Conferring with “If… Then… Then… Then…” in Mind

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-7-08-23-amMy daughter’s swimming instructor, Coach Annie, has a gift for teaching in a string of very specific strategies. Instead of trying to teach my daughter how to “do a stroke” all at once (which was how I was taught), Annie breaks it down into one small piece at a time.

First, she taught my daughter’s group to focus on their kicking. Using a pool noodle to float, they practiced kicking with “floppy feet” versus kicking with “tight feet” for an entire lesson. The next week, they moved on to the spine. No more pool noodle–instead they practiced pushing off the side of the pool underwater and gliding, keeping their backs nice and straight, over and over. Finally in the third swim lesson, Annie showed her students how to push-off and glide, kick, and pull their heads up for air. I was amazed when I realized that what the kids were swimming!

For three lessons, I watched curiously, wondering where it was all headed. It was so different from how I was taught to swim. Annie clearly had a plan all along. Instead of planning just one lesson at a time, she was thinking in strings of lessons.

This reminds me of conferring in the writing workshop. I’ve often conceptualized conferring using an “If/Then” model. (In fact, I’m a coauthor of a book titled If… Then Curriculum… Assessment Based Instruction). Using this framework, you study student work and think to yourself, “If the student already is doing _________ , then I’ll teach _________.”

But in reality, conferring is far more effective if we switch our thinking to something more like “If… Then… Then… Then…” For example:

If …. Then … Then … Then …
Student writes a summary, rather than storytelling the event. Coach the student to tell the story, bit by bit, across her fingers, saying as much as she can for each “microevent.” Encourage her to rehearse the story several times aloud. Then write the story with the same level of elaboration. In a subsequent conference on  a different day, coach the child to sketch each part of the story, including key details: who was there, where were they, and exactly what were they each doing. Then write the story so that all of those details are included. In yet another conference, coach the child to generate a list of craft moves from a mentor text. Teach her to use this a checklist to plan and revise each part of her writing. The checklist might include: dialogue, sensory details, internal thinking, specific action. She can use the checklist to set a very specific goal to continue to work on.

My own swim lessons consisted of a camp counselor jumping in, saying, “Here’s how to do the ___ stroke – now you do it.” The only “If…then…” they were thinking was “If you can’t do it… then too bad.” I hated swimming. I was a sinker. I couldn’t glide. I felt clumsy, and had no idea if I was doing it right.

Our students need not feel that way in writing workshop. We can all be a little more like Coach Annie, and a little less like my camp counselors.