I’ve been spending my week conferring with some really AMAZING K-4 writers. Rather than finding myself doing a thousand different conferring strategies, a few crucial ones kept popping up. I want to share a few of these with you and hope that you’ll share some of your own.
This is probably the most important one. There are so many purposes for listening to what a student says/writes. One reason I listen is to simply make sure I understand what the student is trying to say/write. Sometimes I find myself so obsessed with what I’m going to teach this student that I stop listening, when in reality if I listened carefully, the teaching point would naturally emerge. I often find myself saying something like: Can I say back what I think you said/wrote? Tell me if I have it right because sometimes I might have misunderstood.” In that way, if I did misunderstand (and it happens to me often) the child is most apt to correct me.
You also want to listen so that you can alter your teaching point, if necessary. I was working with a 3rd grade class this week and I had taught all of the students how to use their notebook to ‘plan and prepare’ before they wrote Persuasive Letters. When I called one of the students over for a writing conference, I noticed that he had jumped directly into his draft even though my entire lesson was about slowing down and not drafting immediately. I was about to move him away from drafting, but when I asked him why he made this decision he said to me, “I already could picture the letter in my head so why would I waste time and paper doing other things?”
When I truly listened to his response, I realized that moving him away from his draft didn’t make sense. I revised my teaching point and talked to him about how many writers start with a ‘discovery draft’ just like he did and then move back to their notebook to think a bit more.
2. START WITH STRENGTH:
I try to remember while I’m conferring that a student is on the other side of my words listening with bated breath. My words can inspire and engage or they can wound. That is why before I move into what I’m going to teach, I listen and look at their writing so that I can tell them honestly and clearly what they are doing well. Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems has a lovely chapter on how to talk to students about their strengths. I do not think this is just fluffy work that makes kids feel good. I think talking about students’ strengths helps them to better understand what they are doing well so that they can continue doing it, as well as put them in the right mind set to be able to hear how they can improve as writers.
3. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE ORAL PRACTICE:
I teach with the mantra that if kids can’t say it well they are not going to be able to write it well. Writing conferences are a great opportunity for you to get kids to ‘say it well’ so that they will eventually be able to write it well. Yesterday I was conferring with a 3rd grade student. He was making a list of things that bug him to help him find a topic for his Persuasive Letter. When I called him over, I could tell he had ideas but he was having trouble articulating them. After talking for a bit with him, I discovered that one thing that really bothered him was that his bus driver played great music but she played it too softly. I helped the student take this idea and put it into a clear statement: “I believe that the my bus driver should play the radio loud enough so that the kids can enjoy it.”
Once we had formulated that statement, I had him point to his page and orally practice the exact words he was going to write. After he practiced that statement a few times, he went back to his seat and not only confidently wrote that statement, but then wrote three more clear statements that explained other issues that bothered him.
4. HAVE TEXTS WITH YOU WHILE CONFERRING:
When I packing for a work trip one of the first things I pack are the texts I’ll use with the kids. I always ask the teachers whose classrooms I’ll be visiting what type of writing their students are working on so I can bring similar types of texts with me. In that way, when I’m conferring with students I can use these texts to give kids clear examples of craft techniques they can use.
Those are 4 writing conferences strategies I find invaluable. What are some of yours?