It was January when I began working in Noah’s first-grade classroom. His black hoodie was pulled over his head and down low. His eyelashes grazed it each time he blinked. He pulled his arms inside, as if an extra layer of cotton would protect him from the world. “He refuses to write,” his teacher said to me during our first meeting. Then she confided, “I have no idea what to do.”
It started with an invitation: Writers share their stories through illustrations and words. I modeled a story of my own in front of the class, about my two-year-old son wrestling with Big Blue, an oversized stuffed bear. “Maybe you have a dad story or a toy story, too,” I said. “Or you might have a story about a time when you were in a fight or maybe even a story from your living room.” Students shared with a writing partner an idea for a story and then one by one left the meeting area, picked up a sheet of paper, and started putting a part of their story down on paper.
Noah, still shelled up in his hoodie, didn’t speak to anyone. He kept his eyes down and shuffled to the stack of paper, pinched one sheet, and took it to his desk. A few minutes later, the teacher said, “Noah’s working! I can’t believe it. Let’s confer with him.”
I sat down next to Noah, who had his pencil gripped in his fist, pushing into his paper, thick pencil strokes making an arc over and over and over. I nudged Noah to talk to me. His side of the conversation was a muffled one or two words at a time. Finally the story came out in a string of words. Noah was watching from inside the house as his dad used an ax to chop up a toy Noah forgot to put away. The arc darkened as Noah continued to pound the line into the paper.
I blinked back tears at the reality of his hard life. “Noah,” I said gently, resting my hand on his white knuckled fist. He stopped drawing and looked at me, making eye contact for the first time. “You are a brave writer,” I said. “Today I was writing about my friend who died a few months ago, and I know how much courage it takes to tell the hard stories.” I squeezed his hand and left the conference.
I left a lot unsaid. I didn’t talk with him about drawing details in an illustration. I didn’t teach that people have bodies and our legs and arms don’t come out of an egg head like Humpty Dumpty. I didn’t mention that he could use more than one color to illustrate his story. I kept my mouth closed about not scribbling. And I didn’t mention that he could add words, maybe even labels to his story. Instead I squeezed his hand and left the conference.
Noah kept scribbling the arc from the ax to the toy into his paper. It was a thick black line by the end of the writing workshop. He put his paper in his folder and went on with the day.
The next day he wrote about his grandpa. Then he wrote about his grandpa again and again and again. Every story, except the first, was about his grandpa. “You write like David Shannon,” I said to Noah one day. “Do you know that in almost every book he writes, he includes his dog? That’s like you. You always include your grandpa.”
“I have lots of grandpa stories,” Noah said. “Sometimes I even write them at home.”
I continued to meet with Noah, celebrating the writing life he was beginning to establish. He started adding words, then pages, piling parts of stories together to make books.
His illustrations were undeveloped, but as time went on, he began adding more details. Not only did his illustrations begin to come alive, but so did Noah. With time, he quit hiding in his hoodie and began to smile when I sat down next to him for a conference. Soon we were having conversations about meaning and craft choices and conventions.
It’s been four years since I first met Noah. He is a fifth grader now and is still writing stories at home. If you saw him, you wouldn’t think, Now, there’s a writer. Unfortunately he isn’t a writer in school.
As he moved through the grades, writing continued to be hard. This is a truth of writing: it is hard. It is especially hard for the students who are missing fundamental experiences with putting stories and facts and opinions on the page with illustrations and words. The older Noah became, the more apparent were all of the things he didn’t know.
As these things became pressing needs and the focus of Noah’s writing life, he responded by putting fewer words on the page. I think he figured out what too many students before him have realized: with fewer words comes fewer misspelled words. At the same time, the less the writer grows.
Celebration will save Noah and help him grow into the kind of writer the world needs: someone who can communicate clearly and precisely, with passion and energy. If we continue to focus only on what he doesn’t know, there will never be space to build on all he does know.
Noah is a brave writer. He needs brave conferences in writing workshop to identify the things he does well as a writer and to find the things he is almost doing, but needs support in becoming proficient. Teaching from the stance of celebration will help every student become the kind of writer who writes boldly and changes the world.