Friday, October 8, 2010

White Paper Syndrome

            “But I don’t know what to write about!” The pitch of my distraught7th grade students climbs higher and higher as the class period drags on and on. Language Arts teachers must learn to ignore it or they will eventually resolve to find a different career that involves less whining. I can’t think of a job that has no whining involved off the top of my head, but if you have one, good for you.
“You’re supposed to write about something you think is interesting.”

25 faces are staring at white sheets of paper. Two students have written on the front and back sides of their papers and have gotten up to get additional sheets. One of the 25 sticks out his tongue at the student walking back to his seat. “I hate you,” he hisses. The passionate writer smiles smugly. I can hardly wait to read the epic story about the purple and blue ninjas from outer space. It promises to be a page-turner, despite the fact that the author is demolishing the conventions of the English language as thoroughly as his aliens are demolishing Atlanta.

“Go back to your prewriting. We did all of that brainstorming and free-writing to help you choose a topic. There must be something there that you want to write about.”

23 sets of eyes stare at me blankly. Two heads are down on desks, and the two writers continue scribbling away.

“Are you going to let a blank piece of paper get the better of you?”

10 heads nod yes, 9 look at the clock in panic, and 4 more foreheads hit desks.

“Here’s a trick. You have a disease called ‘white paper syndrome’. One of the ways to get rid of the dreaded disease is to write something – anything – on the paper. We can fix whatever you write to make it better, but we have to have something – anything – to start with.”

My darlings are starting to drool on their desks. One girl in the front row raises her hand.

“Yes, Brianna?”

“But what are we supposed to write about, Mrs. Scullion?”

“Try writing your names on your papers,” I suggest with a sigh. “You can include the date and class period if you like.”

23 pencil points are placed on the top right-hand side of the page. The two who put their heads on their desk earlier are now asleep. I touch their shoulders as I walk by, and they sit up with a jerk. “Write your name on your paper, doofus,” the student sitting behind them advises. They look around sullenly and slowly search for the pencils that rolled off their desks 15 minutes ago.
            “All right! Now you have something on that white paper, and I can tell you’re feeling better already! Let’s write!” If I had a set of pompoms with me, I’d be shaking them enthusiastically. “Yeah, writing!”

            Cheerleader, teacher, class clown – whatever it takes is what I do. 8 slightly pained smiles are shot at me. The rest pretend they don’t know me. I’m OK with that.

            “Now write one sentence, just one. We’ll change it tomorrow if you don’t like it.”

            12 students slowly and carefully write, “Hi, my name is (insert name here).” 5 more write, “I hate writing.” The last 6 are still stymied.

            The bell is about to ring. Most of my students have written a sentence on their papers, so I consider the class period a moderate success. “Time to hand in your papers now.”

            “Will we have time to write tomorrow, Mrs. S.?”

            I smile at the alien-story student. “You sure will.” He smiles happily as he leaves the room.

            “We’re going to have to write again tomorrow?” This from the cluster of students who are handing me papers that have their name, the date, and the class period in the upper right corner.

            “Of course,” I answer. “You haven’t finished your stories yet. But it’ll be much easier tomorrow since you got a good start today.” Yes, I do manage to say that with a straight face.

            They eye me doubtfully, but we’ve been together for a while now and they already know I’m nuts.

            “So have a good afternoon, everyone, and don’t forget to read for at least 30 minutes tonight.” I ignore the involuntary snort of laughter 2 of the girls can’t hold back, and walk over to my desk to paperclip the class’s stories together.

            “That went well, don’t you think?” I asked myself out loud.

            “It could have been worse,” I answered myself.

            “Uh, Mrs. Scullion?”

            “Yes, dear?”

            “You’re talking to yourself again.”

            “Was I? Sorry about that.”

            “Are you OK?” The concerned eyes of my next class met mine.

            “Oh, yes,” I assured them. “I’m great.”

            They smiled happily. “What are we going to do today?”

            I ground my teeth. “We’re going to write stories today.”

            “We’re going to write stories today?” 2 students looked excited. “Really?”

            The other students eyed me doubtfully. “But Mrs. Scullion, what are we going to write about?”