On Teenagers, Butcher Paper, Writing, and Confidence: What Have We Learned Today?

Hey, I got to play with butcher paper, markers and stickers again! I got to spend my day with teenagers, then leave without carrying any of their essays with me!

Doesn’t get any better. Plus, it made me think harder about my own topic: What it means to be a writer.

Anacortes High School has about 800 students, mostly white, mostly working-to-middle class. It also has a super-energetic, friendly librarian who invited me to come in and speak to some classes, and to any interested students after school, about being an Author. I did  read them a bit of my novel, The Flying Burgowski, but first I wanted to stir the pot a little.

Anastasia

So here’s an exercise I ran with three different classes of 9th graders.

  1. handed out two stickers to each kid
  2. posted a piece of butcher paper marked with the numbers from zero to ten on its long side, headed “I Think I’m a Writer”
  3. asked each kid to stick one sticker next to the number which best matched how they’d agree or disagree with that statement

Then we all took a look at the distribution of stickers. I asked kids to share why they might have put theirs in the middle, then at the top, then at the bottom. Responses were pretty predictable: “I know I CAN write, but I only do it when I have to.” “I love writing; I write all the time.” “I hate it.”

Veronica

 

Next, we ran the exercise again, but this time the statement at the top of the butcher paper read, “I Think I Could Be a Writer.”

And that’s when things got interesting.

Period One was full of what are usually labelled “Honors” students. This wasn’t Honors English, but one honors course anywhere in the schedule tends to clump that level of students together. Period One had a few stickers at “10” on the first paper, but on the second? Double the number. These guys were confident. When we discussed the difference, their statements tended to be about unlocking their potential and releasing their inherent creativity. They did not use those words exactly, but when I did, summarizing their comments, they all nodded eagerly–Yup, that’s me.

Period Two was the opposite. Remember those clumps of students? This was the clump that would never identify themselves as Honors students–whether they could have been or not. They also had a few stars at “10,” a handful of kids who thought of themselves as writers. But when the statement changed to reflect possibility and the future…those stars fell. Down to 6 and 7.

K and R

“What happened?” I asked the class, and they were ready. Their answers all included references to professional standards, deadlines, being paid, being good enough. Even the kids who thought they were writers now did not think they could pass muster “out there” in the “real world.”

Period Three was larger–in fact it was a class and half, as another teacher brought some students in to join us–and more mixed, harder to categorize. Their sticker pattern polarized on the “I Could Be a Writer” butcher paper, with many 9-10s and 0-2s, and almost no 4-7s.

D and C

So, what conclusions do we draw from this? I have my own theories, but I prefer to use Wing’s World as a classroom today (just as it once was). So, consider this me calling on y’all. Who would like to share first?

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