November 16, 2013

The Art of Conversation - #NCTE13

Our students need a champion.
They come to us so often with voices screaming in their head, "I can't," after a lifetime of teachers and tests whispering try harder in their ears. And if you think a lifetime sounds like an exaggeration, consider the struggling readers and writers that have been trying harder since they were just four years old. When I first meet my young learners, they have been trying harder for half their lives, or more.

Young writers have a voice. They were born with it. Brilliant, beautiful, true words that sing of who they have been, who they are, and who they want to be. Somehow along the way - struggling through family issues, peer pressure, test trauma - they become detached from what is meant to be natural.

After all, we've been telling stories since time began.

I say to my students, my young readers and writers: "It's your story. Who better than you to tell it? Who better than you to know the perfect words to shout your story from the mountains? Who better than you to share your genius with the world?"

They already have the story. It's our job to light up the path, to put the tools in their hands and cheer them on, to be there when they need reassurance, saying, "Now, go forward. Be brave. You've had it in you all along."

Photo taken during a North Star of Texas Writing Project Teacher Training session

When we step into a classroom, sit alongside our  students, and invite them to share their writing, we have important choices to make. We can become either their greatest champion or an unknowing saboteur of their voice and desire to learn.

When I sit down with struggling writers to discuss a piece of writing, I first ask them to read the piece to me. Often I find that they tell me the idea of the story instead of reading the actual words on the page. When this happens, I ask if they mind if I read it to them, exactly as it is written. I suggest that they listen to hear if the story I read is what they feel like they have written. I ask them to listen like a reader, noticing what they love and what doesn't work for them. They've done this before with mentor texts I've shared in class, so adapting this skill to their own writing isn't difficult.

Almost always, they are magnificent at discovering exactly the things I noticed when I first listened to them read. They are the drivers in these conferences. I am merely there to help navigate the path. We go over their list, and I praise both what they have done well as a writer and as a reader -- their ability to notice is a key to improvement. When I help students hear how their audience will experience their story, their perception of their work changes, and they are open to experimenting with revision. They want their message understood with the same passion and enthusiasm they feel for it, so the work of revision becomes an authentic means to reach their goal.

Conferring with young writer during a Saturday Writing Camp
Although I feel there is no magic formula for the perfect conference -- conferring with students, much like writing, is an art -- my conversations with writers do have some common elements. Here you will see my inspiration comes from the teachings of Donald Murray, Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Penny Kittle, Mark Overmeyer, Ruth Ayers, and countless other masters of writing instruction, so I've tried to share some links that point to their work, along with my thoughts on what makes a successful writing conference:

  • Community: we write and share as a group every day, playing with words and celebrating one another for having the bravery simply to explore our craft.
  • Listen - what is the message you are trying to share with your audience? What is the truest sense of the story you want to tell?
  • Notice - elements in the writing that work, and places that make the reader stumble.
  • Wonder - guide the process, wherever the writer is at, asking questions like, "I wonder what this piece would be like if..."
  • Wait - give writers time to think, don't jump in to solve their problems for them, choose words sparingly - don't be afraid of silence.

But mostly, I follow my heart. I speak with my young writers the same way I would want anyone to speak with me about my writing: gently, with great compassion, and a desire to help. In this way, I am able to help them build trust. Not simply trust in me as a teacher -- that isn't enough to sustain their growth as writers. These conversations build the trust they have in their own abilities. Each word I choose is specific to the writer and focused on what they do well. By modeling these conversations daily through our conferences, they are able to read closely for themselves when working alone or when revising with a peer. Our classroom becomes a space open to respectful conversations focused on growing every writer to their full potential.

Video from Stenhouse Publishers

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