by Julie Patterson
This semester, I teach writing in pre-K on Wednesdays and writing to college students on Fridays. I'm quickly discovering that the only real difference is the texts I use. See the first post in this series: Convince them they are writers
In the first post in this series, I was thinking about the feedback I give student writers. That leads me to another big observation: sometimes I mess up, perhaps even bad enough to set a kid back a little. I have to give myself permission to do that and learn from it if I’m going to be a good writing teacher.
My first day in pre-K, a student wrote a book about dinosaurs.
“Tell me about your dinosaur book,” I said.
“There’s a different dinosaur on each page,” the student said. “Here’s a stegosaurus.” He pointed to a blob with a discernible spike on the top. “And here’s a T. rex.”
Teeming with joy, I pointed to the short lines coming from the center of his T. rex blob and declared, “Yes, I see it’s a T. rex, because you gave it short arms.”
As the words left my mouth, I was mentally basking in the glory of my own teaching and congratulating myself for having this little genius at the table with me. I exaggerate, of course, but you know the feeling I mean—that moment when everything in the classroom is picture perfect and going according to plan.
“So how do I make it say T. rex?” he asked.
I wasn’t worried about this dark cloud moving over us. “You did,” I assured him. “I saw those short arms and knew immediately this page was about T. rex. I read your book.”
“No, how do I make the words?”
I still felt giddy because Matt Glover had already shown me exactly how to respond.
“Here are some ways other preschool writers have gotten words in their books,” I said, showing him books my 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter had made when I practiced on them the week before. (Because when that’s all you’ve got, you use it.) “See, this one made wavy lines, because that’s how words kind of look on a page, isn’t it? And this one wrote some letters she knows, because she knows words are made by putting letters together.”
“No, I want it to really say T. rex. That stuff isn’t real words,” he challenged.
I squinted at him, rifling through potential responses in my mind. Those other lines had worked for Matt Glover, so I was on my own now.
“Well, let’s try this. When I say T. rex,…” I emphasized the T as if in a bad comedy sketch, “…do you hear any letter sounds you recognize?”
“Yes, great, so you can write a T for T. rex.”
“OK,” he said, staring at me instead of writing.
We sat like that for what felt like 10 minutes—him staring at me, me smiling and nodding.
“I don’t know how to make a T,” he finally added.
I looked around for a crutch, but in my haste I couldn’t see the letter chart above the whiteboard (I know, right, they’re always above the board. I was obviously too panicked to think straight.)
The classroom teacher’s voice saved me from spiraling further. “Time to clean up so we can go to gym.”
“We can finish this later if you want,” I said. “Great job today.”
But I could see on his face that I had not reciprocated that great job. He had a vision for what he’d wanted to make, and I didn’t help him get there.
I wish I’d simply shown him what other pre-K writers do, handed him a laminated 8.5”x11” letter chart, and left him alone to think about trying it, instead of engaging in a winless negotiation.
I’ve been in pre-K eight times since then, and this writer hasn’t returned to the writing center. I’ve tried to address this indirectly. One day I showcased his dinosaur book during our read-aloud, after talking about how writers sometimes choose topics they’re interested in and know a lot about because they want to teach readers something. On another day I purposefully chose a Kevin Henkes book for read-aloud, because we’d already read another Kevin Henkes book. I made the point that most authors write more than one book…“So if you’ve only made one book so far this year, I’d love for you to join me today at the writing center and make another one.” But the dinosaur book author didn’t bite on my overt flattery or subtle challenge, so I’m still trying to drum up a new strategy to get him writing again.
Of course, that’s not been my only mistake so far. Another was with my own daughter. That’s right, my daughter is in the pre-K class, too, and that presents a whole host of new learning opportunities for me as a teacher.
My daughter already “writes” a lot. Not surprising, perhaps, she makes books at home and reads them to her little brother, often while I’m “making books” at my desk in the next room. I sometimes practice potential minilessons with her, so she’s well exposed to all this writing stuff.
Maybe that’s why I got careless and broke the golden rule of feedback in class with her. She read me a book she’d made about our dog. Because I knew she was comfortable with the routines of writing, I jumped right past “point out something in her writing that’s going well” and offered constructive criticism of her book.
I could have said, “Oh, you used blue in your drawing here to help readers know that you’re walking Barkley by the creek.” Or I could have said, “I see you drew a slide to help readers know Barkley's at the park—and you put him on the slide to be funny!”
But I didn’t.
Instead, sadly, I went straight to “Next time, you can try making Barkley the same color on every page so we know it’s the same character all the way through your story.”
I watched my daughter deflate on the instant and toss her book aside. I knew I’d messed up and tried to backtrack.
“Why did you make Barkley a different color on every page?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
I bit my bottom lip, knowing full well she wasn’t likely to tell me what she’d been thinking because I’d already declared it wrong. She left the writing center.
As I confessed this story to my husband that night, it dawned on me that she’d likely made our dog a different color on every page because the touchstone text I’d used that day was “about” colors, the main character pondering which color was his favorite, a new possible answer on each page. My daughter likely believed she’d applied some kind of craft strategy to her book by making her dog a different color on each page. It was an “inaccurate” but logical application of something she’d seen in a book.
I’m lucky perhaps that I made this mistake with my own daughter, because I have plenty of opportunities to undo my damage and encourage her to continue taking risks in learning.
I don’t have directly parallel examples of making these same mistakes when giving feedback to undergrads—not this semester. Not yet anyway. But I know I’ve done similar things to shut down college writers before. I remember a student telling me once that I hadn’t pointed out anything she was doing well in her essay, even though I thought I had. I had talked at her instead of with her, so she missed the part about what was good. I also gave her too much feedback.
When I think about my mis-steps with my pre-K writers, and imagine mis-steps like them happening to a student repeatedly for 12+ years, it’s easy for me to understand why most of my undergrads begin our course confused, jaded, and reluctant with respect to writing. They’ve likely gotten a lot of mixed messages about their competency and conflicting or obtuse instructions about how to write well. Well intentioned teachers like me may have thwarted their visions, given them suggestions they didn’t know how to execute, misunderstood what they were trying to say, and focused solely on what was “wrong.” I did all that in the cumulative span of maybe 12 minutes. What if you heard that over and over for 12 years? How would you feel about writing then?
I tell my undergrads that they need to embrace not getting things right the first time, or even the third time. “Mistakes aren’t inherently bad,” I remind them. “We can learn from them. If you’re getting it right the first time all the time, then you’re playing it too safe. You aren’t taking chances, aren’t growing.”
I know the same is true for me. And boy am I growing!
Julie Patterson is writer-in-residence for the Partnership for Inquiry Learning, helping make the work that writers do visible to teachers and students in grades pre-K-8. She is also an adjunct professor of English at IUPUI and a teaching artist in grades K-12 with Arts for Learning Indiana.