To Confer is to Validate the Child

Question:  Do you have any tips or tricks for conferring for upper grade students?

Answer:  Keep reading.

I love questions, especially questions about my practice and my passions. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve written quite a bit on conferring this past year. (Click the categories tab and go to conferring.)

Conferring with students is my on-going action research. He was the missing person in my workshop classroom for a long while. Then, he was the show-up-once-in-awhile, have a chat, and leave kind of guy. Later, he became a regular guest. Then, after my change and my constant focus, he finally moved in for good, and guess what? He transformed the learning in my classroom. i wish I would have invited him to stay much sooner. I missed a mountain of important talk time with my learners. Time I will never get back.

So, to answer the question I received in an email today, let me start with this:

Most of the strategies for younger grades work well for our older learners, too. Talk to elementary teachers. Use these experienced writing workshop teachers as a resource for your secondary writers workshop. They know how to talk to students, and we should follow their lead in many ways as we approach our writers.
Much of my study on workshop and conferring reveals similar approaches. I’ve found the work of Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Linda Reif, Penny Kittle and other workshop teachers rest on the same core principles of writing instruction:
1) students choosing what to write about,
2) helping students discover ideas through writing,
3) talking to students regularly as writers,
4) modeling the struggle of writing,
5) using mentor texts to study the craft of writers.
Conferring fits into any and all of those principles, but it sits squarely at #3:  talking to students regularly as writers. This is different than talking to students about their writing.
So, I think the most important thing we have to do when we confer is validate the child as a writer (even if he is not a very good one — yet).
In his book Choice Words, Peter Johnston writes about the importance of helping students grow into the identity of readers and writers. In my experience teaching high school English, 9, 10, 11, on-level to AP Lang, most students do not put reader and writer as part of their identify. Few students will be successful readers and writers unless they do so.
This becomes my primary focus in conferences with my readers and writers: How can I help them have experiences where they can see themselves in these roles?
I find that getting students to talk to us about their thoughts, feelings, ideas, struggles, etc with their writing process is the same at every grade level. Perhaps the biggest difference is that teens do not always trust us like younger children tend to do — at least not at first. That is why validating positives with our writers has to come first — before any kind of one-on-one instruction. We have to remove fear and hesitancy. Let them write. Focus on what they do well.
This makes many red-penned teachers with a love of grammar crazy, but marking up a student’s paper is the worst kind of writing instruction — ever. We must respect the writer.
Today my friend and colleague Shana and I were discussing this very thing:   Conferring transforms differentiated instruction into individualized instruction.
So, as you think about conferring with adolescents, ask yourself:
How can I tap into the identity of the individual?
How can I help him see himself as a writer?
What writing experiences does he need to have to feel like he can be successful?
Start conferring there.
Dear reader, what are your thoughts on conferring? How do you answer my questions about conferring with adolescents?

Guest Post: Technology Transforms a Writing Workshop

In response to this post I wrote about walking the talk in our content areas, another teacher has responded to my invitation to write. She says of herself:  “Karen Clancy-Cribby loves learning, especially from adolescents. She’s a teacher, writer, and Writer’s Workshop is her life. Literally.” Find Karen on Twitter @kcribby.

My husband and I live in the country on land that is expansive, scrub oak, tall grasses.  Every time I go to the kitchen sink, my first look is up at the hill, across the valley, and I scan the hillside before my gaze settles to the immediate foreground.  I do this probably twenty times a day.

It hit me today, as I thought about this blog, that how I look out and around, before settling into the immediate, is how I think about everything.

I’m a big picture person, and when I was given the great honor of being offered the opportunity to guest blog about technology and Writer’s Workshop with this amazing group of teachers, I jumped at the chance.

Then I realized I’d signed up to write about a lesson.  Well, therein lies the rub.  To describe a traditional lesson is just not what resonates with the organic nature of the classroom we’ve been so fortunate to run with Writer’s Workshop.  The “we” in that sentence refers to my language arts colleague (and former student, and former student teacher) who I team with daily.

I’ve embraced Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop since I first read Nancie Atwell’s “In the Middle” back in 1990.  I’ve read Fletcher and Calkins and others since, but I’ve mostly just been diving in.

So, back to the whole lesson idea.  Lessons in WW can, and should, of course, be planned, but to speak of them outside the daily dynamic of the classroom doesn’t make sense to me.  Sure, plan for different activities, plan with the end in mind, know and plan for what students should know (even that is a stretch, but that’s another blog), but the ebb and flow of class has to be more dynamic and a response to what happens with students.  So, WW has been an ideal.  Set aside time for mini-lessons, reading and writing time, feedback and closure.

