Sometimes, we find places where the writing touched all of us, words common to every responder’s list.
Getting conference circles started
I learned to begin writing workshop by asking for a “status of the class” from reading In the Middle by Nancie Atwell. I ask everyone to share where he or she is in the writing process (I’m writing; I need a conference circle; I’m editing…) along with the title or topic of the piece on which they are working. I record the information on my clipboard. I pull together all the students who need a conference. We arrange chairs depending on the needs of the day.
I sit in the circle so that I can be next to the writer, a part of the conference circle, and watch the rest of my class at work around the classroom. I ask the child right next to me to read his/her paper aloud, loud enough for the whole group to hear. Circle members listen carefully along with me, so they can share their compliments, questions and suggestions. Most take notes in their daybooks so they can remember what to say. Following Writing TAG (see below) gives these all writers a structure for conferences until they understand the purpose. Very quickly, the conversation becomes more natural.
Concise, Clear Compliments
We start our discussion with compliments because I want my children to hear what they did well, and in turn, what they should keep. From my experience with writers, I know that praise works to improve writing. Giving a positive response is an effective strategy documented in research literature as well:
"To respond to in-progress writing is to intervene in the writer's process. Such intervention should help the process move forward and should give the writer clearer notions of both what to revise and how to revise. Thus, responding is something quite different from grading. The best response writers can receive is that which will make them want to keep writing." (Don Daiker, 1989).
After the reading, we honor a moment of silence. The minute gives the other circle members time to organize their thoughts. Also, it makes the initial response of the group the same. If the circle responds enthusiastically to one piece but not the next, a hidden message is inadvertently conveyed. Sometimes, we ask the reader to read the piece a second time.
Each student in the conference circle takes turns complimenting the writer. It’s especially important in this phase to learn to quote the writer’s own words wherever possible.
Tips for getting specific praise
The writer must know what words the readers want saved. If we can’t remember, I teach my students to ask the writer to reread parts or ask to see the paper. Sometimes we ask for lines or phrases to be reread just so that we can savor the language of the piece. The writer codes the compliments with a plus (+).
Sometimes, we find places where the writing touched all of us, words common to every responder’s list. When we agree with each other’s compliments, we simply raise our hands and say something like, “Ah, yes. I love that line, too.” Seeing all those hands in the air is graphic confirmation that the writer’s words worked and the effort was worth it.
I compliment last. I often relate something I see the writer doing to writing lessons we’ve had or a common problem I want to address. “I can see that you really worked on writing a beginning that grabs our attention. I like the words…” Or, I compliment the writer on improving in an area in which he or she was struggling. After working so hard, children smile as their peers and their teacher compliment their words. “By getting responses to their writing, the writers know what’s coming through.” (Donald Graves, 2003) Or, as one third-grader put it, “The compliments help me know that my story is worthwhile.”
NEXT: Carefully crafted questions