I once worked with a boy in English 11 who illustrated for me his inability to tell the truth through his academic writing. It wasn’t that he lied about a paper, or plagiarized. No. I witnessed a more fundamental link between a student’s character capacity for integrity and his ability to write well in school.
The young man seemed to struggle with his writing skills, but his greatest weakness was integrity. Perhaps his struggles with integrity significantly limited his writing ability. No matter where it begins in the proverbial chicken or egg story, our experience together began with writing stories; and this young man was writing about a childhood event that involved fighting and lying.
This young man’s narrative line jumped around and his draft could not tell a coherent story. He began threads that seemed interesting (how he reacted to a brick thrown at his friend) only to skitter away and take up a different thread (how he had managed to stay home without his parents in the first place). Through days of revision conferences and revision strategies, he never could settle in, focus on, or go deeper into the narrative thread of his story.
I used a visual to help him see the intended shape of a story and the actual shape of his story. I drew an inverted triangle to show how a story should draw the reader in on one idea and event – to give all the details associated. Then across the top edge of the triangle, I drew a sketch that looked like a time-lapse image of a stone skipping across the water. I explained that, at present, his narrative presented a random and surface-level series of topics and images. I selected a few of his stronger points in the story as entry points for more detail, more specifics. I asked him to go deeper.
However, a young man who struggles to tell the truth often struggles with putting down the details and sharing all the specifics. In fact, this young man had made a career of lying to his parents, his friends, and his schools. In the end, at the same time we tried to improve his paper, he was secretly holding back many truths about his actions in present time.
When the truth began to break, yet the young man continued to deny it, I saw in perfect 20/20 hindsight view how his writing struggle was not one of focus and depth, but one of truth.
Next time you find yourself stuck with a student who cannot seem to get deeper in their writing, ask them to consider their commitment to the truth.