Teacher-Student Conferencing: The Essential Component of English Learner Writing

susan

by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

Susan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 

 

I love co-teaching with the Lucy Calkins program. I get to use my expertise as the purveyor of academic language. At the same time I’m  learning from my co-teacher, my mainstream students, and the Lucy Calkins writing guide.

Once or twice a week I plan and teach a whole-class lessons that ESOL-izes concepts that I know are mystifying my English learners, or it anticipates confusion in upcoming lessons girlswritingby providing background knowledge I know my students and other diverse learners will lack. As the self-appointed expert in academic language instruction, I’m always ready with daily language objectives, strategies, and activities to provide support that will extend my students’ language skills. I’m especially proud that, at the same time, I’m probably extending the academic language of 70% of the rest of my diverse classroom.

Arguably, however, the most valuable component of the Lucy Calkins approach to writing, and where I feel I make my most valuable contribution, comes from the frequent opportunities it provides for teacher-student conferencing.  In the traditional Writing Process approach, dedicated teacher-student conferencing doesn’t appear until quite far along the continuum, after students have brainstormed, created drafts, peer edited, and revised their work. English learners, though, as we know, need quite a bit of hand-holding and scaffolding to be successful writers, especially if we want them to advance in their proficiency by adding more academic-level vocabulary and complexity to their writing.

In our co-taught classrooms, daily, once a whole-class lesson is presented, students wrconferencereturn to their places, usually with a writing partner, to work on their current writing. In our class, we maximize teacher-student conferencing time by grouping students at two large tables, each with a teacher. This configuration that allows us either to review student work in progress and make suggestions or to troubleshoot individual student needs as they arise, especially to answer their plaintive, “How do you spell…?” even though we invariably respond for the 100th time, “Sound it out, ” or “Look on the word wall.”

Our groups are fluid. Some students just prefer to work on their own, and we have some highly productive student partners who produce inspiring writing conferencing only with each other. I often work with non-English learners, and my amazing co-teacher, Tara, is tchrgirlwritingso beloved by some of my English learner girls that they usually make a bee-line to her group.  The point is that there are two of us, and we are both committed to getting our kids the individualized help they need to succeed as writers.

Furthermore, and frankly, as a school with a highly diverse population,  some of our students come to us better prepared than others to work independently. As Tara commented, “Conferencing in a group limits unwanted behaviors that would distract others. In a group setting, sitting all together at the table, I can conference with one student, get him or her on the right track, and quickly move on.”

She continued, “I feel all of our students need support, and more than anything they need reassurance that they’re doing the right thing.” Referring to some of our students with behavior concerns, she added, “Sometimes kids who are the most reluctant writers act out because they don’t want to fail.  If I’m there with them, insisting they can do it, and helping them, I can show them that writing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and they CAN succeed.”

I know I’m not alone in feeling that the Lucy Calkins Writing program in particular, and tchrmodelingprobably teaching writing in general, is challenging when English learners comprise a large portion of our class.  I feel fortunate to be able to support my students, and my colleagues, by co-teaching writing. I can’t think of any other content area where my particular expertise in academic language has been more beneficial, not only to students, but also to my colleague.  

One of the most satisfying and unexpected outcomes of working with my co-teachers this year has been watching them evolve into educators who  have become sensitized to and skillful in structuring their classrooms to better support their English learners. More and more often I look around my co-taught classroom at my colleague as she’s presenting the whole-class lesson, smile, and think, “My work here is done. I don’t think she even needs me…”  For an EL educator, it’s the best feeling…ever!

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Switching Gears: What To Do When Nothing Works

by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

susanSusan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 

The school year is rolling along as the temperatures drop and the hurricanes move out to sea. Back in the classroom, students of Lucy Calkins have stepped away from narrative writing and moved on to non-fiction or persuasive writing. Except, as it turns out, they haven’t. After two weeks of intense instruction and support, pre-writing planning conversations still went like this, “One day, my dad and I were in the car. Then we saw a dog.”  Not non-fiction, not an opinion…a story.

It all started off so promising. Two weeks ago in grade 1 and 2, we wrapped up our narratives with a publishing gallery and tea party. We celebrated!

