Conferring Carl on Writing Conferences

Final cover design

Carl Anderson demystifies conferring in A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences: Grades K – 8. The book’s content can initially be digested on a weekend afternoon thanks to its easy-to-navigate structure and beautiful design. Be prepared to read this book with sticky notes and a pen, rather than a highlighter, since every page has practical advice. To really dive deep, you’ll want to set aside more time so you can view and take notes on the 25 videos that showcase Carl conferring with young writers at every grade level the book covers. After you’ve read the book and watched the videos, you’ll have taken a master class on conferring with young writers.

A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences: Grades K – 8 begins by explaining what writing conferences and why conferring an essential part of writing workshop. The next three chapters help readers understand how to research, decide, and teach a child a new strategy that will help him/her become a stronger writer in every conference. And if that’s not enough, there are dozens of possible teaching points (in chapter three) that serve as a menu, of sorts, to help you teach into writing process patterns (i.e., rehearsal, drafting and revising, editing, publishing) and qualities of writing patterns (i.e., focus, structure, detail, voice, conventions). As a result, Carl’s new book is an enduring gift for writing workshop teachers.

I thought a Q&A with Carl would be the best way to show, rather than tell, you (See what I did there?!!?) how rich of a resource his newest book is. Read through Carl’s responses to get a better sense of how his book can help you grow at conferring.

Stacey: How’s It Going? was the book about conferring that influenced me most since I read it. What inspired you to write a new book about conferring?

Carl: I’ve wanted to write again about conferring for many years. Since How’s It Going? was published nearly twenty years ago, I’ve given countless workshops on conferring, and visited many schools where I’ve demonstrated conferences, and coached teachers as they conferred. All of these experiences have helped me to get even better at explaining the how-to’s of conferring—and have also helped me get much better at conferring myself. So when Heinemann suggested I write a Classroom Essentials book on writing conferences, the opportunity to update what I wrote about conferring years ago was too good to pass up. Also, teachers have continuously asked me if I have any conference videos available. While there are some that are part of my Heinemann firstHand series, Strategic Writing Conferences, they are all of fourth graders. A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences gave me the opportunity to include videos of writing conferences I had with students in every grade, K-8.

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Stacey: I know your daughter, Anzia, was the illustrator for A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences, Grades K-8. Would you talk a bit about how you feel Anzia’s illustrations enhance the reader’s experience when interacting with this text?

Carl: When Heinemann described the new Classroom Essentials series to me, they explained that these books would be gorgeously designed in ways that would enhance the meaning of the text. I proposed that we dramatize the various conferring “moves” with illustrations of teachers talking with students. I felt this would be something readers would find visually pleasing, and would be much more accessible than written transcripts of the “moves.” Fortunately, Anzia, who is an art and urban studies major at Brown University, was available to do the work. I think they’re an amazing feature of the book—and I’m not just saying that as a proud dad!

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Stacey: What advice can you offer to teachers who are new to conferring in a writing workshop who want to confer well, but feel overwhelmed by how much needs to be fit into a short 1:1 writing conference?

Carl: I think the trick to getting started with conferring is to not worry about getting better at every single aspect of conferring at once. For example, new teachers might first work on supporting students’ talk in the beginning of conferences, which will help them figure out what students are trying to do as writers. To do so, they can try out some of the strategies I discuss in Chapter 2 of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences. Once they feel comfortable supporting student talk, they might then work on improving their assessment skills, which I discuss in Chapter 3, and improving their conference teaching points, which is the focus of Chapter 4. I’m not saying this is the exact sequence that new teachers should follow, just one sequence. For example, after reading the book, and watching some of the videos, a teacher might decide that improving her conference teaching points is the best place to start.

Stacey: Speaking of new teachers, what are the most important classroom management principles they should have in place so conferring can happen without disruptions?

