Saturday, November 24, 2012

The only way you can be wrong is if you do nothing…

--> I did my student teaching in a predominately white, very well resourced, rural school district.  Many of the students lived in two-parent homes where there was a legacy of post-secondary education.  The majority of my students, even those from lower socio-economic families, carried a high degree of social capital.  The population that I currently teach (and have taught for the last four years) could not be more different on paper - almost entirely black, low SES, non-traditional or “unstable” family structure, and very minimal history of post-secondary or even secondary academic achievement. 

Though I had some experience working with urban schools in my undergrad (spending a month in the Boston public schools), I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be prepared for the challenges that would await me in Philadelphia.  Though there were many ways that this was true, I continue to be struck by the reality that in the classroom students are students.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that I discount the role that experiences, family life, SES, poverty, social & cultural capital and a host of other factors have on students. (After reading almost anything else I’ve written it should be pretty clear how I feel about the “no excuses” approach to education reform). The point I’m trying to make is that there are some student behaviors that you’re going to encounter if you’re teaching in rural Vermont, in a ritzy Main Line private school, or in North Philadelphia.

One of these behaviors that I’ve been struggling with recently is what I call:
 The Power of the Blank Page. 

The brilliant Margaret Atwood summed it up pretty well when she said: 
The fact is the blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them?  Will it be good enough?  Will I have to throw it out? The trick is to sit at the desk anyway, everyday.

Now, if a blank page can have this debilitating effect on a woman referred to as the voice of an entire age, imagine what it can do to a high school student, especially one who is just coming back to the classroom and hasn’t written anything for a teacher in over a year. 

If you’re a classroom teacher, what I’m describing here is probably something you’re all too familiar with.  However, the Power of the Blank Page is often overlooked, ignored, and belittled by administrators, curriculum writers, and reformers. These are the folks who don’t understand that even literary luminaries like Margaret Atwood are frozen by a blank page.  They are the folks who expect students to produce brilliance on demand (high stakes testing?).  You can recognize them because they will use the phrase “students will be able to” in casual conversations. 

The harsh reality is that whether you’re a professor’s kid in a small college town or in DHS custody in West Philly, the blank page can evoke the same feelings of terror and dread.  Even teachers feel the Power of the Blank Page (maybe that explains the recent blog hiatus or the reason that lesson plans lay blank until the night before they’re due).  
As educators, it’s important to bring the Power of the Blank Page to our students’ attention. The title of this very entry is a phrase that I say so often that sometimes I think it’s my name. While it is not the only reason that students disengage and screw around, the Power of the Blank Page often pushes my students to put their heads down, hoods up, and headphones in.  It has even been the cause of several of my most memorable blow-ups (of which there have been many) that usually involve profanity like I’ve never heard before.  The Blank Page is a powerful nemesis indeed. 

I try to encourage my students to take risks with their writing and it’s nearly impossible to take risks if you’re afraid of being wrong. 

The only caveat to my “only way you can be wrong” dictate is that it can become a law for some students.  I would caution all teachers, but especially newer teachers, to be sure to distinguish between times when there ARE ways to be incorrect and times when a blank page is the only way to be “wrong”.  Inevitably, I encounter students who will look at essay that they did poorly on and shout, “Teacher Man a FRAUD! He said if I wrote SOMETHING, I’d get an A”.  

I’m careful to distinguish between analytical, reflective, and creative writing.  I also am very clear with expectations ahead of time. I tell students what I’m going to be reading for when I give credit (and it’s almost never a page length… UHHH do I hate the ‘how long does this have to be?’ questions).

We need to help students take control of the Power of the Blank Page and to do that, they need to know that they’re not alone in their terror.  This comes through low-stakes writing, empowerment of voice, and PRACTICE.

How do you counter the Power of the Blank Page in your classroom?