Writing Conferences: What to Do When a Writer Doesn’t Say Much?

We’ve all met them.  “Hey, how are you!?” Fine.  “Wow, great…so how have things been going?”  Fine.  “Fine, oh good…yeah, that’s great.  Um, so what’s new with you these days?” Nothing.  “Oh, okay. Yeah, so what’s been happening lately?” Not much.  And so on.  Whether or not you recognize this conversation from either a professional situation or a personal or public interaction, it is likely… you recognize it.  And it never feels good, trying to initiate a conversation but feeling like you are only one engine powering a two-engine plane. It can feel especially defeating in a writing conference.

When conferring with a writer, our big aim is to engage in a meaningful conversation with the student about his or her writing.  An individual writing conference is likely the single most effective way for a teacher to help move a writer forward.  The combination of one-to-one interaction, close physical proximity, and calibrated feedback can result in a consequential conference, an interaction that can really advance a writer in his or her skills.  And as teachers, we always want to be mindful about our feedback– is it effective?  Does it lean on what Mary Ehrenworth and Cornelius Minor, both senior staff developers at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University, have identified as qualities of effective feedback?  Those qualities are:

  • Happens in the moment
  • Specific and calibrated
  • Focused and honest
  • Offers one (maybe two) practical tip(s)
  • Lays out a plan for follow-up
  • Demands a high level of agency from the student

Last weekend at the Teachers College Saturday Reunion I had the excellent fortune to attend a workshop led by author and speaker Carl Anderson.  Carl’s new book entitled, A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences (Heinemann, 2018), is now available and provides his latest and greatest thinking around conferring with writers.  Two Writing Teachers Chief Operator and co-author Stacey Shubitz recently interviewed Carl to learn some of the specifics of his book, which you can read about here.  During his Saturday workshop, “Conferring Carl” identified three main jobs of a teacher when it comes to conferring:

3 Jobs in a Conference_

Accomplishing these jobs typically begins by engaging the student in a conversation in order to establish multiple lines of inquiry.  Teachers will often begin a conference with an open-ended question, something like, “How’s it going?” or “What can you tell me about your work today?”  But many times, even with our best intentions and attempts at “training” students how to converse during a conference, the student will sometimes say something curt, like, “Good.”  Or, “It’s fine.”  Silence.  That’s it.  That’s all they have to say.

Sigh.

We have all been there, right?  We pull up next to a writer, hoping to launch into a meaningful conference, and … well, the student just doesn’t say much.  What to do?  Fear not!  Carl suggests six strategies to help teachers address this situation:

  1.  Ask the student to look at his writing.  The first strategy is to ask the student to just look at his writing.  This might sound like, “Let me ask you to look at your writing; what are you doing?”  A direct question like this will often at least get the conversation going, as students will typically begin to talk about what it is they are doing as writers, after which you can move the conference along by either saying, “Say more about that,” or move to Strategy #2…
  2. Ask the student specific questions.  Having a handy list of specific questions can also jumpstart a writing conference.  The following list can perhaps help to elicit the kind of talk teachers look for when trying to establish at least one actionable line of inquiry with student writers:
    • Where are you in the writing process, and what can you tell me about what you’re doing in that phase?
    • What are you doing to write well?
    • What do you think you need help with?
    • What do you want to get better at as a writer?
    • What are you trying to say in this writing piece?
    • What are you working on as a goal?
    • Are you doing anything that is feeling hard?
  3. Name what you have observed.  A third strategy for moving a conversation toward more talk is to name what you have observed this writer doing during writing workshop.  By putting specific language to what actions, strategies, or habits you have seen this writer taking can help her feel “seen” in the writing community and thus perhaps more willing to engage in talk.  This might sound like, “Wow, Marissa, I have watched you thinking and thinking about your writing the last few days.  What are you thinking about?” Or perhaps, “I’ve noticed you are writing a ton of dialogue here!  What do you want your readers to learn?”
  4. Suggest possibilities (from recent minilessons).  Since our first job in a writing conference is to discover what a writer is doing as a writer, we might suggest some possibilities from lessons we have taught recently.  Perhaps begin with the minilesson of the day; ask the writer if he is doing the work of that lesson?  Or maybe he is doing work you taught the day before?
  5. Refer to a recent chart of minilessons.  Similar to the strategy above, when we are trying to learn what work a writer is engaged in currently we can also point to strategy charts hanging in the classroom. We can say, “So, let’s take a look at the chart over there.  There are some strategies listed…which one feels like the one you are working on today?”  Even if the student is not working on any of them, an easy follow-up might be, “Oh, okay. So what are you working on?”
  6. Take a tour of the student’s writing.  A final strategy to help breathe life into a conference can be to ask the student to take you on a little “tour” of his writing.  Since the word “tour” implies traveling place to place, ask the writer to take you from place to place in his writing.  We can ask, “Tell me about this place here,” or “Okay, what can you tell me about this place down here?”

As I write this post and read back over these suggestions, I am reminded that tone is everything when it comes to a writing conference.  Our tone needs to take on the quality of a supportive coach, as opposed to a pushy taskmaster.  I would recommend taking a moment to try on some of the phrases suggested above in both tones (supportive coach vs. pushy taskmaster), just to internalize the difference between the two tones.  It is critical that kids see us as caring, knowledgeable, and committed to their success. Thus, our tone really matters.

Perhaps you have some successful strategies that have worked to initiate conversation with students reluctant to discuss their writing?  We would love to hear from you!