The Big Ask

My students are less afraid of their own failure than I am. 11-year olds are generally eager to try new things, and to please their teachers. In fact, their willingness to follow me into the battlefield can be downright intimidating. We trudge through new skills and content, and stumble through guided practice. However, when we arrive at the critical moment of independent work, I suddenly find myself to be a coward.

Can they do it without me? What will happen when the training wheels come off? Maybe they need just one more graphic organizer…. These are the thoughts rolling over in my mind as I prepare for class with my most needy students. I am afraid that they will be discouraged, which will leave me feeling more frustrated and confused about the next best step. If I analyze the data from their independent work and find it lacking, what will I do? How can I keep teaching 6th grade standards to kids performing several grades below their level?

This, dear reader, is not a good headspace. It is, however, exactly where I found myself today at 2pm. My other classes had all begun independently writing literary analysis essays with very little scaffolding. Could I ask that of these needy kids? Were they ready? “Well,” I finally thought to myself, “I don’t know what else we will do, so we might as well try.”

“Writers, I am going to ask you to do something really challenging today, but I want to tell you a secret,” I began. I continued in a dramatic whisper, “here’s the secret. This essay is challenging, but it’s not too hard for you. You can do hard things. I will be here if you need me, but I don’t think you will need me as much as you fear. You have got this!

Sometimes a pep talk works, and sometimes it fails. I think a lot of that depends on circumstance and relationship. (Don’t lie to kids about their ability. They will know you are lying.) Today, my encouragement was mostly successful. 2/3 of the kids took off and needed very little help, freeing my co-teacher and I up to help the third who were struggling. We didn’t get as far as my other classes, but everyone wrote at least one paragraph! A total win.

If I had not been willing to ASK them to step up to the plate, I would not, tonight, have the pleasure of reading their work and seeing how much their writing has improved. I’m glad that I did not give into my own fear of their failure, and instead gave them a chance to show off their skill and independence.

Teacher friends: Where is fear holding back your instruction? How do your students respond to challenge and freedom in your classroom? Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments!

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Katie Stewart

I’m an English teacher who is passionate about authentic literacy practice and the intersection of faith and practice. Jane Eyre forever.