Now, with technology in the mix, well, wow.  So, instead of blogging a WW lesson with technology, I’m going to give you a day in the life of WW with technology.  I need to thank my language arts cohort and daily teaching partner, Emily, who suffered through all of these pages of drafts for this idea for a focus.

Here is our day:

Student working on writing in the winter pulled up a fire for cozy atmosphere.

We have our daily agenda and objectives on a Google Document shared with our students, who walk into class oftentimes having already pulled this document up on their Ipads or phones.  Every day, we ask students to answer a question as they come into class.  Thanks to another colleague, Kris, we call these “Fire-Ups,” given that warm-up seemed too tepid to describe the first lesson of the day which should be big.  So, students pull up the agenda on their iPads and log into their Google Doc on the Chromebooks.  Sometimes they need to look up a few things to answer the question, sometimes they need to just think, and sometimes they need to read and re-read to answer the question, which, ideally takes no more than ten minutes for everyone to feel okay to discuss the question.

Within ten minutes of class, we will ask them how much time they need.  It’s usually no more than a few minutes, but oftentimes, our questions are bigger than we planned.

So, our agenda is a work in progress, and we adapt, as all teachers do,  as the class goes along. Sometimes, all students need a nudge in a certain direction, and we extend the lesson.  This often looks like one of us “saging on the stage,” while the other uploads examples or research hints and tools.

Other times, and I’d hazard to say most times, they all just need to fly.  Then, we have the luxury of sitting down at our desks, reading over their virtual shoulders and giving them individual feedback in person or on their Google Docs.

Writer’s Workshop has been my educator dream ideal since I was in college, and now the ideal is…well, I hate to sound absolute, but it’s possible, truly possible.

Technology allows all of that to happen immediately and in real time.  I am fortunate (understatement) to teach with someone who not only embraces the workshop pedagogy as passionately as I do, but she is a whiz with technology.  Four years ago, when she was my student teacher, we had netbooks, and we started using Google Docs, and I’ll never forget those opening days of my brain exploding.  We had our agenda on the overhead screen, shining from her computer.  The agenda was made in Google Docs.  I had a few students who preferred to access their writing from their phones.  If I didn’t read literally over their cyber-shoulder, I would not have believed how fast they could write using their phones.  As more and more students used their phones alongside the netbooks (we are so lucky to now have Chromebooks!), I started thinking about so many possibilities of all the access they had to information.  Then, there were whispers of our district going 1:1 with iPads.  I’ll never forget standing in the front of the room with Emily, my student teacher, and I looked at her and said, “we can have the agenda online for them to have access to,” and she looked at me and said, “they can write their responses on a Google Doc too.”  That was four long (or short?) years ago.

Now, we’re all online, and I feel as though the newbie teacher dreams of a perfect Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop are now a reality.  Well, perfect is an oversell, but all of those years where I would say, “read and write whatever you want” have been transformed.

Students walk into the classroom, open up their Chromebooks and their iPads. Most students pull up the agenda on their iPad and then start answering their fire-up question on their running Fire-Up Google Doc.   The question is related to where we have been and where we are going.  We try to stretch the question, make it something they need to think about.  Sometimes there is a background/research portion, and then the question.  Sometimes it’s a piece of literature they need to explore for techniques; sometimes it’s a revision piece they need to evaluate.  These Fire-Up questions are very often taken from my own personal writing.  Writer’s Workshop isn’t WW without the teacher as writer.  The beauty of the Fire-Up being taken from my writing is that I am starting most classes with modeling myself as writer.  I can then keep going back to my writing, allowing everyone to critique it.  I have noticed that students are at their best when they are critiquing my writing.  With peers, they sometimes become too gentle, or the reverse, too harsh.  With my writing, they are quick to get to the heart of what needs improvement or what things work and why.

I get to do the think-alouds about my own writing; things I like, things I want to make even better, my purpose, etc.  This leads to them then taking that mini-lesson and my modeling metacognition, and then they look at their own writing, and other’s writing.

My teaching cohort Emily and I were talking the other day about how she needs to do some writing. We have an easy balance together, but she’s right.  She needs to write.  The best way we show ourselves is at our in-progress stage of writing, discussing what we want to do for purpose, topic, and audience.  We should not show ourselves ever thinking we’re “done.”

Back to how technology transforms this all.   Sharing is more immediate; there are multiple modalities for discussion (Edmodo for responding, Padlet for throwing out fire up responses, sharing of Google Docs for commenting).  The transformation, for me, having taught using this model for so long, is that if I ask a student to explore an interest, they can do it, right then, right there.

They can find and access a kazillion mentor texts.  ‘Nough said.

Student finishing up an online literature circle discussion using Edmodo.

