Friday, March 3, 2017

An Introvert Learns to Love Writing Conferences

I dread conferring with students over writing. 

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in it. Conferring is important. It’s paying attention. It’s differentiation. It’s assigning value to the task, the skill, the content, the writer, and the classroom writing community.

But I’m an introvert and a slow, careful, deep thinker. What if I go around to talk to each student, and I can’t think of anything to say? (It’s been a conversational bugaboo for me from way back: “How are you?” “Fine.” “You?” “Fine.” Awkward silence ensues.)

I believe in giving students time to write in class. Time is value: I give class time to what I value. It also gives “coaching” time: I’m available to answer questions as students tackle the assignment. So I walk around as they write, available. The problem is, students don’t always ask the questions they have, even when they know they have them. Then there are all the questions they don’t know they have. I need to probe. But I look at them hard at work and think, “Will I have something to offer them that is worth interrupting their writing?”

This week I mustered my courage and did it. And I was glad I did. I went from desk to desk as they bent over their notebooks or computers, and I had a brief conversation with each student about his or her writing. So I’m putting together my thoughts on a pattern or ideas for topics, so it’s a little easier for me next time.

First, and this goes back to planning the unit, teach specific writing skills and strategies with each piece of writing. Then the conference is a perfect time for a bit of formative assessment before even coming to a draft. 

Our assignment topic was a speech on how to build community. The strategies we were targeting were tailoring a speech to the audience and occasion (writer’s pick), and using specific examples or anecdotes to connect to the audience emotionally so we have their attention for our ideas (see Talk Like TED chapter 2 “Master the Art of Storytelling” and Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk that it references, this NPR article, and David Foster Wallace’s commencement address “This Is Water”).

“So, how’s the writing going?” might be the most natural opener, but only a couple of students have the confidence, personality, and level of writing metacognition to answer anything after, “Fine.” A few do. One asked how to cite sources in a speech, which led to a good conversation about audience and purpose—if, given your audience and purpose, it lends weight to your speech, say it. If your suicide statistics are from the World Health Organization in 20016, let your audience know you are current and credible! If it’s not weighty in that way, keep it in your in-text citation and Works Cited page in case of follow-up questions.

But I’d better have a follow-up question ready. One designed to see how students are doing on the targeted and taught skills and strategies. This time it was, “What audience and occasion did you pick?” The answers I got from second semester juniors ranged from their class if they got nominated for president next year, to a language class at the end of the year about how and why to use what they’ve learned, to a graduation address at the end of next year. They’d all gotten that bit of the prompt.

Some possible next questions: 
  • “What’s your thesis?” (generic, something they first learned in elementary school, but are always forgetting and always deepening the sophistication of their understanding of); 
  • “Tell me about one specific example or anecdote you’ve used” (specific to what was targeted in this assignment); 
  • “What’s come easiest for you in this assignment, and what are you struggling with?” (generic, and often uncovers important understandings and misunderstandings).

To that last question, one student answered, “I have all my information, I just can’t decide what order to put it in.” I summarized for her the exercise we’d just done in 10th grade (I blogged about it last week) and asked if she’d like some notecards. “Yes, please—five,” she answered.

With a student who had been absent the day before, I had the chance to catch her up on what she had missed. 

With another student, I discovered that something I hadn’t thought was effective (showing the David Foster Wallace speech) was her guiding star, and she had already read her speech to her parents. We had a conversation about when it is okay to not be explicit about a Biblical perspective when it would alienate part of our audience at a given occasion.

I know I have books on writing workshop that have lists of questions. I need to go back and compile them. For now, my list is…
  • How’s the writing going?
  • Question about a specific skill/strategy taught, like “What’s your audience and occasion?” or “Tell me about a specific example/anecdote you used.”
  • What’s your thesis? 
  • What has come easily?
  • What are you struggling with?

What questions do you ask students in writing conferences?

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