No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

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The Only Four Questions You’ll Ever Need to Ask Your Writers

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Carl Anderson taught me to begin every writing conference with the simple question, “How’s it going?”

I love this question for two reasons: it’s a question we ask our colleagues, our friends, and our family members when we want to know how they are doing. In other words, it’s an authentic question that shows we care. Secondly, it puts the onus on students to determine the focus of the writing conference. There is no hidden agenda behind the question, “How’s it going?” It simply means, “How are things going for you in your writing?”

I typically ask this question at the beginning of a writing conference. I pull my stool up to the writer’s desk and lean in: How’s it going? 

It can also be useful on mid-process writing reflections. Sometimes, in the middle of a study, I ask my students to spend a few minutes telling me about their writing. I want them to share what they are currently working on in their notebooks, what their next steps are, and in general, how their writing is going. This question invites them to say anything – anything – about their writing. What a student chooses to talk or write about can be very telling.

Recently I have been thinking about the other questions I ask my student writers and which ones are the most fruitful. Here they are:

2. Can you say more about that?

Why it’s a great question:

I use this question all the time. From writing conferences to Socratic Seminars, this is the best way to help students elaborate. For example:

Teacher: How’s it going?

Student: Good.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: I’m working on my ending.

Teacher: How’s the ending going?

Student: It’s okay.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: It’s not very strong right now. I don’t know how to end it. 

Teacher: Can you read a little of your ending out loud…?

 

This question is like a gentle prod in the writer’s mind. It’s much gentler than, “Can you elaborate?” but more effective than accepting a writer’s one-word response (Good.) and moving on. It invites the writer to step back from his work and reflect on what he’s doing.

When to use it:

  • When a student gives one-word answers or is having trouble talking about his writing.

What it can do for students:

  • It holds students accountable for being able to talk about their work and explain why they are doing something.
  • It emphasizes the skill of elaboration in communication — not just in writing, but in verbal communication, too.
  • It cues the student to talk while still allowing the student to decide what to focus on in the conference.

3. Would you consider trying [x technique]?

Why it’s a great question:

I’m not sure where I picked up this question stem, but in my experience, it’s the nicest way to suggest to a writer that she try something in her writing. It’s the way I teach my students to give each other feedback on their writing.

Teacher to student, it’s much better than:

  • I’d like to see you [insert x technique].
  • I think you should [insert x technique].

With these questions, the teacher has an idea about the student’s writing, and s/he would like him to try it. The student doesn’t really have a choice. The teacher has the power. Is this how it should be?

When to use it:

  • When the student is struggling with something in her writing.
  • When the student needs a specific strategy in his writing.
  • When a student is ready for a challenge outside of the general class lesson.

What it can do for students:

When we ask a student to consider trying something, we are giving that student a concrete strategy, but the student holds the power. The feedback is framed as a choice, and sometimes students are more willing to try something in their writing when given a choice. When forced to try something, students tend to push back.   It’s important to remember that the writing belongs to the student – he ultimately decides what happens to it.

The word “trying” is important too — it suggests that writer sometimes make revisions that don’t work. In other words, the writer can try something, but if it doesn’t work — if the writer isn’t happy with how it affects his piece — he can go back to a previous version.

 

4. Are you ready to try this?

Why it’s a great question:

I came across this question while reading Carl Anderson’s book on assessing writing. I instantly wrote it in my notebook and pledged to use it during conferences the next day. It made what used to be an awkward moment for me (the goodbye at the end of the conference) fruitful and positive.

When you ask this question, the answer will reveal two things to you: 1) If the writer was listening during the conference and 2) If the writer is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference.

1. If the writer wasn’t listening, she’ll say, “Try what?” And you’ll know that you have more work to do. That the conference isn’t over.

2.If the writer was listening, and is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference, she’ll say “Yes.” And if you coach her a little more, she will often follow up with a specific step, as in, “Yes, I am going to do a little writing in my notebook to find an image I can put at the end of my poem.”

If the writer says, “No,” you have more work to do. The conference isn’t over.

~

There are myriad questions writing teachers can ask their students to learn more about their process. Rebekah wrote an incredible post a while back about the power of the question, “What did you discover today in your writing?”

But it seems that most questions lead back to one of the main four.

And some day, with enough practice under their belts, our students will only need one question: How’s it going?

Because this question seeks everything we need to know about our students as writers — and as human beings.

 

What questions help you communicate with your writers? What questions shut them down and what questions open them out? Please leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.

 

 

Conferring With Writers to Learn What We Don’t Know

Uh oh… My stomach sank, and I could feel the gears inside my head turn on and begin whirring, trying to catch up. Trying to think of the answer. The right answer. Or a good answer. Or any answer.

This right here — this is the risk we run when we commit to conferring with our student writers. They might just stump us with their need-of-the-moment, and we might be stuck in this slightly dizzying improv space as we mentally thumb through every professional book we have ever read, every piece we have ever written, every anecdote we’ve ever been told in search of a solution. This is why conferring was my last hold-out in running a true writing workshop. I was terrified of the unknown.

Zach's BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/zshumate/15-best-football-celebrations-of-all-time-1yhj4#.ud4m2vOVl

Zach’s BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/zshumate/15-best-football-celebrations-of-all-time-1yhj4#.ud4m2vOVl

There had been many of these moments in this workshop. Trying to do something new — branching out into more digital writing — I chose to have students study and write BuzzFeed lists. Anyone can publish to BuzzFeed, and the idea of a student’s list going viral was exciting and motivating. Surely, all of my students read BuzzFeed lists all of the time and will think I am amazingly cool, I reasoned.

Not so much.

