By Christy Kenny-Kitchin
I recently presented at the CATE Convention in Monterey, California on taking a mentoring stance when responding to student writing. I worked with two professors from Cal State–Chris Street and Norm Unrau. We all shared on the importance of responding appropriately to student writing. We focused on how much our responses to our students affect our connection with them and, in turn, their ability, or perhaps desire to show up for us in class.
After Chris shared a less-than-kind comment he had received from a teacher when he was a student, we elicited responses from the audience about their experiences. Nearly every person had an experience in which one of their teachers had said something to them, perhaps a brief statement or a seemingly innocuous small, two-word response on a project that had changed the student’s perspective on their own learning.
I shared from the perspective of a secondary teacher that post pandemic, I had struggled greatly to connect with my students as I had done in the past and how classroom management was now a huge issue.
As if to prepare me for the presentation, the week prior to the conference, I decided to significantly change my approach to the teaching of writing. I had spoken to several colleagues at different schools and knew that the lack of skills–both academic and inter-personal–was what we might term “the new pandemic.” I could see that critical thinking and writing skills were seriously lacking and, when I considered that the last time my seniors had had an uninterrupted year of schooling face-to-face with a writing teacher, they were freshmen. Their skills reflected this.
My classes were in the middle of writing the speech for the “Language, Gender, and Culture” ERWC module. I decided to extend the amount of in-class time we spent on the assignment in order to provide daily instruction on every aspect of the writing process. I gave a mini-lesson each day and walked around the room to see each student’s progress. One after another said they did not need help or that they needed “time to think” through their writer’s block. I gave them space to write and continued to share lessons as a whole class, thinking they would absorb the information. By the second day, I had seen very little progress with any student in any class. So, I offered student-teacher writing conferences. Only a couple of people in each class approached. I then made it mandatory that they have a conference before moving on to their rough drafts.
As we sat in each conference, one on one, in front of the entire class, but talking softly, I was able to see what was lacking in their approach, and in their thinking about the topic. They saw me brainstorm with them, showing them the structure for their topic. They watched as I struggled with them to come up with the specifics of their topic then their issue, their question at issue, and finally their thesis statement for the speech. We worked on funneling down their ideas to something specific enough to be able to write a 2 to 3 page speech instead of what many of them had–a topic so broad that only a textbook could do it justice.
As each student sat before me, watching my thinking and hearing me say things such as, “This is definitely a topic that we can work with. Let’s narrow it down so it’s easy to approach,” and “I like where you’re going with this. You have some really good ideas!” I saw them light up. I continued in some conferences to say things like, “I am struggling to figure out where to take this topic. Give me a second. Let’s take a moment to brainstorm this one together.”
Not only did these conferences allow me to show each student a solid approach to their assignment, I could clearly see how each of them processed their thinking, which students had anxiety with either approaching a teacher or a big writing task, and who needed more support moving forward. But by responding kindly with my comments and showing them my thinking, we connected on a human level.
As I reflected on the conferences each day, I recalled how, prior to the pandemic, I had given each class an intro writing assignment in August in which they explained to me either a positive or a negative experience they had had in the past with an English class or teacher. With that assignment, I would call each of them up to have a brief conference to discuss their experience and answer any questions they had. I hadn’t had a classroom management issue in years. What I didn’t realize is that it was because they had seen me early in the year as a human who cared.
During this school year, the first full year of in-person learning, I had struggled with classroom management reminding me of my first few years as a teacher. I was ready to quit the profession.
However, in bringing back these student-teacher conferences, I noticed a significant shift in every one of my classes. Students were suddenly following every request and they are now more willing to show up–physically, mentally and emotionally. Some students are sharing their personal struggles with me rather than sitting in class, as Audre Lorde states, silently swallowing their tyrannies day by day until they “sicken and die of them still in silence.”
This connection is not only what had been lacking for my students, but it is the exact thing I needed as an educator to keep me enlivened in this profession.
Christy Kenny-Kitchin is an English teacher at Buena Park High School where she has also served as a Literacy Coach and Curriculum Specialist. She has taught English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Having written one of the i3 modules (“The Daily Challenge”), she also worked as an academic coach to teachers for the i3 grant. Christy has been leading ERWC professional learning workshops for over a decade.
Editor’s Note: Please see the new ERWC teaching resource, “Adopting a Mentoring Stance with Student Writers,” for more strategies for cultivating students’ writing lives and identities.
2023 ERWC Literacy Conference
Please consider submitting a proposal to present at this year’s ERWC Literacy Conference, to be held June 20th in Sacramento and June 26th in Pomona. Cal State University pays travel costs for selected presenters. See the Call for Presenters here.
The deadline for proposals has been extended to April 14, 2023.
Conference registration is now open! The $75 registration fee includes continental breakfast and a buffet lunch. Discounts available for administrators, literacy coaches, and counselors.