On the Pitfalls of Hiding Out

Looking out my window a few days ago, I noticed something.  On the blacktop in front of our school stood a fairly large snowdrift.  At the very bottom of that drift, a little bird was hopping in and out of what resembled a small snow cave.  I got the feeling he was hiding out, trying not to be noticed, as he hunkered down into this cozy little winter abode.  It seemed he hoped no one noticed him or his tiny ad hoc dwelling.  While I admired his makeshift home-making skills, I quickly noticed a problem.  I gazed upward at the sun, and realized, uh oh… this drift is about to melt.  This little bird’s sense of security was only an illusion, just a temporary convenience.  Not anything lasting.

This tiny moment got me thinking about some of our writers, writers who hunker down and try not to get noticed.  It is almost like these writers have all read Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home (Clarion Books, 1991) and have adopted the mantra: “Number One Rule:  Don’t Get Noticed.”  As teachers of writing, we all know that we must be a stand for the success of all our writers.  And yet, I can remember, on occasion, the sinking feeling that I had, somehow in the whirl and bustle of the segmented schedule of middle school, missed conferring with a few of my writers for far too long.  And it seems like these writers, the ones that quietly fly under the radar, fit a similar profile as that little bird outside my window that winter day.  These writers don’t ask questions in class.  They don’t make any noise or waves.  They don’t call out or volunteer.  And if I happened to ask them how they were doing, the answer was always, “Good.”

The problem is, these quiet, non-problem-causing writers I describe are also like that little bird in one other important way– the snowdrift of silence they are hunkering down in is only a temporary sanctuary.  That drift on the blacktop will eventually melt, exposing them and leaving them vulnerable to possible writing difficulties in the future. So as conscientious, caring, intentional writing workshop teachers, what can we do to be sure we nurture the writerly life of these kids, too?  Consider a few ideas:

Be systematic with conferring–  Over my years as a classroom teacher, like many of us, I experimented with different note-taking systems.  Every system has, of course, positives and challenges.  But one system I found to be essential was the conferring grid. A conferring grid allowed me to be systematic with my writing conferences.  Now, when I say ‘systematic’, I don’t mean that I started at the top of the grid and moved from left to right, making my way through my classes alphabetically.  No, like you, I found there always tended to be certain more desperate situations I needed to attend to early in the writing process, and I typically began my conferring rounds by addressing those first.  But what I really needed was not just a record of the content of my conferences, but a record of who I had seen and when.  So I began to use a sheet like this:

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This record allowed me, at a very quick glance, to see which writers I had conferred with so far, and which ones I still needed to see.  I could now see where my little birds were hiding.  With each student’s name written in the grid, I would simply write the date of the conference and a fast code that indicated whether the conference was individual (I), small group (SG), or a partnership conference (PC).  As a seventh and eighth grade teacher, I often taught several large classes across my day.  This grid provided the visual to see where I needed to go next with my writing conferences and make sure no little birds were hunkering unnoticed.

Turn up the positivity — A study was undertaken about five years ago by two professors, one from Columbia University, the other from the University of Chicago.  The study was on feedback.  In a nutshell, these researchers found that  when one wants to help someone make progress in a skill (on their writing expertise, for example), critical or negative feedback is required.  On the other hand,when one wants to help increase someone’s commitment- particularly a novice’s commitment- positive feedback is more effective.  Some of our writers hunkering down in veils of silence are doing so because they lack a commitment to writing.  In fact, some of them probably just don’t see writing as something they can ever actually commit to in an authentic way.  

So a possible take-away from this research might be that, although we as writing teachers are always thinking, ‘What’s the next step for this writer?’, sometimes we might consider conducting a compliment-only conference.  As taught by my cherished Teachers College Reading and Writing Project colleague Shana Frazin, the goal in a compliment-only conference is to support and make explicit the smart work a writer is already doing.  It is about raising the energy level around writing.  This might sound something like, “Hey, can I interrupt you?  Okay, I want to give you a compliment.  I want to point out something you do each and every time you write…I notice…this matters because…so anytime you are writing…” When using this template, begin by providing a precise description of something the writer has done (hopefully repeatedly).  Preferably this statement emphasizes a move we see writers in the world using to help their pieces be more effective. (“I notice you…”)  Follow this with an explanation as to why writers employ such a technique (“This matters because…”).  Finally, you can end your compliment-only conference by looking into the writer’s eyes and letting him know that you hope he will continue to rely on this move anytime he is doing this type of writing (“So anytime you are writing…”).

And that’s it.  This is one way to offer positive feedback, and may serve to play an important role in increasing the commitment to writing for some of our students.  It could also play a part in a larger strategy to help these students begin to see themselves as writers, for real.

Lucy Calkins once said, “When we teach writing, we call kids out of hiding.”  I will never know what happened to that little bird hiding out on the blacktop that day.  But I am hopeful the inspiration he provided, as well as these couple of ideas around supporting the more quiet writers, might make a meaningful difference in your work.  If we can make sure all of our writers receive the guidance they need and feedback that sometimes serves to lift the level of their commitment to writing- that’s what some of them need!- then we have accomplished something important.  Let me know how it goes!

“Don’t underestimate me.  I know more than I say, think more than I speak, and notice more than you realize.”  – anonymous