When we were first learning to confer with students of all ages, we devoured books written by Nancie Atwell, Donald Graves, and Lucy Calkins. Each of these teachers had their own twists on the essential elements for high quality student-teacher conferences. Over time, we integrated and distilled their ideas into a few core principles.
These core principles guide us in every writer’s workshop. And when a conference goes wrong, we often find we have violated one of these principles when we reflect upon how we might have responded differently. We try to:
Let the child lead. We lean in and listen to any child as we confer, trusting that they can begin by helping us understand where they are in their writing, and possibilities for what they might learn next.
Know the history of the child, and the history of the piece of writing. We know the passions of each child in the classroom, with many children repeating a few crucial themes in their writing – family, favorite hobbies, friends, animals, toys. When we are stuck in a conference, we can often find a way into the writing through these passions and our shared history as writers.
Assume the child has something to communicate. There is always logic behind a child’s writing, both words and pictures, no matter how confused we might feel when we read a particular draft – it’s just a matter of finding out what in the child’s experience has led them to their current thinking, talking and symbol-making on the page.
Be patient, and respect silence. It is hard for us at times to slow down and be “in the moment” with an individual child – there are usually other children tugging at our sleeves, no matter how often we admonish everyone to respect the space and time of their classmates in conferences. But we need to slow down, listen, and most important, give the child all the time they need to formulate thoughts, or think through just the right word, picture or phrase to capture their new ideas.
With young learners, write down the child’s ideas in a notebook or at the bottom of the page. This isn’t dictation, as much as our attempt to ensure we can remember the child’s narrative in their own words.
Look for the teaching moment. It might be as subtle as nudging a child toward including more details in their drawing, or as explicit as guiding a child to write a new letter. Some of the most important teaching moments for us celebrate what the child has done well. Success breeds success, and children aren’t always aware of the new skills and strategies they are mastering and might use in other contexts.
Keep it short. We try to meet with as many children as possible each day in the classroom, circulating through the room and checking in as children write. Some conferences are just a quick sentence or two of support. Others include a few minutes of pulling up a chair and watching as a child writes, asking questions about their drawings or words. It is a rare thirty minute conferring session where we don’t manage to check in with all twenty children in the class.
Include follow-up. When we leave a conference, the child and teacher both know what is coming next–continuing in a draft, starting a new piece, fleshing out a drawing, or publishing the writing in some form.
When we were first learning to confer, we were overwhelmed at the thought of making all these principles come to life at once in our classrooms – so we didn’t even try. Instead, we decided to master one principle at a time. When we were sure we were applying the principle well, we move onto the second principle. Then the third, then the fourth – until a few short months later, all were evident in our conferences. We look at the principles now as a checklist, something to consult quickly when we want to brush up on our conferring skills.