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.