It can’t be easy to teach writing to a group of primary special education students, but Lynn Madore is committed to her students’ success. If you’re a teacher, try using a bit of your summer to engage your inner rebel—Madore style. Lynn was a student in my online “Writing with Kids: Real Writing with Real Results” continuing education course—one of the ones who taught me why I may not stop teaching this class.

 

Having it My Way

by Lynn Madore

Perhaps the best way for me to begin is to acknowledge my own block; my own stuck-in-the-mud-needing to write-a-certain-way-that-impedes-the-flow, my perfectionist tendencies and propensity to procrastinate. I can write. But don’t. My students can’t write. And don’t. Where do I begin? I’m spinning wheels in mud with my Fiat when what I need is a Jeep 4 x 4. My own impediments to production, though endowing me with a certain measure of empathy for my students, define my ignorance. Where do I begin?

I know there is a “better” way, but what direction do I head? I truly do not know what to do to support my struggling students. I feel hampered by general educators and parent expectations and the command to provide supports through curriculum when the curriculum is already so far above their heads. (Even more so at my school where educators brag about being a grade level or more beyond the “norm” and where “average” kids are referred to me for special education testing because average looks disabled.)

Is the mire my students find themselves in, similar to my own? Is it their ability or the constraints placed on them? Choose what they write? When? Where? It’s always assigned—right down to the specific graphic organizer they have to use to accomplish the task. Phooey.

What would I do if I were the captain of the ship instead of a deck hand?

First of the new school year:

I meet with all general educators and parents whose students I serve to share my new philosophy: I’ll no longer be doing “get it done” assignments, but rather students will be coming to me to find the freedom to write and be supported in their writing “right where they are at” without deadlines, without restrictions, but not without expectations—the expectations that will develop in them the love of writing for writing’s sake.

First assignment of the new year:

  • Windows are flung open; the breeze streams through ruffling…
  • Colored papers strewn across desks littered with old wallpaper books, magazines, glue, glitter, markers, leather laces, buttons, and beads
  • Students arrive in small groups, not 1:1
  • They arm themselves with artist materials to create a personalized writer’s journal

—a free expression of self in which to express oneself in words and drawings

  • The Beatles (perhaps) are blaring in the background (Why be conventional?)
  • Task complete: budding authors trounce back to classrooms, journals in hand
  • Ongoing assignment: a daily journal log

Let the writing begin:

  • Budding authors arrive in small groups, equipped with their journals (and hopefully an entry or two)
  • The hunt ensues for a nook, or cranny in which to collude with the inner author
  • They will know when they visit “Ms M,” it’s writing time—every time
  • I will serve as their guide, their observer, their deep listener, their mirror—to know and to be known
  • They will learn ideas come first
  • In my classroom, because I have already set the “curriculum boundary” they will always be free to write about whatever most moves them (even if it’s 20 essays on soccer)
  • When they are “done’ (because it’s their mantra after all), it will signal me that I do not yet know my little author well; I shall become an “inquiring mind”

Mini lessons

  • I will meet them where they are at, not where the curriculum dictates they should be
  • They will learn conventions—spelling, grammar, punctuation within the context of their ideas
  • I will teach by example, modeling my thoughts
  • They will be on writer’s retreat, and I shall be circling and tailoring lessons 1:1
  • We will come together as a group to record our mini-lessons on poster board to hang around the room for future reference
  • They will learn the art of the self-conference “asking myself the questions other students might ask of me”
  • Will we take “idea walks” around the school, outside, with our pencils and journals; we will sweeten the “pot of our writer’s mind”

How will I use literature to teach writing?

With the crush of curriculum, and my extraordinary frustration this year, I’d already given consideration to this idea, and have purchased two series which are at “grade level” and used in the grade 3 curriculum for “response to reading.” This summer, I’ll create chapter summaries and have a plan for read-aloud with students who are not yet at grade level. (Let’s be realistic: this means all of them.) I will tailor their writing, and provide choices for organizing their writing that extend what is being offered in the classroom. And I, not the gen. ed. teacher will control the pacing, which means I’m going for quality, not quantity. It’s going to be a battle—a world war, perhaps.

But I am resolved:

Beginning my 9th year of teaching, I will do what I believe to be best for my students. I pledge to ignore (and work to overcome the uproar), the complete cacophony from gen. ed. teachers and parents, that is likely to ensue.

Engage my inner rebel.

 

Lynn Madore is primary special education teacher at the Marion Cross School in Norwich, VT. A former professional diaper changer, boo-boo kisser, snot wiper, dish-doer, and clutter picker-upper of five, she is still discerning which of the two jobs provides the greater challenge. In her spare time (all five minutes a day), Lynn enjoys knitting, sewing, cycling, hiking, camping and kissing her grandson’s boo-boos. She leaves the snot-wiping to daughter/mother, Lauren.