Friday, January 26, 2018

Conferring with Writers

To disturb or not to disturb (with the offer to confer)--that is the question.

I have a perennial issue with myself: I keep making excuses for not conferring with students as they write.
The excuses range from “They look so focused, I really shouldn’t interrupt them” to “What if there’s nothing to talk about?” Ten months ago I blogged about the excitement of overcoming those excuses in “An Introvert Learns to Love Writing Conferences,” and I thought I had—learned to love writing conferences. But this year again I’ve been finding excuses to avoid them. 

Last week I bit the bullet and tried again, and again, wonderful opportunities for addressing individual concerns blossomed. All I did was come alongside students as they were drafting a poetry analysis of self-selected song lyrics and ask, “How’s it going? Any questions or difficulties?” Here are some of the responses I got:
  • I’m having trouble finding a secondary source. Is an interview with Paul McCartney a secondary source? (This lead to a discussion of what a secondary source is and how it can change—if you were writing a biography of McCartney, an interview with him would be a primary source; but since you’re analyzing the poetry of one of his songs, the lyrics themselves are the primary source, and anything he says about them is a secondary source.  So yes, that interview is a great secondary source!)
  • Could I get another copy of that mentor piece to check how to do poetry citation? (This one didn’t call for a conversation, just a resource—but it told me where that writer was focused, and that he could identify his next step and knew where to get help.)
  • I’m just writing down all the thoughts I had. (This lead to a discussion of writing process—how some people are planners who spend a lot of time in outlines, and some are gushers who spend a lot of time reworking what they’ve said into coherence—and the necessity of understanding the pros and cons of each and monitoring what works best for you. After all, as I wrote two weeks ago, for many of us, bad first drafts are our allies against our internal editors.)
  • I’m having trouble with the Biblical metanarrative part. (Funny story here: I thought she was asking for a different type of help than she was. I should have followed up with a question: “What do you have so far? What is your trouble?” Instead, I jumped in with suggestions of what I saw in my brief scanning of the lyrics. She countered with, “I kind of saw it differently.” And then explained her take. I said, “If you can support and explain it, go for it.”)
Only one student responded that she was doing fine and had no questions. Lamely (this is the part I’d been dreading) I countered, “Are you sure?” She nodded firmly. So I quietly withdrew and drifted awkwardly to the next student. I’m actually amazed that this only happened once. And maybe that’s okay—students need to be able to tell me they are in the zone and interruption won’t help. 

But in addition, it was entirely my fault. Ten months ago, in that blog I wrote, I told myself exactly how to prepare for those times a student didn't have a question burning a hole in his pocketprepare a fall-back list of my own questions. Have I done that? No. But I did just go back and read that blog, and I can at least start with the list I already had for myself there, but had forgotten about:
  • 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?

Then I'd also advised myself to look up more questions in some of my writing workshop books. Some more advice I still need to take.

What questions do you ask students in writing conferences?

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