What Happens to Feedback When Conferring Gets Organized

As those who read my last post know, I’m currently in the final grading phase of a very long but enjoyable unit of narrative nonfiction writing.  I conferred with every writer at least twice–one of those two meetings being a discussion of a completed draft, if possible.  While I wasn’t explicit about it, at least one of the two conferences was designed to be student driven– “Tell me about your piece and point me to the parts of your writing you want to talk about.”  Student led conferences are a wild animal, but when they work, you end up having a conversation with each student about at least one element of their writing that interests them and discuss goals to help them develop it.

The enormous upside of this exhausting (seriously–135 conferences in about 4 class days?  Parent-teacher conferences are a cakewalk compared to that marathon!) conferring process, though, is that it drastically reduces the workload at the grading end.  In fact, I tried out a new system this time around to help me better track the details of that giant mountain of conversations I had so that during the feedback process I can revisit some specific elements of each student’s piece that THEY were concerned about.  

My plan when providing feedback is to focus my attention largely on the elements of the piece that we discussed–or, where conferring wasn’t particularly robust, I will focus on elements that would’ve been improved had the student been more prepared to confer.  This makes feedback less unexpected or surprising for kids, but I’m betting it also makes it more welcome and meaningful.  When they see that I was taking careful note of their thoughts and concerns and noticed when they stretched and grew as writers, they’ll be more likely to confer openly in the future AND make more ambitious writing moves.  

As you can see from my sample spreadsheets, there were three categorical things I tried to keep track of–the thoroughness of the draft, the major takeaways of the conference, and (more on this later) what specific questions the student writer brought to the table.  Here’s how I attempt to address these elements in the final feedback now that the students have submitted their writing.

Draft Status–An Unreliable but Helpful Measure

This is the least useful of the categories to me when it comes to feedback, but it isn’t entirely without its merits.  In my class, this writing project has been a sprawling activity broken down over nearly nine weeks: Five to six weeks of exploring mentor texts from independent narrative nonfiction books to documentary films (notebook drafting like crazy, of course).  Two weeks for an exploratory research phase, including some prewriting and conferring (yes, in addition to the two explicit writing conferences).  And then two-plus weeks for drafting, conferring, and revision.  

All of which is to say that, at some point, students who have engaged more deeply with the process are producing more, and more developed, content.  So when a final draft comes into the submission pile with some really underdeveloped organization or ideas and the spreadsheet reminds me that after over a month of writing and development time that student brought 300 words of a 1600 word draft to the table, there’s good reason to point that out as an area to work on.  Process is a part of writing.  

This sort of feedback can’t be vague though–you’d be amazed how many vulnerable writers you make worse when you openly chide them for missed deadlines and what feel like weak efforts.  I try to point out that I wish we’d had a better opportunity to talk through some underdeveloped segment of the piece.  Notice for example that my student who only had 300 words was struggling to actually narrate and scene-set instead of just racing through the events of the piece.  I limit my feedback to pointing out some ideas we could’ve talked through if the draft had been done sooner and leave it at that.  I also make sure with students in this scenario that I pay some compliment to whatever we DID improve in the piece based on the conference.  

Conference Takeaways

This spreadsheet column obviously represents the crux of the conference, but again I want to suggest that it matters deeply what sort of feedback we provide.  When students open up and share their vulnerable and uncertain thoughts about their own writing, they are often more uncomfortable than we realize.  Even some of your expert writers are going to feel intimidated when they push into uncharted waters with writerly moves.  It’s important that feedback based on conferring first acknowledges and celebrates the risks that the writer took.  If nothing looks or feels like a big advancement in skill, then focus on an area of competence that emerged in the conversation.  

For example, one of the students visible in the spreadsheet had a fruitful discussion with me about how to let her research coexist with the narrative elements of her piece.  She had placed all of the research into paragraphs that were always kept explicitly separate from any element of storytelling.  It was like an eight-year-old’s dinner plate–everything neatly fenced in and discrete.  We brainstormed some ways to let research not only coexist with, but enhance, some of her narrative moments.  If I can find even one moment of that in her final draft, it will get a glowing review!

Student Questions

You’ll notice that in the two chart samples I’ve embedded in this post, there’s something of a disparity in how often students brought their own questions to the table.  The excerpt with more “N”s in the “Student Asked Questions” category is the chart from my co-taught English 11.  They’ve made lots and lots of growth this year as writers (and many wrote some really outstanding pieces for this unit!), but the confidence to ask writerly questions is often harder for kids than the writing itself.  Especially when school has often been a place of frustration and negative feedback for them.  

It’s hard to give feedback to a question not asked, but sometimes the solution to this problem is to model writerly questions for them.  So for kids who asked no questions during conferring, I pass no judgment, but try to do some wondering of my own in the feedback.  Ideally I pick a concrete moment and say something like “This was a good idea, I wonder what it would read like if you’d added an anecdote here.”  Anything to help them begin to see what it means to talk about writing as a process.

For students who did ask writerly questions, it obviously becomes important that I react to how the writing related to that inquiry turned out.  Here I try to be honest without being too hard on it.  Even if it failed miserably, anything a student writer tries out after asking you for guidance is a motivated effort on their part to get better.  The only feedback provided in such instances should be encouraging and constructive.  This is sometimes another instance where the “I wonder…” approach can be helpful.  If the student tried an ambitious move and it sort of fell flat, offering some open-ended wonderings will feel to the writer like an extension of the original conference:  It’s okay that this didn’t go well, I’m glad you tried it; I wonder if X would make it work better the next time you try it.

Why Is This Easier Again?

I haven’t forgotten that I opened this piece on the assertion that feedback that follows conferring is easier and faster.  This might all sound more convoluted than just applying a rubric and being done with it, but only if you ignore the most fundamental advantage of robust conferring:  I’ve already read all of their papers.  Once I’ve consulted the spreadsheet, the feedback process for me really involves a revisiting of a familiar piece where I’m looking for places where things did/didn’t work out well, and for places where the conferring provided an opportunity for more reflection.  

And it’s not just faster–it’s more enjoyable!  I experience all of my students’ final drafts as growth and improvement–I know what they looked like a week ago and I get to celebrate all the small victories of conferring-driven revision.  What could be better?  I know, I know–not grading at all, but you’ll miss it a little bit by the time August rolls around…

–Mike

How do you provide meaningful feedback to your writers?  What role does conferring play in your process writing units?  Let us know at Moving Writers on Facebook or reach out to me on Twitter @ZigThinks 

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