Conferencing with Writers

Nanci Atwell:  The middle school guru who was one of many to revolutionize writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  I  first learned about writing conferences after reading her book, IN THE MIDDLE.  Her concepts sold me on what was possible with students. The teacher meeting with students to talk about what they were writing, how their writing was going, the pitfalls, the high notes, and the struggles. Wow!  Where could the text be improved as well as what were the strengths?  Was the writing ready to be polished?  Was the voice, tone, and word choice appropriate to the audience? All of this occurred over multiple conversations between the adult and child. I kept thinking if only I had had these opportunities as a student, perhaps I would have been a better student writer!

At the time, I was teaching part-time with adults and teens working toward their GEDs.  Obviously these were not the pre-teens Atwell referenced in her book, but when applied to my own students, the conferencing still worked.  More importantly, it positively impacted my student’s learning!

When I moved to the middle school classroom a few years later, I eagerly applied more of Atwell’s techniques; her book was my “bible”.  It served me well!  The most important puzzle piece that I used from Atwell continued to be the student-teacher conference.

The beauty of conferencing that so many teachers don’t understand — and is now part of my job as a coach — is that the teacher gets to know who their students are.  Writing is a powerful tool; that is a pretty well-known fact.  Students can be verbally shy but willing to write.  However, sometimes getting to know them comes from what you  pry out of them in order to help improve their writing. Each student deals with writing differently.  Writing is a puzzle to many students, but conferencing helps them start to see where the pieces fit together.  For some it takes longer than others; after all, everyone can see the puzzle come together at different rates and in different ways.

I’ve seen teachers silently write notes/comments in a student’s documents without any student interaction and call it conferencing.  Objection!  There has to be a conversation, and these discussions cannot be one-sided or the teacher is not facilitating; he or she is dictating.  The entire point of conferencing has been lost if that is the case.  Everyone has their piece in the puzzle — both student and teacher.

At first I tried to help my writers repair every part of their writing:  Editing and revising.  What a mistake!  A student meeting with me would last for 30 minutes — that didn’t work too well with 25-30 students in a class.  After more research about writing workshop where conferencing is paramount, and reading from experts such as Ralph Fletcher, Jim Burke, Laura Robb, and the other middle school guru Kylene Beers, I learned to fine-tune my facilitating and have students take more responsibility for their work.

In some ways this can feel as if the puzzle pieces are upside down.  Students have come to expect that teachers will provide answers; many kids are not thinking for themselves.  They can’t put those puzzle pieces together:  Not because they are unskilled, but because they are used to parents, relatives, coaches, siblings and teachers, telling them where each piece fits.

My students now chose what 1 or 2 elements they want to talk about based on the rubric.  This was a big change both for the students and for me. Focusing in on a few things in our conference, though and getting them correct, helped those skills follow through to the next writing.  DEPTH NOT BREADTH:  This is the center piece to the conferencing puzzle.

So, here is my writing workshop puzzle amended from the writers named above and many others.  It works for me, and I’ve seen it work in similar ways for my team teachers.

  1. Introducing the writing task based on the literature and have students explain it
  2. Providing a clear rubric that is written so students understand it and can explain it — better yet have the students create the rubric
  3. Planning in some form which works best for each individual student
  4. Teacher tracking — spreadsheets works best for me — where each student is in the writing process
  5. Conferencing
  6. Drafting
  7. Tracking the process
  8. Conferencing
  9. Drafting
  10. Peer conferencing
  11. Tracking
  12. Conferencing
  13. Drafting

Do you see a pattern to the puzzle?

Without a doubt, conferencing takes time, management — for the teacher and the students, patience — for the teacher and the students, the willingness to release control to students, and planning.  It’s messy. But the outcomes are worth it.

