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!
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:
- Tape 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:
- How was your pacing?
- Did you rush through the research part of the conference?
- Did you take the time to compliment the student using a paragraph of speech?
- 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?
- Was your teaching point one the best possible one or could you have taught something else that would’ve helped him/her more?
- 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.
- 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.
- Read professional texts. There are many books out there that will help you become stronger with conferring. A few titles are:
- Conferring with Primary Writers by Lucy Calkins, Amanda Hartman, and Zoe Ryder White
- 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.
- How’s It Going by Carl Anderson — I suggest you read this one first!
- Let’s Talk: One-on-One, Peer, and Small Group Writing Conferences by Mark Overmeyer
- Strategic Writing Conferences by Carl Anderson
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).