Then Monday arrived. In Grade 1, with our Content and Language Objectives duly formulated, we prepared children for their adventures in non-fiction, Writing Teaching Books with Independence, with a read-aloud Sharks!  Then, we had them think of themselves “teaching” about a topic, and imagining things they were experts at.

octopusHowever,  tasking 6 year-olds to come up with something they know and could teach someone about proved to be challenging for some students and their first efforts tended to be whatever topic their teacher had chosen for the lesson objective. Or, for reasons still not understood, octopuses.

So, the next day we scaffolded strategies for coming up with many things first graders IMG_1224can be experts on. For example, even Mrs. Zimmerman’s grandson EJ, can be an expert!

Once we had topics, we practiced using our fingers to tell what we know.  Then we used our fingers to tell our partners all about it!

In Second grade we began our journey into non-fiction and opinion writing by reading The Great Kapock Tree by Lynn Cherry. We learned how good writers use reasons to persuade their readers. Then we explored our own opinions by tasting and choosing our favorite cookies.

We came up with reasons to persuade our partners why our favorite cookie was the best. We practiced talking about it! We even used graphic organizers to help us remember our reasons.

IMG_9923

Finally, we chose topics to write about and planned across our fingers.  Using our sentence frames and our fingers, we shared with our partners again!

At last, having anticipated our students’ misunderstandings, having formulated both Content and Language Objectives, and having scaffolded their intended language production, we were ready to write. And this is what we heard…

“My dad and I were in the car.  We saw a dog…”

And this is what we read…

“My mom said, “ We’re going to the store…”

So, now what?

IMG_9927We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and started all over again with a mini-review. And then…we LISTENED!  We hunkered down with each of our students (something a lot easier to do in a co-teaching situation) and listened to what students were saying and what they thought they were writing. We pointed out confusions, prompted for opinions, gave thumbs up, and moved on to the next child.

Maybe the most challenging aspect of the Lucy Calkins program is that we tend to forgetIMG_9924 how important student conferencing is.  Those of us in highly diverse schools are so caught up in the minutia of scaffolding what good writing should look and sound like that we forget the point of it… “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’” (Lucy Calkins, 1994)

IMG_9922Student conferencing – working one on one with students – is too often a catch-as-catch-can occurrence, when in fact it is one of the most important tools in the LC writer’s toolbox. It needs to be carried out regularly in an an intentional and purposeful  way. Good writers make connections with their readers – whether they are telling a story or writing an opinion. Good teachers make connections with their students. As you travel through the changing focus of your writing program throughout the school year, please don’t forget the reason we are teaching writing in the first place: to connect and build relationships with our most important audience, our students.

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If you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.

Reluctant Writers

A Journey Towards Implementing the Lucy Calkins Writing Project in a Highly Diverse School – Entry #2 by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

October 14, 2018

Reluctant Writers

“So, Jessica,” I asked my ELL second grader, “Let’s talk about what you’re going to write.  I really liked your last story about the time you had to put your cat in the car and moved her to your new house.”

Three-fifteen in the afternoon, last period of the day, and all around us writing partners were sharing their work, and checking their Tiny Moments notebooks for adjectives and details. I was hunched uncomfortably into my tiny primary-grade-sized chair, vaguely wondering how I was going to be able to stand up later.  Jessica fiddled listlessly with the edges of a woefully empty-looking writer’s booklet, her long brown hair spilling sideways over the purple too-large glasses perched on the edge of her nose in an attempt to avoid my gaze.

IMG_0949I looked at her new story pages.  “Can you read me the first page?”

Jessica stared down at the haphazardly written words on the page and read. “We got a cat. My mom said lets get a cat.”

Another story about a cat, I thought. Hmmmm. “OK, writers sometimes like to make sketches, draw pictures of what they’re writing about. Did you draw pictures on your other pages?”  She turned to the next page, but it was empty.  “OK, so let’s talk about this.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. “Tell  me what happens next so we can draw it.”

Jessica looked at me blankly and replied, “We went to get the cat.”

“OK!,” I responded, feigning excitement, “That’s great!  Tell me about that moment. Were you really happy? Did something interesting happen?”

“No,” she said, dully. “We went to this man’s house and we got the cat.”

“Oh OK, well remember that good writers like to talk about special moments in their stories, like when something interesting happened, or maybe you had a strong feeling about it.”

She glared at me, clearly bemused by my sudden fascination with her cat. I soldiered on, “Remember, in your LAST story it was funny when the cat started running around your car meowing really loudly. Did something like THAT happen?”

“No.”

