Hypochondria…Part II

Months after this post, I am still banned from WebMD for my own good, but luckily for me, the New York Times prints plenty of fascinating medical information.  This article was one example.  The article talks about a variety of doctor behaviors that patients dislike, and the lack of feedback on these behaviors that doctors have traditionally gotten, as patients often just leave for a new doctor without giving a reason.  In the article, some medical groups that have implemented patient surveys as a way to counter this problem share their experiences.

Dr. Howard Beckman, medical director of the Rochester Independent Practice Association, often talks to doctors who receive low scores in patient satisfaction – often, he says, on measures of how well patients thought they were listened to.  He described his surefire method as “You use continuers.  As you’re working with people, you say ‘uh huh’ three times.”  And then he went on to describe doctors who tried this and discovered that they were able to get closer to the heart of the problem.  One doctor talked with a patient who initially complained of chest pains.  The doctor said “uh huh” the first time and found out that the patient also suffered from headaches.  He said “uh huh” again, and the patient finally mentioned that the pains started when his brother died unexpectedly.  The doctor was stunned that it worked – and while he might still order the same medical tests, he had a lot more context for what those results might mean than if he had immediately concluded that the man had a heart or head ailment.

When I read this anecdote, I immediately thought about conferring.  Specifically, research.  How often, I wondered, had I bulldozed past a kid’s thinking by rushing the research?  How often had I heard a likely teaching point emerge from a kid’s first remark and felt relieved (“Finally, a conference where I know what to say!”) and then cut the research short, maybe too short?

In one of those fortuitous “When you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail” moments, I then picked up a professional text (which I highly, HIGHLY recommend – imagine a professional book that you read on the train and can’t put down!), Reading Projects Reimagined by Dan Feigelson.  On page 31 he said “Like Russian dolls, one inside the other, when a teacher continues to ask for elaboration in this way, by the third or fourth say more about that, the reader’s thinking is almost always deeper.”  

So I started to try this out.  I would say “uh huh” or “hmmm” or “Tell me more” three times, to see what would happen.

What didn’t happen was my secret fear — kids staring at me like I was out of my mind, or a little dumb.  I worried that kids might think, “Why is she asking me to say more AGAIN?” but in fact, most of the kids I talked to seemed perfectly happy to go on and add more.  

What did happen was that kids opened up more, and pushed themselves more.  Instead of “Julian and Charlotte in Wonder are really different” and then a laundry list of reasons why, I started to hear “They both want attention.”  Instead of “I could revise by changing my lead”, I got “Also, I could cut what doesn’t fit well, and I want to make it more exciting, and also I think this scene here could get better.”  And instead of hearing the clock ticking toward desperately locating some kind of teaching point to use, I started to hear kids’ voices better.

It might seem that a simple prescription to say certain words in certain combinations couldn’t possibly be enough to make a meaningful change in my teaching practice.  But the simplicity of the concept helped it to stick in my mind, and the response of kids when they were invited to talk more was worth the effort.  Carl Anderson writes, “By truly listening to [our students] as we confer, we let them know that the work they’re doing as writers matters” (How’s It Going, page 23).  The heart of conferring well is listening — so it’s worth doing whatever we can do to get kids to say more, and say more, and say more.

Our Words—Raw and Unrehearsed

If you were to ask me what I think my former students remember most about having been a student of mine, I would venture that my 2nd graders remember camping out in Joshua Tree National Monument during a desert study, or that my 3rd graders might talk about how we did not have a classroom library, we had a reading park complete with plants galore, a park bench and grass (aka fuzzy green rug), or that my former 5th graders remember that during a real, live earthquake instead of the well-rehearsed “Drop, grab, and cover,” I yelled, “Oh, shit!” I would never guess, however, that a former student would remember how I responded to a bit of impromptu conversation during read aloud. And yet, that’s exactly what Amanda has remembered for the past 20 years.

