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.

The Process of Becoming

The Process of Becoming

I chose this conference for this part of the summer because it reminds me of the trust students can put into their teachers. They rely on us for many things, but often all of those "things" are rooted in the students' thirst for encouragement. This is important for me to reflect on and remember as school will begin for me in just a few days.

This conference arose during the final days of a unit built around collaborative, argumentative, writing (students used the iPad app Explain Everything). A 7th grade student, Eva (pseudonym) brought me an early draft of a story. The room was noisy as kids designed images, search for images, and worked on the layouts of their presentations. As you will hear in the background, it was a very social work day (and that is more than ok, by the way).

That class turned out to present perfect opportunity for Eva to reach out about some personal writing. However, one caveat, this was in the Spring. Trust and community has been established...more specifically, I only think this happened because Eva came to see me as a writer who encouraged everyone within that community. This takes time. Eva was not bringing me personal writing in September, October, November...

I wanted to share this conference because it is a strong representation of how important our investment in encouragement over correction can be. It takes time to see it, but it comes.

In this podcast, Eva tells me that she wants to write a story for her younger brother. She came to me for specific feedback--all she wants to know was if she was on the right track. Now, this may seem like generalized feedback, but as I asked Eva to dig a little deeper in her processes as a writer I came to understand that she was trying to write a genre that she did not like to read. After all, I do not know what "the right track" is unless I get to understand the writer and their intentions.

As a matter of fact, we hear Eva identify her brother as the better reader between them. He read R.J. Palacio's Wonder in one day whereas Eva said it took her six months. Whether Eva's accounting is accurate or not does not matter as much as how she identifies herself as a reader and how she identifies herself as a writer.

This conversation with Eva was a gift. I got to experience a reader and writer in transition...someone who needed encouragement to continue to grow and flourish. I got to be a part of the trajectory of someone's growth! That is incredible. So often, school becomes a series of start and stop assignments. Here, Eva let me in to her trajectory as a learner. This is incredibly personal. I could have destroyed her confidence had I taken her story and pointed out the errors--had I not attended to what she needed--had I not taken the time to connect with her in the moment.

As a writer, I knew enough to realize that correction is not what Eva needed. She was telling me that she often writes for herself--this particular piece of writing was being composed over Spring Break! Spring Break!--and that her first leap into writing for herself was as a nine-year-old (three years ago) writing about her parents' divorce.

Eva tried to fictionalize (through a fictional character's eyes) that emotional family experience and ever since continues to write fiction "similar to my life" as she puts it.

So, in this case, writing for her brother presents a fun challenge because she is writing to imitate what he likes to read even though she does not read the books he likes. Usually, Eva writes as ideas pop into her head, but this time the desire to write something "really impressive" for her brother strikes me as more than just wanting to write.

It is a sibling trying to connect with another sibling. Eva says she recommended Wonder, and he read it. But she read it first. I think this is a key to understanding Eva. Perhaps her dislike of his books comes from the fact that he read the book first and that she feels that she reads too slowly, that both of them really want to talk about and connect with the book, but they both feel impatient. It is not competition. It is too adolescents who both love story trying to find a common ground in which to connect over story. So, writing the book for her brother to read slows things down without exposing anyone. It puts Eva in control, in comfortable control.

I love that she let her father and brother read this early draft already--another sign of wanting to connect through story. Eva says she has a feel of what her brother likes. She must glean this through observation, skimming, and (most importantly) through his feedback on her writing.

Obviously, for me, this conference is about understanding Eva a little more as a writer. For Eva, the conference is about figuring out if she is on the right track with her story.

Something I loved about this experience is that Eva's draft was "only" one page. By no means was it complete, and she knew that. But, again, my response to her as a human being (beyond being a writer) matters greatly. Had I dismissed the draft and said to bring it back when you are finished, I would probably never have seen the story again. She wanted my help through the process, not at the end.

Our impact on process reaches into the larger process beyond the draft. The process of becoming a writer. The process of gaining confidence. The process of connecting with loved ones. The process of finding joy in our lives as readers and writers.

Eva did not come to me for correction, she came to me for encouragement.

And for Eva to put that level of trust in me, in her process of becoming, I am grateful.

[Podcast] Comfortable with Each Other

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The Dead Zone