Writing and the 2e Learner: Issues and Strategies

Part 1 of a Series: Anxiety

By the Administrators and Staff of Bridges Academy

September, 2011

This series of articles on writing and production, developed by administrators and members of the faculty at Bridges Academy, focuses on some common pitfalls that 2e students encounter and provide practical, teacher-friendly ways that can help reduce these impediments to writing.

Help key

At Bridges Academy, we have often sat across from apprehensive students who insist they “just can’t write.” We know many of these students have verbal IQ’s in the superior range, read voraciously, and inhale knowledge through computers, DVDs, and television. They are often able to discuss ideas with passion; and most can easily recite typical writing process steps: brainstorm, draft, revise, edit and polish. To suggest that they are lazy makes little sense, yet their writing paralysis baffles teachers and parents. What, we have wondered collectively, lies at the root of their lack of written productivity? 

An analysis of writing blocks among twice-exceptional (2e) students uncovers a myriad of issues, both neurological and psychological, that make writing difficult. The Bridges Academy faculty have been systematically studying the factors that both impede writing production (in some cases, all production) and the strategies that have proven successful in helping 2e students overcome their individual obstacles to writing.

Factors Contributing to Writing Disabilities

With 2e students, the pattern of non-productivity often starts in early elementary school and may include one or more of these obstacles.

  • Asynchronous Development. 2e students often evidence advanced cognitive abilities that far exceed their motor development. As a result, they may find it impossible to record their ideas on paper, especially when authoring involves handwriting. The frustration they can feel, coupled with a likely developmental delay in emotional maturity, often makes it hard for 2e children to “stay in the writing struggle.”
  • Executive Processing. Difficulties with time management, attention, and organization may cause these bright students problems in structuring complex ideas quickly and sequentially.
  • Perfectionism. Some of these students have exceptionally high standards, and any discrepancy between the quality of their thinking and the quality of their written work may cause them to procrastinate or simply refuse to do the work.
  • Insufficient Grasp of Topic Depth and Complexity. To write something of value, 2e students must grapple deeply with the material, understand it thoroughly, and have something to say about it. The teacher must consider the student’s learning differences (i.e., auditory sequential, highly visual, bodily kinesthetic); disabilities if there are any; and other potential obstacles to writing. The goal is to make certain there is a match between the instructional approach to the material and the cognitive and intellectual strengths of the student. For example, 2e students who are highly spatial or bodily kinesthetic benefit from engaging in non-verbal, visual, and experiential pre-writing activities. The activities serve to stimulate idea formation as well as metaphoric thinking in these students.
  • Lack of Purpose or Relevance. Students who find writing cumbersome often cannot relate to the importance of the topic in their world. Targeting student strengths in an effort to create relevance is an important way to “amp up” student motivation.

Then, of course, there’s anxiety. Psychological and neurological issues combined with the complexity of the writing process can cause 2e students to become extremely anxious about writing. Anxiety can sometimes be the taproot of their non-productivity.

Because anxiety is pervasive among 2e writers, we will focus on its role in the writing process of 2e students. The rest of this article offers some practical suggestions for initial ways to reduce anxiety so that 2e students will be receptive to the writing process.

Anxiety and Writing

Teachers and parents alike know that anxiety results in a range of behaviors from subtle (head down on desk, face grim) to extremely emotional (crying, vocally refusing to work, self-deprecating remarks: “I’m dumb.”). Anxiety plays havoc with cognitive functioning and confidence in performance. An increasing number of studies show that anxiety may have a negative effect on learning. It interferes with attention, perseverance, critical thinking, comprehension, and decision-making (Economic and Social Research Council, 2009; Medina, 2008).

Students may know they are smart because they can read and digest ideas far beyond their years. However, if the writing they produce is too far afield from the complex images or concepts they entertain in their mind’s eye, they may develop a fear of committing their thoughts to paper, an apprehension that is exacerbated with each subsequent assignment. Consider these two vignettes.

Vignette 1: Michael

When Michael entered sixth grade at Bridges Academy, we knew he had a superior verbal IQ and read texts far beyond what one would expect of an 11-year-old. When he participated in field trips to the Huntington Library and the University of Southern California Special Collections Library, he was visibly touched — almost reverential — as he closely examined the 13th century vellum manuscript and first edition book by Johannes Kepler.

