Sharpen Your Workshop Routines: Conferring Best Practices
Lucy Calkins is often heard quoting Donald Murray, who is lovingly known as the father of the writing process in balanced literacy circles. Lucy has said that one of the most important guidelines about conferring is based on advice she received from Don Murray: the writer should leave the conference wanting to write.
When I am watching experts confer (e.g., Amanda Hartman, conferring guru), I am often stunned at the way in which they seem to pull teaching points out of thin air. Not all of us confer so effortlessly. Taking the time for preparation, data collection, and organization will have you conferring like an expert this year.
Though, as mentioned, experts do seem to confer out of thin air, finding just the right teaching point for a student they barely know and whose work they’ve never seen, I have a secret. Conferring experts have done years of preparation and have internalized arsenals of resources from which they draw. Following are a few resources you can use to help you prepare yourself to confer just like an expert.
- A unit’s trajectory and goals. Whatever resource you are using to plan your writing units, be it a curriculum calendar, a Unit of Study book, or a unit created by your district, study the unit for the way it unfolds and for its goals for students. Study they way the unit describes each part of the writing process and think: a) What is the big work that students are doing in this part of the unit? and b) Where might they get stuck? Thinking through these things ahead of time will help you anticipate and plan for the kinds of conferences you will likely need to give.
- Your own writing. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it a million times more. The best way a writing teacher can prepare to teach writing is to actually write. Do the kind of writing you are aiming to teach, and notice what kind of trouble you encounter and name how you pull yourself out of that trouble.
- Your students’ on-demand writing. The writing you ask your students to do at the start of a unit as a baseline is a huge indicator of what they can do independently and what they need help with. Study your students’ writing carefully, noticing where they struggle in big skill categories like structure and elaboration, and plan your conferring accordingly.
- Your students’ in-unit work. Of course, your students’ skill level will change and grow as the unit unfolds. Their fluctuating needs will be reflected in their work. There is no need to confer out of thin air, when you can study your students’ work in advance and plan your conferring based on what they need.
A note on preparation: Certainly, when you pull alongside a writer, you won’t just deliver a pre-made conference based on his or her work or your unit plans. You should let the writer guide you by asking a few research questions to determine the best course of action. But having rich information from the above four sources in your arsenal will help you to reach an optimal teaching point and deliver it quickly and effectively.
In What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, Richard Allington posits that struggling students need to hear the same teaching sometimes twenty to thirty times in order to really grasp it. I relate to this principle myself as a learner, because I needed to listen to, read about, and experience the value of actual record keeping while conferring many, many times before I really internalized it. Here is what I learned, over and over. I think I will remember every single writing conference I have. But I don’t. I think I will have the time and headspace to write my notes later. But I don’t. I think I don’t have time to take notes while conferring. But I do.
I don’t have a magic tool for record keeping. As far as I know, there is not yet a system or method that will take notes on its own while teachers confer their hearts out. The hard truth is that we just have to push ourselves to take notes, in whatever system works for us. That isn’t to say our system has to be perfect. It also isn’t to say that we won’t go through three or four or more systems before settling on one that works most of the time. And, of course, it isn’t to say that we won’t skip a day or two here and there. No one is perfect. But what I am hoping readers will do is decide, here and now, that this will be the year they will take notes during and immediately conferences. Here are a few systems that might help.
Love them or hate them, post-its are here to stay in balanced literacy classrooms. Kids use them to mark important parts in books, or as revision tools in writing workshop. Many teachers use them as they confer. They take notes during each conference, perhaps noting the compliment and teaching point, and then place the post-its in a binder or notebook for later review. One benefit of post-its is their flexibility. They can be arranged, rearranged, stuck, unstuck, re-stuck. It might help, for example, to study all of the conferences you give across a week to look for patterns.
