Conferring With Writers of ALL Levels: A Dissection of 3 Essential Differences

Paige’s post today reminds us that our very best teaching with one group of students isn’t our best teaching with a different group — we must constantly bend our teaching to meet the needs of the students in front of us.  Many of us cringe at the leveling of students and especially at the titles given to these levels — “honors”, “advanced”, “regular”, “basic”. Still, these demarcations exist in almost every school. It’s a reality we all work within. 

Today, Paige brilliantly shares ways to differentiate writing conferences to meet students at their point of need. Because her school uses “honors” and “regular” to group students, she uses those titles as well. However, these strategies can work to meet the needs of a variety of writers in any classroom, at any level. 

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When it comes to seniors, I pretty much see it all in a day’s work.  The honors class I teach is comprised of students who have been in the honors program throughout their first years of high school AND students who were previously in “regular” English and passed the dual credit placement test.  I also teach a couple groups of “regular” seniors, and because these students tend to struggle more than those in the honors mix, the class sizes are small to allow for more individualized instruction.

I love the variety my schedule offers because it keeps me on my toes.  On a given day, I see so much variation in backgrounds, abilities, and knowledge that I’ve come to find that incorporating differentiation into my instruction isn’t just a nice bonus— it’s a dire necessity.  And in the two years I have been experimenting with writing workshop with these groups, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that when it comes to writing conferences, one size does not fit all.

Luckily, I get plenty of opportunities each day to experiment with differentiated instruction; through my daily pursuits, I have begun to gain insights and notice patterns about what works and what doesn’t for the different types of students on my roster.  Today, I’d like to share three essential differences I have noticed between strong writers who have been in the honors program throughout high school and students in a regular level class who do need more support with their writing.

Difference #1: Length of Conference

Honors Students: Avoiding the “Quick Check-In”

I’ve found that, at first, these were some of my shortest (and most refreshing) conferences.  After a taxing class period of helping students with tedious issues that required a lot of concentration and a lot more patience, it’s so nice to get an honors kid in the mix that just gets it.  However, I am challenging myself to fight the urge to say, “You’re doing a great job!  Keep up the great work!” and send them back to their seats.  One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for conference is an “interchange of views.”  So while feeling validated and praised can be beneficial, it’s not really a conference without an exchange of ideas.

When I find myself stuck on what to say, I usually ask a question to better understand the writer’s vision, which allows me to work with the student to brainstorm some ideas on how to best bring that vision to life.  For example, the other day, I noticed a student began her argumentative piece about fake news with a vivid personal story of how she believed something that was incorrectly portrayed by the media.  When I asked her why she did this, she told me that admitting she had fallen victim to the epidemic she was writing about helped establish herself as knowledgeable about the topic, therefore strengthening her argument.  I agreed, and we began a discussion about other ways she could refer to this same event throughout the rest of the piece.

Regular Students: Minute but Meaningful

Sometimes, I look at a piece of writing and instantly know I could spend half a class period on one paragraph.  These are the ones where I think to myself…Wow, there is no organization here.  This sentence doesn’t make sense, and this other sentence needs to be deleted entirely.  And wait…what is with the lack of apostrophes here?!  But I’ve found that saying too much can sometimes be just as damaging as saying nothing at all.  As experts of composition, we often take it for granted that there is a lot going on during writing; one has to pay attention to style, voice, organization, flow, mechanics, etc.  But emerging writers are like baby deer— if there is too much commotion, they’ll get scared and run away.

That’s why I try to keep my conferences with regular students minute but meaningful.  When I read something that needs some serious help, I mentally ask myself to identify one or two things this student can handle working on that will improve this piece today.  We all like instant gratification, especially when we’re approaching a mountain that is difficult (and sometimes downright painful) to climb.  I’ve found that when students are overwhelmed, they will be a lot less likely to give up if they feel like they’re getting somewhere.  Today, I conferred with a regular student who was almost in tears because the organization of her paper was a mess.  After showing her how transitional mini paragraphs between sections can help the writer make sure the focus remains clear, she was ready to tackle it again.  Yes, there were plenty of other issues, but ignoring them and getting to the heart of a problem she was comfortable tackling gave her the confidence boost she needed to keep working.

Difference #2: Set-Up of Conference

Honors Students: Isolation station

It’s a lot easier to have conversations about writing with stronger students.  They usually have a firm handle on writing in a clear and organized way, so they are at a place where they are ready to dig in and experiment with language.  Furthermore, they often have a lot to say about their writing; they can explain why they decided to use a semicolon to separate two thoughts rather than a comma and a coordinating conjunction, for example.  They tend to look at a conversation with the teacher as an opportunity to further advance what they already have, and they are usually eager to receive detailed feedback.

