“Alright, everyone, stand up!” I said.  “You have your shovel in hand?”

Thank God they play along.  If they didn’t, I’d sure look like an idiot.

“Stick your shovel in the ground,” I told them, and they continued to oblige.  “What did you get?”

“Some dirt!” they replied.

“You bet!  Keep going!”

And so we continued, pretending to dig out our imaginary dirt and clay for the entirety of the next thirty seconds until we reached the proverbial gold at the end of our journey downward into the dirt.

And this “gold” that we found… This “gold” is a good idea.

Writing is so difficult for kids because it’s so final.  It’s hard to put your pencil to paper, see something you dislike, and continue writing down more that you’re certain will be just as bad.  However, helping kids see that this finality–this writing that we dislike–as an opportunity as opposed to a failure, we can change the way they see writing.  Instead of feeling defeated by their mistakes, they can feel empowered.  Instead of seeing a bad idea as a deficit, they can see it as freed up space in their minds.

More so than being final, writing is one of the most vulnerable acts a human can make.  To take private thoughts that fill our minds and make them tangible through written word takes a lot of courage, and for students, this courage is in short supply.  They’re used to having their every piece of writing nit-picked and torn apart, and because of this, it comes as no surprise that most are afraid to put anything down on paper at all.  As these thoughts compile in their minds, unable to be released through their fingertips, into their pens, and onto paper, they bottleneck, making it next to impossible to get anything out.

513oKjQI2XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But it isn’t as simple as just cheering them on.  It isn’t as easy as just telling them, “you can do it.”

If that was enough, writing would be one of the easiest subjects to teach.  Instead, it’s one of the hardest, and what’s critical to releasing this bottleneck of ideas is preparing them for the idea that they are not going to like a lot of their ideas.  It’s telling them that they are going to put “bad ideas” down on paper and that those are the ideas that we want–not because they’ll use them, but because once they’re on paper, they’re out of their minds.

It’s like the digging through dirt metaphor.  When you dig in the ground, you “get dirty” and you “find some gross things,” but eventually, you reach what you’re looking for.  In order to make this idea even more tangible, I’ve applied Aimee Bucnker’s strategy “Try Ten,” which is precisely what I did today in class during writing.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 8.17.32 PMI began by reading aloud my most recent story, “Steve and the Sharing Showdown,” asking for their feedback.  I asked them to find a sentence that could use some sprucing up–one that they thought could be “even better,” and they followed suit.  They found one (I made sure to tell them that I took no offense.  In fact, I told them I appreciated their feedback.), and we used the “Try Ten” strategy to make my writing even better.

Here’s how “Try Ten” works:

(1) Find a sentence in your writing that you’re not crazy about.

(2) Rewrite the sentence on a separate sheet of your notebook.

(3) Then rewrite the sentence ten times, changing a piece of the sentence each time.

I modeled this process today first, with their help, of course.  While I was writing, they were taking turns shouting out ideas.  Check out some of the ideas they had below.  Yes, we only “tried seven,” but trying some is better than trying nothing.  At least that’s what I believe.

photo (36)

But the most miraculous part of it all was what came at the end of this shared lesson.  I turned them loose to work on their own “Try Ten,” and within minutes, each and every one of our students had their notebooks out, using the strategy with little assistance from us.  Does this mean it was easy?  No, that’s not what it means.  What it meant was that our students felt supported and safe taking risks with their writing.

It meant that they felt empowered by their ideas–even the bad ones.

It’s important to remember that writing doesn’t have to be so scary, and it’s even more important to help our children see that.  Similar to how we want them to embrace all parts of themselves, we also need to encourage them to embrace all of the words that bubble in their minds–even the ones they don’t like.  Helping them to release these thoughts allows them to embrace the messiness that writing brings.  It helps them think critically, and it helps them find safety in uncertainty.

But most importantly, it helps them to see that each one of us has something important to say, even if its hard for us to see it at first.

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6 thoughts

  1. I am curious what grade(s) you teach. I am constantly impressed by your thoughts and teaching methods. Wow! A teacher who actually thinks about how to REALLY get to the children. Amazing! Keep up the good work and welcome to San Francisco!

      1. I am not a teacher by training, but I am home schooling my children, grades 1 and 3. Such a challenge! You bring so much enthusiasm to your work, I am always inspired by your posts. I am actually coming around to the idea that parents may not be the best to educate their children. At least in my case. Thus, AltSchool here we come in 2015. I found your blog through the website.

      2. How exciting! Hopefully I’ll get to meet you at some point!

        What I love about AltSchool is that there is no “best” way to educate a child, in general; what’s best is whatever that child needs. For some children, home schooling is the best option, and for some it is not!

        Thanks so much for the compliment and for reading. Looking forward to meeting you!

        Paul

  2. And sometimes, home schooling is not best for the parents! I am struggling with relationship issues right now. How can one be both parent and full time educator. It may not make sense for us, if we have a very attractive alternative like AltSchool. We are so lucky to have options! Now, I am off to read your post on Math! Ciao, Paula

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