Changing Tack: Learning from a Writing Conference

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Changing tack: To change the direction of a sailing vessel

Amidst a quietly humming seventh grade writing workshop last week, I sat down next to Brandon.  At my elbow was my colleague, whose professional goal is to improve her conferring with writers.  “What can you tell me about your writing today, Brandon?” I began.  As I peered down at Brandon’s table, I could see multiple pages of a flash draft spread out before him, as well as a text set of articles about competitive sports his teacher/my colleague had provided.  In my hands, I held my trusted writer’s notebook (which doubles as a demonstration notebook sometimes).  In my head, I held some predictable feedback.  The setting for demonstrating a conference was idyllic.  Until it wasn’t.

“Well,” responded Brandon, “I’m working on my argument piece.”

“Can you say more about that, please?” I prompted.

“Um, well, I think sports are good for kids, so I’m writing about why I think that.”  I glanced at Brandon’s introductory paragraph and jotted a quick note on my conferring post-it.

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“Great, so what are you working on specifically today?” I prodded.  This conference had begun to take on a familiar arc. I quickly placed my index finger on the mentor text I was about to show Brandon.  I had a teaching point in mind already!

“I think sports help kids be healthy, so I’m looking to add some evidence from these articles.  I’m not quite sure what that should be, though.”  Silence.  Bam!  I was ready to move this conference forward.  

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I began with a compliment about the clarity of his claim, couching my affirmation in language I wrote about in my guest post a few weeks ago.  

Fast forward now to the teach.  “Can I give you a tip, Brandon?”  Brandon nodded his head.  I then launched into the teaching portion of my conference with great confidence, explaining with an example (from my demonstration) notebook how writers use a variety of evidence to support their reasons and claims– facts, statistics, quotes, examples, etc.  Having put my preset feedback into motion, I must admit I was feeling pretty great about this interaction so far.

Then it happened.

“So, Brandon, let’s take a look at your argument piece here…how might you try this?”  I pulled up my sleeves and refocused my eyes on Brandon’s draft.  “Can you show me the section in your paper where you’re writing about the health benefits of competitive sports?”  Slowly, Brandon began scanning with his finger, a bit aimlessly,  around on his flash draft.  First page…nope, not there.  Second page…hmm…not there either.

Then: “I haven’t written that.”

Uh oh.  I regrouped.

I cleared my throat. “Okay, so Brandon…what do you think your next step might be for today?”  Brandon instantly told me he thought his next step was to write that body paragraph, the one about how sports help you stay healthy. I concurred, linking the conference to his writing life by reminding him that when writers have done a lot of smart thinking and research about their arguments- like he had- they sometimes must check to be sure that thinking got into their draft

What I did right: I arrived at my conference with Brandon that day “prepared,” having brought something I knew would be supportive to most writers. And my compliment was solid.

What I would change: When conferring on the run like this, I need to be sure I’m working to be truly present to each individual writer. In my effort to demonstrate a “good conference,” I over-relied on a preconceived idea I had brought with me. And this works- sometimes. But my real take-away is that while being prepared is valuable, so is being present to the writer. In writing workshop, we teach the writer, not the writing. So being present to each unique writer is essential if we are to move each of them forward.

Here’s a quick list of tips I generated after this experience (please add your own in the comments section!) for remaining present to writers:

  • Management – Establish a no-interruption culture. We can’t be present if there are three kids occupying our peripheral vision or sitting with hands raised. A simple chart like this can help:
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A simple chart in your conferring area or on your wall can help reinforce the importance of conferring in your writing workshop.  Thank you to my middle school colleague J.C. for loaning me hers for this post!

 I was lucky to be working in a room with Brandon that day where the conferring culture was solidly in place. Writers were working independently.

  • Listen- Someone once told me we were given two ears and one voice for a reason. What is the writer really saying? Lean in, make eye contact, let them know you’re really hearing them.
  • Get a sense of the writing – for those of you who can split your brain a little, take in some of the writing. Maybe have the writer read a little aloud, or take a moment to do so yourself (“Let me have a look,” or “Would you show me where you tried that? Let’s take a look…”).

Another point here is that conferring, like life, can be messy. It doesn’t always go perfectly. It definitely didn’t for me that day with Brandon.  Sometimes we are forced to change tack.  Being prepared and being present are two different things. I learned that from a student, a student who unknowingly helped me outgrow myself as a teacher and coach that day.  Which, I suppose, is not a bad thing at all.

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