Conferencing Through Chaos…by Maybe Embracing the Chaos of Conferencing?

For those who’ve been following the ongoing adventures (exploits?  misadventures?) of my focus student, Troy, and me this year, be aware that I’m taking a blog off from that beat.  Troy and I are kind of in a holding pattern right now, and we’re also in between writing assignments as a whole class, so as much as it pains me to miss out on titling a post “The Fall of Troy” as October winds to a close, I’m going to use this post to talk about something else that’s been eating up a lot of my time lately:  Conferences.

Since I spend the majority of my day providing MTSS support to struggling readers and writers, I’ve been working extensively over the past month with various students on their first major writing efforts of the semester.  I’ve conferenced with kids about writing topics ranging from formative constructed responses to “The Island Problem” in Civics class (If you were stranded on a desert island with a bunch of people, what form of government would you implement?  Correct answer: Just start swimming–do you know what these people will do to you when the muckrakers discover your online search history?). While conferencing is certainly a familiar concept for readers of our humble site, I want to look closely at the under-served need for extensive conferencing.  Exhaustive conferencing.  A lot of it, even.

Conferencing the Prompt

The first form of support we often find ourselves giving to our MTSS writers is what we might call a “pre-conference” but might more accurately be labeled “The Process of Clarifying What the Hell It Is We’re Actually Writing About”.  If your prompt is opening students up to a vast array of topics and/or genres, they’re going to need a lot of time to dialogue with the teacher about what they think this should all look like and about what you think they’ll need to consider as writers.  This is an especially important sort of conference if prompts in your class sound something like one of these:

  • Create a narrative real or imagined, providing descriptive details for the reader
  • Recall a time when you went through X or when you discovered/learned Y for the first time
  • Create your own argument about X text and defend it

Ideally, students also get explicit models for whatever it is they end up deciding to write about, but even a well structured model can’t replace a robust writing conversation.  Consider for example the story I coached a student through about a character (nameless) who was going to his first basketball tryout. The “story” in its entirety for draft one went like this:  Nameless gets out of bed and does all sorts of morning routine things that nobody wants to read about, goes to tryouts, really wants to do well at tryouts, apparently does baskeball-ish things at tryouts even though we don’t get to witness any of them first hand, then the “plot” ends abruptly at the point where my dude describes being “stuck.”    

As a student who rarely reads, the ability to conceptualize what narrative should sound like or exclude or include or focus on eludes this writer (Mr. Basketball, let’s call him) completely.  It took us a while to arrive at this plan of action:  

  1. Let’s write a character sketch of your main character and the coach and maybe one extra player (at this point he revealed that the character is actually him and this is, in fact, a memoir).
  2. Let’s also think about who this is for.  Who do you think would want to read this story?
  3. Let’s make a list of things that might go right or wrong at a tryout. 

If nothing else, each of these tasks is what you might call a Pencil Mover (or a Keyboard Poker?) in that it may not solve all our problems but it gets the student pushing forward again with a piece they were previously at a standstill with.  In other words, we conferenced to a series of “things to do next” so that Mr. Basketball wasn’t trapped inside of the narrow boundaries of his current conceptualization of the piece.

My colleague later took a run at conferencing with this young man as well and spent some time showing him where he could start to think organizationally.  She was helpful in a different way, but it took several more days of conferencing to mold his story into something with an intended audience, a sense of purpose, and a tone that sounded at least occasionally like storytelling.  

Conferencing the Process

Within the same week, several students came to the MTSS room for support in English 10 on a constructed response about Catcher in the Rye.  The prompt was fairly nuanced, drawing from a quote in the book about dying nobly or living humbly and considering how it applies to Holden.  

