I Used to Be Afraid to Be Great

I had an early morning writing conference with a student this morning. Like, super early, so early that when I ducked into the dining hall, they weren’t even open at 7 a.m. I didn’t complain, though; that was an additional 20ish minutes I had to be consumed in this new book that probably doesn’t have much literary merit but that captivates me in ways that I love (the new Emily Giffin: LOVE HER!). And that reminds me, when one of the kids I had last year runs into me, precariously balancing a tray of breakfast options, she admits that she’s been reading. What?! She smiles, embarrassed. (I’m all kinds of astonished at that moment. This kid is so serious; I’m just stoked she seems to be taking things less so). She goes on to tell me that her teacher at school told her she should always analyze what she’s reading.

I told her that I disagreed with her teacher. I might have even said that her teacher was wrong. I read for pleasure all the time, and I only analyze something when I want to. Reading works on different levels, and if you’re going into the Hunger Games with the primary goal of analyzing, then you’re doomed. Hopefully, she keeps reading and finds enjoyment out of it. Why tell kids that if we ever want them to ENJOY anything?

Ugh.

Move backwards in time to the writing conference that commences promptly at 7:30. I’m approaching overcaffeinated, so I have to remind myself to focus only on what matters for this student. He has fantastic ideas, just needs some practice honing his focus, refining his thesis, making sure his topic sentences and body paragraphs are all working together. He LOVES this poem, Knock, Knock by Daniel Beatty. I tend to agree. It’s a fantastic poem to teach with students (again, another tip from Christensen).

First, I ask him what, exactly, he wants to say about this poem that he’s been tasked to analyze (remind me to rethink this assignment for sophomores next year; I think it’s too tough. Last year, I did it with juniors and that seems a more appropriate match). He tells me he’s interested in the speaker’s perseverance, and he’s interested in repetition, and word choice and imagery. Right? He’s got the makings of a fantastic paper. So, I do some dictation while he works through what he wants to say and eventually present him with a map, that works into a thesis, that allows us to move to the rest of the paper.

And what I realize, after some talking through the paper, is that he has buried the topic sentences within this body paragraphs. Eventually, I tell him so and make him identify the topic sentences. This kid’s got a way with words: he loves them, wants to use all kinds of them, even if they’re not the right ones. Even when simple, concise ones will do. I tell him as much (and even write “Practice an economy of words” on his paper and tell him what it means), and his face falls momentarily before I reassure him that there’s a time and place for a beautiful word, and that, as a writer, he’ll come to decide when it’s appropriate.

For now, though, I tell him, it doesn’t matter how lovely the word is if I can’t understand what it is you’re trying to tell me.

I want to get better, he admits. But I’m worried that time is running out (for the program). Will I pass?

You need to revise these papers, I reply. But sure. If you do the planning we did today, of first writing your thesis, then making sure your topic sentences are supporting your thesis, then yes, you can pass.

I wish I had more time in your class, he says. My writing is just starting to improve.

I tell him we are all works in progress as writers, so he can keep moving ahead, building on what he’s learned here. You’re gonna be even better next summer. Watch. The school year seems to work all kinds of magic on kids, I reassure him.

And then, because all the kids from the program tend to cluster in one area of the dining hall, and because I’m holding court in that corner, I stop another student who has been dodging me and is in danger of failing, too. I ask him where his revision is and he responds vaguely that he is going to get it to me. When I ask for an exact date, and if there’s anything confusing about what he needs to do, he mumbles something that I perceive as a yes.

I then go off on what might be one of my most effective rants about greatness and achievement and fear that I’ve mustered up in quite a while (it really was a beauty), I ask him several times if he’s afraid to be great. Silence. I wait. About a minute or so later, he says that yes, he is afraid to be great. That the only one preventing him from being great is him. I tell him that I had that same fear, but that I got over it when I was five (a lie; I still suffer from it–that fear of being great–but sometimes, you have to lie to the kids). Then, that student opens his computer and shows me his points of confusion. Turns out, it’s around analysis, so I open up one of our textbooks for the course, They Say, I Say by Graff and give him some references. We work through his narrative and I make suggestions about line breaks and spacing. I feel him growing more confident. By the end of that drive-by conference, he tells me I’m going to have both revisions by day’s end.

Being a warm demander has its perks.

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