About eight months ago I heard from her. Maybe this is a common occurrence for some of you (I’ve moved around a fair bit and I’ve resisted Facebook), but Amanda’s email was my first. I knew from the moment I read her email that I would write about it, it’s just taken a while to, in the words of Katie Wood Ray, sit and stay.

Her email began like this:

Hello,

 I’m Amanda Broder-Hahn and I was lucky enough to be a student of yours at Temple Isaiah in the 1990’s.

 My parents and I still talk about you and remember you fondly.  Recently, in a conversation about small moments that subtly changed the trajectory of our lives, I decided I wanted to look you up and say thank you.  Google is a wonderful thing.  I hope this doesn’t feel weird.  Speaking of weird:

 Confession: I always loved Amanda. I remember her precisely—she was a gentle soul and a sophisticated lover of books and authors at 8! I could count on her to bring a fresh perspective to a project or a problem. And of course, these very gifts, sometimes set her apart from the other students. Case in point, she is the now kind of person who engages in conversation about small moments that subtly changed the trajectory of one’s life. Love her!

Her email continued:

Speaking of weird:

We had just begun to read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and you asked us to raise our hands and tell you the first adjective that came to mind when we encountered the Professor.  Every hand in the classroom swung up as one, and you called on six or seven kids and everyone said the same thing without hesitation: “Weird!”  One kid (I wish I could remember who it was!) said, “Interesting.”  You invited us to consider other words that were similar to both weird and interesting, and at the end of that day I valued weird as something original, special, and capable of things I couldn’t imagine. 

 Confession: I have no memory of this moment whatsoever. Clearly this was P.T.—pre-Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I did not yet know about things like reading partners, turn & talk and read alouds that were planned, instructional and interactive. But, I did know that teaching was about more than reading, writing, and mathematics. I knew that teaching those things and teaching values went hand in hand. I knew that I had great hopes for the kind of people my students would become.

 Next Amanda wrote:

That allowed me to embrace being a bit weird myself.   I remember feeling like I had permission to really relish and value being me.  The approach you took to questions and discovery in general, but especially in that moment, has allowed me to be more curious and compassionate, to be more imaginative, to solve more problems. 

 Confession: I am not sure what to confess. Teaching is such hard work and regrets are inevitable. We attend a workshop or a course where we learn about a new strategy or approach and we experience varying degrees of guilt. If only…, we think. Might that have made the difference for…, we wonder. The truth is, as teachers, we plant seeds and we nurture and nourish those seeds, but we almost never see the harvest. And yet, year after year, we do the heavy lifting of cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, etc.

I am so grateful to Amanda for reaching out and giving me a glimpse of the amazing person she’s become:

I went to culinary school straight out of high school, and have been baking as well as working with and for local, sustainable farmers for the past several years.  I’m going back to school now to be a librarian and literacy advocate.  I’m interested in exploring the roles public libraries can take in the intersection of literacy, social and political involvement and food justice in underserved communities.  Going back to school now, and thinking of the process of becoming educated from the perspective of an adult, I appreciate the tools you gave me, both for learning and for being a person.  Every day, my life is better because you were my teacher.

I read and I k’velled. Look at the person Amanda became! A baker and a blogger, a learner and an activist. Of course, I love reading that her life is better every day because I was her teacher. But the truth is, I am the lucky one. I had the opportunity to be a part of her life for one precious year. And, it mattered. A lot. To Amanda and to me.TIDS 91-91.jpg

(That’s me in the brown blazer and Amanda just to the right in the red and white stripes.)

(Not) Going Fishing

Think for a moment – no judgment! – about whether this scenario feels familiar:

Teacher: So, guys, you’ve learned so much about revising in other school years, and we’re going to learn more today. Who can remind us what revising means? John?

John: Well…well…ummm…can I get some help?

Teacher: Sure, uh, Mecca, help him out.

