Conferring With Writers to Learn What We Don’t Know

Uh oh… My stomach sank, and I could feel the gears inside my head turn on and begin whirring, trying to catch up. Trying to think of the answer. The right answer. Or a good answer. Or any answer.

This right here — this is the risk we run when we commit to conferring with our student writers. They might just stump us with their need-of-the-moment, and we might be stuck in this slightly dizzying improv space as we mentally thumb through every professional book we have ever read, every piece we have ever written, every anecdote we’ve ever been told in search of a solution. This is why conferring was my last hold-out in running a true writing workshop. I was terrified of the unknown.

Zach's BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here:
Zach’s BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here:

There had been many of these moments in this workshop. Trying to do something new — branching out into more digital writing — I chose to have students study and write BuzzFeed lists. Anyone can publish to BuzzFeed, and the idea of a student’s list going viral was exciting and motivating. Surely, all of my students read BuzzFeed lists all of the time and will think I am amazingly cool, I reasoned.

Not so much.

Only a handful of my ninth graders had ever seen a BuzzFeed list, and I quickly realized that I was not as prepared to teach them as I thought I was. I had not considered the many decisions that a writer needs to make when publishing one of these lists.  

Conference after conference, students asked me questions that I didn’t have answers to. Should every list have captions for each item? Do you need research to make a good list? What’s the best way to cite sources if you do use research? Should you decide how many items your list will have upfront or is that something you discover at the end?

Realizing that I didn’t have perfect, ready-to-teach answers made me anxious. But, in some ways, it made our BuzzFeed study even richer:

  • Conferring with my students taught me what I didn’t know.

Through this study, I became a learner, too — about the genre, about my students, about what I should have taught them (and will teach next time!). Being intentional about touching base with my writers and digging into their process taught me about my own process as a writing teacher. It forced me to rethink and revise. It made me a better teacher in the moment, and will definitely make me a better teacher the next time I teach this unit.

  • Not knowing everything built community in my classroom and nudged my writers toward independence.

When I became a learner, too, instead of the Font of All Knowledge, I became a more fully integrated member of our writing community. Truly, we were all in this together. And because I couldn’t easily rattle off a helpful suggestion, y students were forced to figure out more on their own. This was good for them .

As I conferred, I found myself using one of three responses to questions I couldn’t immediately answer — responses that nudged my students to do more of the heavy mental lifting. When you don’t know the answer, try one of these responses on:

That’s a good question. What are you leaning toward?

When in doubt, go with a writer’s instincts. This question opens a window into a student’s writerly inclinations — and they often know more, sense more, and think more deeply than I expect. More often than not, a student’s instincts are absolutely spot-on. This question validates those instincts, and this discovery gives both of us confidence.

I’m not sure, let’s figure it out.  What do our mentor texts tell us?

The mentor texts contain the answer to any and every writing problem. When all else fails, dig back into the mentor texts. Do what they tell you to do. Asking students to go back into the text builds their facility for using mentor texts on their own.

Could you look into this and share it with us?

One student, Zach, asked me a technical question about uploading his BuzzFeed list to the BuzzFeed site. While everything seemed like it was in working order, every student in class seemed to be experiencing an identical glitch. I tinkered. I experimented.

I surrendered.

“Well, you know, I actually have no idea. Do you think you could do a little research on this and see what you come up with? I’m learning with you.”

And, guess what? He did! Zach found BuzzFeed’s technical support email, explained our class predicament, and received a helpful response within ten minutes!  Admitting that I didn’t know what to do, and then passing off responsibility to a willing student, taught him how to problem solve  and made him the hero of our class.  

This is why many moons ago I thought I couldn’t teach in a workshop — I didn’t know everything, and my student writers might ask me a question I couldn’t adequately answer. I wanted to wait until I was an expert in writing to become a real writing teacher.

That’s just not the way it works. Any of us — all of us — who have a workshop classroom would tell you that we don’t know it all, that we are constantly trying to “outgrow” ourselves as writers and as  writing teachers (to borrow Colleen Cruz’s phrase), and we are occasionally still terrified. Let’s be honest — this wasn’t my favorite writing study of the year. I still prefer the studies where I feel like the expert in the room, deftly guiding students where they need to go.  But there’s something to be said for this kind of study — the kind where my conversations with students teach me at least as much as it teaches them. As a result, we all know far more than we did when we started.

What are you too afraid to try in writing workshop? What fears hold you back? What do you want to teach but don’t feel expert enough to teach? How do you navigate conferences when you don’t have the answers? Leave a comment on the blog, on Facebook, or say hi on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett).

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