 

 

My Literary History

Today as I was updating my LiveBinder for my seventh graders, I was thinking back about my literary history which I always share verbally during the first week with my students.  You see, John Jakes novels were really the end and yet the beginning. I had lots of books around as a child. My father and mother loved buying me books.  The problem was that I was so literal: I knew that Pooh bears did not speak to little boys in the forest, and fish did not jump out of the fishbowl as Dr. Seuss said.  I had all of the books and dolls from Joan Walsh Anglund.  I loved the dolls without their mouths — only eyes and noses — and with my own mind, I brought them to life speaking for them.  I loved sleeping with them;  they created a safe feeling for me at night.  The books had beautiful thoughts about how wonderful the world was. But in my very realistic mind, I knew no one could speak without having a mouth!

 So unlike what research tells us, conversation with high vocabulary at dinner and lots of books will lead to a high literacy ability — as was the norm in my house — I was the exception.

 

Sharing this information as part of my literary history with my students is essential. I teach very different levels of students, but often have students who are not able to comprehend well since I understand that type of student very well.  After all, they are what I was. And yet, every year I have been able to help so many students recognize that reading really is not terrible. 

As all middle schoolers do, my seventh graders come into the classroom at the beginning of the year suspicious. Not only do they not know me, but they are preteens recognizing that they don’t know how to yet trust the world. Yes, there are students who come through my door who like to read — but sadly, they are the exception. Only after I share with them what I went through to become a reader and that now I carry my Kindle around with the 40+ books as well as the two in my purse every day, do they recognize that maybe I will understand them.

 In 1997 at NYU as a graduate student, I thought the professor was insane when she asked my peers and me to write our literary histories.  I had never done this before. And yet, this is what ultimately helps my kids connect with me so much! I wish I remembered her name because I would have to give her a big thank you now. When students understand what we have gone through personally, and they realize that we are very sincere in our words, they then can start to accept what we say as truth.

 

 I became an English teacher because I don’t want kids to go through what I did. Not comprehending for so many years hurt self-esteem, hurt my feelings, and made me feel left out and different.  Sharing my literary history helps putting the pieces together for the kids as well as it is still putting the pieces together for me to become that better teacher/facilitator.

The next step in putting the pieces together

When I returned from The Netherlands entering high school as a junior, I was still a very non-confident reader.  However, I had realized that there were literary possibilities.  Luckily, my high school offered quarter classes in English, and I was assigned to the short stories class.  The teacher introduced me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and again, I found with a lot of work, I could get lost in a story!  It was by no means easy, and many times I wanted to give up.  But somehow, my brain kept remembering the great stories, and that was the encouragement I needed to give myself. 

I still read the end of the book before the rising action, so I had a direction.  In fact, I only stopped this strategy 40 years later.  Knowing the end didn’t feel like I was missing anything; it helped!  I knew what to look for, and my entertainment was in figuring out how the characters would reach the finale!  This is not a strategy I teach nor do I encourage it, but I have met other non-readers who have found some success by reading the end of the book first.  They too are putting the pieces together.

Little by little, I was gaining some confidence with my reading.  But think about it:  I was 16 years old and only then did reading make sense.  I think my sister probably went broke buying me romance novels, but it was worth every penny.  Escaping into a story away from my own life was a wonderful adventure — the exact adventure I want my students to have. 

You see, I was such a literal learner and reader, I needed a map, and I created it on my own.  My house was full of books, but no one had ever helped me find a book that would engage me.  Maybe that is why I was meant to be an exchange student — to exchange my attitude toward reading.

Now, finding books that will engage every one of my 100-130 students is my goal from the first  day of school in August.  We spend a lot of class time putting the pieces together to figure out which books fit just right for each one of my 7th or 8th graders.  Many of my students experience the same trials and frustration I did, but we work at it together.  My students discuss what concepts help them choose a book, and sadly, many kids say “nothing” helps.  But we slowly start putting the pieces together and discuss concepts that many kids have never considered.

  • Look at the cover – Is it appealing?
  • Choose a genre that has been enjoyed before
  • Choose an author that was previously entertaining
  • Read another book in a series that was great the first time
  • Think about:  Is this book too easy or too hard??
  • Consider the book length – Is it too long or too short????
  • Read the book’s summary – Does it sound interesting?
  • Read a few pages in the book — Intriguing??
  • Get a recommendation from another reader
  • Read the back of the book – Appealing???
  • Check book reviews – Helpful?
  • Any awards earned? These are signs people thought it was a good
  • Check the font & number of pages – Does it fit??

