Monday, March 16, 2009

Don’t Sour the Grapes

Yesterday, I worked with a fifth grade class on stretching their thinking about a topic. I had them reread a recent notebook entry and underline a line of their writing that spoke to them. They then rewrote this line on the top of a new page and used it to prompt their thinking and writing for the day. As far as lessons go, it was a good one. The children were inspired. They took their writing in new directions.

After the lesson, I proceeded with my conferences. Most went smoothly. I encountered the typical set of writing issues: “I don’t know what to write about.” “ I’m done.” And then:“I don’t know what else to say.”

“ I don’t know what else to say.” This particular conference posed a particular challenge for me. The young girl I was working with shared her original entry about a stranger on New Year’s Eve. The line she had lifted inspired a new entry about her family tradition of watching the ball drop and eating twelve grapes and making wishes for each month of the newyear. Her problem now was knowing what she would write next. This is where my own struggle began. I wanted to say, “That thing about the grapes is so interesting to me. I’d love to know what you wished for.” But I couldn’t. The teach the writer, not the writing mantra echoed in my mind. I needed to help her know how to solve this very common writing dilemma: What DO writers do when they don’t know what else to write?

So instead, I said, “Well, when I write and face this problem, I reread what I have written to help me rethink my idea. You might even try lifting another line from this entry and see what happens.”

After that, I walked away. When I checked back in with her, she told me she decided to write about grapes. When I looked at what she had done, I saw that she had launched a whole new entry about her brother’s allergy. She took her writing in a direction only she could have imagined for herself.

I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this conference and realized as I left this young writer to her work how important it is to resist our impulse to help too much. Each time I sit down to confer, I make a subconscious decision—will I enable or will I empower? When it comes to efficiency, it is always easier to enable. However, if it is effectiveness I seek, empowerment is the only way to go.

No comments: