Bernice Shows the Way

I remember the moment that I began to mark for confidence. It was Bernice who got me started.

The class was finishing up their writing, and putting it into the envelope that went upstairs to the secretary to be typed so that everyone could have a copy of everyone else’s stories. I tried to catch people as they finished up their work, to do a final proofread with them.

On that day, Bernice strode purposefully up to the envelope hanging behind me. She was about to put her writing straight into the envelope without even a nod in my direction.

“Whoa, Bernice,” I said. “Can we read your story together to check for periods and capitals, so the rest of the class will find it easier to read tomorrow?”

“Oh, no need,” said Bernice. She grinned. “The periods are all fine. I’m good at that stuff. I learned it last year.”

I pushed a little harder. “Could you sit down and read it to me, anyway?” I asked. “That way, if the secretary needs help with anything later, I will know what the story is supposed to look like.”

“Oh, all right,” agreed Bernice. She wanted her story to look good the next day.

She sat down beside me and pushed her paper in my direction. I took a quick look. It was immediately clear that Bernice was a “sprinkler.” (You know the kind of student I’m talking about—they write the whole piece in a kind of stream of consciousness, then go back and toss in some arbitrary periods.) About half of the periods Bernice needed were missing, and there were a few extras in the wrong place.

I looked at Bernice, who was still beaming. She looked like she knew she had written a good story, and that all the periods and stuff like that were good.

I took a deep breath and prepared myself to help her make the corrections, but her face made me stop and consider. Bernice was interested in writing. She thought she was good at it. She thought she knew where to put the periods. I was about to show her how wrong she was—wrong about periods, and wrong about herself as someone who knew periods.

It was her confident grin that made me ask myself, “What good will it do to convince Bernice that she knows nothing about periods? Will it make it easier to teach her if I start by tearing down her concept of herself as a writer?”

I wasn’t sure what the answer was, so I fell back on routine—I asked her to read her story out loud to me, and I made her slow down so I could follow along with her.

Bernice had written the first couple of sentences without using any periods at all. I let her read past the first missing period. I said nothing, because I didn’t know what to say. I was still thinking about my course of action, and looking at the expression on her face. I let her read past the next missing period, still without stopping her. I let her read past the period that she had put in the wrong place. She ignored it completely as she read, and I ignored it too.

I didn’t know what to do, but I was feeling the pressure to do something. After all, I was the teacher, wasn’t I supposed to teach?

Bernice came to a place in her reading where there should have been a period, and where indeed there was one on the paper, and then continued with reading the next sentence.

Suddenly inspired, I interrupted her reading. “Whoa, Bernice,” I said. “I have to stop you there. You got that period exactly in the right place.”

Bernice stopped and looked at me. She was not surprised she was right. What was I going on about?

“I could hear you stop for a second at the end of that sentence. I saw your shoulders lift up a little when you took a breath. And just at the place where your shoulders went up, that’s where I saw the period. Absolutely perfect.”

Bernice carried on reading. Again, I said nothing as she sailed by the places where a period was missing, but I was ready to pounce on the next one that was right. “Whoa, Bernice!” I said again. “Another perfect period. Look, there you were talking about your son, and then you changed and started talking about your daughter. And right there, to show that you had finished talking about him and had gone on to something else, you put a period.”

I think Bernice had only three correct periods in the whole story (about half a page long), but I made much of each of them.

Towards the end of the story, she stopped as she was reading along. “There should be a period here,” she said. “I left it out.” She was right.

“Now, that’s what I call proofreading,” I said. “Finding your own mistakes. How could you tell you needed a period there?”

Bernice shrugged, still confident. “It just seemed right,” she said.

In the months that followed, I got better at marking for confidence, and better at helping students articulate what they were doing right. You’ll find links here.

But that was enough for the first day. Bernice learned a little about proofreading, and I learned a lot about teaching.

More about Bernice and Marking for Confidence

5 thoughts on “Bernice Shows the Way

  1. Pingback: Learning from Our Mistakes | Working in Adult Literacy

  2. what a great story !!! and what a victory for bernice, it’s one of those paradigm shifts that makes everything look different. In my job as a mental health worker there is a lot of this sort of teaching/correction……life- proofreading that goes on in this context. And the clients are generally not very confident (though usually not so feisty about it ) find the parts that were done RIGHT and focus on them obvious and so brilliant..thanks Kate, I am inspired.

  3. When I think about Bernice – I wonder what gave her the confidence to be sure of her work. Certainly lots of other adult students are far from confident about their work. I’m assuming someone, sometime was a warm acknowledging presence for her and thank goddess for them whoever they are. But many teachers would see Bernice as resistant or difficult or careless or smartass. Seeing her that way, judging her like this would make some instructors unwilling to go the extra step with her – to try to find a way to work with her.

  4. Such an inspiring story. For me the core question is: what am I getting out of the situation for myself. Buried under layers of my feelings of duty or role-responsibility or… is the question: what is in it for me? Sometimes when I am down or crabby what is in it for me is to make someone wrong/show me as right. When I give in to that I always feel crummy after, like eating so much sugar it makes me sick. But when I
    am feeling ok about myself what is in it for me is to find a way to make someone beam with pride about their accomplishments. I think of it like sunshine: a flower will open up on the morning sun. No *intervention* required, really. Rather, a warm acknowledging presence…

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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