Mecca: Well, revising is like when you get good ideas for writing, and write them down.

Teacher: Weeeeelll…I mean, writing DOES need good ideas, but that’s not quite what I had in mind. Oh, John, you’ve got it now?

John: Yeah, like this one time, I wrote and it was a great idea, like, it turned out to be a great story, it was about my grandfather, and we went hunting, and it was really funny because I had to go to the bathroom…

Teacher: So what is revision?

John: So then, I wrote the story and I checked my spelling so it was perfect.

Teacher: Well, spelling is sooooort of like revision…Anyone else?

Suddenly, your fast review question that was going to be a ten-second reminder to the class of an old concept has turned into a two minute long moment that left half the class convinced that revision has something to do with peeing in the woods.

A lot of us have fallen into this trap – the trap of fishing for answers.

When I work with teachers in classrooms of all sorts, all over the world, one of the most frequent conversations I have is about questioning. I often wonder if teachers think I’m kind of an evil jerk who hates kids when I constantly motion for them to put their hands down during lessons (Who could resist that adorable waving hand? Don’t I care about their ideas?) In my darker moments, I worry that maybe I am, in fact, stifling the thinking of bright young minds, crushing their love of learning.

But then I remember the scenario above. We’ve all been there.

One of the moves that can do the most to tighten your minilessons, focus your instruction, and provide time for real talk, reading, writing, and learning is to cut bait on your fishing questions. Fishing questions are like the one above – you know the right answer, the kids know you know the right answer, and the goal is to see if you can fish it out of a child. Kids’ goals are to avoid being called on, to get called on and show off their mind-reading abilities, or to try to ferret out the right answer from hearing their classmates’ missed guesses.

Compare the scenario above to a question like “We know that revision is when you’re working on making your piece of writing stronger, making it communicate more powerfully. Tell me how you’ve revised in the past.”

To me, that second question does three jobs – reminds kids of what you mean when you say the word revision, invites kids to recall their past experience with revision, and lets you read the room to figure out what this group of kids knows about revision.

The first question has a few problems.   It only does one job for sure – it lets you figure out whether the specific kids you call on know how to define revision. If you’re lucky, it can also do the job of reminding kids of the definition of the word. But the problem with that first question is that it sets you up to (sometimes mistakenly) assume kids don’t know.  Certainly, from reading the exchange above, you’d conclude that John and Mecca aren’t especially confident about what revision means. It would be tempting to shake your head, mumble something about their previous year’s teacher, and haul out the “101” lesson plans.

My question to myself, when faced with that temptation, is to ask myself, “What do I really need to find out here?” If the kids know the definition of revision, but can’t actually revise, how will I know, and how will that help me? And if the reverse is true, if they can revise but can’t state the definition, how will I know, and how will THAT help me?

Some questioning tips that I learned the hard way:

  • Before you pose a question to the class, think about what jobs that question will do. What are you trying to find out? What are you hoping the rest of the class will hear and think about from the question and response?
  • Consider whether the question is one that is best posed teacher to a single student, with the class listening, or whether it’s one that invites a whole class conversation, or whether it’s a topic perfect for partners to turn and talk about.
  • Be ruthless about cutting questions from your lessons. Remember that if you’re looking for one specific answer to a question that sounds like an open-ended question, it is often a fishing question.
  • In the moment, if you’re finding yourself flailing to connect kids’ responses to the right answer, or calling on numerous kids to get a response to what should have been a fast review question – cut bait! Tell kids what you’re thinking – usually the definition of a term or a concept you have a particular explanation for – and then change the question so it forces kids to engage with the concept (like giving an example of the term or idea).

 

The Back-to-School Honeymoon is Waning

October is just around the corner. Technically, it’s already fall, but while September clings to the fading wisps of summer, October is the real deal. October means pumpkins and apply picking, shorter days that begin and end with a familiar crispness in the air. October means the energy and excitement of Back-to-School is now replaced with the reality of 168 more days until summer.

