I've been asked several questions regarding conferring...specifically focused group conferring. Some questions have come from blog readers and listeners of my podcast, and other questions have been from teachers reaching to me via email after presentations at recent conferences. Teachers have asked if they can hear an actual conference from my classroom, and some have asked if they could hear what a group conference sounds like: "doesn't that invite chaos?" "...what are the other students doing?" "...do you follow a list of questions?"
Clearly, most of my podcasts sound more like interviews of students and parents and less like a traditional conference "in the moment" where students talk about a particular piece of writing. I would need my own production crew following me around to capture those moments. As it is, I do set my iPhone down to record during some conferences, but like any act of note taking, the kids notice recorder. In most cases, they don't seem to mind--at least they don't say as much--but I imagine that some may be uncomfortable speaking when they know the audio recorder is rolling.
In this podcast episode, four 8th grade students in the midst of writing a personal essay sit down for a focused group conference. A bit of background--these four sit together every day by choice. They function as writing partners for each other and are often very focused in their conversations. Yes, there is a constant stream of chatter among them, but it is most often about their writing...and even if it is not, they redirect back to the writing without many cues from me.
Points for your consideration surrounding this focused group conference:
Among the questions I receive about conferring on social media and email, I read a majority of questions regarding time.
How do I find the time to confer?
The time is there. We don't have to find time. The time question is an important one because I think it comes down to priorities--and I am not suggesting my priorities are better than anyone else's. However, everything can not be a priority. We can agree that that is just not possible. I value students learning how to listen and respond to one another; therefore, a significant chunk of time in class (daily) is dedicated to students talking.
We make the standards work for us. We do not enslave ourselves to the standards.
That statement, more so than anything else I have said, is the most quoted in the follow-up emails I receive after presentations.
When I say that I mean that we use the standards as an artist uses a palette. No one is directing my painters to start with red--paint only with red--and then next week we will work with burnt sienna (and only burnt sienna). My painters use any color they have access to. They borrow colors from others. They mix colors--sometimes incorrectly so that it makes mud. But as they use the palette according to their curiosity and readiness I make it my business to find as many opportunities as I can to teach them something about painting.
In the studio environment, my writers write more this way than when I prescribed writing in my first decade of teaching. Writing in volume matters.
In the studio environment, writers talk. Writers laugh. Writers collaborate. Writers learn from other writers. There is an inner locus of control that the young writers become accustomed to over time--this is, of course, after several weeks of frustration. Early in the year, some students, used to an external locus of control (teachers prescribing writing), do not know how to find an idea worth writing about. Often, they have been indoctrinated to believe that the only ideas worth writing about come from external influences: teachers and assessments.
These writers need the focused group conferences the most...and they come to learn to appreciate the constant stream of daily conferencing with a supportive writing partner. Unfortunately, education has become so hell-bent on teaching kids that writing is an act that occurs in a silo, that writing alongside others in a stream of conversation feels so free that some kids have trouble grasping the actual discipline embedded in what they are doing.
So, if a focused group conference take twelve minutes and the next focused group conference takes five minutes, so be it. If I stop by a student's desk for thirty seconds and the next student for two minutes, so be it. My presence as a mentor is fluid. Their writing partners' engagement is fluid. Time is fluid in the writing workshop. As teachers and students, we learn to let go of restrictions when we are living as writers. I am there to support and mentor students...not only as a writer but also as an internal locus of support in the conferences.
Students learn from listening how I handle writers. They imitate what they hear. They do not hear me criticize the grammar and punctuation. They hear me say what I hear and what I may not be hearing. They hear me wonder. They hear me make references and piece together connections which could be useful for the writer. They hear me encourage and use positive language like yes and I love and I like.
It takes time and repetition, but by mid-year many young writers are talking about writing more as writers and less as editors.
While a focused group conference may take longer than an individual conference, we are amplifying the learning as writers through the reinforcement that we are a community of writers who respects and values the authentic processes of writers.
So, as requested by some new colleagues who I have met at conferences, here is a sample of what focused group conferring can sound like and accomplish.
The objective was simple. Read something. Think and talk about it. Write. Nothing earth-shattering in that plan. However, one small wrinkle framed the exercise--writing partners. In pairs or threes, talk out your questions and ideas, and write something together.
I don't care what you write about or what it evolves into, I just want it to come from a collaborative effort floating on conversation.
When I sat down with two 8th graders and asked them how this experiment in collaborative writing went, Sebastian shared "at first it was a one-sided conversation..." Classmates asked for his opinion about Cuba, Communism, and Socialism. They knew that Sebastian liked to read history and current events. Our shared article about Castro and Cuba sparked different questions from many pairs and groups of students.
However, Sebastian noted that the learning process turned around for him personally the more he spoke. He discovered that the act of speaking his prior knowledge, current curiosity, and evolving thinking gave him something back--clarity. Talking helping Sebastian refine his ideas:
"...the act of you responding to questions was helpful...I had that information in my head, and I was trying to put it down on my own paper...I was just having problems [writing], but once I started talking I started explaining it and [writing] became easier..."
The other young man in the conversation, Ansh, explained that three pairs of writing partners sat together in a larger group of six. So, as three different essays were in development each partner pairing leaned on other partner pairings for ideas. They shared ideas with their direct writing partners and they cross referenced ideas with others. Ansh said, "we kind of merged our ideas together and yet we still wrote very different papers."
Ansh added, "having [writing] partner makes your views different...you see things from a different perspective...and that helps...working with peers, it really made my writing better..."
Collaborative writing isn't new. And it certainly isn't a stretch to ask people to do it. As a matter of fact, writers rely on the act of collaboration every day in order to develop their thinking. Perhaps one does not always co-write an article or a novel, but a writer will talk and share ideas with writers as his thinking evolves. We learn that writers collaborate using many methods, many strategies, and many sets of eyes and ears.
I love that these boys made a large group of six, some wrote and talked with one partner exclusively and continuously, while some others in the classroom worked in a partner pairing that only touched base in increments (after the individuals wrote privately, away from others). Even more rewarding was the discovery that Ansh and Sebastian discovered that because of the things they do naturally as writers that they were "on the path" of not only becoming better writers, but "on the path" of writing for themselves as observers of the world.
Together, we learned that the collaborative writing process was as varied as penmanship and that fact is ok.
With space for agency, any human being (of any age) will collaborate how they need it, when they it, according to their strengths and comfort level.
All of our students can learn to collaborate effectively to become better writers. Yet, collaborative writing is not a move that teachers instinctively add to their classrooms since collaborative writing is not part of the process when students are assessed by the state or how one has traditionally evaluated writers. Collaboration has been relegated to "edit my work"...and it can be much much more than that.
Someone may want to inform the state that if they want to see kids write well then we may want to start by rethinking the model found on all of our state tests and increasingly inside of classrooms: writing bound and gagged inside a silo.
On Back to School Night, as well as by email, I invited parents to participate in my podcast on reading and writing. There is no coaching, no pre-conference, no review of questions ahead of time. Parents show up on a designated date and sit down with me for thirty minutes.
We talk. The Voice Recorder app runs.
In each case, conversations have run over thirty minutes. We discover that we do have a lot to share with one another about reading and writing. I tell the parents that we will just keep talking but that I will extract an eight to twelve minute segment to reflect upon.
What strikes me immediately (in all of my podcasting with the parents) is how closely the parents' experiences and beliefs mirror much of the research on reading and writing that I have read. I find myself thinking about Donald Graves, Janet Emig, George Hillocks, Mina Shaughnessy, Tom Newkirk, Lucy Calkins, Nanci Atwell, Katie Wood Ray, Katherine Bomer, et al.
I am wondering how can parents' words and actions so closely mirror what the research has been telling us for decades, yet the actions regarding writing in education continues to drift further and further away even though we know better?
One of the most powerful moments in this conversation is when Amy exclaims, "Ohh! Don't be so afraid!" She is imagining a conversation she has had with her children again and again. Amy sees adolescents stymied by rubrics. They aren't helpful. At least, they aren't as helpful as we'd like to believe.
I keep coming back to the idea that what inside of schools resembles little of what happens outside of schools. And it makes me question the validity of how we spend our time inside of the classroom in addition to the validity of how we assess writing in particular.
In this excerpt, two parents (Doris and Amy) share how their personal experiences as readers and writings inform how they help their own children as readers and writers.
I'm struck that Doris and Amy acknowledge physical activity stimulates the brain to focus.
I'm struck that each sees the counterproductive results of adolescents dependent upon rubrics.
Not only am I struck that these adults write, but also I am struck that they can name the specific processes in their everyday lives that the research names as effective and authentic. Doris thinks about an idea for weeks--often while driving. Amy talks to friends about a subject, reads widely, and thinks about while jogging.
