November 20, 2013

Conferring with Inquiry in Mind - #NCTE13

I love the way my peers in The North Star of Texas Writing Project challenge me to think deeply about the decisions I make when working with young writers. Here is the thinking I've been sifting through about conferencing with students:

I believe student conferences are the heart of writing workshop, but how do I guide conversations to encourage student growth without doing the work for them or squashing the young writer’s voice or desire to write? There is a Don Murray quote in Write Beside Them that embodies my goals when conferencing with a writer: “you should always leave a conference excited to get back to the writing.” I want to create contagious enthusiasm in an environment that encourages writers to take joy in the risk of playing boldly with their craft.

So what? 
Lucy Calkins said, “Helping [students] take themselves seriously is crucial for them as writers and as maturing human beings.” I believe daily modeling through mentor texts helps students identify what works in a piece of writing, which is essential to scaffolding their ability to discover both what works and does not work in their own writing. Mentor texts and conferencing work hand in hand. I also know a student’s decision to share their writing heart with me is dependent on how I treat them -- as a person and as a writer. Don Murray said, “I must create a climate in the writing conference in which students can hear what they have to say so they can learn to listen to their own writing.” I must be purposeful in my planning and my words each time I work with a writer.

Now what?   
I invite writers to share their work with me, and sometimes offer to read back their writing to them. This seems to help them hear their writing as their audience will receive it, and gives them the opportunity to write down what they notice about their own work. I’m learning to wait on writers when they are contemplating what their writing needs. My silence gives them space to think, and my “I notice” and “I wonder” statements help them look for their own answers, building their writing confidence. Research shows that writers grow best from receiving feedback, not evaluation. In fact, in The Essential Don Murray, he states it so eloquently :
"How do you motivate your student to pass through this process, perhaps even pass through it again and again on the same piece of writing?
First, by shutting up. When you are talking, he isn't writing." 
So my job during a writing conference is not to correct or change their work, but to listen and guide through gentle feedback and the silence that allows self reflection. I praise what has worked, and invite them to experiment with these techniques in other ways.

As a writing partner, it’s my job to be prepared when we sit down together. In this way, I show respect for the writer and their work. This means knowing where my learners are in their writing journey. I need strong organization and notes on each writer. I have found Evernote to be indispensable tool helping me efficiently organize my conference notes. By creating folders for each student, I can tag their work and include photos, my own conference notes, and audio files on the work we do together. This also allows me to keep a digital writing portfolio on each writer to share with parents, in data meetings, and for the student to reflect on their work throughout the year.

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