What exactly makes Back-to-School so magical? And, how can we capture that magic and sprinkle it across the year? Part of the wonder of Back-to-School is the newness—new teacher, classmates, classroom and (be still my heart) new school supplies. And part is the discovery of new friends, interests and territories. That’s what makes the reading and writing identity work that we do at the beginning of the year so critical. It’s important for us teachers to discover who our students are as readers and writers. However, if that work begins and ends in September then our kids lose out on the opportunity to discover who they are becoming as readers and readers.

At TCRWP’s August Institute on the Teaching of Reading, Katy read “What Reading Means to Me… Snapshots from an Avid Reader.” It is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read on the power of books across one reader’s life. I already love Katy for the amazing friend and writing partner that she is, but this post, this post makes me love her even more because by sharing the reader she was, is, and is becoming, Katy invites me into her library, her mind and her heart. Her writing about her reading identity also inspires me to remember my own journey as a reader, to explore new authors and titles, and to celebrate my identity as an avid reader.

So, think of this post as a reminder, a reminder to make the magic of discovering who we are as readers and writers happen across the year—not just in September.

What Reading Means to Me… Snapshots From an Avid Reader by Katy Wischow

The landscape of my childhood, the landscape of my life was built with books.

I lied to my mother. I told her I didn’t know how to read, even though I could, until she promised me that she’d still keep reading aloud to me even after I could do it myself.

When I was left, age two, overnight with my parents’ friends, they came running in to comfort me as I screamed “I want to go home! I want my mother!” I wasn’t homesick, I was reciting my favorite book, Are You My Mother?

I read Harriet the Spy for inspiration, and began squatting on the sidewalks, recording in a notebook every time the neighbor’s curtains twitched. The Tormeys, across the street, invited me into their backyard to spy on THEIR neighbors.

I began writing Louisa May Alcott on the tops of my spelling tests, instead of my own name, so I could be closer to Louisa.

I took my strawberry scented notepad to the library and copied pages of notes about chimpanzees when I had fallen in love with Jane Goodall.

I scoffed at the frequency with which the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew encountered mysteries, and secretly, desperately longed to stumble over a stolen fortune of my own.

I haunted the children’s library, borrowing my favorites over and over, the way you don’t ever get tired of seeing your best friend every day at school.

I whispered the secret spell words in The Egypt Game and Witch’s Sister, then whipped around to see what I might have accidentally summoned.

I finished The Devil’s Arithmetic in the front seat of the car and then cried so hard that my nose bled.

I finished The Best Christmas Pageant Ever after bedtime, and laughed so hard that my parents could hear me from downstairs.

I finished Bridge to Terebithia at school, and fought so hard with Katherine S. about the ending that we never quite made up.

I got older. Books held my hand as a teenager and whispered to me that I was not alone, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike terrified me, waking me at night to lie very, very still in bed, wondering what was just outside my line of sight.

I passed notes to friends and crushes in school; at home, at night, I passed notes to the books I loved, dialing up the creaky modem to email authors who changed me. Some wrote back.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved changed me, changed my whole eleventh grade class. I still can hear the echoes of her words.

I spent a series of house-bound high school snow days writing a thirty-page modern version of Antigone, because Antigone changed me.

I read Audre Lorde and felt kinship, felt power. Audre Lorde changed me.

I got older still. In my first year of teaching, overwhelmed, exhausted, I still did not tire of my best friends. Harriet. Louisa. Jane. Antigone.

I read with my students and cried at Frindle, laughed at Bud, Not Buddy, loved every word Jacqueline Woodson penned, learned from Seymour Simon and Melissa Stewart. I met my kids’ book best friends – Walter Dean Myers, Julie Ann Peters, Gary Soto.

