The start of a new school year is an opportunity to experience the magic of writing workshop with a new group of kids. There are several predictable conferences I look forward to each fall. I love the look on a writer’s face when they realize something important about what writing workshop will BE this year.
My favorite conferences are all closely connected to my beliefs about writing instruction. The teaching points in each conference are ideas I want to be front and center for kids as we co-construct the workshop and community we will live and play in over the coming months (at any grade level).
Here are my top three favorite beginning of year conferences with writers:
1. The Conference Where we Establish who has Ownership
Here’s the test for me. When I sit down beside a writer and ask, “How’s it going?” the way in which the student responds tells me so much. If they immediately slide whatever they are working on in my direction, I know we need to establish who has ownership and will be leading conferences in our workshop. Hint: It is not me.
When this happens, I am careful not to pick up their work. Instead, I say something like:
- “Tell me about what you’re working on.”
- “Would you like to share part of your piece with me?”
- “What’s going well so far?” or “What’s been a challenge so far?”
- “What kind of feedback would be most helpful for you today?”
For some writers, this is the nudge they need to begin talking and I can follow their lead into the conference. For others, this experience is so unexpected that they need more scaffolding to understand what it means to do most of the talking in a conference.
I might need to give an example: “When I’m writing narrative, I think a lot about where things are happening. I try to add the kinds of details that will help a reader to visualize the scene. So I might share my piece with another writer and ask them to tell me which details help them to see the setting and where they might need more details to help them do that. What are you trying to do on purpose as a writer that you could ask me to look for?”
I might encourage a writer to use resources such as our shared anchor charts or mentor texts to name what they’re trying to do as writers or who they’re trying to write like.
Then I offer feedback on what they ask for.
My feedback is always descriptive. I point out something specific and say what the impact of that craft move is on me as the reader. I once heard Katie Wood Ray say that writers will rise to the level of talk in the workshop, so this is an opportunity to model that talk from the start.
If they are not (yet) able to ask for specific feedback, I might say something like, “Is it okay with you if I point out a couple of things I notice are working well?” or perhaps, “I’m going to give you a compliment.”
This is all about noticing and naming, offering examples of the kind of language we’ll be using as writers discussing our writing. It’s an opportunity to affirm and to build rapport.
By the end of this type of conference, it is essential for the writer to name an intention going forward. This needs to come out of the conversation as the writer’s idea—not mine. This could be something they are already doing well and plan to continue doing with intention as they write forward. This could be something new they want to try. “You’re the writer—it’s up to you to decide,” is a common refrain in this type of conference.
If a writer is struggling to name an intention, I might ask, “May I offer you a couple of ideas based on this conversation, and then you can choose one that you’re excited about?” I always offer more than one suggestion, so the writer is making a choice.
Once they name their intention, I write it down in my conferring notes. I want the writer to know that I am taking their plan seriously. “Okay, I’ll let you get back to it,” I’ll say as I get up. “I’m excited to see where you go with [insert intention/goal here].”
2. The SECOND Conference
My second conference with any writer is a game changer. I typically enter in with some version of, “So the last time we met, you were working on. . . and you decided you wanted to try. . . How has that been going?” Nine times out of ten, they look at me like, You remember what we talked about last time?
This is a critical precedent to set at the beginning of the year. I want writers to know that our conferences will be an ongoing conversation—not random, disconnected events. The pieces of work will change across a unit and the year, but writers will set goals and have opportunities to reflect on their progress toward those goals across pieces (and units). I want writers to remember on purpose what those goals are, and the first step is showing that I will remember what they are. This is why I take notes while conferring.
I want writers at the end of a conference to take some action based on the teaching point and/or an intention they articulated during the conference. The more consistent I can be about communicating my attention to and interest in their plans as writers, the more likely they will be to act with agency in between conferences.
Before I added this strategy to my conferring toolbox, I often felt as if writers left a conference thinking, Well, that was a nice conversation with my teacher. I’m going to go back to exactly what I was doing before she came over here.
