What Teaching Middle School Writing is Teaching Me About Life

I’m standing at the front of the room, laughing like an idiot, in a room full of 12 to 14 year olds roaring in equal parts hilarity and awkwardness.

We just finished doing the Chicken Dance. That’s right, the Chicken Dance. I somehow managed to convince a room full of tweens to set aside their pride and flap their arms and shimmy their tushies for a full three minutes. Laughter floats heavy in the air, and the room smells of equal parts over-sprayed cologne and weird middle school body odor.

I love this.

I’m teaching middle schoolers to write. And it’s just as difficult and awkward and hair-pulling-out-frustrating as you might imagine.

It’s also amazingly and wonderfully magical. Seeing them stretch a little more. Try something new. Risk just a smidge more than yesterday—and allowing me a front row seat to the whole show.

The past two months as a middle school writing teacher has taught me many things. Like never show up without coffee, for one. And never underestimate the power of a spat between friends, for another.

But more than that, I’m learning some valuable life lessons that I thought might resonate with you, too.

  1. Sometimes you just need permission to try—and fail. I told my students on the first day of school that my biggest and most ardent expectation for them in my classroom is that they try, try, try. And then try some more. “I’m not after perfection,” I told them. “I’m after the attempt.” I let them know that every first try, when it comes to writing, stinks, and that’s ok. That’s perfect, in fact. And that permission to try something, and to rejoice if it fails, was just what the doctor ordered to foster the courage to take a leap in an area that was uncomfortable for most of them.
  2. Sometimes you need someone to walk with you. I walk them through my writing process, and leave nothing out. I start with the, “Aw man, I    don’t want to write about this!” all the way through to “This is my best idea yet!” I let them join me on the journey from discovery to brainstorming to drafting to publishing. I show them that all the weird things that pop into their minds aren’t so weird after all. And that little act of bringing them along on my own journey gives them the bravery to start their own journeys in my room each day.
  3. Sometimes you just need someone to recognize the talent in you. It’s by far my most favorite moment in the classroom. That sacred minute in which I get a glimpse of greatness. It’s crazy that I’m honored enough to be there when a student unearths a nugget of brilliance all on their own and I get to call them on it. I call out talent. Raw skill. Unique perspectives. Deep insights. I share with them exactly what I see in them that is good. Or great. Phenomenal. And world-changing. It may just be a sentence on paper, but to me it’s a spring board to a better world. And when I point it out to them, they blush and smile. Some shrug and wave their hand as if to say, “Aw, shucks. Not really.” But they walk a little taller. They reach out to their neighbor and pass on the torch of encouragement. They’re quicker to notice the brilliance in each other, and forgive the “sin” of mediocrity in themselves. And isn’t that the same with you and me? Sometimes someone comes along just at the right time when we needed it most of all and points out the beauty we mistake for midline. And it bolsters us for whatever comes next.
  4. Sometimes you just need someone to take your hand, and pull you smack dab into the center of silliness. I don’t know what the classrooms to the left and right of mine were thinking as we howled and clapped our way through the Chicken Dance. But I know what I saw. Smiling faces. Helping hands. Defenses coming down. And in the end, in some weird way, we were just that much closer. We dialed in to the work much quicker and more easily. That three minute foray into the goofy released the pent up tension we didn’t even realize had built, and allowed us to delve more deeply and quickly into the real, more meaningful work.
  5. Sometimes you just need to be the person who does numbers 1 through 4 for someone else. 

So what about you? Do you need permission to try and fail; someone who will walk with you; someone to recognize the good in you and your life; or a tug into the silly? And who in your life can you reach out to and do the same for? Encouragement goes both ways, and often times I find I’m more encouraged, uplifted, and lighter in the soul when I’m focused on lifting up someone else than when I’ve been the one to be lifted.



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