As I confer with students in writing workshop, I have a few guiding beliefs that govern how I approach students, what I say, and what I teach. These six tenets apply to almost any conference with students of any age.
Always sit down next to the student.
I have seen teachers call students over to them for conferences. If the teacher has a broken leg, I’m good with that. Otherwise, the message that it sends to students is “Stop working. You need me to teach you something.” This message is different from the message of “You are working. What are you working on? Maybe I can help you.” This is the message that I work hard to send young writers when I confer with them.
Teach the writer, not the writing.
This idea from Donald Graves is one of the most important tenets of teaching writing to students. We can’t possibly teach students everything about the craft, so it’s important that what we do teach them is something that will transfer into the rest of their writing. Before I decide what to focus on in an individual conference, I try to envision that student working on a future piece. Will my teaching point be remembered? Are there enough opportunities to practice that it will become part of that developing writer’s hard drive? Which leads to the next belief . . .
Don’t teach too much in one conference.
If I’m in a tennis lesson and the pro tells me to fix my follow through, take my racket back further, run diagonally, take smaller steps, punch the volleys…I’m a mess. I’m even worse when he comes over and just does it all for me. I’m much more successful and much more likely to remember and practice if we focus on just one or two components of my game.
Usually when I confer, I leave the student with just one teaching point. Every now and then, I’ll break my OTP (one teaching point) rule, but only if I’m sure the writer can handle it. Even then, it usually involves a less meaty teaching point. Record-keeping systems help me if they are structured so that I have to record my teaching point. So many times, teachers fall into the trap of wanting the writing piece to be perfect, or at least reflective of everything they’ve taught. That’s when erasers start going and teachers start working much harder than students.
Compliment. Don’t forget the compliment.
I write a lot. I even write with a google group and we comment on each other’s writing through google drive. While I appreciate all of the feedback from my on-line writing group, I especially love when they compliment my work–when they highlight a part and write “wow” in the margin. Writers work hard and we are vulnerable when we write. We share our stories, we take risks with new skills, we try to inject our voices and we hope our readers hear them. When we begin our individual work with students without honoring that vulnerability, we miss an opportunity to build trust and confidence in our writing workshops. I always begin my work with a student by asking what s/he is working on and then finding something within their writing life to honor. Maybe it’s “Wow, you are really using energy and time thinking about what you are going to write.” (That is for the child who doesn’t write much.) Maybe it’s “Look at how you’re including facts in your writing” for the writer who just makes lists in their information writing. (Do you have one of those? I see them a lot!) I find something specific and I honor it before I do any individualized instruction. Try it, but know that you have to mean it. You will see your students sit a couple inches taller when you start your conference with a sincere compliment. I also find that students are much more available for my teaching point when I start by making them feel good about their writing.
Have the student do the most talking.
Whoever does the most talking almost always does the most learning. It is so hard to say less than the student during a conference, but here are some questions that help:
What are you working on?
What is your goal for this piece?
How could you work on that goal?
What strategies could you try?
Where are you struggling? Why do you think you might be struggling there?
What tools do you have to work on this goal or strategy?
I often find that students know strategies; they just don’t know how to apply them or they don’t multitask in their writing yet. If they are working on a plot, their knowledge of capitalization and spelling might hide in the corner. Sometimes, when I let students do the talking, they choose a goal that I might not choose for them. Sometimes their goal is better than the one I’m thinking, and sometimes my goal is probably a higher priority. When I think that my goal is a higher priority, I might list the goals on a conference card and let the student choose. That way, even if the student doesn’t choose the higher priority goal on that day, there’s a record of the goals, and s/he can select it for a focus area in the near future.
Individual conferences should not take too long. Most of the time I spend between three to five minutes when I confer with students. If the conference is longer than five minutes, I worry that I am doing too much, that I am teaching too much, that my focus is on the writing and not the writer. Do a little research to see what the writer is doing, compliment, establish a teaching point, and challenge the writer to try it out. I love to end my conferences with “If you try this, put a star next to it so that I see it quickly, or even come show me. I want to make sure that I honor the work you did.” This line works to get me away from students who tend to do most of their work only when an adult is right beside them.
My “How a Conference Goes Chart” frames out my beliefs.
When I am working with teachers who are working on their conferring skills, I share this chart with them. I also think that teachers should teach the structure of a conference to students. Students should know that their role in a conference is not a passive role. They should be asking questions, reflecting, and participating in goal-setting.
When we have a chance to work with students individually in writing workshop, our time is precious. Conferring is when we individualize our instruction, scaffolding and challenging students to integrate skills, take risks, and set higher goals. When teachers and students understand the structure of a conference, students develop pathways to flourish and grow as writers.