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Changing Tack: Learning from a Writing Conference

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Changing tack: To change the direction of a sailing vessel

Amidst a quietly humming seventh grade writing workshop last week, I sat down next to Brandon.  At my elbow was my colleague, whose professional goal is to improve her conferring with writers.  “What can you tell me about your writing today, Brandon?” I began.  As I peered down at Brandon’s table, I could see multiple pages of a flash draft spread out before him, as well as a text set of articles about competitive sports his teacher/my colleague had provided.  In my hands, I held my trusted writer’s notebook (which doubles as a demonstration notebook sometimes).  In my head, I held some predictable feedback.  The setting for demonstrating a conference was idyllic.  Until it wasn’t.

“Well,” responded Brandon, “I’m working on my argument piece.”

“Can you say more about that, please?” I prompted.

“Um, well, I think sports are good for kids, so I’m writing about why I think that.”  I glanced at Brandon’s introductory paragraph and jotted a quick note on my conferring post-it.

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“Great, so what are you working on specifically today?” I prodded.  This conference had begun to take on a familiar arc. I quickly placed my index finger on the mentor text I was about to show Brandon.  I had a teaching point in mind already!

“I think sports help kids be healthy, so I’m looking to add some evidence from these articles.  I’m not quite sure what that should be, though.”  Silence.  Bam!  I was ready to move this conference forward.  

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I began with a compliment about the clarity of his claim, couching my affirmation in language I wrote about in my guest post a few weeks ago.  

Fast forward now to the teach.  “Can I give you a tip, Brandon?”  Brandon nodded his head.  I then launched into the teaching portion of my conference with great confidence, explaining with an example (from my demonstration) notebook how writers use a variety of evidence to support their reasons and claims– facts, statistics, quotes, examples, etc.  Having put my preset feedback into motion, I must admit I was feeling pretty great about this interaction so far.

Then it happened.

“So, Brandon, let’s take a look at your argument piece here…how might you try this?”  I pulled up my sleeves and refocused my eyes on Brandon’s draft.  “Can you show me the section in your paper where you’re writing about the health benefits of competitive sports?”  Slowly, Brandon began scanning with his finger, a bit aimlessly,  around on his flash draft.  First page…nope, not there.  Second page…hmm…not there either.

Then: “I haven’t written that.”

Uh oh.  I regrouped.

I cleared my throat. “Okay, so Brandon…what do you think your next step might be for today?”  Brandon instantly told me he thought his next step was to write that body paragraph, the one about how sports help you stay healthy. I concurred, linking the conference to his writing life by reminding him that when writers have done a lot of smart thinking and research about their arguments- like he had- they sometimes must check to be sure that thinking got into their draft

What I did right: I arrived at my conference with Brandon that day “prepared,” having brought something I knew would be supportive to most writers. And my compliment was solid.

What I would change: When conferring on the run like this, I need to be sure I’m working to be truly present to each individual writer. In my effort to demonstrate a “good conference,” I over-relied on a preconceived idea I had brought with me. And this works- sometimes. But my real take-away is that while being prepared is valuable, so is being present to the writer. In writing workshop, we teach the writer, not the writing. So being present to each unique writer is essential if we are to move each of them forward.

Here’s a quick list of tips I generated after this experience (please add your own in the comments section!) for remaining present to writers:

  • Management – Establish a no-interruption culture. We can’t be present if there are three kids occupying our peripheral vision or sitting with hands raised. A simple chart like this can help:
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A simple chart in your conferring area or on your wall can help reinforce the importance of conferring in your writing workshop.  Thank you to my middle school colleague J.C. for loaning me hers for this post!

 I was lucky to be working in a room with Brandon that day where the conferring culture was solidly in place. Writers were working independently.

  • Listen- Someone once told me we were given two ears and one voice for a reason. What is the writer really saying? Lean in, make eye contact, let them know you’re really hearing them.
  • Get a sense of the writing – for those of you who can split your brain a little, take in some of the writing. Maybe have the writer read a little aloud, or take a moment to do so yourself (“Let me have a look,” or “Would you show me where you tried that? Let’s take a look…”).

Another point here is that conferring, like life, can be messy. It doesn’t always go perfectly. It definitely didn’t for me that day with Brandon.  Sometimes we are forced to change tack.  Being prepared and being present are two different things. I learned that from a student, a student who unknowingly helped me outgrow myself as a teacher and coach that day.  Which, I suppose, is not a bad thing at all.

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Lanny Ball View All

For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

11 thoughts on “Changing Tack: Learning from a Writing Conference Leave a comment

  1. I love it when I read a post that reads like a story. I can “see” the body language and all the moving parts within this conference. Thanks for this glimpse. All your “noticing” is important work for teachers to witness in order to feel comfortable shifting their direction.

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  2. Conferring with our student writers is something so many of us struggle with. You walked us through perfectly. I agree 100% that it is most important to be present with our writers, ready to respond to them in authentic ways, foregoing our preconceived plans if necessary. Thanks, Lanny!

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  3. I appreciate the transparency of your reflection. Sometimes, after we do this work long enough, people think we don’t make mistakes or wish we would’ve done things differently. Like you, I’m always reflecting and thinking about ways I could’ve made a conference go better.

    BTW: I had the same no interruption rules in my classroom (minus Justin Timberlake).

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  4. Thank you for all your wonderful posts. It makes me miss being at JES, and learning from such a guru . I am sharing your blog with a group of teachers I’m teaching tomorrow. I’m sharing all i know about conferring- what I learned from you! All the best!
    Ps- That poster is a riot!

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    • You’re so welcome! Conferring is something we get better at over time- if we do it. And I try to let each kid help me get a little bit better 🙂 I hope your session goes well tomorrow!

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