Taking a Little Dip Back into Tried and True Teaching: Simple Ways to Embrace the Writing Conference During Virtual Learning

I think it goes without saying that we are all learning to embrace a new normal. With very little time to plan and even less time to adjust, we had to loosen our teaching structures, let go of a “normal” school day and do anything we could to make students feel seen, heard and valued. It wasn’t easy but we did it … you did it!

In writing workshop, some of our most valuable teaching happens during the writing conference. This is an opportunity to connect with writers, encourage self-reflection and offer targeted feedback to students one at a time. Given the circumstances, our conferences have likely looked very different.

Over the past month our priority has been connecting with kids personally. Many of us have kept our phone calls and emails light with a focus on feelings and well-being over academic progress. For some students, a shift toward more academic conversations might be too much, for others it could be just what they need to stay engaged and motivated through the end of the year.

I’m not going to suggest that we do a deep dive into a lengthy traditional writing conference from afar or that you add more to your already full plate. Instead, I’ve been thinking about simple ways we can dip our toes back into the traditional writing conference. Let’s help students once again become self-reflective about their writing and find ways to keep our feedback efficient and effective.

Toe-dip #1: Self-Reflection

During the research phase of a Research-Decide-Compliment-Teach conference, we ask students open-ended questions and encourage them to talk about their work. Over the past few years some teachers and I have been exploring the idea of giving students a menu of things to talk about at the start of a conference (goals, recent work, questions, helpful tools/charts, etc.), in addition to asking the traditional conferring research questions like, “How’s it going?” and “What are you working on as a writer?” Now seems like a perfect time to embed this type of self-reflection and help students practice actively talking about their work.

Using these menus, or something similar, will allow the research part of the conference to happen regardless of whether or not we talk to students one-on-one. Students can reflect on one of the menu options in a comment at the end of a day’s work, while talking to parents about their writing or as a way to prepare for a scheduled teacher meeting.

Of course taking advantage of the online learning platforms we are using is another approach. This google form not only helped a teacher I work with gather data on individuals, but also became a great tool for inviting multiple students to a group conference.

Toe-dip #2: Targeted Feedback

I’m stating the obvious when I say that we can’t do it all, especially right now. Many of us are feeling self-inflicted pressure to look at every word students write and are overwhelmed not just by the teaching, but by the amount of feedback we are giving day in and day out. Let’s keep in mind what we value in a traditional writing conference and remind ourselves of John Hattie’s work in Visible Learning, the notion that naming what one is already doing and giving a next step is considered effective feedback. When looking at a piece of student work give yourself permission to not say everything, stick to naming (or typing) a compliment and teach at the top of their work.

Another way to keep our feedback process efficient is to have students highlight certain things in their writing.  During a typical writing conference we might ask a student to show us a part they loved, ask them to point to a place they revised, a place that isn’t working, etc.  This helps us notice patterns and focus our feedback in person. Having students highlight the work they submit digitally will help us achieve a similar outcome and will bring in a little bit more of the self-reflection mentioned above.

Toe-dip #3: Holding Tight to the Essentials

Nothing is off the table in terms of what we can teach or expect from students right now, that said, we have to be willing to downshift when we see decreasing engagement. We might decide that celebrating student work through a simple compliment conference is the way to go. Maybe we stick to using mentors and tools that students are familiar with. Finally, remember that students are getting used to new writing environments and embracing a completely different style of learning. At the start of the year we always spend a lot of time teaching writing habits. Now might be a good time to focus our conferences on reteaching some of these habits such as what to do when you’re stuck on spelling, ways to get restarted, options for when you feel done,  generating ideas, etc.

At the end of the day it’s not about holding tight to assignments or work we would have accomplished had the year gone as planned. Instead it’s holding tight to what we know as writing teachers will give students the motivation and comfort they need to make the most of this uncharted time.

Think back to some of your best writing conferences before our teaching lives took a turn. What were you doing? What were students doing? What made those conversations memorable? Give yourself permission to take small steps toward back to your tried and true teaching. It won’t be perfect, nothing ever is, but it will give you and your students a taste of the familiar and hopefully build a repertoire of conferring strategies to be used in the years to come.

Meghan Hargrave is a passionate educator with a love for all things teaching and learning. She recently moved back to the midwest and started her own education consulting and coaching business after many years working with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as a Senior Staff Developer.  You can follow her on Instagram, @letmeknowhowitgoes, and on Twitter, @mmhargrave.