One lesson I try to drill into my students' heads is that they should stop by before or after school if they have any questions or problems. "Please don't wait for me to recognize that you're struggling," I say to them. "You don't even realize how many relationships I've lost because I'm so bad at making basic observations."
Very few students take me up on the offer, so when one does, I try to be as helpful as possible.
Last Friday after school, a girl I taught last year stopped by and asked if I would take a look at her personal essay. The essay is a requirement senior year, an essay that might be included in a college application that tells the admissions office something that might not be in the official transcript.
The girl is a pretty weak writer. Her essay showed that she apparently didn't learn much about writing in my class last year. Still, it was sweet, and basically said that she really wants to go to college because she's a hard worker even though her ACT score is pretty low.
"This is pretty good," I lied, "but it's not exactly what a personal essay should be." I explained that this kind of essay should tell a story that will reveal something about the writer without having to say things like "I am a hard worker."
"If you really are a hard worker, write about a time when you really worked hard and accomplished something," I said.
She looked at me. "Oh man, you're going to make me think, aren't you?"
"What did you expect when you walked in the door?"
I told her about essays students have written in the past. About the kid who was shot while playing basketball in an alley with his friends. About the girl that had to save her father's life. About the girl who lives with her brother and works full-time in addition to going to school.
"I don't have a story like that," she said.
"That's what everyone says. And then I'm always amazed by the stories everyone has," I said. "OK, listen. I'm going to ask you a few questions. I want you to answer with the first thing that comes to mind. Try not to think about it. OK?"
Here's how I get my kids to write. I ask then to tell me about a time they were really excited. A time they were scared. A time they were so happy they cried. A time they cried because they were sad. Things like that. They write a sentence or two, we move on to the next item. After five or six, I ask students to share. Each one will usually have one story that sparks interest in the class. I tell them to write about that one.
In this case, we were on the fourth one, and the girl saw what was coming. "You're going to make me write about one of these, aren't you?"
"Yup. Now, which one seems the most interesting to you?"
She decided to try to write about the time her mother won the lottery: $20,000. Her mom paid off some bills and put the rest in the bank.
"So what lesson did you learn?" I asked.
"I learned the importance of valuing what you have, about not just wasting money," she said. "And I also learned not to come in here on a Friday after school. My brain hurts."
"Good," I said.
(Is that sweet enough?)