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A Day in the Life

In a typical school research paper, a 5th grade student progresses from plagiarism to powerful prose  while a tutor learns a valuable lesson about voice and originality

by Steve Peha

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay, written in 1995, was the first thing I ever wrote about teaching. Prior to working in classrooms, I worked for two years as a tutor in a variety of one-on-one and small group situations. This informal experience was incredibly valuable to me as it afforded me the opportunity to practice new teaching techniques in highly controlled environments with a wide variety of learners. Hardly a session went by when I didn't learn something new, and sometimes, as in the session I recount here, the learning was quite profound. This "pre-teaching" work was so valuable to me that I have often wondered why this kind of experience isn't part of the required training in college-level teacher certification programs.

"Woke up. Got outta bed. Dragged a comb across my head. Found my way downstairs and drank a cup. Somebody spoke. I noticed I was late.”

It’s Friday at 5:00. Time to work with Katie, my last student of the week. Actually, it’s about 5:15. By the time I get to my last kid on Friday, I’m tired and running late. It’s a typical “day in the life” and, typically, I don’t have a lot of energy for doing much more than hanging out and making sure she’s getting her homework done. Usually we work on math, but today she wants to work on her research project. She’s doing a report on the Beatles. I ask her how she plans to get started and she says: “I need to get things out of the books.” She has several books from the library in front of her on the table. I tell her to get busy.

She opens up her favorite book, goes to the very first paragraph, and begins copying down the words. I ask her what she’s doing and she says she’s writing the beginning. I let her copy out the first couple of paragraphs, and then I ask her to read me what she’s written. She reads with pride the writing of another author, stumbling here and there on words and phrases that are not a part of her regular vocabulary. When she’s finished she looks at me as though she thinks she’s done a good job and is expecting my usual generous praise for her effort. She’s not going to get it. But I’m not going to get mad at her either. Instead, as tired as I am, and as disappointed as I am to see yet another kid turning out yet another boring paper, I’m going try to teach her how to write. Or rather, she’s going to teach herself how to write.

I had read a previous report of Katie’s as well as research work by several other kids at her school. Typical stuff. Many kids turned in reports that were largely copied from encyclopedias or other sources. And if they weren’t copied, they might as well have been. Most of them started out with sentences like: “Abraham Lincoln was born on February 18, 1804 in Springfield, Illinois. At the age of 23 he became a lawyer. Etc.…” I feel so bad when I see writing like this. There’s just no reason for it. Kids are capable of so much more. Even kids like Katie—who have learning problems, low self-esteem, and a variety of other issues to contend with—can produce excellent work if given the chance.

“Why don’t you write it yourself?” I say.

“Because it’s just right here,” she replies anxiously, pointing to her book. She’s afraid I’m going to give her a speech about not copying things out of books. I am, in a way.

“But that’s not your writing.”

“I know. But my writing isn’t as good.”

“Sure it is.”

“No. How could it be?”

She looks sad, really wiped out. She’s behind on her report and she just wants to get it done so it doesn’t spoil her weekend.

“Katie, I’ll bet you’re writing is even better.”

She glares at me, slightly frustrated, but with the cutest gimme-a-break look on her face. I just love this kid.

“Katie, I want to hear your writing,” I say. “Your friends want to hear your writing, too.”

“No they don’t,” she whines, sighing as she slumps down, elbows on the table, chin in her hands.

“Yes they do,” I insist. “C’mon, I’ll show ya. Close up those books and get ‘em off the table. You don’t need them anymore. You’re gonna write this all by yourself.”

For the next five minutes I take her through a simple set of questions: Why did you pick the Beatles? What do you like about the Beatles? Why do you like it? What do you think the most interesting thing is about the Beatles? What could you say at the beginning of your report that would make people want to read the rest?

We make no notes, no “mind maps,” no outlines, no organizers. All we do is talk. And then I tell her to start writing. I tell her to write from her head, not from a book; I tell her I want to hear what she has to say, not what somebody else has to say.

You can imagine how hard this is for a little girl who has no confidence in her own writing ability, who has had very little writing instruction during her first five years in school, and who is about as tired as a little girl could be on a Friday evening. But I tell her she’s got to do it, and so she does.

Five minutes later, this is what she comes up with:

You can’t not like the Beatles. Their songs are so… so… well, I can’t exactly explain it. Perhaps it’s because of the lyrics or maybe the support from the audience. For example, when the Beatles first came to America there were so many fans to greet them at the airport they had to call the police to hold all the ladies back from trying to pull hair and artifacts of clothing off the Beatles.

The Beatles were the number one group in the world. Their lives were four of the most interesting lives in the universe. So listen to this research project and hear the story.

Every time something like this happens, I wonder why I’m still reading so many “Abraham Lincoln was born on…” reports, or those silly cut-and-paste jobs out of the latest CD-ROM encyclopedia. Getting kids to write well is simply a matter of getting them to think about what’s important to them, and then asking them to put that on paper. I ask all the kids I work with the same small set of personal questions (What do you like? Why do you like it? What do you find interesting? What do you think your friends would like? Etc.), and then I just tell them to write down their responses. To give their writing shape, I tell them to think about who they’re writing for and what that audience would be interested in. And then I let them write whatever they want. “Write it down just like you say it,” I urge. “You can go back and change it later, during editing, if you want to.” There’s no method, no lessons, no scope, no sequence. The act of writing, of sharing ideas in written form with another human being, gives more than enough structure to the work.

The more I teach writing, the more I begin to think that most teachers are working too hard. We’re doing much more than we need to, and as a result we’re squandering the few precious resources we have on techniques which produce poor or inconsistent results, instead of focusing what little energy we have on the simple things that really make the difference. And what’s even worse, the difficulty we have teaching writing affects our kids. Our fear, discomfort, and frustration is their fear, discomfort, and frustration. They think writing is hard and unnatural, too. Not at all the kind of thing the typical kid wants to do on a typical day in the life.

Whenever I find myself getting too wrapped up in my theories, my research, and my own childish biases, I try to remember this: we don’t need lessons or methods or frameworks or standards to help kids learn to write; we just need to think about what it’s like to share something we’re interested in with someone who’s interested in us. I haven’t met a kid yet who wasn’t interested in something, and who didn’t appreciate the attention of a sincere and respectful audience.

As I work with some of the same kids time and again, and watch them gradually overcoming their fears, winning battle after battle in their own private war on words, I’m becoming convinced that writing is almost as natural as speaking. And I’m beginning to feel that the teaching of writing might be just as natural, too.

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