Since each of these parents knows that writing is an active process over an extended period of time--and each encourages their children to see writing similarly--perhaps more do as well. While we take our cue from the policy makers from above, we (the collective education community) may want to continue to reach out to have informal conversations with parents about reading and writing. We each have advocates and mentors within reach. We may not get 100% participation, but some parents will and some community members will if asked.
Perhaps we can extend more invitations to parents to be engage us in conversations so that we might advocate for our community together.
Every few episodes I will continue to insert excerpts from my conversations with parents about reading and writing. Enjoy the first with Doris and Amy!
Meet Logan. Logan likes to read. He even likes to write his own stories. However, as a writer, Logan hits a fork in the path. Soon into a new idea, he doesn't know what to write next. The story sits incomplete. Like a hiker who neither goes left or right at the fork, but returns to his point of origin, Logan abandons his writing.
In some respects, Logan (like many adolescents) is being taught to abandon his writing.
This is significant because we are training generations of adolescents to write to someone else's agenda. Adolescents learn to depend on us not only for the idea but also where to take it. Significant evidence emerges on daily basis that we cheat our kids' ability to think for themselves.
In this episode of the podcast (a quick conferring session during class), Logan reminds me, "I do write sometimes, but I never finish anything....I know everything I'm supposed to write about then there is this pause and I just stop and think, 'what am I supposed to write about now?'"
On the positive side, Logan has set up the conditions of a reading and writing life for himself outside of school. He even recognizes the importance of support and encouragement. He talks to his friends about his writing. He remembers comments written to him on shared documents online.
And then something really curious (and telling occurs), Logan exhales.
It is the deep exhale we have all felt the moment we are about to say something honest and raw. Logan says he wrote something a few years ago but "its gone now."
A teacher had control of the student writing and deleted it.
Couple Logan's deep exhale with the symbolic act of an adult deleting an adolescent's writing. I think of Jo's pain at learning Amy tossed her manuscript into the roaring fireplace. Likewise, I couldn't fathom giving any of you control over my writing--to incinerate it at will.
I would sigh deeply too.
My recent thinking has latched onto the idea of writers collaborating. In the real world, these are supportive communities. Writers reach out to others they trust. Often, a relationship is in place--but not always. Sometimes just the common desire to have a partner draws like-minded people to writers' groups and classes.
Having someone to talk and share with consistently draws the best out of us as writers.
When I had my 8th grade students collaborate on a piece of writing together, I asked Elsa to podcast her experience with me. Even when a choice of collaboration is offered, Elsa has been someone to remain independent--most of my students choose to write by themselves.
This makes sense. Some have been disappoint by group efforts on projects of the past. We know the scenario. One person does most of the work. The partner cruises and receives the same grade at the end.
What did they learn other than you can't get good help nowadays?
But I pushed for collaboration this time. It wasn't a choice. You had to write something together.
Elsa said, "I enjoyed it...I felt like I had somebody to rely on...they were right there to say 'Alright, you work on the conclusion, and I'll try to work this out and we can switch again and make changes..."
Elsa kept repeated that she really liked that idea. There was something supportive in the process of writing small sections and then evaluating it together before moving forward. Elsa said, "It was nice to ask questions." They talked about writing the entire time except when they wrote.
When I listening to them collaborate, I often caught them talking about word choice and sentences--how would a reader interpret this wording, this structure, the basics of this idea. Do we need more? Is it clear? Should we move this sentence?
Elsa confirmed what I saw, "Usually, when I write by myself, I right what i think sounds right and looks right. [The writing partner] really helped me see a different way of looking at the sentence and how the reader is going to read it."
The process of asking students to write together opened up the possibilities for those who could not see it on their own. While there are still elements of adolescents being reactive writers (because it is writing for a school assignment) the act of writing and talking simultaneously with somebody to rely on moves adolescents closer to also being reflective writers throughout the process.
And learning to be a reflective writer in the process is a skill that writers can carry with them throughout their lives.
The teacher I am supposed to be is a listener, a mentor, a reader, and a writer.
On Monday evening, I participated in a panel in front of pre-service teachers. They asked questions about student teaching and what might be expected from their mentors.
On Thursday evening, I presented to a group of elementary, middle, and high school teachers about the advantages of leveraging digital tools in our conferring.
Yesterday, from 9am - 1pm, I met with colleagues in the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. We wrote. We shared writing. We discussed advocacy. We reported out about upcoming conferences as well as what we learned from recent conferences. We asked questions. We shared ideas.
That is about 7 hours of talking about teaching, reading, and writing. I loved every minute of it. Yet, no matter how rich my personal professional development may be, the most rewarding moments of any week always arise from conversations with students about their reading and writing.
The more I listen, the more deeply I understand the privilege and responsibility of encouraging young writers and the teacher I am supposed to be.
In the conference captured in the podcast below, Ellie, an 8th grader, begins by telling me about her reading life. She is reading Thirteen Reasons Why for pleasure, and Riot for school. She participates in the Reading Olympics and set a personal goal to read every book on the list--not just those assigned to her.
Yet, for as helpful as this information is for me, the conference turns on a dime when I ask a simple question: do you ever get ideas for writing from your reading?
What astonishes me is not what Ellie tells me--I am no longer astonished by the constant stream of students who tell me that they write on their own--rather, I am astonished that so many teachers miss out on this kind of exchange. Making time for conferring is a luxury in many classrooms...and some young, preservice teachers indicate that they do not think much about conferring.
Why do we believe what we believe about being the teachers we are supposed to be?
Just this week, I met teachers surprised at how well some of my students spoke about reading and writing. I heard others, genuinely absorbed, by the idea that a teacher could confer this much, this well, even when we are "supposed to be teaching."
The common theme I heard from teachers and pre-service teachers this week is that conferring and reading for pleasure (choice) is an extra consideration detached from any goals within a curriculum. Pre-service and veterans alike appear to be...frightened? frozen? standing still? because of our collective American disconnect regarding curriculum.
Too often, teachers are shackled by "things" in a curriculum. Sadly, this neurotic curricular freeze-up blinds us to the significance of the moves our adolescents make as readers and writers.
Consider Ellie's life outside of school.
Recently, Ellie's friend invited her to a family vacation home. While walking in the woods, her friend shared an idea for a story. Soon, Ellie and her friend started to write together on a Google Doc.
Collaborating on a Google Doc with friends was not a new move for Ellie. Previously, she created digital folders for each of her friends back home, shared them online, and encouraged her friends to share their writing. Some of these friends collaborated on a play together. Some worked on individual pieces of writing.
Ellie discovered collaborating through Google Docs on her own. As a matter of fact, Ellie shared the advantage of using Google Docs with her mother--who happens to be writing a book.
Ellie and her mom each share their writing with one another.
Mom and daughter mentor one another just as Ellie and her friends mentor one another.
Our students write and read as mentors. They tell me this fact. Every. Single. Time. I ask.
Mentoring writing is the teaching we are supposed to be doing. One big part of mentoring is being alongside our young writers as they talk and share.
I take my cue regarding the teacher I am supposed to be from the conversations with my students. Conferring tells us more about reading and writing more than any curriculum document yet written.
Reading is not the enemy.
Conversations with students repeatedly point to a loss of a reading life outside of school during the formative transitions between 5th and 6th grade. It only gets exacerbated throughout 7th and 8th until high school students, returning for a visit, lament, "I wish I could read books again."
Life interferes with reading. Homework interferes with reading. Other people's expectations interferes with reading. The resigned trumpeting of "I'm too busy" fills our homes and schools.
Walt Whitman decreed, "Be curious, not judgmental."
So, I ask students to tell me about what works for them as readers. How can we expect kids to be readers, if we act as though we do not want to catch them reading? Without reading, few would write.
Leaders read. Leaders write.
In this podcast, my 8th grade student, Manav, begins by telling me about her reading life. She enjoys John Grisham and anything reminding her of Grisham. She has a book pile and accepts recommendations from her sister and her father. Manav knows herself as a reader. She even reflects that she "aged out" of fantasy and enjoys YA realistic fiction today.
As I listen and then dig deeper with my questions, Manav shares that she thinks about writing down her thinking after reading something she enjoyed. As a matter of fact, Manav has written stories on her own time outside of school. She has shared the stories with trusted family members.
Yet, Manav does not see herself as a writer.
She says, "I just don't feel like I can be a writer like that...I'm an ok writer, I think...the way I write is a bit off."
I understand this lack of confidence as having direct ties to her reading. Yes, Manav reads. But she must keep reading. Relentlessly. The less Manav reads, the less confidence she will foster in herself as a writer. When adolescents are made to feel that self-selected reading is an afterthought to other assigned work, they are less likely to develop reading and writing as a strategic, game-changing life skill. The worst-case scenario is that students grow into citizens who completely abandon reading because they have learned and accepted that they do not have time.
I am not a reader. I am not writer. Anything else is more important.
