Learning how to confer with student writers

One of the teachers I’m working alongside is really focused on honing her conferring skills. So we are hunkering down beside students and listening intently to their work. She leads the conference and I listen. We’ve been considering the two parts of a conference. In a nutshell, these parts are:

Part One: Figure out what the student is doing as a writer.

Part Two: Help him or her do it better.

Although this is a super-simplified version of conferring, a conference really does boil down to these two parts. Carl Anderson refers to part one of a conference as RESEARCH and part two of the conference as TEACHING. I’ve been calling, “Time out!” during our conferences when I think we are between the two parts in a conference. This allows the teacher and me to have a discussion and make an intentional decision about part two.

Here are a few things I’m thinking about in reflection of this work.

  1. In order to figure what students are doing as writers, you do not have to ask them to read their writing aloud. Often we can skim their writing much more efficiently than having them read it to us. Now this isn’t to say I NEVER ask students to read aloud, but it is a rarity and there is a reason for asking them to read aloud other than trying to figure out what they are doing as writers. If you struggle with long conferences, this is a way to shave several minutes off of your conference time.
  2. There are always many things we can teach children as writers. They aren’t professional writers, they are children. This means their writing will not be conventional. Therefore, it is important to choose a teaching point high on the food chain. What I mean by this is choosing a teaching point that gets to the heart of the writer — a teaching point they can apply immediately and then again and again and again. Lucy Calkins encourages us to make sure our teaching points can be used forever-the-rest-of-their-lives.
  3. One of the first decisions I make after I figure out what they are doing as writers is whether I’m going to get behind their work or whether I’m going to steer them in a new direction. As often as possible I get behind the work they are already doing and I help them do it better. However, there are times when I know students have a more pressing need that ought to be addressed in a conference OR  there are times when the path they are on isn’t the best. In these cases I redirect the student and then move on with a conference. I think it’s important to note that I always feel most successful when I get behind what the students are already doing.
  4. It’s important to take time to write goals for each of your students. This way you know their most pressing needs before you face them in a conference. This is another way to become more efficient with your time in a conference. And while we’re thinking about using our conference records, it’s also important to look back at previous teaching points and see if students are continuing to do those things as writers.
  5. Positive feed back is important. Sometimes we are so focused on a teaching point, it is easy to forget to respond as a human. How is the writing impacting you? What are they doing as writers that is working? I love to look for what kids are almost-doing-but-not-quite and point it out to them. When I’m really savvy, this segues flawlessly into the teaching point, which is helping them refine this almost-strength.
  6. The best way to tell if your conferring is successful is if you can write down a note about how you influenced the writer (instead of how you fixed-up the writing), and you notice their energy is increased for writing after the conference.
  7. Be glad it’s conferring and not brain surgery. It’s okay if it isn’t perfect. You always have the next day and the next day and the next day. The simple act of talking about writing and having time to write is helping your students become stronger writers.