Student finishing up an online literature circle discussion using Edmodo.

Here is another snapshot of this transformation.  As we were moving into the second quarter of language arts, Emily asked me how we should frame our lessons as we continued.  It hit me that though we were using the workshop model, it had transformed to such overwhelming possibilities.  It felt like grooming a rock star who had hit the charts.  I have no idea why that analogy came to me, but it’s so hard to describe the little monsters we’d created with so much room for them to stretch, reach, and grow with Writer’s Workshop.  I answered her with a gleeful, big, let’s see-where-this-will go shrug and said, “well, nothing has changed, let’s keep the workshop going, but maybe we need to call it something more expansive, like, “Learning on your own.”

The next day, when LOYO was on our agenda, and many students knew what the acronym was, well, wow.  The teacher learner in me talked about how their learning was officially limitless, and I was excited to sit down and visit with them and see where they were going.
I’m excited to see where I’m going.  I get to do this.  Every day.

Poems to Write Beside

Last evening was #poetrychat. We talked about poems that inspire writing. Here’s a list of all the poems mentioned. I wrote them in my notebook, and then I pinned them to my poetry board. Then I read and wrote a bit.

Eyes Fastened with Pins by Charles Simic

The Fall of Icarus by WC Williams

Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H Auden

This is Just to Say (a book) by Joyce Sidman

Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye

Where Dreams Come From by Marge Piercy

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon

Hailstones & Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neil (elementary)

(anything by Douglas Florian) (elementary)

Change by Charlotte Zolotow

Legacies by Nikki Giovanni

How to Live by Charles Harper Webb

A Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

(poems by Tony Medina and @SirJohnBennett and Claudia McKay)

The First Day by Joseph Green

Days by Billy Collins

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

(other poems by Billy Collins, Christina Rosetti, and Sandra Cisneros)

For the Young Who Want To by Marge Piercy

Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

Do you have other favorites to write beside or to ask students to write beside? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

And Happy Writing!

I plan to read and write to one poem every day this month. I find it fulfilling. Strange word, maybe, but there it is. Once I get the pen moving, I can write for hours. That’s what I need is hours of writing time.

How and what are you writing this summer?

Poems to Write Beside is the Topic for #PoetryChat Monday, July 6, 2015 8ET

My friend posted a link on Facebook that took me to “Life While You Wait” by Wislawa Szymborska. I’d never read it before and loved it so much I stopped what I was doing so I could write it in my notebook. Then I wrote a page about why the poet reached into my heart this morning. That thinking led me to think about my mother who’s been gone over a year now. Bittersweet.

Then I explored a bit, and clicked the link that took me to “Possibilities,” and I pulled the cap off my pen again. I copied the poem in my journal as I listened to Amanda Palmer read it. then I wrote notes on how I might use this poem with my students. I could use it as a mentor text and ask students to write their own “Possibilities,” or I can use it the first week of school (maybe even the first day), and we’ll write a class poem. I like this idea best.

After we write a few lines together, I’ll give each student a line, maybe two, and ask him to think about what the poet does with language there: compare and contrast, advice, internal rhyme, repetition, personification, etc. Then, they will write their own lines, modeled after the poet’s.

We’ll piece our lines together and see what we come up with. Collaborative-type writing on the first day of school…with a poem. Might set the tone for the school year quite nicely.

My simple act of writing beside poetry gifted me with emotion and ideas this morning.

There are a million other ways that poems can bless us with inspiration to write, think, learn, change, mature, grow. . . and teach. Join us for #poetrychat and give and receive.

Questions for our chat:

1. What are you writing this summer?

2. How does poetry inspire you to write?

3. Who is your favorite poet to turn to for inspiration? or what is your favorite poem?

4. What poems inspire your students to write? Any no fail poems out there?

5. Please share links to your own poems and/or other writing.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 3.18.41 PM

Winding Down to Gear Up

Last week I scored essays at the AP Reading in Kansas City. This was my first time. It will probably be solitudemy last. It was more exhausting than my first week out of school should ever have to be. I may be in recovery all summer.

A couple of weeks ago I asked my writing partners we might want to take a break from writing on the blog this summer. I need to write so I get a book done. That’s been my goal for way to long with nothing of substance to show for it — yet. I figured my TTT friends needed to be free to explore their own lives a bit. I knew we all had a lot going on, but I didn’t quite put it into perspective until I asked.

Shana wrote:  “I honestly feel like all four of us got the figurative sh** kicked out of us this year in a variety of ways — we can come back and attack a million new ideas in the fall.”

Jackie wrote:  “I am limping to the finish line” and in another email “I am waiting for the dust to settle.  I feel like my life is in boxes all over the places–both in my classroom and in my home.”

