Shulman, J. H., Colbert, J. A., ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, W. D., Far West Lab. for Educational Research and Development, S. C., & ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, E. O. (1988). The Intern Teacher Casebook.

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The Writing’s on the Wall: How Being Called a Whore Inspired Me to Seek Understanding

Ashlie Wells


Keywords: writing reluctance, student defiance, dysfunctional student behavior


Introduction and Context

I have been a high school educator since January 2006.  During my time in the classroom I have worked at two schools with similar student populations; however, one school was for one of the largest districts in the state, while the other was part of a charter system with only one high school in the district.


The event highlighted in this case report inspired my constant curiosity as to why students self-identify as bad writers,which has led to me to seek out an understanding as to why students are reluctant to write and how writing anxiety manifests.


This event took place in 2009 and resulted in a student choosing to vandalize my classroom instead of completing a writing task, and lead me to reflect on my teaching practices and how to help foster relationships with students.


Events, Actions, and Results

How did it get to this point?  Just minutes before Gary sat in his seat calmly chatting with his group.  We were writing a persuasive essay in class and it was the third day of instruction.  Today students were going to start the writing process for their selected topics. During the brainstorming process I could tell Gary was stressed as he kept opening and tightening his hands while he worked with his group.  His demeanor was otherwise calm and participatory.

I remembered back to the first week of class, when Gary told me he was not a good writer.  Since then we had written several poems, short stories, and alternate endings to texts, all of which were demanding writing tasks in their own right.  With pleasure Gary worked on each of these assignments and couldn’t wait to share his work with others. Even with positive feedback from his peers and myself, he still considered himself a bad writer, and even told me that these initial assignments weren’t really “writing.”


Now, when we were doing something that he considered “real writing,” Gary shut down.  I asked him several times to start writing and he would say that he would, but several minutes later he was still talking and making no attempt to write his essay.  The third time I asked him to start writing he lost it. He began screaming at me that he wasn’t disturbing anyone and that he wasn’t going to do an assignment that he already knew he would fail.

His face became a deep shade of red and his eyes began to glaze over, almost as if he was preparing to cry.  He pushed his chair away from the group and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind him.


He wasn’t even willing to try.  He would rather act out in anger and face possible disciplinary consequences than write a persuasive essay.  What was the difference between writing a story and writing an essay? Apparently, much more than I could imagine, and I never could have predicted how Gary would choose to repay me for trying to get him to write his essay.

At 6:45 a.m. the next day I stood at my classroom door staring at Gary’s attempt at writing an “essay.”  In thick, runny red spray paint I stared at the word “whore” tagged across my classroom door.


All I wanted to do was see him succeed, but he was determined to fail.  How could he be brave enough to write this on my door, but not brave enough to write a thesis sentence?

I never saw Gary again. He was arrested and expelled from school. I will never forget my experience with him and how I felt knowing that I’d failed him as his writing teacher.


Discussion

The experience with Gary made me more mindful of student reluctance toward writing. I began to structure my class with more creative types of writing assignments. My intention was to build up their confidence in their writing skills through these types of assignments that had fewer “rules” than academic writing in hopes that they would be more confident when it came time to write their essays. Students immediately showed interest in the creative assignments, and I found less resistance to academic writing tasks, especially after offering meaningful feedback on the pieces that students seemed more excited to complete.

Over the last 10 years I have found this approach to writing instruction to be more beneficial to my students, and I have never had to deal with another incident like the one with Gary. Maybe I’ve matured as an educator, or maybe the changes are actually working. Either way, I am forever changed as a teacher because of my experience with this student.


Writing anxiety and reluctance is an almost tangible factor when working with students who self-identify as bad writers. Students may manifest the stress of this anxiety emotionally as “sadness, anger, and fear,” while also manifesting physically as “cramps” and feelings of unwellness (Bayat, 2014).  These symptoms often result in students retreating from academically challenging writing tasks and seeking refuge in behaviors that may not be conducive to enhancing their own writing skills and abilities. Because students are “unlikely to be motivated to write for themselves,” writing anxiety can become visible when writing is mostly used as an “evaluation tool” (Boscolo & Hidi, 2007).  Sometimes educators must offer writing for the pleasure of writing without assigning a grade to the work in order to help students gain confidence in their writing ability without the fear of failure.


There is importance in understanding that “writing both shapes and reflects our sense of who we are in relation to each other and the world around us” (Yagelski, 2009). These relationships to others in the world directly feed into our self-efficacy and confidence in ourselves as writers.  I believe that my student had such low confidence in his writing abilities that his only coping mechanism was displaying dysfunctional behavior in order to hide his fear of the task I asked him to complete.


References

Bayat, N. (2014). The effect of the process writing approach on writing success and anxiety.

Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 14(3), 1133-1141.


Boscolo, P., & Hidi, S. (2007). The multiple meanings of motivation to write. In Studies in

Writing and Motivation (pp. 1-14). Howard House, UK: Emerald Group Publishing

Limited.


Yagelski, R. P. (2009). A thousand writers writing: Seeking change through the radical practice

of writing as a way of being. English Education, 42(1), 6-28.