Enlist Students as Partners in Conferring

Conferring is a critical aspect of writing workshop. However, writing conferences aren’t as eloquent and successful as they sound in professional development books or videos. You may find yourself sitting next to a writer who is already proficient in the teaching point. Unsure of how to help them, you sit and watch them write for a while and then walk away, stumped about what you could have taught. I’ve had my fair share of conferences where I have five different teaching points in mind. I think, should I point out that their b’s and d’s are mixed up? Should I teach them how to write an introduction? Should I help them add punctuation? What about the fact that there’s only one sentence on each page? The conference ends up lasting ten minutes! And there’s always that one kid who responds with one-word, noncommittal answers until you give up and leave.

After reflecting, I realized the missing piece in my conferring sessions was student voice. Maybe conferring would be less teacher-centered if I could enlist students as partners in conferring and provide them with the language to engage in writing conversations. If students are going to see themselves as authors, they need to develop agency and make their own decisions about writing. It’s our job to trust that decision-making! 

If students are going to see themselves as authors, they need to develop agency and make their own decisions about writing.

When I felt students were ready for this step, I led a minilesson to explicitly define the purpose of conferring for kids. I wanted them to know why I come and sit alongside them during writing workshop. To start this minilesson, I asked my class: “What do you think my job should be when I visit you during writing workshop?” We collectively decided the teacher’s job was to help the students make their writing better. Once united behind this common goal, students understood the purpose of conferring.

Next, I explained to students I will often launch our conferences with the same prompt: “How can I help you as a writer today?” This consistency helps ease students’ anxiety when a teacher joins them for a conference. The question also empowers students to be in charge of their writing. Instead of passively waiting for a teacher to sit by them and say, “Here’s what you need to fix today,” students initiate work as skilled authors right away when workshop begins. Then, when a coach joins them, they can direct the agenda of the conversation in a way that aligns with their personal goals as a writer. By allowing students to choose the direction of the conference, you are communicating the following: “You are an author! You have unique knowledge and skills that inform this piece of writing. Only you can choose what happens to this piece.”

Here is a chart I used during this minilesson with second graders. Many of the points on this chart are inspired by my own “conferences gone wrong” and misconceptions my students held about writing conferences.

Conferring is: 5 minutes, a conversation, you tell what you need.
Conferring is not: long, teacher watching you write, silent student

This year, I made a kindergarten version of the chart:

Conferring is: talking, listening, short, sharing, try it!

I’ve found that the level of writing improves as students practice the academic language conferring requires. (Nothing like hearing an eight-year-old say, “Can you help me look for pages where I can add dialogue?” Or, “I’m working on putting one transition word on each page!”)

This one minilesson won’t solve all your conferring woes; it takes time and trust between you and the students for them to realize that you will honor their decisions as authors. That’s why, if a student says they want the conference to be about making a diagram, you coach them through the diagram, even if your teacher-brain is begging you to tell them to fix their missed capitalization! (What a great idea for a future small group instead!) The more power students attain in writing workshop, the more motivated and engaged they become, making the other tasks that come with being a writer much easier.