Monday, July 11, 2011


Every good teacher knows that teaching involves a certain amount of strategic dishonesty.  Not necessarily outright lying, but trickery.  I've definitely been known to tell kids that the flashing red light of the motion sensor (to turn the lights on) in the classroom was a camera recording their behavior so their parents and the principal can see how they are acting. 

Yesterday, I was working with a particularly difficult teenager on writing.  She has ADD and anxiety, and a bunch of other diagnoses, but I think the main problem, as it often is, is that she doesn't feel like anyone wants her.  She gets shuffled around from guardian to guardian and it's entirely possible that some of them have told her outright that they don't want her.  She is constantly trying to distract me and complaining and telling me she can't do things.

We've been working on writing and she's getting pretty good at writing about what she's experiencing.  It was time to introduce her to the standard five-paragraph essay format and she had been pretty resistant in the past when it was brought up.  To be fair, that doesn't sound like fun for anyone, really, and it's summer.  I don't blame her.

Since she had been so resistant, though, I decided to try a different approach.  I had her tell me about three types of art she enjoyed.  I told her I'd take notes if she wrote about it after and she agreed.  I wrote it in the basic outline form - scary Roman numerals and all - but didn't let her see until I was done.  It looked something like this:

I. Introduction
       A. Introductory statement
       B. Thesis statement: I like all types of art, but especially painting, drawing, and pastels.
II. Body
       A. I am best at acrylic painting
             1. People introduce me as a painter
             2. I took an adult class once because I was too good for the kids' class
             3. I like to paint landscapes and portraits

And so on.

When I showed her, she looked at me strangely.  Then she read it and she said "I don't know how to write a thesis statement."  I told her that she had come up with that; I had just written it down.  "Remember when I asked you to tell me what the whole thing will be about, in just one sentence?  That's a thesis statement."

Then I told her not to worry, that we weren't writing an essay yet.  We were just writing an introduction.  I folded down the paper so she could only see that section and told her that the introductory statement could be anything that would get me interested in her art.  She wrote it with no problem at all.

I folded down the paper again so that she could only see the notes for the first body paragraph.  I told her that she could write the paragraph any way she wanted, but that it had to have all those statements in it.  She asked if it should be in that order and I told her to think about how she would tell someone if she were speaking.  She wrote a perfectly decent paragraph and told me it was really easy because "it was all there first." 

Doing this one paragraph at a time, folding and unfolding the paper so that she couldn't see any of the outline except the one paragraph that she was working on, she got the whole essay done in about 30 minutes and didn't complain once.  When we finished, I informed her that she had just written a five-paragraph essay.

"But I don't know how," she said.  "You just did it," I pointed out.

If you don't know you're doing it, it turns out you don't know that you can't do it.  I asked her if she could do it again and she said yes, it would be easy.

Of course, had I told her that this is what we were doing, there would have been tears and arguments and distractions and urgent trips to the bathroom.  Sometimes it's better for kids to be fooled - at least until they figure out that they could do it all along.

Four years ago: Who Puts These People in Charge of Money?

Five years ago: Back in the Day

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