Erika wrote:  “After hacking my guts out for over a week, rounding the end of instructional time along with regents prep, and just being worn out…I round the corner today, open the recently painted door blazing with fumes from recently being painted (wonders for my asthma that’s already exacerbated), I walk down 1/2 of the staircase to find it blitzed with shredded paper.  If I wasn’t so darn exhausted I would have taken footage because that’s EXACTLY how I feel!  I need a rest; figurative, literal, physical.  All of it.  But, I love the idea of us winding down to gear up for another year of an even more incredible TTT!”

So, our dear teacher-friends who read what we write here, we are taking a little motivation vacation. We plan on reposting some of the content we’ve written in the past, but other than that — unless the need to write bites, and it often does, we will start posting again with fresh ideas and student-tested content and Secondary Readers and Writers Workshop in August.

Happy Summer!



Wrapping up with book trailers

After a slew of snow days and an extended year that pushed the end of school into the second-to-last week of June, my students’ motivation lagged as we approached our final month together. They needed an engaging project that still proved to be challenging and fun. Inspired by Amy’s work, my students and I celebrated the end of the reader’s workshop with a final book trailer project.

The process was organic; students latched onto the idea of watching mentor texts and dissecting the craft to gain a firmer understanding of the writing genre. Over the course of a few days, we analyzed and discussed the differences between the book and movie trailers for John Green’s upcoming film Paper Towns, a class favorite. We combed through countless examples of professional book trailers, dissecting the craft of the films and looking at the cinematography, hook, pacing, script, music, and scene choices. Finally, after brainstorming and storyboarding, students used Stupeflix, WeVideo, Puppet Edu, or iMovie to generate stunning book trailers. The results blew me away.  Here is a small sample of some of the trailers I’ll be using to supplement my book talks next year.

**Make sure to unmute the video. In some cases, the sound doesn’t automatically play.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown–Created by Matt


Perfect by Ellen Hopkins–Created by Emily

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate–Created by Alyssa

Looking for Alaska by John Green–Created by Tristan

There are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation


Emma was sunshine personified. She was salty hair and smiles and surfing. She was the student who sat in the front row, the one who showed up early to class just to chat. Emma died this past September in a car accident, one day after I revised her college essay, one day after she told me “one more concussion and I’ll be dead,” one day after she laughed off my nervous, “Be careful!”

When I first hear the news, I had been given the wrong students’ name, and I am ashamed to admit that for a moment I selfishly breathed a sigh of relief. But then her picture loaded, the pixelated image appeared line by line on my smartphone, her sandy blonde hair and smile, flashing section by section and I fell apart alone in my living room at 6:30am.

That was only the beginning.

Quickly students began unraveling. I am a second year teacher, a relative novice in the education world, yet I feel like I have lived a thousand lives. Had you asked me to reflect on my world after my first year, I would have peppered you with stories of passionate readers and personal successes, comedic performances of Macbeth, and classes that became family.

This year was different.

The questions weren’t the same, and while my first year had its own challenges, my second year was consumed with worst case scenarios. How was I supposed to deal with my seventeen-year-old students’ funeral? Where should I go when my student has an anxiety-induced nervous breakdown in the middle of class? How do I respond when my entire class just watched their classmate carried out in handcuffs? Or punched in the face in the middle of class? Or attacked by another student with psychiatric disorders and no impulse control? What do I do when my student disappears after being threatened with gang violence? Or because they attempted suicide? And these were only a handful of questions that I dealt with.

I have learned that there are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation. This was my year of transformation. No workshop or course could have prepared me to deal with the needs of my students this year. From them, I have learned unconditional commitment as a teacher. I have defended the rights of my students to remain in my classroom despite their disabilities. I have learned the value of opening my classroom as a safe space for those who have no place to go, whether that is at 7:00am or 4:30pm, to chat or just to read silently away from the prying eyes of peers. I have learned the value of openly modeling enthusiasm and empathy, of thanking them for filling my days with humor and love. I have learned the value of showing them that their words matter—that I will get their friend help immediately, that I will notice their change in disposition and book them an appointment with the school case worker, that I will sit with them in silence if that’s what they need.

I have a week-and-a-half left with my students, and while this year has saturated every ounce of my being, I will enter summer both as a stronger teacher and individual. As always, the end of our journey together is bittersweet, maybe even more so this year after the amount of time and personal energy I have invested into my students’ well being and success. This summer, I will delve into new novels and make lists of new lesson plans. I’ll attend multiple courses and collaborate on curriculum development, but I won’t forget that at the heart of my job is compassion. I can only hope that my students learn as much from me as I learn from them.


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