Carl: In general, I think it’s critical that new teachers have a clear image in their minds about what happens in each part of writing workshop (mini-lesson, independent writing, and share session) and how they want things to unfold in each part–and that they explain these things to their students during the first few weeks of the school year. Once I was able to do this with my own students, years ago, I found that my workshops ran much better, because my students knew exactly what was expected of them. Specific to conferring, students should know that they shouldn’t interrupt their teacher while he is conferring (unless there’s an emergency). This needs to be an iron-clad rule, as interruptions break the flow of a conference, hurting both the teacher’s and student’s concentration. Finally, it helps for teachers to be proactive and explain how to do all of the things independently that could cause students to interrupt a conference. For example, students should know where writing supplies are kept, and how to sign out for the bathroom, so they don’t need to ask the teacher about these kinds of needs while she’s conferring.

Stacey: How can wait time work to a teacher’s advantage in a writing conference?

Carl: After we ask the student “How’s it going?” at the beginning of a conference (or a similar open-ended question that invites students to talk about what they’re doing as writers), it’s important to give students some wait time. Don Graves suggested we give students upwards of 10 to 15 seconds to consider what they’re going to say! This wait time puts the responsibility on students to get involved in the conference. And it gives students an opportunity to think about what they might say. When we sit down next to them, students are in the world of their topics, and they often need some time to become present with us in the conference, and start to talk about what they’re doing as writers.

Anderson tips
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Stacey: You talked about kids who respond to “How’s it going?” by talking about what they’re doing as writers (pg. 49). Would you provide some quick tips for teaching kids that conferring is about what they’re working on as writers?

Carl: In Chapter Two, I describe five scenarios that we could face after we ask “How’s it going?” In the first scenario, students are able to describe what they’re doing as writers, and what they bring up is something we want to make the focus of the conference. In general, the best way to help kids become able to talk about what they’re doing in conferences is to give mini-lessons on the student’s role in a writing conference. Often, kids are confused about what they’re supposed to do in response to the question, “How’s it going?”, and a class discussion can help clear this up. It can help to role-play conferences in these mini-lessons, and/or show some videos of conferences to the class (like those in A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences), so students can get a clear image of their role. Some teachers make a chart of things students might talk about in conferences, usually things that have been the focus of the current unit of study.

Stacey: In Scenario 2 (pg. 47), you talk about how to deal with things students tell you that you don’t want to “get behind.” Would you talk more about this so teachers know that even though students guide the first part of the conference, teachers can still steer a student in a different direction.

Carl: Scenario 2 is when a student talks about a kind of writing work he’s doing as a writer, but we don’t want to make that kind of work the focus of the conference, perhaps because we know there are other, more important aspects of writing that the student needs to learn about first, or because the work the student talks about is better left to a later stage in the writing process. When this happens, it’s okay to steer the conversation towards something else that the student is doing as a writer that would be a better use of conference time. And there’s a really simple strategy we can use to steer the conversation in another direction—we can ask, “What else are you doing as a writer?”

Stacey: You write about “patterns of approximation” (pgs. 66-67), and how recognizing patterns can help teachers decide what to teach in a writing conference. Could you discuss this?

Carl: Once we know what kind of work a student is doing in a writing conference, our next step is to read their writing to see how the student is approximating that kind of work. Since many students make similar approximations, we can call them “patterns of approximation”, and being able to recognize these patterns in conferences helps us make quick and accurate teaching decisions. I think the best way to learn to recognize these patterns is to read student writing outside of writing workshop, preferably with colleagues, and ask these questions:  “What kind of work do we see this student is trying to do?”, “What does this student understand so far about doing this kind of work?” and “What does the student need to learn to be better at this kind of work?” I should also mention that Chapter 3 of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences includes charts that list typical writing patterns, and possible teaching points that we can give in response.

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Stacey: Voice is hard to teach. Would you share a few ways you’ve found successful to help students write with an authentic voice?

Carl: One way to teach voice is to explain to students that writers “code” texts in ways that cue readers to give texts voice when they read them aloud, or to themselves. Punctuation, for example, is used by writers to let readers know when to make their voice get louder or softer, or speed up or slow down, just like musical notations help musicians know how to play a piece. Various sentence structures also signal readers to do similar things. The best way I know of teaching voice is to look at mentor texts with students, and point out various voice techniques (e.g. punctuation marks such as the exclamation mark or ellipsis, or sentence structures such as short or long sentences), and discuss the effects that they have on readers.

