In my humble opinion, student writing conferences are really the heart of a writer’s workshop. Sure, it is important to have strong, succinct mini-lessons (more on that in a future blog post!) and it is important for writers to have the opportunity to share their writing with others (yep, that’s a future blog post topic too!), but conferring is the precious time we get to have one-on-one with students to really get to know and understand their writing, but more importantly, get to know them. What a wonderful gift—for us and them! Over the years, I have learned a lot about conferring and I want to share my best tips for your student writing conferences, so you can make the most of this special time with your students.
- In his book, How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers, (which is a must-have for any writing teacher’s professional library) Carl Anderson refers to conferences as conversations. As a first-year teacher and beyond, we often make the mistake of talking at, not with, our students. By adopting this strategy, we aren’t building those crucial relationships with students, both to understand them as people and as writers. Anderson himself even admits that he almost quit after his first year because of this very thing. I’ve said it many times—the quote that has had the most impact on me as an educator is this: “No significant learning takes place without a significant relationship.” We must take every opportunity that we have to nurture the relationship we have with our students.
- Conversations have a point and a structure. We have all been in conversations that we know are just going nowhere—either because we (or who we are conversing with) have no interest in the subject or don’t want to be there, or there is a communication barrier. When we have a student writing conference, both the student and the teacher have a vested interest in the conversation. Students typically are eager to share when their writing is going well, and often (not always!) appreciate help when they are experiencing difficulty. Teachers want to understand what the student is working on and help them improve.
Conversations also have a structure. You know how every night you and your spouse have the same conversation? I bet it goes like this:
“What do you want for dinner tonight?”
“I don’t know; what do you want?”
“Hmmm, I’m not sure. What are you hungry for?”
And back and forth until somebody finally suggests something or you just call for takeout (or is that just my house?) Just like that conversation with your spouse about what’s for dinner, writing conferences with students have a predictable structure as well. We invite students into a conversation about their writing. We let them take the lead, sharing the writing work they have been doing. As they talk, we listen and look. We then share with them a strategy to help them as a writer or help them to help themselves. (My personal favorite!) When students know what to expect from the writing conference, they can be better prepared and they will, in turn, be more productive.
- We must remember to teach the writer and not the writing! This is such a huge point that it deserves an exclamation point, quote card and probably its own blog post! It’s exactly why I advocate for calling this time of the school day “Writer’s Workshop” instead of “Writing Workshop.” Keeping the writer, and not the writing, at the forefront is key. When we are conferring with students, we must remember that whatever teaching we do, we should ask ourselves this question: Is the point I am about to make helping the student become a better writer, or is it just fixing a random point in this piece? Like the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for life,” or something like that. If we only focus on the red-pen slash and correct technique for an essay instead of teaching the student a strategy they can use in future work, we aren’t really helping them become better writers—and isn’t that the whole point of writer’s workshop in the first place? To build a community of proficient writers?
- We can initiate conferences formally or informally. When I was in the classroom, I had a specific schedule of when I was meeting with each student. I went so far as to color code bins so that students knew if their folder was in a certain color bin that meant I would be conferring with them on a certain day of the week. We can also informally confer with students as we are walking around the room during independent writing time. Sometimes these “pop up conferences” can be the most meaningful of all.
- We have to show students that we care—not just about the writing, but about them as writers and as people. We can do that by following the steps outlined above, but it is not enough. We have to really listen to what students have to say and think deeply about their perspective. If we are truly following a writer’s workshop model, then students will have choice in what they write—and sometimes they can use writing to work through some pretty powerful emotions, thoughts and circumstances. As we listen to them share their work, we have to be empathetic and at the same time recognize if they are sharing something that can easily be worked out (a conflict with a friend at recess, an annoying little brother who takes their favorite toy) or something deeper (parents going through a divorce, death of a friend or relative). As I mentioned before, we have to help the writer, not the writing. If they are using writing as an outlet to share something troubling, then we need to let them know that we will be talking to the appropriate personnel, but often they just need to work out emotions and feelings and find writing a cathartic way to do so. In those instances, we of course need to still listen but focus on helping them to use the writing as the tool it was intended for in this instance—as a tool for working through feelings, and that is ok!
I could easily talk about writer’s workshop all day, but I hope these tips are a great start for you to improve your writing conferences with students. Until next time, happy teaching!