I still have a lot to learn about conferring. I've been conferring with kids for a long time--and I still feel like there's so much to learn about doing it well day after day. I've been lucky to have great teachers. My trainers, the work of Carl Anderson, Lucy Caulkins, Katie Wood Ray, Peter Johnston, my colleagues--all have helped me become better. Sitting beside me right now is my new copy of Day by day: refining writing workshop through 180 days of reflective practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz--chapter 5 is on conferring, and I can't wait to read it.
But what I learned from one of my students recently is that sometimes what's most important and powerful in conferring isn't what I say or how I say it. Sometimes the the most powerful stuff happens when I force myself to stay quiet, wait, watch and listen.
I sat down next to C., and I will admit that I took a deep breath first (or maybe 2). His folder is stuffed with loose writing papers and writing books, most of which have a barely representational drawing--outlines only--and either no writing or a single sentence which neither of us can make heads or tails of despite the fact that he wrote it and I have quite a bit of experience deciphering early attempts at writing.
As soon as I sat down next to him, C. pulled a paper from the heap and bent his head over it. There were 2 things that sort of looked like rectangles on the page. I've been working and working with C. to help him learn to draw his story and to be able to begin to tell it in words--verbally and in writing. I didn't know what else to say that would help him. So I didn't say anything. And while I was waiting for inspiration to strike or the conferring fairy to bestow wisdom on me, something happened.
As he picked up his pencil, C. started talking.
"See--these are 2 trucks...semi trucks." He added a kind of cab shape and wheels to each rectangle.
"And they have to get gas but in a spot only they go to and the red one goes here [drew a box on the edge of the paper] and the green here [another box goes onto the page] and they have things here where they load it up." C. drew a hose-like thing coming from the back of each semi truck.
A little voice in my head told me to keep quiet and keep watching--conferring fairy? And C. continued. He kept talking and drawing and even started to add labels and a sentence all on his own. I realized that his story was coming into his mind as was drawing it--like both were happening at once. C. didn't have a story in mind that he could tell or draw until he started drawing. But as he drew, he continued talking and suddenly there was a picture with recognizable objects, some labels, and a definite story.
I never spoke during that conference. But I learned an awful lot. C. did more with that story than with any other up to that point in the year. He even added another page to show and tell about the trucks driving off down the highway. And when I got up to move to the next kid, C. looked up and thanked me for helping him. Really? I had done nothing more that sit down, wait and watch.
Later, as I thought about it, I realized that maybe what I did--or didn't do--was helpful. I did learn more about C. and his process as a writer. As for him perceiving my lack of conferring action as a helpful thing, maybe he just needed someone there. Not someone teaching him at that moment, or helping him do something he knows he needs help with, but someone just to be there while he gave it a go.
I still believe that most conferences should involve the teacher teaching or supporting the writer. After all, conferring is a teaching context geared toward the specific strengths and needs of the individual. But I never would have learned so much about C.'s process, his strengths and his needs if I had tried to come up with something to say during that conference, and now I have a much clearer idea of how I can support him in future conferences.
So whether it was the conferring fairy or sudden insight or a happy accident, I'm glad I didn't know what to say. What I learned is that if I'm willing to wait and watch carefully, sometimes the most powerful thing for me to say is nothing.