How can we help students become better writers?

Image courtesy of The Pop Project.

The woman reclined in her desk chair and held the tip of her pencil to her mouth like a cigarette; she could have been in some smoke-filled bar, coughing drink orders to some bartender. Instead, the teacher barked out math problems for the unfortunate souls lined up against the chalkboard.

It was the spring of my fourth grade year and I wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire when it came to math. I enjoyed reading and writing but numbers and symbols were completely foreign to me. So my teacher and parents decided it was best that I go to tutoring, which was held after school in the 6th grade hall.

Now, this teacher could have been a saint for all I knew, respected and loved by students throughout the school. But for that particular afternoon in the spring of 1986, “Mrs. Mean” was a complete and total nightmare to me. And it’s a nightmare that reoccurred throughout college and even into Graduate school.

“Mr. Cortez can you please go up to the chalkboard?” she exhaled in a bother, as if my mere presence annoyed her.

I slowly made my way up to join the rest of the kids already working on math problems at the board. Mrs. Mean shouted one for me to work on. But I had no idea what she was talking about. For some reason she thought I was older and had given me a 6th grade level math problem to solve.

“He’s only in fourth grade,” one of the students at the board explained to the teacher. “He hasn’t learned this yet.”

Mrs. Mean was not interested in excuses; she simply wanted results and kept pressing me to attempt the problem.

“Come on, you have a brain! Start using it!” she yelled.

I didn’t know what to do. I grasped the piece of chalk and pleaded for some Divine power to guide my hand along the board and deliver the correct answer. But there’d be no miracles that afternoon, only my own tears. I dropped the chalk, grabbed my backpack and bolted out of the classroom as fast as I could, avoiding eye contact with everyone and ignoring Mrs. Mean’s threats of telling the principal.

This is still a vivid memory for me 30 years later. And ever since that day I have avoided math like The Plague. I struggled throughout high school and made sure that my college degree plan would have as little math as possible. In my mind’s eye, I’m still that 10-year-old at the chalkboard when it comes to the subject.

I recall this story because I have had the good fortune of visiting many, many schools over the years in support of my children’s books. And I especially enjoy visiting fourth grade students because, for those in Texas, this is the grade they take the writing portion of the state-mandated test. At the last two schools I recently visited, Lancaster and Scotsdale Elementary Schools in the Ysleta Independent School District (El Paso, Texas), I had the opportunity to discuss the state writing exam with fourth grade students.

“How many of you are scared of the writing?” I asked at both schools.

Almost in unison, I saw a sea of hands shoot up in the air.

“How many of you are afraid of the word, ‘test?’” I followed.

Even more hands shot up.

Maybe we’re putting too much pressure on these kids when it comes to writing. Of course, I can go into a whole diatribe about the pitfalls of standardized testing, teaching to the test, etc. But specifically when it comes to the writing portion of these standardized tests, fourth graders (and their teachers) are under added scrutiny.

What if we got rid of the word “test?” That could be a starting point. But as I thought harder about the topic on my way to Scotsdale Elementary School, I started thinking about the ways kids are already writing. They’re texting, their using Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter. What if we figured out a way to marry the two concepts? Thinking out loud here, but what if kids had to work on their writing prompts in the form of a social post?

Twitter, for example, teaches us to get to the point in 140 characters or less. That’s why I think that Twitter was indirectly built for stand up comics – it’s the perfect platform for them to deliver a good one-liner within the given confines.

I’m not an expert; I know what works for me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to other ideas. So why don’t we use this platform to start generating them?

How are you engaging your students and helping them become better writers? How are we building their confidence as they go about taking these standardized tests?

More importantly, how can we eliminate the nightmare scenario for them and make writing fun – for this school year and beyond?

Continue this discussion on Twitter @phillipdcortez or in the comments below.



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