“The Freak” Class Culture and Writing

 

My best teachers were always English Teachers. In 8th grade, Ms. Flaum handed me back an essay without any corrections on it. She said she wasn’t grading it until I actually wrote it like I talk in class. As she said, she wanted my personality in it. I’d come to later find out that those in the education field call that “voice”.

In 9th and 10th grade, I had Mr. Carulli, probably the man most responsible for me wanting to get into the field. He challenged us with weekly writing assignments. They ranged from the academic, analytical pieces to the personal narratives. He encouraged all of us to write. He was the one who first told me that every single word you write matters.

In college, my two best professors were from the English Department. Freshman year, Dr. Valvolizza restored my confidence in the idea that I had something to offer. For the rest of my college career, Dr. Nowak would be a constant driving force, reinforcing the belief that academic writing could be fueled by passion and voice. He would encourage me to write my senior thesis about baseball and the Quest of the Holy Grail.

These four teachers evidently did make an impact on my life as I can still remember their words almost 30 years later.

I couldn’t tell you much about the individual, daily lessons of their classes. I’m sure that they were great and I learned quite a bit, but I can tell you that they inspired me to follow a passion, to write in a way that worked for me, and that while it is important to know the rules, it is just as important to know the rules you can break.

Words matter. The story matters. My voice matters.

I had almost lost that feeling during my senior year of high school. Back then, there wasn’t the million honors and advanced placement options that schools, thankfully, offer today. I was a solid, yet unspectacular performer in a regular class. But, senior year I had the idea that I wanted to take the advanced placement class. I loved English. I thought I had a talent for writing and wanted to actually learn more.

It was a fight to get in. I think my Mom, the real Beverly Goldberg, had to yell at someone to let me take the class. That’s usually how things worked back then.

The teacher didn’t like that I was there. And, she had no problems telling me how to write. The first paper I handed in was given back to me in crimson. It was hard to see what I actually wrote. She crossed out every sentence and rewrote each one for me. When I asked her what made it so bad, she told me that I should follow her suggestions to be a better writer.

That wasn’t helpful.

Next paper…same thing…crimson

Third time? Yup, same thing…a color deeper than crimson.

So, I finally got “smart”. I wrote the paper exactly how she wanted it. It was all her jargon. I followed her “outline for success”. The cliche, “In literature as in life…” started every one of my essays for that class because that’s how she wanted them to start.

My grades went up.

I was smart again.

The message was loud and clear: conform and I’ll get rewarded. The whole class was following along. Actually, they knew from the first day, which is probably why they were AP students without having to fight to get into the course. The culture of the class was conforming to what she wanted. There was no thought. There was no new techniques to try in writing.

My favorite class became the one I hated going to. Luckily, those Professors at Dominican College changed all of that. My favorite teachers were the ones who saw me as an individual. They never looked at me with a label or tried to get me to conform. They would challenge my thinking; they would ask my to try different things. But, they never asked me to be like them because they “knew better than me.” Most importantly, they took the time to see who I was and embraced what I did well; they never harped on my weaknesses.

Creating A Classroom Culture For Real Writing

Today’s students get saddled with a lot of labels. This generation is portrayed as soft. They are supposedly incapable of paying attention for longer than a couple of minutes. Phones and devices are their obsession. They have no drive or “grit” as education people like to say. They are apathetic and have zero direction.

The sad part is that many of them buy into it. They only see the negative that society puts on them. It is tradition that media portrays youth that way. My generation was dumb because of video games. We heard things like that all of the time in school. Today, most kids hear the labels as they walk into every class. Those labels lead to a school culture of compliance: “do it how I would do it and you’ll get a good grade”. That type of thinking is what is commonly referred to as “teaching to the middle”.

It is imperative for schools to create a culture that allows today’s students to amplify their strengths, not conform to the expectation. Conformity leads to mediocrity and stagnation. The best, most successful people in the world have magnified their strengths. Schools must create that type of culture.

For the English classroom, this is even more important. A culture of writing experimentation and freedom must be established if we are going to prepare the next generation of communicators and writers.

Writing is the ability to communicate thoughts and stories. Too often, schools set up models that students are forced to comply with. They aren’t challenged to think differently or to play with different types of writing. They aren’t given the opportunities to fail with something and go back and try something else. These are things that happen in the real world, but most have the idea that writing instruction is about formulas and writing for academic, formulaic purposes.

Writing and communication is much more than that.

But, to get there, English Teachers must establish a classroom culture that not only allows students to try different things, but to embrace their strengths. Students must feel safe enough that they will “put themselves out there” in a writing assignment. Every piece of writing is a part of the person who wrote it; it is difficult to hit the publish button, or in a student’s case, turn it in. It is difficult to be judged. I feel that at 42 years old; imagine a teenager’s fear of having his/her thoughts judged by a person of authority. Without an environment where those fears are minimized, the real writing we want our students to do cannot happen.

