The Writer is the Goal

All, Teaching Tips

I just completed my second round of grade conferences with my Writing II classes and this experience reconfirms that shifting the agency for assessment to the writer is a powerful tool. I love that these regular conferences give me an opportunity to learn about students’ experiences with the unit we just completed and the challenges they worked through in the process of completing the deliverable for that unit. We have the chance to discuss how these experiences challenged the student as a writer and thinker. We make the time to talk about their writing process for this unique context and what they will need to work on for the next unit — how the context will shift with a new deliverable. I can’t tell you how much I love these conversations. I love these conversations, because we are focused on the real goal, the bottom line or end game, of my class — helping the writer grow.

I have spent my teaching career working to develop a process of fostering writers and the grade conference is the final piece to my process. While nothing about my teaching is perfect {when I think that I should probably leave the profession) I feel I have arrived at a sweet spot. However, recent conversations among my colleagues have dampened my pride and excitement, because these incidents have underscored how far much of the profession is from this sweet spot. I was recently asked: “What are your favorite writing strategies?” and I found myself unable to respond because that question is the problem. As long as there are educators who believe that fostering writers involves teaching writing strategies we will never help writers grow and develop. We will get lucky with a small percentage who love words and find their own way despite our graphic organizers and on-demand writing tests, but we will leave so many behind. Would-be writers scarred by red pens, weighed down by archaic rubrics, and driven mindless by vacuous prompts will never know the joy of crafting a piece that lifts their soul, makes their friends laugh, or inspires others to action. That is the education malpractice that keeps me up at night, my friends. I lose no sleep over plagiarism, seat time, or other acts of compliance, but the sheer wanton waste of potential. I need to take a minute to calm myself.

So what is the sweet spot? There are legions of teachers at every level from P-16 and in every content area who teach in the sweet spot or at least fight against the system to work it into their classes as much as possible, because, let’s be honest, the system is not designed to support writing workshop and many of the structures of our monolithic educational enterprise in the United States are anathema to it. Those teachers are supporting and sustaining writers and like me are constantly working to improve our practice, but I fear we are outnumbered. So what is the sweet spot for fostering writers? It is not actually a spot at all but rather a vast territory that encompasses wide variations of teaching practice influenced by the specific context created by teacher, students, location, and content. However, within that territory and the rich variety of contexts we see similar patterns of practice. Within this territory writing is viewed as a process that includes giving writers the opportunity to explore and interact with a variety of texts to inform and inspire their writing; lots of low-stakes opportunity to practice and experiment with their writing; and feedback to support their growth as writers. My current sweet spot writing workshop includes opening our minds and adding to our knowledge and experience, shaping our knowledge by sharing expertise and understanding, working together and apart, and airing our ideas and work throughout the writing process.

Opening

Each unit in my classes culminates in a deliverable and the work of that unit follows a similar cycle as we prepare those deliverables. Early in the unit most of our focus is simply exploring ideas from a variety of texts. See 3 Writing Lessons for a description of this focus for our first unit this semester. Our second unit was a rhetorical analysis of a game and first we needed to examine whether games can be or make an argument.

Shaping

After concluding as a group that the answer was yes, games can be/make an argument, we needed to explore the ways that these arguments can be analyzed. While we could use many ideas from the first unit (especially game theory such as Jesper Juul’s Looking for the Heart of Gameness), we also needed to hone our understanding of rhetorical analysis and explore how that work could be applied to games. This meant a lot of practice and discussion about different types of texts and different types of games both in class and out.

Working

As we worked through these ideas we collaborated on resource documents to share our thoughts about writing a rhetorical analysis of a game as well as individual plans for the deliverable that will culminate the unit so when students are working alone later on they still have access to support and inspiration.

Airing

Students brainstormed games together and discussed ways to analyze those games then drafted claims and shared feedback before drafting their rhetorical analyses and submitting to workshop.

Assessing

Throughout the cycle we spend a lot of time working through the writing process and exploring the rhetorical context for the expected deliverable. This work includes, as part of our shaping process, closely examining the rhetorical context including the expectations of Morehead State University, the English Department, the discipline, and the instructor. Based on this study, we craft together the standards that will be used to guide both workshop feedback and the achievement report the writer prepares for our conference.

Grade conferences are exhausting and time consuming, but they are possible because of the work that we have put in as a writing community. And I know that the time and effort required to do grade conferences are worth it because we never lost sight of our focus on helping writers learn and grow as well as attend to their own writing process.

Artwork by Torange.biz

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