My colleague is weeping.
She’s just read aloud a passage from The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom by Colleen Cruz, specifically from Chapter Five, entitled “I’m finding some student writing repetitive and boring.”
In this passage Cruz relates the story of being observed by teachers who said that some students in the class had chosen “boring … almost shallow” personal essay topics. Cruz confers with one of these students. He’s writing about why Christmas is his favorite holiday – his reasons are the food, the presents, watching videos. As Cruz continues to converse with the boy, she feels pressure building under the skeptical eyes of the observers; the conferring is going nowhere. But Cruz presses on. She keeps talking, feigning enthusiasm: “There’s just so much to say about videos on Christmas. I would love to hear what you have to say about them.”
And then the boy explains that every year on Christmas, after the presents are opened, his mom lets him watch all their previous Christmas videos, when his dad was alive. She can’t endure the videos during the rest of the year, but at Christmas she watches them with her son.
“It’s like we’re all together again,” said the boy.
Like Cruz and the observing teachers in the story, my book study colleagues and I all have tears in our eyes.
I write in the margin of that page: Go deeper and deeper to the meaning.
I think about a second grader writing realistic fiction. Her first attempt at dialogue was rambling, pointless; the characters were talking but not saying anything. When I mentioned that we can add things from our own lives to make characters think and feel things that we do, to “make it real,” she revised the dialogue to a conversation about a girl who was worried about her new stepfather liking her. When she read it to me, I said, “Wow, your story really came to life there! What made you write about the girl’s worries over her stepfather?”
The child answered, solemnly, “My mom is getting married next weekend.”
I think about a girl describing how she and her grandmother waded through the regular flooding of their impoverished hometown in Viet Nam.
I think about a fifth-grade boy who never liked writing, how he developed an enthusiasm for it with his memoir on making the hard choice to tell the truth after having lied. A girl new to the school wrote about a girl having to move often. The piece opened with the narrator shouting at her mom; the anger was palpable.
A dim recollection of the movie Where the Heart Is flits through my mind – the young pregnant girl pressing a hand against her abdomen, saying, “That’s where the heart is.”
Cruz says students “have a subconscious need to write about particular topics, but they don’t consciously know why.”
Our job, then, as writing teachers, is to help students go deeper to the why, to where the heart, the meaning, is.