A wise person once told me, conferring is the heart of the writing workshop. And much has been written about how to go about conferring effectively. Guides and professional books abound, videos, websites (this one included), and there’s even an app or two out there complete with drop-down menus and spreadsheets.
But all of the whistles and bells aren’t much use without listening closely to what kids are showing you in the conference. Personally speaking, in the hustle and bustle of real-time writing workshop, my eye is always on the clock, and my attention is always divided. In any given conference, I’m juggling checklists of teaching moves, the steps of a conference, rubrics, mentor texts. Heck – I’ve got a whole bag full of conferring toolkit materials I’m itching to use. It is easy to lose sight of the most important part of the conference. Listening closely.
Here are a few tips from a recent brainstorm with some wonderful colleagues at Hiawatha School:
Begin with open-ended questions. Asking a leading question isn’t really researching. Start big, then ask follow-up questions. If your conferences jumps straight to following-up on the minilesson you’ll miss out on hearing what the child was actually thinking about.
Resist the temptation to over-multitask during a conference. I’m always tempted to read one student’s work while listening to another, while simultaneously jotting notes about the table across the way. It’s in my nature. I was trained to do this, in fact. While every teacher needs to have eyes on the back of the head, and certainly needs to use time efficiently, I’ve also been working to focus on what the student in front of me is saying.
Look at the student and observe their body language. Be empathetic toward how the student is feeling in that moment. Do what we often teach students to do: repeat back what you heard the child say. Ask clarifying questions. Don’t assume.
Last, but not least, leave plenty of wait time. Literally count out five seconds of silence silently in your head before you say anything. (Trust me, five seconds feels like an eternity if you have not been practicing!)
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…