A Lesson on Listening
By Andrea Bensusan
I recently rediscovered one of the great joys of teaching – the writing conference. A grade level change to 4th – after 16 years in 6th – hurled me for the first time into the world of “teacher of everything.” Increased specialization at my 5/6 building had me teaching only Social Studies, and now I found myself in a self-contained classroom. It was a strange feeling being a veteran and a rookie at the same time. Every day has brought challenges and joys, and the return to a role as teacher of writing has been one of those joys.
Last month we launched into a personal narrative writing unit. As we plugged away at Writer’s Workshop, I started conferring with my 4th graders and instantly found myself once again enjoying this part of the writing process. After modeling my own writing and sharing autobiographical pieces by children’s authors like Roald Dahl and Gary Paulsen, my students were drafting their own stories and some were ready for a “listening conference.”
This one-on-one time – where I sit and listen to the students read their drafts rather than reading it myself – is such a rarity in our busy classroom lives, but is so important. Is this not the time when we really get to know our students? When we get to understand their world through their writing? When we realize that even a 9-year-old has a darn good story to tell? And when our worst behavior problem can share a heartwarming story that changes our perception of them? Conferring with students – and the listening that is inherent in that process – helps us relate to our students in a unique way.
I experienced that connection recently while working with one of my learning support students. As I sat with this particular student – who had such great struggles with spelling that it was often difficult to read and understand her work – my concerns about how the conference would go diminished. She read her story, and I just listened. Without getting caught up in the mistakes that would have bogged me down if I had read her draft instead, I was able to truly hear her tell her tale. She wove a story that had depth and character and voice, that started with her dad waking her up in the wee hours of the morning announcing, “The party bus is leaving!” She detailed the long journey to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and her arrival at the hotel with its walls of glass fish tanks and plunging water slides. We worked on adding detail and description and transitions, but I was truly impressed with the way she had composed a solid story.
After she revised, I looked at her work to give her feedback on editing. What a challenge that was. Nearly every word contained spelling errors, and the story was lost in the jumble of mistakes. Despite my concerns, I smiled every time I read her spelling of the name of the resort that had been her destination – “Aunt Latis.” During our “listening conference,” I had understood exactly what she had been saying as she read, and now I was able to correct her spelling with more tenderness than frustration. It was a gift to me to have listened to her story first, so that I could focus on her narrative rather than mechanical mistakes. And I understood how important the trip to “Aunt Latis” with her family had been to her.
So thanks to Ralph Fletcher and Nancie Atwell and PAWLP instructors and early grade level mentors who taught me the art of the conference that goes by many names in classrooms, but which I call the “listening conference.” It has helped me become a much better teacher of writing. And here’s to you, Aunt Latis.
Andrea Bensusan is a PAWLP Writing fellow and teaches in the Wyomissing Area School District in Berks County. She has taught the Young Readers/Young Writers summer program at the West Chester campus as well as summer writing enrichment programs in her district.