Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Conducting a Writing Conference

For the longest time, I'd read books/articles by "my people" (for a full list of "my people," see here and here), and sorta glaze over when they'd talk about conducting a writing conference. I'd say to myself, "No worries, Jenna! I'm sure a writing conference is really not THAT important. I'm sure it's just something they say to TRY one day, like one might TRY going a whole day without chocolate... you know, one of those 'sounds-great-in-theory-but-something-no-one-in-their-right-mind-would-really-ever-try-in-practice' ideas. Don't fret that you're not doing them."

Time and time again, I'd read about this writing conference business and I'd justify why I couldn't do them: "there's no time," "the kids won't listen," "no time," "the other students won't be engaged when I'm meeting with a kid one-on-one," "there is NO TIME," and lastly, "THERE IS JUST NO TIME!" 

And then, I met a college professor in one of my Master's classes, who forever changed my thinking about conferring. One evening, when we walked into class, there was a prompt on the board that we were supposed to respond to in our writer's notebooks. After we had been writing for about five minutes, I noticed she was making her way around the room to talk to us. She'd approach one of us, they'd whisper and look at their paper for about 90 seconds, and then she'd move on to someone else.

When she got to me, I had about two paragraphs down. She said quietly, "Wow, Jenna! You've done quite a bit of writing! Would you mind sharing your first two sentences with me?" I shared. She continued, "What do you think about your opening? Anything you'd like to change?"

"Well, I sorta just jumped into my writing because I wanted to get started on the prompt," I said. "I didn't give it any real thought before I got to writing, so I don't think it's my best work. My second paragraph is way better because by then I'd found my 'flow.'"

She responded, "So, you think you should probably revise your opening. That's a great plan. I'll be eager to see it once you have it finished. Let me know when I can see it again." And with that, she patted my shoulder and moved on to the next student. Our conversation lasted just over a minute.

After 25 minutes or so, she asked the class to stop writing. She said, "I loved getting this time to confer with each of you. Everyone in this class is working so hard and I'm proud of what I'm seeing." She then went on to highlight a few of the things she'd noticed: Sue loves sentence variety, Liz makes careful and calculated word choices, Tim's voice shines through in his writing.

I looked at the clock. We'd been in class for exactly 30 minutes. Did she just conduct writing conferences with all 18 of us in 25 minutes?!? Is that possible?!

"Wait, is that really how you do writing conferences?" some brave soul asked.

"Yes," she said.

"But," this girl continued, "that was so... fast!"

"Well, effective doesn't have to be slow," she responded. "A writing conference isn't about fixing every single problem that a writer has. Rather, it is simply about getting a student to reflect on their work. That takes no more than a few minutes."

My world was rocked. All this time, I thought a one-on-one writing conference was about "fixing" the writer. I thought I'd have to have specific, individualized "plans" for each conference I'd conducted. No wonder I was terrified of how much time it would take! That would have taken FOREVER!!!

For the next several weeks, I conducted tons of writing conferences. And through lots of trial and error, I came up with a conference format that I still use today. It's a bit more than what my college professor did with us... I found kids needed just a little more structure and support, but it's still pretty simple:

I begin by asking students to tell me what their story is about. I jot down their answer. Then I ask them to read their piece to me (this is where the MAGIC happens! They will usually make a bunch of changes when they read aloud because they "hear" their errors). After they finish, I return to their answer to #1 and make sure what they think their story is about and what they wrote actually match. (Some kids think they are writing their intended story, but closer examination finds that what they hoped to convey and what is actually conveyed are too different.) 

Next, I give them one suggestion to improve their work. (I find that anymore than one gets too overwhelming. Suggest one thing and then support them until they've done it!) Make sure when you do this that you give students really specific suggestions. Phrasing like "add more details" isn't helpful. Instead try, "Check out the part where you describe the main character's bedroom. I'd like to be able to picture that room in my head. Can you tell your reader what you'd see/hear/smell if you were to visit this room? What details can you add about the room that will help your reader get a good mind-picture?"  

Lastly, I hand the paper to the student and ask them to answer the last part. I make them restate what it is that I want them to work on and write that down. By asking them to do this I am able to see if they really understood my suggestion, or if, while I was talking, they were just smiling and nodding while secretly wishing I'd go away!

Using this form takes about five minutes per kid (sometimes less). That means I can I usually meet with 6-8 kids per writing period (my period is 53 minutes). Not too bad!! Totally manageable! And, I have to say, really effective.

So, how do you conduct writing conferences? I'd love to hear about your experience! Drop me a line or comment on my Facebook page!

Happy Teaching!!