Writing Workshop

Rigor Mortis Bend

CD01EE2F-A29F-4FBA-86C6-4102F3C6FAA8Excerpt from The Running Dream

by Wendelin Van Draanen

“Rigor Mortis Bend.

It’s a place in the 400-meter race where every cell of your body locks up.

Your lungs ache for air.

Your quads turn to cement.

Your arms pump desperately, but they’re stiff and feel like lead.

Rigor Mortis Bend is the last turn of any track, and at Liberty High you’re greeted with a headwind.

The finish line comes into view and you will yourself toward it, but the wind pushes you back, your body begs you to give up, and the whole world seems to grind into slow motion.

Your determination is all that’s left.

It forces your muscles to fire.

Forces you to stay in the race.

Forces you to survive the pain of this moment.

Your teammates scream for you to push.

Push! Push! Push!

You can do it!

But their voices are muffled by the gasping for air, the pounding of earth, the pumping of blood, the need to collapse.

I feel like I’m living on Rigor Mortis Bend.” (16-17)

So, I knew I was scheduled to write this blog post for about two and a half weeks now and I just kept pushing it to the metaphorical back burner. I tried to sit down and write. I made a list of topics to write about. I definitely thought about what to write. But no ideas emerged. Nothing worth sharing. Spring break is right around the corner, and I’ve hit a wall. Like Jessica, the protagonist in Wendelin Van Draanen’s award-winning and inspiring novel The Running Dream that I recently read, I hit Rigor Mortis Bend, the place where you have to push yourself to complete something.

I continued to find other tasks to complete, no matter how menial, in order to avoid thinking about and coming up with a topic to blog about this week. I changed all of the bed sheets in the house. I did the dishes. I looked for a missing library book that has been renewed on my account over a dozen times. When at school, I organized my desk, I walked around the building finding others to chat with. I contemplated e-mailing our blog team to let them know I was going to have to bail on this week’s blog post, and to see if anyone else was ready to post instead.

Then it occurred to me that I was doing EXACTLY what some of my learners do–they hit Rigor Mortis Bend when writing, and then they stop. They avoid. They quit. Like me, they have things they’d rather be doing. They have other things to think about. The problem lies in that I can usually come up with something to post or submit, but once learners hit this wall, they’re finished. So, how can we help learners fight and push through Rigor Mortis Bend when writing?

I think the answer to this question is twofold. First, as teachers (and notice I didn’t say JUST English/Language Arts teachers!), we need to create opportunities for learners to write more in class, not for homework. And second, we need to be writing beside students to model our own imperfections and struggles with writing.

My PLC saw that we weren’t giving learners as many writing opportunities as we wanted to when we started off the school year. Things happened–snow days, lessons ran over, assemblies, changes in the schedule, you name it. And for whatever reason, time with writer’s notebooks haven’t made the final agenda in quite some time. Now that we’ve recognized this, we are devoting Friday’s classes to writing and conferencing about writing. We want learners to know that writing is important and that talking about writing is important as well. We are being very cognizant of making sure that learners are drafting and writing in class and not out of class where they can’t ask questions, or talk to friends about their writing. This also gives us the chance to do a better job of talking to students about the writing they are doing, whether it’s a quick reflective piece in their writer’s notebook, or one of our big essays for the school year. We are planning to use things like “What’s Going on in This Picture?” from The New York Times and The Quickwrite Handbook by Linda Rief to get our learners thinking about something, whether it’s a picture or more writing, and build a volume of writing from which to draw ideas for more extensive and developed pieces. We totally regret not doing these things at the beginning of the year, yet we aren’t waiting for the beginning of next year to try these ideas in our classrooms. Why? Because it’s never too late to try something new. Our learners are more flexible than we think, and if it’s something they can do and have fun with, they will do it and not even realize that they’re learning.

In the same fashion, we need to be sure we are modeling our own drafting and thinking process for students. Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with this as well. I have a young family at home who demands my attention and I’m currently teaching four preps and six classes at school every day, so I completely understand the excuse that there is no time to get writing done to share with learners. But that’s the thing–they need to SEE/WATCH/OBSERVE us in this process, so it’s not about coming to class prepared with a mentor text to share with them. It’s about drafting on the SmartBoard or Elmo, in front of them, and doing your thinking out loud, letting them watch you struggle. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle insists, “I wasn’t supposed to be a writer–just someone trying to write–like them. In fact, I was a better model because my hesitations and insecurities were just like theirs…I finally understood that ‘model’ was a verb. I wasn’t creating a model, I was the model–which made the difference.” (9). So, in that vain, I pulled this very blog draft out and shared it with my students. I told them I couldn’t think of anything to write and that writing, in general, was on my mind and this is what I had come up with so far. I talked through what I wanted to say, and hearing their feedback and ideas gave me a better idea of what I wanted to write in this post AND what they need from me in class when practicing writing.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in order to help our learners push through Rigor Mortis Bend in their writing, we need to be able to push through it with our teaching (and with our own writing!) as well. Teaching writing is tough and we have to be willing to accept that what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t working as we intended it to, and make the change to be better, despite the timing. It’s never too late to try something new.  

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