With this mindset, students grow up learning to depend on other people for ideas. They become followers in the classroom...and the workplace. Muhammed Ali's statement works both ways: "What you are thinking is what you are becoming."
I worry when I hear adults gripe that kids are reading in lieu of "other" work. I hope kids are not hearing that message, but I fear that they are. Reading leads to thinking, leading to writing, leading to deeper thinking...and more reading. When we make kids believe that reading interferes with the something else that they are supposed to do, we influence how they see themselves as readers.
"As a man is so he sees." William Blake.
Students like Manav must keep reading so they are inspired to write and develop their ideas--especially those ideas that barge unexpectedly into their imaginations! They have to read and write during their own time outside of class, as well as during their busiest times of life outside of class. The business of a reading life pollinates all beautiful societies.
Like all adolescents, Manav needs to not feel bad about reading--to stop feeling as though reading is like a caramel to be enjoyed only after dinner. Too much is lost when adolescents apostatize reading for everything else in a day. If we scold an adolescent who is reading for not doing other work first, perhaps we might examine the other work , instead of kicking the book out of hand.
Reading is the engaging, pleasurable work that plants the seeds of original, expressive thought.
Reading is not the enemy.
In Children Want to Write (edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle) we read that Donald Graves completed a study in 1973 suggesting that students need out help in becoming critical thinkers within three explicit phases of the writing process: pre-composing, composing, and post-composing. One details I have been focusing on lately is the acknowledgment that students can be either reactive writers or reflective writers (111).
I had never grappled with the notion that adolescent writers could be either on any given day depending on the task set before them. In other words, my decisions as a teacher influence the decisions of my young writers to approach their work in a reactive way or a reflective way.
Over the past two weeks, I observed my students put into both positions...by me. When I put them in a reactive situation (writing alone), it was not on purpose. I wanted them to be reflective and expressive, but it did not turn out that way. My decision was well-intentioned but short-sighted because (after rading the same text) many students, writing independently of each another, began their writing identically:
The council suggests...
Other identical patterns emerged throughout the essays...including a bizarrely Manchurian Candidate-sque duty to the five-paragraph essay.
I must write an introduction, three paragraphs of support, and a conclusion.
Yet, when I positioned my students with writing partners, in the hopes of inspiring conversation as they wrote so that they might be more reflective, I was hoping for change...and got it. Students still read a common text, but the act of conversation teased out a variety and depth of writing absent from the previous attempt.
In this podcast, Elsa tells me about some of the initial gains she took away from this first experience with a writing partner.
In retrospect, confronted with addressing an academic text and an academic writing task alone, students reverted to formula...and not writing. They trusted in structures ingrained in elementary school and did not act as writer. Sadly, a culture of adolescents continues to grow with the belief that academic writing is accomplished successfully through graphic organizers, reliable formats, and trusted formula. If one can understand how to edit such work for grammatically correct rhetoric, then by-golly we are on the road to being good writers.
When I read the repetitive openings of more than a dozen essays to my students, they giggled. Then they swallowed and looked to me for a solution. They were reactive writers. All of them.
I presented another academic writing task with a common piece of literature...but asked them to accomplish the writing in pairs or threes.
What happened? They talked. And talked. And talked. Then, they wrote on shared documents. Some broke up responsibilities. Others wrote in a more blended approach--discussing each line and idea. They became reflective writers. All of them.
In my opinion, the necessary shift is moving academic writing from isolated silos to collaborative, social exercises where ideas flow back and forth between partners and even cross from group to group. Shared thinking. This is where students will grow as thinkers capable of writing analysis. Just because students are tested in silos does not mean that must train them in silos.
All writing practice should embrace what good writers do: talk, revise, research, read, and collaborate. Many academic writing situations leave young writers feels abandoned and unconfident.
My 8th grade student, Elsa, captures the experience:
"It kind of felt different...I felt like I had someone to rely on...if I didn't understand something or was really confused about it, she was right there to say, 'OK, how about if you work on the conclusion, and I'll try to work this out, and then we can switch again and we can make changes to what we think. I really liked that idea. And then I did the same for her because she was really stressed out on some stuff, and then we'd switch places...and we got it done really quickly, but we took time to go over each others' stuff it was actually really nice to have someone you could rely on to help you figure out any questions that you had."
Tom Newkirk writes "reactive writers do no wish to reexamine finished products. For them, the actual doing, getting the message down in rough form, is everything. Teachers who wish to help reactive children to become more self-critical have a difficult task since self-criticism is a reflective act that involves a return to something written. Reflective writers, on the other hand, enjoy the contemplation of their writing, the meaning of their message, and the development of their characters (111).
The fact that the same adolescent can be both a reflective writer and reactive writer depending on the task set before them is a bit of new discovery for me. By constantly indoctrinating students with the belief that form beats thinking, we corral students into a reactive mindset with academic writing. We have more influence over our students' attitudes than we might believe.
Stella can't put books down. Natalie forces herself to put books down.
Stella re-reads books again and again and again. She wants to relive the experience.
Natalie extends the book by moving more slowly. She wants to savor the experience.
Stella, fingers tapping throughout, physically feels a response. She says, "I get hyped as I read...I read absurdly a lot..." You binge read? "Yes."
Natalie, who shares Stella's feeling that she can't put a book down, says, "I want to learn more about it...but I don't want to rush myself into it..." After a month or so, if Matalie is still thinking about the book, she goes back and rereads it.
These two adolescents love books. They read. They engage in rich discussion with friends and family on their own about books. They recommend books. They accept recommendations. They think about their books when they are away from them!
There is always a "but..."
Reading for school is another issue. One admits that she skips pages (just to reach deadlines) when a book is assigned. Another steadfastly remarks that, if she reads something, she wants to read it "on my own terms."
It seems strange that an act as joyful and purposeful as reading can push adolescents into moves counterproductive to learning. Regrettably, we measure reading by speed and numbers as opposed to leveraging conversations and experiences.
Neither students reads for pleasure when a book is assigned. They even go so far as to say that it is unlikely...well, it is possible to enjoy the task...but unlikely. They use language that indicates that students have to separate joy from learning.
This is troubling.
Natalie: "When we had assigned books--done in a certain time--I did not like that--i just look for more literature devices because that is what we have to mark down, but when I read on my own I don't care about that."
Stella: "You are reading to find something instead of just enjoying it."
Of course, Kelly Gallagher's Readicide addressed this issue head-on in 2009. We suffer from a disconnect between what is deemed best practice in the classroom and what is best practice outside of the classroom. It used to be that (and maybe it still is in many instances) the experiences inside of the classroom prepared students for life outside of the classroom.
Yet, so much of what my students say sounds like they are being indoctrinated for a life boxed inside narrow bands of tests and tasks.
Stella tells me when books are assigned that it feels "less like reading and more like a worksheet..." To counter that experience, Stella often reads a book for pleasure while the task of reading to play school has been assigned.
What is astonishing is not that education is wrong--because many useful outcomes are often the intention behind our classroom novels--but that adolescents are right. The moves they make with their books beat the moves we make with our books.
Natalie's grandmother lives with the family and the grandmother not only suggests books to Natalie, but she leaves several spread out at all times for Natalie to pick up and read. They discuss the books. They visit the library together at least once a month. When I asked Natalie how her grandmother knows her so well as a reader, she says, "probably because she talks to me."
Applying what good readers do outside of the class to the decisions we make inside of the classroom is a necessary adjustment to not only building lifelong readers but also building experiences that stick (and matter).
As I reconsider the design of how I will handle an upcoming whole-class text, I have to remember these students' words that it is possible to enjoy an assigned text...if they feel an interest in the book and if they feel that their personal reading process is honored.
Neither happens because I teach the book.
Either could happen if I teach the reader...on their own terms.
Two 8th grade students, Livia and Jenna, led our conferring session into ideas--which happens to not only be one of the Six Traits of Writing, but it is the first (and arguably most significant trait) among the Six Traits of Writing. As my students talk about their flow of ideas, Jenna brings up a very specific (and alarming) word: censor.
In the context of our conversation, Jenna shares that as one grows older a censor "gets built" into one's brain. You become "scared" to put down ideas. When one is younger, he doesn't care.
My gosh...8th grade students summoning up some of the seminal writing research of Don Graves, James Britton, Janet Emig, and others. What Jenna may or may not know (naturally, through her own visceral experiences as a writer) is that the censor she refers to does not grow naturally of its own accord. The censor is indeed placed inside the young writer's brain from a long, neurotic history of writing taught as correction.
The fear she references has long been noted (by Mina Shaghnessy and others) as a palpable fear of a trail of errors following the young writer around. Sadly, the research also shows that this freeze-up can often linger and follow us into and through our adult years.
