Here I Am!: Conferring with Student Writers

There are many things I love and enjoy about teaching – presenting concepts, sharing ideas, being witness to creativity and discovery, but the one thing that is most important to me is connection.  I know that connection is key to student understanding.  Without connection there are just untethered ideas.  And that is why I absolutely love the time I get to sit down with student writers and talk about their work. Many teachers are not comfortable with this part of writing workshop. They are tentative.  They are not sure what to say.  They focus on errors in grammar or spelling to guide them, instead of homing in on the content and meaning.  In Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Ralph Fletcher and Jo Ann Portalupi note that, “We should expect plenty of failure: false starts, blank pages, misspellings, and so on.  Failure is an integral part of how people learn.  But we also need to build on their strengths – take notice of and celebrate a great work, sudden twist, surprising image…” Teachers might, indeed, start by asking students to create an “I can be” list.  In this way, the children can explore and ponder all the possibilities that lay ahead of them.

Fletcher and Portalupi suggest that these questions might help you “read” the student you’re working with: 

  • What can I learn from her body language?  Does she seem “up” and engaged, or listless and bored?
  • What kind of writing is she attempting? Is it a poem?  Fiction story?  Personal narrative?  Information piece?  Notebook entry?
  • Where is she in the process?  Has she just begun, or is she almost finished?
  • Is this a genre she has never before tried?
  • What are her strengths as a writer?
  • What is she ready to learn?
  • What surprises me about the student?

In order to promote reflection and make conference time more productive, teachers might ask a student to re-read her writing before the conference.  Ask the student to put an asterisk next to the place in her writing where the writing worked well. Then ask her to put a circle in the margin next to the place where the writing needs more work.  This will help to shorten and focus conference time, and build the scaffolding needed for the student to become an independent and confident writer.

The most important job of the teacher during writing conferences is to listen intently to the student-writer.  Try to put everything out of your mind and be present as a listener. Think about how the student’s writing is affecting you, and then let her know how her words have moved you.  Do not focus on errors and weaknesses.  Rather, give specific, concrete praise: colorful details, a funny moment, a surprise ending.  As Lucy Calkins says: “Teach the writer, not the writing.”  Give the student one strategy to add to her repertoire of writing skills.  In this way, she’s not just fixing this one piece; she now has an extra tool to use on all her writing!

A number of years ago, I read Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.  Bomer urges teachers to search for hidden gems in student writing by focusing on author style, purpose, and language, rather than concentrating on mistakes. She encourages teachers to make conferences celebrations of student writing: “My hope is that as teachers we can respond to all students’ writing with astonished, appreciative, awe-struck eyes.”

As a Curriculum Coordinator, I no longer have my own band of fearless writers, as I did when I was a classroom teacher. Now, I have to invite myself into classrooms and talk to students about their work.  Teachers are happy to share their conferring time and I get to see students in all stages of writing development: from the Kindergartener who diligently labels her drawing, to a 2nd grader who is learning to add dialogue within a complicated fairy tale variant, to a 3rd grader who is constructing a speech using biographical information, to a 5th grader experimenting with forms of poetry.  I wonder at the complexity that writing entails, and I am now beginning to fully understand why writing takes time and patience and presence.

This week I was once again reminded of the importance of being present – of stopping what I was doing – and listen.  I was reading through the students’ submissions to our literary magazine, Spark.  I nodded, I smiled, and I laughed out loud.  The children boldly put their thoughts and feelings on paper in the form of poems, letters, stories and articles.  They chose pieces that were important to them.  They chose pieces that whirled them away into fantasy and pieces that sunk them back down into COVID reality. As I was reading, I gasped as I came across this gem from a 5th grade writer.  This skinny little, brave poem stood up and demanded to be recognized.   I read it again to myself.  Then, I read it aloud and said, “Wow! Now there’s a poet!”

This poem stands up straight and speaks for itself.  I couldn’t wait to talk to the student-poet.  I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I connected with the poem – how important it was.  The next day, I came into school early, hoping to catch Chelsea before classes started.  I found her in her classroom organizing her desk, and I motioned for her to meet me in the hall.  She looked a little surprised and I added, “You are not in trouble.  I have something wonderful to share with you.”  She came out into the hall, and I told her how much her poem meant to me and how powerful it was.  I told her that I was putting it at the very end of the magazine because it was so very powerful that I wanted to end the magazine on a strong note.  I could see her smiling behind her mask, and I was so glad I took a few minutes to connect with her face to face.  Then we went on with our separate days until I got home later that night and found this waiting in my email inbox.

