A few years ago we took our youngest son to visit John Brown University in Arkansas, the college he eventually attended. While we were there, the president of the school spoke with the kids and gave a teaching illustration I have used ever since I heard it.
Dr. Pollard described a time when he taught writing. During one of the first classes, he would always draw a stick figure on the board and a portrait positioned rectangle next to it. He pointed to the rectangle and told the kids this was what they wrote for him. He pointed to the stick figure and said that this was the student.
“When I talk to you about how to fix this (pointing to the rectangle), I am not talking about what is wrong with this (pointing to the stick figure). This (pointing to the rectangle), is not the same as this (pointing to the stick figure).”
There is something so tangible about the stick figure and the rectangle. Every year I draw a stick figure and rectangle on my board and have that same conversation with my students. I wish I could say it’s just young writers, but I think most writers have trouble separating comments about their work from comments about them.
This past week the kids were finishing up their first big writing assignment. They were to describe a time in their past when they felt like someone had misunderstood them. The teacher had instructed the kids to write it as a first-person narrative and keep the story narrowed to the specific event. This is always challenging for sixth graders because most of the time they want to write a laundry list of events and call it a story.
Naomi had gotten a strong grasp of the assignment and was very excited to tell about a mix-up that had happened at a wedding they had gone to this past summer. I looked over her story chart on Tuesday and saw that she correctly completed the characters and setting boxes. She also filled in several notes for “rising action,” and correctly labeled walking into the wrong room as her “climax.”
Naomi laid her completed draft on my desk Friday morning. I told her we would go over it during Study Skills class that afternoon, so she could finish her final draft over the weekend. I read her draft during lunch. Naomi’s writing is usually all over the place, but this piece was different. She had a good introduction and logical sequence of events leading up to the climax. She even finished her story off with a good conclusion describing where everyone ended up. All we would need to go over Friday afternoon was fixing several mechanical errors. It was the best thing I’d ever read of Naomi’s.
As we settled into her paper that afternoon, I had Naomi read it out loud. I’ve always found this helps students “see” periods and commas they have left out. As Naomi read her story, she naturally paused at the end of her sentences. She found several run-on sentences without any prompting from me.
The pitch of her voice got higher and her pace quickened as she came to the climax of her story.
“Right there Naomi,” I interrupted. “The sentence ends right there. You need to put a period here and a capital letter here.”
Naomi stopped reading. She stared at her paper for several seconds.
“Right here,” I said again. “Here’s where you need to start a new sentence.”
Naomi put a period in, erased the small letter on the next word, and wrote in a capital letter to signify the beginning of the next sentence. Instead of continuing reading, however, she just stared at her paper.
“Go on,” I said. “Keep reading.”
Naomi started reading again, but now her voice sounded tight, like someone was choking her. I thought she might have just swallowed some air until I noticed giant tears running down her cheeks.
“What's wrong?” I asked, suddenly shocked. What in the world just happened?
Naomi’s breathing quickened, the tears began pouring out, and she was full-out hiccupping and sobbing.
“Naomi, what’s wrong?”
Naomi gulped, panted, and finally choked out, “This is the best part of my story and all you could say was that I needed a period here.”
The floor dropped out below me and my stomach knotted. We had been rushed at the beginning of class, and I never told Naomi that I thought her story was terrific. I had just sat down with her and started telling her what needed fixing.
Suddenly my “stick figure” was holding her “rectangle” and there were big tears running down her cheeks.
How could I have been so thoughtless?
It took a lot of back-peddling and apologizing to get things back on track with Naomi. Maybe someday she’ll be able to separate her work product from who she is, but not now. And I should have known this.
Teaching isn’t just a job or career. It’s a craft. It’s hard to define all the details of how you should be doing it. But you sure know when you get it wrong.