We spend so much time in the classroom trying to cram the "necessary" learning down our students throats, I fear we miss the central thing that learning should be about. I wonder how many times we've missed the mark with a student because we insisted that they melt into the conformity of the classroom rather than allowing them to learn and show what they've learned in their own way.
On Friday, before spring break began, I told my class I wanted them to write to me about a place in the world they would go if there were no limits on choosing. They were pretty jazzed about this, as we had just celebrated World Party as a school and they had learned many new and exciting things about countries all over the world.
We talked a bit about what this particular writing piece might look like. I threw some ideas out such as writing a letter as if you were currently at the place you chose, and they asked about things like -- "Can it be a fiction story? Can I pretend like I've already been there? What if I want to write about a place I NEVER want to go back to? What if it's not another country -- what if the place I most want to go is right here in America?" and the list went on and on. It was a loud, chaotic conversation, with much hopping up and down and arms waving in the air. We had our own classroom version of a rave going on. Who knew writing could bring kids to such a frenzy of anticipation?
Typically, I shy away from fiction in the classroom. It's sort of embarrassing to admit. I do it because I've been teaching writing for 3 years and it's what I was told to do. Because, so said my mentors, "Not very many kids can write fiction well, and you don't want to unleash something they can't control. Imagine what that would look like!" This seemed odd to me, because actually, YES, I do want to unleash something big and crazy and wild in my classroom -- because I do actually believe that if they love it, they can learn how to wield it well. But, it is only in this past year that I have become comfortable enough to walk away from the direction my peers seem to be heading and walk in a way that feels right for me, and for my kids.
So on Friday, I told them they could write in whatever way they wanted: fiction, nonfiction, diary entry, comic strip -- you name it, you can do it.
And my room turned into a sort of Disney World of writing. As usual, kids were working together, sprawled out on the floor and on pillows, under tables and in the rocking chair. But today, the room pulsed with a new kind of energy. The energy of choice. Boys that had previously struggled to find their voice were clamoring to share their writing, and a few students that typically struggle to organize their thoughts into a coherent story were writing such powerful stuff I was nearly in tears.
We celebrated by running out into the halls and finding teachers that had previously coached some of my students to share their new treasures. It was a magical moment. I was beaming, my kids were ecstatic, and I had to just sit back and watch in awe as they buzzed around each other, laughing and sharing in each other's joy.
And at the end of it all, I sat outside the circle of 20, listening and cheering and clapping as they read their work outloud, and I wondered, "How could I have missed this? How could I have not known we could have THIS kind of joy about writing -- every day? Did I truly let the monster of the TAKS test rattle my beliefs so much that children quite capable of writing gems have been suffocated beneath the must-do's and can-not's of a curriculum driven by one goal -- passing the test?" And it hurt to think that they could have been so much MORE than what I allowed them to be. It hurt to know that had I not stood my ground and done what I knew was best. Don't get me wrong -- my kids enjoy writing and we have tons of fun exploring the world of words together. But... I stifled them. As I listened to one boy in particular share a story about hunting in Africa -- describing perfectly the feeling of the rifle against his shoulder and the sound of the gunfire -- this same boy that literally needs help constructing each sentence word by terribly painful word -- I knew. I had not given them the choices they needed to bloom.
Already my team is talking about how to amp up our plans for next year. Daily grammar sheets and weekly TAKS writing prompts are some of the thoughts that have been tossed onto the table. I cringed, but waited. Right now it is my season for gathering facts, storing up resources, making my plan. It's not easy being the lone dissenter, but sometimes it is hugely necessary.