Where the meaning is

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.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer




27 thoughts on “Where the meaning is

    • Thank you, Michelle – I am glad you found it moving. It is so important to help others find meaning in their writing, and that it is authentic, like Robert’s and the students in the post, not to mention for ourselves as writers!


  1. Your post is a reminder that writing can allow us entry in the heart — our own, and others. The gentle prodding allowed for another door to open. We are all complicated people, no matter the age.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful piece. Wherever we see the child as a full, rich individual we are on the right track.
    I am sure it is also true for all our little daily slices- what is our subconscious need? Most of us are usually fairly light and superficial in our daily writing, though not always. I will be thinking about my underlying needs, that drive my small pieces.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the observation that whenever we see the child as a rich, full individual we’re on the right track – and too true about a lot of our own surface-level writing! I am glad if this is encouraging to you – thanks so much for your thoughts.


  3. Your slice today is a reminder of the importance of listening when we confer. If our students are writing what we think are shallow pieces, maybe we just don’t get what they are attempting to say. Conferring isn’t only about asking questions, it’s about listening to what the writer has to say. Sometimes, too, shallow is all there is. That’s OK too, sometimes. Let writers find themselves. If they have opportunities to write every day, they will find their voices, their topics, their meanings. Nurture the attempts always.Great slice today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bingo with the listening! Sometimes we listen at a surface level instead of intentionally and you’re right about shallow being all there is sometimes. Maybe that piece can be abandoned for now and explored again later. Writers need those choices, too. Thank you so much!


  4. Thanks for reminding me to ask the questions that will get to the deeper meaning. I know how difficult it is for me to “get to the heart” of the matter myself. Sometimes that can be scary for our student writers. We need to provide them with that safe space to write.

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    • You are so right. It’s hard even for us to keep peeling back layers to get to deeper meaning. It’s hard to share things that are deep in our hearts. The risk-taking is real and yes, we need to make students feel safe to do so. Well said!


    • It’s almost comical to read the passage where Cruz is sweating it out, enthusiastically saying how important the writing is when she’s actually writhing inside about the seeming surface-level quality – she had to nudge herself to keep going as well. Then POW! The boy’s revelation hits home. She calls it “Inviting risk-taking and believing in the writer’s intent.”


    • The book is really do-able and the chapters don’t have do be read in order – my colleagues and I choose the ones we’ll read each for each time we gather and we share our takeaways. I think is it a fundamental need of humans to be able to recognize the things that matter most to us through writing. “We wanted to write before we ever wanted to read,” said Donald Graves. We need to remember, cherish, heal, and sometimes expunge. Thank you, Leigh Anne.


  5. I teach small groups of kids which makes these conversations easier. I’ve read Colleen’s book and was able to meet her at NCTE a few years ago. She reminds us with personal stories, and struggles of her own how important it is to go deeper. And you also did that with your own personal stories. I am glad Leigh Anne directed me to check out your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How fortunate you are to have met Colleen! She’s strong and very real. You’re also fortunate to have small groups where you can hone in to really help the kids. It takes time and talk to go deeper, truly. Thank you for your gracious response.


  6. Conferring is so important to our young writers. I feel the “heart” comes out during the conversation. I find myself telling my writers, “that’s it, now go write that down and we’ll polish it off later.” ~Amy

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true, Amy. I especially appreciate your emphasis here on capturing the valuable thoughts and putting polish on later. Often too much energy goes into form first vs. ideas. A child can write a neat piece that passes any rubric, Cruz says, but it still may be surface-level. The ideas are the essential part – I often say to teachers that we can get ideas worked into proper form but it’s hard to breathe life into a piece that’s formed without meaningful ideas. Conferring along the way is critical. Thank you for your thoughts here.

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  7. Pingback: Literacy Lenses

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