National Writing Project

A Little Praise, a Very Long Way

By: Heather Hollands
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Heather Hollands tells the story of her tenth grade student Joey, who hated to write. Her encouragement, along with an assignment that captured his imagination, transformed him into a budding young writer.

 

"I am not a teacher but an awakener."

—Robert Frost

"You have a flair for words." Those six words scrawled in red pen at the bottom of my paper are what it took to motivate me in tenth grade to become a better writer. Sure, my off-the-wall English teacher, Mrs. Stone, cried when someone threw her pet rock out the window. She would pick up her scissors in one hand and open and close them, pretending they were arguing with her stapler, which she would squeeze with her other hand. But despite my teacher's eccentricities, those six words of validation gave me a belief in my writing. Seventeen years later, I still carry those words with me and remember the teacher who blessed me with them.

Now that I am an English teacher myself, I sometimes wonder to what extent I am reaching my own students. Am I an Influential Teacher? There are days when the dismissal bell rings and I collapse into my chair, thinking, "Well, that didn't work." Those are the days when I need to reach for my collection of notes and thank-you cards from students and remind myself that I do make a difference. But there are also days when I know I've done a good job. On those special days, when I can actually see a change in a student, it is easy to celebrate teaching.

Joey Troiber is a tenth-grader who reminds me why I teach. On the first day of school, Joey walked into class wearing a bright yellow Nautica T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, low-rider jeans, and a thick gold chain around his neck. He headed straight for the back row and sprawled himself out in his chair. I assigned the students to write a one-page personal narrative, introducing themselves to me. After grudgingly borrowing a pencil and taking a sheet of filler paper from my desk, Joey etched out a short paragraph—or rather, a long run-on sentence with no capitalization or punctuation—about the time he moved to Michigan from Kansas during middle school and how hard it was to make friends. "I don't have anything else to say," he commented as he tossed the paper onto my desk along with the pencil.

The next few weeks when I gave writing assignments, Joey usually would work for a few minutes, then wad up his paper and make a three-pointer into the wastebasket. Or say, "This is stupid. I don't feel like doing it." Or ask for a pass to the bathroom. And why not? For years, he probably had been told that he couldn't write. On one assignment, Joey's Guided Instruction teacher offered to proofread his paper before he turned it in to me. With good intentions, she took it out on her pontoon boat that Saturday and spent an hour marking it up. The paper was as red as the Scarlet Letter, and I'm sure Joey felt like he was wearing one when he got it back. When the teacher asked me if she did the right thing, I suggested that we focus on one area at a time, perhaps starting with capitalization. What I was more interested in, though, was getting Joey to feel comfortable sharing his thoughts. He clearly was a student with lots of stories to tell, if only he could let go and write them.

I like to get my students writing poetry early in the year, and I usually start with a copy-change poem, so the students who are afraid of poetry can produce something they are proud of right away. This time I assigned a "Where I Am From" poem. First I gave the students a list of prompts about where they live and their family background. Then I gave them a poem in which they could change the words to fit their own experiences. Joey sat still in his seat, concentrating on his writing. Toward the end of the hour, he handed me a poem. "You should read it right away," he said. "The last line is pretty good."

So I read:

where I am from

I am from Kansas
from mountain dew that fizzes
and I am from the place where it is peaceful
where I sit around and talk and laugh
and it tastes like honey
I am from the wheatstocks and the cornfields
and where the grasses sway in the wind
I remember cheesecakes baking
and camping underneath the stars and the big white moon
from jody and sherri
I am from hard workers and strength
from BE GOOD as a child
and being told that my kids will be 10 times worse than me
I am not much of a churchgoer
I am from Alabama
from egg rolls and steaks
from where my dad crashed his mustang and hit cats to make them fly
and the time my mom got in her car and kicked out the window
that's where I am from
that's where I rest my soul
and that's what I should know

The poem sent shivers up my arms. "The last line is pretty good? Joey, this whole poem is good! Will you share it with the class?"

"No, I can't," he replied abruptly.

I pleaded with my eyes, hoping he would change his mind. "Can I read it for you then?" Wait time, I thought to myself, use wait time.

". . . If you want . . ."

After I read Joey's poem, the class was silent, like awkward adolescents on a first date. Then applause. Not golf-clapping, but a ruckus. "Wow Joey," said one girl. "You can really write!"

"It's nothing," Joey said, straightening up his shoulders and revealing a grin.

"Why don't you type this up?" I asked him.

"The bell is going to ring," he said. "I don't have time."

I didn't want to let the moment pass, so I asked Joey to sit by me while I quickly typed the poem. I printed five copies. "A poem like this should be shared," I said with a wink. Joey looked at me quizzically, took the papers, and left for his third hour class . . .

Lunchtime. Joey comes to my room. "Mrs. Hollands? Could you print more copies of my poem? Everyone I show wants to keep it."

Beginning of fourth hour. "Great work with Joey today," says the vice principal as we cross paths in the hall. "He sure is proud of that poem."

End of fourth hour. "Joey showed me his poem," says the guidance counselor. "He said he might submit it to Teen Ink." During the first week of class, I had suggested to the students that Teen Ink, a magazine for teen writers, would be a good place to submit their work. Apparently, Joey had noted the conversation and kept that hope alive for his own writing.

Fifth hour. "Joey asked me about taking creative writing next semester," says his Guided Instruction teacher. "I don't know what got into him, but I couldn't get him to look at his algebra today. He just wants to write poems."

Sixth hour. My second class of tenth-graders comes into the room. "Can we write Joey poems today?"

End of a great day. Joey stops in the classroom for a few more copies and leaves with his pencil and notebook still in hand.

About the Author Heather Hollands teaches English and Journalism at Gwinn High School in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She is a member of the leadership team of the Upper Peninsula Writing Project and coeditor of Voices, Visions and Verse, an anthology of writing and artwork from K–12 students around the Upper Peninsula.

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