Conferring with writers has always been the hardest part of workshop teaching for me. When it goes well, a writing conference is where the energy is, where the lightbulb turns on, where the writing and the writer move forward.
But it takes a lot of work to train writers to have a meaningful, energizing writing conference.
My students — whether they are in seventh grade or in twelfth — instinctively default at the beginning of the year to one of two conferring positions. My most-confident writers never ask for a writing conference, explaining later in their author’s notes that, “I didn’t think I needed a conference because I didn’t need help.” My less-confident writers ask for a conference every class period (at least once!), but their conferences are less a conversation and more a panicked gasp of, “Help!”
Neither is ideal. The writer who never confers is working in isolation with limited resources — whatever they already know how to do on their own. The writer who always confers but needs constant handholding isn’t articulating their needs. Both writers need more.
You see, the goal of writing workshop has never really been for students to produce sterling pieces of writing. Rather, the goal is for students to experience a writing process that, over time, builds their writing skills, their confidence, and, ultimately, their independence as writers who can move through an independent writing process on their own out in the world. This is why we allow student writers to make so many choices.
And part of independence is knowing what you need and when you need it.
Recently, I circled back to the lesson I taught in September about what a writing conference is and why a writer might have one. My students were missing that conferences aren’t just for help. In fact, I hope they are usually for more than just help. They are also for having a conversation about work, for talking it out, for getting another set of eyes on a piece of writing, for feedback.
First, I told students that moving forward, in order to ask for a conference, they needed to be prepared to lead it by asking for help or asking for feedback. No more, “Can you look at this” or “Uhh….I just ….could you…?” leads.
There are really two different kinds of writing conferences, and both are very important for writers. Help conferences…. ask for help. They usually sound like a statement. They are broad and general and typically occur when a writer has hit a roadblock they cannot get around without assistance.
Feedback conferences, on the other hand, ask for advice about a particular part of the writing. They usually sound like an open-ended question. They are aimed at making part of the paper better, but don’t necessarily happen at a point of writing crisis.
I gave them a small glue-in of the chart above for their notebooks.
That was about it. But the impact on my writing conferences was enormous.
- Confident writers now understand that there are ways for them to talk about their writing, too. And that the conversation might truly make their writing better.
- Struggling writers have more specific ways to articulate their needs when they are stuck at a dead end.
- Writers have a schema to help them figure out what they need most at any given moment in the writing process.
- Everyone has language that can help them start a discussion with a teacher or peer.
Giving students ways to discern what their writing needs, articulate it, and get the help they need builds their independence. In fact, it builds their confidence just as much as giving them the latitude to choose their own topics and find a unique writing process that works for them. Real writers know what their writing needs. They know when they have a weak paragraph that needs another set of eyes. They know when the structure is just off … even if they don’t yet know how to fix it. They know when something is just missing. Helping students distinguish between help conferences and feedback conferences moves writers toward this independence.
How do you help students become more independent in and through writing conferences? What tips, hints, or conference starters do you offer to students? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or send me a Tweet @RebekahOdell1!