Many writing teachers wondered how they would be able to confer with students through masks while maintaining six feet of physical distance once a return to in-person instruction was realized. Likewise, many remote-only teachers were concerned about how they’d hold meaningful and efficient writing conferences over video conferencing platforms. In both cases, writing teachers realized they could maximize technology to help them work with students despite the challenges handed to them by COVID-19.
As the 2020-21 school year progressed, some teachers reported improved one-to-one conferences when they were conducted through a screen. As students and teachers became more comfortable sharing their screens and recording videos, virtual conferences felt more natural. In fact, some students’ voices were elevated in a virtual setting.
Hold some conferences using video conferencing software: Some students are uncomfortable making eye contact with their teacher while other students don’t want their table mates to overhear their writing conference. You can continue to meet with students over video even when you’re in the same classroom. Over time, students who are reluctant to sit beside you might become more comfortable and transition to face-to-face conferences.
Accept conference sign-ups: Invite students to sign-up for a time to meet with you using SignUpGenius or an editable Google Doc. You might invite students to tell you what they’d like to confer about since this has the potential to build agency. Block-out a few time slots so you can use them for small group strategy lessons and so you can fill them with students you need to confer with on-the-fly. Remember to leave time between conference times so you have a chance to jot notes about your conference and/or prepare for the next one.
Use audio or video recordings to prepare: Shave some time off of your writing conferences by listening to recordings of your students reading their in-process writing aloud before a conference. Students can use the recording tool on whatever LMS you use or another tool, such as Flipgrid, so they can read their work aloud. You can request for students to focus their camera on their writing while they read it aloud so you can see and hear their writing.
Divide students into breakout rooms for peer conferences: Just like some students have done better conferring with their teacher through a screen, some partnerships will do better when they meet through a screen. Students can sit anywhere and engage in a peer conference when they are moved into their own breakout room. Just as you teach students conversational moves to make in a peer conference, create norms with students for using screen shares and annotation tools during a peer conference.
Record notes and feedback for students: Students typically gloss over too many handwritten comments left in the margins of their papers or in the margins of a Google Doc. Record lean voice comments for students using Mote, which is a Chrome extension. It’s less for students to read and is more interactive. In addition, think of structuring your comments on Mote as if they’re an asynchronous conference where you make sure to compliment the student on one thing they did well (or something that’s on the upper edge of what they’re doing), teach them one new strategy that will help them improve as a writer, and then link back to the work they’re presently doing.
Conferring is at the heart of writing workshop. TWT’s co-authors have written about all aspects of conferring — from record-keeping to conferring toolkits to tips for sticking with one teaching point in a conference — through the years. Visit our archives to learn more about conferring.
If you’re reading this piece far into the future, remember that the tech tools might change. Some of the things I mentioned might no longer exist or something better may replace them. You’ll never go wrong if you focus on your students’ needs to help them grow as writers when you’re conferring with them. Strong writing conferences will always endure.
- This giveaway is for a copy of The Responsive Writing Teacher by Melanie Meehan and Kelsey Sorum. Many thanks to Corwin Literacy for donating a copy for one reader.
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I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).