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Listening, Observing and Celebrating Growing Writers

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Please indulge us. We’d like to describe a single moment in a third grade classroom that was so powerful it feels it is forever seared in our brains. We had the opportunity to model writing lessons in a building last week. Ann Marie was the oh-so-wise woman who was modeling this particular lesson and there were close to 20 adults watching her in the room. The goal of the lesson was to help the kids edit and revise their pieces. Ann Marie did a nice job getting them to think about why good writers edit and revise their work, and then she set them off to look at their pieces and begin their revisions. While they were working, she was conferring and we were observing—both Ann Marie and the students.

During the writing time, we noticed that a few children who had been out with a specialist wandered back in. When it was time to share and reflect, Ann Marie called on the two “growing writers” who she had conferred with to share the lessons they had learned with her. One little boy described how he improved his piece by using a metaphor to describe how dark the cave really was. Another little girl shared that she had focused on making sure all of her sentences began with a capital letter. Both of these children had been prepped by Ann Marie to share their discoveries.

In the middle of all of this great teaching and learning, one of the little boys who had been with the specialist much of the writing time raised his hand to share. Jacquan wanted to share his piece rather than a discovery he made in a writing conference (because Ann Marie had not had the chance to work with him). We could tell this made the classroom teacher a little nervous and she said, Are you sure you want to share? He clearly had a hard time with speech and was difficult to understand. There was a period of uncertainty—Ann Marie looking at the teacher, the teacher looking at Ann Marie—until Ann Marie said, Absolutely you can share! Both Ann Marie and the teacher moved into closer proximity to Jacquan and knelt beside him, neither said a word though and allowed him to begin reading his work. It took close to five minutes for him to labor through his story. For most of us in the room it was very hard to hear and understand him. However, every once in a while Ann Marie would help him read a word in his piece—words like “Lightning McQueen and Mater.” When he finished, the entire group of nine-year-olds burst into spontaneous applause and some even stood up to honor their friend. They were so proud and pleased of their classmate’s accomplishment. The grown-ups in the room were brought to tears—this was clearly the first time Jacquan had taken a risk and shared his story with the entire class. Ann Marie pulled herself together so quickly (as only a great teacher could) and told the class that this is exactly what good writers do. They write about things they know and love and Jacquan clearly loves the movie Cars.

Ann Marie taught us that it’s important for teachers to remember that each student’s needs are as idiosyncratic as each individual child is. There really is no formula for the writing conference but, rather, it’s a time to listen and respond to the child as a writer yourself. It’s okay and necessary to be an honest listener with a natural reaction to the child’s writing before actually giving direction. In the words of Donald Graves, When I confer with you about your writing, you are more important than the writing. Show children that they matter far more than the writing on that page and you will have groups of students begging to write more each day and believing that the can be the writers they were born to be.

Ann Marie Corgill, Isabel McLean, Keri Bartholomew, Mary Cerullo

Ann Marie Corgill with students

Isabel Sawyer, PhD, is a Regional Director at Center for the Collaborative Classroom. She presents keynotes, workshops, presentations, and professional development for teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators across the country. Previously Isabel worked as a lead instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools and as an instructional coordinator for an inner-city school in Charlottesville, Virginia. Isabel holds her PhD from the University of Virginia and serves as an adjunct instructor in UVA's Curry School of Education. She has presented at local, state, and national conferences and worked with schools across the country as an independent consultant. 


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Comments (1)

Anne Marie, I enjoyed this so

Anne Marie, I enjoyed this so much!!  You are truly a gifted teacher!   Take care, Judy