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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

Lanny Ball View All

For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

10 thoughts on “On the Pitfalls of Hiding Out Leave a comment

  1. I use a sheet of mailing labels for this purpose. I downloaded a template and typed in the names, so each round, I just print a new set. Occasionally, I transfer them to a notebook where each student has a page of his/her own. It’s a great way to keep a running record, which is a real struggle in secondary!

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  2. I’ve used a conferring grid before, but I’ve never heard anyone explain it so eloquently. If ever someone needed to be convinced of this tool’s importance, we can turn them to this post!

    Thank you for this reminder about calling the quiet kids out of hiding. I worry about the quiet kids so often. The ones who don’t ruffle any feathers, but who are too quiet to ask for help or just don’t want to ask. The tidbit about the compliment-only conference will resonate with these kids.

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  3. I love this post so much! Thank you for writing it! Using a conferring grid is such a smart tool for managing time and supporting every student. Also – I love the comment about writing down all your students names in a minute and half.

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  4. I love the “compliment only” conference. What an amazing way to encourage a writer who want to come in under the radar. I will be planning a couple days of practicing those conferences.

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  5. Lanny,
    Your post is just what I needed to read today. I have often thought of making a chart just like this to help me organize my conferences and to make sure I see everyone. What’s stopping me? I’m afraid I will start going through kids in a list just to make sure I see everyone and in doing so, I could missing those who have the biggest need. But as I read your post I realized having a list like this doesn’t mean I have to see every student in sequence. Or I have to see every student the same amount of visits. You’ve convinced me that a chart like this can help ensure I see everyone while still working to meet the most demanding needs. I think I’ll make a chart and I’m going to try to follow Stephanie’s tip by and fill in all the names without looking at a list. The names I can’t fill in they’ll be my first conferences. Just paused to make my Conferring chart- 22 out of 26! OUCH!

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  6. This is so important. The idea that we *think* we are getting to all our students, but may be leaving some behind or letting them hide, seems to happen more often than not. Thanks for a beautiful post for me to share with my teachers!!

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  7. I had a professor once who asked those of us who were teaching to write all the names of our students down in a minute and a half. I took on the challenge, feeling fairly confident- until about one minute in when I realized I was stuck at 18 out of 25. As the time ticked down, I got to 22 but for the life of me but I just could not get those last names. She explained that the 18-25 students maybe don’t get enough of my attention – and even an extra cheer on, check in, or hand on the shoulder will make a difference. I put them at the top of my list in any and all areas , for the next few months and it made all the difference- for me and for them. NOw I make that a part of my regular yearly practice – for me and my T.A. THanks for this post it, as we approach 100 days it’s time for my annual checkup. 💖

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