They looked at me, incredulous, with half-smiles of disbelief. They waited for the other shoe--the predictable, uncool, adult one--to drop. Their teenage faces showed equal amounts of cultural and generational distrust. There simply was no way I could be telling them the truth.
I was, though. "Any words you want."
A skinny boy in the back raised his hand. "Like, you mean, any. Like..."
"Yes, like any words you need to tell the thing you want to say today. If you need to get angry, use angry words. Go ahead and make a list of every 'bad' word you can think of, if you really want. But I think that would probably get old really fast."
They laughed. He smiled.
"I'm serious. Words are fun, right? Especially the bad ones."
I changed my curriculum a few years ago as a result of seeing a lot of studies that said most adults don't read much (or read at all) after high school. I started blocking off Fridays for free reading and giving the kids choice about what they read. It was hard to let go. I had to make space by making everything else I had to cover fit into the other four days a week. And letting them choose any book in the universe led to some interesting results. But I took away any "project" kind of things I had associated with those Friday books. All I required was that they read.
I guess I've really been thinking about that since I read Outliers, which was quite a while ago. That book (and many others, since) make the claim that it's a kid's access to books that make the difference--from a very young age, just being surrounded by books in their houses and having an opportunity to read can make a huge difference in their academic progress. Not just reading difficult texts (which they're already doing with me the other four days a week) or reading important historical documents. But reading things they choose. Just reading improves everything. Reading like a kid would read. Like I see my children doing every day after school. And honestly most of them don't: read or have access to books. Even if they did, they don't know how to sit quietly and concentrate. They don't have the stamina, and the world is certainly willing to offer up distractions.
So we started doing that Friday thing and the more I did it with them, the more I started to think about what my ultimate goal is for my profession. No, not my goal that's aligned to the Common Core State Standards, or the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, or any of that other stuff that of course I am all about, but my heart goal for the kids. My reason for being in that classroom every day, even though I know what kind of odds we all face. It is this: I want them to leave my class knowing that reading is awesome when you're reading something you want to know about. And I want them to know that if you can read, even a little, the world is more accessible to you.
That's tough though, right? How do you teach someone to love something? (Or even to tolerate it?) You can't really. All you can do is set the mood. Help them find each other. So we practice. A ton. And they fight me tooth and nail, but eventually they learn to sit still. And after a year or two of this free choice reading, I started to want to also incorporate periodicals--"Smart People Magazines," I call them--into the routine. And creative writing. Because writing is fun too, or at least it must have been when they were little. And writing freely and creatively has to improve their academic writing, right?
Which was why they were staring at me last Friday. I had just set the guidelines for our creative writing Fridays, explained the behaviors I was expecting to see (the ones that show me they're on task, rather than off), and I had just told them that unlike their other, more academic work, this was for them. They could go buck wild with the vocabulary if it made them happy to fill the page. They got to write for a short period of time--anything they wanted--and I wasn't going to hold anything they wrote on these days against them. I wasn't going to read it unless they wanted me to, really. Because it's not the thing I'm interested in. It's the act.
I was surprised not by their reactions when I said they could write anything they wanted, but by what they said as they returned to school today after they'd had the weekend off.
"Mrs. P, I really actually liked that thing we did on Friday."
"Are we gonna do that again, when we can write anything we want?"
"That was pretty cool, you know."
Listen. I'm not trying to create my own Freedom Writers. There's no end game here. Just reading and writing things they want. I just want them to sit and learn to be still and do it. But I didn't realize until those conversations today that many of them don't think this--writing--is a thing they can do on their own. At home. They think I have to give the okay. And that struck me.
How is it that kids feel they need permission to be creative?