There is no doubt that Chelsea is a writer – no doubt that her strong opinions and emotions will enlighten the world.   And there is no doubt that connecting with student writers is of the utmost importance. Writing is so much more that spelling, grammar, and punctuation – those skills will come in time.  But the students’ lives and how they express their experiences help them better understand and cope with this swirling world around us.  Take a moment.  Sit down. Listen.

Books About Teaching Writing

  1. A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves
  2. After the End: Teaching Learning Creative Revision by Barry Lane
  3. A Time for Wonder: Reading and Writing in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard
  4. Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
  5. Craft Lessons by Fletcher and Portalupi
  6. Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
  7. For the Good of the Earth and the Sun by Georgia Heard
  8. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing by Katherine Bomer
  9. How’s it Going?  A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  10. In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study by Katie Wood Ray
  11. Inside Writing:  How to Teach the Details of Craft by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle
  12. Revision Toolbox by Georgia Heard
  13. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray
  14. Teaching the Qualities of Writing by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
  15. The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
  16. The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer
  17. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
  18. Writing Workshop:  The Essential Guide by Fletcher and Portalupi

Seeing Possibility

When I was starting my journey as an elementary classroom teacher, my eyes and ears were trained to search out problems.  Who was having trouble decoding words?  who couldn’t continue to build onto a pattern of shares or numbers?  Which ones had trouble settling down?  How could I help this one distinguish right from left?  How could I help that one learn to tie her shoe?  Of course,  I was a teacher and this was my job – to help – assist –  encourage – nurture.  I focused all my attention on the problems.  What wasn’t yet achieved?

As I gained experience, I relaxed into the role of a careful observer.  I still nurtured students’ nascent talents, but my gaze increasingly became one of possibility.  I was focused not so much on students’ weaknesses – the things they could not yet do.  But rather set my mind and intention to what they could do, what made them motivated, what ignited their passions for learning.  I had several mentors along the way who shared the same belief system.  Carl Anderson approaches writing workshop conferences as opportunities for students to see themselves as writers.  He recommends that during each conferring session, the teacher give the student a glow and grow This consists of giving the student feedback on something in their writing that works wonderfully, and also give a suggestion about their writing that will help them grow.  Katherine Bomer also takes on this stance in her book,  Hidden Gems, she encourages teachers to look for the surprising and fresh writing moves children make instead of focusing on the writers mechanical mistakes.  This growth mindset rings true to me because in my experience more growth and opportunities arise from seeing possibility than from focusing on deficits.

I have been fortunate enough to be teaching for forty years.  And with that amount of experience, I’ve seen young children who couldn’t stand still, had trouble learning to read, had undecipherable handwriting – grow into young adults who were accepted into colleges, including many Ivy League institutions. And later, those young adults became heads of real estate or financial companies, major athletes and artists, and promising entrepreneurs.  They learned to seek paths that played to their strengths and challenged themselves to see beyond their weakness and stay intent on building their strengths.

The very first mentor I encountered in my life was my mother, Vivian.  She was a talented artist, fashion designer, seamstress, and eventually an elementary teacher.  Her creativity and determination became my source of strength in so many areas of my life.  This month marks the fifth anniversary of her death.  I miss her every day.  I recently began reading Barbara Kingslover’s novel, Unsheltered One sentence stood out to me as the main character,  Will Knox, talks about the loss of her mother:  “Really it was her mother she’d wanted to call right after the bad news, or in the middle of it… it had been her mother who put Willa back together.  When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death.  You lost her as you kept living.”  When I read those words, I felt an instant connection to the author.  “Yes,” I thought – “Yes,” that is what it’s like to lose a loving mother.  Time has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on what I have lost, but also on what my mother gave me – all her gifts.  And for that I am so very grateful.

First Teacher

I remember your ruby-red lipstick and dark eyes,                                                                    You were the one who taught me laughter.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat as we cuddled                                                          Cozy together in the wooden rocker,                                                                                               It was you who taught me the power of stories.

I remember your hands pushing and kneading dough                                                              Into a perfect pie crust,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me patience.

I remember your cool cheek on my hot forehead                                                                          It was you who taught me love.

I remember your fingers flashing over fabric:                                                                Folding… pinning… cutting…                                                                                                             It was you who taught me perseverance.

I remember you standing tall,                                                                                                  Bending down close, guiding and reassuring,                                                                              You were the one who taught me kindness.

I remember you dipping into paint,                                                                                      Creating a world of color,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me possibility.

I remember your quiet calm in the face of pain,                                                                          You taught me courage.

I remember your lasting embrace                                                                                                    It was you who taught me acceptance.