Talking to Teachers: Finding Time to ‘Write Beside Them’ and Confer (in an IB Classroom) (during a pandemic)

This is a follow-up conversation with Matt Foss, the IB Language and Literature teacher from the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. I spoke with Matt in a previous post where he focused on three main topics: (1) writing beside his students, (2) how remote learning has shifted how he confers, and (3) his goal of having students feel that their voice matters.

So, I wanted to check in with Matt on how all of the above was going. In our first conversation he was equally excited and unsure—how was he feeling now?

Disclaimer: This post will look a little different than previous “Talking to Teacher” posts as due to time zones and just life in general, I wasn’t able to talk to Matt directly. Instead, he recorded his thoughts to some questions I provided I edited that into mini-clips that will be threaded throughout this post.

Reflection Point #1 Writing Beside Them

First off, “Writing Beside Them” is Penny Kittle’s beautiful idea—and her book titled something similar is one I often reach for. The simple strategy of doing the work beside your students is a game changer. And eve as Matt talks about being busier than ever in the chaos of a hybrid learning context, he still finds time to write beside his students—he understands the power of it.

Matt also understands that with the chaos of this year (less resources, less time, more preps, new IB curriculum) he has to do it in “smaller bits and pieces”— a paragraph here, an outline there. He has decided to focus on modelling the work depending on the students needs in a given unit and piece of writing. And this, ultimately, is the point of everything: What do the students need at a given time? What knowledge, skills, or strategies do they need to be successful? What parts of the process need to be modelled to help them move forward? When is beneficial for them to see something modelled in real time vs when it is enough to provide a completed exemplar?

These are the questions Matt asks himself every day so that he can maximize the time spent in class to move students forward in their writing AND their thinking about writing. Although, when you read between the lines of what Matt is saying, it is this ‘thinking about writing’ that he is more consciously nurturing. Students need to see themselves as writers and to do that, they need to be taught and encouraged to think as writers. They are capable of this metacognitive approach to their writing process. If teachers always see themselves as the experts and students are always waiting for external input on how to revise a piece of writing, then we are doing them a disservice—then we are not preparing them to be successful beyond our classrooms.

One of Matt’s favourite activities to write beside his students this year was in connection to a discussion around critical theory and literary lenses. Matt used children’s books as a way to introduce the practice using the theory/lenses. Here is an example of Snow White that goes through multiple the lenses and here is an example of a larger lesson connected to this idea.

Reflection Point #2 — Conferring

My Moving Writers colleague, Hattie Maguire, wrote a post recently about how she is helping her students to see themselves as writers. And one way she works on this is to have writing conferences be more student led—focusing more on what she calls a “help me conference” (as opposed to a “show me conference”). Unless students are directly taught strategies and given time for revision, they are apt to wait for a teacher to tell them what they need to improve on and what is going well. This is not only an unreasonable expectation of teachers, but it also takes a lot of the responsibility or ‘doing the work’ off of the student.

Re-read this.

— Matt Foss

Matt has noticed a shift in his conferences since remote (and hybrid) learning began—he is naturally using strategies that give more responsibility to (and space for) students to talk about their writing—he is showing them what writers do. I love how simple it is sometimes to create that space and Matt’s phrase of “re-read this” is that perfect simplicity.

Having students read a section out loud and talk about what they hear and what is going well or might need improving is an empowering and habit forming move. We want students taking more ownership over the revision process—there is always going to be skills they can work on, but letting them guide us sometimes to what it is they are interested in improving on will benefit their overall engagement and learning.

However, since students don’t yet have all the knowledge of the features writers employ, Matt will sometimes ask a specific question about a given section. This is a beautiful way to invite a student into seeing their writing in a new way, into learning about a new writing feature, and into exploring their writing from a new perspective.

Matt noted that even with his students back in a hybrid model where he sees them half the time in person, he still opts for the one-on-one conferences. He knows they are a critical aspect of teaching and learning this year. And although he didn’t say this directly, I am 100% confident that a big part of that is the social/emotional connection that is taking place in those one-on-one’s. By keeping the online conferences, Matt ensures that he is meeting with his students consistently. And yes, the main focus and intention might initially be on their academics, but these conferences have the opportunity to be leveraged for social/emotional checkins as well.

Side note: Hattie Maguire (mentioned at the beginning of this section) and another Moving Writers friend, Mike Ziegler are presenting a webinar all about conferring. It will focus on:

  • Student-driven writing conferences in both virtual and face-to-face spaces
  • Independent reading engagement through formative book chats
  • Supportive, low stakes classroom dialogues for student (and teacher) social emotional wellness
  • Personal interaction that supports student growth while maintaining relationships — yes, even in a virtual space!

Oh…and it takes place on the 18th—so soon! You can sign up for it here!

Reflection Point #3 “Your Voice Matters” (Or does it?)

In the video above, Matt explains the dichotomy of his senior and junior level classes—how one is feeding and one is hurting his soul.

Let’s start with the good news first and turn our attention to Matt’s juniors. Thankfully, he is finding joy with this group as the curriculum lends itself to having more opportunities to find their voice (there is more choice automatically built in). Matt explains how a in a recent editorial unit, a student wrote to the school board in relation to worker’s rights. She had a specific audience, message, and goal for her piece and that all came through in the final piece. Choice and voice for the win…and hopefully some new policy for the new school campus!

However, there is some not so good news, too—the seniors. Matt doesn’t feel that his goal of students feeling that their voice matters is happening in the current context of the seniors. With their IB exams coming up in May and one 1.5 hour writing assessment being worth 55% of their final grade (which matters for university entrance), the focus right now is on that one piece of writing. A piece of writing that can be written in a rather formulaic manner with no voice needed to achieve top marks. And Matt notes this doesn’t feel great… that it isn’t a great model for education… nor for real life.

Ugh—the struggle is real (and the extra layers of this pandemic year is not helping). Finding ways to keep the work authentic and relevant, yet strongly connected to the exam is a fine balance. But anywhere we can include even some choice helps to crack open the “testing to the exam” box—and it is through the cracks that the light gets in!

In looking back through some past Moving Writers posts, I found a few ideas to consider during exam crunch time to help let in some light (with the IB Paper 1 in mind):

  • Write a pastiche with annotations. Ask students to identify literary devices and analyze their effect on texts and readers to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a text, organize ideas in a cohesive manner, select words carefully, and employ conventions effectively and consistently. (Original post link)
  • Provide a variety of texts (or let students choose) what they want to analyze. The more interested they are in a text, the more meaningful the practice will be.
  • Asking students to write LIKE an author rather than ABOUT the author’s choices helps them to be more attentive to craft and its effects. If students are made to analyze something they haven’t tried to make, the writing will feel distant. If they dig in and “do,” they’ll understand how the text works better. This can be done in small quick writes, it doesn’t have to be a full response each time. (Original post link)

Letting in the light is not easy—it takes time to create, the risk of doing something different, and the transparency of the skill transfer to the students—but it is also definitely worth it.

Main takeaway

I have been using the Glennon Doyle’s quote, “just do the next right thing”, as a personal mantra a lot over the past year. It is a great coping strategy for when life gets a little bit overwhelming or when I am feeling a little lost. And as I watched Matt respond to my questions, I felt that this quote would resonate with him, too.

I continually see Matt doing the next right thing as he navigates the uncertainty of this crazy year and he does it with passion, humility, and intention.

Just do the next right thing.

The thing that will help the students and you stay connected to the work and to each other.

How are you staying connected and “doing the next right thing”? How do you let the light in? How have your conferences shifted during the pandemic? You can connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore and my website

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