Jorge jiggled his knee as I read over his story, his anxiety palpable. “It’s just… I mean… I know there’s a lot,” he said as he raked his hand through his spiky hair for the third time in as many minutes. He was right. By the end of the first page I counted at least eight characters and four drastically different settings. For feedback, I told him two things. First, that as a reader I was having a hard time figuring out who to focus on. Then I told him to listen as I read his story back to him. Which part of his story excited him the most? He zeroed in on a character (Tommy and his magical Book of the Dead) and left the conference with a more manageable scope to his story.
The rest of last week’s story conferences proceeded along similar routes. Sometimes the feedback was easy: insert a piece of dialogue that foreshadows the character’s conflict. Other times, it wasn’t. Helping writers nurture their strengths is a complex constellation of skills that I will probably never master. Anytime I felt stymied, I reached for Angela Stockman‘s fantastic Talking with Writers 2018. Talking with Writers devotes a section to responding to common problems in student writing. The strategy I used with Jorge came from Stockman’s work.
The ease with which I was able to apply this type of “See X? Try Y!” logic to student writing took me by surprise. As a committed member of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I’ve always advocated for the power of writing alongside my students. And, following the work of Paul Thomas, I’ve also labored to try and become a scholar of writing. I’ve pursued composition pedagogy and history, written blog posts, and lead in-service trainings about the importance of knowing your theory.
However it wasn’t my understanding of composition or my status as a writer that helped me help my students. At least, I don’t think it was. Framed by schooling’s twin ideologies of efficiency and outcomes, every conference was compact and results oriented. Here’s what I see; here’s where you need to go; here’s a strategy to get you there. Does being a teacher of writing who writes provide any sort of advantage in this situation? Is this even the question to ask?
Normally, if my students are writing, so am I. It’s become an important part of my practice. It reminds me that writing exists outside of high-stakes accountability and the testing trap. It shows me that writing cannot be contained by formulaic essay constructions or meaningless assignments. But this method of instruction takes time, a teacher’s most valued currency. Every minute I spend writing alongside students is a minute I don’t have to confer with them.
During this last realistic fiction unit I chose not to write with them. I went with the more common alternative: work on something at home and bring it in as an example. I had more time to meet with my students, but I also felt disconnected, like a detached head floating above my students.
The debate over how best to spend class time isn’t new. In 1990, Karen Jost set off a firestorm within the secondary Language Arts community by arguing that the cost of writing with students outweigh the benefits. Students are best served by a teacher who meets with them and provides feedback, not by a teacher who labors over their own manuscripts. Jost lists the dizzying array of duties administrators and families expect of secondary teachers. With this list in mind, it is hard to imagine how teachers can confer with students, give daily instruction, provide written feedback, attend school functions, etc. and still find the time to sit down and write.
Ideally, we would do both. We would workshop their pieces with our students, in the process modelling authentic purposes, purposeful revision, and the writing life. As we did this, we would confer with students and do our best to guide them through the infinite complexity of composition. But there is not enough time to do both.
There is no answer. Or if there is, I don’t know it. But I do know that what we do shows what we value. The pedagogies we enact are inextricably linked to who we are as teachers, writers, and professionals. We make sure to share our reading lives with students. We give book talks, do read alouds, and converse with our kids about the books that matter to us. Can we say the same about our lives as writers?