I have a feeling I am not alone in this experience. . .
My second conference with each writer is my chance to set a different expectation for what will happen next. I want writers to expect me to follow up with them on whatever they finished our conference determined to work on. I want writers to know that I respect their ownership in the process and their intentions—this is why I am following up!
Sometimes a writer won’t pick up on this pattern until the third, fourth, or tenth conference. . . but eventually they do. Once this happens, once writers expect that we will both circle back to our ongoing conversation about their goal(s), writers make more growth. They become more mindful of their own strengths and needs, and they become motivated to see evidence of their own progress when we confer. (And on the teacher side of things, I have fewer conferences that feel like Groundhog’s Day.)
3. The Conference Where I Subvert an Expectation
As much as I wish it weren’t true, some writers enter a new year with negative writing experiences from previous grade levels. One of my favorite things to do is to support a writer in shifting from disliking writing to loving writing. This obviously takes time. . . but I look forward to recognizing when this is a need and setting the stage for the shift in an early conference.
It might look something like this: I approach a student who is sitting with arms crossed, clearly not writing (and a facial expression that suggests they might have no plan to write). When I sit beside them and ask how it’s going, they might respond with, “I don’t have anything to write about.”
They might be expecting that I will engage in a power struggle, insisting that everyone needs to be writing. Instead, I say something like, “Oh, you must be the kind of writer who needs time to think—and maybe to talk or draw—before you’re ready to begin writing. I know lots of writers like that.”
With this response, I’m doing two things: I’m normalizing the experience of feeling stuck for ideas—this happens to everyone; it does not mean that someone is “not a good writer”—and, I’m planting the positive presupposition that this writer will, in fact, be ready to write at some point.
I encourage the writer to keep thinking, to draw or doodle, or perhaps to talk with tablemates as they work themself toward an idea they’re excited to write about.
Then, I walk away. I give the student space to think about the strategies that have been offered. I am calm and positive, demonstrating every confidence that the student is capable of getting themself started.
Now, do I have every intention of circling back later, once the student has spent some time writing to celebrate and encourage? Yes, of course. But in this moment, I don’t cajole and hand hold. I do not hover. This student has likely experienced this in the past and is ready to resist.
Huge shoutout to Mark Overmeyer for this tip. Simply naming and normalizing the part of the process that is standing between the writer and what they likely perceive to be “too hard” shifts the issue from being an obstacle in the writer’s mind—likely personalized as a flaw or evidence that they are “not a good writer”—to a natural part of the writing process that all writers encounter. Being able to articulate, “Yes, that’s it! I’m the kind of writer who needs to spend time talking to help me generate ideas for writing,” is self-aware and empowering; this is my goal for all kids!
Mark Overmeyer’s sentence stem, “You must be the kind of writer who. . .” can be used in so many ways to notice, name, and normalize parts of the writing process. It’s a way to affirm what a writer is already doing when that writer might be expecting criticism or redirection. When I’ve heard Mark say it, it sounds like a moment of genuine fascination at discovering something important about a fellow writer. For example:
- “Ah, you must be the kind of writer who draws all their pictures before writing. This tells me you might be a visual thinker. That is such a strength for a writer!”
- “You must be the kind of writer who captures all the dialogue in a scene first and then goes back to add in what’s happening around the dialogue. I do this, too!”
- “You must be the kind of writer who has strong opinions about the topics you write about. I’m so glad to know that, because in this class, you’ll make lots of choices as a writer.”
There is nothing more important than being seen and understood as a writer. It is the experience of not feeling seen or understood that frequently leads to a writer shutting down. For any writers entering the workshop with baggage, I look forward to subverting their expectations so they can be open to more positive workshop experiences moving forward.
As I reflect on my favorite types of conferences at the beginning of the year, I recognize the ways in which my beliefs about writing workshop show up in my stance, my strategies, and my language. I am intentional in the ways I leverage conferring to establish not just what we will do as writers but how we will collaborate to do it.
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