Before I leapt into writing workshop years ago, the biggest thing holding me back was my fear of writing conferences. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t know what to say or that I couldn’t help or that a student would bring me a problem I didn’t know how to solve.
Years have passed. Now, writing conferences bring me a rush of adrenaline. I never feel more in my groove than when I’m running around the classroom in a conferring frenzy. But, like all insecurities, it’s still an element of instruction I spend a lot of time thinking about.
It’s sometimes tempting when we are trying to navigate a room full of students to give a quick to-do and move on. But we need to tread carefully because we should never use writing conferences to limit a writer’s choices by imposing our will on their piece — even accidentally. One thing I’ve discovered on the road to having good conferences is that how I make a suggestion or teach a strategy is just as important as what I say.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I did some Google Hangout professional development with a department in Connecticut who wanted to know more about conferring with writers in a way that is both meaningful and manageable. As I prepared for our time together and tried to articulate how I’ve made conferences work, I discovered that when I approach a writer, I typically take one of three stances depending on what they need and how they need to hear that information: the teacher, the reader, and the writer.
This is our default, right? The Teacher is a more directive stance, perfect for re-teaching a mini-lesson, re-enforcing a fundamental writing skill, or giving a writer a new technique as a challenge.
What I Might Say:
- When a writer wants to ____, they ________.
- If you’re trying to ____________, consider _________.
- Remember that when we _________, writers ______.
- To take this to the next level, you might try ____________________.
Approaching a student’s writing like a reader is the gentlest stance — one I turn to when a piece of writing is in deep trouble (especially in terms of comprehensibility), when I am working with a writer who is resistant to help or feedback, and when I just don’t know what to say.
I love the Reader stance because it gives me an answer every time. No matter what, I know how I feel when I read something. Plus, this stance reminds the writer that there will be an audience on the other side of the writing — an audience who has expectations and needs that should be met. And for the writer in your room who doesn’t want any feedback, the Reader is difficult to disagree with!
What I Might Say:
- As a reader, I’m wondering ______.
- As a reader, I’m confused by ______.
- As a reader, it’s difficult for me __________.
- When I read this, I’m thinking _________. Is this what you intended?
- When I read this, I feel like ________________.
- As a reader, I’m noticing ____________.
The Writer is my go-to approach when a writer doesn’t need a craft move but needs a habit or process instead. This stance is all about articulating for a student what real writers do to move through the writing process.
I might suggest that a student take a break from the words and take a minute to sketch about their ideas instead, talk out their ideas with a friend, go back to a mentor text right before they finish their last-minute edits for inspiration, do some writing-off-the-page, go back and re-read what they had written before.
What I Might Say:
- When I’m writing, I sometimes ____________________.
- When a writer gets to this place in their process, they might ___________________.
- Often, writers ________________ when they _________________.
- To ________________, writers sometimes ___________________.
Why Do These Stances Matter?
Taking different stances in a writing conference meets the needs to the writer at hand better than when I think I need to be the Teacher all the time — hurling writing strategies around the room at warp speed. I need to differentiate my stance just as much as I need to differentiate my instruction.
But these also help me organize my thinking as I enter a conversation. By thinking in terms of three simple stances, I limit my pre-conference panic. The options and answers no longer feel dauntingly limitless — I know that I am going to take one of three approaches. They give me an extra boost of confidence which allows me to help my writers feel confident with their choices, too.
Are there different stances you take in a writing conference? A different way you organize your teacher thinking as you approach a writer? Leave us a comment below and share how you conceptualize your conferences with writers, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahODell1!