Saturday, August 27, 2016

What My Students Learn When I Write beside Them

Amazing map of my biking failure from my writing notebook.
Here is one of the most astounding questions I’ve heard this first full week of school: “Can I write about what I learned when I found out in class today that my friend had given me wrong information about there being no homework?”

Why was it astounding? Because the proposed topic didn’t quite meet the letter of the assignment as given, but it definitely had potential to meet the spirit. And I think it was because I was writing with my 10th grade students.

The assignment: After reading two personal narratives (Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” in our literature textbook and Jacqueline Woodson’s “When a Southern Town Broke a Heart” from the New York Times last month) and discussing how a narrative hooks and holds readers, write your own personal narrative about a childhood memory that gave you an epiphany or a lesson. 

For a transitional exercise, I assigned a descriptive journal entry about some memory—any memory—just working on the vivid verbs and striking imagery for now. Having made a commitment to write with my students, I was mulling over the assignment, considering possibilities for my journal entry.

Then, on my way to the grocery store, I had a minor biking accident. Just me and my bike. Slowing to turn at a red light at the bottom of the hill, my front tire (which I had realized was quite soft on my way down the driveway, but I just promised I’d fill it when I returned it to the second floor storage room in my apartment building) just slid out from underneath me. The sting of gravel embedded in lacerated palms; the hot smell of dusty, scraped skin; the salty taste of pinpricks of oozing blood. So many memories. I knew I had something to write about. 

I also had no idea what the point or epiphany or lesson would be. 

At the end of my journal writing, I thought maybe the point was the weird way that my inner 5-year-old took over and actually licked the scrapes on my 51-year-old palms. But when I brought my journal back to class and joined with students in another brainstorming exercise of mapping or illustrating or storyboarding the incident, I realized, as I looked at the stick figure of me sprawled on the ground in front of all the cars stopped at the red light, that it was also about failure—how as a kid it was a natural part of growing up, and as an adult, it has become anathema. 

I shared with my class how writing and drawing had taught me what I wanted to say. How that was actually a little different from the prompt, where I’d originally said “a childhood memory,” but my memory was mostly from this week—it just viscerally evoked unspecific childhood memories. I told them if they had something they really wanted to write about that wasn’t quite what the prompt said, they should talk to me, and it would probably be okay. I want them to learn to share powerfully with the world the things that are in them to share.

Then on the way out of class, a student stopped to ask the question, “Can I write about what I learned when I found out in class today that my friend had given me wrong information about there being no homework?”

I responded, “Can you use the kind of descriptive writing we’ve been talking about?” He assured me he could. And I assured him it sounded like he had a good lesson to share. So that was the twin core of the prompt, and I gave him my blessing to write what he had to say.

I’ve explained to students before that they need to find their own way into any prompt, and if they have a slant that they are concerned might not meet the prompt, they should ask, and I’ll probably okay it. I’ve never had anyone ask before.

I think maybe it was because I modeled finding something to say that wasn’t the letter of the prompt.

Write beside your students. Share your process with them. You might be surprised at what you learn, as well as at what they learn.

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