Moving from Partnerships to Peer Conferring

Move from writing partnerships to peer conferring in your writing workshop.I attended Kathleen Tolan’s “Once You Have Taught Workshops for Years, How Do You Go from Good to Great? Tap the Power of Peer Conferring and Supporting Student Independence and Goal-Setting.” Workshop at the TCRWP Writing Institute. Kathleen’s session made me realize that once we’ve been doing this work (i.e., writing workshop) for awhile, it’s up to us to help kids learn how to confer with each other in meaningful ways.  Basic writing partnerships can be enhanced by increasing our expectations of what kids are capable of in partnerships.

Tolan suggested sliding partnerships into peer conferring. In order to do this, you must recognize there are two kinds of peer conferring:
1)  One student teaches, the other student learns.  Sometimes Partner A is stronger than Partner B is at something (e.g., focusing their writing).  The kid with the stronger skill might teach their partner how to get better at something. Another time Partner B might be stronger than Partner A at something (e.g., elaborating with a variety of details). That’s when Partner B gets to step into the teacher role to teach Partner A how to do something better.  Essentially, one partner is always helping their partner become more proficient at something.
2)  Partners learn alongside each other to get better at a skill.  Sometimes both members of a partnership aren’t proficient with an aspect of writing (e.g., writing with voice).  Together they decide to work together to get better at doing the thing they’re both struggling with (in this case, making their writing sound like themselves).  When Tolan initially suggested this, I panicked.  Why would I want to put two kids  — who are struggling at the same thing — together?  But then she likened it to two colleagues learning together to get better at something (e.g., how to teach the Units of Study better). And that’s when I realized this idea is genius! If you foster the kind of classroom that has a strong classroom community and a growth mindset, I can envision this kind of peer conferring would be powerful because students are engaged in their learning and are problem-solving together to become stronger writers.
Tolan showed us a video from TCRWP’s Vimeo site (which is a GOLDMINE if you’re unfamiliar with it!).  She asked us to think about what Angelina and Justin, the kids in the video, did well.  Before I tell you what those of us in the session noticed, I’ll let you watch it:

Peer Conferring: Students Teach Each Other to Revise in Order to Orient their Readers (3-5) from TC Reading and Writing Project on Vimeo.

Here’s what we noticed Angelina and Justin doing well:
  • Justin: He listened well. He was persistent. He was clear and blunt (e.g., your transitions aren’t explicit). He didn’t give her the answer. Rather he explained himself and showed her his own writing.
  • Angelina: She defended her writing (which showed us what she knew and didn’t know). She responded like a writer when he taught her something. She had an a-ha moment.

Would you like your students to move from working in writing partnerships to having the ability to engage in peer conferring? Here are some tips:

  1. Show students this video and lead a discussion about what worked, what they noticed these writers doing, and how they could transfer what they observed Angelina and Justin doing to the work they do with their writing partner.
  2. Employ the P, Q, P Technique. Jim Vopat suggested the “Praise, Question, Polish” Technique for peer conferring in Micro Lessons in Writing. I created a scaffold for my fourth graders to use, based on this technique, several years ago. It’s a good way to get kids, who are new to peer conferring, started with providing each other compliments and critical feedback. Click here to download the sheet. After a few uses of this sheet, it should fade away, like all scaffolds.
  3. Fishbowl great conferences. You can do one of two things when you notice a partnership engaged in a powerful peer conference. You can stop your entire class and invite them to listen and watch what their peers are doing.  If you’d prefer not to stop everyone, record the conference on your smartphone and show it to your entire class during share time or the following day.
  4. Have partnerships meet at least twice a week.  Tolan asserted this kind of frequency not only helps you as a teacher (once kids are trained to confer with each other), but helps build rapport amongst writers.

How do you help your students learn to confer in meaningful ways?  Please share your tips by leaving a comment.