“Everyone has a Top 10 list,” Sam said at dinner. “Mine would be Top 10 Things to Recycle on a Train Layout.” Sam went on to explain that you think about something you know a lot about and then create a Top 10 list. Of course this started a landslide of a conversation, and everyone had ideas for a Top 10 list.
Jay: “Top 10 Deviled Eggs”
Stephanie: “Top 10 Ways to Make Your Room Look Clean Without Cleaning”
Hannah: “Top 10 Ways to Sneak Read”
Andy: “Top 10 MLB Catchers”
Me: “Top 10 Conferring Tips”
My suggestion paused the conversation. “Nobody wants to know about that,” said the kid who thinks everyone would want to recycle oatmeal containers into grain elevators for a model train layout. Despite his warning, I decided to write my Top 10 list.
Drumroll . . .
Ruth’s Top 10 Conferring Tips
1. Be passionate.
When I’m around passionate people, I want to be excited too. Passion is contagious, so if we’re passionate, then students will be excited about the writing work too.
2. Talk like a writer. (Be a writer.)
Writers flourish when they talk with one another. The best conferences are between writers. You’re not a judge, a critic, or a sweet talker. You’re a writer who knows a little bit more about writing than the writer you are talking with.
3. Attune to the energy.
Not every day is a high-energy writing day. There are times when it’s frustrating to write. There are other days when things aren’t going how we expect. Take note of the student’s energy for writing and adjust your conversation accordingly.
4. Remember you are talking to a child who is a growing writer.
We shouldn’t expect perfect writing from students. Growing writers always have errors. When I get my manuscripts back from a copy editor, there are all kinds of corrections. Keep in mind that it isn’t perfection that is important, but growth.
5. Check back.
During conferences we offer teaching points and encourage students to do something as a writer. Check back with students to see if they are having success applying their new learning. This offers an opportunity to reteach and encourage growth.
6. Stick to genuine questions.
It can be easy to get stuck in a question trap during conferences. It’s unfair to ask questions to which we already know the answers. For example, asking, “Is that the correct form of two?” isn’t a fair question. Questions such as “Do you think you should name your characters?” aren’t fair either. If there is something you want students to try in their writing, then say it. Don’t mask a request with a question. Questions are powerful, but they must remain genuine.
7. Look for the almost.
Rather than noticing everything students aren’t doing as writers, begin to notice the things they are almost doing. Are they almost illustrating setting details? Are they almost attributing an expert quote correctly? Are they almost using commas in a series conventionally? Are they almost effective at peer editing? Looking through the lens of “almost” positions us to encourage students in their growth as writers.
8. Care more about the writer than the writing.
Writing is personal. There will be times students will not want to take your suggestions. For a multitude of reasons, they may be connected to their drafts. There are other times when we, as adults, could swoop in and fix the writing, making it an adorable story or a stronger argument. It’s important to stay focused on teaching the writer, not fixing the writing.
9. Meaning matters.
Whenever I select a teaching point, I consider what will make the meaning stronger. It doesn’t help a student to teach capitalization rules if the scenes are underdeveloped and difficult to follow. Meaning should always drive the selection of teaching points in a conference.
It feels good to do challenging work, and writing is challenging work. Celebrate with students during conferences. Don Murray taught us that children should have more energy for writing after a conference than they did before. Celebration is a great way to boost energy. Be specific and name what the student is doing well as a writer.