But they’re wrong.
I mean, sure, bad writing conferences can be harmful to a kid’s confidence, and at best, bad writing conferences are a waste of everyone’s time. Done well, however, writing conferences are transformative. They are also the most efficient way to improve student writing.
Why are writing conferences the best way? Isn’t it just about reading a lot? Or repetitions?
No - the reason writing conferences are VITAL is that they come as part of the composition process and deal with pieces in-progress, rather than pieces that are finished (at least in the mind of the writer). And no one can improve writing if they don’t have someone who is good at writing, or at least good at analyzing writing, to sit with them and workshop.
It’s also about relationship - lots of information comes out during a writing conference, but most of that is under the surface. You see the perfectionists. You see the half-assers. You see the ones on the verge of a psychological meltdown. You see the ones who really just want the A and are looking for the checklist.
And certainly it is possible to inject too much of yourself and your perspective into the students’ piece and try and force something that isn’t there because that’s how you would do it. But part of being a good teacher of writing is to get out the way and humble yourself. A good teacher of writing is invisible and allows the text to speak, and when the text can’t speak, gives the author room to speak and then take those words and give them life on the page.
That’s the beauty of a writing conference, when it’s well done: it is alchemy. It takes dross - a student whose shortcomings and insecurities are laid bare and a teacher who is more used to telling than asking and has his or her own insecurities - and transforms that into gold - a piece of writing that does so much more than the first draft indicated was possible, and a relationship that is strengthened by the transparency required to discuss failure and insecurity. That is not something to take lightly. It is a kind of magic, and one that has been a profoundly transformative experience for us as teachers.
In a way, writing conferences are selfish: they make US better writers too. In asking good questions and listening to the student’s voice, we become part of their world and part of their schema. It’s not exactly like channeling, but it is the obliteration of the self. That, as many writers would tell you, is something beautiful and fleeting and worth pursuing actively and frequently.
And therein lies the problem for many teachers: it’s scary to be that exposed, especially in front of a student. For those of us constantly worried about how other people will see us or how someone will misinterpret what we say, this kind of process is dangerous. A bad writing conference can cripple the teacher, in the same way getting a paper full of red ink cripples a student. In fact, writing conferences are a form of feedback for the teacher on how well they are doing as a teacher of writing.
Feedback is scary.
But so is life. And everything worth having takes risking something.
It’s a risk that is absolutely worth it.