Conferring: Writing Workshop Fundamentals
“Lift the ball with your right hand, and pretend your right knee is tied to your right elbow.” Placing the orange ball uncertainly in my right hand, I glanced over at Mr. Brown, my new basketball coach. Fixing his gaze squarely upon me, he added, “You can do this.” It was my 8th grade year, and unexpectedly I had been selected for the varsity basketball team. Somewhere during the first week of practice, I found myself working at one of the side baskets of the court with my coach practicing lay-ups – a basic fundamental of basketball. Working with him one-on-one, my coach was talking me through and showing me – step by step- how to make a lay-up.
In the writing workshop, this approach of working with a single student to support his or her writing repertoire is not much different from the individual coaching I received from Mr. Brown those many years ago.
A Writing Conference: What is it?
One of the important goals of writing workshop is to slow down the process of writing so that feedback is possible during the process, not just at the end. Feedback has been identified as having a significant effect on student achievement (for more on this, read here). According to Peter Johnston, the purposes of feedback are to: (1) improve conceptual understanding, and (2) increase strategic options while developing stamina, resilience, and motivation (Johnston, 2012).
One effective way to provide feedback to learners is through conferring. Now, I hear many teachers, when discussing conversations with individual writers, use the word “conferencing.” But recalling a workshop I took with author Carl Anderson, I remember him pointing out that when we sit and talk with students about their writing, it is called conferring, not conferencing. Conferring is a means of both assessing and providing targeted individualized instruction to students in a way that no whole class instruction can. It is a means by which teachers can quickly gather information about their students to determine where they currently fall on a continuum of learning, and then begin to help them move to the next level of performance.
Conferences are a powerful way to support each student’s growth and independence because teachers are able to meet students right where they are and provide instruction that will potentially have the biggest impact.
During the independent time of writing workshop, we want to pull up next to our writers to confer with them about their writing. A writing conference is a one-to-one interaction between an individual writer and her teacher, and it is arguably the single most effective way to help a student improve. During this time, we as teachers assess the level to which a student is currently writing and select one way we can provide feedback that supports the student in lifting the level of his writing. As teachers, we always want to keep in mind that we are working to teach the writer, not fix the writing.
This approach is starkly in contrast to sitting down to fix up what the student has written, or tell the writer everything she needs to add in order to “make it better.” During a writing conference, we are not telling students how to “fix” their writing or what they should or should not do to make this particular piece better. Rather, we are aiming to teach them a transferable strategy they might use in any similar piece of writing.
It is also in contrast to sitting down to be an editor. As author Carl Anderson pointed out in his fall 2016 workshop in New York City,
The old thinking was that if teachers are editors, correct everything, and punish students, they will learn how to write; the fallacy there is that teachers already know how to write. It’s not fair to be their editor. We need to be their teacher. So we teach one thing in a conference. We assess and teach one thing (Teachers College Reading & Writing Project Saturday Reunion, fall 2016).
While the approach of editor may serve to make the particular piece of writing better, it does little to support the student in becoming a stronger, more independent writer. Therefore, we focus our conferring energies on the writers themselves.
The Architecture of a Conference: What to Do
While there is indeed no one way to conduct a writing conference, we have found it helpful to follow a few steps to increase the odds that each conference yields an impactful result. The steps of a Research-Decide-Teach (“RDT Conference”), often called an “architecture,” are outlined below. There are other types of conferences as well, such as a compliment conference, but the RDT Conference is a good starting place.
Research- One of the goals of the research phase of a writing conference is to nudge kids to talk at a higher level about their writing. Initially, conferences often begin by asking the student an open-ended question, a question that gets them to say a lot about their writing. I’ll often initiate a conference by asking, “What can you tell me about the work you’re doing as a writer today?” And then listen. Often, students will need further prompting, so we may need to ask a few assessment questions to instigate more talk on the part of the writer, nudging them to provide us with more information about their work (see suggestions below). If we are returning to a student, perhaps from earlier in the week or last week, we want to be sure to check our conferring notes to follow-through on previous conferences. To do this, we might say, “Last time we met we worked on____… how’s that going for you?” or “Would you show me a few places where you tried it?”
In addition to listening, the research phase is also a time to read some of the student’s work. You don’t have to read all of it! Frequently, it pays to read the part about which you and the student are conversing. While reading, look for how the student is doing or progressing in the area of writing upon which your discussion is focused.
Compliment- After researching students, we provide them with feedback. And we begin with a compliment. This compliment should be authentic, specific, and serve to acknowledge one thing the writer is doing you would love for them to continue doing. Now, they may not be doing it elegantly or perfectly! But perhaps, they are on what Peter Elbow calls “the edge” of doing it. So compliment them on it!
One way to light someone up is to acknowledge them for something. And a compliment should do both: Light the student up (try to make them smile!) and acknowledge them for a writerly move they are already demonstrating.
