Conversations With Writers

“You need to fill their pages with comments. Show them what good writing is.”

Those two sentences were said to me by my first Department Chairperson when she made me show her a set of essays that I was grading. I was 22 years old and it was my first year as a teacher. My 8th graders had just finished an essay and I spent something like six hours on each class set.

Being so new, I figured I needed to show the students that I knew what I was doing. So, I filled their papers with red ink, crossing out their words and putting in “better” words. I had comments after every couple of sentences and some well intentioned “overall” comments at the bottom of the pages. With the rubric attached and all of those comments, I thought I had done my best English Teacher duty.

My Department Chair had a different view. She looked through all of my comments–yes, she read them all–and said that I should never tell them the positives of their writing because “kids will ignore all of the things that they need to fix.”

Not embellishment. Real words.

Being new, I followed. After all, this was the Department Chair who moved my classroom just before the first day of school so her office would be adjacent. She would listen to my lessons and then ask me questions about why I said certain things at certain times.

Looking back, I see so many problems with that scene. Yes, I was new, but there were about 100 students who really didn’t receive writing instruction. Yes, I assigned essays. Yes, I spent hour after hour grading papers, the supposed mark of a hardworking English Teacher.  And, yes, I filled the papers with those “constructive” comments. But was I really teaching them how to write?

Honestly, I wasn’t sure at 22. At 42, I am certain; those students didn’t get quality writing instruction. It wasn’t from a lack of effort. But, that effort was really centered around me. I had so many papers to grade. I spent six hours on one class.  Neither of those thoughts are about improving kids’ writing.

Worse, the feedback that the kids received was inefficient. It was given after the fact. It was given awhile after they were done with it. And, it was about correcting. Maybe some students read the comments–assuming they could understand my handwriting–and took something out of that. Maybe.

My second year was much different. That Department Chair retired, as did five of the six members of the 8th grade English team. So, at age 23, I was the senior member of the grade level and about to work with a new Department Chair.

“Then why are we doing this?”

That was the question my new Department Chair asked me when I said I wasn’t sure if kids were reading my feedback. With that question, a conversation started that never really ended until the both of us moved on to new Districts. Instead of being asked why I said something, he would ask me about my classes. He’d ask about the kids and what they were interested in. He noticed that I had that part of the job down so he built on that. He would pass along articles and edgier reading passages that he thought would interest kids. He would ask if he could visit my classes, not to observe me, but to see what kids are doing. Looking back, I know he was helping me and guiding me.

He told me that teaching writing was really about having a conversation. Writing is a personal thing and in order to get a writer–especially a young writer–to go all in, he/she must feel comfortable. Feedback on a page may help some, but how would I really know? When I replied, “I don’t”, that’s when he asked, “Then why are we doing this?”

He invited me into his classroom for a two week stretch. Every day, instead of going to my duty (he took care of that), I went to his class. Before this started, he made sure to tell me that he wasn’t bringing me in to teach me how to teach. He was bringing me there to show me his way and that all good teachers steal a little from each person they encounter.

For 10 days, I observed a classroom like no other I had been exposed to. Kids came in, grabbed their notebooks, and continued to write. Immediately, one student was at the conference table. They were talking about the piece. The seventh grader was telling him why he wrote his story in third person point of view rather than first person. My Department Chair listened and then began to ask questions like, “What do you want to happen next?”, “Is this helping you to develop your conflict?”. Then, it was on to the next student. With a class size of 18, kids moved in and out of the conference table quickly.

Here’s what I realized: kids were getting feedback while they were writing. They were learning as they were writing a piece. That made them want to do more. That made them want to revise.

On the third day, he put up the opening paragraph from the Tell Tale Heart on the overhead. He asked them why this was a great hook. The 30 minute conversation talked about audience, getting them involved, and also making the character interesting. It was the first time I ever saw a piece of literature used to teach writing. The last 15 minutes were used for hook revision in their stories. He walked around the room, talking with almost each kid.

Those 10 days were the boot camp that student teaching and year one was supposed to be. I was watching a master teacher. At 23 years old, I thought I would immediately become a copy of that.

I was wrong. In many ways, almost 20 years later, I am still chasing that model. But, the takeaway that shaped my entire teaching career was nurtured in those 10 days and the remainder of the time that I was fortunate enough to work with him.

Talking with kids is the most effective way to give them immediate, authentic feedback. Notice the emphasis on “with”. A genuine conversation about writing between a student and a teacher will lead to a vast improvement in writing. That doesn’t mean one should discount written feedback. There has to be an accompanying conversation, which not only leads to clarity in writing expectations and techniques, but helps develop confidence and, most importantly, a genuine relationship between the student and teacher. Talking with kids–about writing and really everything else–develops the necessary culture for them to feel confident in their writing.

The more you teach, the more you realize that you cannot replicate someone’s classroom. The artistry of teaching is a combination of personal nuance, sound teaching techniques, and a connection to the kids. No two classrooms should ever really look the same, but there should be once constant: the genuine conversation between students and their teacher.

Talking kids through their writing is how students improve their writing. It is the most immediate and most impactful feedback and instruction they could receive.

