Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Slice of Life Challenge
Please join the challenge over at Two Writing Teachers!

I've been thinking a lot about the word permission. Asking permission. Getting permission. Needing permission. I struggle with this as an I'm remembering myself as a student. In school, I was a teacher pleaser, a rule follower...and that fit nicely, especially since I attended Catholic school. The nuns loved that about me. Thus began my love of school at an early age! I followed instructions, got permission and did exactly what was asked of me...and nothing more.

That is not the picture of a successful student in today's classroom...well, I guess the success is partial. Following instructions is certainly a valuable skill, but I argue that listening to instructions, questioning them, and finding your own way to accomplish the task is better. As a student, I'd never dare that! Question the teacher?!?! NO WAY! I wish someone had encouraged me to question, to risk, to do before asking permission. 

Problem solving before permission is what I want out of my students. 

A friend's son asked me to read a story he's writing. He's a rising sixth grader and was never really interested in writing before this story. I read it. I really enjoyed it. He's creating a world with dragons and dragon's filled with creativity and action! I'm impressed.  I spoke to his mom last night about his story and she told me that in school if the teacher assigned writing, he always did it. If the teacher said, "Topic sentence. Three reasons. Closing." He'd do that...and only that. This story is him! It's all him. He's working on it in his own time, using his own ideas...and this is so different than school. Hearing this I had a light bulb moment...maybe a chandelier moment! This was ME! In school, I wrote exactly what the teachers assigned and nothing more. It wasn't because I wasn't passionate about writing (working on my 57th notebook since fourth grade). It wasn't that I didn't know how...I wanted to follow the rules and I never felt permission to do any more than what was assigned. I wonder...what would I be like if my teachers encouraged me to find my own way. If they didn't give me so much guidance, but instead served as coaches and guided me when I needed help! What might I have tried?!?!

Now as a teacher, I need to remember this young writer. I need to remember to continue to push and challenge my rule followers, my permission seekers! They are the ones who constantly ask me, "Is this ok?" or "Is this good?" We have long discussions about those questions and answers. "Why are you asking me?" "Is it good because I say it's good? Why?" "Can you say it's good? Is that enough?" Sometimes I see the eye rolls when the discussions begin, but I don't let go. These are important discussions to have. 

In the first few weeks of school, I assign my students a writing assignment, that seems crazy to them. I tell them that I want them to use everything they know about being a good writer and write for the next few minutes. I give them a sharpie and a brown paper lunch bag. I ask them to write until I tell them to stop. Sometimes I give them a prompt if they want it. For example: the story should have a motorcycle, peanut butter and a Chihuahua in it.  I tell them I won't be answering any questions about the how's or whys of this assignment and I tell them that my rule followers may struggle with this. Even though they know I won't answer any questions, questions will still be asked. When they are, I repeat the simple instructions, "Using the tools I gave you write for the next few minutes." More questions are asked, and again, I say, "Using the tools I gave you write for the next few minutes." I usually repeat this four or five times. They laugh when they realize, I'm not saying anything else. When we finally begin, I write too...some students DIVE in and start furiously scribbling...some sit and think...some look troubled. We write. When we are done, we share with our tables, if we want. Then we talk. That's the best part!

Many students love this assignment. They love the freedom and they felt free to express themselves in their own way! I envy these students and get to see early on who my risk takers are. My favorite response to this assignment was a girl, a staunch rule follower, who was mad about this assignment. She was mad that I wouldn't answer questions. When I asked her about it she said that clearly, "I was mad. You wouldn't answer my questions. My mom and dad weren't here to answer my questions..."  So I said, "What did you do?" She smiled and said, "I had to figure it out on my own." And when I asked her how she felt, she sat up straighter and announced, "I'm proud of myself." She took a risk. I had to push her to take a risk, but once she did, she stopped asking for my permission. 

So today, let's take risks. Let's be models for our students. Don't ask permission. Do it!


  1. In school, I also wrote just what the teacher asked for and never went beyond. How sad for me. I think we have all had students ask, "Is this good?" It is like they need validation. This boy is writing what he wants and pleases him. Good for him!

  2. I love this Michelle. Such a great invitation for all students. An opportunity to go outside the box and try with permission to see how it feels. You have taken what I learned last week and given me some solid ideas of how to run with it. Thank you!

  3. This is a much appreciated reminder to a struggling control freak. I especially love that the little girl who was mad made the realization that she was proud of herself for figuring things out. The lunch bag activity is a great first day one in my book- see who the risk takers are early. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Why on a lunch bag?

    1. Using a lunch bag and sharpie shakes things up. I hope to send the message that this writing is different, creative, their own! (I borrowed this idea from an online writing workshop I took and I loved it. The change of perspective made a much bigger difference than I was prepared for and it stuck with me!)

  5. This is fantastic!!! I can picture you in Catholic school as a perfect rule-follower. ;-) Even though we love our rule-following students, we can give the wrong impression that they are the only ones we value as "good students." I love that you challenged this notion and got us thinking about encouraging questions, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, choice, etc., etc. Bravo!

  6. Michelle, you put a different perspective on teacher expectations for her students. We want all students to take risks, make choices, and write as thought their insides are coming out on the outside. Keep pushing your students to become owners of their writing lives.

  7. Wow, I think I might have had a chandelier moment while reading your post! I will be looking at my rule followers in a very different way! I am also thinking about adding the brown paper bag and sharpie to my beginning of a school activities!

  8. Great post, Michelle. I always colored outside the lines, and I try to remember that with my kids. I love the way you thought this through - and the lesson you devised.

  9. Great post, Michelle! I always colored outside the lines, and I try to remember that with my sixth graders. Love the lesson, too.

  10. Terrific post, Michelle! Great advice and love the idea!

  11. Michelle,
    I loved reading your thoughts on "permission." I too was a student who always followed rules, asked for permission, and made sure I had permission before doing anything. Yet I desire the opposite for my students. I too wonder what would have happened, how I'd be different if my teachers had taught me to take more risks. And what a great writing assignment! (I may be borrowing this idea.) Thank you for sharing!

  12. Isn't it strange that, as teachers, we feel so comfortable pushing students to read and explore new genres as readers, but are terrified to let them have freedom in their writing? I hope to keep this post in mind as September approaches and new readers and writers enter my classroom! Thank you for your thoughts!

  13. Yep, I was a rule follower too! I love this writing activity and am going to borrow this idea for my own writers. I also love that you have so many of your own notebooks from your writing journey.
    Sweet Writing Life


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