By Emily Galle-From
To those who know me, it is no surprise that writer’s workshop is my favorite part of the school day. To those who don’t, I’m often greeted with confused stares or a thread of questions: How do you fit Writing into your schedule?, Isn’t it intimidating?, and How do you know what to teach? Enter: conferring. By doing daily writing conferences, I am able to tailor my teaching directly to my first graders’ needs. Not sure what to teach? Listen to your students. They’ll tell you.
In her book with Lester Laminack, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts), Katie Wood Ray defines writing conferences as “‘the essential act’ in workshop teaching because of their individualized nature” (156). They occur “when the teacher sits down beside a student . . . finds out how the student’s writing is going, and then in a very direct but conversational way, teaches (or tries to teach) the student something that makes sense at this time.”
Last week, I conferred with a first grader writing a fictional story about unicorns. She included two characters and plenty of dialogue — an impressive feat for a six-year-old. She blushed and beamed as I complimented this work, clearly proud of the story that was unfurling on the page before her.
Of course, my mind took note of this. Carl Anderson reminds us that “it isn’t [the teacher’s] job to fix or edit the student’s writing. Rather, it’s to teach the student one writing strategy or technique he can use in a current piece of writing and continue to use in future writing.” While this student was already achieving first grade standards, I had the unique opportunity to teach something she was proving that she was ready (and excited!) to include in her writing: dialogue tags. It is not a first grade standard, it is not something I have taught the class as a whole, but by listening closely to this student’s writing — and noticing her excitement — I knew this was the right next-step for her.
As I was showing this skill to the young writer, I began to notice an eavesdropper: the student to her left was watching my every move. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed my demonstration, saw the example in a mentor text, and watched his classmate try it in her own writing. The student to her right did not notice at all — she kept plowing ahead with her own work. Honestly, it did not surprise me: that student was so focused on stretching out sounds to write words on the page that dialogue tags were far from her realm of reality. But that student to her left? His attention proved that he was ready and eager to try this new skill, too.
As I circled back around to check in with my student towards the end of writer’s workshop that day, I was thrilled to see her adding dialogue tags when her unicorns spoke with one another. The added bonus? The boy to her left had gone back and added them into his own writing, too. Two for one.
Students will show you when they’re ready for a new skill. When it comes down to it, all we need to do is listen.
Emily Galle-From has been a teacher in North St. Paul, MN for eight years. She presented at CCIRA for the first time in 2019; her session was entitled Fostering Empathy through Picture Books. In her free time she enjoys traveling, writing, and reading.