Things I Do; Things You Could Make Your Own

Like my (good) Department Chair said, I am not here to say that you should do what I do. I found something that works for me. Steal what works for you. Below are some tips for having the writing conversation with kids.

Say Something Positive

Every writer should be met with a positive comment, even if the first draft is, well, rough. The idea that saying “good job” or “I loved this story” has no validity is incorrect. Young writers have generally only experienced writing as a negative experience. Their grammar was poor, that comma wasn’t put in the right place. And, it wasn’t detailed enough. With those comments, is it really any surprise that some are resistant to writing?

I can remember one conversation with a young lady in my class last year. She was in my 11th grade class. She was quiet and anxious. By the time I got to her to have our first writing conversation, she was more than three quarters of the way finished. She was writing about her anxiety and how she wanted to overcome it. As I read her words, my jaw dropped. The kid could write.

“You can write,” I said, giving my highest form of praise.


“Really. This is so good. You need to publish your stuff. You must hear that all the time. Look at this sentence; tell me that’s not good.”

The look on her face was one of shock. She told me that no teacher ever told her that before. That led to my shocked look. I later went and looked up her grades. She always got great grades in English. How could she never have been told she was a great writer? No wonder she had a lack of confidence.

I have those conversations every year. So many kids are shocked to hear that their ideas are good. They are shocked to hear that their words are powerful.

While “good job” or “this is great” isn’t, technically, feedback for writing instruction improvement, they are the foundation of writing instruction.  Those types of comments are the window in. That window leads to a young writer believing he/she can write and has worth in words. It leads to the conversation about making a story come alive or making a piece of academic writing not only have all of the requirements, but have voice and purpose.

Give Feedback Early And Often

With a student now open to the possibility of being a writer, this is where the real work begins. Teaching writing is much different than assigning writing. Many believe that assigning a task, having students complete a rough draft, do revision activity, and then do a final copy is teaching writing. If conversations aren’t happening while students are writing, they aren’t learning and building on their knowledge.

One of my favorite writing teachers, Angela Stockman, calls it writing “Bit by Bit”. The concept is to have conversations with kids about their writing in small chunks. So, if we are trying to master the art of the hook, feedback must be given to writers as they are writing those hooks. That way, the conversation and feedback can be applied to the students’ writing.

Why is this important?

The conversation before a student finishes is what will make a student improve on what they wrote. If feedback is left until a student has finished a piece of writing, why would a student want to improve on something that took a lot of time and that, evidently, they weren’t successful with?

One colleague is a master at this. He meets with every student in his class, one on one, each day. They all march up with their paragraph. He talks to them, gives feedback, and they go back. When you enter his room, you see a couple of kids on line and the rest writing. There is a constant flow. He, without fail, sees all 30 students in his class. The next day, they move on to the next part of the piece. And, the same thing occurs. Kids are getting immediate feedback and are improving as they move along. This leads to more investment in his classes. More impressively, this teacher asked not to teach the honors classes, saying that he could do more good in our Regents and Consultant Teacher classes. He was right. Good teaching practice and real conversation with kids transcend course level and grade level.

I’ve tried his method; I can’t do it. I wish I could, but I talk more with each kid. And, I like to have kids work at their own pace. One way isn’t better than the other. But, they both have the same concept in common; there are conversations about writing happening every day. It’s not just once during the writing process. It’s constant.

That’s individualized instruction. Each conversation is different and often focusing on a difference nuance of writing. Kids aren’t sitting with a blank screen, frustrated. They are getting feedback and suggestions as they navigate the process. They are getting feedback when they need it most, while they are actually writing.

The best part of this process is the conversations that are had with kids. You get to see how a kid attacks a task. You get to know their thought process in each writing phase. And, perhaps, most importantly, it is the exact opposite of what I did during year one of my teaching career. I am not spending six hours essentially judging something they already did. Instead, I am teaching them as they are performing. That seems much more efficient and, more importantly, more beneficial to the kids.

The Notepad

All of those conversations are great, but they do have to lead to something. The goal is to get a student to be an independent, thoughtful, creative, and thorough writer. In order to help me stay organized, I keep a notepad of my most of my conversations about writing.

It’s a simple notepad where I jot down each kid’s name and a few words about what we talked about. When I sit and read their whole piece, I will also write down some general comments along with some of my favorite sentences they wrote.

This helps for a few reasons. One, I get a snapshot of our conversations. I can see patterns in what we are working on. Are we constantly working on supporting details? Do we always have trouble with transitions? After a while, I have some areas of focus for each writer.

Second, it allows me to communicate to parents better. During parent conferences, I will have my notes with me. I can actually highlight their child’s writing more efficiently. I can talk goals for us, what they do well, and also quote some specific sentences they wrote. Parents get a true sense of their child as a writer. Often, it’s the first time they hear what their child writes.

Final Thought

Teaching writing is difficult because there is no “one size fits all” approach. The effective writing teacher talks to kids as they are writing. That talking can take many forms in the classroom. My (almost) daily conferences work for me. But, as long as students are having conversations early, often, and throughout the writing process, they are being taught how to write.