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

Write What You Notice

I recently attended a teacher’s workshop presented by Penny Kittle at Rutgers University sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy Development.  I’ve seen Penny many times. Usually, she talks to teachers about creating reading and writing workshop spaces in high school classes.  Penny was a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and her mentor was the late, great Donald Graves.  I was looking forward to Penny’s presentation because she is always inspiring and gives my teaching doldrums a spark.   This time, I was especially looking forward to hearing her because she would be talking about one of my favorite subjects – Poetry.   However, in the back of my mind, I thought there was very little new that I’d learn ,since I was a student of Adrienne Rich, have published some poetry, and have taught poetry to children for the last 40 years.  What could Penny teach me that I could bring back to the faculty at my school?  Probably not much, but I’d have a great day listening to and writing poetry.  That is a noble undertaking in cold and dreary January.

And of course, Penny had much to share.  She talked about exposing students to a lot of poetry, reading it aloud and re-reading it.  Then lifting a favorite line and using that line to spark one’s own poetry.  I’ve done this many times before both as a student and as a teacher, but practicing it again with unfamiliar poems made it all brand-new again to me.  One of Penny’s creative admonitions also rang true:  Don’t write what you know – Write what you noticeAs a little child, I was always noticing everything in my environment.  In fact, I was such a slow reader, because I was absorbing and dissecting the author’s craft.  I didn’t want anything to escape my notice.  I was also a notorious eavesdropper, using everything little tidbit in different poems, stories, and drawings. Helping students develop a keen eye for noticing is a essential in having them grow to be more curious and deliberate writers.

Then came a space in Penny’s presentation in which she showed a video clip of a poem by Patrick Roche, “21 Cups.”  I could not keep up with the rest of the workshop activities after that.  I became entranced by Patrick’s poem both the way in which he constructed it – counting back from 21 years to one year old – and the compelling way he described the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father.  Patrick’s poem completely held my attention; completely made me sit up and take notice.  Now, this is the true power of a poem. I immediately had to share it with someone.  Who could I share this poem with?  I knew almost immediately – Mike Rosen!  Mike is a former student of mine, and now he is an amazing, accomplished spoken word poet.  I would share Patrick’s poem with Mike; he would understand.  And of course, the world being what it is – small and round – Mike knew Patrick’s poem and had organized a poetry slam in which Patrick was one of the participants.  Small world, indeed.  And that is the other power of poetry – it connects.

I strive to write poems that will make people sit up and notice and connect.  I want to help students writers to notice, connect, and share.  One of the 3rd grade classes in the the school where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, introduces children to philosophical ideas through literature.  This past week, the 3rd grade teacher shared with me her students’ reaction to the question: “Is art and poetry necessary for a community?” after reading Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick This teacher was a bit dismayed that her young students all agreed that poetry and art were indeed NOT necessary.  She wanted to jump into the discussion and tell them that they were wrong, but that is not allowed in philosophical discussions.  My reaction to her was that she needed to provide her students with more art, music, and poetry and have them wonder what life would be without the arts.  This is what happens when we separate the arts from academic instruction, but that is a topic at another time!

Penny ended her presentation by sharing the work she has been doing as a board member of the non-profit group, Poetic Justice, which helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma express their feelings and ideas through poetry and writing classes.  Here, Penny illustrates the immense need for community to forgive and heal through poetry.  Here, she shows  pathways between the outside and inside world.  Here, there is a place for inmates to  explore the depths of right and wrong and redemption.  And it is here where readers sit up, take notice and are transformed.