For example, at a recent professional development workshop, I asked about thirty teachers in the room if any of them write. One raised her hand. At the conclusion of the session, I asked if any might start writing. None raised their hand. The reasons for not writing likely vary, but the fact remains, no matter how good the teacher may be or how well-intentioned, our generation of teachers is a walking manifestations of the flawed history of the teaching of writing in America: a heavy, heavy, heavy lead foot on the gas pedal of the correction of errors.
Helping adolescents develop their ideas is the heart of developing their thinking (aka writing) which is the foundation of developing as a writer. The trap we have to avoid is seeing narrow bands of thinking, such as the TDA or the DBQ, as writing when, in reality, in the testing situation, neither a TDA or a DBQ has much of anything to do with the authentic act of writing.
We know that writers think about ideas long before setting pencil to paper. Writers discuss, research, pull apart ideas. Writers revise ideas over extended periods of time--weeks, months, and years. No writer shares his brilliant treatise developed over minutes of thinking! Not only is the TDA and DBQ the most inauthentic act of writing we ever ask our kids to do, but also could become the only act of writing some ever ask their students to do.
Why isn't a TDA or a DBQ writing? Students don't own the idea. They never had any shot to think about it over time--like real writers. Students are not permitted to talk about the ideas--because talking would be cheating--even though as James Britton discovered, "Writing is born on a sea of talk. Our students only have a chance to revise without fresh eyes over a span of minutes--they are not afforded the opportunity to set their writing aside, walk away, think, come back to it tomorrow...as real writers do. And, the first and only draft of their writing is judged. Where else in the real world of writing on this planet is a first, rough draft of an idea judged without any collaboration or time to research, think, share...? With the exception of setting handwriting to paper, scant few elements of a TDA or DBQ are indeed an act of real-world writing.
This frustration is the crux of what Jenna and Livia point out to me in their own words. It is what I hear from students again and again and again:
I am a writer when it is personal and I can deeply relate.
When you are interested in a topic, you want to write about it more.
I only write to prompts I want to, otherwise it is a waste of time and I do not put my best effort in.
As you listen to the podcast, consider how the students in your classroom would feel about Jenna and Livia's experiences. How many would share their perspective? And if this perspective is shared, how might that knowledge impact the decisions we make as teachers?
When conferring with adolescents, an awareness of body language plays a role. Sometimes students keep pecking away at their keyboard and never glance over at me, or they are headfirst in their notebook, pencils scrawling away--and they reply with a vague, "fine" or "my story" or "this idea I've been thinking about."
Scribble-scribble-scribble. Tap-Tap Tap-Tap-Tap.
And in that moment I have to make the decision to either interrupt their flow or to back away. Most often, I back away from writers in the zone. I read a few lines over a shoulder, and then I move on to someone else sending signals that a conversation would not be intrusive in their process--as a matter of fact, a conversation may help the process flow.
So, when I approached Anju, an 8th-grade student, he told me was thinking about cooking. A few times this year, he was written about cooking. Yet, for the first time, I caught him in the act of thinking about cooking.
"Tell me more."
He said so much in the span of three minutes that I asked him to have lunch with me so we could create a podcast about his thinking. And, what resulted (attached below) is a podcast where we talk a lot about cooking...a bit about a maker space camp...and his participation in a collaborative cooking challenge at his church...and then we dip into wrestling...and, of course, writing.
What I pull from my time with Anju are how our lives are trajectories of rich, overlapping connections and passions. Yet, for too long in my growth as a teacher, my actions did not demonstrate understanding that curriculum could be a part of each and every adolescent's separate personal trajectory. I was teaching writing in its own box. And grammar had its own space. As did reading. And vocabulary.
For too long, on any given day, students engaged in a curriculum (in my classroom) served up like a display in a museum that I built according to the blue-print handed to each teacher from above. Sometimes students observed in my museum silently. Sometimes they daydreamed and missed "my lesson." Sometimes they listened to me and absorbed something. Sometimes the experience featured a hands-on experience. And then, when we were done, when it was time for me to move on with my agenda, the experience faded into a memory that many forgot.
Conferring experiences like the one published below with Anju continue to push me to disassemble the museum model of teaching one piece of wood at a time. The hope is that Anju feels encouraged to write about anything on his mind...while still learning vocabulary, deep reading skills, grammar, and the tools of a writer. Anju, like many adolescents, engages in so much thinking in life outside of school that his thinking should be welcome inside of the classroom. Actually, it should be more than welcome. Anju's thinking should be a foundation for Anju's trajectory as a writer.
If you listen to this episode of The Classroom, I hope you take something from the notion our time with adolescents, at least in part, is an act of helping them gain access to their thinking while connecting their thinking to the skills learned throughout the year in our classroom.
A February 2016 article in The Smithsonian (Infants Can See Things Adults Cannot) reveals that our brain filters out our ability to see things deemed unimportant--rather quickly. Adults cannot see image differences that infants can. The implication that the brain filters out things that don't matter should make every writing teacher pause.
What if this judgmental, housecleaning region of the brain doesn't allow us to notice adolescents and teenagers in the act of writing outside of school? We know our kids write, somewhat. Certainly, social media and digital platforms provide opportunities. Beyond the digital, we might also be aware of a few students with a passion for composing stories or poetry--who keep notebooks or journals. Yet, what if more of a writing process is happening than we allow ourselves to see?
What if in the complexity of the cortex, we believe that we have the current form of education so thoroughly figured out that we train our brain to dismiss writing--to no longer be conscious of it since it is not occurring inside the classroom?
In this episode of The Classroom, two 8th grade students, Jackson and Soumil, talk like two sagacious writing teachers. They write at home. They write for themselves. They write for others. They share. They talk. They reflect. They own their writing fears. They understand what works with making writing better. They grasp of the moves writers make when inspiration dries up or if they have an idea in need of development.
And I have to ask myself how adolescents know this much about writing? Is it that they always have known this much from their personal experiences and I have been ignorant--I have never paid attention? Maybe it is good news and a prevalence of adults are modeling and mentoring great writing habits? Maybe it is the often black-eyed CCSS? Maybe it is a packaged reading program. Perhaps it is the presence of phonics at an early age. Or maybe it is simply that children and adolescents and teenagers have always wanted to write, do truly want to write, and will always find a way to write.
Maybe our culture has grown so used to understanding writing (and all of its processes) as only a very narrow model. Perhaps we have forgotten what long thinking looks like when it comes to the writing process since so many classrooms can never feel free to create the space and time for long thinking. So much of writing is a process that includes recursive acts of silent thinking, conversation, and observation.
My students tell me again and again that they write. Furthermore, when I ask them to tell me about their writing lives, few talk about writing IN school. Perhaps a sidebar, a fragment, a term has taken root. But the writing process--that happens more often than not outside of school. Too many years of packaged, prearranged and girdled writing process instruction has done as much of a disservice to teachers than students. When you let them talk, students tell us that they still manage to engage in the constant act of composition right before our eyes--and we just can't bring outselves to recognize it.
This past weekend, a presenter at the Keystone State Reading Association (KSRA) conference noted that we do not read "wide and deep" any longer. She cited recent studies demonstrating that the average American read only one book in 2015. I found a recent Pew study estimating that only 72% of Americans read at least one book over the span of a year. The Atlantic confirms that statistic and adds the number of non-book-readers has tripled since 1978.
So what does any of this have to do with an 8th-grade student? While how we read and write continues to evolve to include digital modes, and while adult models of reading and writing remain on the decline, adolescents and teenagers still crave acts of literacy.
In the first episode of my podcast with Jay, he shared some of his reading life as a child and some of his current habits on social media. However, I did not anticipate the shift in conversation where Jay shares how YouTube influences him as a writer:
"Your editing style can really make people recognize your video...you could recognize people [people] by their editing style...you really can recognize someone by their doing what they do..."
Jay shares that he watches Youtube How-to videos. This, of itself, is not remarkable. Many adolescents turn to YouTube to learn, socialize, and create. However, Jay told me that he can tell who made what video according to their editing decisions. While Jay may hear himself sharing a fluent part of the process of being a fledgling teenager, I hear an opportunity to help Jay grow as a writer who will make style decisions too (word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions).
And if I can help Jay grasp those concepts as a writer, then I know Jay will help others around him grasp those concepts. He will be able to mentor his classmates and writing partners through daily conferring and through synchronous collaborative editing...and collaboration is already in the bloodstream of many adolescents.
Jay and his friends collaborate on stories--acting them out--and it reminds me of Tom Sawyer running off into the woods to play at Robin Hood and pirates. As Jay talked about this active (physical) use the imagination he shifts to a memory of when he was younger and a friend gave him a notebook to write in. Jay tried to write a story about "a guy who went on funny, weird adventures."
Even though that story did not work out, Jay says he still thinks about writing while he reads in his room or even as he watches Youtube "I've thought about writing something...starting something of my own...that I could call my own..."
