Photo credit: Alexis Brown
Nothing screams “over the hill” quite like hearing you need hip surgery. A few years back, I learned the cause of some intense pain I was having—a bone spur and cartilage tear—and I discovered the solution was a procedure only performed by a small, specialized group of surgeons around the country. Of those surgeons, my primary care physician advised me, I should select the one with the most experience. “You want the surgeon who has done the procedure thousands of times, with so much motor memory that he could do it in his sleep.” Apparently, I wanted a hip-mending machine—someone with a keen eye who could diagnose each condition in a flash and perform every intricate repair with automaticity. Forget about personality and bedside manner. Experience is what matters.
Lately, I’ve begun wondering: Is it the same with teaching writing? As a veteran teacher, I’ve been thinking about the role experience plays in teaching writing, and I’m starting to wonder if all my years reading, responding, and conferring are a help or a hindrance. The expertise that’s grown out of all that feedback isn’t exactly the problem; it’s just that I’ve been noticing those past conferences visiting me in the present, conjuring up old narratives and knowledge, making it hard to respond to the text right in front of me.
Experience may be the best teacher, but does it get in the way of some of the best teaching?
In my action research as a Heinemann Fellow, I’ve been exploring ways to build a “culture of revision” with my writing students—an atmosphere of experimentation, positive risk-taking, and a desire to make meaningful changes even “after the end.” I’ve been reflecting on the ways my teaching practices and language can create—or undercut—this culture. As part of my research, I’ve begun to take a hard look at the way I confer.
When I was a novice teacher reading a student’s draft, I knew viscerally when a piece of writing struck me because of word choice or ideas, tickled me with its unexpected humor or turn-of-phrase. But in my inexperience, I couldn’t always articulate what made one piece so powerful, or why another fell short. I couldn’t always put my finger on why or how a draft wasn’t working—or how to help my students move forward. To be truthful, there are times when I still don’t, but nearly twenty years later and countless conferences under my belt, I have thousands of drafts and interactions to draw from. It sounds like a tremendous resource, but at times it also feels like a burden.
When I’m sitting down at a conference or quietly reading a student’s piece, I find my mind veers immediately to what needs to be fixed. I’m not talking about sirens blaring from my inner “grammar police” but how, as I read my students’ writing, my brain slips into “revision-diagnoser” mode. Like a seasoned doctor scanning over the subtleties of an x-ray for any issues, my mind races to the spots on the page that need revision—precisely because of the many similar issues I’ve encountered in the past. When I come across an area that needs revision—an unengaging lead, confusing description, event out of sequence, scene that desperately screams out for dialogue—it’s hard to turn off that part of my brain. I can feel the heaps of suggestions and strategies garnered over the past two decades rising up to my lips as I sit down with the new draft before me.
Of course, I don’t give voice and free reign to this chorus of comments; I’ve always tried to begin my student conferences by highlighting something positive that’s working in the piece—or, better yet, getting my students to notice and name what’s going well. Even still, I wonder if my experience-laden brain is making it hard to see with fresh eyes and to spot, in the words of Katherine Bomer, the hidden gems in my students’ writing as much as the shortcomings.
So what’s a teacher to do? How can we read our students’ writing harnessing the wisdom of experience without being weighed down by it? How can we avoid the rush to diagnose but still offer sage suggestions to help our young writers? There are no easy answers, but these questions and my research this year has led me to make some significant changes in the ways I confer, namely:
- Slowing down and reading less. Over the past several years, I had begun to notice some unsettling shifts in the ways I gave students feedback. They were submitting pieces to me on GoogleDrive, and, in the interest of time and efficiency, I was reading and responding more online, at home, and on my own. I would read students’ pieces during my free periods and at night after my own children were in bed. Chugging away on G-Drive, I was getting to more drafts and typing my comments far more quickly than I ever could respond in person. It sounded good in theory, but it was a myth of productivity. I was giving dozens of my reactions (positives, questions, and suggestions) in the margins of my students’ GoogleDocs—feeling quite satisfied as new comment bubbles popped up, like hydra heads—but it wasn’t having a noticeable impact on their revision.
My comments were (seemingly) ignored by my writers, or they had that glazed, overwhelmed look as they stared up from their overfilled screens. I was “getting to” many more writing pieces, but I wasn’t comfortable with the distance and isolation this put me from my writers. Just as bad, it seemed ineffectual. I was learning—and still am—that giving feedback is not the same as having a meaningful conference.
