Back to Basics: Conferring (Part of TWT’s Big Picture Series)

This is the fourth of seven Back to Basics Posts.

This is the fourth of seven "Back to Basics" Posts.

I consider myself fortunate to have learned more about the art of conferring with young writers from some of the best folks out there: Carl Anderson, Lucy Calkins, and Jen Serravallo.  As many of you know, I spent a week of my summer studying more about conferring with Carl Anderson at the TCRWP Summer Institute on the Teaching of Writing.  I walked away from the week feeling more knowledgable, but still longing for more time listening to Carl talk about how he confers with writers. (Luckily, he recently published a new book about conferring, which includes videos of Carl conferring with lots of different kids.)

Since this week’s theme is “Back to Basics,” I’ve tried to synthesize what I’ve learned about conferring from Anderson, Calkins, and Seravallo for you.  It’s by no means a comprehensive guide to conferring with young writers.  If you want that, then I highly suggest picking up one of their books and learning more from them since they’ve been teaching Writing Workshop a lot longer that I have been.

Who: You and one other student.

What: A “Research-Decide-Teach” Conference (R-D-T) allows you to research what the child is doing as a writer, decide what to teach him/her, compliment the student on something they’re doing well, and then teach them something.  A “Coaching” Conference can stem from a R-D-T Conference; it allows you to set the child up for some kind of success by the end of your time together.

When: During the independent writing/practice portion of your Writing Workshop.

Where: I like to pull-up next to a student wherever they’re sitting in the room.  By doing this, it allows other kids who are close-by to listen-in to what we’re saying.  Some teachers confer at a conference table, which I do (on occasion).

Why: To lift the level of a student’s writing at any point in the writing process.  The conference, especially the “research” part of a R-D-T- Conference allows you to understand what’s working for the child, to see what is important to the child, and to allow you to give the child some kind of charge that will help him/her become a better writer.

How: I like to start off with one of two phrases, “How’s it going?” or “What are you working on as a writer?”  I let my students know, in the fall, that I expect them to lead the first part of the conference so I can decide what I’m going to teach them.  Many kids often need a gentle reminder about this several times before they come to realize that “How’s it going?” doesn’t mean, “Whatcha doing?” and “What are you working on as a writer?” doesn’t mean, “What are you writing about today?”  Other questions you can ask your kids during the “research” stage of a conference are “What are you trying to do as a writer?” or “What are you planning to do next and how will you go about doing that?”

I’ve created “conferring menus” (an idea I picked up from Serravallo in 2006) for most of the units of study I teach so I have a bunch of teaching points at my fingertips.  I often deviate from these and create new teaching points on-the-fly, but I still like to keep these handy.  If you’d like to see what one looks like, just leave a comment below and I’ll send it to you via e-mail.  (Make sure to put your e-mail address when you fill out the comment section.  Your e-mail address will NOT be published online.)

Finally, as with all of the posts Ruth and I are doing this week, we hope veteran Writing Teachers will comment on these posts so we can continue to learn from each other.