Do you have those days where you sit back and look at what your students are doing, learning, and accomplishing and think to yourself, “This is the best job ever?” Me, too.
For me, this happened during the whole month of July. I had the privilege of coordinating a summer writing institute for high school students in our Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program. For three weeks, sixteen students gathered to find their voices and the power to share them with others.
Many students entered our time a little intimidated. “I’m not a good writer, Ms. B,” I heard many times over.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just write your truth.”
One of the goals of our program is to help students of color develop a positive racial identity. Research shows us that when students have this sense of positive self-esteem, they perform better academically. The summer institute was designed to allow students to explore mentor texts from authors of color, and to use writing to explore their own thoughts, ideas, and identities.
There was so much learned and shared in our three weeks together—more than could ever be written about here. However, I thought I’d share the key “lessons” students said they want teachers to understand about writing instruction during our time together:
“Give fewer prompts and more opportunities to write about what we know.”
As one student shared: “Everything is a prompt. Sometimes, I really don’t have anything to say about the prompt. I can’t remember the last time I got to write about topics I know about like we do [at the summer writing institute].”
What I heard the students saying as we discussed this is that when we are dealing with students who feel disempowered as writers or don’t think they are “good” writers, making them write about topics they are unfamiliar with or that are controlled by prompts just perpetuates the feeling that writing is a task they cannot excel at.
“Don’t grade everything.”
“I like that we get to write in here, just to write. I feel like everything I write in school gets graded.”
How do we create time and space for students to write without being worried about how they will be graded? In talking further with the students, they said they understand that teachers have to give grades. What they are looking for are opportunities to write without feeling like the product will be assessed and given a letter grade. Freedom to write and freedom to make mistakes—that’s what they asked for.
“Help us learn how to revise.”
Many of the students equated “revision” with correcting errors. As one student put it: “I get my draft back from my teacher with all these marks. So I just fix what she marked and turn in the final copy.”
When we explored word choice, shortening sentences, lengthening sentences, reading each other’s papers as readers, and creating a question flow, revision took on a whole new meaning. In the words of one student, “I didn’t know you could do all this with your writing.”
“Believe in us and we will believe in ourselves.”
Okay, I confess, they didn’t say this one out loud. But their actions over our time together drove this point home. Several students participating have active IEPs. Several failed an English class. Several others passed—barely. Some have thought about suicide. Some have tried suicide. Some have been victims of abuse. Some struggle daily to believe they have anything to contribute. Many have suffered the consequences of being labeled and judged by stereotypes.
ALL of them wrote. Every day. All of them shared their writing. All of them grew as writers in our short time together. There was no magic wand waved in the room, no secret ingredient that can’t be replicated in other places—just a simple, unwavering belief and expectation that all of us could and would be writers. And we were.
What plans do you have for writing in your classroom this year? How will your students share their voices?