Category Archives: Mentor Texts

Finding a Book to Crawl Into

I’m feeling a bit chaotic lately. The holidays are fast approaching on the personal front, but seemingly retreating on the professional front (we have how many days left until break?!). My reunion tour with freshmen requires more planning and more patience than I fear I have capacity for. My only child status is rearing its ugly head as my Dad prepares to have surgery today for that emperor of all maladies, and my mind is flying to all sorts of outcomes I can’t imagine dealing with right now. Additionally, I’ve decided that with no time and little energy, I’m going to commit myself to the madness that is Orange Theory Fitness and complete workouts that leave my aging limbs in such agony I’m walking down the stairs sideways. I needed the elderly assistance bar in the restroom the other day, friends. It’s been quite a season.

Needless to say, I need some solace (and a full body heating pad). No surprise, I’ve found it recently in books. Here are a few texts that have me feeling beautifully nostalgic, contemplative, and remembering the joy of learning as I try and hold it together on the outside, but not so secretly disappear into books.


Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, an accessible text on turning your writing ambitions into a practice that will bring both joy and fulfillment, has me laughing out loud, recommitting to my own writing life (her recommendation to 3tt5remember the power of short writing assignments make it all seem so…doable!), and finding pearl after pearl to share with my students about moving their own writing forward, specifically memoir.

For example, I can picture several of my students benefiting from Lamott’s advice to remember that perfectionism, both in writing and in life,  “is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Sometimes we all have such struggles letting go, we can’t even get started. We must be willing to release not only the formulas, structures, and sentence starters of writing, but also give ourselves permission to write in a way that brings us joy and releases pain without judgement from inner critics that can crush our work before it begins.

I also can’t let go of what Lamott suggests in being brave enough to write about those experiences that carry weight in our lives. Those memories that crush us beneath the wheels of remembering and try to halt all progress we can make toward a path of personal growth. Far too many of our students have such experiences, and writing about them can help some to process and release.

With a nod to the fears and reluctance that students in her own classes have when it comes to writing about what really matters to them, Lamont suggests that we:

Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on. (Lamott)

Lamott is witty, clever, and real. I plan to pull some sections from this book as mentors for both style and content. This text is a “warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps,” said the Los Angeles Times. I could not agree more.


My love of Anne Shirley was actually born through Canadian actress, Megan Follows. 3tt3The 1985 mini series on the trials and triumphs of fiery tempered Anne was a favorite of my grandmother, and we watched her two tape VHS version together until it literary broke.

Fast forward to today (I couldn’t help myself) when at NCTE in Houston a few weeks back, I found a copy of Sarah McCoy’s recent publication Marilla of Green Gables. I love a good backstory, so to see McCoy’s ideas around how the sometimes prickly Marilla Cuthbert came to be, made me smile. The text takes it’s liberties, and expands on some character traits that reach a bit from who these classic characters were in my mind, but overall it was a nostalgically tender read that took me back to a story I’ve loved since I was a girl. Having found a few Anne fans in my own classes, this is a great text to recommend.


 

Ruth Sepetys Salt to the Sea had me researching the World War II civilian tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff and sharing with my students the power of stories we don’t often hear, because history is too often told only by the voices of the winners.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has become an audiobook I can’t hit pause on.

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris is where I’m heading next.

Which books are you escaping into these days? Please share in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

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Humans of League City

I work with a team of freshman teachers who are experienced, passionate, knowledgeable and, luckily for me, functional.  We collaborate in the creation of lesson plans, lesson cycles, the unending search for mentor texts, and grade calibration. Our collaboration doesn’t just benefit the teaching team; the students are the true beneficiaries of our functionality.

Consider the following:

Our goal was to take the hard work and struggle that our kids overcame as they learned about expository writing and literary analysis and have them turn that lens back onto themselves.

We spent the last forever working on pulling issues, claims, and evidence from the writing of others, how could we do turn that around and invest it in ourselves?

Enter: Humans of New York, an idea brought up by colleague, Austin,  at our team planning day. The idea was that we would work through the exploration of expository writing by having students interview and then write about a human in their life.

Lesson Cycle 1

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use specifically selected issues to support their claim.

  1. Reading
  2. Dear World Video
  3. Respond to the video- Write for three minutes. I wanted them to get the emotional response out and onto the page because it’s important, but not the focus of our lesson.
  4. Question 1 – Why do issues matter?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  5. Question 2 – Why is it important that we identify issues important to us?
    • Take one lap around your group sharing your response.
    • Write for three minutes, sharing your response.
  6. Seed writing: Tell me about issue you care about enough to write on your skin. This is an extending time for writing, something in which I strongly believe.

Lesson Cycle 2

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use craft to strengthen their expository argument.

  1. Reading
  2. Poet moment, I wanted to get their minds set.
  3. Read two HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence and think about how those the author expresses those ideas.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about a human you know along the same lines as what you saw in the Humans of New York mentor texts.

Lesson Cycle 3

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that writers use stories to advocate.