Only a handful of my ninth graders had ever seen a BuzzFeed list, and I quickly realized that I was not as prepared to teach them as I thought I was. I had not considered the many decisions that a writer needs to make when publishing one of these lists.   Continue reading

Writing Conference Road-Show (or Small Conferences with Big Payouts)

Writing conferences used to scare me. Big time. In fact, for me, it was the most-dreaded element of reading and writing workshop. How would I even start? What would I say if the student had a question I couldn’t easily answer? Would the other students really be working while I moved around the room discussing individual drafts?

FullSizeRender-9Gentle reader, I am here to tell you that practice makes perfect.

It has taken me nearly five years of practice. Along the way there have been plenty of awkward conferences and ineffective conferences and mental scrambling to try to find the right solution to a writer’s problems. There were times when I left a conference simply saying, “I don’t know, but I’m going to think about it and try to come up with a solution for the next time I see you.”

But I kept at it, and I finally feel truly confident in our daily writing conferences.

Still,  I had never  tackled a larger portfolio conference — a conversation about the body of a students’ writing so far this year.  This is how our Patron Saint of Writing Workshop, Nancie Atwell, assesses student work and helps writers make goals as they move forward.  She says that if we teach writing and reading in a workshop, we “have to figure out how to put students’ appraisals of their work at the heart of the evaluation process. Otherwise, assessment becomes a betrayal of the workshop” (Atwell 2014, p. 282)

Uh oh. I have a lot of room to grow. Feeling that nag  of something you know you should do (but don’t want to),  I dove in (which I find to be the only way to actually try anything in workshop).

I had a few goals as I set out: Continue reading

The Fifth Pillar of Writing Workshop

Lucy Calkins says that kids “need to see their work reach other readers.”

This explains why I spent much of winter break planning and writing posts for the new blog, checking blog stats, and refreshing my Twitter feed. Have my words reached anyone? Have they made a difference?

A blogging neophyte, I had almost forgotten how good it feels to know that someone is listening.

Human beings crave attention, hunger for an audience, yearn for feedback… and even though we may bring excitement and passion and craft to writing instruction, when we fail to provide students with opportunities for publication, we are doing them a major disservice. Let’s face it, when your primary audience is your English teacher (and possibly your dad who was kind enough to proofread your paper before post-dinner tv), the experience of writing is going to lack a certain kind of joy and meaning. Real writers need real readers.

As I participated in a tweet chat earlier in the week, watching the notifications column on Tweetdeck flitter with every new connection made, I thought to myself: I want my students to have this experience, to feel this excited about writing. To know the effects of their words on others.

In order for this to happen in our classrooms, we have to give equal weight to all five pillars of writing workshop: choice, active revision, author craft, broader visions of assessment, and publication (The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks).

Choice lies at the center of our workshop: students discover topics in their notebooks and develop them into fuller pieces. I consistently model active revision and give students two minutes after every quick write to make their writing “a little bit better.” I could survive on a diet of teaching and talking about author craft. I let my students revise all papers until the last day of the school year, demonstrating broader visions of assessment…

But where is the sharing of writing beyond classroom walls? The hope that their words matter to someone? The proverbial retweeting of one another’s work?

While I often end class with a “share out” or golden line activity, or have students “turn and talk” about ideas, or collect favorite pieces for a class anthology at the year’s end, the opportunities my students have for sharing their work with ever-widening audiences are few and far between.

So in an effort to find and create these opportunities for my students, I forge ahead with some resolutions for 2014:

Reaching Readers Within the Classroom

Utilizing writing groups. I want my students to share in groups on a regular basis. The possibilities are limitless: read from a draft, talk about process, brainstorm, troubleshoot, revise collaboratively. As far as a ritual goes, NWP’s bless/press/address provides a good heuristic for helping students talk about their work in meaningful ways. When my students leave me in June, I want them to be able to move forward in their writing without me. So they must begin to do more of the heavy lifting that is conferencing themselves. Additionally, group conferring will build confidence and pave the way for sharing with wider audiences.

Handing over the torch. In the past, I have always found an excuse for why I don’t let students lead workshop: I don’t have a document camera. I don’t want to put students on the spot. I like to know exactly what’s on the menu. I don’t have enough time. Yet I know that I am doing a disservice to my students when I don’t let them take on more of the teaching and coaching of their peers. Conferences provide a perfect opportunity for noticing something a student is doing that is share-worthy (and it’s all share-worthy). These students can then be asked to lead with their process or writing during class the next day.

The future leaders of workshop!

Reaching Readers Beyond the Classroom

Cultivating a digital writing environment (DWE). In his book The Digital Writing Workshop, Troy Hicks notes that the methods teachers have used in the past for helping students share their writing beyond the walls of the classroom are “highly teacher dependent” (80). But with the advent of blogging, Twitter, and other social networking tools, students “now have the ability to publish their work directly to the read/write web” (80). He goes on to remind us that for digital writers “the audience is extended, and students become much more aware, as readers and as writers, of how they both share their work and respond to the work of others” (81). Our DWE will have three parts: blogging, blogfolios, and RSS feed-reading for inspiration. More to come on this experiment in future posts.

Making student processes and experiences available to all. After each genre study, students submit a paper as well as reflection notes. Click here for sample questions. Through these notes, students provide unique insights into the writing process, as well as vivid portraits of themselves as writers. Without a doubt, students would benefit from reading one another’s reflections. I’ve even toyed with the idea of making these reflections available in another medium, in a form that would allow our busy students to listen to one another “on the go” and would showcase the voice of the writer: podcasting! Podcasts could then be linked to finished papers on student blogs.

Until we create and locate opportunities for our writers to reach ever-widening circles of readers, we are only teaching the writing, not the writer. Because a true writer writes to reach.

What opportunities do you provide students to reach authentic audiences? Please respond in the comments section to share your ideas.

~ Allison