Striking a Balance Between Accountable Talk and Writing

A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently a colleague wrote:

I am thinking a lot lately about the balance between time to talk and time to write in WWS. Developmentally, I feel like the younger kids need exploratory talk time to get their ideas, plans, etc. to a place where they are ready to write about them … but then they spend much less time writing than I (or Lucy, for sure) think they should. I’ve decided to let kids talk through the planning stage, but then make them go write alone for the drafting portion.

Some Thoughts:

This can be a delicate balance for kids and for teachers; it’s something that I struggle with still, especially on days when I lose track of the big picture. When does the chatter turn to print? I’ve got to say, having really explored this terrain in my grade two classroom for many years, younger writers need to grow and rehearse a story several times before they can actually write it down. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat next to a young writer to capture her story on a keyboard and have been corrected for typing the “wrong thing.” The story lives as a voice in the writer’s mind but this doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s underdeveloped or unformed. In fact, the opposite can be true. The story may be quite complex and a writer with imaginative skills may find her small motor skills fail her imagination. She can’t effectively capture in print what she can apprehend in language. Our stories start with finding a voice and essentially our voice is the medium for our narratives. Print is a relatively modern concept if you think about it. Most of our written tales spin out of a love for oration, for hearing a wonderful narrative told to us, performed for us. Poems and songs are no doubt the earliest forms of narrative and both are intended to be caught by the ear not the eye. In short, I don’t worry too much anymore about students engaged in purposeful talk in the writing workshop; each writer unfolds a story at his or her own pace and each writer needs a varying degree of collaborative support, (i.e.conversation), to get the job done.

Transitions from spoken word to written work depend primarily on an individual writer’s age and disposition. Start asking yourself some questions about the writer, not the writing. Is this a kid who is tentative and second-guesses himself a lot? I’ve found if this is the case, it may take a lot of talk time before this writer can move with confidence into drafting. Print can feel like a huge commitment to this type of writer. One thing that may help this writer is to empower him to sign up on his own volition for a weekly conference with you. An accountable talk time the writer can count on. Taking the talk past the partner or the peer table coffee-house banter to a more strategic teacher-to-writer dialogue level can sometimes move the student’s confidence to the next level. In order for a student to feel comfortable with this teacher dialogue dynamic, I’ve found it helps to hold back in the first few conferences—just listen to the student talk about his narrative. I have to purposefully slow down my own agenda and ask a lot of probing questions to help mentally guide the work, build the architecture. After I feel I’ve bolstered the student’s confidence in the relationship, I can strategically move the student towards capturing ideas down in the notebook. A lot of time I spend conferencing is about validating the spoken word and encouraging the next step: “That sounds great, write it down, now, quick… before it slips away.”

Remember, you really do know a lot about your kids. You live in the same room with them every day for almost six hours! If there’s a storyteller in the crowd holding court during the writing workshop, you may need to levy the BOOM on occasion to insure that his hand is working the pencil as rapidly as he’s wagging his tongue. In general, I’m usually less concerned about a verbal student than the student who is unable to tell a story. I’m pretty sure that all storytellers will develop into effective writers down the line.

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