Over my career in schools, Anne Lamott’s words on writing in Bird by Bird have helped to shape a wider philosophy. Both in the classroom with students and with colleagues refining their teaching, I strive to create a particular atmosphere, that of holding a space for exploration, for vulnerability, a place to try things out so that we may progress.
Young people of late have received a good deal of criticism that they are too soft, too fragile, unable to deal with conflict or discomfort. Writers from David Brooks to Jonathan Haidt to the Onion staff have accused young people of being “over-coddled,” impugning safe spaces and trigger warnings as symptoms of minds that cannot manage discomfort or tolerate challenge.
While it is certainly possible to see how the concept of “safety” could become overused, I take issue with these critics. The young people I work with are brave and compassionate. They are curious, eager to engage, and willing to act. In his work How Children Succeed, Paul Tough presents child development research that suggests that the single most important factor in a growing person’s ability to cope with stress and develop resilience is that they receive comfort when in distress. Thus, the provision of places where students feel “safe” to let down their guard and regroup is not merely a figment of some 21st-century weakness. It is a crucial ingredient in young people’s maturation.
In an intimate school setting with young students, educators play this nurturing role alongside parents. This is not to say we cannot set challenging expectations, hold firm guidelines, or practice some “tough love”; in fact, we must do these things. It means that we can– and must – also provide pockets of peace, holding spaces where students can feel safe in vulnerability, so that they can go back out into a world that, though filled with beauty, can also be prickly and hostile, especially to difference.
As a teacher, I position myself not as a judge and evaluator (though I do assess their writing), but as an interested reader of student work. I watch my language carefully here: I do not “grade papers,” but rather I read, and respond to, student writing. I use a portfolio system for assessment, in which students and I both use a rubric to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement in each piece. They revise pieces that showcase the former or target the latter, and we examine the body of work as a whole at quarterly intervals. In class, I write alongside them. I share my own writing process with them – the foibles, the frustrations, the stuck places, and the triumphs: how good it feels to get just the right words in just the right places; to uncover, through the process of writing, something we didn’t previously see about a text; to discover something that speaks out of the void to someone else. We hold coffeehouses where we share our favorite pieces aloud. We are not lone islands, but sharers of this oasis.
Writing, like teaching, like anything worth working for, like life itself, is so much about doing the thing until we come to place that feels scary and stuck, and then mucking around in that place until we emerge, like the hero from the underworld, with new insights. We can only reach our full potential – our best selves, the selves who can make our most vibrant contributions to a troubled world – when we have that opportunity, and we have to feel that we can be vulnerable before we can get there. That’s not coddling; it’s creating the conditions for growth. When you get to that place, I tell my students, where what you thought was your conclusion becomes your opening thesis, then you have succeeded. And then you can get back out there, and get on with things.