So many times, when talking about reading, teachers put an emphasis on decoding and comprehension. They want to make sure kids are reading accurately and fluently. They want to make sure they teach their students how to predict, how to find the main idea, how to infer from the breadcrumb trails the author leaves her readers. They want to check off all the boxes. And yes, these are all important, but in the midst I think we are losing the importance of the story. Why is this story important? How does this story connect to you? How has it changed you? What differences has it made in your thinking, in your life? Isn’t that what reading is all about? Isn’t that what keeps us reading? It isn’t my ability to read accurately and fluently; it isn’t my proficiency in finding the main idea or making an inference, it is my love of and connection to the characters in the story. I want to crawl into their lives for a while and live their experiences. That way I become more them and less me. I am able to take on different points of view; I am able to grow in my thinking and being.
Recently, I have been reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson with a sixth-grade student. She is a proficient and prolific reader and writer. She loves Percy Jackson novels and all things Greek mythology. She was in a rut. Whenever this happens, whenever students gets stuck in their reading, I often turn to poetry novels. I find that verse creates a space where kids can take more chances. Verse seems to challenge their thinking, but does so in a gentle, playful way. By reading Brown Girl Dreaming, Hadley and I are able to step into Ms. Woodson’s reality. We get to see and feel what a brown girl growing up in the south experienced – parent conflicts, loving grandparents, sibling rivalry, the love of reading – all things we can connect with. There are also lots of historical and geographical pieces that nudge Hadley’s knowledge and make her curious to want to know more. This is the very essence of reading; this is why we read.
We are almost at the end our journey with Ms. Woodson, so I thought we’d take a break and write using the first line of the title poem of the novel for inspiration. When I ask students to write, I also write alongside them. I think this is so important. We write quietly beside each other and somehow there is such power in this simple act. Hadley types. I write long-hand. She marvels at how fast I can scrawl words across a page. I find that the act of writing by hand magically connects my mind and fingertips. Sometimes I wonder what my fingertips are writing. How exactly am I creating? It’s like my fingers have a mind of their own. Hadley pauses. “I’m stuck,” she says. Well, I say, “Let’s read it out loud and see what comes to mind.” She is twelve now. She does not like hearing her own voice, so I read her poem aloud to her. She reaches for the laptop again, “ I got it now,” she says and continues. I love being within this process with her. I don’t want it to end, but it does. She is finished. She has run out of steam. She says that she is done. I do not argue. I read it one more time aloud to her. . I read mine aloud, and we enjoy the fact that Ms. Woodson’s one line could create two different poems. We are satisfied.
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
A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves
After the End: Teaching Learning Creative Revision by Barry Lane
A Time for Wonder: Reading and Writing in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard
Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
Craft Lessons by Fletcher and Portalupi
Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
For the Good of the Earth and the Sun by Georgia Heard
Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing by Katherine Bomer
How’s it Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study by Katie Wood Ray
Inside Writing: How to Teach the Details of Craft by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle
Revision Toolbox by Georgia Heard
Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray
Teaching the Qualities of Writing by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer
Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Fletcher and Portalupi