That message crystallized to me when I attended David Rendell’s presentation at the ASCD Conference in Anaheim, California in 2017. Rendell is the author of the book, The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness By Flaunting Weakness.  Rendell’s message is simple, yet profound.

For every perceived weakness, there is a corresponding strength.

As I sat and listened to Rendell’s presentation, I thought back to my days as a student. The teachers who made the biggest impact on me were the ones who allowed me to write with voice, who worked with my penchant for doing things at the last minute, and who supported my last minutes of inspiration and change of course. They supported those as strengths rather than make me feel dumb or lesser than other students in the class. I still had to hand things in on time and fulfill requirements, but I was encouraged to find my own way. They were the opposite of the teacher I had in AP.

If we brought those values to our classrooms on a daily basis, we would see much happier and much more productive students. That happiness and productivity would then turn into a passion for learning. Classrooms can be a place for experimentation and creativity. They would become true classrooms to prepare students for a future that will require them to innovate, create, and problem solve.

Bringing “The Freak” Culture To Writing

After seeing the presentation and then having “The Admin” buy the book for me, I wanted to bring this into the classroom. I had a few reasons. First, I wanted kids to get a different view of themselves. They are told far too often about their perceived flaws. They need to be given the tools to amplify their strengths.

Second, I wanted them to bring that attitude into their writing. Some kids are really good with narrative techniques. Some are really good with description. Some are poetic. Some can break down a problem to its basic level. Some can argue like a pro. Some have an innate ability to create pathos. Those strengths can be used in every type of writing, even the most difficult academic papers. It’s all about amplifying their writing strengths. And, it’s all about us giving them the canvas to try it all.

So, on the second day of school this year, I began class by telling them my three weaknesses. For the record, they are procrastination, not really liking the small details of a process, and not doing well with constantly being told what to do.

Almost all my teachers, save for those special four, got on me for my procrastination. I was always asked, “imagine if you took the time to plan things out?” Supposedly, my work would be so much better.

After the explanation of my flaws, I posted this prompt on Mentimeter: What are some of your personal traits that you consider as weakness?

As a side note, Mentimeter is a great site with a free option that allows for anonymous feedback from students in a variety of ways. It’s a quick, easy way to integrate technology into a lesson that allows for a variety of visual output. For this lesson, I chose the word cloud. Students couldn’t see who was writing what, but as they submitted their answers, they saw the words appear on the screen. Some words were getting larger; those were the words that more people wrote (the more frequent answers). The results were enlightening. They had a visual of their shared, perceived weaknesses.

A lot of words for procrastination aside, there is a whole lot of honesty here for 10th graders
How many times a day do they hear this about themselves?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, we read an excerpt from Rendell’s book. For every weakness, there is a corresponding strength. They were skeptical. They have never been told that their weaknesses weren’t really weaknesses. Because of that, they weren’t buying it.

“Armida, how is procrastination a strength?”

“Easy. I do my best work when there is a deadline. Nothing gets me more creative than knowing that I have to get something done, especially when I am writing.”

I went on to explain the opposites of my “weaknesses”. I don’t like the small details, but I am really good at creating a big picture. I have big ideas for big initiatives. Many people don’t have that. But, in order for me to capitalize on that strength, I have to surround myself with people who are good with small details. I told them that it’s why I made sure I had a great co-advisor (who is also amazing with big ideas) when I decided to be an advisor for our school’s National Honor Society. She’s great at everything I am not; she schedules the important details, gives me some of those tasks, and I get to concentrate on the big events.

As for not being constantly told what to do…I am a teacher. I close my door every day and get to “do my thing.” I have regulations and curriculum, but I get to decide how to make that all happen. I didn’t choose a job that has a step by step handbook for every minute of the day. I would be awful at that job.

They started to see the point. A couple asked about their weaknesses and what I would say is the corresponding strength. Fortunately, Rendell has a big chart in his book with hundreds of characteristics.

We then transitioned this into writing. I tell them I want them to do what they feel they are best at. There are no word limits, page limits, paragraph limits. There is simply the idea of telling a story, making an argument, or explaining a concept in their best, most impactful way. That is how we will approach everything we write.

With that in mind, they get their first writer’s notebook topic: What are your corresponding strengths to those weaknesses? What can you do do amplify them?

The result is getting responses like this:

I am a fearful person. This fear wraps its arms around my brain, preventing me from what I am able to do…It is my strength. Fear is what makes me stronger. Fear establishes boundaries. It aids in navigating risk. Fear makes me intelligent. When I face my fear and the end result isn’t what I was expecting, I become smarter. Fear makes me courageous. When I face one of my fears head on, I become more courageous. My fear makes me resilient. As I focus my fear as a source of personal strength I become stronger. My fear motivates me. When I face fear, I want to overcome it. This desire to succeed and push past my fear inspires me to do whatever I was scared to do. My fear is not my weakness. My fear is my strength which motivates me and helps me to become a better person.