Jay's repeated referencing of YouTube reminds me of their banner statement: Broadcast Yourself. As Donald Graves knew, children do want to write. And just because children grow into busier adolescents and teenagers does not mean that they have to grow into disengaged adults. I do not know how to stop the current downward slide of literacy in America today, but I have an inkling that we can begin to shift the tide by encouraging young writers like Jay.
Encouragement is everything.
Conferring with Jay, I am reminded that the most meaningful feedback is given from the student to teacher. By that, I mean that the teacher encourages the students to think and share the decisions he makes with his reading and writing. Through the act of speaking it, the student is able to understand it and then, theoretically, decide what he is to do next. The teacher serves as a mentor, not a judge.
This conference with Jay started like so many others. He loves reading, but it slowed down a bit for a few years. Now that he is older, sports & activities take up a lot of time.
After a class discussion on making a plan for adding reading back into our lives, Jay disciplines himself to bring a book with him in the car and he schedules reading for himself on weekends.
For teachers, what kids do outside of the classroom should matter as much as what they do inside of the classroom. But we can rarely understand what they do unless we ask. And unless we listen.
And this is where Jay's conference turned on a dime.
Jay shares that he watches Youtube How-to videos. This, of itself, is not remarkable. Many adolescents turn to YouTube to learn, socialize, and create. However, Jay told me that he is noticing style. He said he can tell who made what video according to their editing decisions. While Jay may hear himself sharing a fluent part of the process of being a fledgling teenager, I hear an opportunity to help Jay grow.
If Jay can notice style in a video because of the decisions a filmmaker, then I can coax Jay through conversations of style in various writers because of the decisions they make. Jay will be able to respond to questions about his decisions as well. Because I asked the student to tell me about his reading and writing life outside of the classroom, I have an access point towards helping Jay understand the impact of word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. And if I can help Jay grasp those concepts as a writer, then I know Jay will help others around him grasp those concepts. He will be able to mentor his classmates and writing partners through daily conferring and through synchronous collaborative editing.
But there is another lingering question in the back of my mind...saved for conferences in the near future. What of the YouTube banner statement Broadcast Yourself.
Since broadcasting is a form of publishing our thinking, when do adolescents feel the urge to create on YouTube? Clearly, Jay is drawn to watching it. He says watching his brother create videos is fun. He watches a video with a sophisticated eye for style. I wonder if Jay or my other students will make the leap towards broadcasting their thinking...and how much writing, planning, collaboration, and sharing would go into such a leap. I wonder if students would seize the opportunity to publish their thinking on a class YouTube channel.
Jay has me wondering a lot. He has me thinking about how this supports our students' writing and reading processes today.
Sometimes the most meaningful feedback is not what we say to a student, it is what we hear from a student.
When students share that they used to write stories as a child, I am delighted to learn about what they did. Little else is as charming to hear an adolescent describe the book he wrote several years ago. Will started out his conference with a similar story, but then shifted to a story he is writing right now on his own.
What hooks me about Will--beyond the fact that he literally unplugs and goes outdoors to compose--is how he acts as a writer on his own outside of the class. Thankfully, writing is more than just something Will does in school.
Will is a writer.
After playing a video game (Slenderman) which Will admits is scary, he began to imagine the game turned into a book. He composes--thinking--while shooting baskets outside. As you listen to the podcast, note how a video game is, for Will, the source of an idea.
Before writing anything down on paper, Will constantly tells himself the story in his imagination while physically engaged in an activity outdoors. I think of writers who share that they go for a walk in order to stimulate their thinking.
Soon, Will abandons the Slenderman story for a new idea for a story. To use Will's word, he "remodeled" the story.
What is beautiful here is that Will's unique process continues to evolve. He went from a video game, to imagining fan fiction, to imagining an original story, to the next stage: he verbalized the story to his mother and brother in the car. And they encouraged him to keep working on it. They said that it was good, but keep going...
Will presents one example of the constant state of composition outside of the classroom that some adolescents do on their own. When pressed to tell me how and when he would write the story down, Will did not leap to that action. His response is patient and makes the point that his writing process is very much a mental rehearsal. When he finishes shooting baskets he tells himself, literally, "to be continued" and conjures a mental placeholder.
When Will eventually returns to shooting hoops another day, he summarizes the story to himself and picks up from the mental placeholder. This is very real, recursive act of revision for Will.
The depth and believability of Will's story astonish me. He comments on characters' decisions ("it is kind of sad") and articulates the setting and family history so clearly that capture a sense of Will's imagined community quite well. I especially love, as he is summarizing his story, that he says he doesn't want to tell me anymore because he does not want to spoil it.
This is a writer who believes in his thinking. This is real. The writing is real. The story is real.
Will is a writer.
Once Will moves to put the ideas down on a document, he verbalizes the story aloud to himself. He says he is listening to hear well he wrote the suspense, details, and description. When asked why that act is different than just reading your work silently, Will says, "Well, I can't hear myself when I read silently."
Will is a writer.
Will reports that a fluency exists between what he writes at home and what he writes at school. This stream of composing is never severed. It is strengthened. Will points to a class lesson that directly impacted his personal writing. He goes right into a specific example from his story; yet, he still knows what he wants to work on next (details during the most suspenseful moments) and points to James Dashner's The Kill Order as a mentor text. He knew the book influencing his style right away. He notes that Dashner's details make the moments sound real. Will states that reading Dashner taught him how important those kinds of details were.
I wish I could take credit for any of Will's discoveries and revelations. But I can't. Will came to me as a writer. He is a writer. And when one writer is in the presence of another writer, we listen and encourage, we share and mentor.
Mina Shaughnessy wrote in Errors & Expectations that the average American high school and middle school student only wrote 350 words a week in the 1970s while the basic writer in high school and middle school only wrote 350 words a semester. Historically for many adolescents, writing has been more of a designated activity--write in school, write for school--than an authentic tool for thinking. Among my adolescent friends in the 1970s and 1980s, the only public engagement with writing occurred via graffiti.
Today, we often see adolescents and teenagers engaged in an act of writing on their devices. We may not think much of its value in the grand trajectory of growing as a writer, but texting and posting on social is, indeed, an act of writing--and carries with it many of the same conditions taught in academic writing. Rather than compare texting and social media posts to the academic writing desired in schools, I have been trying to see writing in digital spaces for its intrinsic value. I have been trying to understand the value in what is happening when adolescents write via text or social media.
I see all levels of writers writing for authentic reasons. In many most cases, students write to friends through texting and social media, but writing to an authentic audience is something teachers may not leverage enough. With the proliferation of digital devices, adolescents are no longer only writing in artificial situations. When I was in middle school, basic writers struggled to access their thoughts. It may not have been unusual for some of my friends to have written nothing at all in school (or at home). Even though my friends talked a blue streak to one another, we could not compose these ideas on paper--and often gave our teachers the impression that we were slow, struggling...or basic writers.
As we pick up with my conversation with Shannon and Brynn, I learn about what they are aware of online. Shannon and Brynn share their thoughts about commenting on social media and its impact on a writer's confidence. They also note that the significant difference between what is written on a "real" Instagram account and what is written on a "fake" Instagram account aka a "Finsta."
This evolution of a "Finsta" is significant because the adolescent-teen world figured out distinctions among audiences. In so doing, adolescents participate in an exercise something many teachers across the country try to recreate in the classroom--a community of writers. Our kids are using fake accounts so only the people they trust can see what they write. This makes my head pop just a little. It is already well-documented that trust and modeling fuel writing communities; yet, kids don't need the research to tell them this.
Set aside conversations about the possibilities of inappropriate language for a moment (plenty of adults model inappropriate writing online as it is) and focus on what kids have created without us...actually, deliberately without us: a room of one's room. Writer to writer, friend to friend, our adolescents have created the many of the conditions advocated by Donald Graves, James Britton, et al. I speculate, with good reason, that adolescents have done this to distance themselves from the judgment adults while moving themselves closer to the encouragement that grows from the seeds of trust.
As one of my students tells me in the podcast, on (real) Instagram "there is a lot judging...it is human nature."
Towards the back end of the conversation, Shannon and Brynn blend in why adolescents use a variety of social media tools to communicate with the same circles of friends.
While Instagram provides outlets for creating shared experiences (travel, daily routines, sports) which are fun to look at, Snapchat is all about humor and being yourself.
My students tell me "...that's what I like...on Instagram you try to look good, but you try to do crazy stuff on Snapchat. It's just a joke back and forth...it is your worst and best moments..."
Among the possible writing skills under development under these conditions on social media are writing to different audiences, word play, using imagery to contribute to a story, and writing for authentic purposes. Again, we may not be packaging this writing into applications for private school, but the more we know about the kind of writing adolescents are engaged in outside of our classrooms, the better prepared we can be to help them when they are inside our classrooms.
