Over the summer, we catch up on professional reading, we organize our classrooms, we make plans. In our reading and our planning, we imagine the very best possible scenarios. We see our children working diligently and for long stretches at their writing spots, living writerly lives, generating one powerful idea after another. To be sure, we should plan for our writing workshop at its very best. How else can we expect our students to attain lofty goals if we do not plan for these goals?
But then, after a summer spent envisioning perfect writing workshops, enter the children. At the start of the year, what they can do and what we would like them to do are often two very different things.
Avid readers of Lucy Calkins materials will recognize the analogy of a writing teacher at the start of the year to a circus performer, spinning plates. Just when one corner of the room feels settled, another group needs help. And of course, there is always that cadre of students who cannot seem to keep their pencils sharpened or their thirst quenched, who pop up like popcorn every five minutes or so, giving the room an air of unsettled energy.
When it feels as if the entire room is unsettled, and you are about to forgo independent writing time to gather the entire group back to the meeting area for some disciplinary action, consider table conferences. Table conferences are a coaching method that allow you to reach a large number of students very quickly, without losing the spirit of the independent writing time.
To conduct a table conference, start by taking a quick peek at the students sitting at one table or in one cluster of desks. Notice if there are one or two teaching points that could benefit most of the writers in the group. Then, choose one student who exemplifies the kind of thing others in the group need help with. Ask the student if he minds if others listen while you confer with him, and invite the rest of the table to eavesdrop on your discussion.
A typical table conference might go like:
The teacher takes a quick glance at a group of writers and realizes many of them are struggling to generate ideas for their narrative writing. Some have an idea or two, some have none. The teacher decides to confer with Charlie, who has written Places on his page, followed by one idea: “Ellis Island.”
Teacher (to Charlie): “Charlie, I noticed that you have gotten started with a list of possible ideas for narratives. Do you mind if I invite others at your table to listen in while we talk? I think they could learn a lot from listening to you work through your writing process.”
Teacher (to the group): “Hey everyone at this table, can I interrupt your writing for a moment? Charlie and I were just about to confer about his writing, and I think the rest of you could benefit from listening in.”
Teacher: “Charlie, can you tell us a bit about what you are working on in your writing?”
Charlie: “I’m trying to think of ideas for my narrative. I have one idea, a place. I could write about when we went to Ellis Island with my cousins this summer.”
Teacher: “Charlie, can I give you a compliment? You are using a really important strategy to generate ideas, which is think of a place you love or that mattered to you, and list moments you remember there. Others at this table, you might want to try Charlie’s strategy of listing moments in a place that mattered to you, if you didn’t try that already.
“Charlie, can I give you a tip? One thing that might help you, in addition to listing a specific place you remember, like Ellis Island, is to list specific moments you remember in that place. Let me give you an example. A place on my list is always my grandparents’ farm in Indiana. Instead of just writing down the farm, though, I try to list moments I remember at the farm. I might list things like, ‘the time we all got to ride on the soybean truck,’ or ‘when my cousins dared me to swing across the barn on the rope swing.’ Do you see how listing specific moments helps me to know exactly what I might write about?
Charlie, why don’t you try this now. What are some specific moments you remember at Ellis Island that you might add to your list?”
Charlie: “I could write about when my little cousin hid behind the suitcases that were on display. Or maybe about when we looked up my great grandfather to see if his name was there.”
Teacher: “Writers, do all of you see what Charlie just did? I think this is something you all could try. Whether you are thinking of places, or people, or turning points, or emotions, try to list specific moments, and then as soon as you have a great one, get starting writing it!”
Notice how the teacher in this example tucks a ton of teaching into her conversation with Charlie and into her debrief. Now, each student at the table has a bunch of ideas they can use right away, and the teacher didn’t need to interrupt the whole class’s writing time.
In addition to generating ideas, typical table conferences at the start of the year might be:
- Moving from generating ideas to generating actual entries
- Remembering all we know from last year to make writing better right at the start
- Pushing for greater stamina (set a timer, challenge ourselves to write for 6 minutes, then 10, then 15)
- Pushing for greater volume (trying to write half a page, then a whole page, then two)
- Not letting spelling hang us up (using tools in the room or asking a friend, but then just moving on and making a plan to check words later)
One note, if not every student in the group could benefit from your teaching, not to worry. Likely you will be reinforcing something they are doing well with your teaching point, and writers need plenty of reinforcement as well as instruction.
Happy back to school, and may your writing workshops become hotbeds of productivity in no time.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).