TRT Podcast#7: 5 Secrets to Giving Strong Writing Conferences
A writing conference is a conversation with a learner about his or her writing work. Nothing will help you get to know your students better as writers and as people!
But how do you know what to say and do during a writing conference?
These five secrets will give your conferences a powerful boost!
Listen to the full episode
Full episode transcript
Hello, Anna here, and I'm so excited to welcome you to episode seven: Five secrets to giving strong writing conferences.
This episode is brought to you by my Writing Workshop Guide. Whether you're new to writing workshop or an experienced workshop teacher, you will love this giant printable handbook with mini-lesson ideas, lists of mentor texts, and countless resources for improving your writing workshop curriculum, including over 150 printable charts and resources.
Before we dive into those five secrets to giving strong writing conferences, let's talk about what a writing conference is. It's a conversation with a learner about his or her writing work, and I have got to tell you that in my years of teaching, nothing helped me get to know my students better as writers and as people than those one-on-one writing conferences. Both my students and I loved them.
Here's a quote from Shubitz and Dorfman in their book, Welcome to Writing Workshop. "Writing is hard work, and some students will need a conference to cheer them on to do the necessary work to grow as a writer." That's a great quote, but those authors would also tell you that everyone will benefit from writing conferences because they're more than a chance to encourage your students.
Writing conferences are unique because your learner has your undivided attention focused solely on them. It's your opportunity to individualize your instruction and give this particular learner exactly what he or she needs.
There are so many things you can do in a writing conference. You can help a learner get started. You can provide individual modeling for a particular child. You can give immediate feedback. You can identify a problem that you're going to work on together. You could teach informally, and we'll get into that later on. You can help them set goals for future writing work.
Writing is deep, personal, hard work, and students need that support from you. These conferences will build a stronger relationship between your students, while boosting their writing ability exponentially. So if that sounds good to you, let's go ahead and dive into those five secrets to giving strong writing conferences.
Number one, listen first. THEN decide and teach. Something we need to remember is that a conference is a conversation, not a mini-lecture. So unlike mini-lessons , where we're prepared in advance and we go into the lesson knowing exactly what we're going to teach and we have all our supplies ready to go, most one-on-one writing conferences are somewhat unplanned.
If you're a planner as I am (and most teachers are!), that might make you feel a little uncomfortable. It does take some getting used to, but we have to let go of our need to plan everything in advance and just be a listener.
Here's a great quote from Carl Anderson. He titles his classic book about writing conferences, "How's it going?" because that's what he says when he pulls up a chair next to a student writer. Here's a quote. "By truly listening to them as we confer, we let them know that the work they're doing as writers matters. It's the way we listen more than anything else that will nudge our students to talk about what they're trying to do, to use the words they haven't used before, and to look at us with a smile instead of a frown when we kneel down next to them and ask, "How's it going?"
When you first pull up a chair and sit down next to a student writer during that independent writing portion of the workshop and you say, "How's it going?" you'll probably be disappointed by the answer. Most likely you will hear something like, "Good" or they won't say anything at all.
That is completely normal and to be expected. But with time and practice, you'll teach them that you're looking for specific information. You want to know what they're doing as a writer.
So maybe a kindergartener will tell me, "I'm drawing a picture of a dinosaur, " or maybe a second grader will tell me, "I'm adding a simile to my poem. " Or a third grader will tell me, "I'm using the editor's checklist to edit my report." You get the idea.
We call this phase of the conference the research phase. You're listening and finding out where they're at so you can make a decision as to what direction to take the conference.
If you're sitting down next to somebody and they're just sitting there completely lost, they're daydreaming, and there's nothing on their paper, this conference may be about how to find your own writing topic. It won't be you giving a writing topic, but it will be you equipping them to find their own topic today, supporting them as they do that, and then making sure they can do that on their own the following day.
Be sure that you say something positive about the student writing before you move into the teaching point. That's really important because remember, writing is so personal. If I did a multiplication problem on a piece of paper and I did something wrong, and got it wrong, and someone said, "Oh, you made a mistake here," it probably wouldn't hurt my feelings.