Stacey: Would you talk about the importance of giving feedback about a student’s emerging strengths?

Carl: We preface our conference teaching points by giving students feedback.  The best kind of feedback isn’t about something random that we’ve noticed that the student is doing.  Instead, it’s a combination of naming what the student already understands about doing the writing work she’s doing, and then what she needs to learn in order to do that work better. This kind of feedback gives the student the message that she’s someone who has some strength as a writer, a strength that she can build on by trying out what we teach her in the rest of the conference. I think it’s important to keep in mind that students learn better when they feel we see them as people with some strengths already!

Stacey: Could you talk about the four methods of teaching during a conference you discuss in Chapter 4 (pgs. 104-105)?

Carl: In the book, I name four ways we can teach in a conference. First, we can demonstrate a strategy e.g. we might read some of our writing aloud, and show a student how we listen for punctuation errors. Second, we might show a student our writing from a stage of the writing process, such as our writer’s notebook, or one of our drafts with revisions, so that the student can see the kind of work they can do in that stage. Third, we can show a mentor text and use it to teach a student about one of the craft techniques the author of the text used. Or fourth, we can ask a child to study a mentor text, and describe what she notices about a craft technique, which, by reading the text “like a writer,” she is able to teach herself. Once we decide what to teach in a conference, we choose one of these methods to use in our teaching point.

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Stacey: In Chapter Four, you write, “many teachers don’t include strategies in their teaching points.” Would you explain why teaching strategies is crucial when conferring with student writers?

Carl: When we teach in a conference, we need to explain what the thing is we’re teaching, as well as how to do it. For example, we first explain what dialogue is, and then a strategy for how to write it. Without a strategy, the student is left without the means to do what we’ve taught them. In my work in schools, I’ve noticed that coming up with these strategies is hard for a lot of teachers. That’s not because the strategies are that complicated, but because, as adult writers, we’re often not aware on a conscious level of what strategies we use when we write. To develop my own repertoire of writing strategies, I’ve had to study my own writing process and ask myself, “How exactly do I do each kind of writing work that I want to teach children?” I’ve also learned some strategies by reading about the ones other writers use (such as the members of The Beatles!), and by reading professional books on the teaching of writing (many of which I cite in A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences).

Stacey: How do you suggest teachers check in with students after conferences (pgs. 110-111)?

Carl: I think it’s critical that we check in with students the same period we confer with them, usually after the following conference. Checking in gives students the message that they’re responsible for following through on conferences, and also gives us a chance to see how students did in response to our teaching. If something went awry, then we can sit back down with the student and teach them some more. I don’t think it’s a good idea to check in with students a week later, or even the next day. I want to check-in with them when their thinking about what I taught them and how trying it went for them is freshest, and that means just 5-10 minutes after the conference is over.

Stacey: How do you recommend teachers analyze and study their writing conferences when they videotape or make a voice recording of their conferences?

Carl: First, read A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences, and watch several of the videos! Then, identify one aspect of conferring that they would like to analyze in their own conferences e.g. how well they support student talk, the quality of their feedback, the clarity of their teaching points, etc. Then, they should watch or listen to their video or voice recording with that one aspect of conferring in mind. Watching and listening like this should give teachers some ideas for how they can work on this aspect of conferring in subsequent conferences. Over time, teachers can analyze more video or voice recordings, with other aspects of conferring in mind, and gradually get better at navigating every part of writing conferences.


Photos (used in this post) by permission of Heinemann Publishing 2018.


Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences: Grades K – 8.  Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences: Grades K – 8, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, October 12th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Monday, October 15th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Heinemann 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, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – ANDERSON. Please respond to my 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.

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Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post. Andrea Willadsen’s commenter number was chosen so she’ll receive a copy of Carl Anderson’s new book.