Writing conferences are hard to incorporate. Above all else, they’re time consuming, but despite being an “extra” part of your writing instruction, they’re well worth it.
The other day I made the mistake of reading comments on a piece I wrote for Cult of Pedagogy. I narcissistically typed in the title–Delaying the Grade–on Facebook to see where it had been shared. That, of course, led me down a rabbit hole of posts, shares, and comments. They were overwhelmingly positive, don’t get me wrong, but there are always a couple that kind of stick in your head.
One, from a man who clearly hadn’t actually read the post but was just extrapolating on how teachers who don’t put feedback on essays are “lazy asses” and should “find a new job”, said that conferences were just “frosting”. The implication being that conferences are unnecessary extras.
Well, hmph. That one stuck with me. I don’t know where this guy teaches, but I feel bad for his students, because conferences are far from being unnecessary extras.
But, rather than seeing his comment as a negative as I think it was intended, I decided to put a positive spin on it. Okay, conferences are like frosting. And you know what? I freaking love frosting! And conferences! Woohoo!! To me conferences are like frosting indeed: they’re the sweetest part of my writing instruction, and sometimes they feel like too much, but I do them anyway (just like I eat the frosting, even when I scrape it off the cupcake because it’s so sweet).
I know you may be thinking that conferences are too hard to fit into your schedule, and I don’t disagree with you; I just believe whole-heartedly that they are worth making time for.
How to Make Time For Conferences
I require all students to meet with me at least once during the writing process. This past year I had three English 11 classes: One had 23 kids, one had 28 kids, and one had 26. They weren’t huge, but I’d argue they weren’t small either. Will it be tougher if you have more kids? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes. I keep my grade book next to me and one column simply says “Writing Conference” and I add a check mark when students meet with me.
You might be wondering what I do if they don’t meet with me. Honestly, I haven’t had to deal with that because if they won’t come to me during class, I write a pass for them to come during advisory (a weird 25 minute period we have during 5th period and lunches).
Also, I do not go to the kids, I have them come to me. I’ve already written about why and how I do this: Read Who’s Next: An Easy Solution to Kids Lining Up at Your Desk.
What does my class period look like?
I start each class with reminders about where we are in the process (or where they should be), where all of their resources can be found (on Canvas), and what the plan for the day is. Some days I’d start with a mini lesson: Reminders and practice with integrating quotes, varying how they start sentences, how to write a conclusion, etc. The mini lessons are based on what they need for the next steps, or the common issues I’m seeing as I check their progress (in conferences or through Google Docs). From there I say “I’ll be at my desk. Don’t forget you have to meet with me at least once before <insert day> and you are always welcome to come during advisory as well.” Then I head to my whiteboard-painted table (I highly recommend this for writing conferences) and the conferences begin.
I encourage (train?) my students to ask specific questions. They don’t bring me their essay and say “Will you read this?”; instead, they ask me to check their introduction, or read a certain sentence that “sounds funny”, or help them come up with a way to organize their ideas. These conversations can be very frustrating but also very rewarding. Honestly, these are the moments I remember the most at the end of the year.
Now that I’ve told you what it looks like in my classroom, let me tell you why I think all teachers should incorporate conferencing into their writing instruction.
Why All Teachers Should Incorporate Writing Conferences
Writing Conferences Build Relationships:
I am a firm believer in the importance of building relationships. And I’ll admit that I think it’s a little easier for English teachers than for others. Our discussion of literature and writing, naturally allows for students and teachers to get to know each other. Writing conferences, more than anything else, have helped me build relationships. Writing is difficult and helping kids with writing is difficult. It’s during these conversations that I learn so much about my students. I not only learn about their writing and their struggles with it, but I learn about their history, their stories, their fears, their joys. It’s the one time that I can really have real conversations with them as I help them build ideas and organize their thoughts.
Writing Conferences Allow Teachers to Know Student’s Writing and Watch them Grow:
We read our student’s papers and we get to know their writing, but if we don’t conference, it’s kind of detached from the writer. Before I started conferencing, I didn’t know why students struggled with certain things. I couldn’t pinpoint where they were getting stuck. Now I can read an essay, and if a student misused some commas, I can think “he knows better” or “I was expecting this based on our conversations”. I know them as writers. I know what they were struggling with, how they tried to fix it, what they’ve been working on. I actually watch them learn how to write and reflect with them through our conversations. And, as the year goes on, I get to watch them grow and celebrate with them when they come to me with new questions because they’ve figured out how to overcome previous challenges. It’s magical, I’m telling you, magical!
One-on-one is the Best Kind of Instruction:
We already know this, right? I can start my class with a whole-group lesson on writing claim sentences (more on that here). Some kids catch on, some kids don’t, but until I read their essays, I don’t know who is where. Conferencing allows me to see where each student is and cater to their individual needs. When Susie shows me her claim, I know that she get it and I can show her an example of how to tweak it a little or how to move on from there. When Sarah comes to me with her claim, I know she doesn’t get it, and I can instead show her more examples she can use as examples (maybe Susie’s will help). This one-on-one instruction helps the kids learn what they need and helps me learn how to help them.
Conferencing Makes it Easier to Avoid Plagiarism:
Because conferences help you learn a student’s topic, his or her struggles and strengths, it’s much easier to spot plagiarism if the issue arises.
Let me tell you a (sort of) funny story: This spring I had a student arguing that TV is “too white”; in other words, other races are not represented well enough on television. Great topic, right? I was excited about the potential. He and I struggled together in conferences while he tried to verbalize his opinions and organize his thoughts. We wrote on my table and he took pictures so he could refer back to what we discussed.
But he didn’t use time in class to work efficiently (he really liked to flirt and be silly). About week before his essay was due, I noticed that he was making a lot of mistakes that he knew better than to make (things we’d worked on all year). I called him out on it and he assured me it would all be ready on the due date.When it came time for me to grade essays and I read his, something was off. For one, he still had many of the same mistakes. For another, he had some words I just knew he would never use. There was just this feeling of “it’s not his”. We’d worked together on his essay and I knew this wasn’t it.
So I called him in during advisory to discuss. I started with some “can you explain this part or this word to me” techniques. And then I finally said, “did you get some help on this?” “Yeah, a lady at work helped me.” Oh well that was nice of her. When I couldn’t figure out where to go next, I flopped to the last page and said, “who is Meryl Streep?” “Dang, Mrs Louden, I don’t know.” “Interesting, because you used her as an example in your essay.” And then he admitted to cheating and we decided he would rewrite the whole essay.
If I hadn’t known his topic, his struggles, it would’ve been harder for me to catch this because he paper still wasn’t great, but it wasn’t great in the way that I know he doesn’t write. Also, I had a good rapport with him, so this conversation went the way it did, ether down some potentially ugly path. (Side note in case you’re wondering, his rewrite wasn’t great, but at least it was his).
Conferences are like frosting: they’re a sweet extra. I know it is tough to find the time, but it’s sooo worth the time and effort for the benefits. Your students will see how much you care and you will see them grow as writers.
Do you incorporate conferencing in the writing process? I’d love to hear how it looks in your class!