Let’s face it. Helping our writers who are struggling is challenging work. Many times, we try one strategy after another only to end up just as exhausted and frustrated as our students. We know how essential it is to help our students feel successful, but creating a pathway for them to thrive as writers isn’t always clear. Some days, we simply don’t meet our goals despite all of our best efforts. These are the heavy days; the days that cause us to question our talents as teachers. But one of the best things about teaching is, as Dana says, “We get a redo” each time we return to our classrooms. Each stumble can bring us closer to achieving our goal.
My 7th graders contribute to and create a literary magazine each quarter. The stakes are high, as they understand that the strength of the magazine hinges on their ability to create unique works of art. Last week, one of my students approached me for help. Mark couldn’t generate any ideas to write about. The minilessons and instruction I’d provided just wasn’t working. So I did what I’ve done so often in the past when I’m in this situation. I turned to poetry; and poetry saved us!
Just within reach was Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Common Things. I turned to Ode to a Cluster of Violets and read it aloud to my anxious student. He listened quietly and then remarked, “You mean, I could really just write a lot about anything I love?” There was a spark. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “You could write about anything you love a lot. Your writing can pay tribute to what you love just like Pablo Neruda does.” Then there was a flame. A hint of a smile appeared on Mark’s face. “Okay,” he said quietly. For the first time, I could detect a small sense of confidence within him as he returned to his desk with Neruda’s book of odes in hand. Here’s what he wrote:
Ode to R2D2
but a stream of consciousness
for a droid
not yet capable
of resorting to English
Off on an adventure
sliding swiftly through the sand
legs whirring under the pressure
by what you are
by what you have to do
Poetry can be a lifeline for our writers who are struggling. But on this day, Mark felt successful as a writer. He generated an idea he felt passionate about and developed it. But Mark’s ode is more than just an ode to me. It is a message. Similar to R2D2, Mark lives in a world where he feels pressure to communicate. How often does Mark feel “held back” in writing workshop or “underestimated” and misunderstood?
I’d like to invite you to join Dana and I on our Facebook Group to participate in a discussion about ways to help our writers who experience struggles in the writing workshop. Let’s share some of the obstacles we’re facing in our classrooms and some of the breakthroughs we’ve experienced. Because our students, like Mark, are counting on us.
Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member who is committed to celebrating authors and illustrators who address issues related to social justice.