When a Writer Growls: 4 Questions for Helping Resistant Writers

I used to be the proud mother of this beautiful beast:

Beaumont Maguire, an exceptional example of a St. Bernard (his vet said it, not me)

He crossed the rainbow bridge a few years ago, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately because I have some writers who remind me of him. Before you get offended on their behalf (She’s comparing children to a dog?!), I need to stress that my love for my dog makes this a high, high compliment.

Back off, Lady.


The thing about Beaumont was that he wasn’t always pleasant. He was a little growly. If you got up in his face, you’d hear a low, warning grumble coming from the back of his throat. He never bit anyone or snapped, but he really had to trust you to warm up to you.

For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of doing MTSS (multi-tiered system of support) literacy support work with the general education students in my school for half of my day.  We’ve identified students who are struggling in the regular curriculum and work with their teachers to fill in skill gaps as necessary through one on one work or small group instruction.  It means I’ve had lots of opportunities to work with some growly, resistant writers lately.

Many times, helping a student begin is not about the student at all–it’s about the curriculum and the need for that student to have some choice and see relevance in the writing. We can’t always control curriculum, though, and sometimes feel hemmed in by state or district curriculum requirements. We can’t control what is going on in our students’ lives outside our rooms, either. Sometimes they have so many other things impacting their daily lives that writing in our rooms just isn’t something they value.

So what can we do? I think it all starts with talk. 

Here are 4 questions that help me get those students going.

What are you doing after school/this weekend?

I know, I know. Groundbreaking, right?  Most teachers naturally try to connect with their students by asking about their lives outside of school.  However, I’ve found that when I’m working with a student who has fallen behind, I am tempted to skip the small talk and jump right to the work.

I want to make to-do lists of missing assignments, have serious talks about attitude or effort, or at the very least jump directly to the writing.  While all of these things might feel like the most efficient approach, they rarely work. If somebody is growling, you need to approach slowly. What are you doing this weekend? What did you have for lunch? How was your baseball game?

In my rush to get the work done or the writing started, I am tempted to ignore that my resistant students need me to slow down and get to know them. That is so hard for me sometimes– especially when the student I’m trying to connect with is actively resisting my efforts to connect– but I’m learning that it is time well spent. 

Can I write while you talk?

Even if a student is willing to engage in talk with me, he might still be resistant to engage in writing because he can’t see a way to begin. I like to ask students if I can take notes while they talk because often they have great seeds of ideas or even well-developed ones that they just don’t have to confidence to put down on paper. If I take notes while a student talks, suddenly the page is full of text and the student has lots of material with which he can work. The overwhelming white screen or blank page is full.

Sometimes, after 10 minutes of talking and note-taking, we can go back through my notes and talk through how the student might reorganize them or develop parts of them more. Other times, we can go through the notes and I can use them to ask additional questions so the student can add more details or deepen his thinking.

What can you commit to doing on your own?

Once a writer has a way in and is started, though, you have to let them be a little independent. It’s just not feasible to sit with one writer when you have a class of 30 that need your attention. And, writers need time to process and think on their own.  I have found, though, that some of my less eager writers are also the ones less likely to keep going when I walk away. When I ask them to commit to a small chunk of work–finishing a specific description, adding two pieces of evidence, providing analysis for a particular claim–they are more likely to stay on track.  Writing a whole essay can be pretty overwhelming, but asking a writer to work on something in little chunks provides opportunities for me to check back in and offer additional support.

Do you realize how far you’ve come?!

And when you check in on those small chunks, you have a chance to celebrate the small victories. Many students who have a hard time with writing lack confidence and simply asking them to recognize how far they’ve come can keep them moving. A resistant writer excited about an idea? Celebrate.  A student with two well developed paragraphs? Celebrate. This one is hard for me sometimes because my brain is screaming, “Okay! Now MOVE IT MOVE IT! You’re still waaaaay behind the rest of the class!”  I’ve learned to keep that voice to myself and focus on what is done and what my end goal is. Do I want the writer to eventually finish or give up now because he’s overwhelmed? Writing is hard for so many kids and if we don’t acknowledge that struggle, we risk having them give up.

beaumont writingThough it’s tempting to give growly writers space and wait for them to approach us, I think we can approach cautiously and find ways to draw them in to the writing. It doesn’t always work, but most growly writers don’t really want to growl. They just need us to give them some other options.


What do you do to help your resistant writers begin and sustain writing? I’d love to hear what works in your classroom in the comments below or on Twitter @TeacherHattie

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