If you teach in the inner-city, you have probably been witness to a classroom or two where there was no permanent teacher. The position was unfilled, or perhaps, the teacher went on some type of extended leave. Perhaps the administration could not fill the position at the beginning of the year; or perhaps the teacher left mid-year for a medical reason. Quite often, the position is unfilled because of some bureaucratic mishap.
There are many year-round schools in the inner-city of Los Angeles. As such, school is always in session somewhere. Teaching at a year-round school, I get two vacations per year. On a number of my vacations, I have taken over one of these abandoned classrooms.
For some reason, it’s always a case of the have-nots getting the short end of the stick – once again. In other words, the class is always a class that would be a challenge under the best of circumstances. These are classrooms where others did not stay; and quite often, they are classrooms where others would not stay. They are challenging. They contain MANY reluctant and remedial writers.
If you want a thrill, or if you wish to test your teaching chops, go to the neediest neighborhood in the inner-city, find the neediest school in that neighborhood, and ask them to let you take over an unfilled position MID-YEAR. Ask for the class where the substitute teachers will stay for just one day and then will not return under any circumstance. I have experienced these extreme teaching situations in both inner-city elementary schools and inner-city middle schools. Some are more challenging than others. Some actually enter the realm of the surreal.
Getting the Students Working
A journey of a thousand miles began with a single step.
Lao Tzu (c. 604-c. 531 BC)
A huge task and a key component of classroom management in these situations is you have to get the class working. If you really wish to pull the class together, perhaps even make the class a normal class, you must get the kids writing.
In one middle school situation, there were students who were reluctant to pick up their pencil, let alone write a whole composition. Here is one example of a reluctant middle school writer: The assignment was to draw a rather complicated multistep illustration. The illustration starts simple enough: “Draw a large circle.” The student wouldn’t: “It’s too hard.”
Now, I assumed the circle was not “too hard” to draw. However, when looking ahead at all the steps that the student needed to complete in order to complete the whole assignment, I could see why a struggling student might be reluctant to begin. I decided I would get him some help in getting started. I had a student come over from another classroom and help him draw circles. Strangely, and surprisingly, the student accepted the help. Happily, that was the last time this student would not begin. So part of the solution in teaching struggling, reluctant writers to write is you need to motivate them to begin. Students cannot give up before they even begin.
Writing Success: It Begins with a Step – A Specific, Concrete Step
When I’ve taken over these classrooms, I always seem to focus on writing. In fact, they almost become writing intensives. There is a variety of reasons why, but in short, writing gets the students calm and communicates that we are here in the classroom to work. Initially, the writing in these classrooms is unreadable. One experienced teacher looked at a classroom set of compositions and sighed, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
I’ll tell you one thing that does not work: giving esoteric writing lectures. This crowd responds to learning specific, concrete skills and strategies. In fact, these reluctant and remedial writers all but say, “Stop with the words. Just tell me what to do. Make this a ‘how-to’ and not a cryptic message.”
When you tell these reluctant writers in clear, specific, and simple terms “how-to,” they will do it. No one likes to fail. Kids and adults alike will not even begin something if they know they are going to fail at it. When faced with esoteric writing instruction, these struggling student writers think this: “No. I’m not going to do that because I don’t understand how to do that. And I’m not going to do something that I just know I am going to fail at.” For many people, this may remind them of how they feel about singing, public speaking, dancing, or sports. This is how these very reluctant student writers feel about writing.
“Just Do This One Thing”
Please note, I do teach both grammar and mechanics. Fortunately, in these classrooms, there are usually plenty of workbooks that are near empty—almost brand new except for the fact that they look as if they have been on a journey of a thousand miles.
However, teaching grammar and mechanics is not the same thing as teaching writing. Plenty of research quoted elsewhere on this website make that point quite clear. Teaching writing is teaching students how to write. Teaching writing is getting students to write, while also holding students accountable for all those rules of grammar and mechanics while they write.
So, how do you teach these reluctant and remedial writers to write? I will quote that experienced teacher mentioned above once again: “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” Well, I begin by saying this: “Just do this one thing.”
It’s worth mentioning at this point (as I mention elsewhere on this website), I developed Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay in one of these abandoned classrooms. It was a 3rd grade class; it was the last eight weeks of their school year; there had been over 50 teachers in that classroom before me; it was total mayhem! When I arrived in that classroom, it was hard for me to speak and it was hard for them to listen. Workbooks were fine, as I could talk quickly and concisely, and put them to work. However, I like to teach writing, and I can’t just do workbook pages all day long. A normal classroom writes. Furthermore, in a normal classroom the students write thoughtfully and take pride in their writing.
