A Brand New Teacher's Reflections on Teaching Writing
by Jaimi Meehan
[What follows are excerpts (some I have elaborated upon after reflecting on them) from my pre-service
teaching journal from last semester.]
February 7th, 2001
I have been sitting in this classroom one day a week for three weeks and I haven’t seen any teaching of writing going on yet, although the kids have been assigned two short essays in that same amount of time. Barb hands out the assignments on a sheet of paper, with a bulleted list of what she wants covered in the paper. How can she expect anything exciting and original to evolve if she is priming them to give her exactly what she, herself, feels is important? I am hesitant to ask her about this practice, because after all, she has been in the field teaching for 12 years and I have not taught at all at this point.
Her process goes like this: she hands out the assignment sheet for the essay, she reads it out loud to them so there is no mistaking what she is asking for, she threatens them with the due date multiple times, then she moves on to whatever literature they are currently working on. There are no questions from the kids, although, to be fair, she does ask if they have any. I think the reason why they don’t ask is because by this point in the school year, they have already been groomed to be submissive. Is this how you teach writing? There is no teaching here.
One student, Jonathan, barely glances at the paper when she hands it to him, he merely stuffs it into a tattered folder so that it hangs out and is doomed to become tattered too. Barb chides him for his lack of caring, and he shrugs and says, “I’m gonna fail it anyway, I can’t write.” She frowns at him and replies, “Maybe you can’t, but you still have to do the assignment.” I am left thinking of one hundred other things I would have said that would have been more encouraging.
February 9th, 2001
Well, it is Friday, and in this classroom that means it is time to turn in your first draft of the paper that was assigned on Wednesday this week. All the kids turn one in, except Jonathan. When asked for his, he shrugs. Barb doesn’t even respond, she walks away. After the period is over, I summon courage and ask her why she ignored him, not even telling him he could have more time, or asking to speak to him privately after class to figure out a way to help him. She curtly tells me that he is a “problem” and never has his writing assignments done so she has learned to just give up on him. She gives Jonathan a zero for the first draft and tells me that she will mark down anything he does turn in because now it will be late.
February 16th, 2001
I am here every day now, and it continues to perplex me. Today, everyone is turning in their final drafts of their essay on Night by Elie Wiesel--except Jonathan tries to turn in his first draft. Barb will not accept it, instead she tells him that at this point he must complete an alternate assignment if he wants credit for the end-of- unit project. He asks what the alternate assignment is, she tells him (it is another paper--on a more difficult topic). He shakes his head and says, “I guess I’ll take a zero then” and walks back to his seat. He rips his draft up and throws it away as he walks back to his seat. Once there, he takes his backpack, puts it on his desk, and lays his head on it like a pillow, his face turned toward the wall. I am beginning to feel that Barb and I suffer severe ideological differences. How can she teach me anything if this is what she believes in? I feel defeated, grumpy, and unhappy with my placement here.
February 19th, 2001
Okay, today is my first day taking over the teaching of Barb’s classes. I am nervous and excited all at once. Fifth period, Jonathan’s class. He comes in and immediately lays down on his backpack/pillow. He has given up even trying to engage in the class for days now.
I have a plan, but it makes the butterflies in my stomach dance to think of trying it out. What will Barb do? I haven’t cleared it with her beforehand, but I have begun to feel that if anyone is going to teach Jonathan that he CAN write it is going to be me, and that my higher priority is to him, not to Barb.
“Jonathan” I say sharply, the irritation clear in my voice.
He barely lifts his head to meet my eyes.
“If you aren’t going to participate in this class, you may move your desk to the back of the room and turn it around so you face the wall. I won’t tolerate your disrespect by letting you lay there and ignore me.” I immediately turn away from him and begin class, but I notice that he moves his desk, although with an air of consternation. Barb gives me a quizzical look from her perch in the back of the room, although she doesn’t interfere.
After class, he comes up to me and apologizes. He explains that he didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but that he hates English class, because he cannot write. I tell him that I believe he can write and that I would be willing to work with him. He takes me up on the offer and we plan on library time the next day during his study hall. Barb raises her eyebrows, and warns me later that he is hopeless, but adds that if I can get him to write a first draft for the original assignment by Friday, she will accept it and not mark it down. A enormous victory.
February 20th, 2001
Today is the day I meet with Jonathan in the library. He is shy and tentative and apologetic again for his behavior the day before. I ask him why he feels he cannot write. His answer doesn’t surprise me. He explains that he can’t ever seem to understand what the teacher is looking for in the assignments, but even when he does write, he never seems to get anything higher than a D and a paper full of comments that make no sense to him.
I ask if any of his teachers have ever tried to teach their students how to write. He shakes his head and tells me that they seem to just assume it is a foregone conclusion.
I honestly tell Jonathan that I don’t know if I can help him like to write, but I know I can give him the confidence to do it and support when he gets stuck. He looks relieved and we begin going over his ideas for the Night essay. He has ideas, some are even the ones I know Barb is looking for, but he struggles with converting the ideas to words.
I have him make a list of ideas and we talk about them, with me jotting down some of the things we come up with on his list. Then we number them to make a sort of rough outline of the essay. The period is almost over, and he smiles for the very first time and tells me that he believes he can get his first draft done by the next day. We walk to class together and he tells me that he never realized that you had to plan writing. He thought that it just flowed out of people, people who were good at it. I reassured him that many people, most, had to do some pre-writing before they actually wrote anything--even a grocery list. That seemed to be an analogy that he understood.
February 21st, 2001
Jonathan turned in his first draft today, and even Barb was surprised at its quality. It may not have been the best one in the class, but it was the most hard-fought. She asked me what I had done. I told her that all I did was encourage him and reassure him that it was okay to find writing difficult, indeed, that most people did, and that he was not alone. She looked at me like I had three eyes.
“You didn’t help him write any of it? That’s all you did?” she asked.
“That is a lot if you really think about it, isn’t it?” I asked her.
She blinked and I swallowed hard, maybe I had upset her; but, then she smiled.
Jonathan and I met two more times during my time at the school, and he continued to turn in his writing assignments on time. I encouraged him to ask Barb if he could do some simple extra credit writing assignments to make up for zeros he had taken earlier in the year, to boost his final grade to ensure he would pass 10th grade English. She agreed, and I have to say, their relationship improved to the point where she was able to let go of her preconceived notions of his ability and initiative and see him in a more positive way. Of course, he shined even brighter because of it. I just spoke with Barb the other day, and Jonathan ended up with a B for the year--his highest grade ever, and he told her to tell me “Thank You”.
I feel like I should thank him, he taught me something I hope I will never forget about writing. That the belief that you can is paramount.
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