Conferring in a Sea of Black Boxes

In late January, I learned my second semester virtual AP English Language class would have 45 students. We are doing both hybrid and virtual and some students switched at the semester, so, naturally, things got a little wonky.  It’s since shrunk to the oh-so-manageable 42, and, to be fair, my hybrid classes are teeny, so I figured I could make it work.

But conferences. What in the world would I do with writing conferences? They are my main tool for growing writers, especially in second semester AP Lang as all the light bulbs start popping on at different times.

First I considered a practice that I see colleagues online describe: scheduling conferences during lunch, before school, after school, etc. I even mapped it out to figure out how many slots I’d need in each time block to make it work. As much as I admire those who do it, I’ll be honest, this girl can’t give up her lunch. For me, that’s just not sustainable. I need conference time to exist within my class time because I still need time after school to build lessons, complete administrative tasks, grade papers, and do all the other things that life requires beyond my classroom responsibilities.

My next step was brainstorming how to use written feedback more strategically. I even wrote about it last month! That definitely helped me rethink how to approach such a large virtual class, but I still wasn’t ready to give up on one-on-one conferring. So I dove in last week, determined to knock out 42 writing conferences in four 50 min class periods. 

Here’s what I learned:

Logistics are key.

Most of my best lessons pop up while I blow dry my hair and fleshed out on the fly, but anyone who has been teaching in this bonkers year knows that that just isn’t possible right now. It’s so easy to lose a bunch of those black boxes if your lesson isn’t airtight. Gone are the days of wandering around during workshop and gently nudging struggling writers to confer with me.

  1. Mandatory conferences

With 42 kids, I can’t wait around while someone works up the energy (nerve? I don’t think I’m scary but who knows?!) to ask me a question. At the beginning of the week, I explained that my focus would be 1-on-1 conferring and their focus would be practice in a few different ways. I made a spreadsheet where they had to check in each day with their plan (a la Nancie Atwell’s status of the class). The first two days I conferred with the kids who had marked that they were ready to confer. On day three I told them that I’d start calling them in for a conference randomly regardless of their choice. It felt a little draconian, but it worked. No wasted time waiting for kids to be “ready”.

  1. Doctor’s office breakout rooms

I have a feeling smart teachers everywhere have been doing this since August, but just in case it hadn’t occurred to others (like me), try this. I created three breakout rooms and popped one student in each one. I told them it was like waiting at the doctor’s office: the doctor will be in as soon as she’s available. Again, it felt a little strange to leave them hanging, but it made things so efficient for me. When I got there, they were ready and I didn’t spend time shouting into the sea of black boxes “Megan? Can you join breakout room 2? Megan? Are you still there?” 

  1. Specific practice tasks while I confer

This last piece was the hardest logistical one for me to figure out, but I started working on it last semester when my virtual classes were a little smaller. What should the other kids be doing while I confer? It can’t be busy work because that’s the worst, it can’t create a bunch of things that I’d need to grade, and it needs to feel like relevant practice for them. Though it feels strange to leave them to their own devices when I can’t even see them, I have finally accepted that giving them a number of options for practice is the best fit. Sometimes it’s a very un-fancy list, but last semester I also tried using choice boards (example 1, example 2). However it’s presented, I try to mix some fun, stress-reliever activities with some practice I can check formatively. 

Content has to be clear.

Keeping students engaged in a virtual space is tricky. I often have no idea what’s going on just outside their monitor (if their camera is even on!). I’m competing with cute pets, YouTube, easily available snacks…who knows. This week of conferences was only successful because I had clear targets for what I was trying to accomplish. 

  1. Shared expectations

Many of my students have only been with me for two weeks, and there has been little time to build up a writing community where conferring feels valuable to them. So, we cut to the chase with a Google Form. I asked what they wanted out of conferences and looked for trends. Most wanted to know “if I’m doing it right” or “how to write a good essay.” I kicked off the week by sharing those responses and explaining how we’d address those things. Students would need to come ready to answer two questions:

  • What do you think is going well?
  • What’s a place that’s giving you trouble?
  1. Prep for kids and for me

A major reason this week of conferring worked was the prep that went into it. In the week before, students played around with their drafts in digital notebooks. None of it was graded, but I looked at (and dropped quick comments on) everyone’s notebook at least twice. When I started doing it, I was pretty sure it was not sustainable and that I’d quickly abandon it. But since I wasn’t grading, it was fast–at most an hour to get through the whole class. I looked at outlines and made comments like “like this” or “I need to know more here.” The next week when we conferred, those comments were right there and gave me something to start with. An unexpected benefit was that engagement went up immediately. When they realized I was checking in—even just a little–those who had started to drift away from our work started paying more attention. 

  1. Make it worth their time

I felt like there was a lot of pressure on making this week feel worthwhile to the students. This was setting the tone for what (I hoped) would be a conferring model we’d use often. To that end, I went into each conference with a bit of a flowchart in my head:

This was specific to our essay, but the method could work for any writing piece. Figure out what needs to be addressed in order of importance and work with the student where they are in that particular moment. Does that mean some students won’t get to confer about making their language more sophisticated? Yes, but if they don’t have an arguable thesis, they need to start there. This gave me a clear way to send them off from the conference with an idea of what to do next. 

I had to let go of a few things.

I started this blog post because I was so excited and happy that something I love so much about teaching writing was working in virtual learning that I needed to share it. But I want to make sure I’m clear: it’s still not perfect or the same. I had to let go of a number of things that just couldn’t be replicated. The casual, authentic conversations about a piece of writing that happen so easily in a well-established writing workshop are a lot harder to come by on Zoom. This week didn’t feel like enough because I didn’t get the chance to circle back to students who I suspected might need more from me or nudge gently on someone who was having trouble getting started. And, I had to let go of the amount of content I would usually be addressing. In order to make time for these conferences, I couldn’t do a mini lesson every day. In the future I will try screencasting those so they can watch a video, but, again, that’s not the same. 

Still, I’m determined to focus on what did work. I did get to talk to all of my students individually about their writing. I did get to see all their faces and read their reactions as we spoke. I did get to give specific, direct instruction to each student and check for understanding. All of that feels like a win in this tough year. 

If you’ve been hesitating to jump into one-to-one conferences because you just can’t figure out how to get past the hurdles of whatever teaching situation has been thrown your way, I encourage you to give it a shot. It won’t be perfect, but there’s still a lot to be gained.


How are you conferring with your students in virtual spaces this year? I’m eager to hear what’s working for you!! Share with me in the comments below, reach out on the Moving Writers Facebook page, or find me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

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  1. Thank you for this post. It has been overwhelming to try to fit in the work on conferencing, which always brought me such joy in the classroom, into a 45 minute Meet in this virtual world.
    Your conference flow chart is awesome–do you have some favorite links that would go with each cell to provide instruction for each of those writing points?

    1. I don’t, but that is a really good idea. I need to think about adding links so I can point my kids straight to them. Now I change them up depending on the assignment/conference.

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