Sunday, January 26, 2014

Writing Conferences


Throughout the past year, individual conferencing has served as a pedagogical cornerstone in my classroom. This practice, often lauded as a modern educational trend, harkens back to the logistics of some of the earliest American school systems. "Where the one-room school might have a fluid sense of time and no clear demarcation of 'grades,' the graded school was as tightly structured as a train schedule" (Newkirk 15). Although our classrooms are currently organized based upon age, recent educational values have returned in many ways to those of the one-room school house. The push towards differentiation has recognized the discrepancy between a child's biological age and his or her level of skill. We now recognize that, like those early classrooms, ours are filled with learners possessing a myriad of abilities, challenges and preferences. 

The writing classroom demands an appreciation of this lens more than any other subject. In order to address individual writing needs and allow for student-directed learning, individualization is essential. While teaching a group of peasants to read and write, famed novelist, Leo Tolstoy, stated, "All methods are one-sided, and that the best method would be the one which would answer best to all the possible difficulties incurred by a pupil" (Newkirk 25). Thus, as educators, we need to search for an approach that appreciates individual need, acknowledging that approaches work better for some than for others. In our recognition of this fact, we are acknowledging that it is inherently wrong to apply one form of methodology to all learners. The writing conference model serves as a powerful model through which individualization can be accomplished. 

My Personal Quest for Workshop Improvement

Fortunately, my teacher education program provided me with the philosophical underpinnings supporting the workshop model. During that time, I realized the power of providing students exactly what they need, not what you think they need. I also appreciated that workshopping avoided "teaching to the middle"--a painful method that leaves a handful of students bored, a handful of students baffled, and only a handful of students potentially gaining something. 

Throughout my years at my former district, time for workshopping was limited. Additionally, student driven inquiry was not a valued component of the curriculum. I squeezed individualized conferences in between the district mandates and required five paragraph essays. Because of the restrictions limiting student writing options, all conferencing occurred during the process or after. 

Once I learned that our district valued developing student voice through passion driven learning, I knew that I needed to learn more sophisticated techniques for my conferences. Throughout the summer, I spent time collecting data from colleagues in the district and throughout the country. Our instructional leader, Matt Daly, provided me with his comprehensive guide for conferencing. I also read research from the National Writing Project and Choice Literacy concerning the same information. 

Research Trends for Writing Conferences

Throughout my research, I noticed common threads emerging. The types of discussions the authors were outlining seemed to break the type of conference down into several subcategories that I had not been aware of before. 

1. Developmental Conferences

These types of conferences honor the idea that students have something beautiful and profound to say to the world. They allow teachers to help students find their own voices, articulating an idea of importance. Matt Daly advised, "The most important question to ask the students during conferences at this point is whether their topic or genre interests them" (1). Here he highlights that engagement is key, acknowledging that interest and passion should be allowed and encouraged to drive writing. 

I have found that many students have an inkling as to what they would like to write. Instead, more of my students wrestle with completing ideas or fleshing out concepts. These students are prompted to look deeper at their plot, character, ideas, etc. through open-ended questions. Daly continues, "This is the best time to give students a chance to explore their desires, wants, and interests" (1). This step is perhaps my favorite step. During this time, I get to watch students' imaginations take flight; I am always dumbfounded to listen to the plethora of original, abstract and profound ideas that my students create. It is this type of conferences that most allows for diversity, empowerment and engagement, highlighting the fact that student voice is encouraged, rewarded and essential. 

2. Organizational Conferences

Since "planning is the act of creating a paper's skeleton" (Daly 1), this stage is used to help students finish brainstorming, outline ideas and address format. This year, I have found that organizing and outlining is the hardest step in the process for most of my students. During this time, conferences are often filled with examples of how other authors--including myself--use outlines and brainstorms. 

These conversations help avoid the "trickling off" of ideas, common in many pieces without a developed plan. Most students begin writing because they have been inspired and are filled with energy; however, without thinking about what will happen in the long run, students often lose their energy and focus, drifting into an oblivion or blank page. This stage also allows me to debunk many myths. Struggling writers often believe that good writers sit down and write masterpieces. Although many strong writers can quickly create a mental outline, they do not create publishable works without forethought. 

A byproduct of organizational conferencing is a fluid conversation about genre. After reading initial ideas, I can often recommend other pieces of writing or genre-specific terminology that will be helpful to the student. For example, recently, one of my students came to me and told me that he had begun writing a piece which played with ideas he had been ruminating upon after reading The Hobbit. Our conference at this time allowed me to direct Will to a list of archetypal characters. We were also able to discuss how he was using characteristics that he enjoyed from The Hobbit. 

3. Technical Conferences

I consider these conferences to be my specialty, seeing as I enjoy grammar and finishing touches on a deep--awkward English major--level. During this time, teachers are free to discuss any missing components of student pieces. Additionally, they are encouraged to discuss rules of grammar and sentence structure that students may not yet understand. The majority of my conferences still hover here; they provide opportunities for me to use my expertise in grammar and analyzing literature in order to help develop student writing. 

This level of conferencing also opens itself naturally to a blended classroom. Throughout the year, I have tried to create a few essential online mini-lessons. This way, as I direct students to review the rules of sentence combination or completion, I can suggest they reference an online mini lesson about the topic. Moving forward, this is the level of conferencing on which I would like to build a blended learning environment. My vision is to record or publish all grammatical mini lessons in a format that can be posted online. I will then create a database where I can send students to access this information. 

4. Peer Conferences

Although none of the pieces I read discussed this type of conferencing, if I believe that the ultimate goal of education is to foster independent, life-long learners, it seems essential to help teach students how to discuss writing and brainstorm ideas on their own. Each piece of writing received a formal critique where students review and provide feedback to other students. 

My Areas of Continual Growth

1. Keep Conferences Short

As evidenced by this post, I am never short for words. When I meet with students, I almost always become so enthralled with their brilliant ideas, powerful prose or lessons to be learned, that I lose track of time. Although this allows me valuable time working one-on-one with a student, it is not the most efficient use of conferencing. As I move forward, I am going to continually strive to meet for shorter bursts of time, which will allow me to increase the frequency with which I meet various students during a day and individual students during the writing of a piece. It would be more productive for me to meet briefly with a large variety of students, sending each off with only a few focused tasks, than to meet with a mere handful of students belaboring the editing process. This shift will also help me avoid inundating students with corrections opposed to highlighting a few urgent trends. Students will be more focused in their revisions and will not have to worry about becoming overwhelmed with the number of edits needed to improve the piece. 

2. Teach the Writer NOT the Writing

Finally, I will continually try to remind myself to "teach the writer not the writing" (1) as Fletcher explains. In my continual effort to foster independent writers, I must remember that my students will not always have me--or any teacher for that matter. Therefore, they must be able to figure out what to do when confronted with a problem on their own. As I develop my technique, I would like to incorporate more problem solving techniques. For example, instead of telling students to revise their papers because they have several run-ons, I should discuss techniques authors use to double check their own sentences, thus avoiding run-ons or fragments. 

Other Ideas??

What else are you doing in your classrooms to promote strong conferences? What are other techniques you are using? Let us know!!


Works Cited:

Daly, M. Supplemental paper: conference guidelines 
Fletcher, R. (2001). The writing conference: breaking the silence. Retrieved from   
Newkirk, T. (2009). The teacher as schmidt. In Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones : Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For (13-43). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

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