I made new best friends, loved beyond reason – zombie books by Mira Grant that speak to my heart, time travel by Connie Willis that makes me cry. I laughed at David Sedaris, pondered with Jeanette Winterson, dreamed with James Baldwin, got lost in the beauty of Julia Alvarez’s words, looked into the future with Octavia Butler.

I made wizard best friends – Harry, Hermione, Ron. And Professor McGonagall.

I absorbed murder mysteries, one after another after another, each one painting a picture of a world that made sense, a world of justice served.

I have nightmares before each and every trip that I step on the train, climb in the car, settle on the plane, and open my bag to find no books.

Christmas, 2014. My father cleans out the attic and pulls out a stack of Babysitters’ Club books, and they feel like old friends. I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to them.

The landscape of my childhood, the landscape of my life is built with books. Books gave me doors to new worlds, books gave me windows on other lives, books gave me mirrors – kind, forgiving mirrors that showed me a future for myself that was good, hopeful. This is what reading means to me, this is what I want for every reader. The landscapes of our shared, beautiful world, built with the words that matter.

How I Joined the World of Whitewater Rafters and Learned That We’re All Just Between Swims

One of the best things about summer institute season for my colleagues and I is that we get to travel the country and see places we might have otherwise never been. This summer, for instance, I got to tour a peach orchard in Houston County, Georgia, walk the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore, and shop for jewelry in Mystic, Connecticut.

Most recently, I got to do something super cool that I had never done before, in the company of some spectacular colleagues – whitewater rafting! We drove up to Idaho Springs, CO and were thrust surprisingly quickly from professional outfits and presenter mindsets to wetsuits and total newbie status. Trevor, our guide, taught us the basics of paddling before we hoisted the raft into Clear Creek and set off.

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There were so many things that were amazing about this adventure – including the fact that none of us fell out! And of course, since I was traveling with a posse of staff developers, when we stopped for post-rafting burgers at Tommyknockers, the conversation drifted into teaching and teamwork and what we might bring back into classrooms from the rapids.

Despite the fact that we were all beginners, Trevor inducted us into the language and the community of whitewater rafters. He did this mostly by using the terminology of rafting, over and over again, in context. If we asked, he explained a word. Sometimes he’d offer up an explanation of why a particular rapid got its name (one was named after the highway exit you could see as you paddled by), or what adventure was about to come up (going over a hole) but most of the vocabulary I learned, I learned because he said it so often!

Some were terms I knew but had to learn in a new context – forward two, back two, lean in, booties – simple enough. Some were terms I could figure out pretty well – like “paddle high five”, “throw-rope” “put in” and “swim” (as in “If you swim, you have to buy beer for everyone” and Trevor’s philosophical musing that “We’re all just between swims”). One he explained outright – “Beaver Slap” (slapping the water with your paddle) but left it to us to make the beaver tail connection. And one of my favorite terms – “yard sale” – we had to figure out on our own. Trevor started talking about one time when he “yard saled” – it seemed to work equally well as a noun or a verb – and the various consequences for yard saling back at the house with the other guides. We pretty quickly figured out that yard saling was something bad, and something similar to falling in the water. We mused (and the internet later confirmed!) that it probably had to do with all of your stuff ending up in the water – like a yard sale. (And as I continued to follow the trail of my etymological research, my colleague Mary Ehrenworth told me that this is actually a skiing term that Trevor migrated into the water.)

When I think about our kids growing as writers, readers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, artists, athletes, and even rafters, one of the things that always seems to distinguish a rookie from a pro is their command of the vocabulary (including slang and idioms) of their craft. Sometimes, as teachers, it feels like we have a massive job on our hands – how are we supposed to teach kids ALL this specialized vocabulary, on top of teaching them to actually DO the things the vocabulary suggests? It’s easy to throw up your hands and ignore the vocabulary, or to over-emphasize learning terms in isolation – I’ve certainly been guilty of both at times!

