Have you ever seen a student sit, staring at a wordless screen or a blank sheet of paper, paralyzed into inaction because he or she is overwhelmed by the process of writing down thoughts? This might be one of the most talkative kids in class, but when it comes time to put words on paper, it becomes a task like scaling a slick vertical wall right after applying too much hand lotion.
Fear is a legitimate thing, and it holds us back from many of life’s opportunities. Whether you’re three and afraid of walking alone into a dark room, certain there are monsters there, or you are fifteen and afraid of writing ideas that will be ridiculed or will earn criticism from anyone, it’s real in your mind. The monsters of doubt and disapproval keep words locked away.
I’m willing to bet that a healthy percentage of people participating in the Slice-of-Life challenge have had at least a few moments of self-doubt during the short journey so far, despite the fact that the feedback in the group is pretty much guaranteed to be positive. Now put yourself in the position of a teen whose greatest love most definitely is NOT English class. Scary, isn’t it?
It is hard to come up with what words to say when you think in terms of visuals like Snapchat.
It is hard to turn thoughts into a paragraph – much less an essay- when you mostly speak to your friends via staccato text messages.
It is hard to make yourself vulnerable when a grade is on the line. Sometimes it is easier to face a blank piece of paper than a bad grade because if it’s left blank, no one can specifically measure you and say you were found wanting, but a bad grade won’t hesitate to do so.
Like so many other teachers in my field, I work hard to help students overcome these obstacles. Talking through ideas is one of the staples of our pre-writing process. After they’ve talked, they put those same words and phrases onto paper- sometimes in graphic organizers or lists, other times as free-writing. Experience has taught me that the improved quality of their work is worth the time sacrificed to multi-tiered pre-writing. Somehow, it breaks the ice for them and helps them overcome at least a little of the anxiety.
We regularly practice low-stakes writing where we simply dump thoughts onto paper (or a Google doc) and then sometimes revise them, hopefully making revision a natural thing we do and an acknowledgment that it’s okay for first drafts to be somewhat less than perfect. We do it with only ourselves as critics, self-evaluating about what needs to be done to make the writing better.
When we progress further in the writing process, students have a support system in place in their interactive handbook that we build together in class. I personally don’t remember every single lesson I’ve ever learned, even about English skills. Confession- I sometimes have to look up punctuation rules and hints about those pesky indefinite pronouns and their status in the world of subject-verb agreement. If I as an English teacher occasionally need that crutch, I definitely want my students to have a user-friendly, safe way to access the support they need.
All year long, we work together to build an interactive handbook that is a repository of mini-lessons, brainstorming, and practice. In it, they have annotated mentor texts, graphic organizers that can be modified as a jumping-off point for almost anything they need to write, lists of transition words for those moments when the right word escapes them, sentence templates based on the ideas in They Say, I Say, and all manner of helpful hints.
When we undertake a big writing task, I remind them what they have at their disposal, pointing out particular pages they might find useful. At any given time, at least a third of them are flipping open the handbook, being self-sufficient in their work rather than self-conscious about asking for help. Their steps may be small, but the celebration is in the fact that they actually attempt it rather than stare at a blank page, afraid to try.
I don’t think I could ever go back to teaching writing without these resources. They have become too big a part of the culture of my room, and they’re the most effective tool I’ve ever found to get beyond-reluctant writers past their paralysis and willing to put words on the page, knowing they have the support they need to be successful.
Disclaimer- This was drafted during breaks between parent conferences. I will probably have to publish it as-is. I will revise later if I re-read and realize it’s a train wreck. See? I second guess myself too!