Mini Conferences, Major Payoffs: Why You Should Confer About Low Stakes Writing

We are back with another buddy post! The more we talk about what building authentic relationships with our writers looks like in our classrooms, the more we realize we have similar strategies that work with our different populations.  This month we’re tackling low stakes writing and how we use it to create a culture of conversation in our rooms.



When I first began conferring in earnest in my classes, I believed that the best way for students to value the conference was to make it “pay off” in their grades. 

Look, guys! If you take this seriously, if you invest the time in getting feedback, your paper will be better! Your grade will be higher! Yay!

It mostly worked. I teach a lot of AP classes and most of my students are pretty grade motivated, so they’d dutifully sit through conferences, take notes on my feedback, and improve. After years of doing this, though, I realized that my writing conferences were a bit off. First, they were exhausting. I was trying to scan an entire draft, look for problems, and suggest fixes. I was basically pre-grading the paper on site. It would take a week to get through a full cycle of these conferences, and I’d be burned out and exhausted by the end. 

The conferences were more me than the student and even though my students’ writing was improving, my writers weren’t improving. It wasn’t increasing their engagement in their writing or helping them see that the writing was about their choices and their decisions as writers. 

After a few years of this, something needed to change and I started shifting to a lot more low stakes writing. My main motivation was better grading balance for ME (and it worked!) but it also changed conferring in my classrooms. With no high stakes grade attached, what in the world would we talk about? 




I tried the ol’ “motivational grade pay off” move too, but in a non-AP English course filled with juniors of mixed writing and self-management abilities it was never going to be the means to better writing.  One advantage that having some less motivated writers provided me quickly was a revised perspective: Hattie’s struggles with pre-grading an entire paper on the spot still happened on the last couple days of a writing project, but most of my troubles were at the other end of the spectrum.  I had to figure out how to have an impactful writing conversation about low stakes, fairly minimal (like three or four sentences in some cases) bits of writing. It wasn’t uncommon for early “drafts” of papers to look more like five minute quick writes.  

My ultimate epiphany was quite similar to Hattie’s and resulted in some of the same conferencing adjustments.  Notebooking provided more feedback opportunities when I stopped judging writing based on length. Early drafting made for better conversations when I engaged with kids in whatever they were willing to bring to the table (up to and including a blank paper and a mild sense of panic).  

In other words, it turns out that the answer to Hattie’s “What would we talk about?” question is: 

A lot. 

When we confer about things that don’t “count” we are 

  • Establishing the value of conferring for the sake of growth not a grade
  • Building trust and confidence with all the writers in the room
  • Encouraging risk taking, strategy testing, and playfulness with writing
  • Investing in the interests of our writers instead of forcing them to be invested in the material we have chosen for the class 
  • Valuing the efforts that every writer brings to the task, regardless of skill or motivation

So what can that look like in a classroom?

Over-the-shoulder conferring

Floating around the room and creeping over shoulders during notebook or blogging time (both ungraded activities in our rooms) inevitably leads to opportunities to notice or comment on student writing. Usually, that over-the-shoulder conferring opens the door to nudge kids to write more or explain something. We typically run into three types of these:

  • Encouraging experimentation  After looking at a mentor text, it’s quick and easy to pull out something specific (a line of analysis, a particular syntactic trick) and ask kids to try to mimic the writer’s technique. As you rotate around the room and give feedback, you can ask things like “why did you do this here? Why do you think this works better than x?” Your writers are just playing around at this point, so the stress is low and the need to be “right” isn’t there. 


  • Pushing for revision  When writers are knee deep in the drafting process and we discuss a particular element of the piece during a mini lesson, this is a natural place to prod students to revise a little.  For example, after discussing blog introductions and how to make them less formulaic, it was a natural next step to walk around and begin some conversations about revisions the students might make and why. 


  • Affirming choices  Often writers simply lack confidence to begin. This is a great place for mini-conferences both during notebook wanders and early drafts– writers often need reassurance that what they’ve tried to do or thought to do (because we encourage them to play with voice and take risks) is okay and valid.  


Peer to peer conferring

One of the most useful ways we’ve found to create cultures of conversation around writing in our classrooms is through peer to peer conferring. In the earlier years of our careers, we both did the more traditional “peer editing day” activities and were usually pretty disappointed with the outcomes. We found peer to peer got better when we stopped making it about putting final draft responsibilities onto the kids.  Trying to motivate them to “take it seriously” by placing another kid’s quality control on their shoulders just wasn’t the right motivating tool for kids who lack confidence in their own writing to begin with. Instead, when we peer to peer confer, it’s about sharing out playful ideas in notebooks or celebrating and exploring very very specific elements of a writing piece in the midst of draft work.  

  • Encouraging Play In our current  narrative non-fiction unit, for example, we give the kids four particular writing tools to play with and make note of in the mentor texts that we read.  So, after they’ve spent weeks exploring professional writers’ anecdotes and moments of levity, we can do some turn-and-talks in the drafting process where it feels safe for even the least confident writer to share out an anecdote of their own and receive constructive feedback on it.  


  • Testing Arguments Another example comes from argumentative writing in AP Lang. As students draft arguments for their blogs, the connections between their claims and evidence–their line of reasoning-needs testing. It is relatively painless to share one claim and one piece of evidence with a shoulder partner and to ask the very specific question: “Does this work for my argument?” The smallness of the task makes it less intimidating and students are much more willing to give and receive accurate feedback. 

Ultimately, low stakes writing is one of the easiest places to begin building conferring into the culture of your classroom. It moves away from the idea of formal writing conference days to the belief that talk is always swirling around writing, sparking ideas, and pushing your writers to take risks and grow. 

–Mike and Hattie

What are you doing to confer with your students about low stakes writing? How are you creating a culture of talk in your classrooms? Connect with us on Twitter @ZigThinks and @TeacherHattie, on the Moving Writers Facebook page or in the comments below.

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