by Mark Overmeyer
One truth I have learned about resistant writers has helped me more than any other:
Many resistant writers are better at resisting than they are at writing. They resist because they have practiced resistance, and this leads to less and less writing. To change this pattern, I need to move these students in the opposite direction – toward practicing writing more than practicing resistance.
Our initial response to resistant students is important, and these kind of negative thoughts won’t help: “They just won’t write! They hate writing. I’ve tried everything, but if they won’t write, I can’t do anything about it.” This kind of thinking is negative because it assumes the writer cannot change.
This kind of thinking is more helpful: “I wonder why this writer resists so much… I notice some days are better for him than others. What do I need to know about this writer to help him write more?” When we take an inquiry stance, we are more likely to support a positive change.
When I think about my resisters as opportunities to learn – when I study their resistance – then I am more likely to provide meaningful support.
One resistant writer who taught me more than any other was in my fifth grade class a few years ago. Jonathan was passive: he didn’t say much at all during writing time, and he preferred to be left alone, hoping that I wouldn’t push him to produce. Here are a few things I learned from Jonathan during that year:
Invite the resister into a conversation
Some days, Jonathan wrote nothing. Other days, he would write a few lines of text during writing workshop.
As I observed Jonathan, he taught me that some resisters respond to an invitation to talk. Instead of being too enthusiastic – “That’s awesome, Jonathan! You wrote so much today! I knew you could do it!” – I started to talk to him more like this:
“Jonathan, I noticed you wrote more today than yesterday. What do you think made the difference for you?”
Inviting Jonathan into the conversation was the key change that moved him to less of a resister and more of a writer. When I started asking him what he thought as a writer, he engaged more willingly. I began respecting Jonathan as a writer who could articulate something about his own process –something Eric Toshalis is speaking about in an article about student behavior:
At the end of the day, students will want to learn with us when they’re confident they won’t feel cruddy in the process. Engaging their resistance and analyzing how we may have provoked their misbehaviors will help us take advantage of opportunities to learn about their perspectives, appreciate their experiences, and improve our practices. (Toshalis, 2015)
Even though Toshalis is discussing students who misbehave rather than resist writing, it is instructive that he encourages us to engage their resistance. If we lower grades or withdraw privileges from students when they resist, we are punishing rather than engaging.
My breakthroughs with Jonathan began with a conversation that led to strategy talk.
Notice and name specific strategies
Talks with Jonathan allowed him to learn strategies that he could replicate
later. This kind of strategy instruction is key to supporting student success in the writing workshop, as Deborah Dean notes in her research brief What Works in Writing Instruction:
Strategy instruction helps students learn multiple methods for solving a variety of problems they may face in all kinds of writing situations, not just the kind of writing they do for school. Helping students learn and practice strategies, as well as the regulatory practices that will help them apply those strategies effectively in a variety of future situations, is at the heart of strategy instruction. (Dean, 2010)
Making strategies visible and clear to students is an important part of this process. If our conference revealed that choice made a difference, I named that for Jonathan: “So today, it seems like choice helped you. I gave you some choices, but you also made a good choice about what to write. So one strategy that works for you as a writer is to choose topics you care about.” This naming is important, since strategy work is invisible. Once students begin to feel success, they can capitalize on this success and slowly become less resistant.
Increase positive experiences to increase self-efficacy
In the past, Jonathan had negative experiences as a writer. Negative comments peppered his report card from his previous school. His teachers labeled him non-compliant, and since he was reluctant to do work, he spent a lot of time being punished. Students who resist often become students who lack efficacy because they have few successful experiences, and low efficacy results in lower achievement:
Hattie & Marzano both found that students’ self-efficacy had a substantial impact on their subsequent achievement. Students who believed they would master fractions were more likely to do so, while students who saw themselves as poor readers were less likely to improve their reading. (Killian, 2015)
Jonathan did not believe he was a writer, so he then became a non-writer. In order to increase his feeling of efficacy, I often chunked writing assignments into smaller parts so that he could feel success along the way. My feedback (mainly in the form of naming, as mentioned above) helped because it was actionable along the way. Success builds on success for resisters, and once they feel successful they will begin to push themselves further.
Focus on the relationship beyond the walls of the classroom
One of my biggest breakthroughs with Jonathan came from an unexpected place.
In my district, when it snowed, we often had delayed start days. Jonathan showed up at the regular time when a delayed start had been called, and school was not set to begin for another hour. All students who arrived early could wait in the gym for school to start, but when I saw Jonathan at my classroom door, I invited him in to help me get ready for the day.
He helped me rearrange desks, and I taught him how to use the copy machine. We talked about everything except school. I learned that his dad was trying to quit smoking, and that he recently added a puppy to his family. In less than an hour, I learned more about Jonathan than I knew about many students in my class that year. I think the comfortable dialogue helped Jonathan trust me in ways he may not have before. Rather than being in trouble for arriving at school early on a delayed start day, I welcomed him. From that day on, we had short talks about his family and his puppy, and these talks built on our strengthening relationship. He began to respond to being pushed as a writer because he viewed me as a trusted adult, not a teacher who would mainly criticize him for not accomplishing tasks.
I did not see immediate results with Jonathan that year. It took time and patience on both of our parts to see the change. Sometimes, Jonathan resisted after a week of writing nearly every day. Other times, his progress seemed to accelerate at a rapid pace. The progress was not a steady upward trend, but rather a series of hills with some dips along the way. But once the upward trend became clear, Jonathan became more independent and more willing to try strategies on his own.
All of our students are teachers, but resisters have taught me more than any other type of learner. Embrace the challenge they provide. Be curious rather than frustrated. Don’t resist what they can teach you.
Mark Overmeyer worked as a teacher and a literacy coordinator near Cherry Creek Schools near Denver for 28 years. He has published 4 titles on writing workshop with Stenhouse and now works as a consultant in schools across the country and internationally. Find him on Twitter @markovermeyer.
Dean, D. (2010). What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practices. Chicago, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Killian, S. (2015). 8 Strategies Robert Marzano and John Hattie agree on. Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching. www.evidencebasedteaching.org.au
Toshalis, E. (2015). Five practices that provoke misbehavior. Educational Leadership. 73 (2), 34-40.