Knowing My Writers

September is a get-to-know-you month. A community-building-ice-breaker-month. September is a settling-in month, a becoming-comfortable month, a building-relationship month. It’s an ask-the-parents-about-their-child month. A stack of papers month. Artwork created month. September is a launching month, a set-the-vision month, a build-enthusiasm for the work ahead month.

September is an exhausting month, but a month that reveals much about the 24 third graders who inhabit room 215 with me this year.

In the past, I have asked parents to fill out surveys about their children and asked children to fill out interest inventories. I’ve asked them to bring in All About Me bags where they share items that are important in their lives. I’ve watched as they filled cups with marbles to show the areas they are strong in and the areas they don’t feel as confident. I’ve heard stories from summer vacations and listened to them say their favorite foods, places, and family members they enjoy spending time with during our Morning Meeting share.

Up till now, I haven’t really organized all this information in one place. It has floated around my brain- many children, many bits of information about each of them. This year, my plan is to write down these bits of information in my conferring notebook. One page will have all the information I’ve learned about the writer- what parents have shared, what I’ve observed, what the child has said about himself- anything and everything that tells me who this child is as a learner. The next page will be where I jot down my observations, feedback offered, and teaching points shared during conferences. As I pull up next to a writer, I can quickly review all I know about him or her. My hope is this will make our conversations more personalized, more meaningful, and lead to a more constructive conference that will move the writer- not the piece of writing- forward.

A few weeks ago, I announced a TWT Voxer group to study Patty McGee’s Feedback That Moves Writers Forward. This past week, we’ve been discussing Chapter 3, which discusses Feedback Fundamentals. One of the fundamentals, according to Patty, is “Discover the Writer’s Identity.” She writes, “Let me define what I mean about writer’s identity. To me, it’s a self-concept a student has, that is comprised of current skills, curiosities, insecurities, memories, and experiences as a writer. Much like a snail carries its shell on its back, a writer has inside a shell full of interests, talents, particular likes and dreams- and it’s our job both to discover and enhance them throughout the year.  Essential to effective feedback is to know our young writers- who they are, what makes them tick, and how they identify their strengths and challenges” (53).

Brian Kissel also wrote about knowing our writers in his fabulous book, When Writers Drive the Workshop. Brian writes, “To teach children, you must know them. To know them, they must reveal. To reveal, they must feel safe and secure. To feel safe and secure, they need agency. To have agency, they must have choices. When they choose their writing topics, children’s lives unfold onto their pages” (6).

And, of course, so many of us are inspired by the work of Donald Graves and his message of knowing your students before you attempt to teach them anything about being a writer. As I explored this idea of knowing your writers, and looking at what the great literacy leaders have written on this subject, I found A Sea of Faces: The Importance of Knowing Your Students by Don Graves. It is a book I plan to read and it is a message I have come to believe in whole-heartedly.

September is a get-to-know-you month. It is a time-well-spent month as my notebook fills with notes and observations, facts and anecdotes about my students’ lives. I am getting to know them as people- learners, thinkers, readers and yes, writers. How do you build relationships with your students to lay the foundation for the writing work ahead?