Tips from Amanda Hartman, Conferring Guru

One to One cover

Amanda Hartman is the Associate Director for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and leads the Project’s work in K-2 reading and writing. Amanda is a top staff developer who has helped hundreds of schools and districts establish gorgeous reading and writing workshops across all grades.  Amanda leads the TCRWP’s coaching institutes and content area and has presented at conferences around the world. Among other titles, she is co-author of One to One: The Art of Conferring with Young Writers (2005), Launching the Writing Workshop (Heinemann, 2013) and Lessons from the Masters (Heinemann, 2013). Amanda believes wholeheartedly that all children deserve the absolute best literacy instruction possible, and this belief comes through in her practice.

Watching Amanda at work in classrooms is breathtaking. During independent writing time in writing workshops, she moves effortlessly and with incredible efficiency from writer to writer, offering exactly the right coaching for each one, often in classrooms in which she is not familiar with the children. I once witnessed Amanda give fifteen children individualized instruction in a single 45-minute writing workshop, through conferences and targeted strategy groups. What’s more, Amanda left each of the fifteen with some concrete tips, and, best of all, with them feeling a little better about themselves as writers. In this interview, Amanda shares some of her current thinking and tried-and-true beliefs about conferring, the heart of the writing workshop.

Q: Your book, One to One: The Art of Conferring with Young Writers, co-written with Lucy Calkins and Zoe Ryder White was published in 2005. What are a few bottom line beliefs about conferring that you believed then that still hold true today?

A: That’s a nice question. There are so many things! One thing that is really important is that a conference is a conversation with a student. Our job is to really listen to the student as we are conferring. In other words, follow what the student is trying to do, and coach him or her toward skills that are within his or her grasp. Also, the architecture of a conference continues to be important. Research the writer, offer a specific compliment,  then teach next steps that will support the writer not just that day, but on many days and even for the rest his or her writing life.

Q: What are some of your newest thoughts and ideas about conferring?

A: It’s hard to decide whether these ideas are new or whether I’ve just been thinking more about them lately. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the length of my conferences. Depending on the time I have and the kind of research I have done, my conferences will be different lengths. If I’ve been spending a lot of time studying student work and I know where I want to go with a student, I don’t have to spend as much time researching. I can jump right into my teaching. Or, I might want to spend more time researching, possibly looking for more than one thing I want to teach. I might ask a student what she is working on, and she might tell me she is working on revising her piece. I might know what I want to teach her about revision, but I might also want to understand other things about her as a writer.  I could help her with her revision work right then and there, but then file away what else I’ve learned for later teaching, such as a future conference or small group.

Something we have been working on a lot as group at the Reading and Writing Project is following trajectories and pathways of learning. Rather than seeing each conference as an isolated event, each conference is part of a line of teaching. So, my small groups might follow from my conferences, or I might have a conference to follow up on small group work.

Finally, I’ve been thinking lately about teaching methods and tools. As an organization, we have stronger rubrics and checklists, and these tools can really help teachers to know what to teach and can help kids to make choices independently about what they need to do next.

Q: Should teachers prepare for conferences, or is it better for conferences to happen spontaneously?

A: I would say both. Certainly teachers should prepare. The better we know our students’ work and look across our conferring notes, the more we are ready to talk to writers. People ask me how I can confer so quickly and concisely with kids, even if I don’t know them. I’ve had a lot of experience studying student work and that has really helped me to understand how trajectories of skills go, and what students often struggle with.  Preparation and spontaneity go hand and hand. It is preparation, like studying student work, that can really help teachers become better at conferring spontaneously. Also, we can prepare ourselves all we can, but we must make sure we are listening carefully and following students. I worry a little that if we are too prepared for conferences, we might not listen to our kids well enough.

Q: What are your favorite conferring tools and resources?

A: Writing toolkits are really helpful. In my toolkit, I have mentor texts that are the genre that we are studying, I have my own writing folder with a couple of pieces that I could work off of in a conference, and I also have some blank writing paper and post-its so I can demonstrate in the moment. Additionally, I have mini-charts or strategy cards I can leave with students after conferences. I sometimes also have have copies of student work because it’s nice to be able to show kids what other kids have done. It’s important that students have a variety of mentors to use. Some teachers also create mini-charts, or cheat seats, for themselves with lists of top skills to teach, or reminders of what they want to check in on. These might be volume goals, or spelling tips, or strategies that will help kids better elaborate.

Q: Many teachers say it is difficult to find time for conferring. How do you aim to reach more writers during independent writing time?

A: I really believe that it’s important to know where the time goes. Pay attention to how you spend time in your workshop, and in particular to how you spend time in conferences. Do you spend a lot of time researching? Or teaching? When you have an idea of how you spend your time, you are able to control time better in the classroom. Also, balancing conferring with small group work really helps to be able to reach more students during one workshop.

Q: What are ways that teachers can help students to get better at being part of a writing conference?

A: Oftentimes when we ask kids things like, what are you working on? They answer that their story is about their mom, or playing in the park. They haven’t necessarily answered the question we asked, and they may not know how to. It’s important to model for kids ways that they can talk about their own writing process. We might even give them a list of possibilities, asking questions such as: Are you working on stretching out important parts? Are you trying to plan how your story will go? Are you working on putting spaces between words? Are you wondering if your piece is done? Kids won’t say these things unless we give them the language. You don’t have to just accept their first answer when you are researching, you can explain what you mean.

I think follow is up is really important too to help kids understand how seriously we take our conferences. I follow up with kids to see if they are using what I’ve taught. If we want kids to learn to use our feedback in conferences, we have to make sure we take notes on our conferences and we follow up.

Q: You are a master at conferring and it is always inspiring watching you in the classroom. What are your top three tips for teachers who would like to get better at conferring?

A: One: Confer with a friend. Invite a teaching friend in practice conferring in front of each other. Pay attention to how you each spend your time and methods you use. If you are unable to do that, videotape yourself and study how you confer. Study your energy and the way students respond to your teaching.

Two: There is nothing like studying student writing and thinking about next steps for a writer. I often hear teachers say they don’t know what to next teach a student. Study work with other teachers and think together about goals for writers. Look at what the kids are really trying to do, and think about where you can move them next. Make list of possible teaching points and carry this with you as you confer. The more you add to this list, the more confident you will be.

Three: Practice listening to kids. Think about what they are trying to do in their writing, what they are approximating, and even what their interests are. Notice which questions really let you in to their world.

Before you go, check out this video of Amanda in action: http://vimeo.com/album/2192378/video/55954402.

We’d love to hear from you.

1. What questions do you have about conferring?

2. What are your bottom lines beliefs about conferring?

3. What are some conferring goals you have for yourself and your classroom?