Conferring Notes: The Key to Unit Planning

As an instructional coach, I do a whole lot of unit planning, side by side with teams of teachers. Hands down, the most impactful step in the process—all too often overlooked—is planning for how we will capture our conferring notes. I would argue that planning for conferring during the unit planning stage helps everyone to be more clear about what we want writers to learn, as well as how we will know when they’ve learned it.

Making decisions together about what goes on the conferring sheet is an opportunity to talk in more detail about what we know we want to notice writers doing/not yet doing, as well as the skills or processes we anticipate needing to coach into. Sometimes teammates assume they’re already on the same page. . . and then it turns out later they aren’t. 

Time is precious. Unit planning is a big investment of time—a luxury that many teams might not have on a regular basis. Crafting a system for conferring notes can be a catch-all of sorts, a strategy for ensuring that teammates engage in the highest leverage instructional conversations before the unit begins—even if they haven’t had extended time to unit plan together. 

Below is an example of conferring notes from a first grade narrative unit. I know there are an endless number of ways to organize conferring notes; this is not meant to be an assertion of the best way. However, I would argue that the conversation that happens as the team negotiates the categories across the top of the sheet catapults them quickly into the kinds of conversations that make a difference for instruction. 

Using this set of conferring notes as an example, imagine a team sitting around a table together, collaborating around the categories at the top of the spreadsheet. The following three “leverage points” are opportunities to maximize impact on student learning through the talk that happens while engaged in this task. 

Leverage Point #1: What do we want writers to learn? 

Clarity is key. As teachers generate writing skills we might consider adding to our conferring sheet, it opens the door to questions like: 

  • “What’s the main focus at this grade level for this type of writing? Let’s double check with the standards/our curriculum documents/our resource, etc.” (If we have already unit planned together, this part of the process is pretty quick. If we have not unit planned together, this process pushes us back into clarifying what it is we want kids to learn in this unit.) 
  • Do we want to sequence these skills in a particular way, based on when or how we plan to teach them? (This question ensures that teams have thought through the way new learning builds within the unit as teachers anticipate where they might expect to begin conferring.)  
  • “Is that skill something we expect writers to be independent with by the end of this unit? By the end of the year?” (Clear success criteria have a dramatic effect on the minilessons we plan and the kinds of goals we set with writers while conferring. We sometimes skip this step while unit planning, guaranteeing a need to swing back to it later. Co-creating conferring notes ensures that teams address proficiency levels from the start.) 

When we can walk away from unit planning with conferring notes that reflect a shared vision of what student writing will look like at the end of the unit, we are beginning with a running start.

Leverage Point #2: Windows for Coaching

As a coach, co-creating conferring notes is a natural place to ask the kinds of questions that make space for reflection and new learning. So, for example, if a team is not yet thinking about process skills as they plan for launching the writing workshop, I might ask: 

  • “What are some of the habits of writers that you know can be challenging at this point in the year? What can we anticipate that we’ll be reinforcing and coaching into as we launch the workshop?” 

Teachers might then mention things like generating ideas for writing, getting themselves started, stamina for writing, etc. This opens the door to conversation around what kinds of process mini lessons we might plan for, especially if this did not happen during unit planning. Additionally, these conversations plant seeds for (and normalize) some of the speed bumps in getting started. 

Over units (and over years), this has become an effective way to differentiate my coaching for teams in different places with workshop. I can see clear evidence of teacher growth as our conferring notes change over time. And because there is always more to learn, there is always another layer to consider as we plan for conferring. 

Leverage Point #3: Data on the Table

A common system for documenting conferring notes makes it easier for teams to reflect on student growth during the unit. This is the kind of data (especially alongside student work) that feels safe to put on the table and discuss. 

Teammates will notice visual patterns in their conferring notes that prompt reflective questions such as:

  • “As I’m conferring, I’m noticing that almost all my writers are solid with [insert skill or process]. I think the writing I’ve been doing alongside kids is helping them to understand. . .” 
  • “I’m doing most of my teaching during conferences around [insert skill or process]. I wonder if we might need to plan for some minilessons/look for a mentor text/pull small groups to. . .” 
  • “I’m noticing a pattern with writers who are [insert process skill] and need support with [insert academic skill]. Does anyone have ideas for how we might. . .” 

Instructional conversations like these build capacity and trust on teams, and they lead to responsive workshop teaching during the unit.

With conferring notes on the table, teachers will also share and inquire around the nuts and bolts of conferring: 

  • “How many writers are you getting to each day?” 
  • “How long are your conferences?”
  • “What do you do when. . .?” 
  • “What are you actually writing down? Is it what they’re working on? The teaching point? Their goal? All of that?”
  • “What are some ways you’re keeping track of. . .?” 

All of this talk is valuable, because it builds the kind of support that will keep teachers conferring. Over time, teams will collaborate around making their notes increasingly user-friendly, which raises their ownership of the shared system. Teams will begin to crave having the information they need about their writers (or readers or mathematicians. . .) at their fingertips, organized by what it is they want kids to learn. 

A data point for me is when I’m unit planning with teachers (in any content) and someone says, “Wait! We haven’t made our conferring notes yet!”