The Pen and Paper

Developed by The Indiana Writing Project

A local site of the National Writing Project

November 2018

12th Edition

Thoughts about writing...

Conferences! This is a topic we have grappled with for as long as we have been writing teachers. We found conferencing to be the biggest topic to discuss in the scope of writing workshop. Why are conferences so important? Why are they so hard to do? There is no easy answer. We looked to professional literature for guidance. The more we researched, the bigger the topic of conferencing seemed to get.

We agreed with Patrick Allen’s list of struggles in his book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop. It seemed our conferencing struggles were the same with our students whether ithe conferencing was about reading or writing, and Allen expressed our concerns perfectly: “I don’t have time. I don’t know what questions to ask, It’s too hard, I don’t know what to write in my notes, I don’t even take notes, I don’t know how to go deep. . .” But we knew the benefits of the conferencing clearly out weighed the struggles so we persevered. Allen defines the word confer as a verb “meaning to consult together, compare opinions, or carry on a conversation.” We found our best conferences with students were purposeful and intentional and student centered. Listening carefully to what the students said was critical to making this happen. But we also found the conferences needed to be driven by the student needs which we had to determine quickly while conferencing.

Both Allen and Carl Anderson (author of How’s it going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers) told us student conferences are the best possible one-on-one teachable moment to move the student farther down the learning continuum. We found conferencing to be the ultimate in differentiated instruction. With that being said, we also agreed with Allen and Anderson; there are strategies to put in place to put the student in the driver’s seat to direct his/her learning. . . for students to become active participants. We found active listening for both teacher and student is important so the teacher knows the developmental needs of the student and the student understands how to improve. We needed to teach the students how to listen actively. We did this through modeling and role playing. Allen and Anderson also taught us, in the course of the conference to set goals/ instructional points for the student to practice before the next conference. This expectation had to be taught as well through mini-lessons, modeling, and role-playing, and reinforced during conferencing. This required brief note taking on our part and making sure students remembered the goals discussed in our conferences (Who are we kidding; we needed to remember, too!). More topics for us to investigate...

An added benefit from conferencing was the closeness we developed with our students. We used mini-lessons to suggest kernels of information to the whole class, but the intimate conferences , we found, was where the real teaching took place. We could teach one or two skills to individuals when he/she most needed it making the learning on the student’s part desired and necessary. Because we had established procedures on what everyone was to do during workshop time, classroom management/behavior issues were not an issue, so we could go about our job of teaching students. What freedom! What rewards our students reaped! Respect for each other as writers was prevalent. Students were writing authentic pieces and talking like writers and learning! What more could we desire?

Is there a topic about which you have questions? Send us an email! We want the Pen and Paper to be helpful to you! Until next month, write on!


Shirley and Susan

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How can you use this mentor text?

Hello, Harvest Moon is wonderful mentor text for vivid word choice, imagery, and poetic structure. The illustrations are lovely and provide readers and writers with interesting ways to present text on a page. Invite your students to write about autumn or another favorite season. We love this book and hope you do, too!

Patrick Allen's book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop, and Carl Anderson's book, How's It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring With Student Writers, are two of the best professional books on conferencing out there. Check them out!

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Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop

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How's it Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers

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