Adolescents carry much more writing experience, collectively, than my classmates and I toted into our first year in high school in 1983. As a matter of fact, a teacher who began his career in 1983 could still be teaching today--to a differently equipped adolescent and teen than he met at the start of his career. Perhaps a thirteen-year-old is always a thirteen-year-old irrespective of the era, but the conditions under which each thirteen-year-old lives harbors strong influence in their development as readers and writers. Ignoring the impact of students writing in digital spaces is akin to ignoring the role played students having access to a library.
Painfully anchored to handwriting and grammar, writing instruction in school feels the strain of technology. Subsequently, what adolescents and teenagers do online, outside the classroom, is dismissed. Kids just being kids. Wasting time. Texting isn't writing. Kids are more likely to be sloppy. Kids are less likely to be conscious of grammar. Writing on social media or through texting does not look like what many adults consider good writing; therefore, it is not good writing. Some may argue that it is not really writing at all.
When I spoke with Shannon and Brynn, two 8th grade students in my class, I initially wanted to know more about their reflections about using video online. They each wrote reflections about how Snapchat and YouTube functions in their lives outside of school. I had no idea I was about to get an education about writing on social media.
The notion of how kids write outside of school matters most to me here. I learned to pay attention to this concept from Donald Graves.
Lots of educators construct curriculum and lessons around the architecture of assessing writing. We teach the nuts and bolts previous generations project on what tomorrow's adolescents will need in college and beyond. While these ideas make for a healthy conversation, writing instruction is often a narrow practice. It has been this way for generations.
Listen to this episode of The Classroom while suspending long-held judgments about writing. Listen to what Shannon and Brynn say about how they write outside of the classroom. And consider how their footprint matches any of the considerations of good writing in school.
Our conversation led to an examination of what some adolescents do on the social media platform Instagram. Just as Shannon and Brynn dig into the importance of writing captions, they tell me that having good writing skills (to write a caption) is paramount because "otherwise people will judge" on Instagram.
When I ask how they learn to write captions well, each immediately points to mentors in their family and peers online. They text one another, call one another, and observe what others are doing in an effort to be a better writer in this very specific context.
Take that statement for all that it is worth--observe what others are doing in an effort to be a better writer. Turning to mentors is the foundation of some of the best writing instruction that we know. And kids are doing it on their own. Away from us. Organically. Holistically. Shannon and Brynn share the practice of authentic writing so many kids are doing...and let's not overlook the fact that authentic writing practices might be the rarest writing practice inside America's classrooms.
As they speak, I become fascinated by their manipulation of text so that they might create clever puns. They speak an awful lot about the cleverness of the writing.
Finally, we addressed style. Shannon and Brynn tell me that they can identify writers on Instagram by their style. The writing takes a component of a person's personality through choices to use punctuation, capitalization, hashtags, and emojis: "how you post like your personality...everything you do on social media is your style..."
I am not advocating that writing on social media should replace anything; however, I am suggesting that we consider its value. Adolescents and teenagers talk about writing. They mentor one another about writing. They share their writing. Simply put, adolescents are developing an understanding of certain components of writing, without us, outside of the classroom.
This is incredible to me. This is a good thing. A very very good thing. Put it into context, yes, but embrace the conversations about writing happening away from the adults outside of the classroom. What adolescents do with their writing outside of class is just as important (perhaps more so) than what they do inside our classrooms.
A monument standing in Beethoven's birthplace (Bonn, Germany) keeps coming back to me because this specific statue is of Beethoven standing while holding a pencil and a small notebook. At first blush, we might think he is composing music. However, Beethoven was a great observer of the world. He carried a journal with him everyplace. Records exist of his notes about nature and thinking inspired during walks outdoors. Records note that he took a journal and a pencil with everyplace.
Recently, an 8th grader, Hope, said a few things that reminded me of this statue of Beethoven. Hope told me that when she was younger that she used to write newspapers for her family. But then she stopped because school got in the way. She had too much to do and could no longer find the time to sit down to write (not an uncommon experience for today's adolescent).
However, when Hope received a camera for Christmas, a chain of events moved Hope toward becoming a writer again...or, if you will, a composer. Hope started to vlog her family magazine rather than write it with pen and paper.
Like all writers, mentors informed Hope of what to do. She learned about vlogging through her younger sister and then through YouTube. Composing through video "came naturally" as Hope began to take her camera with her to many family events. It is as if the physical camera moved Hope towards becoming an observer of life much in the same way that the notebook and pencil allowed Beethoven to observe nature. We don't think of the pencil and journal as technological advancements, but each truly is. And by the same token, we don't necessarily regard the camera capabilities on our smartphones (or in Hope's case a stand-alone camera) as a writing tool. But a camera truly is a writing tool.
I am fascinated by Hope's admission "I feel like with home and school there is no time to just sit down and write" because so many kids experience this sense of lost time. I especially appreciate Hope's circular debate with herself. On the one hand, she says, composing with video is easier "because you can see it right in front of you" but on the other hand, she says, "with writing you can do the same thing...it's complicated."
Oh, how I love those two words in that moment: it's complicated.
Writing IS a complicated act of moving thinking to the page. Many strategies can help adolescents develop as writers. Talking, for instance, is one of the greatest writing strategies we can encourage in our classrooms. Sketching is another strategy. And now, with photography and video so accessible to many students, we should make more room for encouraging additional tools as students find them natural extensions of what they want to compose.
When I asked Hope if she found any similarities between vlogging and writing she nodded immediately and told me about her videos of wild horses which she later incorporated as a base for writing for school.
While Hope and I go on to talk about the possibilities of leveraging this tool in writing for other classes, I have to add that I most interested in what young writers do outside of the classroom. What conditions put young writers in an almost constant state of composition. I am looking forward to seeing if Hope continues to engage in these moments of constant composition with her camera. And, of course, I am wondering what the next student will tell me about what works for them when it comes to writing.
With each conference, my students remind me that our writing processes, indeed, vary--and when each variation is honored we develop trust. And when we develop trust, we develop a community of writers.
The more I speak with students, the more they offer for reflection. Students' words build the most honest mirrors to gaze into for teachers. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the decisions we make as teachers--and which decisions create possibilities for growth--and what role does homework play in the process of adolescent growth?
When Olivia (an 8th grade student) sat down with me, her experiences addressed engagement (even though she does not use that word). Specifically, Olivia's word, detachment, caught my interest.
I encounter many adolescents who no longer identify themselves as a readers or writers in middle school. They remember enjoying reading and writing in elementary school. In this podcast episode, Olivia admits spending all of her free time reading when she was a child. And now, like so many other adolescents, Olivia tells me that she rarely initiates any reading or writing by herself.
Why? If you have listened to this podcast in the past, you might have a strong guess that reading and writing vanish when homework arrives in middle school. I ask Olivia, "homework got in the way?" And without drawing a breath, Olivia says, "Yeah."
This isn't an argument against homework as much as it is a signal. Parents and teachers, more than ever, must be models of reading and writing if we are to have any chance of current generations engaging in it outside of the classroom.
Olivia adds that once middle school hit, she no longer saw reading and writing as a priority. She admits lounging around in the summertime with her digital device in lieu of reading and writing.
Some may blame the device--and that is tempting--but the device didn't break Olivia's cycle of reading and writing. Homework did. So many adolescents turn to their phones because they are bored (they also tell me this over and over), and reading and writing no longer stand tall as a priority--as something they want to do for themselves after they finish their homework. So, students turn to what has always been a priority for adolescents and teenagers--connecting with friends. Perhaps kids aren't "addicted to their phones"...they might just be addicted to their friends. Just like I was in the 1970s and 1980s. Just like adolescents and teenagers will always be.
However, the most sobering moment during my chat with Olivia is when she describes reading a book (written for adults) that she liked, but she stopped halfway through it so she could catch up with homework. That book still sits unfinished in her bedroom, to which Olivia says, "...it's kind of a sad...I was looking forward to finishing that story."
Please do not read this as an indictment of any teacher or school. What Olivia describes is a well-known, documented, circumstance across the country from 6th through 12th grade. I struggle with the balance of creating conditions for reading and writing for success in life and reading and writing for success on tests.
This is the reality for American teachers in 2016.
I know the 40 Book Challenge that Olivia speaks of and adapt my own version of it at the beginning of the school year. On the one hand, when it comes to literacy, volume matters; yet, on the other hand, I have learned that the number of books read does not trump engagement. Together, the number of books read AND engagement moves readers. Acts of authentic reading and writing are far better than acts of compliance--irrespective of the number of books "read."
In the podcast, Olivia tells me that she is not a writer, yet she shares details of a rich writer's life. All of the conditions have been in place for her! When Olivia tells me about listening to Korean music and copying the lyrics, she says, "it is fun to write."
