The Power of Productive Struggle

By Rebecca Smith, High School Reading Intervention, Haltom City, TX:

“Mrs. Smith, this is so hard! Can you read this for me and let me know what you think?”

My response was simple: “Well, Bryan, what do you think? I am not the writer—you are!”

I could see that Bryan, huddled in front of his laptop, eyes squinted and face red, was deep in thought and filled to the brim with frustration over his writing.

“How about I grab you a few examples from class today while you try reading your essay aloud so you can hear your ideas?,” I said.

As he leaned closer to his laptop, I heard him quietly whispering to himself—over and over again. As I put the mentor text beside him, he placed the two texts side by side, glancing back and forth, mumbling to himself.

“Bryan, the frustration you are feeling is what all good writers feel—writing is full of difficult decisions.”

In that moment, he glanced at me, then quickly back to his screen when all of a sudden I saw him nod and begin typing. As I went back to my work, he exclaimed “I just don’t think this sounds clear. It’s like my belief isn’t explained well enough.”

As he began revising, a smile crept across both of our faces.

As he became immersed in his work, my mind drifted back to my first year teaching this high school reading intervention class. Had this interaction occurred then, it would have been drastically different, something like this:

“Mrs. Smith, this is so hard! Can you read this for me and let me know what you think.”

“Of course. I’ll be right there.”

After grabbing some conferencing forms, I would have sat beside him as we went over his entire essay, and as I said things like “Maybe you could say this instead of that . . . ,” giving him explicit feedback on what he should write.

While I rendered him this aid, he would have used my advice as a life raft, replacing his ideas with my ideas, his words with my words. Later on, as I scored his essay, I would have found myself struggling to know which ideas and words were his. Even though I would have saved him from failure in that moment, I would have robbed him of that  pivotal moment of growth.

Not only would these practices have undermined his learning and voice, but they also would have clouded the line between his work and mine. This approach robs student learning and growth while also sending a clear message–frustration and failure should be avoided rather than be embraced and worked through.

Looking back, I know that fear of letting students fail is a direct result of my own schooling experiences.  I have been a struggling reader my entire life. After being labelled mentally retarded at the age of 6, I never felt like I escaped that vision my parents and the school administration had for my life.

Even after they lifted the label and I was released from Special Education services, I never really recovered. I simply lost the support that had enabled me to succeed. I floundered throughout grade school, never feeling supported, understood, or seen by the educators I encountered on a daily basis. I wore that label with me every day of school, as I sat in the back row trying to get by unnoticed, unembarrassed, and unexceptional.

Because of my own experiences, I know firsthand the direct effect teachers have on how well students handle frustration and failure in the classroom. From my eighth-grade English teacher shaking her head at me, with pursed lips and a glare in her eyes upon realizing I had no comprehension of the book she assigned, to Mrs. Martin, my senior-year English teacher, investing time and energy in me as I worked through the advanced imagery I sought to use in my personal narrative, I’ve experienced the potentials of productive struggle. That struggle can either empower children to dig deep, find, and use their voice, or it can silence them, depending on the conditions teachers set.

I am not saying that educators should throw students into the deep end without having  taught them how to doggy paddle or to use their arms and legs to stay afloat. Before students swim, we should be confident that we’ve equipped them with the tools to successfully survive in the deep end of the pool.

In the classroom, this means that the struggle should be preceded by good teaching! We should be sure that they are prepared to grapple and flounder well. From Pearson and Gallagher’s Gradual Release Model to Vygotsky’s Zones of Proximal Development, research has shown repeatedly that students have the capacity to succeed when supported and equipped with the appropriate tools (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86) (Gallagher& Pearson, 1983).

Instead of rescuing them or deserting them, the moment of struggle is a perfect time to refer students back to previous work or help them activate their prior knowledge in order to transfer it to their current assignment.

In the case of Bryan, I could have pointed him to a mentor text from a classmate, an anchor chart with simple reflection questions, an essay he drafted last week, or one that I had written as a model, giving him an array of options to work through the struggle.

When reflecting on my classroom practices, the dialogue I use, and the conditions I set, I firmly believe that all students need to experience the difficulty and beauty writers feel when they productively struggle with a text.

It is within that niche, that pivotal moment, that students transform from passive to active, from helpless to hopeful, and from confused to confident. It is what we, as educators, do prior to and during that moment that makes all the difference.