Sometimes we have to take time and pause to ask ourselves what it is we really are doing in this profession of teaching. Are we teaching content? Are we teaching skills? Are we teaching students?
I like to think that most of the time when I was in the classroom, I was teaching students. There was some content that we dug into and tried to make a part of our body of knowledge. There were skills my students needed in order to be prepared for the next level of reading and writing – no matter if it was for further course-work in a later grade or if it was to be successful communicators in life.
Yet, sometimes my students came to me feeling much like I did at their age. They were convinced they weren’t writers. They didn’t like to put forth the effort for fear that they would be corrected or that their paper would be returned bleeding profusely from the teacher’s red pen. In the grades I taught, we were always preparing for some sort of writing assessment – and students today still are. So, I firmly believed that part of my job as a teacher was to help students feel confident as writers and approach the blank page with that confidence. I wanted them to feel like they could address the question asked – whatever it might be. I wanted them to feel like they could express their ideas. I was teaching young writers. So, first I was charged with just getting students…to write!
When I was a classroom teacher, I learned that one way to get students to recognize that they each have stories to tell and that each of them is a writer is to give them some freedom and give them a model and give them some boundaries. Then, turn them loose.
I always tried to write with them. This would give me a model to share and provide them opportunity to learn how to ask for feedback and suggestions from their peers. The following poem is one way I would nudge these young adolescents toward realizing their stories needed to be shared and they have an innate ability to write. Calling it free verse poetry kind of opened some doors and it also helped me to teach them to show, not tell with their writing.
They were challenged to describe, providing details…to paint a picture with words. With this particular assignment, I would ask students to write descriptive phrases of themselves. The assignment helped me to learn about my students and it was a magnificent way to get students to feel successful and proud to publish and post their work for others to read. After I shared an example about myself that I crafted when I was drafting the lesson plan, I would generally choose somebody else I knew well to describe as I wrote alongside them. Then, I would model how to seek feedback and suggestions by projecting my efforts and asking my students for suggestions and feedback. I would point out a place where I was struggling for just the right word. I would ask for feedback to see if something needed to be revised for clarity or brevity. I would seek editorial guidance. Then, my students could turn to one another and ask similar questions. It helped them to see what sort of suggestions writers needed and helped them to feel knowledgeable enough to offer ideas. I always pointed out that when seeking creative feedback, they still owned their piece and didn’t have to apply the suggestions. It was always their choice there. Yet, it was important to consider and apply suggestions when the conventions of our language were in question – to look at punctuation or spelling corrections offered by their peers with a critical eye.
My writing alongside them about somebody else also offered them an idea for crafting a poem like this as a gift to somebody when a purchased gift might not be possible. In this particular poem, I described my Granny. I called it Living Southern History at that time but in honor of my Granny’s passing on yesterday, I’m changing the title to:
A Piece of Southern History
Tea Parties in the living room when nobody else was around;
curling up next to the fire place with a book that was once read by my Mama;
frolicking through the fields like Anne and her friends at Green Gables;
rolling into a ball near her when the wicked witch and that scary wizard were after Dorothy;
tromping through the plowed fields and picking up arrow heads;
pulling weeds and transplanting flowers from a shady bed to a place with full sun
The sweet fragrance of blossoms nodding in the breeze;
fresh turned soil crumbling through my fingers as we planted the tender little plants
that would later fill our pantry and table;
smoke tickling at my nose while it lulls the bees into calm so we can gather their honey;
fresh vegetables bubbling on the stove;
light, fluffy, golden biscuits rising in the oven while we scrub flour off the cabinet’s red rim
Golden shafts of wheat nodding in the bottom of the bowl
after we’ve licked the last syrupy sweetness of a maple banana sundae;
cool, creamy ‘coffee’ which makes me feel grown up;
buttery layers of golden bread started at our fingertips as dough on that red-rimmed cabinet;
crispy bacon topping tender tomatoes freshly picked from the garden;
chocolates selected from a large Whitman’s Sampler box
Screams coming from me when I thought I saw an ‘alligator’ scrambling across the floor;
Listening to stories of her past for hours on end;
hearing about where she lived as a child growing up;
learning about her life with “Maahh-vin” and raising her children;
that deep southern drawl that is unmistakable to my ears
Smiles at me just because I came to visit;
short, nubby fingernails at the end of work-worn hands
a turned up nose that has been transmitted through three generations;
salt and peppered curls encircling her smooth skin like an angel’s halo;
a soft, sage-green, fully, gathered, shirt-waist ‘airplane’ dress;
twinkling blue eyes above deep dimpled cheeks
A strong, intelligent, friendly, admirable role model for me
Lily Esther Walker Pratt