But my experience with Trevor on the raft is making me think that looking to other types of teachers and other fields could be a good way to figure out how people really learn to talk like a pro in their field. Rafting day trips, weekend sports clubs, first days at new jobs, music lessons…all of these kinds of places require people to take on a role and act like experts before they really are. Acting like experts helps rookies gain confidence and eventually gain expertise. And a big part of acting expert is sounding expert – talking with the right lingo.

So maybe when we think about teaching kids, say, the vocabulary of writing, we can think about how we joyfully immerse kids in sounding like an expert and help them talk like experts even before they are (and this seems like it would help our conversations with writers, too). In, say, a fiction writing unit, think of the difference between saying:

A: “Stories, narratives, are made up of smaller scenes. And in all of those shorter scenes, you want to show your reader what’s happening, make us feel like we’re really there in the setting, experiencing what your protagonist is experiencing in that scene, instead of just telling us or just listing events. Writers call this “show, not tell.” Let me show you an example.

And

B: “Here’s some vocabulary you’ll need in this part of the unit – narrative, scene, show don’t tell, protagonist, setting…Let’s talk about these words before we get into our work.”

And

C: “You will want to make your story happen in little bits. All those parts need to happen to a person in a place, and you need to describe that place so we can imagine it.”

I’m thinking that planning for more of A, and less of B or C, might be a way to help our kids talk like experts, without feeling like we’re just talking over their heads. Specifically, option A does a couple of things:

  • Repeats phrases in different contexts
  • Speaks in synonyms (“stories, narratives”)
  • Explicitly names not just words but phrases that feel like lingo or jargon (“show, not tell”) with enough words to make the jargon feel well-explained.
  • Uses words in context that is deliberately crafted to be helpful rather than missing or misdirective
  • Sounds excited about writing – like an invitation to the writing world is a really cool invitation to receive and is a field that’s worth learning the lingo of.

Trevor, in coaching us through our whitewater rafting adventure, did a lot of A, and we left the water pumped up about what we had learned, confident in our ability to try again (soon!) and tossing around words like “yard sale” left and right. He harnessed the power of language to make us feel welcome in the “club” of rafting, just as we want our kids to feel like insiders in the club of literacy. And he made me think about the power of trying new adventures in our lives, so we can experience part of what our kids experience when they are diving into new worlds, new fields, and of course, new talk.

P.S. — If you want to read my favorite vocabulary-related book, check out Bringing Words to Life, and if you want to go white water rafting near Denver, check out Clear Creek Rafting!

Sorting Out Talk

Everyone has a geeky teaching passion, right?

Vocabulary is definitely one of mine, and lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on vocabulary with middle school science and social studies teachers. Word sorts, described in depth in Words Their Way, have long been a staple of many elementary word study programs, but haven’t always made their way up to middle school. I’ve been asking groups of middle school content area teachers, groups of students, and really, groups of anyone I can find, to try out some content area word sorts, using a set of words pulled from the Colonial America era.

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The idea of a word sort is in the name – you’re sorting a collection of words! In an “open” word sort, groups of kids (or teachers!) categorize the words into groups – any groups at all that the group works out. In a “closed” sort, you’d provide some labels for categories for the words to be sorted into.

Closed sort with three categories provided

Closed sort with three categories provided

One of many ways that kids sometimes do an open sort with these words.

One of many ways that kids sometimes do an open sort with these words.

Time after time, groups laid out their words and begin sorting, but quickly I became aware of what a lot of the groups weren’t doing – talking.

In one group of teachers, I watched teachers conduct a lively, impassioned argument over where a word should go, just by moving the card, back and forth, back and forth – without a word spoken.

In groups of kids, I often saw one or two kids emerge as leaders, and the others defer to them, sometimes without a word. Again, the existence of the physical cards stood in for conversation and although I could often guess at why someone moved a card into a specific pile, or imagine what their thinking probably was, I didn’t hear it and I wasn’t sure I was right.

