“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Each day, while my students are working independently on Writer’s Workshop, I consult a small yellow legal pad that sits on the surface of the horseshoe-shaped table by the window of my classroom. The lined-yellow paper houses a list of names, written in a variety of handwritings, which grows longer by the day. I call out the name of the next student on the list, inviting them to sit with me at my table. “Don’t forget your personal narrative, your goal-sheet, and your checklist…oh, and also your chair.” (We are very short on chairs this year. We have to carry our own around everywhere we go). The student sits across from me and pushes his or her narrative toward my side of the table. First, I read aloud the goals that the student chose. My goal is to do more show than tell in my writing. My goal is to use more spicy verbs. My goal is to include character reactions. My goal is to organize my personal narrative into paragraphs. The goals come from a process of looking over a checklist of characteristics that we want our writing to have. But we know that we can’t tackle them all at once. We are reaching our goals “one page at a time” or “bird by bird.”
I always knew conferencing with students about their writing was important, but I struggled so much with making it happen when I taught 2nd grade. There was always someone who needed me, and before I knew it, writing time would be over. The few times I was able to concentrate on reading through one student’s rough draft, I would feel overwhelmed by all the errors I saw that demanded the attention of my red pen. It would leave in its wake a bloody trail of strange symbols that likely looked like gibberish to many 2nd graders and probably overwhelmed them to boot. The independence level of the students in 5th grade makes the conferencing time much easier, and I feel like I’m doing a better job at laying a foundation for students to speak the language and understand what we’re looking for when we go about making our writing better.
After I read through a student’s goals, I read through his or her piece out loud. I try to limit the amount of editing I do, unless the goal was specifically in regards to capitalization, punctuation, usage, or spelling. I talk with them about their word choices, descriptions, and the order of their stories. I ask them what message they want the reader to take-away from reading the story. I read through the piece a couple of times and take notes in the margins to help them remember our conversation. I encourage them to include their feelings, their thoughts, those details that they speak about freely but didn’t know were important enough to write down.
I’ve come to cherish these conversations as one of the best parts of my day. One of the things I’ve missed about 2nd graders is that they are themselves almost all of the time, and talking with them is almost always funny or heartwarming or wonderfully honest. But something happens between 2nd and 5th grade, a self-consciousness creeps in, and it seems like my students are holding back parts of themselves. This is normal, I think, but I sometimes miss the vulnerability. But then I get to see it again in bits and pieces during these writing conferences. From the story of one student, who faced his fear of swimming in the ocean and realized all the wonder it contained…to the student who wrote about when she got her very own phone, which she called “a little block of joy”… to the student who knew that he had overcome a great personal struggle when he jumped off the diving board and gave himself credit, even when the coach didn’t… to the student who shared all the tender moments of his Christmas memories, both happy and sad, I feel like I am getting those honest glimpses at their personalities that I miss. Through these stories, I am watching these children grow up into themselves right before my eyes. It is truly an honor and unique privilege.