Coaching Conferences in the Writing Workshop

It’s January, at the top of a mountain in Vermont. Ten six and seven year olds are lined up on the side of a ski trail. Their skis all pointing toward me, ready for me to guide them down the mountain.

“All right everyone, HOT CHOCOLATE!” I shout.

Kristin, the tiniest one, in the front of the line, knows the drill. She turns and points herself down the trail. With her belly button pointing straight down the fall-line, she tips the tops of her ski boots from side to side. This sets her skis on edge, and she carves out beautiful turns, gliding easily from left to right. Bobby follows her, then Tucker, Marina, and the rest of them. I ski alongside my group, calling out to them:

“Tip those boots!”

“Pinkies! PINK-EEEES!”

“Lift that big toe!”

“Knees! Knees! Knees!

“Poles up in front!”

Where our trail meets another trail, my kids pull to a stop and line up again. “Wow! Nice work! I can see you’ve really been working hard on linking those turns! Nice turns kiddos! Give me five! Ready to do some more?”

Fast forward about fifteen years. I’m in a kindergarten classroom, sitting side by side with Alfred, a student who is working on labeling his pictures in his story. This is new work for him. He’s working hard on writing down at least a letter or two for each word. From time to time I whisper to him.

“Point to something. Say the word slowly. What sounds do you hear?”

“Find the sound on your alphabet chart. Write it.”

“S-tr-e-tch the word out to hear ALL the sounds.”

“Do another one.”

“Reread it.”

Alfred finishes labeling his picture and lets out a big sigh, and smiles a big grin. “Nice work, Alfred! Give me five! You just wrote all that all by yourself! Ready to do another one?”

I often say that I learned everything about teaching from my experience as a ski instructor in college. While this is only partially true (I learned a lot from, well, actually teaching… and by having more than a few really amazing mentors along the way…) there are a few very important skills I did pick up from teaching skiing. One of those is how to be a great COACH.

Coaching skiing and coaching writing both involve reminding kids to use all the skills and strategies that I’ve taught them in the past. The trick is using key phrases that are meaningful to the student. For example, when I shouted “HOT CHOCOLATE!” to my skiers, they already knew that meant to tip both your ski boots to one side, as if you are pouring hot chocolate out of the tops of them. I had demonstrated it many times, enough times that all I had to do now was remind them to practice it.

Likewise, in writing workshop with Alfred, when I said, “S-tr-e-tch the word out to hear ALL the sounds,”  he knew what I was talking about because he had seen me demonstrate this numerous times as well, and knew exactly what my prompt meant.

When kids are working on their writing, it’s not all that different from practicing a sport. Your minilessons and demonstrations have provided explicit direct instruction, and your coaching helps them put everything in to action as they practice, practice, practice during writing time. During independent writing, one way to confer with kids is to do “coaching conferences.”

Supportive coaching helps students get through the obstacles and tricky parts, whether it's on the mountain or in the classroom.

Supportive coaching helps students get through the obstacles and tricky parts, whether it’s on the mountain or in the classroom.

Some things to keep in mind for effective coaching during independent writing or reading (and yes, this also applies to to skiing):

1. Use very lean prompts.

When you say too much, the student is busy thinking about what you’re saying, and it takes them away from the task at hand. Instead of thinking about the story they’ve been trying to write, they are now trying to figure out what you’re saying to them. Less is more when it comes to prompting. In fact, when possible, you might even use gestures instead of words. Just pointing to the page can prompt a child to write something there without having to say a word.

2. Give wait time. Five seconds is usually appropriate.

It takes time for kids to think about what you’ve said, what it means, and then figure out how to do what you are asking. Count inside your head, “Butterfly one, butterfly two, butterfly three, butterfly four, butterfly five,” to make sure you really are giving kids a full five seconds of wait time. If you haven’t been practicing this, it might feel like a very long time, an uncomfortably long time, and you might feel a burning desire to fill the silence somehow. Just remind yourself, you’re simply giving time and space for the student to think.

3. Coach into independence.

When you’re coaching, let the child do all the work.  For example, if you say “S-tr-e-tch out the word to hear ALL the sounds” than let the child be the one actually to say the word slowly—not you. Sure, they can listen to you stretch out words, and then write what they heard you say, but that’s not the same as doing it on their own.

4. Make your teaching transferable.

Choose your prompts so that the words you are using apply to many, many pieces of writing the child might do. Instead of saying, “What did you do first when you went to the birthday party?” try prompting, “Write what happened first.” Notice how the first prompt is more specific to a particular story, and the second prompt is more transferable. Think of your words as the voice in the student’s head that will linger after you’re gone. (I often wonder if my little skiers still think of hot chocolate when they carve turns down the mountain).

5. Be responsive.

Try to analyze the child’s strengths and weaknesses and coach in a way that prompts students to strengthen the areas they need help in.  For example, if a child is attempting to reread his/her own writing and is trying unsuccessfully to sound the word out, instead of prompting “Sound it out” (they are already trying that!), try coaching them to use the picture instead by saying, “Check the picture. What would make sense there?”

When I was getting trained as a ski instructor, one of the key concepts that we were taught was something called “Strength ID and Enhancement.”  To have success as a coach, we were to first identify the student’s strengths, and then build from there. For example, if a particular student was really good at swinging both skis around into a sliding stop, we could then harness that ability to teach how to make parallel turns. Instead of trying to correct everything the skier was doing wrong, we could focus on the strengths as a jumping off point for next steps.

So, it really is true, I guess. Everything I know about teaching, I learned it from being a ski instructor. Well… maybe not everything. But this coaching stuff sure has come in handy.