A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to confer with a 2nd grade boy at Turnpike Elementary School named James. It was an eye opening experience for many reasons, but for the purposes of this blog I am going to share how it changed me as a teacher of writing.
As you will soon see, James is incredibly articulate and confident and because of that felt comfortable saying exactly what was on his mind. He said what I believe most kids think and either are too scared or don’t have the language to express.
I hope that by ‘listening in’ to my conference and hearing my reflections it starts a conversation about conferring and how to ensure that our conferences send the right message to our students. Most of all, I hope it start s a conversation about how to use conferring to engage students so that their writing improves and they become more self-directed.
I began my conference with James the way I used to start all conferences. I greeted him and then let him know that I was going to talk to him about his writing.
He replied, “So basically you’re going to say random things to me about what I wrote.”
I quickly cleared this up for him and said that I would try really hard to NOT say random things to him.
I told him that I would listen carefully to both his writing and his thoughts about his writing. I also told him that I hoped my response would not only leave him more excited about his writing, but would also teach him something new.
(I must say I sweated a little bit when I said this because I was nervous about being able to teach this kid something he didn’t already know)
Let me be clear about two things here. First, he was not trying to be rude at all when he responded the way he did. Second, he has a brilliant teacher, Kathy Graber, who would NEVER say random things to him.
The fact is he didn’t know me so he simply didn’t know if I would be the type of teacher who would say what he viewed as random things.
His response made me think a lot about how to start conferences.
I realized then that I wanted to start every conference so that every child (whether they spoke up like James did or they didn’t) would know that I was going to listen to what they say and try hard NOT to say random things about their writing.
I’ve been trying ever since then to say to kids at the start of the conference that my job is to listen to both their ideas and their writing as carefully as I could so that my responses to both would get them even more excited about their writing, as well a teach them something new.
In the middle of my conference when I was asking James if there was anything he felt he needed help with he said and I quote: “In my heart and soul I think this is already good.“
Isn’t that what so many kids think?
They work on their writing and they put their heart and soul into it and they think it’s good the way it is.
Whether or not this is true is inconsequential. The fact that they feel this way is what we have to keep in mind when we confer.
In my conference with James I backed up and told him that it was great that he felt this way and that I believed in conferring with kids about pieces that were already pretty good. I told him that revision and editing were not a punishment for bad work, but a compliment for good work. Finally, I told him that whatever we decided upon him trying in his piece he would need to try, but ultimately he could decide whether or not to keep it..
His beautiful and honest response reminded me that I don’t want children to think that we are conferring with them because their pieces stink or that their job is to follow our directions and add, take out or change whatever we say, without giving it a thought.
If they view that as the purpose of conferring, it’s impossible to get kids to be self-directed. All they do is follow our directions.
The conference with James reminded me that we have to help all kids understand what I told James—that conferences are a compliment to good writing and although they must try what we decide upon, it’s their decision whether to ultimately keep what they tried in their writing piece.
Last, I want to share how the conference ended. I had finally figured out something to teach James and as he was leaving he said to me, “Thank you very much. I can tell you are a deep thinker and that you listen carefully—-
We tend to evaluate our kids but in this situation James evaluated my conference with him.
Basically he told me it was successful because he felt engaged and felt like I taught him something new.
I want to end with two thoughts:
One, how do we get our kids to do what James did evaluate our conferences more often? Their assessments are the ones that will help us the most!
BEST COMPLIMENT I EVER GOT ABOUT MY CONFERRING. I WAS ON A HIGH ALL DAY LONG.
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!
Unit next time,