Book Report Hell-p

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I hopped out of the car, kids in tow and sent the youngest two to play.  My oldest is about to experience his first official teacher conference, we are immediately met by one fast talking teacher, a familiar face and voice he has been working with for a few years.  She gives me a quick heads up about the book report assignment, which I had heard nothing about from him.  “It will be coming home.  The aid made some notes and wrote you a note so you can understand the situation.  He will need to finish it up at home.”  I had only a moment to reflect on this statement, “situation”??  The sixth grade teacher, the new voice for us, pops his head out the door of his room.  “Thanks for coming!  Sorry to keep you waiting!   Let’s head right in, shall we?”  The conference felt good, productive even, and I didn’t give the book report another thought till the following evening when an adult sized eleven year old landed, sprawled one foot straight behind him on the floor, another knee on the bench, and his head laying on the table squeaking out moans of protest, “I don’t know what to do!”  I didn’t need to read the note to understand this was going to be a long night, for both of us.

It took me a good twenty minutes (or more? in the din of protest, it seemed like hours!) to sort through my son’s writing folder, there was a post it from the aid, which helped, a little, but I still needed to get my bearings here, and figure out how to help my guy tackle this.  Unlike the recollection my husband and I have of regurgitating books in the name of “book report”, the structure for this sixth grade book report requires using three kinds of writing; expository, descriptive, and persuasive.  It also has specific guidelines that include a first person narrative from a character’s perspective.  My son had two pieces started and the third final section yet to begin.  So I started him there.  It was as close to a ‘fresh start’ as I could manage and I needed to muddle over the first two pieces a bit and figure out how to help him proceed.  After a few prompting questions, to determine his stance on the book, my son was writing. 

The next night, I was armed with a plan and a chart.  My son, of course, being himself did not want to use the chart.  Part of the problem with this first book report, is that the class was all working on the same book, except him, because he wasn’t integrated into the afternoon ELA workshop till several weeks into the year.  If I know anything about my boy, it is that he is very conscious of wanting to be “like everyone else” and sure enough, he was pretty sure no one else’s mom made a chart.  But for my own sanity I combined several pages of guidelines and instructions into one piece of paper anyway and am glad I did it!

The thing that I think helped my son most was to break the task down into chunks starting with the 3 sections of the book report.  Then I looked for the basics within each section, did he have any or all of the pieces?  He actually did have most of them.  The few missing components then, became easy to point out and for him to tackle.  After the basics, I looked for anything that needed a bit more information, detail, or examples, but for this time, I tried not to get carried away.  I was proud of myself this week, when I read Anna Gratz Cockerille’s “Work Smarter not Harder” post and realized I had intuitively broken down this task into the two qualities of writing to focus on when giving feedback, “organization and elaboration”.  Aside from the one post-it the aid left me in the writing folder, there were scads of notes, not just about the parts of the report, but about craft and language.  (That was why on night one, I got him started on a new section.  With all the notes, I was overwhelmed too!)

I know where she was coming from.  The aid at school certainly knows the sixth grade teacher, and his expectations.  After attending curriculum night, it was clear to me that the students this year will be expected to approach their writing, even the historically mundane book report, with a bit of artistry.  As is generally the case when approaching a job started by someone else, it seems too easy for me to say “She shouldn’t have pointed out quite so many places to “fix””, this is not a criticism of someone in the trenches.  I know, honestly, every teacher of writing has run into this hazard, too many “fix it” notes! Many posts on the Two Writing Teachers blog confirm that as they address how to avoid overwhelming students with comments, how to narrow down a teaching point, etc.

I also realize there are always two sides to a story, and am quite familiar with how my son can put the “Hell” into “helping”.  Things can snowball quickly with him if he is discouraged. Knowing my son as I do, (we’ve been doing this school thing together now for 8 years starting with preK), I figured he would need to learn to build the walls, the structure, before asking him to add paint and trimmings.  He can have a hard time seeing the big picture, and easily gets bogged down in details.  I also know there will be many more book reports this year, and many opportunities for practicing his craft, for choosing paint colors and adding tchotchkis.  This week he has settled into a new report.  He hasn’t asked for a minute of help.  He doesn’t want me to see it till it is done.  He has been working independently, no sprawling or squeaking involved, no protest no “Hell-p”!


Rose Cappelli said...

What a wonderful way to help guide your son! I hope that you will share the chart with his teacher so that they understand how to help him and probably others in the class work smarter. IIt's so important for teachers to know what works and sometimes parents are the ones who can share that insight. Thanks for sharing your story!

Maureen said...

I found middle-school years so tough for my boys because they were so self-conscious, so unwilling to be different or to 'stand out', and so disorganized - leading to being 'buried' in work and not knowing where to begin. Sounds like you headed off a real writing crisis - and probably salvaged his desire to write! (Which is the most important thing.) You helped him 'get through the weeds.' Yes, I'm sure your son will not take that chart to school, but I have no doubt it has helped him immeasurably.

Stacey said...

I love that you took the time to make a compelling visual to help your son. This is brilliant!

Tara Smith said...

I am in awe. Your son is one lucky kiddo!