Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them.
“What do I do here, Miss?”
“What are you writing about?”
“Which prompt are you answering?”
“Uhh… F– this.” He walked away and put his head on his desk. Without a pause I called up the next student to his writing conference. I don’t suggest you try this at your school, but I’ve had to learn to be patient.
For the first three weeks of school I all but ignored a student who hid from my view two classes a day. He simmered beneath the surface, and to be honest, I was scared to set him off. I watched and prayed until we could wait no longer. We’ll call him Mr. Arizona, named for the dusty mesas where he was raised and dreams about on long days. I don’t remember the details of our first conversation, but I followed my gut and told him I had intentionally given him his space. But we were running out of time. If he wanted to pass the class he’d have to write something. This seemed to work. He didn’t like to write, but he started coming in to my small class to finish his essays. He’s the one who first brought the Little Bo Peep poem to mind. Just leave them alone, I tell myself.
I have finished my writing conference with the second student, and the first student’s head pops off the desk. He slouches back to my desk before I can call up someone new. “I’d like to write about my camping trip. How do I begin?”
Sometimes their change of heart happens like that. In the case of Arizona, it took weeks. Most fall somewhere in between. When people ask me how I like my work, I wish I could explain this part of the job. Here I can instinctively and personally respond to my students. I might wish at times that I could hold them to a strict schedule, but the longer I’m in prison, the more I understand that’s an absurd standard to set. Flexibility is king. I fall back on key terms from my former school: “fair isn’t always equal”, “mastery”, “what is best for each student;” I put aside the numbers, the number of writing assignments, the number of grades, the number of novels. All of these were achievable, but they don’t work with this population.