Or this:

Am I my strongest when I’m being obstinate, because I’m persistent? While I wouldn’t brag about being stubborn, it’s a quality that people only see from me when I know what is best, as my anxiety of needing to succeed causes me to vie for an idea (mine) that I know will work.  I’m also obstinate in my views;  I have my set of morals and opinions that I’m unwilling to change.  I don’t view that as a bad thing, because it demonstrates I’m willing to stand up for what I believe in and stay true to myself, something that is difficult with society pressuring you to be something or someone other than yourself.

That’s not too shabby for 10th graders, right? Those are just excerpts from two students’ pieces. And, there are so many more. Each response had a unique voice. Some structured their responses differently, both visually and for content.

That translates into getting 90 different narrative pieces. That means getting research papers with voice, passion, and unique formatting. Their attempts aren’t always successful and sometimes require more revision, and, sometimes, even a complete redo. But, they are thinking. They are working. They are creating. And, they are doing all of this being true to themselves and their strengths; they are not conforming.

The English Teacher’s Job

This can be overwhelming. Embracing every student’s uniqueness isn’t as easy as setting up rows, telling students what to fill in, and having them spit back the content from your lecture or your outline of expectations for an essay. But, there are a few, simple ways to make this manageable.

  1. Be Positive. It’s the most simple advice. Kids are surrounded by negativity most of the time. Let your classroom be that time when they can feel good about themselves. If kids know that you’re all in, they are more likely to be all in. They’ll take more chances with their writing and go more deeply because they aren’t afraid of how you’ll react. This isn’t a perfect thing; I have my cranky days. We all do. But, kids are good with that when you set this positive tone in the room.
  2. Set long term deadlines. This is for my fellow procrastinators, but it is also for the kids who thrive on structure. Kids need time to process and get things done. The “it’s due tomorrow” type of homework doesn’t spur thought or creativity. But, giving kids time to write or research an idea will lead to better writing. The procrastinator may wait until the last minute to actually do it (I do), but he/she will be thinking about it leading up to the deadline. He/She is just waiting for the burst of inspiration. The structured kid will work methodically, ask for feedback often, and appreciate knowing the end date.
  3. Give Constant Feedback. This is the key to writing instruction and for creating that safe, “freak” writing culture. Even the procrastinators want feedback. They may have little on the page, but they have ideas in their heads. The conversations you have with them and questions you ask them while they are procrastinating will lead to a better writing piece. The structured kids will have more concrete questions and can revise more efficiently. The questions you ask them will inspire more details. The resistant writers have the most to gain from this type of environment. They have to know that your daily conversations are meant to generate ideas, not judge their thoughts. Meeting/conferencing  with kids daily allows for the exchange of ideas and gives kids an outlet and permission to think.
  4. Don’t Give Them The Answer. It’s really hard to watch a kid struggle with a piece of writing. It’s frustrating as a teacher when we could do what many do: write the example sentence for them. While it gets rid of the short term problem, it doesn’t solve the bigger one: they never thought for themselves. It’s why students will seemingly write well in classrooms, but struggle on exams. Without being made to think it out, that skill is underdeveloped. Question kids so they have to answer and experiment with their writing.
  5. Value The Risk Taking. All of this may have come off as idealistic. The reality is that kids will struggle with this. They will often struggle. They will struggle more than often. Much of what they write won’t be good at first. If we fail them for that or don’t allow for revision, we have told them that thinking isn’t valued. We taught them that trying something with writing isn’t as important as doing it in a certain way. All writers go through multiple drafts. Why shouldn’t students? It is the only way they can learn their strengths, develop their strengths, and effectively exploit their stegnths.

That’s all pretty difficult to master; I am still learning how to balance all of that. Some days, I am good. Others, I am the worst teacher ever. Remember, I’m not big on the minor details so there are days of failure. But, the big idea is this: our primary job as writing teachers is to have students communicate their perspective as effectively as possible. In order to do that, writers must come to know their strengths and amplify those strengths.

That big idea transcends writing instruction; as teachers we must develop a sense of identity in students that allows them to recognize their strengths rather than harp on their perceived weaknesses. If we can do that, they can develop those unique strengths and be better prepared for the “real” world that awaits. They’ll enter it with a better sense of self and with the ability to think and communicate more effectively.

And, before all of that, maybe they’ll feel like they can be themselves in an AP class.

Author: Gary Armida

Has the privilege of being Em's Dad. There are a few other titles, but "Dad" is the only one that makes some sense.