Conferring with Writers: Beyond the Fundamentals of Writing Workshop

 

Feb 2018 Blog Series - DRAFT

 

“How about we read Goodnight, Gorilla?” Raising my eyebrows, I gazed hopefully at my two year-old daughter.  “Or maybe we could read The Grouchy Ladybug? You love that one!” “No!” Her brow furrowed, my youngest was emphatic. “That one! That one!  Moon!” Using her tiny pointer finger, she pointed to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight, Moon (1947) board book on the shelf.  “Moon!” she repeated.  With a sigh and a smile, I shook my head and pulled out the green and orange book.  “Okay, honey,” I said.  “We can read Goodnight, Moon.”  It seems wanting a choice begins pretty early in life.

The Writing Conference

As part of a previous blog series (August, 2017) entitled, “The Fundamentals of Writing Workshop,” I wrote a post about the basics of conferring with writers.  Conferring with writers is an essential component of workshop teaching, as any workshop veteran would readily and enthusiastically admit. As I wrote in my post back in August,

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.

That said, as a seasoned veteran myself, I have recently been thinking about how the fundamental pillars of workshop teaching- time, response, and choice– play out in an individual conference?  And how might thinking about writing conferences through the lenses those pillars help to lift our level of teacher conferring?  Allow me to share some of my most recent thinking here…

Time-  Although we aim for our Research-Decide-Teach conferences to be brisk, time is definitely honored in the conference.  After providing specific feedback and a tip or strategy, we want to allow our writers a brief opportunity to try out that tip or strategy- right in front of us.  This is essential! Give them this time!  After demonstrating or explaining a strategy, we might say, “Okay, so may I see you try that now, please…?” Or, “So if you were going to try that, how would that sound?”  This brief time for writers to apply our teaching is vital, as it provides students with an opportunity for supported approximation.  It also gives us feedback about how clear we taught the student writer!

Response– In our conferences, we always offer response in the form of specific compliments and possible next steps.  Response truly lies at the heart of a writing conference.  Check!

Choice– Hmm… this might be a place we can lift our conferring, maybe?  Typically, our conference likely sounds a little like, “Here’s a strategy I want you to try.  Now do it.”  Which feels a little antithetical to workshop, right?  What about the element of choice?  My two year-old has definitely taught me about this!  With this thinking in mind, I invite you to consider the following tips for future conferences…

A New Approach

Lucy Calkins once wrote in her seminal work, The Art of Teaching Writing (1994), “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.  It is not the number of good ideas that turns our work into art, but the selection, balance, and design of those ideas.” (p. 3, Heinemann).  One beautiful and useful tool for teachers of writing developed in recent years is the student-facing checklist.  These checklists accompany the Calkins Writing Units of Study series and offer teachers one possible vision, as Lucy might call it, for what is essential in the three “big” types of writing (Melanie wrote about these checklists in her recent post).  Helpfully, these checklists are divided into three strands: Structure, Development, and Language Conventions.  If you are not familiar, imagine a checklist that states (in student-friendly language) what a writer would strive for within the above-listed categories (e.g., under “Structure:” “The parts of my piece are arranged purposefully…” (Calkins, 2014)).

When conferring with a writer, it is often handy to have the appropriate checklist at hand (perhaps as part of a conferring kit).  During the research phase of the conference, try listening for where the writer’s greatest strength(s) live– is it in Structure?  Or Development? Or even Language Conventions? This would be the area from which to craft a compliment.  Logically then, one of the other areas would be a place from which to offer a tip or strategy.  But what about building in the element of ‘choice?’  Stay with me here…

After deciding on and delivering an authentic compliment (read about that here and here) from, say, either Structure or Development, try offering the writer a choice of tips or strategies.  This can be challenging.  But if we are able to offer up a couple of possible options for the writer (see example below), we likely lift engagement by capitalizing on the natural-born desire to choose (think about my two year old).

Below is a recent example from a seventh grade classroom.  During the research phase of this conference, I discovered this writer seemed to understand the structure of an essay (i.e., that was his strength), but was struggling to elaborate (develop) his essay in a convincing fashion (i.e., I began to mentally craft next steps in this category).  Watch how I position my compliment within the Structure category, and then offer teaching points from the area of Development:

“George, look at the way you’ve organized this essay… you have a super clear claim here; and then each of your body sections are arranged so purposefully! They take readers from one reason to the next, and each reason is different from the last.  This kind of clear and purposeful structure really helps readers follow your line of argument.  What you’ve written here is quite effective in that way… if this were a building, I’d say you’ve definitely got the framing well-established!  Bravo!  Now, George, as your writing coach, I’m thinking about a couple of tips for you that- I think- could be next steps for you as a writer.  One of them is around a way writers think about being convincing to their readers by adding evidence; the other tip I have in mind is related to how writers sometimes use and incorporate counterarguments to make their writing more convincing.  Which one of those tips feels more interesting to you?” Wait time.

In the past, I’ve sometimes felt so strongly about what the next step for a writer should be, that I have offered a choice that… well, honestly wasn’t a true choice.  For example, I might say, “I’m thinking about a couple of possibilities for you: One strategy I could teach you is around how to elaborate in an argument, the other is how writers use evidence to support claims.  Which one sounds more interesting?”  Yep, same strategy either way.  Now, some of you may take issue with the fact that this seems slightly underhanded.  Maybe.  However, I would argue that when a writer feels she has been given a choice about the direction of her writing, she leans in a little more, and we are able to create an opening for growth that may not have been there without the element of choice.

It could be argued that leaning on the checklists in order to help teachers position their feedback accordingly, as well as offering writers a choice of next steps, makes the conference more student-centered.

Quick tips:

  • During independent work and conferring time, carry a checklist that matches the type of writing your students are working on. It’s an awesome conferring resource.
  • Teach the writer, don’t fix the writing.  This means to aim for teaching to be transferrable.
  • Be aware of time and limit questioning; take on a stance of researcher (i.e., listen closely).
  • Work to think of multiple strategies you might teach the writer, not just one.
  • Try offering a choice of next steps to the writer.  This might sound like, “I’m thinking of a couple next steps for you.  One is around… the other is more related to… Which one sounds more interesting to you?”

Link Round-up:

Suggested Reading:

 

Giveaway Information:

Back and Forth

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing by Lee Heffernan. Thanks to Heinemann Publishers (Link to: http://www.heinemann.com) for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 11th at 7:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan 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 Monday, February 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book 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, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BACK AND FORTH 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.