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I am writing this blog while my FYC/corequisite students are composing the first draft of a literacy narrative. While most of them, like me, are tapping on keyboards, a few are scribbling in notebooks. Earbuds are evident, as are energy drinks and iced caramel macchiatos from the coffee shop upstairs. Some of us are masked; many are not. Every few moments, I hear a sigh—and I see a student staring at the screen. The process has begun. I am assuring my students that what happens today is not the end; they must trust that I am leading them through a process—a process which, though bewildering and murky now, will eventually lead to a text they can submit with confidence.
I am also assuring myself. I actually wrote the previous paragraph two days ago; this blog post hasn’t come together, and the vague idea I had hoped to flesh out remains “formless and void.” So, I am trying again this morning, this time while the students are working in groups on their first peer review. I have asked them to read drafts aloud to their groups, so there is a humming across the room. I occasionally discern words: language, Spanish, soccer, try out, world. And while it isn’t really distracting me from finishing this blog, it isn’t helping either.
Basically, I’m stuck.
Where have I heard that before?
From my son, for one. He’s a high school senior in a fairly rigorous college-prep program; he loves the math and individual exploration components (he’s writing an extended capstone essay about the math he uses in video-game design). But he finds no internal motivation to power through his English assignments; he prefers to put the energy required for analysis into problems that are important to him. The value of poetry analysis and explication, despite my best attempts at persuasion, eludes him. So, he shifts to work on the latest iteration of a game code, de-bugging a program, solving a math challenge, or creating a digital design. The essays remain unwritten.
I came into his room a couple of weeks ago and found him staring (yet again) at a blank screen. Well, not totally blank. He’d written the required header. The floor around him was littered with copies of the assigned poems, notes, and rubber bands, which are a kinesthetic coping mechanism: he shoots them at chess pieces that line the tops of window frames in his room, honing a shooting technique that improves the speed and spin of the rubber bands. (He attempted to teach this to me, but as a somewhat inept shooter, I ended up hitting myself in the face…)
I offered to talk with him about the poems. That invitation became a four-hour marathon, first of listening to his frustration with the assignment itself, followed by a meandering path towards a thesis.
I queried, “Are you saying . . . So, does that mean . . . Which entails this—is that where you are heading?”
“No, that’s not it. I want to say…”
“Wow. I think you just said it. Write it down.”
A few moments later, he grimaced. “I’m stuck. I need a word that means…”
I offered a few suggestions. “Motivation? Cause? Source? Impetus? Force?”
He considered. “No, no, no… maybe. Let me think.”
So, I waited in silence. After a few minutes, he read a sentence back to me, nodding and pointing at the screen. “Yes. That’s what I want to say.” It had taken over 30 minutes for the concept to materialize in words.
Throughout the process, he moved back and forth between his sense of the poem and a rhetorical approach to the assignment: “So, I’ve made that claim. Now I want to set up a justifying quote.”
With his focus on the screen, he rarely saw my smiles. But four hours later, he had a couple of pages, and he thanked me.
My son’s teachers know him. They know his giftedness, and they empathize with his writing struggles. They aren’t offended by his self-advocacy: “If I accomplish the purpose of the practice assignments after the first three, do I still have to do the fourth one?” He wants to know the why behind his assignments, and they are usually more than willing to tell him—and on some occasions, negotiate. And he’s got a mom with the schedule flexibility to sit with him for four hours and support him in the hard work of writing a paper he doesn’t like. He doesn’t have to race to a job—he can devote those four hours, finish a couple of other assignments, and still get a good night’s sleep.
. . .
I am watching my students again; they are taking this first peer review seriously. They are using the words I gave them: “Thanks for sharing. I hear you saying that…”
Some of these students will not have the advantage of four undisturbed hours to work on their literacy narratives. They may not know that they can ask me about the assignment purpose or negotiate some of the requirements with me. They may be squeezing the writing into short breaks at work, or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, where they have taken a parent or sibling. Some come to the school after hours just to find a wifi hotspot.
As per my peer review instructions, I should ask myself this: what do I hear myself saying? I’m saying there is a writer in every student—even if that’s a “little w” writer, as a grad-school friend used to say. I have to remember how hard the process is, even for privileged learners, and find ways to support ALL my students to work through that process intentionally and effectively (even if I can’t give four hours to each one).
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