For most students, taking time to plan what they’re going to write about before they start girl_teachercomposing is an integral step in the writing process. Nonetheless, I could tell that Jessica was getting annoyed with my constant insistence that she have a plan. Nevertheless,  I was determined, ‘So, maybe the interesting part of your story is later? What happened in the end? Were you really happy? Did the cat do something funny?”

“No,” she said, “I don’t  like cats.”

By now Jessica was totally disgusted with my interrogation about a cat she didn’t even like, and I had become a bulldog worrying a bone as I watched our precious conferencing time ticking down to dismissal.

In her supplementary text, Supports for English Language Learners in Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing, Lucy Calkins and her colleagues reinforce the importance of oral practice for English Language Learners and on giving students multiple opportunities to plan and rehearse their stories out loud before they write. I knew that if I couldn’t get Jessica to talk about and plan out her story,  it might take too much work to revise it later. I didn’t want her to get discouraged about the whole writing process.

However it was 3:30 at the close of a long rainy day -with no outdoor recess.  Only 10 minutes of class remained, and Jessica’s stubborn and seemingly willful refusal to even try to make her story interesting, meaningful, or purposeful had me ready to pull out my hair. I scratched my head, gave her a beseeching look and blurted, “But Jessica, this story isn’t even  interesting. And you don’t even like cats! So why do you want to write about it?”

Startled, she stared at me. “Because I wrote about my cat the last time and you liked it.”

This was what I call a “face palm “ moment. I wanted to sink my head into my hands andsusan_facepalm rock back and forth on my tiny chair in despair. I looked deeply into her little 7-year old’s eyes, which clearly were not seeing what the big deal was all about,  and pleaded with her, “Come on, Jessica, isn’t there ANYTHING interesting in your life you could write about?”

“No,” she insisted.

“Really?” I begged. “You can’t think of ANY ONE THING you have done lately that you liked to do, made you happy, or something happened that was different than any other day?” By now I was nearly shrieking in frustration.

“No,” she shrugged, and continued nonchalantly “Unless like, when we went to Creepy Six Flags (a Halloween-themed event at the local amusement park) and these scary clowns came out and we screamed.”  Her face lit up as she remembered and the words came gushing out. “And when you go on the merry ground all this smoke comes out and then scary monsters chased us around. It was so much fun!”

Now it was my turn to gush! I almost grabbed and hugged her until she burst. “Oh my GOSH, Jessica!  THAT is the best story EVER! And you already told me all these really neat details about what you did, and the scary clowns, and the monsters….and how you felt, and you can write for pages and pages! You are AMAZING!” I practically jumped up and down in my seat, grabbed a pencil and stuck it in her hand. “Start drawing! You have ten minutes!”

Jessica looked at me like I had lost my mind, but she grinned from ear to ear – clearly proud to have come up with such a brilliant narrative – and quickly filled four pages with sketches. With moments to spare before dismissal, I sent her to share her work to the approving “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” of her classroom teacher. Another successful writer is born!

Yesterday I checked in with Jessica. She eagerly read me her narrative – all about the monsters, the scary clowns and the rides that disappeared into clouds of smoke (or as we decided – fog.)

“You’re becoming such a good writer,” I told her, reinforcing the message of Lesson 8: Revising with Intent, “because good writers include a lot of specific details and feelings like yours that let the readers know why you wanted to write about it, let them know your intent.”


She nodded
 and looked up at me, “Do you remember how happy you got when I told you my story that day?” She smiled shyly. “That made me really happy, too.”

And just like that, Jessica taught me the REAL message of that lesson, of all of the lessons, actually: the importance of connecting with your audience. Because as a teacher, my students ARE my audience. Maybe I don’t always connect with Jessica with written words and pictures, and maybe the daily mini-lessons carefully scaffolded for language and content are less than memorable to her 7-year old’s list of daily priorities. However, by badgering, cajoling, joking, and sticking with her until her creative light bulb lit up, I did manage to show her the one essential thing that all good writers do: I created a small, precise moment of emotion between us that made us both smile inside and say, “Aha! This is why we do this.”

boyswritingI hope you will travel with us as we puzzle out the best way to use Lucy to help our ELLs – and all of our students.  But even more importantly, I hope you will share your own challenges, your successes, and your suggestions and recommendations for using Lucy to show these, our most fragile, learners that not only can they succeed as writers but also excel!

 

 

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logoevensmallerIf you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.