As I waited for the transition to writing workshop, I looked around the kindergarten classroom. It was packed! Not only were class sizes large—34 five-year-olds had prepared their desks for writing—but there were several adults. I counted the big people in the room.
- The classroom teacher
- The special-needs teacher
- The ENL teacher
- A behavior coach
- A paraprofessional
- A classroom assistant
- Another behavior coach
- A parent volunteer
- A third behavior coach
- Me, an instructional coach
Writing workshop began. The teacher invited me in and asked me to observe. “It feels out of control,” she said. “I think I give clear directions, but then it’s like a free-for-all. There’s scribbling, and kids are using Sharpie markers and sidewalk chalk instead of their colored pencils. Students aren’t developing strong writing habits, and I feel like they’re getting mixed messages from all the adults in the room.”
“I’m sure it’s one of those things you’ve made worse in your mind than it is in reality.”
The teacher’s eyes were wide. “You might not want to say that until you see it in action. It’s bad, and I don’t know what to do.”
Within the first few minutes I realized the teacher wasn’t exaggerating. The students still needed to develop strong habits as writers, and the adults were sending mixed messages. As I observed, I asked myself, What one change will have the biggest effect on establishing strong routines?
As I eavesdropped on conferences, I was impressed that all the adults felt very comfortable talking with students about their work as writers. Even the parent volunteer quit working in the classroom library to offer writing advice to students.
The problem was that most of the advice was about fixing up writing rather than teaching students to be stronger writers. “I know,” the teacher said. “Now nobody will stretch a word. They all want me to spell words for them. They bring me sticky notes so I can write the word for them to take back to their seat. It’s crazy!” The teacher was exasperated. After 25 minutes of observing, it was easy to understand her frustration.
We didn’t want to discourage or offend the adults in the room. They wanted to help and were doing their best. As we thought more about how the teacher could have more influence over the teaching points in the conferences, we landed on the idea of providing individual conference records with tailored teaching points based on the needs of each student.
Multiple Teachers and Support Staff Share Conference Records
To make it possible for multiple adults to confer in a classroom at the same time, I created a conference record that stays with the student and allows the teacher to guide the direction of all conferences—no matter which adult is leading the conversation. It also provides a record of teaching points for each child and serves as a communication device between adults.
The date and initials of the person having the conference are recorded. The date is important so students do not have multiple conferences in the same day. The initials are important so the classroom teacher can make sure she is meeting with every student on a regular basis. I encourage classroom teachers to keep a record of dates met with each student so no one is left out.
What is the student doing as a writer? The first step for a conference is to identify what a student is doing. As time goes on, support staff can learn to highlight students’ strengths as writers. However, a good place to begin is with the observation of the student’s writing work.
How did you help this student as a writer? Rather than a formal teaching point, this step in the conference encourages adults to help students as writers. It takes the pressure off the adult to make perfect writing, and focuses on helping the student.
The final column, Things to teach, is reserved for only the teacher to complete. The teacher fills out this column with needs the student has as a writer. Many times, support staff will focus on conventions in student writing. This column provides suggestions for other ways to help students as writers. I’m intentional about listing craft and process needs students have as writers. This column takes a lot of pressure off the support staff to know how to help a student and guides the direction of the conference.
Stapling this conference record to student folders makes it available anytime an adult meets with a student. In addition, the classroom teacher can follow other conversations students have had about their writing. When it is full, just staple a clean copy on top, creating a history of conferences for each student.
Students Keeping Their Own Conference Notes
The kindergarten teacher was best friends with the fifth-grade teacher and shared her excitement about the individual conference notes. “It has saved my workshop!” she said, being slightly dramatic. Since good news spreads fast, the fifth-grade teacher asked if there was a version of the individual conference record she could use.
This made me consider ways to change the individual conference records for older students. Since conferences are all about naming strengths and nudging growth, I wondered if it would be powerful for students to keep their own conference notes.
The fifth-grade teacher allowed me to experiment in her room, and we developed a conference record for students to complete. It allows students to internalize the feedback. Through reflection, students can become aware of their growth.
After the conference, students fill out three boxes. This allows the teacher to see if the main points of the conference are clear to the student. Do students record the strength you named? Do they understand the teaching point?
The conference record remains in the student’s writing folder and is used to track three or four conferences. After several weeks, students take time to write a reflection. Let’s be intentional about teaching students the basics of a reflection.
What happened as a writer + How you feel about it = Reflection
This conference record with the completed reflection can serve as an assessment of a student’s writing process. Sometimes it is difficult to assess writing process and habits, and this conference record makes it possible.
There are many advantages to leaving conference records with students. We can streamline communication, provide differentiated instruction via several adults, and provide students with the opportunity for reflection. You can print full copies of these conference records for each of your students and add them to their writing folders. It is a simple system to test, and you may find a new record-keeping system you love.
Download a PDF of the Conferring Forms