Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

Learning to Be Happy

Learning to Be Happy

As often as adolescents learn to name and use various writing skills, they need to learn to be happy with their writing. How often do we tell students to be happy with their writing? It is a very intentional decision to say that to a student because it should be framed by specific reasons why they should be happy about their work. Kids don't always know why. And this, to me, can be the heart of many conferences--showing kids why they should be happy with the work they are doing. When I speak with students, I purposely avoid anything that leaves students with a trail of errors following them or doubting who they are as a reader or writer.

It comes back to encouragement, doesn't it?

In the writing conference attached here, Cassidy, an 8th grader, wants to talk about an essay on friendship. The impulse to write about friendship came from a class reading of a mentor text by essayist Annie Dillard. 

Dillard can be challenging for many 8th grade students, but she offers an accessible challenge. I like using excerpts from Dillard as much as I find value in an entire piece.

Cassidy notes that our reading took her into a current friendship and it got her thinking how a friendship could be like snow.

My role, as Cassidy explains how she found her ideas, is to listen for teachable moments. Not errors. But places where Cassidy is doing something well and I can help her understand what she is doing, what it is called, and how it works.

Remember, just because we can start our cars in the morning doesn't mean we know how things work under the hood.

In this essay, Cassidy is using extended metaphor. After we name how extended metaphor appears in her writing, I dig a little deeper and ask if she believes the purpose of her metaphor is clear to the reader. Eventually, I ask for a specific line that makes that purpose clear.

Conferring becomes an interplay between two writers. Tell me what you did and tell me why you did it, and I will tell you what it is called or I will share another writer's tool that builds off of your work.

When Cassidy reads her line, I hear an opportunity to do some work on word choice. I coach her through how to identify some places where stronger nouns may be more appealing and helpful to a reader. I don't go overboard. I use one example from her work and teach her something she can use as a writer moving forward. I would make a note of this after the conference because I want to monitor Cassidy's consideration and growth in this area.

Beneath the surface of my questioning is a foundation of the Six Traits of Writing. I am thinking about the Six Traits as I listen to students share their work. The Six Traits are my tool box, a rich menu of writer's moves and considerations, adaptable to any conference.

When I ask Cassidy to name what she did with her conclusion, I am thinking of organization. Cassidy struggles to name what she did and, if you listen, she scans for where the conclusion begins. I know I am often unsure where my conclusion begins when I read my writing, so I knew the feeling. Being a writer, I knew to wait. 

Because Cassidy could not name what she did, I saw this as another teachable moment. I knew I needed to revisit how conclusions can work and what she is doing specifically in her draft. In this respect, the student's own writing serves as a mentor text for a craft move.

Our conference ends with Cassidy playing a game that so many kids play--she counts her paragraphs. Three paragraphs isn't long enough yet, according to Cassidy...but with a follow up questions she admits that she wrote everything she needed to express.

This is a moment where the values we believe in as teachers take over. We have to use our practiced judgement here. I could, of course, probe the draft and push the student to develop other areas. I could help Cassidy tease it out to additional paragraphs.

I could. But why didn't I do it in this case? Because I want Cassidy to learn that saying what you want to say as a writer matters far more than the number of paragraphs. I want Cassidy to continue asking herself if she expressed everything in her writing.

And maybe the student does not know how to ask and answer that question--but then that is what I will teach. I won't fall back on using numbers of paragraph to coax more writing out of a writer or, worse, telling a writer when to stop. There is no magic number of paragraphs. I hope we stop teaching that to students. It does not help them as writers to think "how long does my paper need to be."

I'd rather talk with students about their ideas. And if, indeed, they believe that have written everything there is to say on a topic, then I have one more teachable moment to share with kids: be happy with your writing.

Defending Our Values

Defending Our Values

Why do we say "no" to students?

Why do we say "no" to students?