By Lauren Heimlich Foley
The more I ask questions and learn about my students, the more I can guide them to make reading and writing choices that intrinsically motivate them and support their authentic selves.
Last September, Samantha refused to include dialogue in her micro fiction and Rob rejected internal thoughts in his memoir. After individually speaking with them and asking questions, I learned that language was holding them back. Because Samantha spoke in a language other than English at home and Rob thought in a language other than English, including dialogue and internal thoughts felt impossible. However, after our student-teacher conferences, these students took a writing risk and became mentors within our classroom.
In their final pieces, Samantha included her mom speaking to her in Albanian and Rob included internal thoughts—and his conversation with his mom—in Spanish. Their writerly struggles and accomplishments made me reflect. I reconsidered the way I taught dialogue and internal thoughts because I wanted to honor all of the languages my students spoke. Additionally, I asked myself how I could further maximize the authenticity of all students’ writing pieces and incorporate a cross-curricular learning opportunity with the eighth grade Spanish and French curricula. To support this risk-taking, my classes explored how writers use language to enrich their writing. All student names are pseudonyms.
With Samantha and Rob’s permission, their pieces became mentor texts for their classmates. I coupled their work with young adult novels that exemplified this technique: The Astonishing Color of After, The Book Thief, Inside Out and Back Again, Salt to the Sea, and The Poet X. Three of the five texts were independent reading books that my students volunteered for the mini-lesson. I would also add Resistance to this list. Samantha and Rob helped lead the mini-lesson in their respective class periods, explaining why they choose this technique. I shared their work with my other classes. Afterwards, students explored the books. They collected a list of how the technique worked in the larger text and how authors helped their readers understand the meaning of new words.
After this initial mini-lesson, other students began employing a second language in their writing. For instance, one student wrote about the Holocaust and asked her neighbor to help her with the German dialogue she included. Another student, who spoke Russian, included authentic dialogue in his personal narrative camping trip. As students continued to refer back to the initial mini-lesson, they taught me and their fellow classmates about their lives and expertise. We learned about one another and were inclusive of one another. Furthermore, students contemplated how to make their writing as accurate as possible.
Fast forward to January 2020 and students are independently reading nonfiction or narrative nonfiction books. Their reading is two-fold; they are learning about something that interests them while simultaneously studying author craft. We are combining the reading unit with a researched, self-selected writing piece. Students are selecting topics, conducting research, picking genres, determining purposes, and choosing audiences. As they read like writers, they are noticing that many authors include languages specific to the topic, culture, and location of the subject matter. Particularly, one student pointed out a page in I am Malala. As writers and researchers, my students are considering how they might include this craft move in their final products.
In the future, I would like to invite students to explore authors such as Christopher Paolini who use made-up languages in their fantasy books. I am curious to see the impact of language creation on my middle schoolers’ fantasy and dystopian writing.