But if I wrote something from my heart and someone said, "That's boring, or that's dumb, or what were you thinking?" that would hurt my feelings. Our students are the same way. They are sensitive about their writing. Everybody is. So be sure to say something positive before you get into things that they can do to fix their writing or to make improvements.
Now let's move on to secret number two. Teach the writer, not the writing. If you've ever done any research or professional study about the writing workshop, I'm sure you've heard this because it's repeated over and over. It's from Lucy Calkins in her groundbreaking book, The Art of Teaching Writing, that was published over 25 years ago.
But this advice is still very good. Here's what she said. "Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing."
So what does that mean? It means that when you're looking at a child's writing and you see all the messiness and all the mistakes, you take a deep breath and you remember your job is not to make this piece of writing perfect. It's not because that's not going to serve them. Your job is to teach the writer one thing he or she can use to improve this writing and the writing they do in the future.
Make sure that what you are teaching is transferable. As you do this teaching in your one-on-one conferences, you can approach it in a variety of ways. You can just say it. For example, "When writers write, they leave spaces between words. Let me show you how to do that. Let's practice doing that for your next sentence." Or ... "One thing you can do when you want to add something to your writing is use this little mark right here. It's called a caret. Let me show you how to add words to your writing."
You can use a mentor text. So You could say, "Let's work on crafting a strong beginning for your writing. I have a couple of books here. Listen to how these authors started their books and think about if you could start your story in one of these ways."
As you're deciding what to teach, here are some questions to ask yourself. What would help this writer the most, right now? Or this student is struggling, so what easy thing can I teach that will give them a quick success and a boost in confidence?
Sometimes you have a writer who is so strong, you're not sure what to say. So try to think about the next step for this writer. What's something else they can try that will make them even better at what they do?
After you've taught that skill or strategy, it's important then that your student knows that you expect him to do the work you taught right away. So what you could say is, "Tell me back what I just told you or what are you going to do next? Tell me about your next plans for your writing."
You might want to write it on a sticky note and put it right there in their writer's notebook to remind them and make sure you take notes for yourself so that the next conference you have, you can follow up to make sure they did what was expected of them.
Secret number three to strong writing conferences is to be prepared. A really good idea is to have maybe a tote bag that you call your conference bag, and inside of it you include all the things you might need for a writing conference.
Writing conferences have to be short so that you can meet with as many students as possible; you don't want to be running back to your desk to grab something. Here are the types of things you might put in your conference bag. Paper and pencil to demonstrate writing for your student or to model it. Scissors and tape to show them how to cut and paste while revising. Sticky notes. A record keeping system in a binder or a notebook so you can keep track of what's been discussed at the conference. You might have a personal writer's notebook that you like to share, maybe one from a previous year that you could put in your bag. Your favorite mentor texts, that's a really good idea. There are a lot of mentor texts that can be used to teach many skills. So having some of those in your bag is a good idea. An editor's checklist for students who are ready for that. Mini anchor charts, a portable word wall, highlighters.
As time goes on, you will see what things you need to keep in your bag, but those are just some ideas to get you started.
It's also helpful ,whether you're new to conferences or even experienced at them, that you have something of a cheat sheet, because very often you can be tongue tied in your conferences. You might be sitting there and you've listened to them tell you about what they're doing ,and you have no idea what to teach next. Don't feel bad about that. That is completely normal and to be expected and the more you teach writing workshop, the more you do these conferences, the better you will get at thinking of things on the fly.
But it's really helpful to have a cheat sheet ready for you. So I have a special gift for you, the listeners of this podcast. Head to the show notes, the measuredmom.com/episode7 and you will be able to download a guide that gives ideas for what to teach, and when, to K to 3 writers during writing conferences.
This comes directly from my ebook that I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, my Writing Workshop Guide for K to eight. In that book I put everything I know about teaching kids to write well, and it's wildly practical for K to eight.
Just the other day a buyer of the guide shared this review: "So helpful. Another teacher at my campus actually told me about your website. Her students are great writers and I was curious how that happened. She said you need to look up the Measured Mom, and well, the rest is history. "
That made me really happy to receive because it shows that the writing workshop works; this guide will really help you get started.
