Creating a Narrative of Progress

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Since the new year I have spent a lot of time doing two things: responding to a massive stack of student essays and slowly working through Thomas Newkirk’s Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. While some might pity me for spending much of my week off reading and responding, I am not one of them. First, the week before I chopped three (!) novels off my to-read list and didn’t so much as think about school. And second, Newkirk’s book–which explores how our emotions (teachers and students) often slow, obscure, or outright obstruct learning–is a remarkable text. I can’t think of a more important educational book that I’ve read this decade. And reading it while simultaneously responding to student writing felt like an extended revelation of sorts. So much of what Newkirk described was so clearly threaded throughout my students’ words, and thanks to him I had more tools than ever to help the students whose embarrassment, fear, lack of motivation, and low self confidence were clearly standing in the way of their writing.

In fact, I was so struck by the book that over the next few weeks, I want to share three distinct tools I got from Newkirk in the hopes that these tools will help you to better manage the teacher and student emotions that impact your classroom. Today, I want to start with a phrase that I have already committed to the core of my teaching practice: create a narrative of progress

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 11.54.17 AMIn a chapter called Stigma, Newkirk examines how many students come into our classroom with firmly entrenched identities that stand in direct opposition to what we are trying to teach them. Students come into my class every semester and say things to me like “I am not a reader” or “I am not a writer.” Before the semester has even begun, these students have already constructed an identity that defines them as abject failures within the walls of an English classroom. Outside the classroom they may be passionate about social change, committed members of the basketball team, or fabulous bakers, but in the classroom, the only way they define themselves is that they will not be able to do it.

Newkirk’s answer for working with students who have already built identities around deficiency and stigma is that we must craft a new identity to take its place, and further, these new identities must be real. He asserts that “self-esteem cannot be built upon the wind or empty assurances–it requires objective and publicly acknowledged demonstrations of competence; being good at something.” Or put in other words, if we want to break negative identities like they are “not writers”, we need to find the actual ways that they are indeed writers. Vague, generalized half-truths won’t be enough to reverse entrenched identities that have been built upon years of failure and struggle. We need to find things that the students are legitimately good at and bring them to their attention, and then as they grow we need to continue to point out how they are improving. If we are able to do this effectively, eventually we can use this narrative of progress to form kernels of new identities as readers, writers, and thinkers that can ultimately replace the negative identities.

Despite never having specifically thought about creating a narrative of progress, I have seen positive, growth-oriented student identities replace negative, static ones numerous times in my classroom. The likely reason for this is that I have long taken Colleen Cruz‘s advice to find something in each piece to get excited about and always started my feedback to student writing with the same question Donald Graves always asked when he first looked at a piece: “What can she do [well]?” I also begin each new composition class with an assignment where the students tell me the story of their writing and used that piece–which is often filled with frustrations, fears, and low confidence–as a reference point through out the year.

I have seen time and again how getting excited about student writing, finding real positives, and showing them how they are growing can reframe the identities of even the most resistant readers/writers. But after reading Newkirk’s case for how profoundly those negative identities hurt student learning, I want to be even more mindful and systematic going forward about actively sabotaging negative student identities through crafting narratives of success and progress.

My plan for doing this is to continue everything I already do and add three additional things to solidify the narrative for each student. First, I will keep track of student strengths and weaknesses in a spreadsheet like this:

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Keeping track of every student might seem like a lot of work, but I plan to just copy and paste the summary that I already put on their papers, which should add minimal extra time. Further, I think a document like this, where I can quickly revisit the strengths and weaknesses of each paper will be invaluable in keeping track of student growth and clearly showing students their progress.

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Second, I plan to have students keep regular notes of their own strengths, improvement/growth areas. This is an an idea I mentioned when I wrote on the power of having students regularly reflect on their learning, but I want to be even more organized about it. My plan is to do something similar to what the Paper Graders do (see right), which is to have them use their notebooks to keep track of the weekly gains and growth areas. This will make them co-authors of this growth narrative, and having them do this will take some of the work off my plate and act as a quick visual indicator that can show me at a glance what their current internal narrative is.

And third, when we meet for writing conferences, we will compare our notes as a regular part of those conferences.

The stories we tell about ourselves often run deep, and thus are hard to move, but even deep roots can be shaken by a hard enough wind. If a new narrative–good or bad–is consistent, persistent, and passes the smell test, it is remarkable how fast it can replace a previous one. As writing teachers I firmly believe that one of our main objectives needs to be not just teaching students about narrative but crafting their narratives with them in a way that gets them to believe that while they have growth areas (as all writers do), they are indeed writers with their own chapter that they can contribute to the world!

Happy New Year everyone, and here’s to 2018 being a year of stories and progress!

Yours in teaching,



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6 responses to “Creating a Narrative of Progress”

  1. […] his fabulous new book Embarrassment, which also served as the inspiration for the previous post, Tom Newkirk gives a theory for why writing does this to us. He states that writing is so difficult […]


  2. […] even writers at all and how I strive to improve their identities by offering thoughtful praise and building narratives of progress that reframe their journey as writers in a positive light. But I want to go further because during […]


  3. […] Even with this, there is still plenty of forgetting. We are working with young writers after all. But there is also a lot more of remembering the things that matter, and I’ve found the revisiting has also been very useful in helping students create more coherent narratives of how they are developing as writers. […]


  4. […] daunting, changing beliefs is not impossible. I’ve talked previously about how cultivating a narrative of progress or using wise interventions can shift beliefs in some pretty remarkable ways, but according to […]


  5. […] I have long read and been inspired by Sarah’s work on her blog The Paper Graders, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and I’m expectantly waiting for a spare moment so that I can crack into […]


  6. […] grow as much as I want and they need. I have my own ways for handling these situations (see here and here for some old posts on the subject), but I’m always looking to expand and can’t wait to […]


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