I just finished reading and commenting on student responses to the daily writing prompts in my junior English class for last week, a responsibility I take seriously. I’ve struggled this year with finding a good way to encourage my students to write something regularly. I don’t grade grammar or punctuation. In fact, I don’t grade them at all, although I’ve considered it. But I hate grading students on something that I want them to learn to enjoy.
I mostly give non-threatening prompts; sometimes they’re downright silly. Like “Write a 4-line poem about your favorite color of M&M,” or “What animal would you like to be in a zoo? How do you feel about being caged/closed in? How do you feel about people staring at you?” Sometimes the prompts are even sillier; students just groan at the silliness, but most comply willingly. The silly ones sometimes net the best responses. One of my students would be a zebra and would strut her zebra stripes for all to see—she’d be happy to show off in front of visitors. Another would be a giraffe who could see over her visitor’s heads all across the zoo and who would be happy to feel safe from predators. All responses, even the silly ones, tell me a lot about my students. If they don’t feel they want to share much, that’s fine, too.
And then there are serious prompts: “Write about a time you broke an important promise.” “When did you get handed a responsibility you were afraid you couldn’t handle?” Or “Write about a time when you tried to help, but you ended up making things worse.” Some of the answers to these can be funny, too, but more often I get heartfelt answers. Daily prompts are posted on the class website and most students respond there; I’m the only other person who can read their responses. Sometimes I sense they’re trying to amuse me, and I joke back; other times I hear a confession or a plea for encouragement in their words.
Last week I learned how frightened my students are of becoming teen moms—they’re afraid they’ll mess things up. Some admitted breaking promises to boyfriends or parents that they now regret. A couple really wanted to help a parent in a tough situation, but they ended up burning the dinner, making them cry, or bleaching the carpet (yes, with Clorox!).
In my responses this week, I tried to balance lighthearted comments on their jokes with a few choice words of encouragement, like: “It’s okay to make mistakes sometimes. I should know—I make them all the time!” Some needed to hear more, though. Some needed to hear that every mom—no matter how old—worries about how they’re doing. They needed my expression of confidence in their ability to be good moms. It’s hard enough being 17, but 17 and pregnant? That’s really scary! I tried to ease their fears, just a little.
I added my comments to their online response pages just now with a brief prayer and a sincere hope that those few choice words might make a little bit of difference. It’s hard to find the time to speak privately to students during a busy day, so I treasure this opportunity each week to let them know online that I hear them and that I care.