Stop What You’re Doing and Confer

Every day, the student walked into my class sighing, treating my classroom like it was maybe the second circle of hell, or, at the very least, purgatory. Every assignment induced moans, every request that the writer keep writing or try a little harder met with a roll of the eye. And now this student was the last senior on my conference list during the very last possible conference appointment. Talk about saving the best for last…

Except, to my shock and chagrin, that conference really WAS one of the best; the student’s paper was one of the strongest I’d listened to, and I saw the student smile more in that 20 minutes than I had seen for all nine months of class. After a year of writing “say more about this” and “I know you can rise to this challenge” on paper after paper, I could compliment the writer in person; we could celebrate an achievement together. I could prove to the student that I cared. And so as I sat down to reflect in my “plans for next year” notebook at the end of the day, one of the first things I wrote was this:

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“I should have done this at the beginning of the year” played on an infinite loop during all of my May writing conferences because in those 20-minute blocks that I’d organized as a way of both making up for time lost as students sat for IB exams and avoiding a pile of grading, I felt like I finally connected with students I’d been struggling to reach all year. 

And so today, as I’m in the midst of the conferences I told myself to schedule last spring, I’m writing to encourage you–especially those readers who feel like they don’t have time to do it–to stop everything and confer. 

But Stefanie, you might be asking yourself, don’t you contribute to a writing workshop blog? Haven’t you read colleagues’ brilliant posts about beginning-of-the-year conferences? Why was this such a revelation for you? And my answers would be yes, yes, and I’m stubborn and sometimes slow to try something new. In my writing workshop rhythm of the past, conferences were always connected to assignments. For my senior classes, the specter of spring exams and the two semesters’ worth of literature that students needed to study always hangs in the air, and so I’ve felt pressured to dive into our texts and just make conferring optional when longer writing assignments were due, but when students have had time to work in class, they don’t ask questions or approach me for a chat.

I realized during my spring conferences that those conversations sometimes need a “mandatory” nudge. And that my students needed more practice. In May, I listened as my seniors struggled to talk about their own writing. I could hear them repeating what they may have heard me or other teachers say about their work in the past. They could appreciate other writers’ choices, but the challenge now was for them to find language for their own style, skills, and writing goals for the future. 

Flash forward to this week. I’ve made a Google spreadsheet sign-up in 20-minute increments. I’ve resigned myself to giving up my prep periods and lunches for the next week or two. I’ve set seniors to work on a collaborative activity so that those without study halls can confer during classtime. And now I’m ready to ask four questions during every conference:

  1. What do you like (or not like) about writing?
  2. What do feel are your strengths as a writer?
  3. What skills would you like to improve?
  4. If you could write anything, what would you like to be writing right now? 

In between talking about these four questions, students read some of their work from last year to me, and we talk about what they notice or might like to change. I’m only two days into what will probably be two weeks of conferring, and already I’ve been inspired to create new units and lessons that will be tailored to my classes. I was trying to decide whether to study a familiar play or new short stories later this year; many students have told me that they would like to learn to write short stories, so they’ve made the decision for me! 

And if I wasn’t completely convinced that I had made the right choice to cobble together a conference schedule and require that each senior sign up, I saw this tweet from Clint Smith yesterday:

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I am a really private person, and I was an old soul with lots of family responsibilities who never quite felt like a teenager when I was one. I worry that I’m really awkward in conversations and activities outside of my classroom, so I am most comfortable connecting with students through my classes. I’m most myself when I’m talking about reading and writing, but I know that that’s not true for many students. I know that relationships are important to student success and to creating a positive classroom atmosphere. These early “conferring for conferring’s sake” conferences create space for me to have the more personal conversations that Clint Smith recommends. Inevitably, something about life or dreams or plans for the future comes up after students wonder how the work we do today might connect to pursuit of a degree in biology or tell me that they would really love to write movie reviews sometime–I’m confident that even five minutes with our four questions will reshape this year for the better.

Do you have a few tried and true first conference questions? Have suggestions for the logistics of organizing out-of-class conferences early in the year? Or finding time to confer in the midst of externally examined courses? Have any suggestions for my regular writing beat this year? I would love to hear them on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below! 

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for not using the word “conferencing.” That word makes me cringe and I have a hard time taking an article or a person seriously who uses it. I know, it’s petty and I should get over it. But thanks even more for the excellent post on the importance of early conversations.

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