Make Space for Writing as a Conversation
A regular ed. teacher changed my philosophy about how to teach writing. His approach was very different than any I had ever encountered before… and since.
He would talk to his middle grade students with the cadences of a college professor, pausing for deep moments of reflection. He would laugh, earnestly; it was always a full-bodied laugh. This teacher taught some gifted writing students, but he also taught others who struggled with their written expression.
I don’t know if this teacher ever gave formal writing assignments to his students. It’s been six years since I worked with him, and he passed away a few years ago. (Every time I think about the fact that he’s not here with us, it’s hard for me to believe. His classroom was always so alive, and he was such a force of life.)
This teacher always used journals with his students. They were always a little mysterious to me, and intriguing, as I didn’t know how he used them, exactly.
Finally, I got to see a journal in action, when he asked me to “take over” as the writing teacher for a struggling student. Frankly, I didn’t know where to start; I didn’t understand what the teacher did with these journals.
I had to start somewhere; so, I flipped to the very first page and started to follow the dialogue.
Yes—it was a dialogue.
The teacher might have initiated the dialogue with a question or general idea; I can’t recall. What I do recall is that the student’s initial output was short—maybe one line, at the most. But this teacher had seized upon those few words and followed up; maybe he used another leading question, or a relevant statement.
All I know is that the teacher’s responses lacked judgement.
His responses existed in a continual back-and-forth, and they flowed, like those in a good conversation.
This wasn’t the way I had ever taught writing, so the whole thing took me aback. I had been trained to teach writing as a collection of skills. Even during my excellent grad school seminars in literacy education, nobody ever brought up the idea to employ writing as a conversation.
But when I tried it for myself, I understood the “method behind the madness.” This technique is revolutionary, and it’s progressive. But it’s not impossible, even if you’re working in a very traditional environment. You can incorporate this technique into your work.
I don’t suggest to make technique the entirety of your writing instruction. Rather, I suggest that you incorporate aspects of “writing as conversation” into your literacy routine.
If you try this out, you’ll see results.
Over time, you’ll observe that you can help your students:
Students who have difficulty with written expression often feel unable to express themselves on the page. (Many also find it difficult to express themselves in speech.)
When you make writing into a two-way conversation, you remove it from the hallowed halls of impossibility. You bring it down to a human level.
It’s easier to write fluently when you’re not afraid of making a mistake. Period. And this back-and-forth format of writing helps relieve learners of some of that tension.
Once they’re fluent, students will be able to:
Add Supporting DetailS to their Work
If students work on a draft, only to have it marked up with the “bad things”—the things that need to be changed—they’ll seize up when it comes time to add detail. They might worry that any “extras” they write might be circumspect, too.
Compare this to the feeling someone might get while being interviewed live on national TV. This person might seize up, in fear of saying the wrong thing.
It works the same way with writing. If students worry that everything they write will be scrutinized for a grade, it can be hard for them to persist.
Help students to Feel Valued
When we give students the time to write each day, in a conversational way, it sends the message that what they say matters. We’re taking the time to respond in an authentic and human way.
“Journal conversations” also allow writers a chance to practice their unique “personal voices.” Students will know that they matter when you conference with them, each of you talking and writing, back and forth.
Yes, this technique is a tad intensive. But it doesn’t require a lesson plan each time. It’s journal time, it’s fluency time, and it allows you to be in the moment as a teacher.
We each have different schedules, different departmental requirements, and different students (with different needs). But I recommend that you try out this journal approach at least once per literacy block, preferably as a warm-up activity. You might start off at 5 minutes initially and expand outward after a month or so.
There might be things that you’re still wondering about, such as:
How should I grade this work?
When you make space for writing as a conversation, don’t assign points in the traditional sense of analysis. Instead, assign points for effort. If students work consistently during the allotted time frame, then they should receive full credit. Of course, you should create opportunities for students to craft formal writing pieces (essays, written responses, creative fiction, and so on.) But those tasks are different, and you’ll deploy them for different purposes.
How can I use this technique for IEP goals?
If your students find it difficult to write for a sustained period of time, add supporting details, or if they have an aversion to writing, you can use this technique to improve their:
Time spent writing
Scope of details written
Compliance with the writing task
Initiation of the writing task
Senses of self-efficacy
What materials should I use?
Ditch your red pen for this task.
Avoid spiral bound notebooks, as it’s too easy for the pages to rip out. Instead, try composition notebooks, to keep the journal together and create a “special habitat” for the writing.
For students who require a keyboard, you can use this technique on an ongoing Word Doc. “Type back” to the student with your leading (and follow-up) questions, comments, and/or natural conversational responses. Use a font color such as green or purple, so your responses will pop.
Should I showcase this journal writing?
Yes, you can definitely bring this journal to an IEP or other parent meeting. But you shouldn’t put this journal on public display; nor should you make copies of it to post somewhere.
The writing-as-conversation technique needs to flow. You’ll interrupt the flow if you showcase the work in a public forum.
Note: Occasionally, your students might feel so comfortable that they reveal something troubling in these journals. Don’t attempt to play counselor; rather, bring the journal to your school counselor and/or administrator and ask that person to address the issue.
Bring back YOUR STUDENTS’ Enjoyment in Writing
Writing is so incredibly hard for many of our special needs students, and many of them always feel like they’re doing it wrong. Creating space for “writing as conversation” takes away some of that pressure, and might just give your students a new lease on their writing.
I guarantee that if you use this technique, your students’ attitudes toward writing will slowly improve.