Conferring: The Heart of Reading & Writing Workshop

Conferring with students has been cited by some experts as the “heart of the workshop“.  I remember hearing Isabel Beck talking about discovering student’s understanding of a story and she simply stated, “Just ask the child to tell you what the books is all about”.  In some ways its simple and yet the art of listening to a student and trying to discover the “heart of their writing” or intentions can often be a challenging skill to master.

I can remember a few conferences during which a child shared their writing with me and because of my desire to do it exactly as I was supposed to, I struggled to have something thoughtful to say to the student at the end.  Here’s a peek inside my brain during workshop:  (I’m sure I’m the only one 😉  

  • How many students am I meeting with today?
  • Make sure to share a compliment that is authentic & specific,
  • organically respond to the student,
  • FOCUS
  • choose a goal they could work towards, but is it the right one,
  • Where is that perfect tool I have saved somewhere for this goal?
  • try to remember who I’m meeting with next,
  • “Excuse me, Ms. K!” (shouts a student) 
  • and the list goes on and on.  

Any one else tired?!?  I have been able to relax quite a bit due to working with some amazing mentors and colleagues, but let’s be real, this stuff goes through our heads.

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At other times we feel the weight of the standards or worry about the end result we hope to see in our student’s writing.  The child’s struggle with mechanics or grammar might jump out at us first.  We may be tempted to dive right into cleaning it up with (or even for) them without building their skills. At least this is where I first started when I began using writing workshop.  

It takes time to build TRUST with our students.  If we don’t confer, we don’t have time to build that trust.  The more we confer with students the easier and more natural it will be for THEM and for US.

Where to start and a few wise words:

This is a conversation.  It’s their writing and they are invested.  It’s how they see things.  You shouldn’t talk at them. We can make a huge impact on students when we’re sharing in the context of our student’s writing” –Mollie Cura – Literacy Consultant (Summer 2016 Workshop)

“Many teachers have discovered that one of the most powerful ways to to teach students to become better writers–if not the most powerful way–is to sit beside them and confer with them as they write”.  –Carl Anderson, Author of How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring

“Take a moment and pause after they share.  You don’t have to rush into coming up with the perfect strategy for them to learn.  Do what we often teach students to do; repeat back what you heard the child say.  Ask clarifying questions.  Don’t assume.”  -Two Writing Teachers

“Start with a loose or lean prompt when supporting a student (“Tell me more.  Does that make sense? or something general but that is specific to the student) and then layer the next prompt so that it gives them a bit more support.”  –Teacher’s College Reading Units of Study Institute, Lauren Kolbeck

What has worked for me & what I’ve learned from the Masters:

Conference Type #1: 

“Getting to Know You” Conference            (fill in cheesy acronym here:  GTKY?)  

When You Might Use:  Beginning of the year, when a student needs a boost or seems to be struggling, after you’ve done a reading/writing engagement survey or interview

  1.  Sit down side by side with your student as they are reading or writing.
    • I’ve found sitting where they work for these is pretty effective.  You’re on their turf.  🙂 
  2.  Ask if you can join them, “Mind if I sit down and see what you are working on?”  
    • This is the building trust conference.  You’re getting to know them.  🙂 
  3. Reading GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s reading going today? What book are you reading today? What’s it about?
    • This year (or whatever the context) my hope is that together I can support you in your reading & that we can work as a team to reach your goals this year.  Today I just wanted to check-in and see how reading is going for you.  
    • Can you read a bit to me? (they only need to read a few pages – enough for you to get a sense of how it’s going)
  4. Writing GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s writing going today? 
    • This year (or whatever the context) my hope is that together I can support you in your writing & that we can work as a team to reach your goals this year.  Today I just wanted to check-in and see how it is going for you.  
    • *If it makes sense, “Do you mind reading a bit of your writing to me?”  (sometimes a student especially at the BOY might be working on generating ideas & you may need to switch gears & talk to them more generally about writing) 
  5. Choose ONE strategy or reading/writing move they are using that you can share a “glow” or compliment about. 
    • Be specific & choose a compliment that you notice they are trying out & could be tied to goals that a strong reader/writer uses.  
      • Writing Ex:  “I noticed that you shared that you were using dialogue to show what your character was feeling right here.  It really helped me understand how they reacted to that situation. That’s a great strategy to use when you are writing!”
      • Reading Ex: “That was a tricky word you came across in the book.  I noticed that you broke the word into chunks that you knew and then blended it back together.  What a great strategy!”  
  6. Leave behind the “glow”/compliment with the student.  It can be a simple post-it, note in their writing notebook, etc. 