  1. Reading
  2. Euripides Excerpt (7 minutes total)
    • Read and show your thinking.
    • Respond using the sentence stem: This piece is really about…
  3. Read two more HONY examples, look for issues, claims, and evidence.
  4. Seed Writing – Tell me about: A different human than yesterday, a different story about the same human as yesterday, or yourself.

Honestly, these lessons look a lot like most of the lessons that find their way into my classroom.  These are the structures with which my students have become accustomed.  If you look closely, in three days, the kids wrote for over an hour, experienced five mentor texts (and a video) and talked… a lot!

Oh, and throughout these three days, I hardly sat down.  I made it around to every student at least once and worked beside them through the process.

This doesn’t just happen “sometimes” in my classroom.  Truthfully, the functionality of the team I get to be a part of promotes this level of complexity because none of us are going at this alone.  We work together, and as a result, the kids win.  I love watching kids win.

Charles Moore likes learning about humans, even if they don’t love the Dallas Cowboys.  He loves moving students through moves that unveil their literacy. He’s pretty worn out from the multiple Robotics practices he helps supervise, but he’s learned exactly how much work he can complete in three hours. He’s excited to co-present at NCTE and to receive his first solo invitation to present at TCTELA in 2019.

Less Really is More

Any English teacher who has seniors this year or who had juniors last year or who ever gave useful feedback to any student at any grade knows the feeling of this time of year: It’s early-deadline-week in the college application season, which means most/many seniors are in the throes of essay anxiety. Much of their stress — and the stress of any of us called upon to assist in this process — arises from the arbitrary word-count limit which, depending on the school and the prompt, can range from 30 words to 650, the latter being the upper limit of the Common App essay.

If we stay true to the process theories of mentors like Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, and Penny Kittle — among so many others too numerous to name — we tell students to address word count limitations only in the final stages of the process. Every year, we all hear the same concern, some version of the following:

“Thanks for the feedback, and it really makes a lot of sense, but I’m already past the word limit so there’s no way I can add anything.”

Scissors-May2Students wish for us to tell them what to cut out before the essay has even been developed, before the central story has been identified and fleshed out to its most meaningful degree. Mariana and I brag to students about our 100% success rate in revising with students to pare down their college essays to within the word count:  possibly the ONLY 100% success rate we can boast. Still, this critical skill of letting go what isn’t needed in the writing — which also, 100% of the time, results in a cleaner, more gratifying piece — is one students still struggle with.

Kristin Jeschke offers hands-on (and fun!) strategies for students to cut out the riff-raff in this post. For our senior writing classes, Mariana and I have found some other useful ways to develop this skill in our aspiring college freshmen, starting last quarter with the 100-word memoir.

imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery-that-mediocrity-can-pay-to-greatness-oscar-wilde-7013bLike all great lesson plans, the 100-word memoir was “borrowed” from Kittle & Gallagher. We didn’t even realize the value of adhering to this limited verbiage until we witnessed students engaging and (willingly) struggling with it. While this exercise doesn’t seem to have been quite enough to provide students with enough strategy to pare down their 1000+-word college essay drafts by almost half during revision, we found the concept of a limited word count so potentially instructive that we have decided to turn it on its head with our seniors in our second quarter fiction-writing unit.

Fiction is driven by conflict, but conflict arises mainly out of character, so we start with brief character sketches, using McSweeney’s satirical versions as mentor texts (warning: a few of these are R-rated for language and adult themes). Students took these short pieces and extrapolated the rest of the iceberg, so to speak, by imagining clothing, favorite media, relationship status, hopes and dreams, and potential conflicts that might arise in the lives of each of these fictional folks. Next, they will develop character sketches of their own, describing the main character of their budding short stories. (To give less fiction-confident students a grounding [and to require all students to build some foundation to a piece of writing that can remain dangerously nebulous throughout the entire process], we required all students to craft the world of the story first, through research and planning. I’m happy to elaborate on this for anyone interested).

I’ll also truncate the entire writing-of-the-short-story for the sake of staying focused on the topic of this post: boiling down the writing to its most essential elements. Rather than scaffolding toward longer, more developed pieces as we did in the narrative (ie “college essay”) unit of quarter one, our third writing endeavor (or “lap” in the language of 180 Days) will be to pare down their 1500+-word short story to, say, 250 or less.

the-flash-hates-flash-fiction-2To heighten the deletion and word-choice challenge — and, more importantly to encourage students to boil down prose (their own and others’) to its very essence — one might consider “hint fiction.” I plan to try the strategy with my AP students, asking them to boil down the essence of a complicated argument presented in a text, using limited words to still capture the nuance of a complex argument. In fact, in a late-Sunday-night-lesson-plan-panic, I think I’ll have them do just that this week with Arthur Miller’s article “Why I Wrote The Crucible.” So much of AP Language & Composition depends on seeing just how much depends on that red wheelbarrow of nuance, and this exercise can develop the skill of precision in identifying argument. We’ll see.

buried-under-paper (1)In the meantime, though, I can feel the value of requiring shorter work for both us and our students, on so many levels: precision in word choice, saying more with less (vocabulary development); eliminating redundancy (sentence variation / sentence combining); not to mention the refinement and clarity of ideas that is required to say what you mean with an extremely limited word count. Not to mention the exquisite beauty of conferring on 100 focused words as opposed to 1000+.

