Conferring is not the icing on the cake, it is the cake.” – Carl Anderson
I saw this quote at a training I just attended about conferring with writers and it really made me think. It made me realize that I’ve been viewing conferring very differently. My view was that the mini-lesson is the cake and conferring is the icing. What a shift in the way I view conferring! Now don’t get me wrong, there is extreme purpose and value in the mini-lesson. The mini-lesson is our opportunity to directly teach and introduce the learning that will take place during the workshop time. The conference is our opportunity to see how our students are using what was taught in the mini-lesson and then teach them more about the application of the learning. We learn more about our students during a conference and we meet them right where they are to offer feedback that moves them forward. The conference is our opportunity to differentiate the learning for our students.
How do we make an intentional and purposeful conference?
Lucy Calkins says that “conferencing is about the teaching, not troubleshooting. It is a methodical kind of teaching.” When we look at a student’s piece of writing, it is easy to see all of the mechanical and grammatical errors that they need to fix. It’s easy to say things like “That sentence really needs a period at the end.” or “You forgot the capital letter at the beginning of this sentence.” When we listen to students read, its easy to offer specific tips like “get your mouth ready” and “make the beginning sound.” These statements are actions that the student can act on in the moment, but we have to ask ourselves if conferring this way will allow the student to transfer their learning into other pieces of writing or other books that they are reading. When we point out specific mechanical and grammatical errors in writing that the student needs to fix, we are troubleshooting. We are also troubleshooting when we give students specific strategy prompts when they come to a tricky spot while reading. The danger of troubleshooting is that students will become dependent on it. So what do we do instead? Instead conferring the writing, we need to confer with the writer. Instead of conferring the reading, we need to confer with the reader. We need to focus on identifying an area of growth and coach our students with the idea of transfer in mind.
After reading Conferring with Readers, I was able identify the steps to make an intentional and purposeful conference. These steps transfer easily into writing conferences.
- Research your students: Observe your students during independent work time and determine areas of growth. Jot down notes for the students you plan to confer with so that you can plan for your conference. Write down compliments and teaching points that you could use during your conference to move students forward.
- Select your compliment and teaching point: This is a really important step because you don’t want overwhelm the student by offering to many teaching points. It will be difficult for the student to transfer the learning if there are too many points. Make note of your compliment and teaching point so that you have record of what you conferred about in order to develop your next conference with the student.
- Meet with the student: Begin by asking the student if you can interrupt their writing for a few minutes. You can also begin by saying things like “I notice how you….” or “When you ____ you were being a strong writer/reader.” These statements draw attention to the writer not the writing and the reading behavior not the specific book.
- Give the compliment: It’s important to start with the compliment. The compliment encourages the writer and points out the areas in which they have grown. You might compliment on their use of a skill or strategy that you taught the student in your previous conference with them.
- Give the teaching point: You want to make sure that your teaching point is transferable. The student needs to be able to act on the teaching point and carry it to other pieces of writing or other books. You can begin by saying “Can I give you a tip?”. The student has the opportunity to accept or say no in that moment, you might pair them with a student who has mastered that skill or strategy in a writing or reading partnership. Within the conference, you might switch between listening, modeling, explaining and coaching.
- Rename or link: This is your opportunity to identify what was learned during the conference. You can say things like “So whenever you are _____, you can_____” or “What is your plan as you continue writing?”.
- Thank the student for their time and let them know that you will check back with them later or another day.
What do I do if I don’t know what to say?
I encourage you to have a conferring menu for the unit of study that you are in. You can easily refer to learning targets, standards, and teaching points for each unit. I have created a Conferring Menu Template. I keep these on my clip board for easy access while conferring with readers and writers. Check out my post about creating a conferring menu!
What does a conference look like?
Here is a link to watch a reading conference from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: A Reading Conference: Assessment Based Responsive Teaching to Support Comprehension (K-2)
Here is a link to watch a writing conference from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project: Assessment-Based Conference to Raise the Level of Narrative Writing (3-5)
How do I make sure that I’m not saying to much or doing the work for the student?
I plan to video myself quite a bit this year. I want to be able to look back on my conferences and determine if they are intentional and purposeful. I want to make sure that I am leading with agentive questions and not doing the work for the student. I encourage you do the same! Videoing can be a little vulnerable, but its just for you!
Be sure to check out my conferring documents on TPT!
Remember…we are all in this together! We are all learning and growing.
“Let all that you do be done in love.” – 1 Corinthians 16:14 NASB