TRT Podcast#28: How to keep the rest of the class writing while you confer
Do your students constantly interrupt you during writing conferences? Get five tips for helping your class be independent while you give one-on-one conferences.
- Discover the value of butterfly conferences.
- Learn to set boundaries (and stick to them!).
- Learn a fun, interactive way to teach kids to solve their own writing challenges.
Listen to the episode here
Full episode transcript
"Is it an emergency? I'm having a writing conference right now. No. You're interrupting. You need to go back to your desk. Well, you need to figure it out. No, I'm giving a conference!"
Does this sound familiar? You know how valuable writing conferences are, and you're trying to give them to your students, but you're constantly being interrupted. I've totally been there. That's why this episode is going to give you five tips to help you keep the rest of the class writing while you give writing conferences.
You're listening to episode 28: How to keep the class writing while you give writing conferences.
We talked about writing conferences way back in episode five, where I shared five secrets to strong writing conferences. Just for you, I'm going to recap those really quickly. I talked about how you need to listen first, then decide what you're going to teach in your conferences. We talked about teaching the writer, not the writing. So in other words, you're trying to help the writer improve, you're not trying to perfect a piece of writing. You need to be prepared with all your conferring supplies. You need to set up a system you can manage, and you need to just get started. In that episode, I went into a lot of detail about each of these secrets and how to become a powerhouse at giving writing conferences. But one thing I didn't talk about is what to do with the rest of your class.
If you're constantly being interrupted while the rest of the class is supposed to be doing independent writing, it doesn't matter if you have those five secrets down, you're not going to get very far. Your frustration level is going to climb and climb and climb until you want to give up on conferences altogether. We don't want this to happen because conferences have an incredible impact on the quality of your students' writing. How though do you keep the rest of the class writing while you confer? Well, let's get started with the five tips I'm going to share.
Number one: begin your year with butterfly conferences. Maybe you've heard that before. That's what a lot of kindergarten teachers call their conferences where they just kind of float around, stop at a desk, give a few tips, stand up, go to another desk. Like a butterfly you just fly somewhere for a little bit, hop down just for a couple seconds, and keep moving on. Whereas traditional writing conferences are five to seven minutes long. We want to move to those longer conferences, especially if you teach first, second, or third grade. However, I wouldn't start with them right away. You want to make sure that everybody else is comfortable and confident writing on their own while you are engaged for five to ten minutes and simply not reachable. So get started with butterfly conferences, and save the longer conferences for at least a month into the school year.
Number two: set boundaries and stick to them. I've heard many teachers tell their students, you may only interrupt me if it's one of the three B's: blood, barfing, or bathroom emergency. Of course for the bathroom emergency one, they wouldn't even have to talk to you. They could just give you a little signal and you could nod your head. When I was in grade school, I remember our teacher telling us that they didn't want us to interrupt them unless someone was bleeding, throwing up, or an elephant was walking into the classroom. If one of those things was not happening, we were not to interrupt them. Now that was because I was in a multigrade classroom. Actually, crazy enough, it was all eight grades in one room, so the teacher could not have us interrupting all the time when they were teaching other grades. And that worked, obviously, because I remember it lots of years later. So you need to figure out what is going to be the reason that your students can actually interrupt you. The hard part though, is sticking to it!
I wish I could say I'm always great at sticking to the things I promise. Not always. I'll give you a little bit of an example here. This isn't writing related, but I'll get to the connection soon, I promise. So the other day we were driving to school and all my kids were going to be recorded for a Christmas service. Now, we're in the age of COVID, so they can't have a regular Christmas service, but they were all going to go in the gym by class and someone was going to record them saying the recitation. They had to wear nice clothes, church clothes, even though it was only going to be for five minutes out of the whole school day. So I told my boys, "I want you to bring extra clothes to change into so you're not wearing your brand new khaki church pants outside at recess. I don't want stains on your new pants."
They all said, "Oh no, I'm not going to get stains on them! I'm just going to wear the church clothes all day long."
And I said to myself, "Yeah, right. They're going to get stains on their church pants." So I said to them, "No, I want you to bring extra clothes."
They said, "Mom, we're not going to get stains on them!"
