As the temperature drops and the leaves begin to change color, teachers begin preparing for conferences with families. I know for many teachers, this can be stressful and time consuming, making decisions about what to share in that precious 20-30 minutes that will both inform and reassure caregivers that their child is learning. Here’s an idea that I’m hoping helps all workshop teachers to feel more confident about conference prep:
When my workshop practices are consistently in place, I feel prepared to speak with any parent or caregiver at any time about any writer. This is the primary reason why I’m so committed to these practices. When my workshop game is strong, I know my writers deeply, and I’m crystal clear on where we’re headed.
If, for example, a parent or caregiver walked into my classroom after school one day and asked for an impromptu conversation about their child’s growth in writing, I could pull out and/or reference the following:
- The child’s writing folder, which contains all of their work from the current unit. For more on how I do this, check out my five minute Tip for Tomorrow on TWTPod: Keeping Writers Organized.
- My conferring notes from current and past units of study. The intentionality involved in creating these note catchers and consistency in documenting notes while conferring ensures that I don’t have to rely on my memory when I find myself on the spot with a parent/caregiver. I can reference specific noticings, teaching points, and goals set with each writer. For more on how I design my conferring notes as part of my unit planning process, check out this past post. For more on how I use my conferring notes within a unit to look for patterns and to plan for small groups, read this previous post.
- Anchor charts or checklists in the classroom that name specific learning targets or strategies writers are working on. These visible structures let families know that outcomes are clearly communicated to writers and supported in a variety of ways during workshop.
- Exemplars of student work that are helping writers to build a vision of what they are working toward.
- My gradebook, organized by the same standards/skills/learning targets as my conferring notes. This means that what I am collecting data on formatively within a unit is the same “language” we’re using on our co-created rubrics that students are scored on summatively at the end of units/end of the year.
With these tools in hand, I’m always ready to talk with families. I’m clear about outcomes for students before each unit begins, and the parent/caregiver and I can look together at the student’s work to notice and name how the writer is progressing toward those outcomes. This level of readiness goes a long way toward establishing credibility with families. This level of readiness helps me to let out a breath and unclench when I think about fall conferences approaching.
The workshop practices I have in place ARE the preparation I need.
In my experience as a classroom teacher facilitating conferences (and as an instructional coach joining conferences as support for teachers), families want to know two things:
- You know their child. You see their strengths, their needs, and what makes them uniquely who they are.
- Their child is growing in your care.
Planning for a conference that establishes both these things builds trust with families. That is my goal. I want for this to be the beginning of an ongoing conversation, not a one-time event. If I can assure families in this initial conference that knowing their child as a person and as a writer is a consistent priority, they will be more likely to continue to ask questions and to engage in conversation with me across the year.
Leaning into the workshop practices already in place demonstrates the authenticity of what you share with families, and—bonus—it cuts down on teacher prep time for these important conversations.
Now, does this mean that I don’t prep for conferences with families at all? No, of course not. When I know conferences are approaching, I set time aside to look through each child’s writing folder, noting (or sticky noting) specific celebrations and goals to elevate during the conference. I make it a priority to choose a writing sample that highlights something unique to the student, as a way to show how I am getting to know them.
Admittedly, it’s much faster and easier to do this when workshop practices are in place. . .
Another powerful time saver is to ask students to choose a piece they’d like to share with their families, adding sticky notes to annotate why they chose it, a strength/celebration, and something they’re working on—or perhaps growth they have noticed. This opportunity for reflection and self-assessment then becomes another place for me to highlight a strength or potential growth area for the writer in process skills such as agency, ownership, or self-awareness.
With the student work on the table, we can discuss it together, inviting noticings and questions from parents and caregivers. I like to think of it as a different type of writing conference: “Let’s take a look at how it’s going. . .” and “Here are some things your child is working on as a writer right now. . .” This side-by-side stance communicates a willingness to partner with families, rather than seeing conferences as simply an opportunity to talk at families.
Please know that I share this line of thinking, not to make anyone feel inadequate because all of the above practices are not (yet) in place—that can take years of sustained attention—but instead, as a way to consider what you might already have in place that can support you during the potentially stressful week(s) leading up to conferences with families. What might save you time and offer you a confidence boost as you prepare, because you surely have some strong practices in place? Let that authenticity shine through!
- Perhaps you’ve focused this fall on anchor charts and student goal setting based on shared rubrics/checklists. If so, pull those into your conferences with families!
- Maybe you’ve been clearer with writers about outcomes by using (or co-creating) exemplars. Awesome—have them on the table for reference as you share student work with families.
- If small groups have been a focus, you can be ready to share with families some specific examples of teaching points that have had an impact on their child as a writer.
Any one of these practices on its own helps to clarify what writers are learning and how adults might be able to support at home—something parents and caregivers ALWAYS want to know.
In the same way that we want writers to be clear on what they are learning and what it will look like when they are successful, we want families to be on the same page. Their partnership is essential, and partnership begins with transparency and communication. Leveraging the same tools that provide clarity for writers day-to-day in workshop during our conferences with families is a time-saving strategy to invite parents and caregivers into the conversation, while building credibility as the teacher lucky enough to be entrusted with the care and learning of their young writers.
For more resources and ideas around conferences with families:
- Deb Frazier shares her strategy for using audio recordings of student reflection during conferring to share with families in her post, Helping Parents see Student Writing With a Writer’s Eye.
- For tips to offer parents of primary grade writers to get beyond spelling and conventions, you might try Five Tips for Parents and Caregivers for Offering Feedback to Writers
- For ways to keep families in the loop across the year around goals and feedback for writers, check out my post on Leveraging Technology to Amp up Feedback for Writers.
- Lanny Ball includes specific examples of teacher/parent talk to support writers in Enlisting Writing Support From Parents.