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

10-768x384

Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Every Child Matters and Sharing the Stories that Matter

residential-school-books-display_origEarlier this week we observed Orange Shirt Day at my school. Orange Shirt day is a day to recognize, remember, and reflect on the many Indigenous children who were taken away from their homes to live in residential schools. The residential school system has a dark legacy in Canada and the United States and the after effects still ripple through Indigenous communities today. In fact, the last residential school located in Saskatchewan did not close its doors until 1996 – a fact that is always shocking to my students when I share it with them.

The tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters and it is a tagline that has resonated with me as I participated in Orange Shirt Day, as we ran in the Terry Fox run as a school to raise money for cancer research, and as I plan with my student council for National Coming Out day on October 11th. While we promote the message that Every Child Matters and we hope our students feel that way as they leave our classrooms, the reality is that in the current world political climate and with the news stories our students are surrounded with each day, it is so easy for our female students, our LGBTQ students, our minority students, our refugee students, or any of our students who feel a little different to feel like they do not matter.

Last year I had the privilege of seeing author Thomas King speak at a conference. Thomas King is an American-Canadian First Nations author who has written numerous novels dealing with the First Nations experience. In his session, King was asked if he believed that story has the power to enact change in the world and his answer resonated with me. King answered that if you had asked him that question years ago, he would have answered with a firm yes, but now that he is older, he can not answer the same way. He was, like so many First Nations people, angry and fed up with the government’s inaction to follow through with promises they had made during the last election. He said that story is powerful, but often not enough and sometimes you just need to get angry and speak your mind. His final point was that if you are going to use story to change the world, you better find those voices that are strong, angry, and give voice to the voiceless because those are the stories with power.

King’s answer has stuck with me as I feel like too often I have used the empty platitude that “stories can change the world” with my students, but then I look at the stories they are being shared and the voices are often so heterogenous and not reflective of their voices and their concerns.

So, I have started a quest to diversify the stories I introduce to my students and to find those angry voices, those suppressed voices, and the voices that speak for them. In this post I will introduce you to a few of these powerful stories and will share others I discover in later blog posts.

The Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King

This powerful work is King’s reflection on what it means to be Native in modern North American. He discusses the historical events that have so impacted his people, but also ruminates on how popular culture has served to frame the narrative that many First Nations people are stuck in. King does not shy away from exploring the darker parts of history in this work, so it would be most suitable for Grades 10-12 students.

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ngozi Adichie’s name may sound familiar. Perhaps you have seen her powerful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story  (I love to use this TED talk to spark discussion about the missing voices), or have read her beautiful novel Half a Yellow Sun. Her work We Should All Be Feminists is a short piece, an extended essay, but it is an important exploration of the need for Feminism in the 21st century and how 21st century feminism must be one of inclusion and awareness. In fact, the Swedish government felt that this book held such an important voice for today’s youth that in 2015 they decided to give every 16 year old in their country a copy. We have used this book with Grades 8-12 students at our school and how found content accessible to all age levels in the range.

These are just two of many amazing books that share the voices and stories of people with powerful and important messages. Over the next few months, I will share some more I have come across and I would love it if you could share some of your own suggested titles in the comments below!

To read more about harnessing student voice in a time of political unrest and fear, check out Lisa Dennis’ powerful post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently on a quest to help empower student voice through reading and writing and welcomes any suggestions you may have in regards to either.  Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

So many thoughts came up as I read Maggie’s post last week, the same day the American people, indeed the whole world, had a chance to witness our judicial process unfold in TheCrucible_940x470-678x381real time. My very first thought was, “I’m going to read The Crucible aloud with my AP students, too.” Miller’s play is one of the core texts of the junior English curriculum. Having promised myself that this year, I intended to provide my AP students with as much of the RWW as I could while still “covering” everything, this idea was perfect.

the-crucible-3360718-59ac57cf0d327a0011aa0fe9My next thought … politics. In the play, Reverend Hale is one of the few characters who exhibits any change in thinking. He observes. He listens. He struggles to negotiate his worldview when what he sees and hears doesn’t fit. Reverend Hale — indeed the whole village — experiences the crucible of accusation, doubt, and disintegration.

By definition, a crucible is “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.” The “something new” in Salem? Miller concludes, “To all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”

My hope is that our study of this play will evoke conversation about our current democracy, about whose voices are heard, about whose voices are (at the risk of further mixing david-butow-brett-kavanaugh-senate-vote-friday-1literary allusions) a little more “equal” than others. And how can this “interaction of elements,” lead to the creation of something new, perhaps some power structures that need to be broken? 

So, what to do with this as teachers of writing, and to glean something practical from our own real-time crucible? My students will write an “Open Letter” essay as we study The Crucible to explore concepts of voice and audience. (McSweeney’s is a great source for open letter examples of all kinds. I want to provide an opportunity for them to give voice — their own — to what matters to them, directed to the audience that most needs to listen.

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

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