I am an English/language arts teacher. A teacher of writing. But no teacher taught me how to write. My dad did. When I was little, he would sit at the computer, and I would sit next to him. I would read what I had written by hand, and he would type it into the computer. And we would go over it together and make it better.
When I got older, I would do the typing, but he still edited every paper I wrote in high school, most of the papers I wrote in college, and each of the blog posts I’ve posted to WritingIsThinking.org. And that’s not embarrassing for me because I know that great writers have editors and thought partners and people who believe in the power of their ideas.
In my classroom this year, I have a student named SJ. If you spoke with him for two minutes, you would know he loves basketball and his baby sisters. That he wants to play in the NBA. That he lives in Mattapan. What you wouldn’t learn about him is that he speaks five languages. That he has only been tardy one time this year. And that he’s an A/B student. That he pokes his head into my room every morning just to make sure I know he has arrived.
You also wouldn’t know that SJ has a learning disability that affects his communication in all of the languages he speaks. At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t for the life of me get him into the task of independent reading.
On a particularly rough day, I asked him to stay after school, and I called him out. I said to him “SJ, your behavior makes me think this work is too hard for you.” And he said to me “Miss, I can’t really read. My seventh grade teacher had me read articles online because I don’t read books.”
Although I had suspected that reading was difficult for SJ, in the first week and a half of school I hadn’t yet discovered quite how hard a task it was. In that moment, I said to him, “If you work hard, you will not fail this class. If you work hard, I will work hard to teach you how to read.”
So we started to work. Hard.
Throughout the year, SJ’s reading and writing have developed. He uses sentence stems and CLOZE paragraphs and graphic organizers. He records himself and takes notes on his own thinking. Then he organizes it and writes his essays. But I’m afraid that what happened at the beginning of the year in my classroom will happen every year for SJ. That he will always be dependent on a good relationship with his teachers in order to eventually own his writing. That he will float through school with an ELD level and a Special Education code, never challenged as much as he could be, and as much as he deserves to be. That he will graduate from BPS a good person, but not a good writer.
Now I know that not all my students have computers at home, or parents who are available to sit next to them and work on school work for hours. I know that, even though I want to with all my heart, I cannot be that person for each of my 94 students. So we as teachers have to teach writing smarter. We have to work together as teams of teachers to give our students that support and empower them as writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and academics in every classroom. We have to do that work for SJ and for the hundreds of other students like him.