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Get REALLY Good at Conferring

In my work as a consultant, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard variations of the following three statements:

  • “The kids were talking all of the time when I was trying to confer.”
    • If this is an issue for you, please see the “additional tips” at the bottom of the post.
  • “I’m not a writer. I don’t know what to say when I confer.”
  • “Conferring didn’t work for me so I just stopped.”

Are you new to writing workshop? Are you trying to get better at conferring?  Are you having a tough time making conferring work for you? Well, you’re in the right place!

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I studied conferring with Jen Serravallo at the TCRWP 2006 Summer Writing Institute. On the first day of our advanced section on conferring, Jen quoted Laurie Pessah, the Project’s Senior Deputy Director, when she said:

It takes two years to get really good at conferring.

I breathed a sigh of relief. By that point, I had spent two years teaching full-time with writing workshop. I was decent (maybe even good… on some days) at conferring, but I didn’t feel like I was really good.

Jen’s words have stuck with me over the past nine years. I repeat them often when I present workshops to teachers about conferring. I say this because it takes a lot of practice to get good at something.  This is true of playing a sport or an instrument.  You don’t get good at gymnastics or playing the flute in one month.  It can take a couple of years to get really good at something. The more one practices, the easier something becomes. The same thing goes for conferring.  You’ve got to have-at-it every single day if you want to get good at it!

But it doesn’t have to take two years. You can become a stronger conferrer faster! Here are a few things you can do to make that happen:

  1. 7 Ways to Become Stronger at Conferring on #TWTBlogTape yourself. If you have a smartphone, use the audio feature to record your conferences with a student.  Listen to them after school.  You can reflect on each conference with the following questions:
    1. How was your pacing?
    2. Did you rush through the research part of the conference?
    3. Did you take the time to compliment the student using a paragraph of speech?
    4. Did you teach the student ONE (and only one) new strategy that s/he could use not just on the piece of writing in front of him/her but in the future?
    5. Was your teaching point one the best possible one or could you have taught something else that would’ve helped him/her more?
  2. Watch master teachers confer.  Some schools provide teachers with time for intervisitations so they can see other teachers in action. I encourage you to observe a colleague who’s been doing this work for awhile. If everyone in your building is new to writing workshop, then work with your administrators to find another school you can go to where you can observe master workshop teachers in action.
  3. Find a mentor. It can be another colleague or a literacy coach. Basically, anyone who is more proficient at conferring than you are. Watch them in action. Take notes about what they’re doing well. Then, and here’s the part that might make you want to cringe, have them watch you and give you feedback.
  4. Read professional texts. There are many books out there that will help you become stronger with conferring. A few titles are:
    1. Conferring with Primary Writers by Lucy Calkins, Amanda Hartman, and Zoe Ryder White
    2. Day by Day by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz — Sorry for the self-promotion, but there’s a large section of the book dedicated to conferring.
    3. How’s It Going by Carl Anderson — I suggest you read this one first!
    4. Let’s Talk: One-on-One, Peer, and Small Group Writing Conferences by Mark Overmeyer
    5. Strategic Writing Conferences by Carl Anderson
  5. Write. Seeing as conferring is the working talk of writers, you’ll become more comfortable talking with kids about writing if you’re a writer yourself.
  6. Join a writing group. Find a small group of people with whom you can share your writing. (Bonus points if your group is made up of other teachers who are committed to writing workshop.) Offer feedback by investigating what they’re doing as a writer. Then, compliment them on one thing they’ve done.  Next, offer a suggestion by teaching them how to do something new.
  7. Confer regularly. This past summer I studied with Shana Frazin, an extraordinary staff developer at the TCRWP. She said:

A bad conference will not do permanent damage to a writer. NO conference will do damage to a writer.

Isn’t that the truth?  Even if we realize, upon reflection, we could’ve researched longer so as to pick a better strategy to teach, we still spent 1:1 time with a student. We took the time to connect. We listened to the child. Short of grabbing a child’s pen and rewriting his/her writing, you will not damage your students with a few bad conferences. As the weeks go by you will get better at conferring and so will they.  If you don’t confer with them, then how will you ever move them forward as writers?

