Conferring with Young Writers

I am working with a brilliant first grade teacher during her writing workshop.  Mrs. B.’s writing workshop runs like a well-oiled machine and is the kind of workshop you read about in professional books.  When Mrs. B. approached me for a coaching cycle, I wasn’t surprised.  She is the kind of teacher who is always looking to refine her craft.  Mrs. B. wanted to improve her writing conferences with kids.  We are using Carl Anderson’s book, How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers to guide our learning.  In Chapter 3, Carl writes about the importance of teaching students their role in a writing conference.  He recommends several minilessons to help students understand their conference roles.

Mrs. B. and I began by doing a fishbowl conference in front of the entire class.  During the fishbowl, I played the role of the teacher while Mrs. B. played the role of the student.  We sat in the middle of the carpet and role-played a conference while the class gathered around us and watched.   Afterwards, we made a chart to record their observations:

First Grade Conferences

After we discussed each of these observations, Mrs. B. and I modeled a non-example of a conference.  Mrs. B. played the role of an inattentive, unprepared student who barely talked about her writing.  The first graders immediately noticed the difference and were quite amused by this “student” who was not taking her writing seriously!  With this minilesson in mind, we sent the kids off to write while we conferred individually with several writers.

Mrs. B. and I knew we wanted to teach into the chart; we wanted to capitalize on their observations and build on them.   We decided to turn their observations into learning targets.  For example, our next minilesson centered on the idea that “I can talk a lot about my writing.”  We spent a few days exploring this idea.  What does it sound like when a writer talks a lot about their writing?  Mrs. B. modeled this kind of talk for them using her own writing. They practiced talking a lot about their writing with a partner.  We even videotaped Mrs. B. conferring with a student during writing time, and we used the recording as the minilesson for the next day.  “Wow! Listen to Charlotte talk a lot about her writing!” we said to the kids.

We also turned the last observation on the chart into a minilesson.  “I can try what my teacher teaches me right away” became our next learning target.  We told the students that during a writing conference, the teacher will teach them something about writing, and it is their job to try that thing right away.  “For example,” we said, “yesterday we taught Joshua that writers of informational books sometimes use pictures to explain an idea to their readers.  Today, Joshua is going to try to do that in his writing.  We’ll check back in with him during our reflection time to see how he tried it right away.”  Sure enough, during reflection time Joshua proudly shared his illustrations showing the differences between gorillas and monkeys.

Mrs. B. and I are both pleased with how her students are taking ownership for their own learning during writing conferences.  We have noticed they are talking about their writing more than they ever have before.  They are eagerly trying our teaching points as we walk away from a conference.  These students know they have an important role in a writing conference.