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Are you asking your students to build the Death Star?

Star Wars Death StarThis past weekend I was watching my 5-year-old daughter and my dad try to assemble a Lego set that was targeted for children ages 6 to 12. It took my dad several hours to build the 159-piece set, and he lost my daughter’s interest with each passing hour, really every minute. It was truly painful to watch.

At one point, when my dad took a break from the lengthy instruction booklet and miniscule pieces, my daughter tried to take over. I watched her pick up the wheels to the car they were building and try to place them in the slot where she knew the wheels should go. Despite her best efforts, she just couldn’t manage to make them fit. She’s familiar with Legos, smaller sets with larger pieces, and can build things like houses and robots. But, when faced with an intricate system comprised of many parts that must fit just so, she was at a loss. After trying a few times to jam the piece into place, she gave up and walked away.

These Lego sets symbolize our students’ language systems. When my students enter my basic writing class, they are familiar with moderate systems, perhaps a Lego set of 500 pieces. Of course they know language; they’ve been using it their entire lives, but not in the way I and their instructors are now asking them to. Suddenly, we want them to make the leap from working with 500 pieces to building the language Death Star—a set containing 3,803 pieces that must all fit together in a precise way.

I see my students struggle with this complex, academic language. Not only do I see it in their writing, but I also see physical manifestations, as they try to push their speech and writing into these far more intricate, complicated patterns. They often crumple up drafts, toss down pencils, and sit defiantly in their seats. And, as they try unsuccessfully to force their words to fit within these convoluted constructions, I see their interest in the ability to build with this language slip away, until, in too many cases, I lose them completely.

Legos have come up in my classroom before. We use them to mimic structure in a paragraph, but I have never thought about their language in this way. I wonder if, as instructors, we should first allow our students to use their own, familiar 500 pieces but just in a different way. Same pieces, new structures. Then, when they become comfortable manipulating those recognizable pieces, we can present new and slightly more complex Lego sets. Let’s let them work with what they know first.

This argument for allowing students to work with the language they are comfortable with is not new. Linguists and writing scholars like Mina Shaughnessy, Geneva Smitherman, and others have long been advocating for recognizing the significance of a student’s home language—even developing the Student’s Right to Their Own Language statement for the National Council for the Teachers of English (NCTE) in 1974. But, it doesn’t seem that the larger curriculum and teaching practices of many classrooms have adopted this approach yet. I urge us as instructors—before our students give up altogether—to revisit the benefits of letting students build with familiar pieces before asking them to build the Death Star.

If you have had similar, or even different, experiences in your writing classrooms, please share those with me. I enjoy learning about insights from other teachers.

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