The beginning of the school year is perfect timing for the classic cautionary tale, an anecdote shared with the intention of saving others a difficulty I created for myself. My purpose is to both teach and entertain, as I humbly recount the thing I should not have done (and will be mindful not to do again).
Feel free to laugh along with me as you recognize where I made my mistake. . . I’m sure I am not alone!
Last spring I was lucky to co-plan and guest teach a series of lessons in a historical fiction unit of study in a colleague’s fourth grade workshop. This can be a bit tricky, facilitating in a workshop set up by someone else, since routines and expectations vary. I don’t get to do this nearly as often as I would like, and that shows up in the way my enthusiasm got in the way of my best intentions.
Following the minilesson on the first day, most writers found a cozy writing spot and got busy. A couple of students were quick to approach me, requesting conferences.
In a workshop I set up myself, I knew exactly what I might say: “I’ll come check in with you once you’re engaged in writing,” or perhaps, “Go ahead and get yourself started—I’ll confer with writers who are busy writing.” And while I did say some version of that to these students, I also immediately sat down with one of them to confer.
(Do you see what just happened there?)
By the second day, there were multiple students who zinged directly from the carpet to my side to ask for a conference. I encouraged them all to get themselves started, assuring them that I would come find them once they were writing. However, upon reflection, I realized that, again, I did start with one of the kids who had asked for a conference right away. Without recognizing it in the moment, I was reinforcing the behavior, rewarding the students who were not getting themselves started.
By day three it was a mob scene. As soon as I walked in the door, before we had even started the minilesson, writers were asking if I would confer with them.
This is how quickly it can happen.
On the one hand, what a celebration that so many writers were seeking feedback! And they were genuinely seeking feedback. Most kids could articulate what they were trying to do, and they were able to make specific requests about the kind of feedback that would be most useful for them.
On the other hand, their dependence on an adult writer to affirm or support them in getting started was alarming. The amount of time being wasted by writers waiting around for a conference had become a huge problem.
And my actions had 100% created this monster.
My response was to call it out with an on-the-spot process conversation. With writers (re)gathered on the carpet, I named what I was noticing—lots of writers immediately seeking a conference at the beginning of work time, hovering nearby to pounce as soon as I finished with a peer.
We discussed why it was a problem to hang out just waiting on another person when writers are capable of making decisions themselves. Minutes to write in a workshop are precious, and it’s important to use them wisely. Writers with agency have confidence in their own ability to set intentions and to get themselves started.
We talked about more productive ways to seek feedback when they are ready for it. For example, this group was drafting in Google docs, so I encouraged them to share their work with me (and/or with a friend) and include what it is that they would like feedback on (e.g. I’m trying to add inner monologue to help the reader to get to know my character better. Are there places where this is working or not yet working as well?). I offered to leave detailed comments in response to their questions outside of workshop time. (This ended up working spectacularly!)
We brainstormed strategies for getting started at the beginning of work time, such as rereading what they had already written as a way to get back into their pieces. I encouraged writers to set an intention for themselves for the day and to jot it on a sticky note or inside their writer’s notebook. That way they could hold on to what it was that they were excited to share with me (and others) and be ready to shift from writing into conferring when the time came.
We considered how it might look to set an intention and then do a quick partner share, honoring the need many writers have to talk about their plans while also honoring everyone having enough minutes to write.
I was transparent about what I would do on my end to reinforce the importance of writers learning to get themselves started: standing back to just observe writers for the first five minutes after the minilesson and then intentionally conferring with kids who were busy writing, rather than kids with their hands up or kids who were chasing me around the room.
It would be my responsibility to follow through with that agreement if I expected it to stick. I admitted to them how hard it could be to send a writer back to their seat when they were motivated to confer, because conferring with writers is my favorite thing!
Kids are remarkably savvy at reading the adults in the room and adjusting their behavior accordingly. For example, you might have an expectation in workshop that it’s not okay for a student to return to their seat after the minilesson and immediately raise their hand for help. (I know this is one I put in place in my own workshop.) You might even verbally remind students of this—often.
And yet. . . when students do this, do you walk over to ask what they need? You might not even realize you are doing it, but kids are watching. And if that hand raising behavior is successful, if it gets your attention even once, they are going to continue doing it because it just might work again. Kids are both savvy and persistent!
As you launch your writing workshop, I would encourage you to notice and reflect on the adult actions in the room—your own, and any other adult support you might be fortunate enough to have. (Are the adults aligned?) This is especially important if you’re noticing that writers are not yet following class routines and expectations. It’s possible that the adult behaviors might be contradicting (rather than reinforcing) the messaging behind those all-important routines.
Feel free to share any cautionary tales of your own in the comments. Have you ever realized that your actions and your intentions were out of alignment in your own workshop, creating mixed messages for kids? How did you manage to right the ship?