“My Brain Hurts When I Write!”

scary story map“My brain hurts!”– “My fingers are stuck.” — “I don’t have paper.” — “I don’t have any sharpened pencils.” — “I lost my eraser.” — “It’s too noisy.” — “It’s too quiet.”

Oh excuses.

For every surface excuse, there is an underlying reason. Usually, I find that when it comes to students and writing the excuse tends to hide feelings of inadequacy. Writing seems to be too serious, too much at stake, and too big a task.

The cure?

Focus on creative writing, and feel free to put on a little soft music for those that need some white noise in the background.

Creative writing is very freeing. For beginners, there are few rules and this “break the rules” façade is liberating to young writers who struggle with perfectionism, writers block, or confidence.

Also, I find it’s helpful to incorporate some tech accommodations, like text to speech, voice recorder, or computer use instead of traditional paper and pencil. If it works for you, go for it! Yes, I agree that paper and pencil makes those synapses grow stronger and feeds the brain like no technology can, but for new writers it can be a daunting, overwhelming experience to look at a blank page and hope for the best. Instead, opt for easing that transition with technology.

As a teacher and a tutor, I’m a big fan of sentence stems, like these Expressive Language Prompts, which do the trick because they are simple enough to get a conversation going. Once a conversation is flowing, the writing will follow.

A few examples of where to begin:

A-Z Story, where every new sentence of the story starts with the next letter of the alphabet.

Backwards Story, where you write the ending first (think ‘Memento’ but for kids)

Talking Pet Stories

Fractured Fairytales: think of a well-known fairytale and then modernize it, such as changing the ending, add a prequel or sequel, add new characters.

Halloween-themed Scary Stories, like these:

So, take a few tips and tools to let your story flow and writers brain grow. Happy writing!

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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

Gifted Students and The Fear of Failure

once upon a timeLast year, I started tutoring a gifted middle school student named Naomi*, a sweet-natured, lovely, young tween who was doing excellent in all of her subjects, except for writing. Now, it was not that Naomi was a bad student with poor grades or poor behavior. In fact, Naomi was getting by in English class but just not acing her tests and receiving B’s instead of A’s on her papers. I was called in as academic support simply because she didn’t like writing.

What’s the Problem with Not Liking Something?

Not liking writing was not a problem for Naomi but, rather, her teacher and her mom. Together, they each encouraged Naomi to “find her voice” through the written word but despite all of this encouragement, Naomi was still not living up to her potential. I could see after just one session that she clearly had the capability to do better but for some reason purposely chose not to. Why? Well, because when Naomi didn’t like something, she quit.

The problem doesn’t lie with disliking a class or an activity. We all have our preferences. Rather, the problem lies with how we address disliking a class or activity, especially when it’s something that we have to do, like school.

Gifted Students Often Give Up When Things Get Difficult

Gifted or high achieving students often have low self-esteem because they tend to be perfectionists. Many things come naturally to these students and when something suddenly doesn’t, they have to make a choice: power through or give up.

Oftentimes, they initially give up. If they give up enough times, they’ve unintentionally created a pattern of quitting, which leads to low confidence and low self-esteem — thinking that they can only be good at the things that they’re naturally good at and not the things that they must work hard for.

It’s also a question of failure. The student may reason that there’s a greater chance of failure if they embark on the journey of working hard on a subject matter that is not necessarily easy, like all of the rest of their classes. Will the risk be worth it?

Help Students See that Working Hard for Something is Worth It

The fact of the matter is that no one can be good at everything. It’s impossible. What’s funny about working with my logical and reasonable gifted students is that logic and reason doesn’t help them overcome their fear of failure. Logic and reason would tell you to take the easy way out. Grit would tell you to shoot for the stars, without a guarantee.

Also, for many students this may be the first time in their life that school is hard. Presented with this new challenge they have to decide to put more effort into something that may not reap the same reward. And that’s scary!

Now Naomi Wants to be a Writer

Even though Naomi presented with a dislike of writing, her real issue was that she was scared of failing because most everything had come so easily to her before this class. Once we got to the root of the problem, I began to help her see the value in working hard at something even though there was no guarantee of easy success.

Naomi did the work. She practiced. Her confidence slowly improved. And Just last week, she informed that she wants to be a professional writer. It’s clear that Naomi’s not scared of trying new things anymore.

*Not student’s real name

Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic, Behavior, Special Education Advocacy, and School Placement services. Christine truly loves helping students realize their inner potential and the possibilities that await them: “To be a part of a student’s ‘ah ha’ moment is the best feeling in the world because I know I’m helping that student build foundational confidence that will lead to a successful path, not just in school but throughout life!”

When to Conform and When to Follow the Herd

conformityThe balance of school teeters on the seesaw of conformity versus independence. Up until high school, all we want to do is conform. After we graduate, all we want to do is find our own path. This constant push and pull between independent thinking and social herding is what makes taking a risk to do things our own way that much more challenging. Yes, following the herd is easier and some would say even safer. Deviating from the flock is much more difficult and a little scary because now you have to rely on your own discretion.

In your academic life, then, when is is okay to take a chance and do your own thing? (Click to view our video on this topic)

Let’s look at the example of writing a boring 20 page research paper on a topic you know nothing about and aren’t that interested in. Your teacher has given you specific guidelines, including format, page requirement, due date, and discussion points. There seem to be limited things you have control over. So where is the risk? However, what you do have control over may surprise you: (1) the research you use to evidence your findings, (2) how you structure your analysis, and (3) word choice. Ah ha! Word choice– it’s a bigger deal than you may think, and one that will separate your paper from the “herd”. Sophisticated language, voice, writing for your audience — all these creative elements add up to what makes your writing–your take on a subject matter– unique. Your ability to express yourself in language, both written and verbal, is the foundation of strong communication, convincing arguments, and leadership. If you choose, school can be a place where you go out on that limb and make a bold choice to be different, even in the strictest of circumstances.

The flip side of this argument is laden with the fear of persecution: “Will I get a bad a grade for going against the grain? I can’t afford to fail this class! What if my teacher just doesn’t get it?”. With great risk, comes great reward. With no risk, comes complacency. It is of course up to you, but I encourage my students to take a chance (no matter how small) and write just a little bit differently than the person sitting in the next row. Why? Because school is not meant to be purely academic; there is a life lesson to be learned here too.

So the next time you have a writing assignment that looks as if it will be end of you, remember that even where there seems to be limited creative control you still have the opportunity to embrace the challenge by taking a chance.

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Christine Terry, J.D., is the Founder & Owner of Terry Tutors, a Private Tutoring, Family Coaching, and Education Advocacy service dedicated to supporting the whole student. Want to Know More? Head on over to TerryTutors.com