A Chance to Start Over: One Writer’s Tale

A unique aspect of being a teacher is that each year we get to start over. Many of us reflect on our successes and our challenges, and we even have three months off to explore the answers to some of our questions. When I think about what is most important for me to put into practice given all that I learned last year, I am immediately reminded of a writer who I’ll refer to as Matthew.

Matthew was in a first-grade classroom I visited last December where I had been asked to demonstrate a Being a Writer lesson for some teachers. His classroom was very inviting-the walls were filled with lots of student work and lots of print for the students to reference. There was a large meeting area in the back of the room, facing the window. The students, about 20 of them, came and gathered for the writing lesson immediately following recess. I noticed Matthew, who seemed to be disengaged with the lesson. He rarely participated, either with the whole group or with his partner. You know these kids; they are the ones you make a mental note about. The ones that you need to check in with individually once they return to their desks.

I sent the writers back to their desks, after helping them think of ideas that they could write about. Most of them eagerly started writing. After writing with them for just a few minutes, I started walking around checking in on some of them. Some needed help with approximate spelling, some needed some reassurance, and some wanted to read their pieces to me. After about two or three kids, I went to the little guy that I noticed during the lesson. I got down to his eye level, and asked him if he would read his piece to me. He said, I can’t read, so I can’t write because I wouldn’t be able to read it to you. I paused for a moment, as I thought about how to respond.

I didn’t have a relationship with Matthew, so I chose to ask him to tell me his story in hopes that we could start a conversation. I pointed to his picture and let him know that it was okay to tell his story from drawings. As he shared his story, Matthew started to relax a bit and told me about his mom who he had hoped to be able to see that weekend. I leaned in, smiled to show interest, and asked him some additional questions about what I referenced as his “writing.” I also made sure to let him know that as a writer, he had a great story that I knew others would want to hear.

Not only did Matthew have a terrible family life, but apparently he had heard someone tell him he couldn’t write-and he believed them. Matthew needed someone to believe in him, to give him a reason to believe in himself. Every fall, as teachers we are given the chance to start over. Sometimes we are given an opportunity to help a child start over: to see himself differently, to take a risk, to be proud of himself and his work. In that moment, I was able to help Matthew start over.

I have reflected a great deal on what this young writer told me, and it has made me think very carefully about my words. What have I said to other writers that left them with the impression that they can’t write? How do I help my students feel that they are writers, regardless of where they are in their writing development? How do I choose my words so that every student I confer with comes away thinking, “I am a writer!”?

As I work with kids, I need to remember Matthew. I need to remember that my words have a powerful effect on kids and what they think they can or can’t do. Extensive research by Carol Dweck has proven that simply praising effort instead of intelligence has a profound impact on children’s engagement and sense of self. Additional research has shown that tending to students’ social and emotional needs leads to academic success.

As you start this new year, remember that kids pick up on every word we say-whether it is praise or criticism. Calling them “writers” can have a positive effect on them. As you confer with writers, think about what you can say to them that inspires them, that makes them want to write more, that gets them excited about writing, that makes them feel as though they are writers. Find something that they do well and start off with that. And when you think you can’t think of something, remember Matthew. You can learn more about Carol Dweck’s work here. You can find studies, blogs, and classroom videos about the benefits of social-emotional learning on the Inside the Collaborative Classroom resource site.