The Blank Sheet of Paper

April 6, 2012

It seems as though there are two types of people, those who relish the opportunity to face a blank sheet of paper and put their mark on it and those who face the blank sheet with utter fear. Do you see yourself falling into one of these groups? Perhaps it depends on the task assigned to the blank sheet.

We were filming in Pam Pogson's sixth grade classroom as she taught a lesson on prefixes as part of Word Work. She was reviewing the concept of a prefix as a way to help understand the meaning of a word. The lesson included a guided brainstorming session on a difficult prefix. Following the brainstorm, she asked her students to quickly jot down in their Word Work notebooks some words they know containing the prefix on which they were focusing.

We watched as this master teacher quickly took note of those students who embraced the blank sheet of paper and jumped right in with the task, and those who faced the blank sheet with the fearful look of a deer in headlights. What we found so fascinating was when Pam quickly let kids know that they were welcome to copy the whole class brainstormed list in their notebooks to get them started. As soon as those words came out of her mouth, you could visibly see some students relax and get started. Another student even questioned her again, asking if he could copy the brainstormed words into his notebook.

We couldn't help but to take pause and consider the impact her statement had on some of the students in her class. How often do we as teachers shut down those facing-the-blank-sheet-with-fear students, thinking that our students should not copy or imitate our samples or examples, believing instead that they should come up with their own ideas? Yet even though Pam teaches the oldest students in the school we realized what she did not only supported those students who have the fear of the blank sheet, but also gave them a perfect scaffold into the independent task she assigned. When they left the whole group lesson to continue their independent brainstorming, each child has examples on the page, helping them remember what kind of words they were looking for.

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