When the teacher asked me to conference with her first-grade writers I was afraid – I was very afraid. I had years of experience working with high school, college, and adult writers. I knew the questions to ask and when to let silence hang between us. I knew when to take possession of the writing in question and when to hand it back. But first graders? They were so new to literacy, so young, so fragile. What if I broke them? The teacher smiled at the panic in my eyes in the reassuring way only an experienced primary educator possesses – a mixture of comfort and steely will. “You can do this.” Meaning, of course, you will do this.
My first conference was with a tiny girl who had written a poem about butterflies. I knew this because her title stated the topic clearly and every line began “Butterflies are …” The butterflies in question seemed to take up residence in my stomach. I swallowed cautiously and asked her to tell me about butterflies and then we were off. She had a lot to say in response to my questions and before I knew it she was walking back to her desk with a list of words and her pencil busily circling the ones she wanted to start with. I hadn’t broken her. I took her ideas and her words seriously. She was excited to get back to work about the ideas we had brainstormed. I believed in her as a writer and so she believed in herself.
That day I learned a very important lesson as an educator – writers are writers are writers. Too often, we think we need different scaffolding for primary writers, elementary writers, middle school writers, high school writers, college writers, and adult writers – when, in fact, we could not be further from the truth. If anything the older writers need more coddling and support than the younger writers, because they bring more baggage and more scar tissue to the task. Even worse, older writers often need reprogramming because they have developed bad habits and learned harmful processes over the years. Young writers have not yet experienced the negative effects of writing – no one has told them that they can’t write yet – so they enter the task with joy and excitement. It is older writers who have perfected the avoidance strategies and convoluted processes that inhibit writing. That is what we need to remember as writing teachers — we need to provide the support that the individual writer and individual writing task calls for — nothing more and nothing less.
In the years since those first-grade writing conferences I have worked with many more primary and elementary writers and now I am confident in my knowledge that we should not let age be the primary determinant of how we guide writers through a task. It is just as big a mistake to assume that college writers need little guidance as it is to assume that primary writers need a lot. Perhaps the biggest mistake of all is to assume that first-grade writers need special guidance simply because they are in first grade. First graders in a writing workshop classroom will need less support than college writers who have known only traditional writing instruction. Middle schoolers struggling with a new form will need more support than fourth graders tackling a familiar task. There is no one-size-fits-all writing process and certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching writers. The one universal truth is that you need to teach each writer where she is and provide the support she needs when she needs it and then get out of the way to let her write.