When I decided to write a blog for new teachers, I should have begun with this piece of advice.
What I’m going to share with you is nothing new or nuanced. I’m sure other teachers (myself included) have already said this 1,000 times on this blog. There are whole books on this topic that dive way deeper than I have the space to do here. But at the risk that you haven’t heard this yet, or you have and just need a reminder…
First Year Writing Teacher Tip #3: Talk to your writers.
I was reminded how vital this is just this past week during a writing conference with a strong writer in my honors class named Emily. She was writing a piece of analysis, and her goal was to prove that Taylor Swift’s newest album shows a change (for the better) in her musical career. Emily had so many great ideas on how to make this happen, but she was overwhelmed by the possibilities. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to start each paragraph with a different message and then discuss songs from the new album that showed that message, or if she wanted to go through the album from start to finish and look at how each song contributes to the album’s story and overall themes.
With other students, I might try to steer them in a direction I think would work best for them. However, I knew Emily was fully capable of accomplishing her task with whatever structure she chose. She knew she was capable of this, too, but there were so many ideas swarming around in her head that she wasn’t sure how to ground herself and choose one. The class period was coming to an end, so I suggested taking a step back from it and coming back to it later. I told her that when I was in college, talking through my writing with someone I trusted usually helped me gather my thoughts and pick a trajectory. When she told me she didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, I immediately wrote her a pass to come back during her free period and talk it out to me.
When Emily came in later, I let her do most of the talking. She talked about the pros and cons of each structure she was considering for the piece of writing. I commented from time to time, but I made it a point to remain as objective as I could and allow her to figure it out for herself. And you know what? She did! And she wrote a great piece of analysis afterward.
What resonates most with me about this experience is that it was such a great reminder of how powerful and important it is to talk to our writers. Emily could not believe I was willing to take time outside of her class period to talk to her. She kept asking, “Really? You really want to hear more about my writing? You would do that for me?”
As a new teacher, the thought of setting aside time to talk to each writer would have overwhelmed me. It forces you to consider how to fit all of these conversations into a unit. It requires giving up some control of what everyone in the room is doing at every minute. It places you in a position of vulnerability where you might be stumped and not know what to say to a student.
Try it anyway.
My conversation with Emily this week reminded me that you can never go wrong by talking to a writer individually. Sure I’ve had some writing conferences that didn’t go well. But 99% of the time, the student walks away from it with more confidence in their writing, and I walk away from it with a better understanding of that student as a writer and as a person. Writing conferences help me identify when a student is going down the wrong path with a piece of writing early in the process when it can still be fixed without totally overwhelming them. They help me give students ideas on how to work through issues. They help me push strong writers to elevate their writing. But most importantly, they bring me and my students closer together.
So as the first semester starts drawing to a close and you start planning for next semester, I challenge you to do whatever you have to do to make writing conferences a priority in 2022. Plan to talk to each writer and listen to them. Look at them in the eyes, take in what they’re saying, and do the best you can do to help them.
I know you’re probably wondering how all of this works. Should I squat down next to them, pull them up to my desk, or designate a conference spot in my room? The short answer is… yes. There is no wrong way to make talking to each writer a priority. And one of the awesome things about teaching is that if you mess something up, you get the opportunity to try it again. Try it once, see the magic that happens, and then keep working on finding a good system that works for you and your students.
Trust me, they’ll appreciate that someone is willing to take the time to listen.
What are some of the ways you make talking to writers a priority in your classroom? Do you have any success stories you’re willing to share? Let me know on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!
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