I have not always identified as a writer. As a child, I was an aspiring writer for sure–I was going to be the next Ann M. Martin….but make it historical. Maybe Babysitters in Bonnets?
I’ll admit it needed workshopping.
Somewhere in high school, though, I shifted and I became an incredibly efficient student of writing–not a writer any longer, but someone really good at completing writing assignments. Honestly, I think that was my basic attitude toward writing for the first 5 years or so of my teaching career, even. I could create assignments and organizers and guide students through them like a champ. It wasn’t until someone at my local ISD asked me to blog about my teaching that I really started thinking of myself as a writer again.
And so I shouldn’t be surprised that many of my students do not think of themselves as writers. I can shout “YOU’RE THE WRITER! BE FREE TO MAKE CHOICES” all day long, but the reality is that even my most confident students have been rubric’d to death and their confidence lies not in their writing itself but in their ability to follow rules or guidelines created for them.
How do we help them see themselves as writers?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because of some Google Form survey results I gathered early in the semester from my students. I often take attendance in my virtual class by asking them a few quick questions, so prior to starting our first round of conferring time I asked about attitudes towards conferences. I gave them two different types of conferences and asked them to rank on a scale of 1-5 how useful that type of conference wasl (5=very, 1=not at all).
For me, “Help Me” is infinitely more appealing. I’m well aware of the parts that don’t feel right when I’m writing. I know the places where I’m trying to say something a certain way and it’s just not working.
My students? 46 said a Show Me conference would be most useful and only 2 wanted a Help Me. In the open ended “tell me more about what you chose” spot, they said things like:
“I hate showing people my essays.”
“I never know what to ask.”
“I’d rather you just tell me what’s wrong with it.”
“What do we need to have ready for our writing conference?”
“Is our conference graded?”
Whew. I clearly had my work cut out for me. I wrote about how I approached that last month–prepping for conferences by reading their reflections, giving them clear action steps– but then I wanted to build on it. I didn’t want to get stuck in only Show Me conferences. I wanted to start nudging them towards that Help Me mentality–recognizing their strengths and weaknesses as writers and being brave enough to lead the conferring time.
Small Group Help Me Conferences
After our first round of Show Me conferences, I had all kinds of information. As I talked to students about their essays, I made notes in a spreadsheet about what they needed to work on and what we had discussed. Nothing fancy–and in a shorthand that probably only makes sense to me– but enough information that I could easily group them.
I put students in groups of three matching strengths and weaknesses. For example, a student with a weak line of reasoning but some solid, isolated examples of strong commentary was paired with a student who had mastered transitions but had “meh” commentary. Depending on the strength of those two combined, I’d either add a third student who was overall very strong or overall rather weak.
Next–and this is an important step–I was explicit with them about how I had created the groups and what my expectations were. I didn’t say “You were the weak kid! You were the strong one!” but I did talk about how each student was bringing something useful to the group.
- Talking through your own thinking and commentary is useful for others to hear.
- Justifying your choices prompts others to think about their own.
- Asking questions about whether or not something “works” nudges others to think about what works in their own pieces.
I set the groups loose (one class was virtual and the other was face to face) with this flowchart to guide their work. I was nervous that this was too quick of a nudge–that they’d revert to copy editing for each other or just stay silent in their breakout rooms–but the combination of their Show Me conferences + the flowchart of explicit steps to follow + the reality that these drafts were DUE at midnight= some solid, though tentative, writerly conversations. I know this because I overheard them in my face to face class (oh, the normalcy!) and I saw it on the google comments on all the essays in my virtual class. The final drafts show it as well. Feedback to one another moved well beyond surface level suggestions and students made some excellent revision based on advice from their peers.
But What About Talking to ME??
They’re moving in the right direction, but I still want them to get to a place where they feel comfortable talking to me about their choices as writer, too. In an AP class, that’s one of the biggest challenges I face. They are so focused on grades and evaluation that it’s hard for them to move past trying to please me or jump through hoops.
We are getting ready for another round of one on one conferences and I want them to be ready to lead those conferences like the writers they are. To do that, we are prepping with some low stakes notebook practice where they do some quick writes and then look back and annotate their own work a little. Tomorrow, for example, since it’s the one year anniversary of us shutting down, I’m asking them to choose an image on their phones from the past year and write about it. I’ll share my sample first to model the questions that I’d like them to use to annotate their own work.
- My purpose was ________ so I did _____________. Did it work?
- My purpose is _____________ and I want the whole thing to feel ____ so should I do _____ or ______?
These will be really easy (and interesting) for me to cruise through in their notebooks and give some feedback on quickly in the next few days. Next week, in preparation for their one-on-one conference, I’ll ask them to do the same thing with their argument essay drafts.
I’m hoping this is the nudge that they’ll need to start thinking like writers (again or for the first time) because it’s a nice balance of them getting a little of what they want (validation or evaluation) but also giving a little of what I want–speaking to their own choices. I’ll let you know how it goes next month.
How do you nudge your students into seeing themselves as writers? What do you do to help build (or rediscover) that confidence? Let me know in the comments below, on the Moving Writers Facebook page, or on Twitter @TeacherHattie.
Or, Join me (and my teacher bestie Mike Ziegler) on Thursday, March 18 at 7pm for a Moving Writers Webinar all about conferring.
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