Today I’m starting to put together my workshop for next weekend’s Saturday Reunion. So, that’s where I’ll be spending the bulk of today’s available writing time. But it’s gotten me thinking. Fourteen years into doing this work, what do I still find tricky about writing conferences? Here are three challenges I still struggle with:

Balancing consideration for the writer and consideration of the writing. When I sit with a young writer and his or her writing, there seem to be so many competing thoughts and ideas swirling in my head. I’m ashamed to admit it is way too easy for me to get caught up in my “fancy teaching ideas”—sometimes to the point that I forget to respond. I should say that I always compliment the writer. But in the rush of the workshop, I don’t always take the time to let the words impact me and to respond as a human being who’s deeply considering another’s message.

I’m also terribly novice at choosing which teaching point will match the writer as much as it matches the writing. I’d like to push myself to ask the following questions before deciding on a teaching point: What do I know about what intrigues and motivates this writer? Is it audience? Or a fantastic mentor text? Does he or she crave playfulness or does this writer aspire to be more grown-up and sophisticated? Answering these questions may not change the teaching point I decide upon, but I have a hunch it would give me a better chance at framing my teaching in a way that sticks!

Follow a string or move on? Note-taking is extremely important to my teaching. Reflecting on previous writing conferences really helps me put the current one into perspective. For example, if I see we’ve talked a bunch about elaboration, maybe you’re ready to think more about structure. But it’s started to feel tricky for me to know when to stay on one writing strategy and when to move on to teach a new one.

I certainly know my impulse is to move on, to offer young writers a vast menu of skills to practice and draw from as they write. But sometimes I wonder if I move on too quickly. I wonder if some writers might not benefit from talking more and thinking more about one skill. What would happen if I used my conferences to give new examples of a previously introduced strategy, or to ask students to try it out over again so I could offer more coaching? Would this enable some students to make discoveries or innovations that aren’t currently possible because I’m so intent to “move on”? I don’t know.

Efficiency vs. Intimacy Aaah. I seriously love me a good strategy group! Read all the students’ writing! Make piles of kids who could use the same strategies to improve their writing! Teach ‘em and coach ‘em all together instead of walking around repeating yourself 8 times! (Yes, I know I have that efficiency-craving German blood pumping somewhere inside of me!)

Yet. There’s not a single strategy group that has the same life-altering power as a one-on-one conference with a fellow writer who knows you well and cares deeply about you and your work. When I think back over the times in my own life where I’ve been able to make big changes, yes, there have been some group experiences. But it’s been one-on-one conversations that have made the biggest difference. I can say as much as I want about efficiency, but I never want to forget that conferences are worth making time for.

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