Connection Before Conventions


“Connection before direction,” I murmur when I get home after a long day and there’s a big stack of dishes, an even bigger pile of laundry and my three kids lounging on the sectional. It’s a parenting mantra I heard years ago and it’s stuck with me. Not only does it represent the positive parent I want to be, but it’s also more effective.

Picture this. I walk into Maya’s room and she’s watching How I Met Your Mother. The floor of my artistic high schooler is strewn with colored Sharpies, magazine confetti, open scissors and uncapped glue sticks. Her “project” has been there for two days.

“What are you doing watching a show when your room looks like a badly maintained preschool?” is what comes to mind. Instead I step over the disaster area and say, “How was that math quiz you were worried about?” After we talk for a few minutes about friends, lunch, the incident with the jerk in the hallway and what’s for dinner, we’ve had our connection. On the way out of her room I’m able to say as if it’s an aside, “I’ll expect to see your room tidied up before we eat.” She may still roll her eyes or sigh as per the teenage code, but she’s much more likely to acquiesce.

Relationship research from John Gottman shows that successful marriages have a ratio of 5:1 positive comments to critiques. That seemed high when I first heard it. Five thank-you-for-doing-the-dishes connections for every please-pick-up-your-socks directions. But it makes sense.

This concept also works well when conferring with writers.

Imagine if you sat down to share your writing with me. You’re nervous; you care about what I think. You’ve been working very hard on using specific words to capture an image. And I say,

“You don’t have any periods at the ends of your sentences.”

Do you listen to anything I say after that? Probably not.

Like the mess on Maya’s floor, it can be hard for many of us to step over the obvious convention errors in students’ writing. But step over we must if we want to have our writers think and do themselves instead of fix and correct for us.

“Connection before conventions” means one conference, three conferences, seven conferences with a writer about what’s working well in writing and one idea to grow on. Then you can add the little comments like, “Where might a period go in those first lines?” or “What’s another way ‘favorite’ might be spelled?” Like it’s an aside. Conventions are used to convey ideas in a conventional way to a reader. Good talk about writing must come first and more frequently than anything else. Not only does that represent the positive writing teacher I want to be, it’s also more effective.

When conferring about writing, what does “connection before conventions” mean to you?

7 thoughts on “Connection Before Conventions

  1. This is so true! Teachers have a hard time not correcting all the misspelled words and conventions when reading students’ writing. If they correct everything (usually with a red pen) and hand it back to the student, it’s very overwhelming! I tell them to look for all the right and wonderful things the writer is doing, then pick just one or two things to conference about with the student.

  2. I didn’t really know what this must feel like for kids until I had it done to me a couple weeks ago. I was sitting in a writing workshop with a colleague (yes, Heather – it was your presentation at LH on LID Day 🙂 ), and we were asked to share and give feedback. After listening to the beautifully-written piece read to me and pointing out strengths therein, it was my turn to read my own. The point was to practice two skills covered during the workshop that afternoon, so I was less focused on the rest of my writing and more on my use of those skills (use of simile may have been one and I don’t remember the other). I was quite proud of my work, but after I read it, my partner sighed, said “It’s nice, but I don’t see anything great about it”, asked to take a closer look at it, and proceeded to put post-it notes all over it where she/he thought I should have made better word choices. (Yeah, I know! The nerve!)

    Clearly she/he (I’ve having to make a concerted effort to maintain anonymity), was trying to be helpful as I’m sure we as teachers are, but it felt anything, but. I hope that in my attempt to be helpful, I haven’t done this to kids. Either way, if anything good came out of my experience with said colleague, it was just to be mindful of my responses and the need for praise and “connections”.

    • Oh, Lisa. Ouch. I’m sorry that happened, but leave it to a learner like you to turn it into a mindfulness gift. Really good feedback makes us feel like writing more–not less. I always appreciate listening to you pull out the “Wows” of your own writers.

  3. Reminds me of this line from “Switch” by the Heath Brothers – “A long journey requires lots of mangoes.” Reward reward reward, even the slightest step in the direction you want.

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