Despite his high verbal ability and obvious joy at in-depth class discussions, Michael experienced severe anxiety when he was confronted with tasks that required writing. His sixth-grade teacher, Ben James, reports:

From the first humanities classes, I could see that Michael had incredible verbal and analytical abilities. His abilities were evidenced through comprehension evaluations and class discussion. However, the mere mention of written test, writing, or essay made him panic. He would hyperventilate, scream at a high pitch, plug his ears, rock back and forth, run out of the room, or hide under a desk.

In seventh grade, Michael’s anxiety, though less pronounced, persisted as assignments became more complex. His teachers, Chuck Neddermeyer and Sharon Greene, explain:

Getting Michael to write anything was initially a challenge. He would shriek when we mentioned an extended written task, even when the deadline was announced far in advance and we explained how we would break the assignment into chunks. Michael would hide under his desk or run into the hallway. We had to disguise the assignment by making it technology-based first, and then turn it into a more formal written text.

For example, one class assignment was developing a persuasive essay on the Chinese dynasties. Students began by creating a PowerPoint presentation, outlining information about the topic on each slide (i.e., introductory slide, achievements of the selected dynasty, how the dynasty contributed to modern society. When Michael saw that this presentation was actually the skeleton of his essay, he was less anxious about approaching the full writing task. He knew he could rely on the slides as a built-in outline.

With another assignment, based on the book Life of Pi, Michael benefited from creating a visual before tackling the writing. First he built Lego robots representing characters from the book. Then he took pictures of the robots and wrote a few sentences or bullet points explaining a scene they were involved in. Michael was able to use these annotated visuals as an outline to complete his written report for the novel.

Vignette 2: Allen

High school English teacher Chris Wiebe describes what it was like to work with Allen, a ninth-grade student with high verbal skills but little or no written output.

When I met Allen, I found him to be a bright, sensitive, and intuitive student with a passionate interest in the sciences. His IEP (Individualized Education Program) indicated superior verbal comprehension skills, above-average perceptual organization, and average working memory skills. Among Allen’s challenges were a slow processing speed, dysgraphia, and a short attention span. Anyone who spends more than two minutes with Allen will realize how ridiculously intelligent he is — his IQ probably exceeds 140. But Alex made no bones about the fact that he had a lot of trouble with writing. The introduction of even the smallest writing task would cause Alex to freeze up, sometimes triggering anxiety-driven scratching and picking at himself.

While both of these youngsters demonstrated strong emotional responses to writing, other anxious 2e writers may quietly resist or simply refuse to engage in the process. These behaviors can earn them the reputation of being oppositional, lazy, or defiant. At Bridges Academy, we see teachers as the critical “first responders” when signs of anxiety appear, and we believe that addressing the student’s anxiety is the important first step in improving writing productivity.

Strategies to Consider

At Bridges Academy, we have developed strategies that have proven effective in reducing 2e students’ anxiety. Most of the strategies offered here and in subsequent articles are the result of the efforts of the Bridges humanities and writing teachers listed at the end of this article.

Establish Safe Places. Plan with students ahead of time a safe place where or safe ways in which they can calm down with dignity when they become upset. Examples of what worked particularly well for Michael as well as other students are:

  • Taking frequent breaks
  • Verbalizing fears and frustrations to teachers and the staff psychologist
  • Taking a walk
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones
  • Engaging in role-playing games
  • Doing yoga
  • Practicing breathing exercises
  • Stretching.

Through the use of coping mechanisms like these, Michael’s number of meltdowns decreased gradually over sixth grade. His teachers in the next grade, Chuck and Sharon, continued to help Michael learn to control his emotional outbursts during the school year, as Chuck recounts:

We explained to Michael that, while we understood his anxiety, we did not expect him to disrespect our quiet classroom environment. Because he has an intense respect for education, this seemed to strike a chord with him. We told Michael that if he was feeling discomfort, all he had to do was look at us or give a signal and we would escort him into the hall. This system caught on, and soon Michael was better able to manage his anxiety in class.

