Conferring Tip #1: Consider Purpose

I am excited to announce my new book from Stenhouse is due out in February, 2015! I hope Let’s Talk: Managing One on One, Peer, and Small Group Conferences will provide some helpful tips for all of you who work with writers every day.images-2

I will be updating my blog more regularly now, and periodically I will discuss some of the ideas in my new book.

Consider purpose first

When we enter into a conference with a student, we need to think first about why we are talking with them. I used to believe that everything was about me: I needed to teach the writer something, or the conference was a waste of time. So even though I acted as if I was listening to my students read from their work, I was often engaged in my own internal monologue:

“What should I teach? Look at those spelling errors – oh wait. I am not supposed to talk about that right now. Seriously? No periods for half a page? Look at all those ‘ands’. Should I mention that every sentence is a run-on? Oh wait – I missed that part. I am going to have to ask him to re-read what he just said… I can’t read his handwriting.”

One reason I stressed so much about conferences is because I was in search of that one, perfect, elusive TEACHING POINT. Now, I worry less because I have shifted my focus from me to the writers in front of me.

Perhaps the most important reason to engage in a conference with a student is to learn from them, especially at the beginning of a unit or at the beginning of the year. A fifth grade writer I met recently comes to mind when I think of how I can use a conference to learn, rather than teach.

Just looking at Ryan’s notebook cover taught me that he loved baseball. It was full of baseball stickers and images of his favorite players. As soon as I opened the notebook, I realized I was working with a writer who felt empowered: he had many pages already written, and he was able to tell me about why he was writing each piece. He even had a goal: Since he had written so many pages about sports and about his life already, he decided to tackle fiction. After asking him what he might write a fiction piece about, we talked about his love for fantasy and science fiction. Before long, he was brainstorming possible story ideas, and even began to think about how he might incorporate his love for baseball into his ideas for fantasy stories.

Listen first

Ryan, and many writers like Ryan, have taught me over the years that conferring is primarily about listening first. The teacher must listen to the writer and let them lead the way. My discussion with Ryan lasted less than 5 minutes, but I could write pages about what I know about him. When I checked with him later in the workshop, he had completed a list of story ideas and had started on a draft of a possible story. I realize that all writers are not confident like Ryan, but I firmly believe that if we listen first, and learn from our writers, we can best serve them. I did teach Ryan something that day: I taught him that he had the tools he needed to begin his journey into fiction writing. He already knew the power of brainstorming, and he had successfully completed short drafts about his love for baseball and his current life as a player on a good team. I recommended he use all he knew about being a successful writer (brainstorm, talk out ideas with a partner, write what you care about) to help him draft some fiction.

My conference was successful because I listened, I based my tips on what was already working, and I walked away and gave Ryan time to write. Ryan (and all my writers) do not need me to hover over them, making sure they are doing what I think they should be doing. Writers need time to write, relying on their strengths to continue writing, making decisions about how best to proceed, and seeking guidance from me (and other writers) when they need it.

In future posts, we will discuss other topics about conferring- including how to work with resistant writers. In the meantime, happy conferring!

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