Conference #2:

Research/Decide/Teach Conference    (RDT — traditional conference)

When You Might Use:  you want to move a student to a new strategy or goal, beginning of a unit, before conferences or report cards to check-in

  1.  Sit down side by side with your student as they are reading or writing.
  2.  Ask if you can join them, “Mind if I sit down and see what you are working on?”  
  3. RESEARCH:  This is your opportunity to find out what they are working on and what you want to teach them to move from a strategy they might be on the cusp of discovering (teach from strengths).  
  4. Reading GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s reading going today?
    • What book are you reading today? What’s it about?
    • What did you think about it? (if you are meeting after they’ve done some STOP and JOTS or Reflections)
    • Can you read a bit to me? or Tell me a bit about your STOP and JOT.   
  5. Writing GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s writing going today?  What are you working on?
    • Can you show me where you tried that out?   
    • How is the strategy going?  What about the strategy has been tricky for you?  What are you most proud of in this piece?
    • For younger students (K-2) – this will take practice, you also may want to highlight things you notice them doing to help them explain, have them read a bit to you   
  6. Respond to their piece first as you would for any writing/reading.  (“Aw!  You wrote about your dog.  It sounds like you love him a lot!”)  Don’t just go right into teach mode.   
  7. Choose ONE strategy or reading/writing move they are using that you can share a “glow” or compliment about. 
  8. DECIDE:  Choose ONE thing (not more than that) the writer/reader needs, not necessarily something you’ve taught that day.  Also make sure it is something in their zone of proximal development or something they can apply in future pieces.  
  9. TEACH:  
    • Start with a clear structure that is similar to mini-lessons, “Today I’m going to teach you to ________ (skill) by doing _________ (strategy).
    • Keep it simple!  Use one example to show them how.
    • Writing:  Use a mentor text (your own, a sample of yours, or another author – could even be another student) to show them in chunked, sequential steps so they can replicate the process in their writing.
    • Reading:  Show them how to do it by using an example from their text or one you have prepared from your Reading Literacy Notebook (see link here for more details)
    • Then, ask them to try it out!
  10. LINK:  Leave them with an encouragement to use this strategy today and everyday.  Leave behind a post-it or something in case they forget.  Let them know that you’ll check on them again to see how it’s going. 

Research/Decide/Teach Conference Example from Jennifer Serravallo:   RDTConference Kindergarten Writing Conference Example from Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project (Genre:  Narrative):    KWritingConference

Conference #3:

“I’m Stuck” Conference

When You Might Use:  student is having trouble with stamina, generating ideas, transitioning from mini-lesson to independent work, not doing any STOP and JOTS (writing about reading), tons of sketching but no writing, setting expectations so they can do their best work

Tip:  It’s important to have expectations for independent reading and writing at the BOY (and review as needed) so that your expectations are not assumed.  You’ve taken time to make them clear and they’ve practiced the behaviors independently.  This is a step to use after that structure has been in place.

  1.  Sit down side by side with your student as they are reading or writing.
  2.  Ask if you can join them.
  3. Explain that you’d like to check in how things are going and that you’ve noticed something that you’d like to talk about (a conversation, not punitive)
  4. “I’ve noticed that…” Explain what you’ve noticed. Be specific and keep it simple.
  5. “How do you think that’s been going?  What is challenging?”  Ask them for their feedback.
  6. Explain the purpose.  Give them a strategy for how they can move forward.
    • Writing Example:  (but could easily be used in Reading)
      • “I noticed you have trouble getting started in writing and I wanted to check in and see how you feel about it.”  (this is a pattern you’ve noticed, not just a one time event).  After hearing their perspective (maybe they note it’s who they are sitting next to, not knowing what to write about, need some inspiration, etc.)  then you can focus on what strategy to use.  “Why don’t you try sitting over here today and see if that is helpful.  I also want you to set a goal today for writing.  We have 15 minutes left of writing time.  What is a goal you could set for yourself.  Let’s write it down on this post-it.  This always helps me when I set a goal.  I’ll check back in with you at the end of writing class.”     

         

One way I keep track of all this work is through the use of a Conferring Notebook.  I use many forms like the one below to keep track of what my students are working on.  Click HERE for a copy of this form OR you can click HERE for to purchase a copy of a file of all the forms I use for both Reading and Writing Workshop.  

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There’s a lot here to contemplate and “chew on”. Hopefully this will be a helpful resource to your teaching in the future! 🙂 

What do you find is valuable about conferring? What is challenging about conferring? What is an area you want to strengthen in your conferring (compliment, teaching point, type of conferences to use, etc.)

-Laura Lit Lab

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