So I said, "Okay, that's fine. You can wear your church pants all day if you want, but if you get a visible, noticeable, stain on them, you will have to use your own money to replace them."
My oldest who is thirteen and in eighth grade, was sitting in the back and she said, "Mom, whenever you promise these big consequences, you don't follow through on them."
And I said, "Well I'm going to this time!"
Unfortunately, she had a point. I do tend to make these big promises and then not follow through, but the good thing is I didn't have to worry about it. All the boys came back with khaki pants without stains that I could notice, and it all worked out.
The point of the story is that you have GOT to make sure that you're going to follow through. If someone tells you they need help spelling a word, you're not going to make an exception and write it on a sticky note for them. If the stapler is jammed, you're not going to take a break from a conference to unjam the stapler. You are going to stick to your rules, which are that they may not interrupt you except for emergencies. You are not going to interrupt your conference to handle these other problems.
Tip number three is to model what to do when you're stuck. This, I think, is very powerful and it would be a good mini lesson. You could have a mini lesson about how to be an independent writer. For example, you could sit in front of the room in a student desk, you could put on a ball cap, you could make yourself look like a kid, just to make it funny. You could pretend to be writing and get stuck - just like your students do. I recommend talking out loud about what you're doing. You could pretend to be writing and you could write, "I went to the museu-... I don't know how to spell museum. I know! I'm going to go ask Mrs. Geiger because she's right over there giving a conference!"
Then you would want to help your students react with you as you're doing this little modeling session. They can shout back, "No! No! Don't go!" That could be what they say over and over, "No! No! Don't go!" anytime you're tempted to go interrupt the teacher.
Then you could talk back to them and say, "Well, I don't know what to do, I can't spell this word. I'm stuck!" Then your students could offer suggestions - all the things that you've taught them to do when they can't spell a word.
Another example would be that you're having trouble with supplies at the writing center. So maybe you've written a story and you're going to add more paper to the booklet, but the stapler is broken. You say, "Oh, I'll just go ask Mrs. Geiger really quick. She won't mind."
And then the kids can say, "No! No! Don't go!" and you could talk about what to do instead. For example, you could just grab that extra paper. Then at the end of the conference, you can get help with the stapler, or at the end of Writing Workshop you can get help with the stapler. What you don't want to do is teach your students that every time they have a problem, they go to a particular student who is going to help them. That just creates a new level of dependence, and it's not fair to that student. So make sure that you're teaching them to solve problems on their own.
Tip number four is to do butterfly conferences between your longer ones. So if your longer conferences are five to seven, or ten minutes long, make sure that before you move to the next one, you've built in some time to float around the room and give a little assistance as needed.
Now, some of your students will want to try to suck you into having a full conference with them, even though they maybe had a full conference the day before. You don't want to do that, but you do want to be available just to help solve quick problems, or direct students to how to solve their own problems.
And finally, tip number five is to create class anchor charts that students can refer to when they're stuck. For example, a chart that says "When I don't know how to spell a word I can..." or "When I think I'm done, I can..." or "When I start a new piece, I will..." You're going to create those with your students, with the strategies you've taught them during a mini lesson, and then you'll post those and you're going to practice using those charts. For example, when you were modeling what to do when you're stuck and you pretended to be a student, you could look at those charts and figure out how to solve your own problem using the things that you've already been taught.
So let's take a quick recap at the five things you can do to keep the rest of your class writing while you give writing conferences. The first one was to start the year with butterfly conferences, and ease your way into the longer ones, maybe a month into the school year. Number two, set boundaries about when they can interrupt you and stick to them. Number three, model what to do when stuck while writing. You could pretend to be a student in the front of the room and make this an interactive experience where your students tell you what to do when you're not sure. Number four was to do butterfly conferences between your longer ones - build in that little time so you can float around the room and give short assistance before you move into a longer conference. Finally, create class anchor charts that students can refer to when they're stuck during their independent writing time.
I hope these tips help you give more focused conferences because the rest of your class is writing and busy. Next week, we're going to conclude this eight part writing series. We're going to talk about how to meet EVERY child's needs during Writing Workshop time. So stay tuned for that, I'll talk to you next week.
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Links & resources
- Episode 7: 5 secrets to strong writing conferences
- Teaching Every Writer, my full online course