At the beginning of the summer, asking my students to write 6-8 sentences elicited responses suggesting I’d asked them to torture their mothers. They groaned: “Six sentences? That’s like an essay, man.” They bargained: “What grade will I get if I only write four sentences?” They invented a whole catalog of maladies: “Miss, I can’t write today because my pinky hurts/I fell off my bike yesterday/my ribs feel weird/one of my eyes is watery/my shoulder won’t move right/I burnt my face with a flat iron.”
“Great writing comes from pain,” I said, reminding them that most of their favorite musicians came from tough places. This was usually the cue for a helpful student to chime in “[Rap artist] was shot [a number of] times!” earning a shower of participation points from me and glares from the rest of the class.
Every day, I read each journal entry, graded it, and stuck a quick reaction on a mini Post-it to the page. At the beginning of the summer, a lot of these reactions consisted of “Great start! Just a few more words until the end of your first sentence!” I gave a lot of very chipper Fs. We kept at it.
One day, in an effort to reassure the kids that the task of writing 6-8 sentences was in fact possible, I started completing the journal entries on the document camera. At first, the kids rolled their eyes. Then they made fun of me for admitting in a journal entry that I couldn’t do a handstand. Then they laughed at my taste in music. (To prove them wrong, I made them listen to Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing.” They jeered at it before starting to dance because you can’t not dance to that song.)
But then, one by one, I started to win them over. It started with Joey, who was enthralled the day I broke out my fountain pen. “That’s raw,” he said, getting out of his seat for a closer look. “Lemme see that.”
I handed it over, showed him how to angle it, and let him use it to complete his journal entry, with the stipulation that if it ended up in his pocket, his mother and I were going to become good friends.
The next convertee was Jaqui, who, as we were writing about places we’d travel on an infinite budget, shouted “What’s Angkor Wat?” A couple of pictures later, she had added it to her own list.
Allie followed, writing long stories about her dog, her home, her family. Jesus curled up in the corner scribbling anecdotes about his “brother from another mother,” and started indicating where on the page I should place my Post-it. Evan littered his entries with emoji. Aniyah double-spaced her entries to use up the whole page, and decorated the margins with her name, framed in tiny hearts.
I wish I could say that journal time suddenly became sacred, that students came in every day and got started right away and always wrote interesting, thoughtful things. But my students are kids, not movie characters, so that story will have to wait for the Hilary Swank-ified telling of my life. I can say, though, that the grumbling decreased, the invented diseases became rather lazily pro forma, and only one student asked me whether he would fail the class if he didn’t complete his final journal.
Yesterday, I prompted them to write about high school. “What are you looking forward to? What are you nervous about? What do you think will be the most interesting part?”
Each and every student wrote at least half a page; most more. They worried about grades and eating lunch off-campus and making new friends. They vowed to turn over new leaves socially, academically, and behaviorally. They aspired to basketball and football teams, to clubs and bands. They wrote about wanting to model, wanting to go to college, and taking school seriously now that it counted. “Before high school is practice,” wrote one student, “but high school is real.” Another wrote, “What I really want to do in high school is their car mechanics class because I love to work on cars, especially old cars.” In response, I wrote them full-sized Post-its: encouraging, dissuading, dispensing advice. Find one teacher you can trust and who cares about you, I wrote on many who were concerned about becoming lost in the crowd. Stay out of the drama and you’ll have a much better time, I wrote on several of the entries concerned about friend crises. You’ll do great! I wrote on Allie’s, in response to her confession that she’d done much better in summer school than regular school and her worry that she might slip back. You know you can do it.
Two weeks into this summer, I couldn’t imagine why anyone does summer school twice. Now I understand. It’s because the kids need someone who cares, who will call them on their crap, who will make them write write write and not take excuses. And because it’s fantastic watching kids develop and change and become. My little ducklings, growing up, swimming away, out over the wide, deep water.