A Little Conferring Secret

Often, one of the things people mention after observing me confer is my wait time. I shouldn’t be surprised by this because it has become a typical response to my conferring style. However, I’m still a little surprised each time someone mentions my wait time because it is something that has become part of the fabric of my craft. I don’t even notice I’m doing anything outside of ordinary.

The other typical comment after being observed conferring with young writers goes something like this: “I can’t believe how much you get out of kids. They just tell you so much!” Again, I’m usually taken aback by this because I’m surprised students will say things to me, a stranger, that they wouldn’t say to their classroom teachers.

It’s not a coincidence that these two comments go hand-in-hand.

Carl Anderson teaches us that the first part of a conference is to research. We are to examine what students are doing, figure out why they are making certain choices, identify something they are doing well, and determine their needs. If I’m going to do this efficiently, I need students to talk during this part of the conference. I need their insights. I can make logical guesses, but they don’t nearly compare to the things a student can tell me. Part of being a researcher is learning how to listen.

As a writer, I know it’s sometimes difficult to explain what I’m doing. I need time to think. I know it’s even more difficult to explain what I’m doing when I’m conferring with someone I admire and think is a “better” writer than I am. Last summer I had a writing conference with Heather Rader, senior editor of Choice Literacy, author of Side by Side: Short Takes on Best Practice for Teachers and Literacy Leaders (Choice Literacy, 2012), and an instructional coach extraordinaire (my description, not Heather’s). I also had a writing conference with Brenda Power, founder of Choice Literacy, author of several books, including Living the Questions,  editor, professor, video producer, the list goes on and is enough to scare the most confident of writers when sitting across the table from her for a writing conference. Brenda and Heather top my list of people I respect and admire in the field.

So here I am, on two separate occasions, having writing conferences with people who I respect, admire, and quite frankly intimidate me a little. In both conferences, I quickly felt at ease because it was clear both Heather and Brenda cared about me as a writer. They were warm and inviting. I recognized the conversational moves of a writing conference immediately, however, now I was on the opposite side. They both began the conferences with research, allowing me space to talk.

It took me a little time to warm up. I needed the space to say the things they needed to hear in order to help me as a writer. They responded to me, asked follow up questions and then waited. This simple act of listening by giving me time to responded did more for me as a writer than anything else they could have done.

For them, it provided needed information. They were able to guide me and point me in a solid direction. Even when Brenda slashed paragraph after paragraph of a draft, I still left the conference feeling valued and having energy to continue writing. This was possible because the conference started with giving me space to talk.

The same is true for the writers working in our classrooms.

I’ve talked with others who have tried to engage me in a writing conference, however, they didn’t allow me space at the beginning to talk. Although they may have offered solid advice, it didn’t mean as much to me as Brenda and Heather’s. This is because I didn’t feel like they understood what I was doing as a writer because they didn’t take the time to listen to me.

If we want students to grow as writers because of the time they spend conferring with us, then we need to begin by carving space in the beginning of a conference to listen.

This begins with wait time.