Sharing in their Struggle: Building Empathy with Student Writers

By Lauren Nizol


It was a Thursday in March: a time when burnout inevitably hits both students and teachers. Tina shuffled into my office, hood on, weakly muttering, “I don’t have time for this physics paper.” She plopped down and stared off into space. When I tried to redirect her, her voice broke and she exhaled “I don’t wanna do this.” As an academic interventionist, I support underperforming students in developing content literacy skills, and mornings like these can be among the hardest.


Turning the Tables

As difficult as it was to remain patient with Tina, her avoidance wasn’t unlike my avoidance of writing. For many years, I fell into the grind of being an English teacher: read, teach, write, teach, grade, repeat. Add in three kids of my own, and it’s not hard to see why I let my writing practice slip away. I avoided writing, because, like Tina, I felt that I didn’t have time.

I first discovered my writing practice at the 2007 Eastern Michigan Writing Project Summer Institute. Daily sacred writing time was a core aspect of the institute, and it sparked in me a creativity I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. That summer, I wrote memoir pieces about my family and teaching, as well as a fictional piece about a young married couple living in Detroit in the 1960s. I had found my voice, and I became a better writing teacher for it.

Later in grad school, my writing time was a little less sacred with a three- and one-year old at home. Much of my writing time was done with Caillou in the background and me bribing my boys for just a few more minutes of time. Finishing my capstone project was a proud moment. And yet, I fell away from my practice.

Lack of time was partly to blame, but so was my perception that I lacked an audience for my writing. At the Summer Institute, I embraced writing because I was surrounded by people who wanted to hear my voice. And later in grad school, my audience was my teacher research cohort. But without the consistent deadlines and audience, I gradually stopped writing.

That’s why earlier in the year, I jumped at the opportunity when a colleague asked if I could take her spot for February on the Oakland School’s Literacy blog. The quick turnaround with a clear deadline forced me to leap back into my practice.

There was nothing sacred about the time I wrote in; instead, I wrote in fits and spurts between students and my children at home. My husband gave me feedback after the kids were in bed while I made revisions on my phone. I didn’t sit down for a quiet and monastic hour; I wrote in the midst of the frenetic pace of my day. I made time.

A Gentle Push
And so when Tina came to work with me on her physics paper, I knew her apathy and disconnection to writing because it was mine too.

Tina’s instructions were to write about a physics concept to someone who knows nothing about physics (why does ΣQ=0?) . And luckily for Tina, I could authentically be that audience for her. But Tina wasn’t buying this yet. She looked at me dubiously as I tried to engage her in writing.

I remembered advice given by EMU professor Dr. Cathy Fleischer to our graduate seminar class when we avoided beginning writing: “something is something.” Tina looked down at her hands as I shared this advice with her and how it had helped me. “Okay” she said softly when I had finished.

I started by writing down some questions that I had about the topic: what did that Greek symbol mean? What is the relationship between Σand zero? Then I gave her the advice to start with something small: one simple sentence to answer my first question. I reminded Tina that “something is something” and there is value in even a few words. By starting small, Tina was able to see her ideas build steadily together into a paragraph. She wasn’t resisting anymore.

Here, Tina’s vulnerability was mine. Like me, she didn’t want to start because it seemed daunting. Yet establishing an audience helped her just as it helped me. Giving her a quick deadline (five minutes to write her first two sentences), helped her to tackle a writing challenge. She left my room with her hood off, her hair neatly piled on top her head and smiling.

Happy ending: Tina turned in her paper the next day and I continue to lean back into my practice. Had I not recognized my own resistance to writing, I may not have been able to relate to Tina’s disconnection. It’s easy for teachers be dismissive of resistance in writers, but recognizing and relating to their struggle cultivates a rich empathy and a fruitful writing environment. Sometimes, the students who are the most challenging for us to work with are the ones who are most like us.


Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School, with eleven years of teaching experience. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.


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