Tiara holds a pencil high above the conventional grip. Her pointer, middle, and ring finger wrap around to the front with a strained elasticity in their curvature. Every day I correct her grasp, and the moment I step away, she snaps back into her custom. When I reposition her fingers, they feel like soft clay, varnished with a moist layer of stress. I’ve started reprimanding her for her grip from across the room, because at this point, I know she is capable of self-monitoring and repositioning. “Tiara! You know how to hold a pencil correctly.” Alongside her pencil grip, she insists on a handful of stubborn writing habits. First, the only topic she writes about is riding the bus to school. Next, she only writes in blue crayola marker when given a choice of colors, and finally, the only labels she attaches to her pictures are the capital letters “FTP”. Regardless of the writing prompt, she takes her blue marker, draws a rectangle with two circular wheels, draws herself in the middle, and writes FTP. Thinking about this from a distance, her resistance is hilarious. In the moment, it is infuriating. And ultimately, it is unacceptable because it is blocking her development as a writer.
Tiara is one of a handful of students who is causing me to question the time, place, and delivery of teaching procedure to students. Students who repeatedly display the same writing habits that lack meaning, not because of a lack of skills, but some refusal that they are not articulating, are challenging my understanding of how to balance the conflicting interests of time and empowerment. She is part of a subset of students who I am in a power struggle with : a few boys always write about race cars; one girl writes a string of letters that aren’t attached to a picture and have no meaning; another boy continues to claim that his outlandish police chase tales are true. When I see these displays, out of impatience and fear of slipping time, I either reprimand students, or just given them a direction. “Tiara, don’t write about the bus today.” “Kristia, draw a picture before you write letters.” “Kendall, you’ve already written about racecars, pick something new.” However these what-to-do’s deflect the fears, disempowerment, and disconnect that their recurring habits could represent. Telling Krsitia not to write a string of letters and draw first, tells her what-to-do but doesn’t address the deeper issue that she doesn’t see her writing as a means of communicating her thoughts that she and other people can make meaning out of. I could tell Kendall not to draw and write about race cars again, but that doesn’t address the issue that he doesn’t feel empowered to write about topics he knows about. These are all moments when the “what to do” is easy to produce, but afterwards feels inappropriate, and ineffective.I contrast my discomfort to teaching writing procedures to this subset of students, to my ease and excitement of teaching procedures to a different subset of students. I have no problem teaching students who are above benchmark for this point in the year procedures. For my kindergarten students who are writing sentences, I happily remind them them to put a finger between each word, instead of stringing all their words together. I never worry that teaching them this procedure is undermining their understanding of the atomized meaning held on a word level within a sentence. Why is it that sometimes teaching procedure feels wholesome, and at other times draconian? With my students who have a wider set of writing skills, teaching them procedure feels collaborative. They seem excited to write in sentences and view me as a helper. I spoke to Tiara’s mother last week, asking her about the blue FTP, and her response was, “She is messing with you! You give her the same box every day to write in, so in her mind, she’s thinking, I’m gonna write the same thing if you keep giving me this same box.”
In her summative assessment, Tiara took her paper, and just wrote FTP in different sized letters all over it, in blue of course. I laughed when I brought it home to grade because I interpreted the meaning that she was putting into it as a string of expletives regarding my teaching. I would love to know the indignant meaning that might be behind the letters “FTP”. And yes of course I’ve asked Tiara, and every time her response varies. As I launch into a new writing unit tomorrow, in my conferences with students, I am going to be more mindful of to whom, when, and why I am teaching a given procedure in my conferences with students. Ultimately remembering that if it is a power struggle, the student almost always wins. Maybe that’s notion is the meaning encoded in blue “FTP.”
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.