Reframe Wording. Students are natural storytellers, but the word writing itself can trigger a negative emotional reaction. Using a substitute word such as authoring or producing can be effective, as well as renaming your writing center author’s corner. Make it a place where students can submit podcasts, storyboards, letters, and multi-media products as well as more traditional pieces.

Develop Trust. Take time to develop a trusting relationship with students. Bridges teachers spend a significant amount of energy showing students that they care about them. A ninth-grade Roman history teacher at Bridges emphasizes the importance of this facet of teaching when he relates the story of Ed, who was extraordinarily quiet and shy, sometimes even aggressive. 

Ed would begrudgingly produce work and participate in class. Over the years, I’ve listened to his jokes and stories, relating to him and his interests; and I’ve offered extra time out of school to read projects not associated with class that he is working on and give him feedback. I have given Ed a forum to talk about things that interest him in my classroom, while doing my best to keep him on task and focused. Sometimes if Ed is unhappy in class, I ask him directly what the issue is; and if he asks to talk to me privately in the hallway, I do that. These efforts seem to have earned his trust and increased his comfort.

Focus on Strengths and Interests. Encourage students to develop their ideas in an area of strength first. Chuck and Sharon integrate writing into humanities projects, having students first research a topic and then create a PowerPoint slide show to share their research. For students like Michael, this approach is far less threatening than writing a traditional expository paper. (We will discuss how to use strengths as a bridge to writing in a later article in this series.)

Puncture Perfectionism. One creative approach to breaking the perfectionist ice is to encourage anxious students to do their “worst writing” first and then toss it. Stuart, our eighth-grade humanities teacher, is an expert at minimizing the stress of writing through this technique. Once they have a throw-away draft completed, he instructs them to “discard that draft and be done with it.” Somehow going through that low-stakes process rids the students of overflowing anxiety and allows them to begin a more appropriate piece of writing.

Build Confidence. An important anxiety-reduction technique is to express to students that you believe in them and their ability to write. Adam, a tenth- and eleventh-grade English teacher, tells his reluctant writers not to worry if they can’t write since it’s Adam’s job as a teacher to give them the skills they need. He sits down next to each student, giving reassurance on a one-to-one basis. According to Adam, the main secrets to developing good writers are giving students precise directions in assignments, breaking the task into manageable chunks, and providing specific times for completion of each task. Adam believes that anxious students benefit from tightly constrained time periods to complete short, clearly defined tasks.

Narrow the Focus. Help students keep their focus on the immediate chunk of the task at hand and not on the big picture. Some teachers don’t even mention the fact that each chunk is part of a bigger project. Then, after a few weeks, students are surprised to pull their small chunks together and see that they are the building blocks for a large product.

Conclusion

If we can make writing a relevant experience for our 2e students, we will find much lower levels of anxiety. The next three articles in this series will focus on this theme by exploring how to adapt the writing process for 2e students. Specific topics will include:

  • Using students’ strengths and interests
  • Making writing joyful, purposeful, and relevant
  • Using appropriate scaffolding, including technology, to help with the mechanics and organization of ideas.

References

  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (2009, June 26). Anxiety’s hidden cost in academic performance. ScienceDaily.com. Retrieved September 2, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/ 2009/06/ 090623090713.htm
  • Medina, Robert. (2008) Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

The authors of this article include the following administrators and faculty members
of Bridges Academy:

  • Carl Sabatino, Head of School
  • Susan Baum, Director of Professional Development
  • Sharon Greene, Humanities, 7th Grade
  • Ben James, Humanities, 5th/6th Grades
  • Gregory Kacynski, Theater, 7th-12th Grades, and Science, 8th Grade
  • Adam Kaplan, English and Communication, 9th-12th Grades
  • Stuart Matranga, Humanities, 8th Grade
  • Chuck Neddermeyer, Humanities, 7th Grade
  • Cynthia Cornell Novak, Middle School Director
  • Chris Wiebe, English, Communication, and Theater, 9th-12th Grades
  • Gregory Zlotin, History, 9th-12th Grades.

Bridges Academy is a college preparatory school in Studio City, California, which serves twice-exceptional students in grades 5 through 12.

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