Category: Responding

Conferring with Writers

Whenever I plan for writing conferences, my mind conjures up images of a Nancy Atwellian wonderland. Students laugh as we share humorous anecdotes about writing and life. Kids lounge on lush carpeting, lost in the pleasure of working on their pieces as they patiently wait their turn. Every student is smiling and every pencil is writing.

In reality, conferring with students about their writing is one of the most challenging things I do as an educator. My overstuffed classroom is filled with kids who scrape out two sentences a week jostling elbows with future Jason Reynoldses and J.K. Rowlingses. Also, the recursive nature of writing is at odds with the linear logic of most unit planning, so managing conference time within an at least semi-coherent sequence of planning, drafting, and revising. And any time I feel like I’m getting into the flow of it, a picture day/assembly/drill/band concert barges in.

On top of this, most kids come to the classroom convinced that writing is boring. That it’s a useless regurgitation of opinions and stories long calcified in their brains. Where’s the rubric? How many pages do I have to write? How can I get an A? I don’t fault them for this. It’s a logical response and it’s how you play the game of school.

When I do manage to make writing conferences work, it’s glorious. My approach to writing conferences aims for a middle ground blending a contemporary skills based approach with classic expressivism.

Peter Elbow’s 1973 classic Writing Without Teachers argues that when it comes to responding to student writing, traditional teachers are the worst. Elbow says that students need feedback that comes from readers, not teachers. Readers approach a text for pleasure and meaning. What effect do the words have on them? What do they wish the author did more or less of? What questions does the text leave them with?

He contrasts this to the traditional teacher, someone who experiences the text through the fragmented lens of assessing discrete skills and hunting for errors. Does the story effectively use dialogue not at all, some of the time, or most of the time? Do the student’s word choices nearly meet, meet, or exceed the expectations?

I begin a conference by reading a student’s piece quietly out loud to them. I make sure to display genuine engagement with and wonder about each piece. This takes practice. It’s been essential to my pedagogical spirit to retrain myself to see student writing as something to be enjoyed versus something to be fixed. I interject anytime I see something that works. A funny piece of dialogue, and suspenseful ending, a strong vocabulary word. Anything that would be useful for the student to do more of. I look specifically for craft moves. Using figurative language, intentional organization, etc.

This is where I try to respond to the piece as a reader. I ask what’s gonna happen next. I tell them what I’m curious about as a reader. What questions I have and what the piece makes me think about and feel.

Then I leave the student with one specific thing to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as “keep writing!” Other times it’s more targeted. “It looks like you’re ready to turn those stage directions into punctuated dialogue! Why don’t you review the dialogue punctuation handout I gave you on Monday?” This is where the direct object of teaching comes in. I’m teaching the students to do something besides just increasing their composition fluency.

On the best of days I can meet with around five kids per 42 minute class. After class I write down what I saw in each kid’s draft and what I told them to do. I’ve tried various documentation methods and this is what works best for me. The process of documenting a conference as it’s happening slows me down too much and breaks up the flow.

Students tell me that conferences help them improve as writers more than anything else we do in class. I never get to meet with every student during each assignment, but I do my best. Just like teaching, conferences are a messy dialogue between teacher and student, a challenging process that requires time, engagement, and reflection. But the juice is always worth the squeeze.

Beyond Socratic Seminars and Essential Questions: The Importance of Student Generated Questions – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 14

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

Today’s second presentation comes from Steph Lima. It explains how to use student-centered questions in the classroom.


Quickwrite: Write about your  successes and challenges with either small and / or large group discussions. 

Oh, boy. Discussion is something that I really need to work on. I’m acceptable at it, but nowhere near great. Right now I can only think of my deficits in this area. I need to work on finding the right balance of creating guiding questions and having a direction in mind vs. allowing a discussion to grow organic legs that allow it to move wherever. I know that it helps to write out a few sequenced questions before hand, to frame questions in affective ways, to begin with real-life scenarios, and to summarize/paraphrase student responses, and to help connect students to each other during the discussion. Perhaps some of my weakness comes from my fear of sustaining a whole class discussion for any length of time. I’m always so afraid children will get squirrely and bored and that the introverts will disappear.

We share out. Someone talks about how their own school experiences played a role in this. This gets me thinking. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I felt confident participating in a large scale conversation. This also relates to a larger feeling of alienation that I experience whenever talking about academic/intellectual things.

Stephanie tells us about the origin of her presentation. She was unsatisfied with the quality of student discourse, and she felt she was enabling it. Heads are nodding. She decided to revamp how she approached class discussion. She divided questions into three types:


She spent time with students going over questions, writing them, and categorizing questions that students brought in. This reminds me of the importance, again, of modeling and teaching the academic moves we expect children to do. Asking questions and conversing is actually a complex skill, one that requires multiple layers of cognition.

