Writing conferences used to scare me. Big time. In fact, for me, it was the most-dreaded element of reading and writing workshop. How would I even start? What would I say if the student had a question I couldn’t easily answer? Would the other students really be working while I moved around the room discussing individual drafts?
It has taken me nearly five years of practice. Along the way there have been plenty of awkward conferences and ineffective conferences and mental scrambling to try to find the right solution to a writer’s problems. There were times when I left a conference simply saying, “I don’t know, but I’m going to think about it and try to come up with a solution for the next time I see you.”
But I kept at it, and I finally feel truly confident in our daily writing conferences.
Still, I had never tackled a larger portfolio conference — a conversation about the body of a students’ writing so far this year. This is how our Patron Saint of Writing Workshop, Nancie Atwell, assesses student work and helps writers make goals as they move forward. She says that if we teach writing and reading in a workshop, we “have to figure out how to put students’ appraisals of their work at the heart of the evaluation process. Otherwise, assessment becomes a betrayal of the workshop” (Atwell 2014, p. 282)
Uh oh. I have a lot of room to grow. Feeling that nag of something you know you should do (but don’t want to), I dove in (which I find to be the only way to actually try anything in workshop).
I had a few goals as I set out:
- To help students observe trends in their writing
- To help students develop tangible, meaningful goals for their writing
- To share students’ progress with parents
- To help students learn to talk about their own writing
Here’s how I tackled it:
I gave the students the conference questions in advance
Typically, our writing conferences are in-the-moment and organic, addressing writing questions as they arise. I knew that if I wanted to have a bigger conversation with students, they would need some practice with this kind of thinking. About one week before I began portfolio conferences, I gave students the questions I would ask. They were encouraged to consider their answers in advance, but I didn’t require them to write anything down. I asked them:
- Which piece are you most proud of and why?
- Which pieces did you choose to revise again? What did you change? What led you to make those changes?
- In general, what is going well for you in your writing? What skills or elements of your writing process are you already good at?
- In general, what is harder for you? What skills are you still trying to hone?
- What are two writing goals you would like to adopt as we move forward — skills you would like to strengthen, parts of you writing process you would like to work on improving, types of writing you’d like to try, or topics you would like to tackle in your writing?
Just like any other day, after the mini-lesson, students wrote and I conferred.
We put regular writing conferences on hold for a week so that I could have portfolio conferences instead. Just like a normal conference, I moved around the room to the students’ desks. Often, while we conferenced about their body of work, we also snuck in a couple of moments to converse about their current piece of writing and any questions they had.
The length of each conference differed — some students had a lot to say, and some had less to say. Overall, this process took 90 minutes in my largest class, split up over the course of four class periods.
I recorded students’ goals on my current conferring chart.
I have had students make writing goals in the past. They weren’t often all-that-stellar, probably because they happened in isolation rather than in a conversation with me. They also lacked meaning because we never intentionally followed up on them. I have asked students at the end of the year to reflect on how they met their writing goals, but because we haven’t revisited the goals frequently, many students didn’t even know which goals they had previously identified! In summary, it was a waste.
In my portfolio conferences, students’ goals varied widely. Some students made it a goal to break away from the topics toward which they naturally gravitate and to try new things. Other students wanted to specifically focus on their grammar as they progress. Still others made it a goal to request a writing conference with me at least once per week, to intentionally walk through the STAR revision method as they finish pieces of writing, to audition a few ideas before they settle on one. I wrote these goals on my current conferring chart that I carry with me during workshop each day.
By recording students’ goals on my current conferring chart, I can quickly see students’ goals and chat about them periodically during writing conferences. This can now become a focus of our conversations about writing rather than a tangent we all quickly forget about.
After students practiced with me and identified goals moving forward, I wanted them to share with a parent. In my class, we don’t have quizzes with As brandished across the top that students can quickly show parents and pin to the refrigerator. I want parents to see their student’s work — their growth, their progress.
Workshop is also something that few parents have personally experienced or understand. Having their child show them their writing process, their products, and talk about their goals is an important PR moment for our classroom life. We all win when parents see their student’s skills explode and get a glimpse of what workshop can do.
I advised my students to simply walk their parents through the same conversation we had. I gave them a letter to give their parents briefly explaining the exercise, and parents provided some written feedback and a signature verifying that an at-home writing conference had happened.
This turned out to be a win-win-win. While building more transparency into our writing program, students also practiced talking about their own work, and I found out a lot about my students’ home life! Some parents wrote sparingly, others wrote epistles. Some parents lauded their child’s progress, while other focused on areas for growth (most commonly grammar). Here are some of my favorite responses from parents:
- “Your poem has passion, and you will find that writing is enjoyable and rewarding. This skill will pay off in many ways in the future.”
- “I absolutely loved your second writing assignment. I liked how you opened up to the reader and shared your feelings and love for your grandfather.”
- “There were some grammatical errors, but I was surprised and impressed with your work!”
- “I like that you’re writing about things that matter to you.”
- “This was very powerfully written. We have had a conversation about where [she] was at the time of the events she writes about versus where she is in her life right now.”
These little, 5-minute conferences (that I was dreading) paid off big-time:
- They didn’t take as long as I feared they would.
- I learned a lot about how my students view writing workshop and their own progress as writers — far more than I ever learned when I had them write reflections at the end of the year.
- We developed useful, meaningful goals on which I think I can actually follow up.
- Students talked to their parents about their writing work and got feedback. I learned more about my students’ parents and what they are looking for in their child’s writing experience.
In the future, I will give parents a bit more guidance on the kind of feedback I would like for them to offer their writer. I think some thought they should be instructional (“I instructed Jack on different sentences structures…”) rather than reflective.
I will absolutely do these again, continuing to practice this kind of conference, smoothing out my process, and deepening the product. I’ll practice and practice and practice until I feel as comfortable here as I do in my daily, minute-by-minute writing conferences. Practice is the only way my students become better writers; it’s the only way I become a better teacher.
What are the different kinds of writing conferences that happen in your class? Have you ever had students lead writing conferences at home? What happened? What parts of your conferring need the most practice? Let’s continue this conversation — leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.