I used to dread conferring with student writers. I felt like it put me on the hot seat. I had 5 minutes to figure out where a writer was in the writing process, what the writer was struggling with, what the writer wanted to achieve, what the writer needed at that point in time, and how I could teach it…and then I actually had to teach it. All in five minutes—did I mention that part already? How is that even possible?
Then I heard Matt Glover talk about conferring, and he completely changed my approach to it. It was the simplest advice, really, the kind of thing that you hear and then think, Of course! Why did that never occur to me?
Are you sitting down?
Matt said, "You should do a little planning before you confer with students."
Seriously, why did that never occur to me? I love planning. But it's important to know what—and how—to plan. So here's more specifically what Matt helped me do differently:
I used to wait for students to get started on independent writing time, waiting for them to get materials out and settle down to work before approaching anyone for a conference. I'd scan the room for someone who looked ready, then try to remember how long it had been since I last conferred with that student. In short, I lost 5-7 minutes per day, which translates to 5-7 conferring opportunities per week.
Now, instead, I look at my conferring records during prep or the night before and write 5-6 names on a Post-it note that I stick to the clipboard I'll use to take notes. Even if it isn't my class, if I'm leading a teaching demonstration in someone else's class, I hand the teacher a blank Post-it and ask for 3-5 names s/he wants to see me confer with that day.
I occasionally need to make changes to my plan because of absences, which is why I plan for 6 conferences when I know I'll likely only finish 4-5.
In the past, after I decided who to confer with, I had to thumb through my stack of papers to find the one with that student's name on top, and often tried to read over my notes from previous sessions while hovering near the writer ready to pounce (at least I now realize it may have felt like hovering and pouncing to the student). Or I tried to read the notes while simultaneously talking and starting the conference. Or in some especially ugly moments that make me cringe in hindsight, I tried to read the notes while simultaneously listening to the student talk about his work-in-progress, considering what questions I should ask, and weighing the possibilities of what I might teach all at the same time. Or else I didn't even bother to refresh my memory about what I taught that student in conference previously.
Now, because I know who I'm going to confer with in advance, I have the luxury of reading the notes from previous sessions and noting something specific to check for during a new conference. Now I might lead with a follow up from the previous session; for example, "Johnny, last week you were going to add some dialogue to your memoir. How did that go?" I can also see things I noted in previous sessions but didn't address, so I'm more apt to address it if the opportunity arises a second time. I might even make connections across units or genres: Remember when we wrote realistic fiction, and you made the most important part of your story the longest…a memoir is a story, too, so what part of yours do you think is most important? Do you remember how to make that part longer?
Of course, this step requires me to have taken good notes during conferences. Here's a peek at some old notes of mine:
This step gets easier as I teach the same units of study multiple times at the same grade level. But even with experience it helps for me to pause at various points of a unit and reflect on what I expect to see in student work at that stage. Not "expect" as in "want" to see, but rather what I anticipate writers like the ones in my classroom, who have read what my students have read, and written what my students have written, to already know and do…what might they be ready for next…what might be challenging for them…? I brainstorm a list and then try to write teaching points and/or try-its that could address those issues. Here's an example from my planning notebook:
I don't know where I got the convoluted notion that conferring is all about improvisation. I suspect that idea appeared after watching lots of highly experienced writing workshop experts confer so smoothly and [seemingly] unrehearsed.
Conferring does require some quick thinking on your feet, but there's lots of preparation we can do in advance to make those valuable one-on-one conversations with students most effective, too.
Julie Patterson is writer-in-residence for the Partnership for Inquiry Learning, helping make the work that writers do visible to teachers and students in grades pre-K-8. She is also an adjunct professor of English at IUPUI and a teaching artist in grades K-12 with Arts for Learning Indiana.