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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Love to Write for Children? Spread the Love – to Them

Year-end is a good time to stop and think about why we do what we do. Why do many of us chose to write for children? Why does Andrea spend hours agonizing over the perfect rhyming word? Why does Miss Kitty unleash her popcorn brain on the youth of America?
            Speaking for myself, I spend hours on YA stories because I like young people. Good books provide not only knowledge and information for children and teens, but also provide a safe escape from their rapidly changing, sometimes angst-driven lives. We should encourage children's love of reading – and writing. Writing's an important life skill – and if students are cheered on, maybe they’ll grow to love the process as much as the Route 19 Writers!
The school district where I live thankfully has a strong writing program. Focus on writing starts early, in grade school, and continues through graduation and all those hair-pulling college essays. In 6th, 7th & 8th grades, the writing labs in our two middle schools offer an extra special component – interested adults are invited to attend a training session, and then come in throughout the school year and help students by giving an "adult conference" for their writing assignments. After more than six years of helping, student papers can still make me burst out laughing and, sometimes, struggle to hold back tears.
The goal of this volunteer program is two-fold: to help students with their writing assignments and enthusiastically encourage their efforts.
As you probably well know, there's a right way and a wrong way to work with children. As my gift to our readers, I’d like to share the following time-tested guidelines for working with student writers. The guidelines were developed by some pretty terrific educators at our writing labs (plus some tweaks from me).

Conferencing Guidelines
(some of these might sound odd or even bossy, but bear with me)
·        Review the paper’s guidelines beforehand, and make sure you understand what the teacher is looking for in this assignment. Trust the teacher!  Each assignment is building different skills and you’re just seeing one tiny slice of what's planned for the year.  (You may think the concluding paragraph is a mess, but the teacher may not care – that may be a lesson she hasn't focused on yet)
·        Introduce yourself to the child and greet the writer by name. ( Hi Sam, I'm Mrs. Ramaley, I love your jersey. Are you a hockey fan? a little something to break the ice helps). Sit side by side with the paper on a table in front of you.
·        Make sure the writer has a pencil and holds it ready to write. Feel free to jot notes on a spare sheet or the student’s “conference” sheet provided by the teacher, but YOU should NEVER write on the student’s paper.  If you write on the paper, you are “taking ownership”. Not good.
·        Ask the writer to read his or her entire paper out loud. You’ll be amazed at how often a writer will self-correct when they read out loud. Encourage them to make notes/corrections right away when they stumble on an error so they don't forget to fix it.
·        First, find something in the writing to Praise (wow, you’ve done a really great job in finding 2 strong quotes), then Question an item that needs improving (hmm, the teacher wants 3 events to support your topic sentence, but you’ve only got 2. Can you think of a 3rd example you could add?). If a student seems stuck, Suggest something that may jog the writer's thoughts. This can be tricky; it’s their paper and you don’t want to rob them of the chance to come up with an idea, but sometimes they need a nudge. (You haven’t mentioned the best friend in the story. Could you use something that happens with Jeremy for your 3rd event?). Your mom/dad/auntie/grandpap/wise adult intuition comes in handy during a conference.
Here’s a few Questions you can use:
o   What do you think is the strongest part of your paper? The weakest?
o   Is there anything you’d like me to pay attention to?
o   Can you tell me more about  . . . ?
o   What would happen if . . . ?
·        Focus on a few areas for revision; DON’T overwhelm the student with too many changes – trust me, their eyes will glaze over. For a strong writer, maybe 3 suggestions. For a child who is struggling, maybe just one - if you can help them improve one thing and make them feel good about it – that’s something to be proud of. You're not there to “fix” the writer’s paper or to get the writer an A. You’re there to encourage the student and help him or her meet the assignment requirements. Be especially wary of not trying to do too much with your OWN CHILD.
·        Recommend a second adult conference, if needed.
·        Alert the teacher if you see a problem you can’t solve. Be discrete, and keep your experience confidential. (No blabbing to another adult that you just conferenced with that Ramaley kid and boy, did she need help – no no no no no!)
·        Always remember that you have no idea what kind of day a child is having – maybe her best friend just yelled at her, or maybe her dog died this morning. A friendly word and praises and a few minutes of interested attention can do more good than your realize.

Happy Holidays to you and yours! And may the New Year bring some Happy Conferencing!


  1. Excellent points, Jenny!
    I was always surprised at how hard it was to resist taking over when I worked with young writers - but pleased to see the consequences of letting them retain ownership of their work. Good advice to apply with kids in many areas of their lives...

  2. Don't write suggestions or corrections on their paper. I need to keep that in mind when I work with my own children. Thank you for giving us the tips... and for volunteering your time.