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“Mrs. R. You’re the Only Teacher Who Failed Me”

  It’s tradition that at the end of graduation the teachers line the tunnel as students exit the coliseum. We clap and hug and congratulate students as they literally walk out into the sunshine of their futures. I usually enjoy the spectacle of it all: the loud hurrahs and the sweaty hugs. But last spring, instead of the smiles and thanks that in years past I tucked away as a sweet ending to another school year, I got a reluctant side squeeze and a comment that sunk my heart to my toes:

“Mrs. R., you’re the only teacher who ever failed me.”

While he and I both knew what he meant (the silly guy didn’t turn in a paper all year), his words sent me spinning. I left graduation wondering: Did I fail this kid?

Maybe.  But I’ve learned a thing or two that could have made a difference.

I’d recently shifted my teaching from the traditional classroom set-up to a reading and writing workshop approach to learning. I read Nancie Atwell and Donald Graves and Linda Rief. I visited teachers who were models for how workshop works on a day to day basis. I thought I had workshop figured out; it would be easy to get students to respond to my requests for writing on a regular basis.

Not quite.

First of all, different writing coaches call “workshop” different things. A workshop can be a year-long class with small groups of students doing various reading and writing tasks; or a workshop can be a single class period where students “work” through a piece of text.(And in PBL a workshop is something entirely different.) I’d yet to learn what reading and writing workshop meant to me. I knew I needed to use mentor texts, get students writing through the writing process, allow for collaboration with peers, hold mini-lessons as needed, and confer with students about their writing; but second of all, it was plain hard. I learned and implemented most of it, but I was lousy at holding regular student conferences– the one thing that could have saved Jonathan, the one who thought I failed him, as a writer.

Conferring with students about their writing (or their lack thereof) is vital.

Jonathan would come to class empty-handed, and instead of taking the time to say: “How’s the writing going….”, I’d shake my head and tick off in my grade book that he had a missing assignment. I needed to get to the kids who’d actually brought drafts with them—they needed my time, not the slackers. Hindsight is a cruel teacher. Every student needs a conference not just the ones with papers in their hands. A one minute conversation might have made a difference to this boy, who loved playing the drums and moonlighting as a DJ, but had no use for putting thoughts on a page.

In the book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle states in regard to conferring with students: “I work hard to listen, encourage, and direct my teaching toward something that will help this writer at this moment in time.” I needed to do that, too.

Writing conferences are essential to getting some students to even begin to put pen to paper. Some students need coaxing through the whole process. I doubt it matters if they are 7 or 17. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Doesn’t matter. Those initial one-on-one conferences must be purposeful and timely. Maybe if I’d taken the time to listen to this kid instead of demanding something from him, Jonathan’s behavior, work ethic, productivity, and final average in my class would have been different. I missed the opportunity, and he missed out on his credit. Yep, although it was his fault he failed my class, I think I failed him as a writing teacher.

But I’ve learned a thing or two that will make a difference.  Maybe future Jonathans will benefit.

How do you conduct writing conferences? Please share your tips for pulling in and keeping students in the writing process?

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4 thoughts on ““Mrs. R. You’re the Only Teacher Who Failed Me”

  1. victoria October 18, 2012 at 6:23 pm Reply

    Timing is precious. Some of us know the way and some need to be lead. I, as a student, had similar experience with my writing process. My draft was return to me 6 times. But never once did my professor conference me. And I asked myself, why won’t he teach me? I truly had to find the way and hope it was the way. Teacher help me, I cried out, silently.

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  2. victoria October 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm Reply

    Timing is precious.Someof us
    the know the way and some need to be lead. I, as a student, had similar experience with my writing process. My draft was return to me 6 times. But never once did my professor conference me. and i asked myself, why won’t he teach me? I truly had to find the way and hope it was the way. Teacher help me, cried out silently.

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  3. Amy January 11, 2012 at 3:43 pm Reply

    Thank you for the reminder, Soul Strikers. It gets difficult to find the time to clue into all my students’ interests.With class sizes getting larger and larger it’s hard to even know what they like to do outside of school, but you’re right, the kids that are involved in activities or hobbies that make them naturally use feedback should be relatively easy to prod into writing. I need to do much better about talking to kids about how they spend their time. (And, believe me I get your point about students needing to be advocates of their own learning. I agree–but sometimes they need pushed into that as well. A magic want would come in handy.)

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  4. soul strikers January 10, 2012 at 8:22 pm Reply

    How powerful. What a brilliant stance you are taking…one that says teachers can make or break the moments for kids. Do remember, though, that at some point students need to advocate for their own learning. That said, I can understand our feeling of remorse when thinking of this student. It is possible that this student needed extra time to get started, to feel like they were creating for a purpose. If he is a DJ then that experience gives him immediate reinforcement. He needs to edit and revise his musical choices according to the feedback he is receiving from the crowd. That could have been usable. Since he is gone, I suggest looking for instances in which students are trying to perform or create, and how they naturally use feedback, whether they know it or not. Chances are the ones who arrive with drafts were already able to create purpose for the writing. Best wishes for future successful conferences.

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