RESPONDING TO WRITING:
CONFERENCING WITH STUDENTS ABOUT THEIR WRITING
“When we confer quickly, we will want to invite writers to identify their problem or question. Then we may not always need to read the draft. It is important to remember that the purpose of a conference is not to resolve the problem, but to identify it, suggesting resources and ways to proceed. If Rory is losing energy over her seemingly endless fiction story, it is enough to suggest that she needs models of very short fiction and set her up with a magazine. If Sam needs to talk about his topic, pair him up with a friend. During conferences intended to be quick and efficient, the writing teacher can act as a switchboard that connects writers to each other and to appropriate resources.” –Lucy Calkins
The purpose of an individual writing conference is to “nudge” the writer along, to help the writer discover what he/she knows. Respond to the writer, not the writing, and trust that if you help the writer, the writing will come. The basics of a conference:
- Listen to what the student has to say.
- Tell the student what you understand. (Paraphrase. Point out what stuck with you.)
- Ask the student to clarify or expand on what you don’t understand, or would like to know more about.
Let your questions arise naturally, from the context of what the student shares.
For example: “You went tuna fishing in Hawaii last summer? How do you fish for tuna? I’ve never been tuna fishing.”
Some useful “generic” questions. (Be careful not to let your use of them become “robotic.”):
To find out the writer’s purpose:
What’s this writing about?
What’s the best part of this piece?
To help the writer evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of writing:
How can I help you?
What do you think?
To discover how things are going for the writer:
Where are you right now?
What’s the best thing you’ve written so far?
To help the writer find a focus for a piece of writing:
You talked about ____ and _____ and ____. If you had to pick the most important part, which would it be?
To help the writer nail down a direction for the writing:
What will you do next?
What are your plans for this piece?
To help the writer articulate an experience he is writing about:
What was this like for you?
Note: It is certainly okay to make suggestions to improve a piece of writing, but only when you think the student is ready for them.
HOW TO CRITIQUE:
- The writer may introduce a story (this is a mystery), but may not apologize for it (it’s not very good).
- Critique group members take notes while story is read aloud and share comments afterward.
WHAT TO SHARE:
COMPLIMENTS: “I liked the part about…” “I liked the words you used to describe…”
CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM: “I think you could strengthen the beginning if you did….” NOT “That’s a lousy idea.”
- The writer may discuss points of the critique, but may not argue with it. “I was trying to show…” and “What would make this part clearer for you?” NOT “You’re wrong.”
REMEMBER: The writer always has the final say in deciding which suggestions (s)he thinks will improve a story.
The job of the critiquer is to encourage the author, to suggest ways to strengthen the story, and to point out where the story needs tightening or clarifying. Use “I” statements, rather then “You”
The job of the author whose story is being discussed is to–before the story is read–briefly introduce the manuscript– what kind of story, what audience is aimed at, etc.
During the Critique:
- Treat everyone with tact, courtesy and compassion.
2. If listening, jot down specific comments while the work is being read to jog your memory during discussion; consider passing on the written comments to the author at the end of the critique.
3. Take turns, when commenting after the manuscript has been read; avoid interrupting another critiquer’s comments.
4. Avoid words such as good/bad, right/wrong.
5. Offer your comments as your opinion.
6. Make all comments relevant to the manuscript being discussed.
7. Refrain from making comments that attack the author’s subject matter.
8. Avoid defending your work when it’s being discussed, or arguing about a critique comment.
9. Listen respectfully to all criticism, but remember it’s just someone else’s opinion. Take the advice that seems useful. Leave the rest.
10. End the critique session with an affirmation: I am a writer, I believe in myself and my writing, and I will continue work on my manuscript.
Things to Look For In a Manuscript:
Does the opening grab you? Does it give a sense of time and place, set the mood for the story and introduce the conflict?
Are the characters well defined, believable, consistent, and do they move the plot along?
Is the voice fresh, original, compelling?
Does the plot build with tension, conflict, a satisfying resolution, etc.?
Are there strong scenes that show, rather than tell? Are sensory details woven in?
Do the transitions work?
Does the dialogue seem natural, advance story , and show character?
Is there clarity, rhythm and power (strong verbs and nouns, and, few, if any, adverbs) in the language?
Source: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
“Peer conferences won’t work unless writers can trust that their peers won’t shoot them down.” –Nancie Atwell
All writers are vulnerable and easily wounded. As teachers, we need to model positive ways to respond to writing. First reactions to a piece of writing should be a warm response to content. Model telling a writer what a story meant to you, what mattered and touched you most, or what you remembered most. After students have become proficient in listening to each other’s writing and reporting back what they hear, they will be ready to ask questions about things they didn’t understand, and to offer suggestions.
To ease into peer conferencing, have students respond first to an anonymous piece of writing, or a piece that you have written yourself. To steer students away from cutdowns some teachers require children to respond with prompts such as “I liked the way you…”; “You touched my feelings because…”; “I noticed how well you created…” etc. Sometimes it is also helpful to ask students to fill out a response form while reading or listening to a peer’s writing, or to hand out conferencing guidelines. (examples follow). Encourage students to pinpoint the kind of feedback they are looking for (e.g. “Does my dialogue sound natural to you?” “Does this part make sense?” “Is my main character likable?” etc.) Response groups of two to four students seem to work best.
Note: Once in a while children begin to use the opportunity for talking with a peer to avoid writing. Children can usually solve the problem by addressing it in a class meeting, but if not, one solution that works for some teachers is to tape sign-in sheets in sharing centers and require children to record the time they arrive and leave the area. (You don’t need to actually check the sheets either, just let the children think you will!)
Name of Peer Editor_______________________________
Name of Author__________________________________
Name of piece of writing________________________________________________
- What stuck with you? (What did you like?)
- What wasn’t clear? (What didn’t you understand?)
- What would you like to know more about? (What do you wonder about?)
PEER RESPONSE FORM
- Catchy Opening? Yes Sort of No… Suggestions?
2. Characters: described enough? Yes Sort of No… Suggestions?
3. Use of “Show” instead of “Tell”? Yes Sort of No… Suggestions?
4. Use of dialogue? Yes Sort of No… Suggestions?
5. Is/are the problem(s) developed enough? Yes Sort of No… Suggestions?
6. Is the solution satisfying? Yes Sort of No… Suggestions?
7.List at least 3 questions you have about the story:
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com