Because my most talented writers tend to take conferences seriously, I’ve found that an isolated conversation at a table best suits their needs.  A private spot sends the message that it’s not just an obligatory check-in; it’s a meeting of the minds.  Some of my deepest, most meaningful conversations about writing have taken place at a conference table.  This is where I’m able to spread out mentor texts and pull from them at any given moment during a conversation.  And when I need to really focus on a piece of writing to provide feedback, the privacy of the set-up reduces the amount of interruptions I receive.

Regular Students: Non-threatening Roaming

Not all students are ready for deep, private conversations about writing.  In fact, it can cause a lot of anxiety when students are not confident in what they are doing.  Several students have told me they get really nervous when it’s time to confer with me because they feel like they’re expected to answer questions or have something pre-prepared to discuss.  So I put myself in their shoes and thought about what it would have felt like for me if my high school Algebra II teacher had called me up to his desk to talk him through how I worked a problem— to say I would have been ill at ease would be an understatement.

When I first started writing workshop, I mistakenly thought all conferences were supposed to be isolated.  This was, afterall, how they all looked in the photos and videos I studied.  But the more I thought about it and talked with other teachers, the more I came to realize that roaming the room and having shorter conversations with students as they are working counts, too.  The benefits?  Nobody feels called out because I am walking around and talking to a lot more students than I would if I was stationary.  Also, students can discuss issues with me on an “as needed” basis rather than having to wait until it’s their turn at the conference table.  This way also sometimes allows me to catch major errors while they’re in their infancy; nobody likes breaking the news to a student when they are a page or two into a piece that they are completely missing the mark.

Difference #3: Conference Lingo

Honors Students: Opportunity for Advancement

One mistake I made as a beginning writing workshop teacher was making my mini-lessons not so mini.  I just found there was so much I wanted to talk about within each unit, and not covering everything was like leaving an itch unscratched.  However, with 48 minute class periods, I learned the lesson the hard way; students spent more time looking at the clock and waiting for me to finish so they could work than they did listening to the 5 awesome ideas I had.  What’s more, I was overwhelming some of my weaker writers with information overload.

Luckily, I’ve found the perfect way to scratch the itch is by discussing some of the techniques in individual conferences, especially with my stronger students.  I try to choose more “universal” mini-lessons for the whole class that can be applied to most (if not all) pieces.  The techniques discussed as a whole group are oftentimes more than sufficient for students who struggle with writing.  But for those who don’t?  Conferences are a perfect opportunity to continue challenging them and teaching them more advanced techniques in a way that is specific to the piece of writing they are currently tackling.  It’s also an opportunity to use more technical language that enhances their ability to talk about writing.

Regular Students: Channeling “The Talk”

I used to teach Spanish, and something I heard as a beginning teacher at a foreign language conference has always resonated with me: when students are still developing language skills, conversations about grammar should be like having the sex talk with a young adult for the first time.  The conversation should be quick, and information should only be shared on an “as needed” basis; extra details will just make it more awkward and confusing.  This proved to be so true when teaching students how to use a new language.  I noticed when they get caught up with rules and restrictions, they developed a filter that prevented them from using language naturally.

While I no longer teach a new language, I remember this little anecdote all the time as I am conferring with students who are not confident writers.  Many of them have learned to look at writing as a set of rules, and sometimes they are downright nervous to make a mistake.  I want to turn the conversation away from what they can’t do, and instead focus on what they can do with language.  So when they ask me a question, I adopt “the talk” approach and keep the technical language to a minimum.

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It’s worth mentioning that as I wrote about these differences and reflected on my practice, I couldn’t help but think about how there are always exceptions to every rule.  I could name a few honors students right now that do not like to confer with me at an isolated table, just as I could recall some regular students who are capable of having a conversation about writing using technical terms.  Therefore, I think it bears repeating that these differences were based on patterns I have noticed and are not intended to serve as binaries.  Our students are individuals, and what works for one may not work for another, no matter how they have been labeled.  So while I plan to continue being intentional about noticing patterns amongst my students to help differentiate my practice, I will do so with the conscious awareness that in writing workshop, one size never fits all.

Have you tried writing workshop with a variety of audiences?  What insights have your experiences with different types of students allowed you to gain?  I’d love to start a conversation on Twitter @pbrink12.

1 Comment

  1. This was a really helpful post. I often get caught up in my writing (or even reading) conferences having to look a certain way. This was a nice reminder that they may need to look different to serve our students’ various needs.

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