As we approach writing conferences at the beginning of the school year, I think an important goal is to get to know our students. As workshop teachers, we want our students to believe that their lives have importance and small moments that are worth writing about. During the first couple of weeks, writing conferences have the potential of multi-tasking as powerful ways to get to know students as well as letting them know how worthy their lives are of written documentation!
In How’s It Going, Carl Anderson writes about how important it is for us to communicate to our students how much we care about them. He writes that “the reason that many students are willing to take on the difficult challenge of outgrowing themselves as writers is not because we ask just the right questions about their writing work, or because our feedback is right on the mark, or because we teach them brilliantly. In the end the success of a conference often rests on the extent to which students sense that we are genuinely interested in them as writers—and as individuals.” (p.22)
Writing conferences are a great way to get to know students. When a student writes about a New York adventure, it can segue to so many conversations that can help you get to know about that student as a person. Maybe your conversation will go in the direction of the importance of family; maybe it will turn into a conversation about favorite sports teams and maybe it will evolve into a conversation about climbing a rock in Central Park. Who knows? The important part is that you are establishing a relationship with that child which will be the springboard for pushing him/her as a writer.
So then, part of the hard work becomes how to be interested and how to show that interest. Maybe, then before the work of memorizing the types of conferences and the questions that go along with them, comes the work of setting up the classroom environment and routines so that you can focus on what a student is sharing with you and pay attention to it. That means that you are not managing student behavior or answering adult’s questions or thinking about what the next question will be that you will ask or what time the students should line up for lunch…it means that you are listening to student writing and responding as an interested and caring audience. In my yoga class, my instructor frequently challenges us not to think and just to clear our minds—it’s really hard! I don’t know about you but I am always thinking and I am usually thinking about more than one thing at a time so really listening to a student’s story, especially when it is in the early stages and difficult to follow, is hard!
One of the reasons I write is to share parts of my life and develop pieces that have meaning and value to me so it is important to me to have people respond to the content and not just to how clearly or fluently or accurately or precisely I have written. Maybe the first few conferences you have are just to react to the content so that they realize that writing matters and as Carl Anderson wrote, that “they have lives worth writing about.”
Later, I will be sending you charts that show specific types of conferences and questions that align to them. Be on the look out for that. In the meantime, develop your relationships and convictions that writing is important, that your students’ lives have story-worthy moments, that their voices matter, and that their opinions have a respectful home in your classroom. Those messages are critical for launching the writing workshop.