How do I confer with ALL students regularly?

I was chatting with a curriculum director about leading a PD on conferring for her teachers. She stated that her greatest need was to help teachers keep their conferences slim because many of her teachers found it hard to get around to every student every two weeks. “How come?” I asked. She stated that it seemed a couple of students in each class co-opted the teacher’s time making it nearly impossible for all students to receive an equal share of the teacher’s time. 

This is an issue that happens in many classrooms. It happened a lot when I taught fourth grade. I hear teachers talk about it all of the time. Here are a few everyday situations where teachers are sucked in for longer than the five to seven minutes a writing conference should take.

  • Meeting with a student who doesn’t know what to write. 
  • Chatting with a student who doesn’t know what to do at the end of a minilesson. 
  • Assisting a student who needs help getting their ideas onto the page.
  • Working with a child who needs adult support to move from one task to the next.
  • Helping a child who is unsure of how to elaborate.
  • Listening to a student’s writing who is only looking for teacher approval.

These are just a few time-sucking scenarios I’ve seen in elementary writing workshops. Knowing how to walk away from students whose writing conferences, which often feel like tutoring sessions, always go on too long is essential. 

First, you need to have a conversation with the students. We never want children to feel like we’re abandoning them by walking away. All kids need to know that you must spread your time amongst the entire class. Be frank while being gentle about your need to give everyone a fair share of your time.

Here are a few ways to keep writing conferences trim:

This image lists seven ways to keep conferences from going on too long. Read the post on Two Writing Teachers for a description of each of these ways.
  1. Use a stopwatch when you confer. Set a stopwatch for five minutes. When you approach the four-minute mark, think about how you’ll extricate yourself from the conference. Once you reach five minutes on the stopwatch, ensure you set the student up to work independently. 
  2. Have an exit strategy. Teach kids some phrases you might say to signal that you’re wrapping up a writing conference and moving on to another student. You can use phrases like: “Are you ready to try this on your own?” “I’ll be back (after my next conference/in ___ minutes) to see how it’s going,” “I’m leaving you with this (tangible artifact) to remind you of the strategy we worked on today,” and “Keep going!”
  3. Stick to a schedule. It helps to create a plan to help you stay on track and meet with all the students you need to confer with. If you have a list of names written down on a sticky note, you can share it with any student trying to pull you in. When appropriate, you may invite lost students to listen to another writing conference you’re having. This often helps kids get going when unsure of what to do.
  4. Listen, ask, and remind. If you’re troubleshooting, rather than conferring, with a student day after day, set up a brief amount of time (i.e., no more than two minutes) where you listen to whatever the issue is, ask a question, and then remind the student what to do. The reminder can be anything from consulting classroom charts to seeking out a mentor text for assistance so they’re not as reliant on you.
  5. Create small groups to help students who have similar needs. Sometimes there’s a small group of kids who have similar issues that consume your time. Troubleshoot with them for a couple of minutes early in the workshop and then check in later. They need to know they need to work for a specified amount of time before you’ll return. In addition, breaking up their work time into two parts might be helpful.
  6. Build agency. Earlier this month, we hosted a series, Amping Up Agency. Agency is actively working towards valued goals to produce positive outcomes. In the writing workshop, it’s essential to build agency in your students so you can wean them off of your help, allowing them to become more self-reliant writers. 
  7. Check-in later. Following up with students is crucial, but hard to fit in! Listen to a recent Tip for Tomorrow I shared on the Two Writing Teachers Podcast about setting a time to check back after a writing conference. It helps students to know there’s something on your schedule that will allow them to touch base with you once they’ve tried something out in their writing.

You must be strong and resilient when withdrawing from children who need you. (This is so, so hard!) But remember, other students in your class need your time too. There is nothing wrong with equitably distributing your time among your students so everyone gets what they need.