I realized a few things, watching this. First, that this is a harder task than it seems. It’s hard to name categories for concepts, and it’s hard to describe in words how things fit together, when sometimes it feels like they just DO. Second, when we see kids go silent (or go unproductive – “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is!”), that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re shy, or quiet, or not sure of what to say, or not sure of the answer. The teachers doing this, for example, were all literate, thoughtful, eloquent adults, some of whom had extensive knowledge of Colonial America – and even they had trouble narrating their thinking. Third, I realized that the talking aspect of this task makes it much more challenging than if I had asked individuals to sort the cards – but also far more productive. The value of the task isn’t in getting the “right” sort, but in remembering or learning what the concepts mean and figuring out which other concepts are linked in different ways. This almost always requires some debate, or discussion. It may not require disagreement, but at the very least it requires a little noise.

This third realization is the biggest one, to me. Talk can be a way of processing information, revising thinking, deepening comprehension. Talk is a way to make thinking visible so that you can coach into kids’ thinking, not just their final answers. And talk is a way to make good instructional activities great. As teachers we spend so much time developing powerful opportunities for kids to engage with rich, vibrant materials and ideas – but kids’ silence can thwart even the best-laid plans.

This “silent play” is a pretty common occurrence in the classroom…so now what do we do about it? I’ll be honest – I don’t have seven color-coded fancy strategies to try out. Often, in my experience, just saying, “Hey, can you guys talk out loud about what you’re thinking?” has been enough. But for groups that need a bit more, one tip is simply to observe – are they talking? What’s the talk like? You could share these notes with the kids, too, asking if they see the same patterns you do and inviting them to brainstorm and set goals to change those patterns. A second tip is to try fishbowling a group doing a word sort, and talking, so that the other kids see how that talk might sound and have a vision of what you’re looking for. (For more on fishbowl activities, check out this post!)

So, the upshot? I think it makes sense to continue to nudge and push kids toward doing the talking in this kind of activity, even if it’s hard, and even if kids could perhaps make better (and certainly faster!) sorts independently. I think talking about words, using words, and talking about how to use words builds vocabulary and builds the webs that kids will use to keep track of and grow concepts in their content area studies. And I think that, like so many other facets of our school days, talk can be the bridge between our initial thoughts and the powerful webs of new thinking that school can help us grow.

Researching Writers (Or… How’s It Going? Version 2.0)

It’s institute season here at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. My colleagues and I have hit the road, traveling all over the country leading institutes (weeklong courses) on the teaching of reading and writing. And, there’s nothing like teaching an institute to get me storytelling stories from my classroom. You know, those precious/quirky/ridiculous/memorable moments that capture the true nature of living and learning in a roomful of kids day after day.

For example, I often tell the story of Alejandro who, when asked “Tell me about the kind of reader you are?”, looked up at the ceiling, carefully considered my question, and after a long pause replied, “I’m the kind of reader who… likes math.” Love!

I also tell moments that reveal my flaws and foibles as a beginning workshop teacher. I joke about how during my first year of workshop teaching, I was in great shape. The reason? I was terrified (Terrified!) of pulling up alongside a writer and asking the conferring question, “How’s it going?” I was terrified because my teaching-of-writing pockets weren’t very deep and I was certain that conferring with my writers would reveal the fraud I believed I was. So, I walked laps round and round my room. Every so often the Nike ‘Just Do It’ voice in my head would win and I would pause mid-lap, pull up alongside a kid and ask, “How’s it going?” To which Wendy or Jose or Dea would reply, “Good.” Then I’d say, “Good. Keep up the good work,” and resume my laps.

That was over fifteen years ago. I’ve come a long way since that first year. (I owe so much to so many members of the TCRWP community who shared their hard-earned knowledge, expertise and brilliance with me—Lucy Calkins, Kathleen Tolan, Mary Ehrenworth, Amanda Hartman and Colleen Cruz, to name a few.) My thinking and practices around conferring have changed dramatically. Specifically, I now know that the most successful conferences are done with the student, rather than to the student.