And what is fun? --the act of writing what interests her, the act of conversation with friends, the act of sharing an experience. Even though Olivia calls herself picky, she knows what she likes. Like many adolescents, Olivia likes conversation, connections with peers and mentors, and above all, Olivia likes encouragement.
Read (or listen) between the lines. What moved Olivia a few inches forward towards reestablishing a reading and writing life? Adults and friends serving as mentors and models--the people in her life who encouraged and shared in an experience.
Olivia is not an exception in this regard. All adolescents need our best. They need us to model how and why reading and writing is a priority for a life full of joy and depth. Our students need people to help them see where and why they are attached to reading and writing more than they need more reasons to detach. And perhaps, more than anything else, students need all adults (teachers, administrators, and parents) to think long and hard about homework.
What is gained?
And what is lost?
The early months of a school year excite me because my students surprise me. Their insights are fresh and pure. Their life experiences with reading and writing come out with sincerity. Most are not used to being asked about their reading and writing lives. And they don't know just how similar their lives are...and how connected their experiences are to decades of research.
When Grace, and 8th grader, spoke with me I was moved (in the moment) by how often she used certain words:
Grace, like so many kids who speak with me, used to read and write on her own. In our podcast, Grace describes sitting under chairs and desks in her elementary school classrooms. In these cozy sanctuaries, Grace passed notebooks of original stories to friends. Friends wrote feedback. Friends spoke feedback. And children were living a writing workshop without grades or standards.
And Grace reminds us that she loved it.
It is bittersweet to her adolescents talk about reading and writing in the past tense. But I want to focus on what is there, on what Grace identified as useful, and what I might rekindle for her and her classmates. Grace tells me that she and her friends would make up stories and tell them to each other--in her words, "most of us just made them up in our minds and then we told each other when we played."
While I can't think of anything more charming than children playing and sharing invented, fantastical, dreamy stories where anything, anything at all is possible--I keep coming back to why Grace enjoyed her sanctuary beneath the desk.
Under Grace's desk there were no rules, no corrections, no harsh judgements, no neurotic focus on what was wrong. And this matters. I think about this a lot because kids tell this to me over and over when they are given the opportunity to speak about what works for them during the process of composing.
Grace reminds us "when [students] have such rigid guidelines [students] get so nervous about [their] writing." You'll hear it in the podcast. And I think Grace is wise because I think Grace is honest and sincere. So, soon after that statement when you hear her say, "I loved it. I loved it so much" you'll forgive my noting that this is a bittersweet moment for all of us in education.
So many of us love our profession, and we work hard to do right by our kids. But our kingdom has been mortgaging love and joy from our kids and both are very difficult for adolescents to recapture without our help today. It isn't too late. But much like how they lost their love in the first (through the interference of the decisions of adults), we have to be the models and mentors in their lives to help them find that love and joy again--because it will be almost impossible for them to do it alone.
Credit: music by Ben Smith at bensmithsongs.com
As the second season of my classroom podcast begins, I have to give a nod of thanks to educator, writer, and pioneer Donald Graves. As a reader and re-reader of Graves, I continue to learn the value of listening to my students. Through listening to children, adolescents, and teenagers explain what they do when they compose a piece of writing, we become better teachers--or, at least, we create the conditions by which we can become better teachers.
I sat down with two 8th graders, Gillian and Paige, and simply asked them to tell me about their reading and writing life. It is September and I am still building my knowledge base of each of my new, young writers.
Early on in the podcast, Gill and Paige share their perceptions of themselves as writers. And, as it so often happens, a student will say something that sparks a deeper conversation...and deeper learning.
Both students tell me that they write outsides of school, but Gill tells me that she and her friends wrote together outside of school.
Any scent of collaboration with writing strikes a note with me ever since I read the Carnegie Foundation's research report on the state of writing--Writing Next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Collaboration proves to be among the most valuable strategies cited in the research.
And here are my students talking about collaborating over writing on their own.
As you listen to the podcast, consider the significance of what each girl states in her own way: we are all close friends, and we are comfortable with each other.
My students remind me of the significance of taking the time to build a writing community, of making sure students have writing partners, and of creating the conditions of trust--at least trust with one other person in the room. Of course, I want my students to come to trust me as a writing mentor, but they need more than me in our writing community.
I am just one of classroom of writers and classroom of mentors.
Encouragement moves writers. And there are more of them than there are of me in the classroom. Students can learn how to talk about writing in a supportive and helpful manner. They actually already have an instinct for it--of how it works and when it does not work.
Paige teaches me, "it gets kind of weird when you don't know that person [in your writing group]...you don't know how far you can argue...[referring to her friends] we've known each other for so long that I couldn't even call it argument [when they disagree over a piece of writing]...I think of it more like we are sharing ideas even if we don't agree..."
My students remind me that compromise is easier with people you know and trust...and that their sincere intention is that everyones ideas work out because, "when you are closer, you want everyone included in on it."
While the start of the school year can often feel so busy that it is like we are drinking from a fire hose, make some decisions to invest time in building a writing community. Our kids want one. And our kids know when we are not committed to becoming a community of writers.
I chose this conference for this part of the summer because it reminds me of the trust students can put into their teachers. They rely on us for many things, but often all of those "things" are rooted in the students' thirst for encouragement. This is important for me to reflect on and remember as school will begin for me in just a few days.
This conference arose during the final days of a unit built around collaborative, argumentative, writing (students used the iPad app Explain Everything). A 7th grade student, Eva (pseudonym) brought me an early draft of a story. The room was noisy as kids designed images, search for images, and worked on the layouts of their presentations. As you will hear in the background, it was a very social work day (and that is more than ok, by the way).
That class turned out to present perfect opportunity for Eva to reach out about some personal writing. However, one caveat, this was in the Spring. Trust and community has been established...more specifically, I only think this happened because Eva came to see me as a writer who encouraged everyone within that community. This takes time. Eva was not bringing me personal writing in September, October, November...
I wanted to share this conference because it is a strong representation of how important our investment in encouragement over correction can be. It takes time to see it, but it comes.
In this podcast, Eva tells me that she wants to write a story for her younger brother. She came to me for specific feedback--all she wants to know was if she was on the right track. Now, this may seem like generalized feedback, but as I asked Eva to dig a little deeper in her processes as a writer I came to understand that she was trying to write a genre that she did not like to read. After all, I do not know what "the right track" is unless I get to understand the writer and their intentions.
As a matter of fact, we hear Eva identify her brother as the better reader between them. He read R.J. Palacio's Wonder in one day whereas Eva said it took her six months. Whether Eva's accounting is accurate or not does not matter as much as how she identifies herself as a reader and how she identifies herself as a writer.
This conversation with Eva was a gift. I got to experience a reader and writer in transition...someone who needed encouragement to continue to grow and flourish. I got to be a part of the trajectory of someone's growth! That is incredible. So often, school becomes a series of start and stop assignments. Here, Eva let me in to her trajectory as a learner. This is incredibly personal. I could have destroyed her confidence had I taken her story and pointed out the errors--had I not attended to what she needed--had I not taken the time to connect with her in the moment.
As a writer, I knew enough to realize that correction is not what Eva needed. She was telling me that she often writes for herself--this particular piece of writing was being composed over Spring Break! Spring Break!--and that her first leap into writing for herself was as a nine-year-old (three years ago) writing about her parents' divorce.
Eva tried to fictionalize (through a fictional character's eyes) that emotional family experience and ever since continues to write fiction "similar to my life" as she puts it.
So, in this case, writing for her brother presents a fun challenge because she is writing to imitate what he likes to read even though she does not read the books he likes. Usually, Eva writes as ideas pop into her head, but this time the desire to write something "really impressive" for her brother strikes me as more than just wanting to write.
It is a sibling trying to connect with another sibling. Eva says she recommended Wonder, and he read it. But she read it first. I think this is a key to understanding Eva. Perhaps her dislike of his books comes from the fact that he read the book first and that she feels that she reads too slowly, that both of them really want to talk about and connect with the book, but they both feel impatient. It is not competition. It is too adolescents who both love story trying to find a common ground in which to connect over story. So, writing the book for her brother to read slows things down without exposing anyone. It puts Eva in control, in comfortable control.
I love that she let her father and brother read this early draft already--another sign of wanting to connect through story. Eva says she has a feel of what her brother likes. She must glean this through observation, skimming, and (most importantly) through his feedback on her writing.
Obviously, for me, this conference is about understanding Eva a little more as a writer. For Eva, the conference is about figuring out if she is on the right track with her story.
Something I loved about this experience is that Eva's draft was "only" one page. By no means was it complete, and she knew that. But, again, my response to her as a human being (beyond being a writer) matters greatly. Had I dismissed the draft and said to bring it back when you are finished, I would probably never have seen the story again. She wanted my help through the process, not at the end.
