Listening, Observing and Celebrating Growing Writers
Please indulge us. We’d like to describe a single moment in a third grade classroom that was so powerful it feels it is forever seared in our brains. We had the opportunity to model writing lessons in a building last week. Ann Marie was the oh-so-wise woman who was modeling this particular lesson and there were close to 20 adults watching her in the room. The goal of the lesson was to help the kids edit and revise their pieces. Ann Marie did a nice job getting them to think about why good writers edit and revise their work, and then she set them off to look at their pieces and begin their revisions. While they were working, she was conferring and we were observing—both Ann Marie and the students.
During the writing time, we noticed that a few children who had been out with a specialist wandered back in. When it was time to share and reflect, Ann Marie called on the two “growing writers” who she had conferred with to share the lessons they had learned with her. One little boy described how he improved his piece by using a metaphor to describe how dark the cave really was. Another little girl shared that she had focused on making sure all of her sentences began with a capital letter. Both of these children had been prepped by Ann Marie to share their discoveries.
In the middle of all of this great teaching and learning, one of the little boys who had been with the specialist much of the writing time raised his hand to share. Jacquan wanted to share his piece rather than a discovery he made in a writing conference (because Ann Marie had not had the chance to work with him). We could tell this made the classroom teacher a little nervous and she said, “Are you sure you want to share?” He clearly had a hard time with speech and was difficult to understand. There was a period of uncertainty—Ann Marie looking at the teacher, the teacher looking at Ann Marie—until Ann Marie said, “Absolutely you can share!” Both Ann Marie and the teacher moved into closer proximity to Jacquan and knelt beside him, neither said a word though and allowed him to begin reading his work. It took close to five minutes for him to labor through his story. For most of us in the room it was very hard to hear and understand him. However, every once in a while Ann Marie would help him read a word in his piece—words like “Lightning McQueen and Mater.” When he finished, the entire group of nine-year-olds burst into spontaneous applause and some even stood up to honor their friend. They were so proud and pleased of their classmate’s accomplishment. The grown-ups in the room were brought to tears—this was clearly the first time Jacquan had taken a risk and shared his story with the entire class. Ann Marie pulled herself together so quickly (as only a great teacher could) and told the class that this is exactly what good writers do. They write about things they know and love and Jacquan clearly loves the movie Cars.
Ann Marie taught us that it's important for teachers to remember that each student's needs are as idiosyncratic as each individual child is. There really is no formula for the writing conference but, rather, it's a time to listen and respond to the child as a writer yourself. It's okay and necessary to be an honest listener with a natural reaction to the child's writing before actually giving direction. In the words of Donald Graves, “When I confer with you about your writing, you are more important than the writing.” Show children that they matter far more than the writing on that page and you will have groups of students begging to write more each day and believing that the can be the writers they were born to be.
Ann Marie Corgill, Isabel McLean, Keri Bartholomew, Mary Cerullo
Ann Marie Corgill has been a teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, and Bronxville, New York. In 2009, she was honored as Teacher of the Year in her district and was in the final four for Alabama’s Teacher of the Year, 2009–2010. Ann was recently awarded Alabama’s 2011 Advancement of Literacy Award at this year’s annual Gulf Coast Writing Conference in San Destin, Florida. She is the author of Of Primary Importance (Stenhouse, 2008).
Isabel McLean is a National Education Consultant at Developmental Studies Center.
Keri Bartholomew is presently a literacy consultant and coach in elementary schools, grades K–3 for multiple school districts. As a literacy coach, Keri has worked with several DSC programs.
Mary Cerullo has worked in the field of education for the past 35 years. Her roles as an educator include content-area middle and high school teacher, reading specialist, Regents’ Reading Fellow for the Rhode Island Department of Education, and Executive Director of Literacy. She is presently working as a national education consultant with districts and schools across the United States.