Just a side note. If you are a member of my course, Teaching Every Writer for K to 2, you do not need that ebook because the course Teaching Every Writer is jam packed with everything you need to teach writing in K to 2. And if you'd like to learn more about that, go ahead and visit teachingeverywriter.com.
Let's move on to secret number four. Set up a system that you can manage. You need to decide what your goal is for the number of conferences that you hold each day.
Now it's possible that you're also doing small group conferences. I didn't talk about those in this episode because that's a whole other topic. You could certainly learn about that in Teaching Every Writer, or to a small extent in the ebook. But let's imagine that you're mainly focusing on one-to-one conferences and I'll be honest, that's what I did as a classroom teacher. I did not do small group conferences, although they're certainly a good way to go. If you're doing just one-on-one, which you should certainly include, even if you're doing small group conferences, take a look at how long your independent writing period is and decide how many conferences you could probably fit in every day.
So let's say your independent writing time is 30 minutes. If each of your conferences is about seven minutes long, you could do four conferences per day. The goal is probably to make them a little bit shorter than seven minutes. The fact is some will be really quick and some will probably be longer than seven minutes. It does take a lot of practice to keep them manageable. As you're thinking about how many you might fit in per day, have a timer next to you and set it to help you keep your conferences on track. So if your goal is to have six-minute conferences, maybe it can be at five minutes to remind you it's time to wrap things up. And don't be too hard on yourself, because at the beginning your conferences will be much too long. Something you can do is squeeze them in other times of the day, like if someone comes in early or maybe it's math time and a couple of kids have finished their math work and you might want to pull them up and have them do a writing conference. Those are things you can do. It doesn't just have to be during independent writing time, so get a little creative because your goal is to meet with everybody, every one to one and a half weeks if you can.
You're going to have to decide who will initiate the conferences. As a teacher, I sometimes had students sign up for conferences. The challenge for that was that a lot of times they didn't think there was anything they could do until they had met with me. So they would just be sitting there saying, well, I'm waiting for a conference. Well, that could take until the next day or two days later.
So make sure that they understand what they're supposed to do while they're waiting for you. They can't just sit there. Some teachers like to have a visual in the front of the room. Maybe a foam board and on the left side it says waiting for a conference and on the right side it says had a conference and then you have names on clothes pins and you transfer those. Maybe you could move all the clothes pins back to the left at the beginning of each week. That's a quick reference for you. So if you're not sure who to meet with, you can quickly see who you've not yet met with that week.
You'll also want to make sure that you have a strong management plan so your students do not interrupt you during conferences. That goes back to the mini-lessons we talked about in the last episode, in episode six. So you'll have those procedural mini-lessons to teach your students exactly what to do when they need help; it has to be a very strict enforced rule that students do not interrupt writing conferences.
My final secret for giving strong writing conferences is just to get started ,because you won't get good at something until you start doing it. And I want to tell you that once you give it some time and start getting into these and make these a regular part of your routine, they may become one of your favorite parts of the school day - and your students' as well!
Sometimes you will draw a blank during writing conferences ,and other times you'll know exactly what to say. Sometimes conferring may feel like a burden, and other times it gives you a tremendous boost. Try to remind yourself that everyone has good and bad conferring days. It's a joy and a privilege to enter your students' lives through their writing.
Remember that in the show notes,I have a cheat sheet for you to help you know what to say during writing conferences in K to three, and I also share links to writing conferences on YouTube so you can see exactly how writing conferences look. I know that seeing and hearing them can be extremely helpful as you're trying to figure out how to implement these in your classroom, so head to the measuredmom.com/episode7 to get all those resources.
Thanks so much for listening ,and I look forward to talking to you again soon!
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This ebook is a practical resource for both teachers and homeschoolers!
Whether you’re new to the Writing Workshop or an experienced workshop teacher, you’ll love this giant handbook for teaching writing in grades K-8. In addition to this helpful guide, you’ll also receive over 150 pages of printable resources!
- Teaching Every Writer, my online course for teaching writing in K-2. Learn more here.
- Blog posts
- Videos of writing conferences
Resources for members of The Measured Mom Plus
- Quick video training: How to get started with writing workshop in K-2
- Quick video training: How to get started with writing workshop in 3rd grade
- Printables for teaching writing
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