A Few Ideas for Better Writing Conferences

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Thea, our oldest, missed her bus today which meant that I missed my morning prep as I drove her to school.  Missing my prep is usually not a big deal, but this morning I was feeling rather sleep deprived (thanks to the amazing book An Ember in the Ashes which I just had to finish last night) and overall rather discombobulated.  My very first instinct as I tried to get ready in the 4 minutes before the students showed up was to cancel the writing conferences I had planned with the kids, after all, I was not ready.  I had not pre-read all of their drafts, made copious amounts of comments in them, nor had I carefully selected who I would meet with.  Surely, I could not lead their conferences.  Surely, they could would get anything out of it if I did.

Yet, a tiny voice inside me kept whispering that I had promised them a writing conference and I had to keep that promise.  That perhaps this was my chance to not lead their conferences.  To not have all of the answers, but instead be ready to listen and support.  To let them tell me what they needed rather than vice versa.  So I did, and it felt like I held my breath all day, but it worked.  It worked!  And I could not be happier with the outcome.  So what did we do?

I had the students sign up to confer.  Rather than me telling them to meet with me, I left it open for those who wanted to meet.  This meant that those kids with burning desires to show their work got a chance to do so.  In the one class where I didn’t have a lot of students sign up, I walked around and did mini-conferences as they wrote, only interrupting when there was a good moment to ask my questions.  At the end of the day, I marked down whom I had conferred with so that I can keep track of who I still need to meet with and will plan accordingly in the days to come.

I asked them what our purpose was for the conference.  Using the question, “What would you like me to look for?” really helped students narrow the focus of our conference.  Often times, a student will tell me they just want my opinion, but through follow up questions, we were able to narrow it down.  Some kids had an immediate idea of what they needed from me, others needed a little more prodding.  Typical requests became wanting to see if they had too many details, if their flow was choppy,  or other specific needs that were important to them.  Because they had to describe what they needed, they had to reflect on their piece and purposefully weigh those needs.  Rather than just having me read it for an opinion, they ended up with specific feedback that could support them as they continued writing.

I didn’t write suggestions.  I purposefully did not add my thoughts to their document in front of them, nor will I for a while yet.  I think with the advent of Google Docs our comments/suggestions/edits have become just another checklist for fixing their writing, rather than supporting them in becoming better writers.  As my friend, Jess Lifshitz  pointed out, “We need to teach students how to be writers, not just follow our directions to fix their writing.” (paraphrase)  I couldn’t agree more.

We kept it short.  Because I was only given one purpose, students and I spoke briefly and then they were off to work again.  Because I was not editing their work, we quickly got to the point of their needs and they could continue working on their vision for their piece, rather than be tainted by my ideas.

I held my tongue.  I have a wide variety of writers in our classroom, many who identify themselves as non-writers.  I therefore knew that this very first writing conference would set the tone for the rest of the year and further fuel their relationship with writing for better or for worse.  I therefore stopped myself from pointing out all of the things they could work on, all the mistakes that should be fixed, all of the things that should get attention.  We will get to it later, right now they just need to write.

I didn’t give them my opinion.  And not one asked for it either.  Often our opinion is what students strive to hear, to get that seal of approval.  Yet, I have seen what an honest opinion can do to a child that is still drafting their story.  How even the most carefully wrapped sentence can totally stop a child from writing.  Instead, I kept it to the chosen focus.  I asked them their opinion, I asked them to speak about their piece.  And they did.  And I listened, and then they found their own path rather than attempting to walk on mine.

At the end of today, I was excited, not exhausted as I normally would have been.  It was not me who had done most of the talking, it was the students.  It was not me who had set the purpose, it was the students.  Not once had a child asked me if their story was long enough.  Not once had a child asked me whether their story was good enough.  Instead they had told me how excited they were to write, how they could not wait for me to see the final version, how they might try a new story if this one doesn’t go as planned.  Just as I had hoped.  Just like it should be.  Perhaps being discombobulated on a Monday was not such a bad thing after all.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

12 thoughts on “A Few Ideas for Better Writing Conferences

  1. I had the complete opposite experience with my first round of writing conferences (high school so maybe they’ve already been trained to wait for feedback?)

    I write nothing on their draft, instead gave them a self-reflection checklist with open ended questions regarding the main aspects of our rubric (also included)

    I had nearly every student ask where were my comments? And how would they know what to revise? Etc.

    If you don’t write any comments or at least inquiring questions on their papers or attached rubric, then how do you help them become better writers?

    • I do, but not the first time we meet. For me right now they are trying to write a first draft, I don’t want to stifle their creativity. They are so trained to ask for our feedback rather than look critically at it themselves first, that is what I am trying to teach them. So we also discuss it in our mini-lessons and have as overall goals that we need to become reflective about our own work. I have also not shown them a rubric yet, because they will be creating the final one with me. They know the goal is to write a complete first draft, but for now, I am holding back on all the details so that they can learn to love writing more.

      • Thanks for sharing! I am glad you are guiding them this way while they are still in the earlier stages of their more mature writing years.

        When I did writers workshop for personal narrative in middle school, we didn’t look at rubrics until well into our 8th or so mini-lesson, and at least three quick drafts in. I defintely think that works.

  2. I just wanted to share how I usually start my conferences. The first thing I ask them is, “What do you like best about your draft?” Then I ask, “What part might you want some help with?” I’m telling you 99% of the time they nail it. They know exactly what is and is not effective. I agree with you in that we need to let the students drive the conference and do the talking. Intuitively they seem to know their strengths and weaknesses without the teacher having to point it out to them.

  3. I’ve been gathering ideas like these to help me when I return to teaching next year. When I get back in the classroom after my one-year leave of absence, I want to have a fresh outlook and practical strategies to ensure that the students invest as much energy and reflection in their learning as I do. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Pingback: A Few Ideas for Better Writing Conferences | Hi...

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