After surveying the room for just a moment, I quietly decided the most accurate word to describe this group of sixth graders was ‘busy.’ For two weeks now, these sixth graders had been investigating the question of whether or not zoos were, indeed, worthy of public funding. In other words, are zoos really good for animals? An argument piece. Twenty-four writers leaned into their outmoded Dell computer screens, some of them looking as if they were searching to learn the meaning of life itself. A few typed feverishly, while others just stared, heads in hands covering their temples, contemplating a partially finished draft. It looked like some of them, too, were perhaps hoping for divine inspiration to animate their fingers in order to produce much-needed revisions.
Clutching my demonstration notebook close, I settled into a chair next to Scott. Immediately I noticed his screen looked a little different than everyone else’s. At first glance, his draft resembled a series of rainbows, with colors painted over his words like the streaks of tempera my daughter Lexi loves to fashion across paper in art class. Leaning closer to Scott’s screen, I asked, “So, how’s it going with your writing? What can you tell me about all these colors?”
Stretching his arms in the air and leaning back in his chair, Scott informed me with great confidence, “Well, I’m making sure I have enough evidence.”
I peered closer, squinching my face in an effort to better read his words and study the efficacy of this new highlighting strategy. Scanning each of the three rainbows adorning Scott’s draft, I searched for quotation marks, statistical facts, expert opinion, explanations or definitions… Anything that resembled “evidence.” There were none of these things. Turning my head from the screen to face the writer, I also noticed there were no texts visible anywhere in his writing space. No articles, charts, books, notes…nothing. Let’s probe a little more, I thought. “Can you say more about that, Scott?”
“Well,” he began, “I am making sure I have at least three pieces of evidence for each of my three reasons. That’s what the colors are for.” Ah, that’s what the rainbows are for. Got it. However, what he was adding was unfortunately not “evidence,” but more of his opinion. I thought I might have my teaching point here.
I moved this conference forward by paying him a compliment on the clarity of his claim and reasons. “Look how strong your reasons are, how separate!” I gushed at the end of my compliment. “Now Scott, may I offer you a tip?”
Scott looked at me and nodded. I proceeded to explain that the word evidence, typically in this type of writing, often means proof offered from a printed text. I directed him back to the notes I knew he had taken; and after explaining with an example in a mentor text how this might look, Scott was able to successfully incorporate a quote he had pulled regarding the confining nature of zoo animal enclosures.
As I left that day, I was struck by one particular aspect of this conference. I knew what I taught Scott today was not the first time he had “learned” the concept of text evidence. Well, more precisely put, it was probably not the first time he had been “taught” that concept. And so I suppose it could be argued that he was just not “following directions.” But I think there is something more to be learned here; and that is that what’s “obvious” to us is just not always obvious to kids. For whatever reason. So we must remember that just because we “taught it” doesn’t mean they “learned it.”
A cherished mentor once taught me, “People learn through frequency, repetition, and duration.” And I would assert that that means kids, too.