In my writing classroom, conferences are the way I do most of my teaching. Sometimes they’re “formal” and more scheduled, but most often, they aren’t. Students are asking me questions, running drafts by me, and looking for clarification. These might be quick confirmations, but they can also turn in to full blown conversations or lessons. In either case, scheduled or informal, quick or lengthy, they are incredibly valuable.
Writing is unique because students will often be in very different places, working to build a wide range of skills. They also may be ready to learn concepts at different times. For example, a student may need some instruction in passive voice because they’ve overused it in a piece, but that same lesson would be irrelevant for another student who hasn’t used passive voice in their piece at all. And it would be completely inappropriate for a student who is still working to master the use of complete sentences instead of run-ons.
This is where skill-specific conferences come in and how they really change a writing classroom. In a conference, I am able to focus my instruction and feedback on something a student needs to work on right then and there. It’s completely relevant because they need to use it immediately in the piece they are currently working on. I don’t need to create additional ‘practice’ or worksheets since they are going to apply the skills in their written work. My writing philosophy also makes the information important for students because they are often working on something that they have chosen or that expresses their voice.
Conferences with students often depend entirely on the kid. This year, I stopped circulating the room and jumping in after having a student tell me I was “interrupting their groove”. I totally get that (and respect it), so I’ve taken to sitting somewhere in the room where they can come to me. There are a few students who avoid it, so I actively seek them out and check in with them when there’s a lull.
Writing conferences can take many different forms, but I usually have students asking me to read over a section or to check on a particular component of their piece. If we’ve just learned a new concept, like persuasive conclusions, many of the questions will be about that. I’m able to reteach parts that may have confused some of my students and help clarify their understanding. And while I look to answer their question, I can also identify any other areas for improvement. One of the most common things I teach during these conferences is grammar.
I don’t teach many grammar concepts as a whole group. I have a few major lessons, like reflexive and intensive pronouns, but most of my grammar instruction is done through these conferences. It allows me to focus my time on what my kids need and what they’re ready for, instead of spending time making worksheets or practice tasks. And when I notice a student frequently misusing commas, I’m not going to wait until a scheduled lesson plan on proper punctuation. I’m going to teach them in the moment because that’s when they need it.
Does this mean I never teach my whole class? Absolutely not. I typically have a 10-15 minute mini lesson on a particular focus for our written piece. Today’s was using transitions purposefully throughout our work to create cohesion. I started our class with that, and then sent students to work on their essays, focusing on adding transitions where appropriate. They had a focal point, a locus, for their work today, but we were able to branch off with whatever else they may need.
Students are still getting writing instruction as a group, but I’m able to conference individually for more specific skills or to address misconceptions. My favorite is when a student asks me to teach them a concept. I’ve had a kid walk up and say, “Can you teach me to use and punctuate dialogue?” It’s the best because I know that what I teach them isn’t going to go over their head or be useless in that moment. They need it, I can provide it, and they will learn it more effectively. Plus, it encourages them to advocate for themselves!
It also allows me to avoid the age-old tropes, like never starting a sentence with a preposition or using a comma wherever you would pause while reading.
For one thing, these are both misguided and simply not true. Great writing does not include commas that are randomly placed where the reader pauses, nor does it avoid sentences that start with prepositions. Often, starting with a preposition allows for varied sentence structure, a hallmark of a beautiful piece.
For another, some students are ready to delve into deeper areas of learning, which I am able to respect through these conferences. I can address the way to correctly start a sentence with “because” for the student who wants to learn, rather than laying down a blanket statement that will eventually cease to be true for them. And not only am I able to acknowledge and enrich the student ready to tackle compound-complex sentences, but I am also able to remediate for the student still striving to become a better writer.
I do get asked about the preparation for this structure, and how much time I must spend getting ready for it. Truthfully, I don’t “prep” for it. I don’t have a filing cabinet full of resources. So when a student needs to work on coordinating conjunctions, I don’t turn around and pull out the aligned folder. Honestly, I cannot prepare for it. Because it’s unpredictable. There’s no way for me to know what a student will need, what I will notice in a piece, or what questions I’ll get asked.
Instead, I focus on ensuring that I fully understand my content. Not just my 6th grade standards, but those above and below as well. I get to know the craft of writing as a whole and how to use standard English conventions. I make sure that I am an expert. I spend time writing myself so I can empathize with my students, but also so I am familiar with its inner workings. It’s not complicated, but it does require me to be knowledgeable. Because that way, I am prepared to teach them what they are ready to know.
Using conferences allows for a level of individualization that whole class teaching just cannot accomplish. It helps me meet students where they are, provide them the skills they need (and want), and helps me grow young, able writers.