One of the most rewarding and impactful aspects of writing workshop is the writing conferences your students will have with you and their peers.

How can you make the most of this time?  Here are some ideas for you:8 Ways to Improve Writing Conferences

Start with the Ideas

Ever collect a stack of completed essays, sit down with your giant mug of coffee, settle in for a big ol’ grading session, and then, after reading the first two essay, begin screaming?

Please tell me that I’m not the only one who’s done this!!!

Students have completely missed the assignment; they’re off the rails, out of the yard, down the street, around the bend, and travelling into parts unknown!!!  (still screaming here!)

Until I started conferencing with students on the ideas for their writing, the above seemed to happen quite regularly.

Enter the Walk Around Conference:

  • You can quickly conference with students as you walk around the room with a clipboard, and scan students’ prewriting, outlines, idea boards or other preliminary writing activities.

Use Checklists

Keeping track of who you conference with is important.  This provides you with data for assessments, student (and parent) conferences, and administrative purposes.

I suggest using a checklist on a clipboard.  You can mark the dates you meet with students and use notations or shorthand to note what you worked on in the conference.   For example, pw=prewriting, int=introduction, r=revision.

Keeping track of when and how often you meet with students can also tell you who needs more writing confidence.  If you have a student who wants a conference every day, you may need to encourage more independence.  On the other hand, you may have a quiet student who rarely wants to meet with you.

The checklist makes sure you are meeting with all students regularly.

Use Formative Assessments to Sort

When you collect prewriting, drafts, exit cards, and other assessments from your students, you can sort them to determine who needs what.

This is how I do it with drafts:

  • I read through the drafts looking for big areas that need to be addressed.  It might be a missing thesis statement, weak introduction, or missing transitions.
  • As I read, I sort drafts into piles.  I ask students to focus on ONE area when we conference.  Not everything.  Even if they should focus on everything.  Writing can be intimidating and daunting to students, I want them to feel empowered.  So just one thing at a time.
  • At the end of my sorting/piling session, I may have five or six piles. These are my conference groups for the next day.  I use sticky notes to identify what I want each group to work on.  So one group may be working on sentence structure and another may be working on strengthening the introductory paragraph.
  • The next class meeting, once I’ve presented my mini lesson and students are working, I gather up the first group.  I review what I want them to do.  They write notes on what I’ve asked them to do.  We discuss – briefly.  Then, I make sure they understand by asking them what they’re going to do.  I usually ask for them to turn in their revision at the end of class, so I can assess.
  • Sometimes, I’ll let the groups work together on the task.  Or I let them work with a partner from their group.  Or I ask them to make the changes and then share their revision with someone from the group.
  • Then, I send them on their way and gather up the next group.

This group conferencing means you’ll be able to see more students in a single day, but that will only happen if you limit the time in the conference.  You can use a timer (a life saver for me!) or just be mindful that you have other students to see.

Where are the Emergencies?

As you are sorting, you can also determine which students need your immediate attention.  You may even find that you need to “check in” with certain students on a regular basis.  Those quick check ins should be just that.

What is the Goal of the Conference?How to use writing conferences effectively

You want to:

  1. meet with students
  2. assess their immediate needs
  3. address their immediate needs
  4. send them off to write

Sounds a bit like triage in the emergency room, doesn’t it?

You know how fast your class time goes — and if you get bogged down conferencing with one student for twenty minutes, when will you see the other 25 or 30 students??  You don’t need to sit with them while they write — you need to provide assistance and the send them on their way.  Otherwise, they will become dependent on you (“Did I do this right?” “Is this what you want?”) — and we want to create independent, confident writers (insert cheering, confetti, and trophies here!!).

Remember that you have that trusty exit card or end of class “ticket out the door” assessment that will help you determine if your students understood the conference activity and were able to write successfully.

You Have One Job…

Be sure you are crystal clear what you want students to do as a result of your conference.  It may help to use a sticky note or a “notes from my teacher” form that you can quickly fill out.  It is often helpful to have students repeat back to you (and write) what they are planning to do as a result of your meeting.

Even though you may want to say, “Put this in the shredder and start over…” that is not going to instill writing confidence!!  Give students one, concrete, productive action to take that will move their writing forward.  There is almost always something salvageable in a piece of writing.  Try to focus on that.

For students who have multiple issues, you may want them to actually cut their draft apart (notice I said “apart” and not “up”).  Do this by having students cut the paragraphs apart.  This is helpful for students to see how the draft should be organized, what the topic sentence of each paragraph is (or should be), and what they are actually trying to say.

I Have an Emergency!

Imagine this:  You are conferencing with a student, the rest of the class is working hard on their writing…except for the student who is standing in front of you in a state of panic.  No, it’s not a bathroom emergency — it’s a writing one.  This student wants your help NOW!

Be sure to set up a plan for this because it is going to happen!

One idea is to create an “emergency meeting” sign up list on your white board or bulletin board.  Students can add their name there with the understanding that you might not have time to meet with them today.  You can use that list to line up your conferences for the next day — or, if you have a planning period or study hall, encourage the student to meet with you then.  If it’s a true need, your student will take you up on that offer!

Another idea is to have an “emergency team.”  These are students who might be able to help — students who excel in spelling, paragraph structure, or proofreading can be volunteers to this team.  They can be used as a resource.  *Note*  If you use an emergency team, make sure the students on it are volunteers, they are confident writers, and they won’t be doing the work for peers!  A quick training & expectation meeting with your “emergency team” will help set expectations.

Drag a Chair

If you don’t have a conference table to use for meetings with students, consider “dragging a chair.”

This is by far my favorite method of conferencing!

It works by simply pulling up a chair to students’ desks and holding a quick conference.  It’s kind of like table-side guacamole!  Students can ask for specific help or you can just check in to see how things are progressing (again, make notes on your clipboard!).

You’ll see more students by dragging your chair around, plus you’ll be working among the students.  This can dramatically improve student behavior since your students will look around and wonder where you are (a real plus is when an administrator walks into the classroom and sees you working among your students!  #stockjustwentup!).

Just Get Started!

There are so many benefits to holding writing conferences — whether you’re meeting with individuals or groups!  You’ll be building writing confidence, relationships with your students, and teaching cred!

Let me know your experiences with writing conferences!

With gratitude,

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