By Lauren Nizol
Last year, I met a writer, Michael, (a pseudonym for this post), who struggled to start drafts and would find himself using the last moments of writing time frantically composing. It was not unusual for him to produce little to nothing during writing workshop at the beginning of the year.
The more I got to know Michael, the more I noticed that he was an inherently independent teen. He knew that he needed support to make his writing more connected and fluid, but he didn’t want to have his hand held. He had strong ideas, but sometimes they’d get lost in the typical convention issues. Over the course of the school year, we developed a positive rapport, and we found a way to balance the support he needed with the independence he wanted.
In my role as a literacy interventionist in my building, I work with writers both in and out of their English Language Arts classes. Many times, students on my caseload (this writer included) don’t want to be singled out. That’s why I’d conference around the classroom with other students before meeting with Michael when his teacher invited me to join her on a workshop day. By normalizing a writing conference, he was just another kid in the room talking about their writing. Eventually, Michael would advocate to come to my office for additional support after he learned that our support model was non-threatening, inclusive, and worth his time.
By the end of the year, this writer had blossomed and beamed with pride about a personal narrative. I found myself laughing easily at Michael’s vivid imagery and ability to develop distinctive characters out of his family members. When I touched base with his mom at the start of the next school year, she shared that her son had told her not to worry about his grade in one of his classes because an essay was coming up and writing was his strength.
One way to establish a culture where resistant students are willing to write is through bringing a robust workshop model to your classroom. The writing workshop model has changed the way we have approached teaching writing in the last thirty-some years. Writing workshop includes one-on-one conferences between teacher and writer that can personalize writing instruction to meet virtually every writer’s needs.
Through conferring, teachers can validate a hesitant voice before pen hits paper. Sometimes simply allowing students to talk, occasionally asking questions to prompt more detail, and writing down their ideas is a powerful entry point to show writers how all those ideas swirling around in their minds can be pinned down and developed into something more. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to validate the ideas that they don’t recognize as worth developing.
Conversation encourages marginalized writers because it is low-stakes. Through conferring, we can position our students as writers and include them in the classroom community. The notion that students thrive when positioned as writers through conversation with their teacher and other writers is paramount to the workshop model (this article about positioning writers changed my whole approach to working with striving learners when I read it years ago).
When I worked with Michael on his family narrative, he needed me to be an audience while he tried out ideas. Talking through the process helped him slow his pace and consider different ways to approach the topic. And most importantly, his story about a trip to Papa John’s gone awry had me laughing. This kind of authentic audience response built him up and encouraged him to stick with his idea for the narrative.
When we’ve violated the most important condition for writing—choice—it’s no wonder we aren’t engaging all students. When given autonomy and choice, writers thrive. Through the workshop model and conferring, writers can learn how to navigate these choices in a supported manner.
Often our moves with resistant writers are well-intentioned; we want to make writing easier. Sometimes this may look prescriptive: teaching students a formula and prescribing a specific topic. And sometimes students even want this kind of prescription delivered to them when writing an extended piece. However, striving writers thrive when they are given opportunities to think carefully about making writerly choices and write about things that matter to them.
It’s through the conferring process that writers can learn to make choices about topics, development, and structure. In conferences teachers can listen to striving writers generate ideas without forcing them down the path of contrived and formulaic writing. Many call these conferences “idea conferences,” and this is one of the most effective ways to help striving writers get the support they need, but also have the last word about what they choose to write and develop during workshop.
Belonging to a Community of Writers
Workshop and conferring shape classroom community and norms in powerful ways. The information you can glean from conferring will help you learn about resistant writers’ conditions for writing and support them in a personalized way. For me, conferring has transformed my writing intervention time.
Lucy Calkins, a pioneer of the workshop approach, explained in a 2016 interview for EdWeek “There’s more of an emphasis on teaching in the midst of writing.” In a way, teachers who adopt this model are coaches or “writing cheerleaders” as my sister once called me in jest.
Calkins also notes in the same interview that this model significantly supports striving writers: “One of the important things to understand is that if teachers are knowledgeable about how kids develop as writers, they can adjust their strategies to support students’ development, starting wherever kids are in that trajectory.”
For students on academic intervention plans, writing conferences are the place where teachers can provide responsive, skills-based support in a way that’s incredibly inclusive because it dismantles the myth that only struggling writers need help. By conferring with all students in the room, teachers show striving writers that all writers grow from feedback.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that it’s not the strategy that’s at the heart of a writing intervention; it’s a trusting relationship between teacher and writer. And that relationship takes shape in a classroom where teachers and writers talk often, comfortably and productively.
As for Michael? Throughout this year, he needed my support less and less, and he was able to confer with his classroom teacher without the additional intervention time.
Recently, he surfaced in our writing center. “Hey–how come you never call me down anymore?” he asked with a tinge of hurt in his voice.
“You don’t need me anymore. You’re managing your writing just fine in the class.”
“But I wanna come here again.”
“And you can. But this time, it’s your choice.”
Lauren Nizol is a literacy interventionist at Novi High School in Novi, Michigan who also directs her campus writing center and teaches a class on peer consulting. Follow her on Twitter @CoachNizol and visit her blog at www.learningonramps.org.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.
2 thoughts on “How Writing Workshop and Conferences Support Striving Writers”
As a future teacher, want to be able to work in-depth with all of my students on a writing project. How can I give everyone an equal opportunity to have a face to face conference without taking up a huge chunk of time?
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