Turning the Page on Writing Conferences…with Reading Conferences

My students are starting their narrative nonfiction writing process this week, so I’ve spent the past few days enjoying brief conferring conversations with each student about their writing proposals.  It’s my favorite writing piece of the year–it takes all the work we did developing voice in the first semester and lets them apply it to a very real and widespread genre of writing.  It also gives them massive control of their topic and research choices, which, you, my dear English Teaching Pals, know means lots of opportunity for chaos.  

Which is exactly why we’re conferring.  

Their proposals are designed to give them a foundation for the conference–they’ve already fiddled with their topics in their notebooks, they’ve narrowed it down to a topic they find accessible, and so our convos are mostly about how they plan to pursue the work.  

The proposal form is simple but preps them for a multi-faceted discussion of their writing plans (note how #4 invites them into their independent reading as a potential model)

Chatting with students about their thinking is the best, but it works for me in this unit mainly because I have already established a conferring connection with each of them.  Last month I talked about conferring with students about their scheduling choices, and just yesterday Hattie had a great piece about conferring with writers to build confidence, but the foundation of conferring in my classroom begins with conferences about their independent reading.  Right now their chosen reading comes from the same genre we’re studying in class, so the natural connection provides an entry point to help some of them consider their proposals more closely.

More importantly though, my reading conferences have built the trust and openness that allows for successful writing conferences.  My students have come to expect occasional chats with me and for the most part don’t fear them (in a pandemic year, I’ve actually found quite the opposite: Some of my virtual students in particular are starving for the interaction!).  They also know that the stakes will be low, the conversation won’t impact their grade, and the ideas we exchange will serve as guidance for them.  

And I go out of my way to prove that last part to them and honor that spirit of exchange.  When I meet with my students about their independent reading, I crack open my trusty conferring notebook to the page I’ve set aside for that student and I make note of whatever thoughts they choose to share that day.  When we talk again a few weeks later, you better believe the first thing I do is revisit that comment about how the book started off slow but they hoped it would improve.  Or about how they were stepping outside their comfort zone with a new genre and weren’t sure how they’d like it.  

They might look messy, but that’s mostly my handwriting: The conferring notebook gives me an ongoing record of my conversations with students!

In other words, by the time we’ve had our second or third book chat, my kids know I’m listening, and that conferring is about us sharing some thinking, not an oral assessment.

You could absolutely build the same sort of trust directly through writing conferences.  But wherever you begin, you have to realize that that initial conference is built on foundations of suspicion and uneasiness instead of the hearty goodness of trust and familiarity.  You can’t build trust and have trust at the same time, in other words.  And realistically, for many students, it might be more like three or four conversations with you before they begin to open up and really take risks with their thinking.  And, to me, risky thinking is essential to a good writing conference.

My reading conferences, by design, are low-stakes.  They can take the lead with their thoughts about their current reading, or I sometimes take the lead to ask about what they plan to read next or what their thoughts are about the book as a recommendation for other readers.  The key is, the conferences aren’t designed to be intellectually taxing and they are intentionally designed to NOT feel like challenges or tests of the student.  I know it can be tempting to use conferring as a moment of ultimate accountability (“You might skip turning in all of your prewriting components but by GOD you will feel the dual-forked lightning of accountability and righteous anger when we next talk about your incomplete draft!”), but the reality I’ve discovered is that you’ll see much more openness–and bigger gains–from students who learn to see conferring as a few minutes of friendly conversation. 

If you’re consistently committed to independent reading in your class, then some form of reading conferring is an easy habit to work into your daily routine.  I sometimes just do wandering drop-bys at students desks; other times I’ll call them up to me during reading time to have a somewhat more thorough chat.  If I can get through 3-4 conferences each day during independent reading (or every other day–do what works for you), that means that I’m having at least 1-2 individual conversations with each of my students every few weeks.  

That volume of low-stakes conferring interaction absolutely changes the dynamic when writing conference time rolls around.  For one thing, we can start with a quick update on what they’ve been reading–for my current unit it’s the same genre, so it’s actually a great segue.  More importantly though, when the students sit down they already know how to interact with me during a conference, and since I’ve given them a form to fill out to guide their thinking, they aren’t being ambushed by random questions.  

Of course a huge part of successful conferring is about relationship building in general, but I think we sometimes underestimate as educators just how intimidating a sit down with even a friendly teacher can be–especially when we’re going to talk about an assignment.  When kids already know what conferring looks and feels like–and have learned to trust that you aren’t going to surprise them or give them the third degree, they’re more likely to smile and open up, instead of sitting down and tensing up.  

Interested in learning more strategies for successful conferring? Come join me and Hattie in our upcoming webinar “Talking Through It All: Conferring Through the Toughest Year”. Register HERE!

–Mike

How do you gain the trust of your nervous writers when you confer? Let us know on the Moving Writers page on Facebook or reach out to me and share your thoughts on Twitter at @ZigThinks !

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