No teacher ever took this time with me to help me understand these factors for choosing a book.  I thought reading was too hard, I was different from everyone else, and reading just didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t even consider there was a science to finding books! 

So I have to be sure that is not what my middle schoolers experience.  For some kids, it will take months for them to find the right book, but we keep talking about fiction and nonfiction as a class, in pairs, and every size group imaginable. Buy-in can be slow with my pre-teens, but peer interaction helps.  My reading conferences with each student are great for helping suggest novels, but I’m still  — even as an experienced teacher —  putting the pieces together to improve those conversations too. 

Getting ready to put the pieces together….

I teach middle school. Grades six through eight we are in our school, but seventh-grade is the best. For six years I taught eighth grade, and now this is my 10th year in seventh grade. They are old enough to have a conversation with adults and understand sarcasm to an extent. But more importantly, they can are not jaded, and I can still have a huge impact on their future lives so that it can be the most literate and prosperous for these young adults. 

A little bit about myself. I never learned to comprehend until I was age 16. I remember school was always difficult for me; I was in the low bluebird group of readers in grades 1 and 2.  Although I went to a very small private school with sometimes as few as six people in Agreat, they really did not understand each learner. 

During the summer between my sophomore and junior’s year of high school, I was a summer exchange students in the Netherlands.  It was such a small town that the last American had been there 10 years before. Only the daughter who is coming to the United States two months later spoke English.  I should clarify that the father of the family spoke about five words of English all related to farming since he worked for the Dutch government department for farming and land.  The two older brothers in their late teens had some experience speaking English, but disliked Americans unlike the parents who remembered fondly and and still appreciated the World War II commitment even though it was 30+ years later.  The boys were jaded. President Nixon had resigned in embarrassment not many years before , and the rest of the “young” world didn’t understand how and were surprised our government still went on with it same strength.

I remember being so lonely since no one in the town spoke English. My sister sent me many books, but I really didn’t understand why. One day in earnest and feeling very homesick, I opened one of John Jake’s books all about the American Revolution that I was missing the celebration for back in the States.  That was the beginning! I fell in love with the family of characters who participated in the founding of our wonderful country.

That was also the beginning of my love for reading. It had only taken 16 years. School had passed me on little by little regardless of how small my elementary or how large my 50+ student kindergarten class was. I read those six books over twice. Yes, they were much longer than any I had ever read, and I learn to read the ending of the book first.  Somehow my mind told me that I would be able to understand the book better if I knew where the story was going. That was correct. It took me a long time to realize that reading the end of the story ruined it in advance. However, more importantly, by reading the ending first, it taught me how to understand and comprehend what I was reading.  Little did I know it that point, that I was actually using highly effective reading strategies that I now press upon my students on a daily basis.

I remember as a third grader wanting to be a teacher. I had just left Mrs. Snyder’s first and second grade classes where she looped with us. Of course at that time, I did not know that that was the term for teachers following students. Those years had been very hard. Not only had she berated me for what I ate each day in my lunch — which my mother had packed — although the way Mrs. Snyder acted apparently a 6 & 7 year-old was responsible for her lunch, I never seemed to do anything right.  My penmanship was too small or too big or I was talking and had to wear the dunce cap while sitting on a stool with my nose against the wall.  I didn’t like school, and never felt like I fit in.

But back to being a 16-year-old in a foreign country during the celebration of celebrations the Bicentennial of the United States of America.  I realized that those words on the page created a picture in my mind. Wow, visualization. No one had ever told me that that’s what I was aiming for as a reader. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next once I finally finally got into the stories and understood.  It was hard going. Definitely not easy since I really didn’t put all the ideas together. I was what I word caller.  I knew what the words meant and I could read them, but I had no idea what all the words together created.  Every day reading became excitement although the challenge was great. 

Somehow all the pieces suddenly after 16 years fit together. Hence, the name for this blog.