writers

When The “Help Desk” Fails: Rethinking Support for Writers

The Setup: Help Desk, Open for Business

It started out like any other writing workshop time. Kids were settling into their work spots, some grabbing keyboards, others tapping away on their iPad screens. There was a certain level of productive noise as students figured out what projects they wanted to work on and how, and that buzz continued while they consulted one another throughout their writing.

For my part, I was off to the side of the room. Sometimes I “kidwatch” and take in the scene. Other times, I offer my services as a help desk. I’m there to talk through tricky things my writers may be facing, and I offer guidance for getting them through. After all, I’m a grown-up with extra life experience. I can offer seasoned advice, writer to writer. 

Recently, I had one of those help desk days. 

The first student who approached me was frustrated. They had started a half a dozen recent projects, all to abandon them roughly at the same point in the story. 

The other child was just plain stuck. They said they had the vision for where they wanted the story to go, but they didn’t quite know what to do. 

Yet another came to me with a poem they wanted to fine-tune. 

All of them came to me asking for suggestions. How could they get unstuck? How could they move forward? How could they get better? What should they do next? Being the seasoned veteran that I am, I offered ideas for what I might try if I were in their shoes. 

The result: Swing and a miss. In TRIPLICATE.

In each of those meetings, my suggestions met resistance. I heard responses like, “Well actually I was trying to…” or, “No wait. I have that question answered, but I just…” 

I walked away from those conferences feeling deflated – not because I didn’t have worthwhile suggestions, but because my help was clearly not what my students needed right then. Our conference wasn’t a constructive use of my kids’ time, and at 10 minutes a pop, I took way too long to realize it. 

After an extra helping of humble pie and a bit of soul-searching, I’ve come to realize that I need to do two things moving forward. First, I need to recognize more quickly when “help” steers a writer away from where they wish to go. Second, I need to offer more opportunities for writers in my room to seek support beyond what I offer. 

So how do I recognize when a conference needs to be cut short or redirected? Friends and colleagues, I wish I had a definitive answer for that one. The best I can say is that I’m working on it. On one hand, there are students who need the time in conversation to figure out what it is they truly need. Still, I’m tuning in to my intuition, my “spidey sense,” to let me know whether a student and I are going down a productive path. Until then, I plan on strengthening other supports in place. 

Moving Beyond The Help Desk: Other Supports

Getting to the Heart of Things. First, I’m learning I have to understand what a writer is asking for, what’s at the heart of their request. Sometimes, kids know. Other times, I need to act as a diagnostician to help them uncover what they’re really after. For that, I turn to my cultural heritage and engage in what I call my “Jewish mother” form of guidance. That is, I answer kids’ questions with questions: Where do you want this writing to go? What do you see for this character? What have you tried? Sometimes, students find that the answers are within themselves, if only they ask the right questions. Other times, they need more support. 

Making the Most of Student Partnerships. This is where it’s helpful for me to have a strong sense of the writers in my room. If I know what genres they enjoy, what areas they’re particularly skilled in, I can match students up with one another. Who needs a wordsmith? Who needs editing? Who has a good nose for plot and character development? Who knows how to pack subtlety and inference in a small package? Most of the time, students are more than happy to serve as experts in one area or another. 

Click to access a survey you can adapt and use!

Giving “Crowdsourcing” a Go. If major corporations and TikTok phenoms can bank on the wisdom of others, why not writers? In our classroom, I’ve instilled “crowdsourcing” as a way for students to gather suggestions. Simply put, a writer asks a group for specific advice or input, then lets the brainstorming begin. I love crowdsourcing as a classroom tool because it places control over suggestions and advice right in the hands of the writer. It’s a powerful way to build self-efficacy, trust and collaboration. 

Reflection

Here’s the deal: I’m not closing my “help desk.” Yes, some of my interactions aren’t as productive as I’d like. But many of them are! My students and I have rich conversations about writing, and our conferences are yet another way for me to instill confidence, power and trust. I’m not about to give that up. I just want to broaden the network of support my writers have in the classroom.

So now, it’s time to do a little “crowdsourcing” of my own. I’ve learned so much from all of you in the Two Writing Teachers community. Together, we are a wealth of wisdom and experience. What do YOU do with your writers to get them to rely on one another for support and guidance? What strategies have you put in place while you’re working with students? What are the ways you foster growth and refinement of craft? 

If you’ve got ideas, suggestions or questions, share them below in the comments. Let’s keep writing, and let’s keep learning!

5 thoughts on “When The “Help Desk” Fails: Rethinking Support for Writers

  1. Oh, Lainie, you had me laughing heartily when you invoked the Jewish mother form of guidance. That is SO true!

    But seriously, I think the three potential ideas you suggested here are going to be impactful for your students. I hope you’ll update us in a few weeks and let us know how it’s going with the help desk. Who knows… maybe it’ll only have to be staffed part-time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Stacey! I couldn’t think of a better way to describe that approach (though perhaps Socrates would have a suggestion).

      As for the help desk, I would love for it to be staffed part-time. Or maybe it could be run by a larger crew. Or maybe outsourced. Or maybe I could make a lateral transfer. Or maybe…

      Like

    1. Thank you so much! You know, the more I keep committing myself to seeing kids as experts, the more gracefully they step up to the role. They astound me, day in and day out!

      Like

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