Sunday, May 22, 2011

“Bing, I’m a Beast!” and Other Lessons I’ve Learned from my Eighth-Graders

By Amanda Simays

It’s the end of the school year, the time when middle schoolers have to reflect on what they’ve learned, and it always means a lot when my students tell me that I’ve helped them with their writing. It occurred to me that it’s been a two-way street—my kids have also taught me a lot about writing too.

From Ethan (Names have been changed): Get into it

Some of my favorite moments at school have been working with Ethan, because he gets into his writing. Whenever he finishes a paragraph or writes a line he’s particularly proud of, he’ll shout, “Bing, I’m a beast!” and then we’ll high-five and fist-bump.

I love watching the way he can ride on the high of what he’s already written to help himself write some more. It makes me want to apply that to my own efforts. I don’t literally punch the air and yell, “Bing, I’m a beast!”, but there’s something to be said for privately celebrating that moment when you finally get the word you’ve been looking for, or you mentally land on the missing piece in the plot puzzle.

From Crystal: Persevere

Crystal has amazed me with her ability to persevere with her writing. It’s happened often that the bell will ring for her to switch from English to Art, and she’ll choose to give up the fun elective class to stay in the library because she’s on a roll. She’ll sometimes continue pecking away at her essay on the computer for a two-hour stretch. A couple months ago, we collaborated on a contest together, and she uncomplainingly came in every day during recess to write with me.

I think about her a lot on nights when I feel too tired or lazy to write. If a fourteen-year-old can give up recess and her elective class to write school assignments, I should be able to find the motivation to sacrifice my own time for writing too.

Keisha: Share your work

Keisha was bored by her latest five-paragraph theme prompt: “If you could have any wish granted, what would it be and why?” What she really needed was a change in perspective, so I tried to get across to her that a wish could be anything—a job, a vacation, a superpower…

“I could be invisible!” she said suddenly, and then we started laughing over the awesome things you could do if you were invisible—spy on people and play all sorts of practical jokes. Keisha’s pencil started flying across the paper. She was so excited about her opening paragraph that she dragged me around the school so she could show her essay to her seventh grade English teacher…her sixth grade English teacher…her band teacher…the hall monitor…

Writing is a solitary activity by nature, but helping Keisha with her “invisible” essay made me think about why a writers’ group is so useful…It both gives you that fresh, external perspective that illuminates aspects of what’s right in front of you, and it satisfies one of the most basic reasons why we write in the first place…to have readers.

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