In this classroom, however, the problem was how to get all that going. Clearly, I needed to get creative. And I did. That being said, I put forth my new creative ideas one idea at a time, and it came in this form: “Just do this one thing.” And at each step, I told the students to do that one thing they did last time, and also to do this new one thing.
What I’ve learned from these unruly classrooms, both in elementary school and in middle school, is that students are interested in writing “how-to,” not theory or information. With many activities, people become interested in the information once they are actively participating in the activity. A person will become interested in drawing when they are drawing; a person will become interested in basketball when they are playing basketball; a person will become interested in cooking when they are cooking for others.
The solution with these remedial and reluctant writers is to break down the writing process into manageable steps, while also maintaining student interest. With these struggling, reluctant writers, if you do not tie all the steps together, they will lose interest or give up. These students do not want information; they want how-to. Furthermore, if the steps do not all connect together, then the students perceive it only as information. They don’t want that. Another thought: it’s likely that the students have already heard that same information a number of times before. How-to means that each step connects to an end result, and step-by-step, students learn an active skill that develops a real ability.
Please note, even in the most unruly classrooms, I do have students read their writing to at least one other student. We do this at least once a day (if I have the students all day), and if students are writing a lot, twice a day. It helps writing take on a life of its own, and soon students are improving, and once they are improving, they begin to take REAL pride in their writing.
Go Step-By-Step; Stop Talking; Stop Explaining; Have Students Write; Have Students Read Their Writing to One other Person; and Get Results!
As I mentioned, that 3rd grade class was the beginning of a brand new writing program. I stopped talking and simply had students do “just one thing”, then do “one more thing”, and add “one more thing” to all those things. In just eight weeks, this class went from writing unreadable gibberish, to being able to write the best complete essays of any elementary school class I had ever taught. I insisted the principal take home the students’ before-and-after timed writings and look them over. When she came to return them, her eyes welled up as she asked, “You mean these are first drafts?!” I replied, “Yes. That’s a TIMED WRITING—25 minutes from start to finish.” Many nice words followed, but for me the principal’s eyes had said it all.
Remedial Writers and Reluctant Writers in Middle School and High School
I once took over an unfilled position at a very large inner-city middle school. In short, nothing an inner-city teacher could say would shock me. I know how bad it can get. These classrooms are unfilled for a very good reason. No one will stay!
With these students, if you start by saying exactly what they have already heard a thousand times before, these students will be uninterested, and possibly hostile. “We know that already!” The truth is they do know it; they just don’t understand it. I’ve been getting more and more letters from middle school and high school teachers (and parents) asking me if the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay writing program will work with their remedial and reluctant writers. The answer is this: YES. Is it going to be too easy? No. This program is not a childish writing program. The fact that it works with 3rd graders from the inner city just means that it’s effective, not simple. Neither the language nor the ideas will insult older kids.
Admittedly, I was a little surprised when I realized that a few high school teachers were buying the program. On the other hand, I have a pretty good idea of what their situation may be like, and yes, I do believe they can get better results faster by using my methodology. To be clear, the program will not take middle school and high school students from A to Z. However, it will take them from A to Competent—and Competent is something you can build on. Once students say, “Oh, I get it!” you have something you can build upon.
Questions and Problems Regarding Remedial Writing and Reluctant Writers in Middle School and High School
Here are a few questions for teachers of older students (i.e., not elementary school) to ask themselves:
- Are your students reluctant or remedial writers?
- Have other methods failed them?
- Are you planning on repeating the same exact strategies that have already not worked with these students?
- Are you planning on repeating the same exact same writing language that these kids find boring and tired?
- Do your kids say, “We already know that,” but don’t show you that they know it when they write?
- Do your students write in correct and complete sentences? Not even correct and complete simple sentences?
- Do your students say the writing prompt is stupid, and they won’t write about that subject? Then when you let them choose what to write about, they can’t think of anything to write about?
- Do your students refuse to write in paragraph form and can’t see the errors of their ways?
Put simply, I have had great success with this program in the most extreme middle school classrooms that one can imagine. The program has been transformational for these struggling writers. I have not taught high school, but I have seen high school writing that I knew Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay could greatly improve. Don’t be worried that the pictures on the homepage show some students who may be younger than your own. I offer a 100% no-questions-asked money back guarantee, so be sure to check out the writing program on the home page.
Solving the Problem before there is a Problem: Getting Started in Elementary School
In a perfect world, we would not have reluctant or remedial writers in middle school or high school. My honest (and maybe biased) opinion is that Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay is the beginning of a real solution. In good conscious, I must label the writing curriculum a remedial writing curriculum for middle school and high school students, because if teachers use the program in elementary school, their students will be fantastic writers by the time they get to middle school and high school.