National Writing Project

Conferencing and Literacy Desiring: Trusting Students as Writers—A Chapter From Choice and Agency in the Writing Workshop

Date: March 2017

Summary: In this chapter from Choice and Agency in the Writing Workshop: Developing Engaged Writers, Grades 4-6, Fred Hamel explores moments of "literacy desiring," a broad and holistic term for the range of ways that students are energized by and engaged with texts. He examines what leads to these moments, and what students accomplish through them with two case studies, with an eye towards using writing conferences to understand and encourage the existing motivations and drivers of students' textual engagements, rather than seeking to replace them with adult, "official" expectations.

 

Excerpt from Chapter:

The tension I experience above is whether Angel and Isabel should, in fact, work to 'improve' their piece of writing on these terms, or whether I need to 'latch on' to their purpose and energy. I struggle with this. How easy it is to take the wind out of a writer's sails! Or simply to miss the wider range of what their writing might mean to them. This doesn't imply that I should never draw on my expertise or that we should never revise. But it does suggest a different kind of awareness on my part, the need for new considerations. Perhaps my hallowed questioning practices are limiting, even demotivating to students—tone-deaf to the moment, to the literacy desiring that is at work—making these 4th-graders wonder how and when writing is ever valuable, and for whom.

A stance that respects literacy desiring shifts our gaze from predetermined expertise. As Dahlberg and Moss (2009) suggest, the focus is, rather, 'to follow how the learning processes proceed and their power to continue' (p. xxii). This stance emphasizes 'following' learning in the moment, observing how energy is 'continuing.' Beyond asking ourselves 'How can writers improve their coherence, detail, or point?' we must also ask: 'What helps them continue in a flow?' This seems especially important given the common exhaustion that writers can feel through their writing efforts. Meier (2011) explains that children often resist editing and revising because they 'are physically tired and lack the energy to go back and revise' (p. 100). Workshop, in this respect, has not magically motivated students to want to revise their papers, but instead it helps make visible the multiple components that feed Angel and Isabel's energy—the dynamics and presence of a holiday; emerging awareness of sexuality, gender, and attraction; their own friendship and partnership, the fact that they are exploring this territory together; narrative as a tool; and a larger classroom context and audience that might be interested, to whom they hope to display their newly charted reality. The 'text' here is one item among many pieces in an 'assemblage,' and our preoccupation with just one piece, the abstract 'quality' of the text, might miss the larger event that is going on."

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