There’s a saying a lot of students at my school use. If something unfortunate happens that they want to shake off— they’re having a bad day, they drop their iPad on the floor, they accidentally bump into someone on the way into class— you might hear them say it.
When I first heard the expression, I laughed hysterically. But it has slowly wormed its way into my own speech, and one of my teacher friends and I use it often in jest (shout out to you, Ms. Balla!). I never thought of it as more than some silly slang until I actually found myself seriously saying it to myself during class the other day. It honestly really helped me out, and I got to thinking that I wish I would have told myself this more often as a first year teacher.
So, from the wise words of my students, I present to you…
First Year Writing Teacher Tip #4: It’ll buff.
So here’s how this little saying helped me out the other day in the classroom:
It was Friday, and my students had just gotten back from lunch. We had been working with three different mentor texts throughout the week, each of them a past winner in the New York Times student editorial contest (see my last post for more information about this unit). I wanted students to think about choices the writers of the mentor texts made when it came to the structure of their pieces.
I put some directions on the board for them to work in groups to cut apart the mentor text into what they felt were the different sections of the writing. Then, they were to label each section— give it a clever name that described the purpose of that section of writing. Along with the label, they were to provide an explanation of what that piece of the writing was doing.
Out of the five groups that completed the activity, one hit the nail on the head and did exactly what I wanted them to do. Here is their finished product:
As you can see, this group cut their mentor text apart, provided a name for each section, and described what’s happening in each section. They kept the original order of the mentor text so they could see how it progresses from one section to the next.
That’s not what happened with the other four groups, however. Take a look at another group’s finished product:
They took a completely different approach to what the first group did. Instead of moving through the piece chronologically, this group decided to re-arrange the sections of the mentor text and categorize them by purpose. They have sections with excerpts they believed fell into the categories of “Setting the Mood,” “Facts,” “Straight to the Point,” and “How to Help.”
When I first saw what this group was doing, it gave me pause. Afterall, this wasn’t really what I was wanting them to do in this activity. It wasn’t finished yet, so I asked a few questions to get them to explain their thinking to me. As they talked, I realized they were able to tell me the purpose of each paragraph. Not only that, but they explained why they believe the author made these choices.
I could have had them restart the assignment and do it the way I had envisioned. This is probably what I would have done as a first year teacher. However, I ended up telling myself It’ll buff, and here’s why: I reminded myself the goal of the activity was to get students to analyze structure choices in the mentor texts. This is what they were doing. Their product didn’t look like I thought it would, but they still ended up in the place I wanted them at the end of the lesson. Making them re-start probably would have resulted in some eye-rolls and a half-hearted effort to “just get it done and move on” (remember, it was after lunch on a Friday). But they were already engaged and thinking the way I wanted them to when I approached them. I didn’t want to break their stride, so I left them alone.
As teachers, we’re faced with so many decisions every day. It takes time and experience to know when to pick a battle and when to tell yourself that it’ll just have to buff. I’m in my 10th year, and I still don’t always make the right decisions at the right moments. However, what I know now that I didn’t know as a newbie is that I do have the option to let something in my lesson slide by in a way I had not intended. In the past, I probably would have thought doing so made me lazy or that it meant the lesson had failed. But what we have to realize is that students’ brains work in a lot of different ways, especially when they’re writing. We’re not in control of that. What we are in control of is how we decide to respond to them once we see their minds at work.
So if it’s not already there, I invite you to add It’ll buff to your teaching vocabulary (even if it’s only rhetorical). Know that you have the power to make the decision to allow things to go off course. Be firm and confident in your goals for your students and be flexible about how they arrive. And also know that some of the best thinking that happens in a classroom is when something doesn’t go as planned.
Do you have an example of a time when you allowed students to deviate from your instructions? Tell me about it on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!
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