Settling in a chair next to Emma, I trained my eyes on the SmartBoard. Projected on the screen were sentence frames for crafting claims for an eighth grade literary essay. After demonstrating a way to harness the sentences frames, the teacher was now asking students to try out one of the frames themselves to create a claim. Turning my attention back to Emma, I watched as she put the tip of her pencil to a page in her writer’s notebook (always a glorious sight in my book) and began jotting something, her face knotted into a look of focus and concentration.
After recapping the lesson, the teacher then requested that her writers all chat with their writing partners about setting a goal for themselves for writing time. Emma had finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and I listened as she voiced her goal to her partner. She wanted to create a solid claim on which she could build an author’s craft essay. Great. Perfect goal. From her conversation with her partner, I could tell she wanted specifically to write about the symbolism of the mockingbird, but wasn’t quite sure how.
“May I see what you have so far, Emma?” I asked. I had known Emma from years before as a sixth grader. Although I didn’t get to know her well, due to the fact I am the reading consultant for my building and not in a classroom teacher position, I knew her as a strong reader and a deep thinker. As I leaned over to read her draft claim, I could see that she was trying to write something about the symbolism of the mockingbird, an innocent bird that is yet still hunted by society (cue the connection to the current political atmosphere).
“I want to say something about how society expects people to be a certain way,” she explained. Pressing her lips together, she paused. “I think in this book the author shows that society just sees people in narrow ways, and people are sort of…” she trailed off. “I’m not sure what I want to say,” she said, returning her gaze to her notebook.
What struck me in that moment was the level of sophistication, task persistence, and deep thinking this girl was grasping for. My thoughts instantly began to coalesce around an important consideration: what level of support ought I provide? I knew she was struggling, and yet I also knew with the right level of support she could craft the claim she really wanted. “Emma, may I show you how another writer wrote about symbolism?” I offered. Emma leaned over her desk, as I brought out another student’s essay. We studied a mentor essay I had brought with me, and she was able to see that sometimes writers can show how one concept, like ‘hope’ or ‘innocence’, is brought to light through different craft moves. “Oh, I see,” she said. After a moment of silent thinking, her pencil was down again, moving swiftly across the snowy white paper.
Her next attempt proved a little better, but again, I was unsure of the next step in this conference.
I want to stress here that this writing conference was hard for me. I struggled. What was the right level of support for this advanced writer and thinker? I kept asking myself. How do I teach this writer and not just “fix” her writing?
Eventually, she settled on a draft claim she felt pretty good about, and the bell rang. I walked away with two thoughts that day. One: how often are teachers able to devote energy to kids like Emma? When the standardized testing culture dictates that each student jump over this bar, do kids like Emma lose out? After all, she’s over the bar. Way over. So for us, it is easy to just let those kids fend for themselves, right? She’ll be fine…won’t she? Two: providing the best and most appropriate level of support is a tricky process that never seems to fit neatly into any one box. How did I do with Emma? I don’t know, honestly. But she did thank me. Perhaps she learned something. I know I did.