After students brought in their self-generated questions, they took turns passing them around, reading each other’s questions, and annotating. Then Steph had the students pick a few questions that weren’t theirs to answer in writing. Students then picked one of their answers to discuss with the small group. Then, after that, she opened it up to the whole class. By talking it out in small groups first, every student went into the whole-group with a variety of talking points. The power of constructivism!

Now it’s our turn. Steph passes out copies of “The School Children” by Louis Gluck. She says it offers a rich variety of analyses.


We read twice and then annotate for whatever we notice. Next we write as many questions as we can, keeping the previous levels in mind. After that we write our best two on sticky notes and put them in a pool on our group’s table. We pick two (that aren’t ours!) and then write answers to them. No one is speaking yet. After writing, then we begin sharing out our questions and answers with our group members. Holy smokes this poem is amazing!


This reminds me of a) the value of writing before discussing and b) how this sort of ‘write questions – put them in the center for everyone’ technique can be way more useful than ‘everyone look at each other and brainstorm out loud.’ This way there’s less pressure and I can come up with ideas at my own pace and even pick out from among my ideas the best ones to share out. Each group discusses. Zone of Proximal Development in full effect!

We share out. Many of us cry out to hear what the poem is “about.” Steph wisely stays mum on the subject. We often tell children “it’s not about the answer.” We must resist this temptation ourselves. Steph ends by telling us she has the kids write about and reflect on why they chose the questions they did, and etc. This approach was way more generative than her previous discussion techniques.


I cannot WAIT to do this next school year.


If I Stuck a Camera into Your Brain, What Would I See? Responding to Literature

In this series of lessons I attempt to apply Peter Elbow’s writing response techniques (previously mentioned in posts like this one) to help students respond to literature. Elbow’s response types require different modes of thinking; by combining them, my hope is that the final product helps students exercise a variety of aesthetic/cognitive muscles. The idea here is to train their attention to the creative world lurking beneath the material of the page. To try and guide each student’s perception to engage with an author’s words and ideas.

Below you’ll find a copy of my own response page. I chose to respond to Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect, a wonderful new volume of essays devoted to education and caring. Although my own students wouldn’t be able to access the text (I don’t know too many 7th graders interested in the ethics of neoliberalist ed reform), I didn’t want to phone it in. The more seriously I took the assignment, I figured, the more prepared I would be to help.


The Process
Students began this process by selecting a page from their independent novel. They spent time in class figuring out what it is they look for in a book. Students listed elements such as humor, action, character development, and interesting dialogue.

With this list front and center, students went off to read. I made sure to provide ample in-class time for reading. Every time students found a potential page to use they inserted a strip of paper as a placeholder and kept reading. After three consecutive days of in-class reading, each student had at least two options for choosing a response. Once students settled on a page, they shared it with me and I printed them out.

Students spent the next 2-3 days drafting their four response types. Again, although I’ve spoken about these response types before, here’s a short rundown.

1. Skull Penetrations: What word/phrase from the page penetrates your skull? Why? This is a good chance to work with students on summarizing (this is what the phrase is and means) and analysis (this is why it was so affecting).

2. Center of Gravity: What’s the main idea of the page? What idea or event seems to be at the center, pulling everything else towards it? What do a majority of the details lean towards?

3. Analogy: I love analogies. A lot. Students had to pick something to compare their page with. How is the page like a sport? What about an article of clothing or type of food? Students always struggle with analogies; and for good reason, they can get pretty abstract pretty quickly. Although they’re easy to scaffold on the spot (helping students list qualities of the page, then seeing what else has those qualities), analogies require a real mental leap of faith.

4. Mind Model: This is an illustration of what happens to a student while he or she reads the page. I tell them to imagine I’m sticking a camera into their brain while they read it. What would I see? The key here is differentiating between drawing the page vs. drawing your reaction to the page. This nuanced difference takes time to develop. I struggled with it myself.

Before students turned to their own page, we practiced each of the response types using a page from the fantastic Y.A. novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. I found a good page, cleaned it up a little, and added a few parts to make sure it was rich enough for each response. By using a shared text and practicing each response one at a time, every student in the class heard twenty different skull penetrations, saw twenty different mind models, etc.

After that, students worked on their own page. I spoke with them individually and did my best to push their thinking. I also created slides such as the following to help students think through the response types.

Help Page 1

The Results
Below are a handful of images I took of student work. I tried to capture a representative range of the abilities present in each of my classrooms.

The Rationale
Not every child takes immediately to the written word. Regardless of how exciting a book is, direct and sustained engagement with a text requires more than simply providing exciting books. I have many students who for various reasons struggle to sustain attention on even the most engaging of books.

I do think that sustained attention is something to be developed. Accessing words and images requires perception, cognition, and the ability to reciprocate with the page. To take what are essentially dead words, flecks of ink arranged in patterns on cheap recycled pulp, and pull them into ourselves. Smarter individuals (Rosenblatt comes to mind immediately, of course) have written much about reader-response theory, and I don’t want to unnecessarily muddy the waters. My point is that developing a relationship with a text is a give-and-take. I hope this lesson works towards that end.

Thanks for reading!