I told him if he simply tried, that I could help him improve his writing. Unlike many students in September, he believed me. Giving him a computer helped him realize he was making simple capitalization errors, but we didn’t worry about that at first. To start, Cole would verbalize his ideas while I took notes. I showed him how I planned out a piece of writing. He mimicked my techniques to create his own pieces. I showed him how I studied the craft of published writers to improve my own writing. We practiced this with the book he was reading by Paul Volponi. We used colors to symbolize different types of sentences in essays to help him stay organized. I constantly praised his efforts and ideas. I saw him smile more often. We were making progress!
By June, Cole was a different student from the boy who entered my room in September. Not only was his writing much better, but his confidence had improved. He was willing to ask other students to read over his writing, not just me. He knew when a sentence sounded awkward, and was willing to try to fix it on his own. He had gained confidence in his abilities, and in himself. During the last week of school, Cole reviewed his first major writing assignment of the year and compared it to his most recent one. The look of shock on his face–as he realized all the improvement he made–was truly priceless. I notice progress all the time, but it means so much more when a student notices it himself.
Cole was not the only student who made progress. Almost all of my students do. When they complete their end-of-the-year surveys, I have them write down what they learned about writing, or about themselves as writers. Below are just some of the comments that showed my students’ growth:
1. “You have to practice writing to get better.”
2. “The way you set up a piece of writing is critical.”
3. “Writing can be very hard, but you can be good at it if you practice, and reading helps your writing skills.”
4. “I have learned how to write better introductions, conclusions, and creating a logical structure. I have also learned how to be more fluent in my writing.”
5. “This year reading more books has helped improve my writing. The more books I read the better my writing got.”
Getting our students through the writing process, at times, is just as tedious and painful as learning how to write; however, it must be done to make progress. This is one of my yearly missions. I always choose to accept it. The results make it all worth it.