What’s Saving My Life: Early Student Writing

“I’m crying in the middle of this Panera Bread” is a positive comment I write in margins more often than I expected I would when I began teaching. In fact, if I’m emoting enough to distract the other patrons in my favorite public spaces, it probably means I’m reading some great writing, the kind of writing that makes me look forward to more student writing–at least nine months more! What’s saving my life (or, more truthfully, what is “giving me life” right now) is student writing with abandon–the early drafts, freewrites, and get-to-know-you pieces that satisfy the formative data-gathering demands of my technical teacher brain while giving my sensitive teacher heart “all the feels.”

As previous posters have suggested, it’s so easy to get swept up into the business of a new school year–establishing daily routines, sharing expectations, starting first units–but I can build a better rapport with my students if our reading and writing begin with few parameters. The choices students make when many choices are available teach me so much! Take, for example, these free responses to summer reading from two of my seniors:

Throughout the vast body of Shakespeare’s work there are many morals to be found and lessons to be learned, but none of them have moved me in the way Puck’s monologue at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has. When I had first finished the play, I went back and read this monologue about four times over. I did this not in an attempt to decode the archaic English employed by Shakespeare, rather because the lines preached a lesson that goes mostly ignored nowadays. That lesson being that sometimes it’s okay to be ridiculous.

To say adolescence is an awkward time for people is akin to calling the sky blue, or kittens soft, or ice cold. There is simply no need to point out such an obvious fact. This awkwardness, however, is an interesting beast. One that encourages kids to build fine suits of armor around themselves, and around the armor a fortress, and around that fortress a moat with no bottom. People hide the awkwardness and in its place they raise stoic personas. Personas that are uncaring, unflinching, and most damning of all: serious.


The paragraph I chose to talk about connects back to Stielstra’s initial thought in the essay. At the beginning of the essay she talks about why she fried french fries. It was because she wasn’t 18 and couldn’t use the deli-style slicer that sliced roast beef at Arby’s. This thought led to contemplating how people determine ages for when kids can do certain things. “Snap – ten years old and you can shoot a gun. Snap – sixteen and you can drive. Snap – twenty-one and you know how many vodkas are too many vodkas?” It implies that at certain ages you have become old enough or responsible enough to handle life. That always terrifies me. As I grow up I’ll be expected to know things and do things on my own. In a way, Stielstra grows through the essay, which was helpful to watch. She falls in love, her parents get divorced, she struggles, but at the end of the day, twenty years later, she hasn’t found any special wisdom. That’s comforting to me. Age isn’t as important as it seems. Each year doesn’t bring certain levels of knowledge. Life does that.

I hadn’t required that my students read Shakespeare, nor had I required more from their writing about summer reading than to share what moved or engaged them in whichever play, essay, or poem they self selected. And then students hand me a meditation so vulnerable and unexpected about Puck’s monologue? Or some pondering about what really constitutes adulthood? I think there’s something in my eye…

As the seniors prepare for a second in-class analysis of the literature we’ve been studying, returning to the first essays from the writers above reminds me that so many good ideas and new perspectives are already in their marvelous minds. So my challenge becomes: how can I show students that reflective writing can also be analytical? That analytical writing is often best when it begins from a place of reflection?

It’s my challenge for the year to cultivate–rather than squelch–the voices I heard in August. Or the voices just starting to whisper in September! A few years ago, the thought of reading early drafts of freshman poems would make me cringe a bit, but it’s amazing what even a little time with a mentor text (and some great preparation in middle school can do). 

The smell of a new horse might be even better

Than the smell of a new car.


Clunk, clunk, clunk… the orange juice tumbled down the driveway into the darkness,


I like the sound of my dog hitting her head against the door to let her in,

and her reassuring chocolatey eyes,

but hate the thought of her hurting herself,

on the hard wooden door.

I had so very little to do with these lovely lines–and I love that!

Need some joy and inspiration (and formative feedback) from your student writers?

  • Skip a formal summer reading analysis and ask students to reflect on what passages caused the strongest reactions and why
  • Swap out the occasional notebook time for an index card response that’s easy to collect and read. Today, I asked students to give the essay we had just read a new title–so many good answers that demonstrated students’ creative thinking, writing, and analytical skills!
  • Use Google docs to peek at poems-in-the-making and compliment a favorite line
  • Instead of a get-to-know you survey, ask students to write a tour of their favorite spots in the city (I know my new town so much because of my students’ recommendations! And their favorite places taught me a lot about their values and passions)

So, what’s saving my life–besides the soothing silence of the Amtrak quiet car where I’m writing this post or the super-inspiring teacher communities on and offline that make me feel like Leslie Knope at the end of Parks & Rec when she tells a graduating class to “find your team”–are my students’ unsupervised, unaltered, mostly undirected words. The delight I’m taking in their writing now is both a reminder to let them guide our work throughout the year and a challenge to design lessons and assignments that encourage joyful, original, unhindered expression. And the fun I have writing grade-free comments and suggestions should be my model for all future feedback. When there’s a stack to look at and an internal deadline to meet, it can be easy to focus on the deficit. But we all have more fun when I recognize and emphasize what’s great about their work.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to grab a few more napkins. I think my allergies are acting up.

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