Looking for Possibility


“The first draft of anything is shit.”

 Ernest Hemingway

Even Ernest Hemingway recognized that the first draft of anything is crap. He valued the latent potential of the draft, the power that is later released through copious revision; he did not expect or anticipate that his first draft would be terse and cogent. In fact, he spent hours carving out sentences, paring down his word count. It took time. As the school year unfolds into new beginnings, it is important to recognize that students are “drafts” of who they might possibly become. And for a number of students, the first draft is somewhat unrefined.

Teachers like to celebrate small innuendos of educational history such as the fact that Albert Einstein still didn’t know how to read in second grade; Dav Pilkey developed Captain Underpants in a desk in the hallway where his teacher plunked him for many hours; Richard Branson’s epic dyslexia; the fact that both Jobs and Gates were college drop outs.  I suspect we like to think that our teaching has morphed since the twentieth century and we now successfully differentiate for those students naturally inclined to be outside the box. Unfortunately, as the new school season ramps up and conversations percolate in hallways, I notice how quick we are to focus on students’ deficits and how challenging it is for us to put the lens on abundance, to see clearly what students can do. We still want to hammer everyone into the mold.

As information triples daily and teachers struggle to keep up, to innovate and evolve, it seems more important than ever to see clearly what our students are capable of.  When focused on ability, teachers can define and clarify next steps. When focused on deficit, the landscape seems land-mined. We become so distracted by the debits, that we lose the horizon. Next time you feel overwhelmed by all your students seem unable to do, take a deep breath and reframe your question: What can most of the students in this classroom do? They are just first drafts. But layered deep in the words of the first draft is the bud of what is possible. I believe it’s our job to look for potential, to celebrate possibility.

This conundrum is nowhere more apparent than in the initial days of the writing workshop. Some students struggle to even put words on the page. My conferences rely on conversation; I try to find the budding ideas in the squiggly drawings, the integral nugget in the unfinished sentences. This isn’t easy. On many a day I want to say: “This is a piece of shit!” But, I know from experience that these words or gestures that approximate this message will only encourage the writer to quit. Writing is art, sizzled with identity and forged with skill, no different from dance or sculpture. Young writers are just finding their footing. Nietzsche noted: “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” I keep this quote tucked in a pocket, close to my heart at the year’s start. It’s so easy to forget that these small stumbles will lead to flying one day; a flight I might never witness. Next time you’re holding a piece of shit that someone just turned in, try to remember that buried in the dangling modifiers and the lack of tense agreement, is the budding soul of a writer. The words that shuffle off your tongue have the power to make or break a writer. What teacher do you want to be?

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