Tailoring Our Teaching with Conferring: The Basics with the Youngest Writers

20131103-014111.jpgThis Chair is Just Right

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Sometimes when I am in the midst of conferring with young writers I am reminded that it is much like Goldilocks and The Three Bears. We have to get things just right. We don’t want to leave too much for the student to figure out. Goldilocks might say, “This chair is too hard.” We don’t want to offer too much support, “This chair is too soft.” We want to support with just the right amount, “This chair is just right.” What chair are you sitting in?

Don’t be afraid of what they don’t know.

When supporting the youngest writers (prek-1) through workshop and conferring it is important to gauge where they are in their process. Here are some common questions with tips to follow:

How much do I support the rehearsal?

If you are leading the rehearsal and direction for the writing, then it no longer belongs to the student. The students must be the stars of their work. Let them show you what they can do in the verbal rehearsal and planning process of their writing. When you allow them to showcase their strengths you are more apt to know their next steps.

When is it time to move on from conferring?

Don’t stay with students too long. They will learn to rely on your presence and their independence may be stifled. If they need you there for more than a few minutes after the teaching has occurred chances are they were not prepared for your teaching point. Buzz in and buzz out.

When do I hold back?

Have you been in the middle of conferring with a student and there were crickets as you waited for the child to say or do something? Let the crickets be heard. Wait. If necessary remove the work and just talk to the student about the writing in a conversation. Take the pressure off and listen. Then re-introduce the work and push the writer. Remember, if the crickets continue, the work is too hard. Meet students where they are but don’t be afraid of what they don’t know. They can only grow when you give them what they need not what you want.

How do I know what to support?

Often when young writers tell their story they don’t know where to go from the verbal to the written word. However, if they know letters and sounds, they can begin to get the writing down themselves. Support by repeating, one time, what you heard them say and tell them, “Write that down.” Stare at their paper in anticipation of what they will write. Refrain from sounding it out or repeating sounds for them. That is their job.

Let me expand on that last point for a moment longer. When a student truly knows letter sounds, in order to make a correspondence that can be used independently, they need to do it for themselves. If you are sounding out words or stretching the sounds for students they will always rely on your model. Have them repeat the words and continue repeating the story until they hear a sound they know. Should they only write down one letter, you know where to go from there.

If you stretch and sound out the word and they hear each letter sound from your mouth, they will likely have more quantity to their work. This might sound great, but you won’t be there for every story. You might even walk away thinking they are moving forward when really you just lead the way. Let them lead. You are the facilitator not the writer.

If a student truly doesn’t know letter sounds, your support will look different. You should be modeling some stretching and sounding out for these students. However, it is important to walk away from this support once more skills are in place. This is a slippery slope but if you know your writers you will know what to do. If you aren’t sure, monitor the independent work and make informed decisions–guessing a student’s level of independence and attempting to support will likely result in a misunderstanding of skills. You want a clear understanding of what the child can do without you, then choose a next step.

What do I record?

This has a lot to do with your own personal style and what works best for you as you organize your thoughts. Processing all the information you receive from conferring and monitoring can be overwhelming. There are ways to make it a little easier. Below I have listed a few ideas to help you organize your information.

  • Use a simple form. Here is one example of what I might record on my simple form as well as a link to the form below:

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Click here to download the form above.

  • Use a clipboard. I like to keep about three to four weeks worth of forms underneath my current form so I can easily flip back should I have a question following the conference.
  • Use a binder once you have a month’s worth of notes to keep on hand for reference.
  • Use colors! I like to use highlighters once I am done with a week’s worth of conferring notes. It helps me group students into categories and often I determine mini-lessons from the information.

Here is a sample of a form from this week’s conferring notes. At the bottom, in the notes section, I had everyone separated into three categories of support: Orange–a lot of adult support, Green–Peer and adult support, Pink–Peer support only with adult check in. These were based on last week’s notes. This gives me a quick reference as I pull strategy groups and check in with students.

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What kinds of samples should I keep and how often?

Once a month have students write a completely independent story; remove your presence from the equation. Do not confer on this day, instead stand back. Observe writing behaviors of the class. Have individuals stop after 10-45 minutes, depending on the age group and ability. Gauge if their stamina is improving. Keep this sample of writing and use it to jot down monitoring notes. This will give you a very clear picture of what students do when you are not there. Sometimes it is difficult to determine what true independence looks like. This sample and the behaviors you note (these could be noted on the same conferring form) will be helpful when you go back to conferring with writers the next day.

There are so many more questions to ponder. Each one of these questions could be a post all on its own. The youngest writers are on the edge of loving writing workshop so let’s support them right where they are. Each of you needs to sit in the right chair. A teacher who models carefully and retreats when necessary is a supportive teacher. Students who are shown the respect needed to work independently and are validated, they are writers. Let them be just right, right where they are.