A simple grid, with boxes with spaces for student names and notes (see image below) is a simple tool with a great deal of power. Many teachers pre-type student names and use one grid per week. Blank boxes remind the teacher that they need to check in with students who have not yet received a conference that week. Some teachers print the grid onto a sheet of labels, so that they can analyze their notes for the entire class by studying a sheet, and afterwards can remove individual students’ labels and place them in a binder with a tab for each student. This way, teachers can collect data for the whole class immediately and can also collect and study individual students’ conference notes over time.
Digital Conferring Tools
- The application Confer has been on the market for a while, and many teachers swear by it. Confer allows teachers to take notes quickly, to sort students into categories according to needs, and to share notes using a variety of methods. All of this functionality comes with a $14.99 price tag, so I recommend trialing the app with the free version, Confer Lite.
- Evernote is a flexible note-taking system that allows for easy note-taking and easy searching. You can also upload pictures quickly, which can help preclude the need to lug students’ writing back and forth between home and school, or can illustrate exactly what a writer is struggling with as you are later studying your notes. For more on using Evernote to confer, see Cathy Mere’s post.
- A new challenger app recently come to market is Chronicle, by Powerhouse Education. It only takes minutes to set up an entire class (you can import a roster for even greater speed), and the note-taking functionality is intuitive and user-friendly. You can add photos, audio, and video clips to notes for even more rich data. At $19.99, this app is a commitment, so, again, consider trying the Lite version first.
Many teachers ask how often they should aim to confer with each writer. Every day? They wonder. The relief is palpable when I suggest that they aim to reach each writer about once per week, and those who are particularly struggling twice per week. Sure, with this pacing, you won’t be able to study every student’s every word, but you will catch virtually all students in the midst of each part of the writing process in order to offer them targeted feedback. You might even consider adding conferences to your weekly plans, naming students with whom you plan to confer on each day. Be sure to leave some time for spontaneous conferences, of course.
Using Conferences to Inform Ongoing Instruction
Just as the writer should leave the conference with energy for writing, the teacher should leave with energy for teaching. Another reason actually writing down conferring notes is crucial is that written notes allow us to analyze our conferences, looking for clues and patterns we might have otherwise missed.
Certainly, our conferences can provide valuable clues as to what isn’t going so well in our teaching. Take, for example, the following page from a teacher’s conferring notebook:
At first glance, we see that the teacher has given similar teaching to David and Isaah. Both are working on adding to parts that are dialogue-heavy to add more explanation and balance. David and Isaah might benefit from a strategy lesson on this skill. If we take another look at the conferring notes, we might notice that Elizabeth also needs help balancing kinds of detail. Even though it seems she could add more dialogue, the teaching point is the same: writers balance different kinds of details in narrative writing. The teacher has some choices. She could add Elizabeth to the group with David and Isaah. Or, she could re-teach this skill in a minilesson, if she feels most of her class could benefit from it. Finally, she could take another look at her notes for those who are mastering this skill. She gave Thomas a compliment conference, telling him to continue his balancing work. She might set Thomas up to be the “expert” on this skill, and invite those who need more support to work with Thomas to revise their pieces.
Additionally, this teacher could study her conferring notes to look for what is working well in her teaching. It seems that most of her students are really aiming to show, not tell, and to story-tell. They understand the importance of staying inside a moment with dialogue and setting details, and actions. They just need some help with balance.
I will be the first to admit, I would have a very difficult time mining my conferences for all of that rich information if I didn’t take notes.
To wrap up, I recently had the good fortune of listening to Lucy Calkins deliver a keynote address at a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Writing Institute at Columbia University. She described a series of events that led her to stumble across a decades-old video of herself and other teachers engaged in delivering writing conferences. As she watched the video, she was reminded of the importance of holding on to our truths, our values, in our instruction. Even as initiatives change and expectations rise around us, we must hold fast to what believe works best for students. Conferring works. With some planning, record-keeping, and organization, we can make sure this crucial teaching construct remains in its rightful place at the heart of writing workshop.