The Right to Full Literacy

Years ago, I had the privilege of working on the Alabama Direct Assessment on Writing. I specialized in working with schools that had scored below the 50th percentile. I travelled around Alabama working with numerous schools. In my first year, I met a young girl we will call “Beth” for anonymity. The school was a small K-8 school in an underserved community. With large Coke bottle glasses and a sweet smile, Beth had an IQ score of 78. In my first year at the school, Beth was in third grade. She never spoke to me, but she sat as close as she could to soak it all in. In fourth grade, Beth moved her chair closer to the board, but once again, she never spoke to me. Thinking she was non-verbal, I approached her special education teacher who simply said, “She’s warming up to you. Give her time.” Sure enough, on the first day of school of Beth’s fifth grade year, she spoke her first words to me. “Mr. Butler, I’m going to pass this test.” The gauntlet had been cast.

In year one at the school, I helped them increase their scoring percentile from 42% passing to 67% passing. In year two, they made the leap to 83%. When it was Beth’s turn as a fifth grader, she understood what was at stake. Over the next several months, I watched her handwriting find control. Large letters that took up several lines shrunk to legible letters inside the lines. Her sentence structure not only improved, but there was a strong effort to capitalize the first word of sentence and place a period at the end of each sentence. In all my life, I’ve never seen a child work so hard towards a goal. 

With just a week left before the testing date, I realized Beth was growing nervous. The ADAW was a luck of the draw who would write a narrative, descriptive, or expository essay. Each student understood that if they got off on the wrong mode of writing, they would score a zero — Beth was terrified this would happen to her. We went over and over the keywords until I was certain she would recognize the right mode of writing. Of course, I worried that if Beth got that far, would she create something with resemblance of order and be cohesive? Just a day before the test, she told me, “I’ve got this Mr. B. I know your process by heart.” 

I don’t believe in gimmicks in writing. No squares or balloons or other crazy fixers. I’m old school when it comes to process, and I believe the process can last a student a lifetime. With maturity and life experience, their voice and style will grow and evolve.

After the test, Beth felt confident, and we waited a few months for the results. When the scores arrived, we learned that the fifth grade had scored 92% passing.  Beth had made a high “2” in her holistic writing and “2’s” across the board for her analytical writing. I was elated! Beth was in tears. Uncontrollable sobbing. In her eyes, she had failed since a “3” was meeting standards. No matter how I tried to console her, she wouldn’t listen. “I feel like I’m in a hole that I can’t crawl out of,” Beth cried. As long as I live, I will never forget those words. I told her I had the rope to pull her out of that hole, and we were going to start working toward her 7th grade writing assessment. 

In 7th grade, Beth scored a high “3.” She not only met standards; she almost exceeded them holistically. Analytically, she scored “3’s” across the board. It took time, but Beth met and almost exceeded the expectations for any student. It was the process of writing; the step by step approach that gave her confidence to accomplish her goal. She understood what to do, and she followed it religiously. I think it’s easy to see a student like Beth and set your standards low with a “pray for the best and expect the worst” mindset. I can’t teach like that. Regardless of her IQ, Beth deserved the opportunity to enjoy a life of full literacy — an ability to read and write well. Isn’t that what we should want for every student?

Weekly Writer provides a platform for teachers to engage their students in the writing process. At the same time, teachers receive job-embedded professional development to teach the process of writing and motivate their students in full literacy. 


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