Confer Like a Doctor

I’m taking Carl Anderson‘s week-long class, Assessment-Based Writing Instruction: Use a study of Student Work to Generate Goals and systems for Recording Progress Towards Those Goals, at the July Writing Institute this week.  Carl delivered an overview of our class on Tuesday, June 28th when he delivered the Keynote Address, Conferring with a Vision, to all of the Writing Institute participants.  I will be posting other thoughts and reflections about my week-long session with him in July, but I wanted to share one thing that really struck me from his Keynote on Tuesday with you now.

Carl shared his visions for strategic conferring, which is when:

  • We have writing goals for students that help us anticipate where we might go.
  • Our goals for students help us find a focus in the first part of the conference.
  • Over time, we look to see how students are doing with those goals and adjust our teaching to help students meet them.

Strategic conferring is a lot like the way our primary care physicians, or PCP, practice medicine.  Let me give you a for instance using myself as the example.

Every April I go to my PCP for my annual physical.  Before my doctor walks through the door, he previews my chart.  When my doctor walked into the examination room this April, he already knew I was having foot problems since he saw the record of the MRI and the reports my physical therapist had written after each visit.  Second, he knew my allergies were in full-swing since he knows my past history and he read through the dictation my allergist had cc-ed him on.  Third, he knew I had a baby since he saw I had a hospital stay a few months prior.  (Well, he also knew that because I sent him pictures after Isabelle was born.)  My doctor was aware of all of these things, as well as a few others, because he took the time to prepare for my visit by reviewing everything he could before he came into the exam room.  Once he was in the examination room, we talked about the health issues I was facing.  He did a physical exam and then we reviewed his findings together.  By having a back and forth conversation, we created a reasonable plan together.  Finally, my PCP and I reviewed the plan of action for my health care and encouraged me to follow-up with him in a few month’s time.  My annual visit was extremely productive since my doctor was prepared for my visit.  He listened to my concerns as a patient and developed a plan of action for me.

Carl wants teachers to think like PCPs when conferring with kids.  He wants us to review our conference notes before we sit down with a student.  He suggests that we have a few goals for our students as writers so that we can guide them in the proper directions.  (I’ll be blogging more about creating goals for students in July as well.)  Further, Carl advocates we continue to check in with our students about their writing goals periodically so we can move them forward as writers.   Finally, Carl encourages us to work with students on a few things at a time until they get better.

If we think and confer with our students like high-quality physicians practice medicine, then we will be able to help our students become more proficient writers since we will understand them in a deeper way.