One way to accomplish that writer-to-writer rapport in a conference is to teach kids some predictable things writers talk about when discussing their writing. You see, I’d always had this fantasy of pulling up along a student during writing workshop and the student saying, “Thank goodness you’re here. I’ve been working on… and I could really use some help with…” At some point, I realized that rather than waiting for this particular miracle, I could simply teach kids how to talk about their writing at the beginning of a conference.

Topic

My list of what to teach begins with topic. You might teach kids to say, “My piece is about…” You may be thinking, “Um Shana, my kids tell me their topic without any teaching or prompting.” True enough. Still, we can teach kids that a sentence about their topic is usually enough. We can also teach kids to push past what the piece is about and into what it’s really about by asking a follow-up question like, “Okay, you’re writing about… Have you thought about what you want your readers, your audience, to think, feel or know after reading your piece?” I find that talking with kids about audience is incredibly powerful. If kids can identify even just one reader (besides you, their teacher) that they want to read their piece, then all sorts of decisions from structure to tone to message become much more concrete and therefore easier to support.

Writing Process

Knowing where a writer is in his or her writing process helps us know what kind of support to offer. During rehearsal, I want writers to dwell in possibility—considering a variety of moments/topics/issues they could write about and a variety of ways they could develop those. During revision, I want writers to embrace a spirit of experimentation, trying out parts of their drafts in different structures, tenses or tones. Because of this, I teach writers to say something about where they are in the writing process. Also, sometimes I look at what’s on the page and I get a kind of tunnel vision—I picture this exact page on the writing gallery in the hall—and I start to teach the writing, specifically the errors in punctuation and spelling, rather than the writer. There is a place and time for every kind of instruction our writers want and need across the writing process. That’s why knowing where a writer is in his or her process is so important.

Next Steps

While the first two items—topic and writing process—provide general research, teaching writers to talk about their next steps in a conference yields much more interesting information. Writers are planful. So talking about next steps in a conference reinforces that writers plan. They plan what to do with a current piece. They plan future pieces they want to write. They have a stack of mentors they plan to read, etc. I find that even when writers glance at the chart and say, “Next I am planning to…” with a grand dramatic pause, they almost always fill in the blank with something worth doing. Plus, I love following up with, “Any idea how you are going to approach that work?” Our smart and sophisticated students have such wonderfully original ways for how they are going to proceed in their work. One writer decided to reread really sad parts of books from her reading log to see if she could figure out how to write a story that would make her readers cry. Because I loved this idea and wanted to see this writer succeed, I also pushed for accountability by asking, “Any thoughts on how you will organize your notes to capture what you are discovering?”

Trouble

I love what Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words: How Language Affects Learning, says about trouble. He says that we need to normalize trouble in our classrooms. He adds that trouble is neither good or bad, it’s information. I love this. Everyone—reader, writer, teacher, friend, partner—encounters trouble. The goal is not to live a trouble-free life. The goal is to become more and more accomplished at navigating and learning from trouble. Still, lots of kids come to us thinking trouble is a bad thing. For this reason, I often have to model what talking about writing trouble sounds like. I recently explained to a student that I was having trouble making time for writing in my life. I explained how hard it was to squeeze writing in when I got home because at home there was the dog and the dishes and my desk with its endless to-do lists. I also shared how my amazing writing partner, Katy Wischow, suggested a fabulous solution—make a writing pit stop (even five minutes counts!) on the way home. Again, it’s important to follow up on trouble by asking, “What have you tried so far?”

So while I’ve yet to pull up alongside a writer who says, “Thank goodness you’re here. I could really use some help with…”, teaching kids what to talk about in a conference comes pretty close. Most importantly, teaching this will change the dynamic between you and your students during conferring. Give it a try and let me know what you discover.

during a conf