What’s Not Wrong with All These Writing Conferences

idea-605766_1280For the past couple of years, I’ve worked in a college writing center.  I really like this job.  Students come to me with their papers, and we confer about their writing.  They think we’re working on the assignments, but my true goal is helping them develop as writers.  Since my retirement from full-time teaching, I’ve plied my trade in a variety of education-related contexts, but these writing center conferences just might be the most gratifying.  Why?

The least important reason is the most selfish.  There is no advance preparation, and there is no work to take home.  I arrive fresh, and I depart unburdened.  This leaves time and energy for my other pursuits.

The other reasons why I like all these writing conferences may be of interest to other writing teachers.

There is no wasted energy in a writing conference.  Sometimes in a class I feel like my instruction is shooting off sparks that don’t really ignite anything.  Maybe some students have other pressing issues on their minds.  Maybe I’m teaching some mandated content that I don’t really believe in, and the students can tell.  Maybe my approach is reaching some students but falling short with others.  With one-to-one conferences, none of that is a factor.  If my approach isn’t working, I know immediately and switch to another path.  The student and I are focused, 100% productive, and locked on to a mission.  The student sets the conference agenda, and my role is help him discover how to get un-stuck, apply a rhetorical or mechanical concept, or think about writing in new ways.  Everything we say and do together in our writing conference is directly related to developing a specific piece of writing and to helping him grow in confidence and competence as a writer.

One-to-one instruction provides opportunity for personal connection.  Because conferring is individualized, it’s more conversational than whole-class instruction.  As I talk with students, they can usually tell I’m interested in their writing and thinking, and I truly care about helping them.  When that realization kicks in, we move to a higher plane of transaction in our communication.  Their writer brains become more energized, and their writer muscles flex more deliberately.  Each conferring session ends with better writing, a stronger writer, and exchanges of gratitude.  They thank me for my help, and I thank them for the opportunity to work with them, and I encourage them to return.

Some writing problems are best solved individually.  Understanding writing as a process is a revelation for some students.  My favorite tutoring sessions are those where a student doesn’t how to begin.  She may have some ideas or understanding of content but not quite see how to develop that material into an organized multi-paragraph format.  I usually ask a student like this to just talk about what she wants to say while I take some notes.  Then I present her own words to her in a rough outline form.  Aha!  Suddenly those scattered thoughts look a lot better when they have some structure imposed on them.  Then we talk about how the human mind can think up cool stuff, but it doesn’t arrive in an orderly manner.  The writer’s job is to arrange those cool ideas so that they can be easily digested by a reader.  That progression from scattered thoughts to somewhat organized ideas to a well-reasoned, reader-friendly argument is a process that students will eventually learn to trust.

When students are under time pressure, they may want to generate an entire paper all at the same time without understanding that it must be built and developed rather than just flung down in one splash.  These writers try to start with the introduction’s first sentence, jam right through to the conclusion, print it out, and hand that sucker in.  Writing just doesn’t work that way!  No wonder they are stuck!   I explain that having a general direction is a good idea, but it might actually be most useful to write the body paragraphs first and then craft an introduction and conclusion for that material.  Starting with what they understand best is usually more productive than trying to start with some vague notion of an attention-grabber in an introduction for material that doesn’t exist.

Some students have an assignment sheet but are paralyzed by the all of the requirements and expectations:  underline topic sentences, mark details in the margin, APA style, etc.  Again, these students may try to “efficiently” write an essay while simultaneously inserting all of these non-rhetorical elements.  I tell these writers they are trying to paint the house before it’s built.  They need to go through the discovery and development phases of the process.  There are no shortcuts.

 

Discussions about these issues rarely happen in whole-class settings for a variety of reason.  Even when these topics are discussed in class, individual students may not see them as personally relevant, even if they are.  But when these conversations about writing happen in a one-to-one conference, the learning is focused, individualized, and more personally gratifying.

These benefits are real, but I wonder if they transfer to settings beyond college writing centers.  Do they have relevance for classroom teachers who hold writing conferences with their students?  Thanks for your feedback.

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4 Responses to What’s Not Wrong with All These Writing Conferences

  1. Awesome post, Gary! I especially love the second paragraph’s description of arriving fresh and departing unburdened. I wanted to speak a little to the question you pose at the end of the post: whether or not the benefits of the writing center transfer to the more ‘typical’ writing conferences found in many English Language Arts classrooms.

    Ideally, I would be able to make personal connections and teach the individual student writer during every classroom writing conference. However, the ever-present enemies of time and resource management mean my conferences are often cursory affairs. Often times I find myself falling into the trap of teaching the writing instead of the writer. I’ll wind up with some open ended questions (what do you like about this piece? what are you trying to accomplish? where do you see it going?) with more specific ones (I see you trying out X here. Have you considered trying Y? Here’s how you can do it). When time is short, I become more didactic and functionalist.

    I’ve only hung out in a few writing centers, but the energy is always dynamic and generative and just so much fun!

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    • Thanks for your comments, Peter. I like the idea of ending quick conferences with those kinds of reflective questions. I wonder if wrap-up questions like these would be an avenue for “teaching the writer instead of the writing”: What did you learn from writing this piece that you can use on what you write next? or What do you definitely want to remember from writing this that will help you next time?

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  2. Shana Karnes says:

    I love this piece! Yes, I think the benefits you describe definitely translate to high school classrooms. Ideally, the classroom is a small one, with fewer than 20 students–I think this because I try to approach writing conferences the way you describe, but when I have 36 students and only 90 minutes it becomes very difficult.

    I’ve had the most success with this kind of conference with students who already have a lot of confidence in their worth as writers. With my newer-to-writing students, I have to spend a whole quarter or so teaching them how to talk about their writing without just a shrug and a lack of eye contact, so I feel like it takes much longer to get a lot of bang for my buck in writing conferences there.

    In my current teaching situation–four 90-minute classes of 12 or so each college students, and one three-hour class of 30 students–I find these goals for writing conferences very attainable. But I’m not hindered by time or stringent standards.

    I especially love your phrase “a well-reasoned, reader-friendly argument.” I am going to write that down and think of it as my goal for the teaching argument writing institute I’m leading this summer.

    Thanks, Gary! I’m so glad I’ve found some time to read my favorite teacher blogs again. I couldn’t figure out how to balance momming and teaching and life with all the reading I wanted to do, but I’ve got a good schedule in place now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your time and comments, Shana. I don’t know how you do it all, but I’m glad you’re finding your way.

      What you said about writers who are not yet confident is so true. Helping them find ways to talk comfortably about something sophisticated and abstract is a life skill that goes beyond writing.

      Liked by 1 person

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