Take Your Students’ Work Seriously

I am very close to one of my former students.  I just left her house—after an unplanned four hours of together.  My church is across the street from her family’s business, so I decided to stop by to see how she was doing. I really enjoy spending time with her because we have thoughtful and engaging conversations. We caught up on the each other’s summer endeavors and shared mutual feelings of not being ready to go back to school.

Eventually, we started talking about writing, as we always do.  I love to talk to her about writing because I am so inspired by her work.  She puts language together in a way that I have never imagined.  Her work flirts with the legendary Zora Neale Hurston.  I know that’s a daring comparison, but trust me on this.  Earlier last year, I told her to write a book because she just had so much to “get off her chest” during our almost-daily conversations (we used to each lunch together in an unoccupied classroom because of her inability to be exposed to the sun). Later on in the school year, she asked me if I would edit her book.  I didn’t know she had taken my thoughts seriously.

For someone to only have been speaking English for six years, she is gifted with constructing language, but needs the most support with verb tenses—I didn’t realize how daunting verb tenses could be to a person who’s native language is not English.  But what I have learned is the more students have the opportunity to write, the better they will get. Worksheets and lectures don’t improve students’ writing skills, writing does.

She asked if we could work on her book.  I didn’t have plans, so said yes, but was near closing time for her family’s business.  So her mother invited me to their house.  While editing, I kept saying “wow.”  Finally, she asked: “Why do you keep saying “wow?”

“Because this is beautiful.  You are so gifted with language.  You have the ability to put words together that I never would have thought possible.  I admire your writing.”

“Your’re just saying that,” she says with embarrassment, as she tucked her chin in her chest.

“I’m not.  Your writing reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s.  She wrote one of my favorite books in the 1930’s.”

“So my writing is old,” she responded with disdain.

“No, your writing is mature.”

I think that statement resonated with her.  What she said next made me realize how important it is for teachers to take their students’ work seriously: “Ms. Seawood, you’re the one who inspired me to write.  I write like this because of you.  You’re the first English teacher to take my writing seriously, and help me with my writing, so now I feel like I’m a writer.”

When she said this, I realized the importance of showing your students that you are invested in them.