The Balancing Act: A teacher’s dual roles during a writing conference

iStock_000016934184XSmall“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”
Mark Van Doren

The delicate balance that is teaching – giving instruction while encouraging students to think for themselves – is embodied in the writing conference. Effective teachers, according to a report by Brad Wilcox, are aware of this dual role and are able to promote confidence while building skill.

In a study conducted in 1993, Wilcox interviewed 12 middle school teachers and their students about what characterizes a good writing conference. The results, while identifying the need for technical instruction as well as student nurturing, clearly gave more weight to the role of nurturer.

Obviously, teachers must assist students with the fundamentals of writing – grammar, punctuation, style, etc. But, according to Wilcox, these mechanics should be seen as the tools that help deliver what is most important – the content. Hence, in the instructional role, a teacher should help promote organizational skills, generate ideas, and clarify purpose. By expertly making comments and asking questions, the teacher can enhance the student’s confidence and encourage self-discoveries. It is important for the teacher to provide just enough technical guidance to assist, while still allowing the student to “own” his work.

As essential as it is, technical support takes a back seat to individual support of the student. As Wilcox says, “Working with people must be a priority over working with papers.” In order for a student to be free to open up and explore ideas and feelings, she must trust the teacher and feel respected. Subtle ways of showing respect, says Wilcox, include being at direct eye level with the child and sitting close to her. Listening as a person, not just a teacher, gives the student the freedom to tell her story.

In order to engender a student’s trust, a teacher must be friendly and must validate his strengths. More difficult perhaps, and just as important, is to avoid taking control of the writing. A nonverbal cue Wilcox suggests to assure the student’s “ownership of the writing” is for the teacher to avoid reaching out and taking the child’s paper. Leaving the total control of the writing to the child is important to his sense of mastery. It also helps a child realize the importance of his words when a teacher patiently waits to hear them. This is not always easy, but a student often needs time to figure out and express feelings.

Waiting while a student formulates thoughts also conveys a teacher’s high expectations. These expectations should be clear from the beginning, since students who know they are expected to reach established goals generally will. During the conference teachers must be careful to facilitate the writing but not actually do it. Here is that balancing act again – don’t do too much, don’t do too little. Obviously, the success of a writing conference relies on the individual teacher’s ability to bring out the creativity of a student. Given just enough instruction, feedback, respect, caring and trust, the student will soon fly on her own.

“Two Roles of a Teacher During a Writing Confrerence”, The Reading Teacher, Volume 50, Number 6, March 1997, pp. 508-510.

Published in ERN May/June 1997 Volume 10 Number 3.

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