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Doing the Project Yourself: Reflections on the Writer’s Craft

Portrait of a man in Cuba taken by an 11th grade student

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Lila Speaks


As of yesterday, it had been 13 weeks, or 55 school days, since school started. Yet it was the first time Lila spoke. I thought it was a miracle. Then it happened again today, on day 56 of the year.

I guess I should clarify. It is not that Lila has never said a word. She has just never raised her hand, read anything in front of her peers, performed during any oral presentations, or offered any input in group settings. She has twitches. They do not seem overly exaggerated to me, but if I were a ninth grader I would probably be just as self-conscious about them. It doesn’t help that when Lila is nervous, which happens when speaking in front of her peers, the twitches increase in frequency and severity.

We have made numerous plans, because her current excuse from all presentations is only temporary. The first plan required Lila to raise her hand once during a 9th grade conference and say the words, “I agree,” after someone else spoke. The next day she said, “I wanted to, but I couldn’t.” The many non-classmates in the group seemed to be an obstacle, so we made a new plan. Lila would raise her hand in class one time per day and say if she agreed or disagreed with another student. We agreed that this smaller audience of kids she knew was more realistic. Two weeks passed without a single hand raise. Her answer remained, “I wanted to, but I couldn’t.” In the third plan, we decided I would give Lila a question I would ask before class so that she could write down the answer and just read it. This plan showed promise, but did not work so well either.

Lila is not the only student I have with extreme trepidation when it comes to sharing with the class. I have taught 13-year-olds that could not read The Cat in the Hat, but I have never experienced a class with so many students so self-conscious about speaking or reading in front of others. When I ask for responses I hear the four or five gregarious students over and over, and when I ask specifically for others, I get red faces, silence and absolute refusal. Ironically, this is the year I decided to buckle down and really get my kids to interact more and critique each other’s work. Needless to say, it has been a tough sell to this particular group. We have been working on poetry for six weeks now, and it seems to be the perfect thing to share. But when I said taking part in a critique was a requirement, I swear I heard gasps similar to final breaths.

I decided I would to stick to my guns. Through tears, yelling, refusal, and whatever they threw at me, these kids would share some of their work. What I did decide to let the students control is how the critique was organized. I gave them a survey with three questions. The first asked them how they felt about sharing their work, with the scale ranging from “I enjoy it” all the way down to “It is the most terrible thing I can imagine.” I also asked what environment is most comfortable to share work: large, medium, small group or individual sharing. Lastly, the students chose if they would rather receive feedback aloud in a group, during one-on-one conferencing, or through written notes.

With surveys in hand, I put the kids in groups, noticing significant trends on who wanted what. Though there were kids who wanted as many people in an audience as possible to tell them what they thought aloud, a large portion of the students requested to do their critique sessions with between 5 and 10 peers. From here, there was a clear gender split. Boys most often wanted to receive feedback aloud and girls wanted to receive feedback via one-on-one conferencing or notes. Following this trend, I set the critique sessions up by gender. Here is where it gets amazing.

When things were split up by gender, every single one of the girls felt comfortable receiving feedback aloud in her small group, forget what she said on her survey. Lila not only offered a critique of each girl’s poems, but also read her poems in front of the group. She sought me out after class to say what a great experience it was for her, that it felt good to be heard.
The boy critique sessions had a very different, yet still positive feel. One group consisted of six boys who had asked for that environment and two that were only there to offer critiques, but not read work. One had chosen to do ten separate critiques and already completed them. The other refused to share his work with any peer, ever. We were still in negotiations. After the critique session, all of the boys commented on how good they felt about it. The student who had already completed his individual critiques lamented that he did not share in the small group. The boy who had refused to share said he would be willing to read in front of this group. That was Friday. On Monday we reassembled; it was the first time that this student had ever shared his work with any peers. Ever. That was day 54 of the school year.

That brings us back to Lila and her miracle. She spoke on day 54, in her critique session. She raised her hand in class on day 55 and told a student how much she enjoyed the flow of his poem. Today, day 56, she raised her hand in front of 47 of her peers, some of whom she does not know well, and offered insight into what makes for good and not-so-good writing. I have taken to calling her SuperLila. She just smiles.

It has always been my goal to teach my students to value the tough stuff and revel in the thrill of facing a difficult task. I want my students to learn that they should not limit themselves in life, that struggles must be seen as opportunities. The thrill of success in difficult situations has an addictive effect. Most of the time, my students experience this and one success leads to another. Yet, for some students, the usual baby steps are still too big. This time—in a process where I insisted that all students share, acknowledged their fears, and made the process as comfortable as possible—several students gained the confidence and freedom to speak in front of others.

For me, the most challenging part was managing the whole process. I did not facilitate all of the critique sessions personally, and relied on academic coaches and my teaching partner. What started as an experiment in differentiation turned into a reaffirmation of small schools, small classrooms, and the consistent presence of adult academic coaches. Continuing to provide the small critique session option to my students will inevitably require training students to run them. The logistics of that task seem daunting to me. For today, I am grateful to work at a place where a team of adults will be there on day 57 and beyond to help SuperLila and her peers choose not what makes them comfortable, but rather what is tough and, ultimately, rewarding.

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