Our impact on process reaches into the larger process beyond the draft. The process of becoming a writer. The process of gaining confidence. The process of connecting with loved ones. The process of finding joy in our lives as readers and writers.
Eva did not come to me for correction, she came to me for encouragement.
And for Eva to put that level of trust in me, in her process of becoming, I am grateful.
As often as adolescents learn to name and use various writing skills, they need to learn to be happy with their writing. How often do we tell them to be happy with it? It is a very intentional decision to say that to a student because it should be framed by specific reasons why they should be happy about their work. And this, to me, can the heart of many conferences--showing kids why they should be happy with the work they are doing. When I speak with students, I purposely avoid anything that leaves them with a trail of errors following them or doubting who they are as a reader or writer.
It comes back to encouragement, doesn't it?
In writing conference attached here, Cassidy, an 8th grader, wants to talk about an essay on friendship. The impulse to write about friendship came from a class reading of a mentor text by essayist Annie Dillard.
Dillard can be challenging for many 8th grade students, but she offers an accessible challenge. I like using excerpts from Dillard as much as I find value in an entire piece.
Cassidy notes that our reading took her into a current friendship and it got her thinking how a friendship could be like snow.
My role, as Cassidy explains how she found her ideas, is to listen for teachable moments. Not errors. But places where Cassidy is doing something well and I can help her understand what she is doing, what it is called, and how it works.
Remember, just because we can start our cars in the morning doesn't mean we know how things work under the hood.
In this essay, Cassidy is using extended metaphor. After we name how that appears in her writing, I dig a little deeper and ask if she believes the purpose of her metaphor is clear to the reader. Eventually, I ask for a specific line that makes that purpose clear.
Conferring becomes interplay between mentor and mentee. Tell me what you did and tell me why you did it, and I will tell you what it is called or I will share another writer's tool that builds off of your work.
When Cassidy reads her line, I hear an opportunity to do some work on word choice. I coach her through how to identify some places where stronger nouns may be more appealing and helpful to a reader.
Beneath the surface of my questioning is a foundation of the Six Traits of Writing. I am thinking about the Six Traits as I listen to students share their work. The Six Traits are my tool box, a rich menu of writer's moves and considerations, adaptable to any conference.
When I ask Cassidy to name what she did with her conclusion, I am thinking of organization. Cassidy struggles to name what she did and, if you listen, she scans for where the conclusion begins. I know I am often unsure where my conclusion begins when I read my writing, so I knew the feeling. Being a writer, I knew to wait.
Because Cassidy could not name what she did, I saw this as another teachable moment. I knew I needed to revisit how conclusions can work and what she is doing specifically in her draft. In this respect, the student's own writing serves as a mentor text for a craft move.
Our conference ends with Cassidy playing a game that so many kids play--she counts her paragraphs. Three paragraphs isn't long enough yet, according to Cassiday, she said everything she needed to say.
This is a moment where the values we believe in as teachers take over. We have to use our practiced judgement here. I could, of course, probe the draft and push the student to develop other areas. I could help Cassidy tease it out to additional paragraphs.
I could. But why didn't I do it in this case? Because I want Cassidy to learn that saying what you want to say as a writer matters far more than the number of paragraphs. I want Cassidy to continue asking herself if she said everything.
And maybe the student does not know how to ask and answer that question--but then that is what I will teach. I won't fall back on using numbers of paragraph to coax more writing out of a writer.
I'd rather talk with about their ideas. And if, indeed, they believe that have written everything there is to say on a topic, then I have one more teachable moment to share with kids: be happy with your writing.
I suppose somewhere, a voice might argue that learning should be uncomfortable. That when we stretch ourselves to learn new things it isn't easy or seamless. And, reflecting on my learning, I can understand that perspective.
Yet, when I hear my student, Rishab, tell me that for a long stretch in his life "writing was a chore" I pause. Again and again, through conferring, I hear a similar point from students. In the past, before choice in the classroom, the act of writing had been insufferable...not an interesting challenge, not a satisfying struggle. No one is saying writing should not be hard. Actually, the act itself is an awesome challenge even under the best conditions.
Rishab's word, chore, makes me think of millions of teenagers assigned chores around the country--sometimes to help them earn money but in many cases to learn responsibility and accountability.
Most people are forced to do chores. Typically, adolescents do not elect to do chores.
Writing should never be a chore in that sense in that it should never be forced into our hands by another person. The world gains nothing by making writing a chore. Our students learn nothing by writing being a chore. As a matter of fact, we do a disservice to society when we drive students away from writing by making it a chore.
Rishab says when writing is a chore he is not writing about his own thinking. Actually, he isn't thinking at all. He says, "I'm just writing...its usually really meaningless..."
When I was an adolescent, I really didn't like doing my chores at home. As a matter of fact, I remember being called out by my mom (often) because I did not clean properly.
I was just trying to get done.
Rishab tells me that he never used to revise (go through his work to make it better). With choice, he says, writing no longer feels like a chore when "I just wanted to get done with writing."
So, what makes the difference for Rishab? Choice.
As it turns out, Rishab likes analysis and evaluation. At the time of this conference, his portfolio was filling with drafts (in various stages) of evaluations: a video game, a car, a social problem, himself.
Because he had the space to explore his own topics and modes, Rishab wrote for himself. He chased his thinking. He was no longer in a hurry to get things done. And he cared about how it read.
Furthermore, Rishab mentions his father's influence on his writing several times--even going as far as calling his father a writing mentor! Rishab's dad is not a writer in a traditional sense of an author or a journalist, but he has to write for work. And Rishab keeps returning to conversations in the car (to a game, to school) about analysis and evaluation.
Through these conversations with his father, Rishab learns the language of evaluation. Additionally, he absorbs his father's need to be "concise" and sets that as a goal for himself as a writer.
Would Rishab and his father talk about analysis and evaluation if Rishab did not have choice in his English classroom? For sure. They have that relationship. However, I believe that Rishab's ability to connect analytical skills to himself as a writer was greatly enhanced because he had the freedom to consistently write about what interested him. His conversations with his father complimented the support offered in class--together, Rishab's development as a writer accelerated. If you notice, we did not talk about any one piece of writing and Rishab did not indicate that his father cherry picks errors out of Rishab's essays. What we hear is a student fully embracing the act of developing as a writer.
Rishab's father's influence can't be overlooked here. Our conditions in our classroom can leverage a parent's influence! Imagine if we stressed form over person, writing over the writer. If Rishab neurotically focused on grammatical errors and form, perhaps that might be the extent of a parent's connection with their child's writing. That might be all Rishab connected with because he might only be thinking of the writing...and correcting the writing. Maybe not. But my point is because we position Rishab to think as a writer, he makes connections in the rest of his life as a writer. This is huge.
This is how writers operate in the real world...through talk, through listening, through thinking and observation, and through putting their thinking down on paper.
Anything else, and we risk making writing a chore. And when we make writing a chore, we completely ignore the writer because the writer takes a backseat to the form. We send the message that the chore matters more than person.
Chores don't make good writers.
Choice makes good writers.
A conference with a student does not have to be long to deliver a rich experience for the student. This example with Sallie, an 8th grade student, illustrates the difference between teaching writing skills with an encouragement mindset as opposed to a correction mindset. I am not correcting Sallie's writing. I am encouraging her to talk about it--to tell me what is going well, to tell me where she needs helps. Even the way she speaks about these skills tells me as much as what she points out.
When I ask Sallie what she has learned about herself as a writer, she reaches back to a positive memory from last year when she learned different strategies for writing leads. She remembers the specific possibilities for her leads. She even says, "I feel good." I love that. I love the positive feelings bubbling up for Sallie even as she talks about something that it has taken her time to develop.
Sallie identifies that leads were a weakness for her in 6th grade but that she improved as a 7th grade student. She acknowledges that it has been a process.
Notice that I ask Sallie to think about how her leads are even stronger this year--what makes them stronger. And even though Sallie struggles naming her writing moves, I step and give her the language for the moves she described.
I think of this as flipping the rubric. Clearly, by talking about leads we are discussing Organization. But instead of my hunting for errors and reminding Sallie of what she is doing wrong in isolated stages of writing, I am modeling a belief that Sallie will continue to grow as a writer and that my primary concern is Sallie and how she grows as a writer.
We end with a quick reflection on Sallie might do next. She tells me what she is ready for and why. She also tells me some decisions she has made to help her with her goals.
When I replay this conversation I get a good feeling about the attitude Sallie and I are sharing about writing. This sharing of a positive attitude means everything to me because I firmly believe that our attitude impacts each student's attitude.
If my attitude is that everyone can grow, then they each will adopt an everyone can grow attitude.
Flipping the rubric provides many opportunities for differentiated conversations, reflection, and goal setting. If you have questions about flipping your rubrics or using conferring as vehicle to flip your rubrics and classroom, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_briank_.