So, even though I can respond to more drafts on my own, I’m asking myself to slow down and confer one-on-one—in class—with my writers. I’m giving less feedback in isolation and instead asking each student to read me their piece out loud (though often it’s just a part of the draft). At points during the conference, I “press pause” and simply tell each writer what’s going on with me as a reader—my thoughts, responses, and questions. Here’s what I’m thinking as a reader right now. Here’s what I’m anticipating, feeling, and wondering (and here’s where you, the writer, set me up to think this). I want them to know places that delight me, where I’m drawn in and can’t wait to hear what’s next—and those spots where I’m suddenly lost or confused. Responding like a reader is reinforcing a key piece about revision I want my students to grasp: that there is an inherent relationship—a lifeline—between the writer and reader.
I’m also giving myself permission to read less. If my students are truly embracing a culture of revision, I can’t possibly read and respond to all the drafts they’re generating. When I’m conferring in class, there often isn’t enough time to discuss an entire piece, beginning to end. I’m not reading every rewrite or even piece of writing, and I’m making peace with this. Rather than trying to “get to” each and every piece, as if I’m ticking off a to-do list, I’m trying to connect with every writer. I’m trusting—and seeing—that our one-on-one conferences are far more powerful than me clicking away comments in isolation.
- Conferring with an itch and a scratch in mind. By conducting my conferences in class and giving my feedback in person, I hope to show my students the invisible thread that connects them, the writer, and me, the reader. I want them to understand that when they “tug” on the line—when they make each move as a writer—they prompt a reaction in the reader. When Haley writes a scene in her memoir describing her elderly dog acting strangely sluggish, it sends signals to me that something might be terribly wrong with her pet. She’s got me hooked (and worried), and I notice and name the lines she wrote that evoke this response. When her story takes an unexpected detour, I press pause on her read-aloud and let her know that, as a reader, I’m thrown off.
In his book Minds Made for Stories, Tom Newkirk puts it this way: “The writer builds patterns of anticipation and gratification; curiosity and fulfillment; itch and scratch.” My job as a writing teacher, I’ve decided, is to point out to my students the ways they’ve set up an expectation—an itch—in the reader and how they might satisfy this. In my conferences, I’m trying to illuminate what’s happening with me as a reader as I’m hearing the piece, moment by moment; in the words of Peter Elbow, I’m trying to give my students “movies” of my reading. For the places in the writing where I’m confused or where my attraction has waned—where the itch hasn’t been scratched—it also gives me an authentic opportunity to offer a suggestion or two.
Ultimately, I want my students to anticipate how they, as readers, would receive their own piece, line by line. I want them to learn to continually shift from their writer self—trying out different stylistic moves—to their reader self—taking in each sentence as if it was new. This is no small feat—like an actor pivoting back and forth on stage, jockeying between two roles at once. With this in mind, I’m trying, through conferences, to model that reader voice for my students. By slowing down, having my students read their pieces aloud, and sharing my genuine reactions in the moment, I’m hoping to underscore the connection between writer and reader for my students. And if their responses are any indication, the outlook is promising.
When I surveyed them at the end of last year, the great majority of my fifth graders answered that conferring was the piece of our writing workshop that helped them the most to revise. Conferring “gave me a second view on my work and helped me make things more clear,” said Olivia, speaking for many classmates. “It may be clear to me since I was there, but to readers it may be confusing.” Ethan wrote, “Conferences gave me more to write about, and a reader’s view.” In Pranav’s reflections, he said conferences with teachers and peers helped him most because he “got pen-striking questions.” Pranav, and many of his classmates, left conferences this year with his pen literally hitting the paper—eager to make changes and revise after hearing his readers’ thoughts. As the year progressed, my students came to recognize that their choices as writers have power and will elicit reactions in us as readers. They took in their audience’s reactions—the reader’s view—and left motivated to try something new.
This shift in my conferences is one of the ways I’m seeing a culture of revision take shape in my classroom—in my students’ positive attitudes, sense of agency, and risk-taking with their writing. If experience has taught me anything, that’s something to keep striving for.
Chris is a 2016-2018 Heinemann Fellow. Chris engages his middle school students by incorporating meaningful projects to “focus their learning across subject areas.” Their inquiry often incorporates town landmarks or local historical areas as expedition projects for his students, which he says brings students closer to their community.