Slice of Life Challenge day 10 #sol17

Supporting writers at the right level is no easy job…

Title: “Support”

Settling in a chair next to Emma, I trained my eyes on the SmartBoard.  Projected on the screen were sentence frames for crafting claims for an eighth grade literary essay.  After demonstrating a way to harness the sentences frames, the teacher was now asking  students to try out one of the frames themselves to create a claim.  Turning my attention back to Emma, I watched as she put the tip of her pencil to a page in her writer’s notebook (always a glorious sight in my book) and began jotting something, her face knotted into a look of focus and concentration.

After recapping the lesson, the teacher then requested that her writers all chat with their writing partners about setting a goal for themselves for writing time.  Emma had finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and I listened as she voiced her goal to her partner. She wanted to create a solid claim on which she could build an author’s craft essay.  Great.  Perfect goal. From her conversation with her partner, I could tell she wanted specifically to write about the symbolism of the mockingbird, but wasn’t quite sure how.

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“May I see what you have so far, Emma?” I asked.  I had known Emma from years before as a sixth grader.  Although I didn’t get to know her well, due to the fact I am the reading consultant for my building and not in a classroom teacher position, I knew her as a strong reader and a deep thinker.  As I leaned over to read her draft claim, I could see that she was trying to write something about the symbolism of the mockingbird, an innocent bird that is yet still hunted by society (cue the connection to the current political atmosphere).

“I want to say something about how society expects people to be a certain way,” she explained.  Pressing her lips together, she paused.  “I think in this book the author shows that society just sees people in narrow ways, and people are sort of…” she trailed off.  “I’m not sure what I want to say,” she said, returning her gaze to her notebook.

What struck me in that moment was the level of sophistication, task persistence, and deep thinking this girl was grasping for.  My thoughts instantly began to coalesce around an important consideration: what level of support ought I provide? I knew she was struggling, and yet I also knew with the right level of support she could craft the claim she really wanted.  “Emma, may I show you how another writer wrote about symbolism?” I offered. Emma leaned over her desk, as I brought out another student’s essay.  We studied a mentor essay I had brought with me, and she was able to see that sometimes writers can show how one concept, like ‘hope’ or ‘innocence’, is brought to light through different craft moves.  “Oh, I see,” she said.  After a moment of silent thinking, her pencil was down again, moving swiftly across the snowy white paper.

Her next attempt proved a little better, but again, I was unsure of the next step in this conference.

I want to stress here that this writing conference was hard for me.  I struggled.  What was the right level of support for this advanced writer and thinker? I kept asking myself. How do I teach this writer and not just “fix” her writing?

Eventually, she settled on a draft claim she felt pretty good about, and the bell rang.  I walked away with two thoughts that day.  One: how often are teachers able to devote energy to kids like Emma?  When the standardized testing culture dictates that each student jump over this bar, do kids like Emma lose out?  After all, she’s over the bar.  Way over.  So for us, it is easy to just let those kids fend for themselves, right?  She’ll be fine…won’t she?  Two:  providing the best and most appropriate level of support is a tricky process that never seems to fit neatly into any one box.  How did I do with Emma?  I don’t know, honestly.  But she did thank me.  Perhaps she learned something.  I know I did.

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Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 23 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy and reading consultant in Northwestern Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on Twitter @LannyBall, as well as his literacy blog: lannyball.com or lannyball.blog.

9 thoughts on “Slice of Life Challenge day 10 #sol17”

  1. I just attended PD which encouraged using student mentor text. Reading your post was like watching a video of your work with Emma. You showed her how it could go and gave her that needed boost when a writer is stuck. I bet she even starts to look for other mentor texts for this piece or pieces she will write in college. So much occurs in the showing!

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  2. Ahhh… The tricky and delicate balance needed to support advanced writers/thinkers… An art form to be continually honed…

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  3. This is a tricky dilemma for all writing teachers, I think. How much is too much? I appreciate your honesty in this post and think it’s nice to know that sometimes, even when you walk away, you’re not sure.

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  4. Isn’t this the crazy balance of a writing teacher? I am constantly asking myself, “What did I do there, what did they do, what will they do now?” Time will tell I suppose. Those writers way over the bar only lose out when we stop listening. I think most of those deep thinkers and crafty writers need an ear more than anything else. When I find myself tuning out of their space I lose out too. It’s definitely worth the time to watch them, learn from them, and listen to them process through the tough parts. Emma is lucky she has your engaged ear waiting and thinking of how to support her. She’s winning.

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  5. It’s a fine line balancing between not providing enough scaffolding and providing too much support. I appreciate that you shared a student mentor text. I think that is powerful for students to see. It gave her the nudge she needed in the moment. Who knows? Perhaps she will continue to think about her draft and there will be more to talk about next time!

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  6. Gosh, I really wish you were MY writing teacher–or at least in my building. I’d love to have you help me support my writers. I am in a small school that doesn’t collaborate much and I covet your support and consultation. I love reading about what you do.

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