Writing conferences—the one-on-one conversations we have with students while their classmates are busy writing—are the most important teaching opportunities we have in the writing workshop.
—Carl Anderson in Assessing Writers
I’ve recorded my notes from conferring with student writers in many different ways over the years as I’ve taught in different elementary grades. My first form was very general, with a space for the date and writing observations. Another form recorded the date, a compliment, and the teaching point from the conversation. But I didn’t know where to record what I saw writers doing. I also didn’t know where to record something the writer said that I wanted to remember to use in a minilesson or at a parent-teacher conference. The most recent form I used in my kindergarten classroom allowed me to record what I saw in a student’s writing but felt like a checklist. Here are the headings from that form:
I knew I needed a new way to record all these kinds of information that was succinct and useful. I turned to my two favorite resources about the teaching of writing—Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson and Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers by Martha Horn and Mary Ellen Giacobbe—for ideas on how to revise the form. Carl Anderson writes, “When I’ve observed teachers who are good at conferring, I’ve noticed that there is a structure to their conversations.” My previous writing conference sheets did not have a structure to help guide my one-on-one conversations. Here is the new conferring form I’ve developed to use with students this year.
Emerging writers typically write a lot of pieces and write them quickly. In the beginning, the pieces are usually short one-page stories, and knowing the topic helps guide the reader in understanding an emerging writer’s thoughts. As stamina and writing length increases, clearer topics and titles emerge. My first column records the date, topic, or title. As I was testing out this form last year, I found myself wanting to use it for both kid-watching and interactive conferring in a one-on-one conversation.
The first structure for my writing conference is framed with the question “What am I learning about this writer?” I then chose three key parts to look at to help me learn about my students as writers: Research, Craft/Convention, and Feedback. Carl Anderson has good advice for starting a writing conference: “We ask an open-ended question that invites the child to set the conference agenda.” His two opening questions are “How’s it going?” and “What are you doing as a writer today?” These two opening questions help foster talk and ownership for students. Anderson cites Lucy Calkins in calling this the research stage.
We need to give our writers specific feedback, and to name what we see a writer doing. Horn and Giacobbe define craft as “listing those things that children show us they know how to do when expressing their thoughts on paper in both drawing and words (organization, information, voice, and so on).” They go on to define convention as “listing what the child shows us he or she knows about how the written language works (spacing, letter formation, punctuation, capitalization, and so on).” Being a researcher and noticing what writers are doing well guides the specific feedback to students.
The last structure of our conference time for writing mirrors our reading conferences. It is important to find a teaching point to move our writers forward. It’s equally important to record future thinking to help plan for individual, small-group, or whole-group settings. I know I’ll never be finished revising my conferring forms, but I’m happy with how much more information I’ll be able to record this year that is useful on a single page for each student.