In my past experience with sixth-grade students, peer conferring was a way of life in our writing class. Students were able to take the lead and really push the thinking and the writing of their peers. After moving back to second grade this year, I was hesitant to try this work with seven- and eight-year-olds. Were they too young? Too interested in their own pieces? Were they able to remove themselves for just a moment from their own writing pride and accomplishment to focus on the writing of a peer? Was I just being a whiny teacher who was avoiding the work it would take to start something like this with young writers?
These questions were my wake up call to revisit some of the most important guiding principles and beliefs I held as a teacher:
- Trust children. They will far exceed our expectations every single time if we will just trust that they can do it.
- Create opportunities for collaboration so that the children in my classroom have the time to think, co-create, problem-solve and learn from one another. I am not the only person with a brain in the room.
- Stop asking excuse questions. These are the question you ask yourself or to colleague when you really don’t want to know the answer, but want to give yourself an excuse not to do the thing you’re asking about.
With serious reflection about why I should move forward with peer conferring, I put on my big girl teaching pants and decided to go for it. Right before the winter holidays (a fine time to start something new in a primary classroom, don’t you think?!), I introduced the idea of peer conferring to my second graders.
Building the Foundation for Peer Conferring
I introduced the idea of peer conferring by asking the children, “If you were to be the teacher in a writing conference, what would you say?” Almost immediately, the kids began sharing their thoughts and questions, and what they said sounded a lot like what I said every day in conferences with them. The kids were able to step into the shoes of a teacher because they had multiple experiences with being a partner, a collaborator, a learner, and a teacher in their conferences with me.
Conferences aren’t one sided, with me doing all the talking. My goal in conferring for the past few years has been to resist. Resist talking so I can listen. Resist telling so I can question. Resist teaching so I can learn from the writer. That’s the model listener I want to be for my students, and in the coming months, with more peer conferring, that’s the expectation for how my students will also confer with their peers. It will take time, opportunities to confer, and practice (with classmates and with me), and lots of reflection and sharing about what works and what doesn’t.
The Ways to Respond chart was co-created by the children and me to support our conversations when students share their writing each day in writing conferences and share time.
Here is an example of a student-written “teaching point.” These are goals that the peer teacher and writer co-created to further support the writer after the conference.
This photo is the chart we created this week when thinking about what the peer teacher might say in a conference. What is his/her job?
The right side of the chart are ideas from students of what the peer writer might say to get support from their peer teacher.
It’s also critical to have daily opportunities for students to share their writing and their “teaching point” from a conference so that they learn to articulate their learning and share their writing.
While it is important to share and collect information together in our classroom, it’s equally important to share decisions and ownership in the teaching and learning. Peer conferring creates those opportunities for shared leadership, decision-making, ownership, and responsibility. It’s another way to expand the teaching and problem solving capacity and strengthen the learning community in our classroom. I’m excited to learn from our conferring, and I trust that amazing growth of the writers and the writing will occur.