But even for a simple writing piece (the constructed response is a single paragraph of argument), the process of how to compose and revise it required a lot of ongoing conversation with each student.  Though the needs of each student were different, in general we had productive dialogues about each of these topics with every writer:

  1. When you think about the prompt, what moments from the story immediately occur to you?  How would you say they shape your view of Holden’s behavior?
  2. When we talk about “finding evidence” or “examples” or “quotes” what does that look like?  How do we know what passage is most relevant even after we’ve found a useful scene to consider?
  3. How can we provide context for this example you’ve chosen?  What does the reader need to understand? Does the way you’re describing the moment get us thinking about the prompt?
  4. Even though this is only a paragraph long, what phrases are you going to use to connect your broad thesis with each of your examples, and each of your examples to one another?  (And if the student is ready for it, I might add a conversation about “How would you connect these two ideas together if I told you that phrases like ‘Another example…’ or ‘Secondly…’ make my eyeballs want to climb out of my head and drown themselves in my coffee mug?”  …In so many words.)

Conferencing Intentions

By far the hardest sort of conferencing–and the most rewarding once you establish a foothold–is the conference about writerly intentions.  As I conferenced with other students about the narrative they were writing (the one Mr. Basketball was struggling so much with), I noticed a trend of blank staring when I came to the question of “What would you want a reader to get from this?”  The dialogue tended to unfold something like this:

Me:  Okay, so I love the topic of video games (this is actually true–I’m a gamer!).  The next question is figuring out who might want to read a story like this?

Student 1:  Nobody probably. 

Me:  That’s not necessarily true.  What made you think of this story?

Student 1:  Well I thought it was funny that this one time I was playing NBA 2K with a stranger and at the end of the game he played super selfishly and cost us the game instead of passing the ball to me when I was WIDE open.  My friends I play with wouldn’t have done that.  

Me:  Okay, so how could you tell that story to make it appealing for a reader?

Student 1:  I can’t I guess.

Me:  Well you said you thought it was funny.  

Student 1:  Yeah, it was funny to ME…

And therein lies the moment where the conference mattered.  I won’t pretend to know the developmental psychology behind this phenomenon, but notice what happened there at the end that happens ALL the time with writers.  He couldn’t make the transference of thinking from “This experience struck me as funny” to “I could tell this story in a way that other readers–especially gamers who have certainly had similar experiences–would also find funny.”  But this certainly CAN be done–there are entire websites that mostly subsist on these sorts of short, anecdotal memoirish shared experiences that are highly relatable without being particularly consequential. David Sedaris has enjoyed a long career living almost exclusively in this genre, in fact (adding poignancy on occasion, obviously).  

There’s a whole separate blog to be written about what a student who can’t come to such a realization is lacking as a writer, but for our purposes here I think what matters more is that through conferencing, I was able to come to the conclusion alongside him that if he considered a purpose (to entertain!) for his writing and wrote in a way that would amuse his audience (fellow gamers!) then he could certainly create a great narrative from a rather insignificant moment.

Who Has the Time?

Obviously in a normal classroom setting, such extensive conference time can be hard to come by, and since this post isn’t an argument to convince you to completely restructure your course I won’t try to sell you on rebuilding around a workshop structure. But where can you fit your conferencing?  And where do you begin the conversation based on the needs of the student? When my colleague and I each sat down with Mr. Basketball, we were struck by multiple things that needed attention right away:

  • No sense of narrative voice and tone
  • No sense of plotting
  • No characterization
  • No active organizational choices
  • No sense of audience or purpose

As an MTSS-supported student, his list is probably longer than your average student writer, but even two items from that last constitute a pretty strong need for conversation with a more experienced writing authority.  There is no model–even annotated–that can fill in every gap for a novice writer. They need a chance to bounce ideas, to dictate aloud (perhaps while you scribe for them), to test things out verbally and ask clarifying questions where they aren’t certain how to proceed.  They also need a human connection to keep motivating the process. Whatever feedback we gave him to move forward, we were also able to constantly remind him that there were GOOD and RELATABLE elements in his piece. Fueling him with the belief that this piece could become something we’d want to read probably mattered as much to him as any of the tips we gave him to help improve it.

This is the challenge of supporting good writing–all the more so if you have already embraced the equally important idea of choice into your classroom.  It takes lots of time and requires lots of different, unpredictable conversations with the writer as they work through their process. Models help, mini-lessons help, but talking helps the most; and supportive, constructive, engaged talking helps the very mostest.  Imagine if someone had been here to conference me out of that final clause!


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