Lucy Calkins once said, “A good compliment can accelerate achievement.” And when students know they’ll be receiving feedback that is positive, they will be glad to see us sit down next to them.
Teach- Following the compliment, writing workshop teachers will often ask, “Can I teach you something?” At this point, we have silently selected in our teacher minds one thing, one method or move, that would benefit this student in his or her writing. This is often in the form of a tip or strategy that we are now going to take some time to teach the writer. It is important to remember that this tip should be something that is (a) within the writer’s zone of proximal development, and (b) transferable to pieces of future writing.
So we begin by stating what the writing move or convention is and explaining it. Many times, I’ll rely on two basic steps to teach students during a conference:
(1.) Step One: Use a mentor text – Most of the time, I’ll begin by saying, “One thing that helps me…” and I’ll show the student by way of my own writing (or sometimes I use another writer’s text) what it is I am attempting to teach. During this process, it’s important to break down the writing move, convention, or strategy into replicable steps that a student can follow.
(2.) Step Two: Ask the student to try – After teaching the student, ask them to try it in their own writing piece. You may ask them to physically write it in front of you or “write it in the air,” which means to say what they would write, while not physically writing. This often saves time and allows us to assess whether or not students actually understood what it was we were attempting to teach.
Link- Essentially, the link is a recap of what we just taught the writer. Writing workshop teachers often end conferences by saying the words, “So today, and everyday, when you are . . .” and restating the teaching point. It’s helpful to leave an artifact, if possible. This may by a post-it with the strategy written on it, or perhaps a copy of a mentor text we used during the conference.
- Aim for three to four conferences per workshop- As a teacher, especially when we are just getting started, it is helpful to set a goal for how many conferences we want to hold during a workshop. This will, of course, depend on our time structure and how many students we teach. Middle school teachers often hold fewer individual conferences and rely more on small groups.
- Avoid questioning the conference away- Carl Anderson recommends conferences be around 4-7 minutes long. Be careful not to spend this entire conference time asking students questions! This will negate effectiveness and begin to intrude on actual teaching time (which is a main point of conferring). A few high-leverage assessment questions might sound like:
- “How’s that going?”
- “Can you say more about that?”
- “Can you show me where you tried that in your writing?”
- Do your homework ahead of conferences- Research often starts by observing the student from afar, looking through past conferring notes and by taking a tour through their notebook/folder/on-demand ahead of time, and/or while they are still writing. Walking into a conference “prepared” can help us feel more confident about how to best support a writer.
- Think about what’s easy and what’s going to be tricky for this writer- Conferences help build important relationship between teachers and writers, so as we get to know our students, we can begin to anticipate what strengths and needs each student has within his or her writing as we approach each conference.
- Confer with students, even if you don’t feel like you are “good at it” – It takes time to become good at conferring- years, even! But realize that even by the sheer fact that we are sitting down next to students to talk with them about their writing, we are sending a positive message that helps nurture a crucial element to teaching: relationship with student.
- Keep records of your conferring – It is helpful to write some things down after each conference. This allows us to both remember what we taught in previous conferences, as well as assess as to what degree our previous teaching “stuck with” our writers.
- In your conferences, work to establish multiple lines of inquiry with writers. You might ask, “So that’s one thing you’re working on. What else are you working on?” Or, “Tell me about how punctuation will help us read this part here?” Or, “Can you say a little about how this part fits with what you know about this type of writing?” Establishing multiple lines of inquiry can help determine what the most appropriate or needed teaching point might be.
- Work on building a conferring kit. Often kits include samples of teacher writing, mentor texts that students are familiar with, post-it notes, copies of checklists and/or rubrics, and lists of possible assessment questions.
Link Roundup from TWT
- Changing Tack: Learning from a Writing Conference
- Knowing When to Step Away
- Conferring with “If…Then…Then…Then…” In Mind
- On the Pitfalls of Hiding Out
- Don’t Forget the Compliment
- Conferring Tip: Listen Closely
- Get Really Good at Conferring
- Conferring Toolkits Blog Series
- Feedback That Moves Writers Forward by Patty McGee
- How’s It Going? by Carl Anderson
- Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson
- The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) by Katie Wood Ray
- One to One: The Art of Conferring With Young Writers by Lucy Calkins & Amanda Hartman
- DIY Literacy, by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie-Roberts
GIVEAWAY: RENEW! BECOME A BETTER AND MORE AUTHENTIC WRITING TEACHER, BY SHAWNA COPPOLA
- This giveaway is for a copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (If the winner has a U.S. address, you may choose a paper or eBook. If the winner has an international mailing address, then you will receive an eBook.)
- For a chance to win this copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher,please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Monday, August 7th at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Beth Moore will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Tuesday, August 8th.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Beth can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – RENEW BOOK. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.