Conferring feels hard because it is hard. Do NOT give up on 1:1 conferences (in favor of small group instruction or minilessons-only) if they haven’t gone well so far this year.  With regular practice and time, conferring with your writers will get easier.  And you know what?  Once your conferences feel more like writer-to-writer conversations than interrogation sessions, I have a feeling you’ll come to love conferring with young writers as much as I do.

ADDITIONAL TIPS: I shared this piece with a few of my co-authors prior to hitting “publish.” Anna had some stellar tips for teachers having trouble managing their class while they try to confer.

 

  • Lead table conferences, especially at the start of the year.
  • Be strict about not letting your students interrupt conferences.
  • Have a sign-up sheet for students who are stuck and need a conference later.
  • Set up peer conferring so kids have a place to go for support.
  • Teach pointed minilessons dedicated to the importance of quiet independent practice while you confer.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

14 thoughts on “Get REALLY Good at Conferring Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for this post Stacey. You do such a great job capturing the importance of conferring while offering real, applicable strategies that bring it to life in classrooms.

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  2. “Conferring feels hard because it is hard.”

    TRUTH!

    It’s so important that “we” give ourselves time to grow and get better instead of expecting/wanting/needing perfection every time we step into the conferring arena. Love all the ideas . . . thinking about where to FOCUS my own improvement!!!!

    Thanks, Stacey!

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  3. Stacey, I love the tip about taping yourself. I did this with a colleague several years ago, and it was so helpful. I also typed up the transcript of the conference, which helped us analyze it even further. Very worthwhile thing to do if you want to get better at conferring!

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  4. I SO needed this post! It’s my second year at a school that is fully committed to workshop.
    Before I took this giant leap into this beautiful scenario, I was always praised for my ability to get my kiddos to speak and think at a higher level of thinking.

    I don’t ever have issues during a writing conferring session, but a reader’s conferring session for me has been something I’ve really had to work at diligently conferring in a manner that flows like the river!!
    I’ve purchased books, read them, Twitter Vimeo etc. to become a better at conferring with readers. B I’m never afraid to ask my younger peers about their thinking etc. I do record each and every conferring session on Evernote. Yikes! It forces me to reflect and redirect to do a better job!
    Thanks for the guidance, Stacey!!!

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  5. What affirming news I can take to other teachers. Great reminders and inspirational quotes. I will be sharing that ideas that it takes two years and bad conferences aren’t going to hurt anyone during our PD on Tuesday.

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  6. Stacey,
    Absolutely conferring takes time and a teacher who writes (to feel the needs of the writers). I have been conferring with writers and a teacher who writes for about 6 years now, but it’s still the biggest piece of my teaching that leaves me pondering…”Was that Ok?” Then my fabulous colleague, coach, guru, friend said to me, “Think of it as micro minilesson.” somehow this was what I needed to adjust my confidence in conferring. There is something about a minilesson with all those adorable faces sitting in front of me playing with shoe laces, twisting hair and curling up inside their shirts (our classroom is always cold) that sparks my inner teaching energy. Now, sitting beside a writer I look at the writer, their work and think about what I might say in a whole group lesson if this ONE need was the focus. Of course, I balance all this with THE write beside me. And, yes, I do this all in under 10 seconds to keep the conference fluid and natural feeling. Now, who said conferring takes time and isn’t easy?

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  7. Great Post, Stacey. I love being able to affirm and perfect my practice and pick up fresh ways to look at things, so I am well prepared for supporting my colleagues. Conferring is indeed a challenging part of workshop, but so critical. Kids will improve with just the structures of workshop in place, but it is the specific feedback and support they get through conferring, that really makes workshop deliver what it can do best: responsive, differentiated instruction.

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  8. Stacey – I appreciate the “Seven Ways To Become Stronger at Conferring” because I am leading PD around this most important aspect of the workshop and need a go-to source. This is fantastic! I also wondered if you would share your “Conferring Menus” from a back-to-basics post in 2009. Anything from you would be “caught and released” into the world of hundreds of writers! THANK YOU!

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  9. Stacey, thank you for another great post! It is so timely as we are all working feverishly to get Writing Workshop routines, practices, and expectations established. Conferring practices are a huge part of what teachers and students need to understand and utilize as tools to grow as writers.

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