Thursday, February 5, 2009

Teach the Writer

When I run a writing workshop, I can count on there ALWAYS being at least one child sitting doing absolutely nothing. Without fail, I can predict why this child sits whittling away precious time. It’s not because he’s defiant or lazy. It’s because he’s experiencing the ubiquitous writing workshop problem: He doesn’t know what to write about.

There is something very uncomfortable about a child who isn’t working. When we begin conferring, these writers are our top priority. Very often, the conferences go something like this: “Johnny, I see you are having trouble getting started. What’s the problem?” (He shrugs). “Well, we’re writing about things that we want to convince other of. Let’s look at our list. Do you want to write about no homework?” (He shakes his head no). “How about longer recess?” (Another head shake). “Better cafeteria food? Saving the environment? Younger voting age?” (No. No. No.)

We begin to sound frantic. We start to share his frustration. We wonder, “Is he defiant after all?”

Because the problem of kids not knowing what to write about is so prevalent, we need to step back and ask ourselves about the quality of our conferences. Reread the conference I just shared. What did we teach this writer?

Answer: That whenever he is stuck, the teacher will do his thinking for him. That won’t be very useful to him when he’s at home trying to write something on his own.

Imagine now that our conference went like this: “Johnny, I see you’re having trouble getting started. That happens a lot to real writers everywhere. What we need to figure out here is how to get unstuck. What have you tried so far that isn’t working?
Instead of rattling off a bunch of things he could write about for today’s assignment, we’ve begun to help him recognize his problem and guide his thinking about how to solve it. The likelihood is that he will face this challenge again sometime. This conference will show him how to fix the problem now AND in the future. THAT’S teaching the writer.

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