That One Student

I assume we have all had, “That one student.” That ONE student who you just couldn’t reach. That ONE student who just couldn’t see how smart he really was. That ONE student who hated school no matter what you did to make her happy. That ONE student who was not going to enjoy reading or writing or whatever it is you teach no matter what you did.

Well, my one student turned up pretty early on in the school year.  He spent most of the first few days of school drawing elaborate robot characters on post-it notes.  He didn’t say much as we took our turns opening up and sharing ourselves with our classmates.  And he didn’t seem excited about the things that the rest of the class seemed excited about.

And then our big moment of truth came on the day when the rest of the class began writing their very first stories of the year. As I have explained before, I spent a lot of time rethinking our first writing unit this year. We are working on writing memoirs, but this year, I worked really hard to make sure that the work that I was asking the kids to do was meaningful and purposeful. So I asked the students to write these stories as gifts to give to people in their lives. To show these people what they meant to them.  The kids were really excited. I could feel the energy in the room as we began to brainstorm possible ideas to write about and possible audiences to give this writing too. Everyone was eager to begin.

Everyone, except my one student.

As the rest of the class was happily brainstorming ideas and chatting excitedly with the people around them about their possible story ideas, my one student sat quietly, with his head down, staring at an empty page.  When I first noticed this, one of our special ed teachers was talking quietly with him, so I kept my distance for a while.  After a few moments, I headed over to see what was going on.  As I sat down next to my student, I noticed that his eyes had now started to fill with tears.  I asked him what was going on and he looked at me and said, “I just hate writing. I hate writing in school because nobody ever lets me write fiction. I love writing fiction. I hate writing true stories.” He was so earnest. He was not at all disrespectful. He was telling me his very honest truth and he was waiting to see what I was going to do with it.

And my honest truth was that I had no idea what to say to him.

The stressed out, overwhelmed, anxious teacher in me wanted to say to him, “Well, I am sorry that you feel that way, but we are working on memoirs right now and so that is what you need to do.” And, if I am being honest, I was REALLY close to saying just those words. I would have said them nicely. I would have smiled at him when I said them. I would have used a tone that would have showed that I was understanding and kind and still loved him.  But I would have said them.

Had I not spent all summer thinking about, reading about, and hearing about how important it is to value what our students have to say and to allow them to follow their passions, I would have told him that he has to write memoirs because that is what we are all working on and it is my job to help him to be a better writer in a variety of genres. That is what I would have told him if I hadn’t already, very boldly said on this very blog that I was going to be a different kind of teacher this year.

So I knew I shouldn’t say what I thought about saying, but I honestly didn’t know what I should say.  So I was honest and I told him that I was going to have to think about what he just said. And he spent the rest of our writing time, staring sadly at his paper. That night, I wrote his mom an email, just letting her know what had gone on and telling her that I was going to find a way to honor his voice and his passions, but I just wasn’t sure how yet.

His mom wrote back such a beautiful email about how her son was coming off a fairly bad school year. He had spent a year feeling as if his gifts weren’t valued in the school setting. She explained how creative he is and how imaginative he is and how worried she is that her son has started to hate school. She spoke of the many gifts that she sees in her child and how she just hopes that he can find a way to use these gifts at school. She also told me that she spoke to her son and they brainstormed a list of story ideas together for our memoir unit because he told her that he was just upset that he had disappointed me.

I cried.

And then I thought about what I could do to help this boy love to learn again. And I thought about what everyone has said about Google and about 20% Time and Genius Hour and Passion Projects.  The truth is, these are not things that I have been able to work into my classroom yet. I am just not there yet. I brought on a whole lot of new this year and I needed to get my feet wet a bit before I moved over to Genius Hour. But as I thought about the concept, I thought about how perfect it was for this student.

I do believe that it is important for students to learn how to write the stories of their lives.  I believe that if we are to tell our students that their lives have value, we also need to help them learn how to share the stories of their lives with others in a meaningful and powerful way.  So I want him to learn these lessons. I want him to learn how to write true stories from his life because it is a simple way for this middle child of SEVEN siblings to feel heard and valued and that is important to me. So I want him to write these stories with the rest of us.

But there is also space in our writing workshop for him to follow his passions and write what he loves.  Of course there is room for both.  There has to be room for both.  And so, Fiction Fridays was born.  This is something that I will allow all of my students to take advantage of eventually. But for now, this is just for him.  Every Friday, he will get to write a part of his fiction story and publish it to his blog.  He will be in charge. I will stay out of his way and just let him write. I will not correct his spelling or his grammar or tell him what he should change or add (unless he asks for my help). I will just let him write.

Last week, I presented this plan to him and his face instantly lit up. He smiled in a way that made me certain that I had gone in the right direction. And after he knew about Fiction Fridays, he was infinitely more willing to work on his memoir every other day of the week. He was even able to weave his creativity right into the writing of his true life story. It was beautiful. And when we got to Friday, he had time to begin his newest fiction story. He wrote about a Golem.  It was only a few lines, but he was happier during those moments of writing than I had seen him in all the first days of school combined. And when he published it to his blog post, he was just so happy. And so proud. And he was, in every single sense of the word, a writer.

And when I reached out to the lovely, lovely people on Twitter to possibly read and comment on his writing, they did. So beautifully. I would say that they have no idea what their comments are going to mean to my one student, but that would be unfair.  Of course they know what their comments will mean. That’s why they wrote them.  Because they are good and kind and they know what their feedback will do for this child. And I thank them from a very, very deep place.

So already, this boy, this one student of mine, has taught me so much about being a teacher. He has taught me what can happen when you allow a child’s voice to be heard in the classroom and what can happen when you step aside and let a child lead. I am so grateful to him and what he has taught me and I cannot wait to see what else he will show me this year.

This one student of mine. He is a special, special kid.

If you might be interested in checking out his writing and perhaps even leaving a comment, you can find the first installment of his story here: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzPMClass/8af761eb-7605-4f28-8b60-c36868c495fb/not-hump-day/

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