This past year, I’ve taken time to evaluate my role in the writing workshop. One question I’ve asked myself is Am I interrupting students writing by continually conferring with them?
I think my interactions with writers created “production writing” (i.e., evidence of participation in the writing workshop, including a “nice and neat” final draft) more than thoughtful writing. After careful consideration, I decided to scale back my role to better support writers’ creativity.
When I considered the stages in the writing process (idea development, drafting, revision, revision, and more revision before editing), I wondered, At what stage does a writer need space to be alone? When do I want less distraction and interruption? For me, that stage is drafting. Since I don’t represent my students and their unique writing processes, I asked my sixth graders, “When do you need me out of the picture?”
They agreed. During drafting.
Many students complained that there isn’t enough time to write well and that my presence sometimes causes them anxiety. When I confer with writers, they feel a product needs to be ready or evidence needs to be ready, proving they assimilated the day’s minilesson. Writers love their personal space to experiment with ideas and develop drafts. They want to develop and complete their idea before seeking suggestions. By my insistence on conferring, I had been interrupting this process. In retrospect, I think of the numerous occasions students wrote diligently before I conferred, and stalled after I left.
In the worst-case scenario, I run the risk of offending writers because I have not given them space to develop ideas. As a result, I instill shame when I interject. Young writers will internalize the feeling that their writing isn’t good enough, even before they have a chance to get a full draft on the page.
I want writers to advocate for themselves. I certainly don’t want to be seen as their gatekeeper. This means writers can or should confer with me when they are trying a new writing technique or trying to expand on an idea. Thus, my writers choose when they want to confer. Most choose to ask for advice after they are finished or when they hit the dreaded writer’s block.
What if writers need help?
If writers find themselves in a predicament, of course I help them. However, the decision to seek help comes from the student, rather than from me. Writers need to develop their idea first and feel intrinsic worth as a result of their creation. I do not want to run the risk of influencing a student in a way that changes his or her idea or does not allow the writer to take ownership of his or her idea. Too many students find defeat and alienation because of my well-intended advice. Those of us who have submitted work for publication know this feeling. When an outside editor tries to persuade us to go in a new direction, we sometimes lose interest in our writing. In some cases, we lose faith in ourselves. That is certainly not what I wish for my students.
I hope students have questions for me, but not questions of approval (“Is this good enough?”) or dependent pleas (“I don’t know how to start my paragraph”). We all face predicaments when writing, but I must carefully consider what constitutes a scaffold and what nurtures dependency. In the drafting phase, approval can be negative. Many writers want to know if their writing is “good.” Instead of answering that question, I ask students a series of three questions:
- What do you think you’ve done well?
- Do you need advice on any challenges?
- How will you define success for this draft?
I also do not provide answers for “dependent pleas.” My writers have a horrible habit of asking, “Mr. Stygles, I don’t know how to start this. Can you help me?” Rather than my answering the question, we sit down and brainstorm potential leads and transitions. I help the writer create choice amassed from collaboratively generated ideas, which promotes self-efficacy.
My goal is to show writers that their drafts are a place to experiment, not strive for perfection. Anyone who writes knows the challenge of sharing your work, even with a trusted colleague. By giving writers space to ask for help and share their work, on their terms, I help them establish autonomy.