By Lisa Eickholdt (@LisaEickholdt)
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Most writing teachers I know use a predictable conference structure when they confer. This structure has evolved to include the following parts: research, decide, compliment, teach, and link (Anderson, 2000). In the past few years, I’ve noticed many teachers now call the compliment portion of the conference, noticing and naming. This shift in our instruction may have been propelled by Katherine Bomer. In her 2010 book, Hidden Gems, Bomer proposed that teachers begin every conference by noticing what the student is attempting to do, praising him or her for it, and naming it. She wrote, “I believe this naming portion of the writing conference is not a throwaway moment, not empty praise, or a pat on the head for being a good girl or boy, but in fact the key to teaching students something they may not have consciously realized they are doing so they can build on it and do it again.” (p. 9).
Recently, I’ve been working with groups of teachers to help them find the strengths in every child’s writing. In these meetings, we examine students’ writing, notice the things they are doing well, and name the writing technique. Essentially we work our way through the compliment portion of a conference. Doing this work in a group helps teachers do it later in conferences with individual students. I usually begin our work together by modeling how the compliment portion might sound.
An example of the compliment portion of a conference:
“I see you’re the kind of writer that likes to use different text structures in your books. I noticed you used a question and answer structure on this page. You started by asking a question in your bolded heading right here (pointing to heading), “How fast is a tornado?” Then, you spent the rest of the page answering that question and explaining exactly how fast tornados travel. I had no idea that they can go up to 300 mph. Wow! I learned something new. You know what else? When I read this page, it reminded me of Melissa Stewart’s writing. Remember we read her books and noticed she asks and answers questions? You’re just like Melissa Stewart! Every time you write a nonfiction book, you can use different text structures like the question and answer one you used on this page. It will always make your writing more interesting.”
Here are some questions and tips that might help you with the compliment portion of the writing conference:
- What do you notice the child is doing well in the writing? Seek out new or emerging strategies the writer is attempting to compliment, rather than known strategies that are already a part of their repertoire.
- “I notice you….”
- “I see you’re the kind of writer who likes to ….”
- “I like how you….” (I have been working to remove all judgmental language from my repertoire. For more on why, see this post by Christina Nosek).
- Exactly where did the child use this technique? Point it out on the page.
- What do you call this writing technique? Name the strategy or technique for the writer. Be specific and repeat the label a couple of times as you speak. Remember, naming is a crucial step in teaching.
- Don’t rush through your compliment! Take your time and make your compliment long; try to make it a paragraph. Comparing the child’s writing to a published author you’ve studied is a high form of praise.
- “When I read this, it reminded me of (an author your class has studied). You’re just like …!”
- End your compliment by encouraging the child to do this work again in the future.
- “Every time you write, you can…and it will make your writing….”
- “In the future, you’ll want to do this same kind of work.”
Why is the Compliment Important?
As I worked through this process in my professional developments, I considered all the reasons the compliment is important:
- Beginning with noticing what a writer has done well or attempted to do requires us to examine our student’s writing through a positive lens.
- To seek out the good qualities in student’s writing, we must stop being what Robert Probst calls, “A hunter of errors.” Sometimes when we examine a student’s work, we get lost in the poor handwriting, the misspelled words, and the missing punctuation. Finding a way to compliment the writer, forces us to look past the surface feature errors and find the “hidden gems”.
- In Choice Words, Johnston (2004) wrote, “When people are being apprenticed into an activity of any sort, they have to figure out the key features of the activity and their significance….noticing and naming are a central part of being a communicating human being, but it is also crucial to becoming capable in particular activities” (p.11). Naming students’ emerging writing techniques in conferences makes them aware of the things they are unknowingly doing. This new awareness helps writers repeat the process in the future.
- Noticing and naming encourage students to use newly learned strategies and techniques. Accepting and encouraging student’s approximations fosters an environment of risk-taking.
Recently Kari Yates, the author of the book Simple Starts pointed out another important reason we should compliment students. She mentioned it in a chat Thursday night.
Nurture a culture of celebration. Notice and name the good work all around and encourage sharing and connection. #g2great
— Kari Yates (@Kari_Yates) September 25, 2015
Noticing, naming and sharing the good work all around us creates what Kari calls a “culture of celebration” (I love this term!). Reveling in our kids’ writing and using it as a model in minilessons, conferences, and share sessions foster a positive classroom environment. In addition to sharing students’ writing throughout workshop, there are other ways we can celebrate our kids’ good work:
- Celebrate with charts. Copy a piece of student writing, glue it to a chart, and annotate the craft moves the writer used.
- Celebrate with quotes. Jot down “golden lines” from your student’s writing. Write them on a glitter board and display in your room.
- Celebrate with books. Put your kids’ published books in a tub or on a shelf in your library. Placing students’ writing alongside the work of published authors sends a powerful message.
- Celebrate with parents. Post a few pieces of kids’ writing in your weekly newsletter. Consider featuring an author a week with an interview and photos of their work.
Noticing, naming and celebrating all the writing techniques our students are using in their work is a powerful form of teaching and creates a culture of celebration. What are some ways you create this culture in your classroom?
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