Using Writing to Cultivate a Narrative of Progress Even As We End a Year of Loss

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One of the first things I tell my students each year is that writing is not simply a tool for expressing thoughts to others. It is very useful for that, but there are numerous other uses that are arguably as important as well.

Writing can also be used as a tool for figuring out what one thinks. As someone who strives to write daily, I couldn’t agree more with Joan Didion, who famously once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” It also serves as a mode of expression–a medium for getting out and processing those jumbled feelings that constantly bound through all of our heads. And writing can be an act of preservation, where one uses a journal, diary, or blog to act as a photograph of one’s mind and point-of-view at a particular moment in time.

A lesser-known, but still deeply important use of writing though is that it can also be used to promote meaningful shifts in beliefs, behaviors, and mindsets. Some of the most striking educational studies I’ve ever encountered explore this, including the following:

  • A 2011 study that found that 9th grade students with significant test anxiety scored nearly a grade better on their first finals (B+ vs. B-) when they wrote for a couple minutes about their thoughts and feelings concerning the test ahead of time.
  • A 2015 study where high school students who wrote briefly about how their work in schools can help them to make the world better significantly raised their GPA the next semester and those at the highest risk of dropping out decreased their likelihood of doing so.
  • A 2009 study that found that 9th grade students who expressed pessimism about their ability to do well in science scored nearly a grade higher on average when they wrote short pieces every month about how topics from their science class applied to their lives.
  • A 2014 study where students who read stories of other students making positive contributions and then wrote their own stories of awakening and striving to make a difference increased their grades and were more likely to push through even assignments they found boring.

These studies look at different things, but the common denominator in all of them is that a relatively short amount of targeted writing–no more than few minutes–changed the narrative that students told themselves in rather dramatic ways.

And right now, in May of 2021, I have been thinking a lot about the narratives that exist in and around our schools after nearly 14 months of a pandemic. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the narratives of learning loss that I encounter every time I open the news or walk down my school’s socially-distance halls.

Of course, when thinking about the narrative of this last year, loss should be a significant part. Before even mentioning learning loss, there is the ongoing and almost unfathomable loss of life, the deterioration of mental and physical health for so many, and the lost sense of safety and security for millions of families that have lost jobs and income. Further, for many students there is the lost sense of normalcy, lost extracurriculars and outlets, lost proms and games, or lost sleepovers and relationships.

Loss is a huge part of the story of the last 14 months–and that includes missed school days and units–but what concerns me right now is that so often loss is the only story I hear. And yet when I look at my students, I see so much more. I see that despite remote learning, having to process of all the loss and discord of the last year, and needing to social distance at the most social of all ages, the vast majority of my students still grew a great deal as readers, writers, thinkers, and people. Further, they learned how to navigate a worldwide pandemic, how to spend time alone, who they really were and what mattered to them, or how to quilt or bake perfectly crumbly scones.

And as I look at the last month of school ahead of me, I have a feeling that one of the most important things I can do right now is to try and help my students to see that part of the picture too. Author Ron Berger of The Atlantic captured my worries well when he stated in the article “Our Kids Are Not Broken” that “I am concerned about how this growing narrative of loss will affect our students, emotionally and academically. Research shows a direct connection between a student’s mindset and academic success.”

Like Berger, I fear that if students only focus on the loss, the narrative of deficient skills and deficits needing to be made up might settle in and become hardened by next fall, leading to a great deal of additional struggles. That is why, as I design my writing assignments for the end the year, I am looking for ways to actively draw student attention to the progress they’ve made and milestones they’ve reached. Of course, this doesn’t mean trying to paint a toxic picture of positivity or encouraging them to “look on the bright side” of one of the largest global tragedies of the last 100 years.

Instead, I am thinking about one more study where probation letters sent to students were carefully designed to lower the shame of being on probation by telling students that probation was a process, there were valid reasons to struggle, they weren’t alone in struggling, and offering encouragement.

When compared with the normal letter students received simply notifying them that they were on probation, this more thoughtful letter led to a 60% increase of students who got off academic probation and 64% decrease of students who dropped out within the year, likely because it was honest. It didn’t seek to manipulate the students or make some strained case for finding the bright side of probation. Instead, it simply put a spotlight on true, yet often overlooked details about being on probation, and this in turn helped many students to start telling a different, more nuanced story.

The approach I plan to take in my classes is similar. To start, we are going to make a massive list of what we’ve covered and put it up on a piece of butcher paper. The hope is that this will act as a living artifact and reminder of all that has been learned, while also quietly reinforcing those lessons (as we learn best by revisiting ideas again and again).

Then I will hand out my final paper. It’s prompt will be simple:

What did you learn this year?

The idea will be for students to write one final paper where they sit at a loom and weave together the various stories, poems, and books we read together with the various thoughts, ideas, and breakthroughs they had. To do that, I will have them pull out old books and pull up old papers to see what they have already said in order to figure out what is still to be said.

Students, will also (as they always do) set goals, but I will encourage them to reflect on what they’ve learned to help them find the right final goal to put a bow on the learning for the year.

Then, as students write, we will have little mini-lessons and moments of targeted response and micro-conferences aimed at helping them put the pieces together. We will then end with a celebration of the papers and with students writing short letters to themselves in the fall of 2021 about how their writing grew this year and what the next steps in their journeys should be.

When I think on this year, amongst everything, I have undoubtedly had my own moments of frustration concerning my own learning loss. Normally, I publish between 25-30 posts on this blog during a school year. This year I have published seven, including this one. Normally, I also read at least a dozen pedagogical books during the school year. This year, I can count the ones I’ve read since the fall on one hand. At times this year I have been sad, frustrated, and even outright upset at these missed pages and keystrokes, but those around me have helped me to see the ways that I have moved forward despite it all and how teaching to pixelated boxes in a hastily-built shed in my backyard has shifted my perspective in some pretty important and good ways.

Ultimately, that is my goal for my students. I want to help them see the whole narrative–the loss and the progress together–and I hope this will do that. Also, as so many in the teacher universe are always ahead of me, if you have plans for doing this and are willing to share them, let me know. I’d love to share them with my readers and subscribers too!

Thanks as always for reading, and yours in teaching,


If You Like This…

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