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Fitting in Quality Writing Conferences

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If you’re like me, you find that it can be a struggle to fit in writing conferences. And then when you do get to them, you feel rushed and that they aren’t quite the quality that you were hoping for. I can completely relate. So, today I’m going to cover the strategies that I used to go from writing conference frustration to success. I’ll share the tips that I use to make sure writing conferences are efficient, focused, and fit into the limited writing time that’s available.

Writing conferences are an important piece of authentic revision and editing, so don’t skip them!

Here’s what I’m going to cover:

  • When and how often you should do writing conferences
  • How to set up your conferences and prepare students for them
  • What makes a meaningful writing conference session for your students
  • Using the writing conferences to support your struggling learners

When and how should you do writing conferences

How often you hold writing conferences is going to depend completely on you and your students. My goal is to get each student through a conference each week. Don’t freak out! I know that sounds like a lot, especially when the unfortunate reality of many classrooms is 35-40 students per class, but I’ll share the tips to use to make this happen.

With keeping the mini-lessons down to 15-20 minutes and setting up writing time afterward, you have a good amount of time to use for conferences. But, if you aren’t strategic about this time, it will be filled up with lots of student questions. This makes it hard to sit down and work one-on-one. So, here’s what you do in order to make it work smoothly:

  • During the mini-lesson have students save their questions by writing them down. When you’re finished, send students to their desk. Do one quick walk around to make sure everyone has their correct notes out. For example, if they’re working on body paragraphs they need the planning page available. Doing this will reduce the number of questions you get later.
  • Answer any questions that students wrote down during the mini-lesson. This takes about five minutes.
  • Explain that when you start writing conferences they are not to raise their hand or come back to ask questions. If a student missed asking their question, they can bring it up during their conference.

Preparing for conferences

You need to prepare yourself for conferences too. You need to know what you’re going to work on during each conference. Have a list of the order the students are coming back. You can even post this in the classroom so students know when it’s their turn.

If you already know you struggle with giving students feedback, I highly recommend the book Feedback That Moves Writers Forward. This book reminded me of the importance of feedback and how to build it in as a positive piece of our writing process.

This is a screenshot of the cover of the book Feedback That Moves Writers Forward by Patty McGee.

Make sure you have any supplies prepared that you’ll need. And, have your students trained to come back for conferences. In order to keep them short and targeted, students need to know that they should be bringing either a question or a piece of their writing that they’re struggling with. For example, if you are working on body paragraphs, that’s where your focus goes. Don’t have them read every paragraph that they’ve written. That’s overwhelming.

Spend one day teaching your class how to fill out the feedback forms. Then, they know how to give and receive feedback. Before they come to conferences, they can complete the form that’s for to the teacher to specify what they’re struggling with. And, they can write down one or two questions. (Get the feedback forms below)

This is a photograph of a teacher explaining an anchor chart about giving and receiving feedback.

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Remember, trying to fix every problem in their writing during conferences doesn’t work. That’s what held me back. Especially at this grade level. There are going to be a lot of problems so we need to focus on one big thing instead.

Some students that struggle may not be able to do this. But, we want to make sure at least half the class is independent enough to bring back some of their own questions. Then you can help them and fill out their goal sheets. You want to use the goal sheets every time. You’ll quickly see how excited they are to share with you when they met their goals.

This process takes a lot of training and work but by the 2nd quarter, you’ll see that they really start to become more independent.

Conference setup

When it comes to actually setting up an area for writing conferences, remember to just keep it simple. All you really need is a place where the students are comfortable. You might want to be near the teacher module or any information that you have up that you want to use with students. And, most importantly, you need to be able to keep a good eye on your class as well.

What does a meaningful writing conference look like?

There are three things that create a meaningful writing conference:

  1. Welcome – You want to welcome the students in a way that tells them what they’re doing and makes them feel good. It can be as simple as, “Hey Joe, welcome to your writing conference. I  can’t wait to see what you’ve been working on this week.” Just really simple. Let them know you’re there to help them and it’s a good thing.
  2. Share their writing – Look at a piece, not the whole thing, of their writing. During the first week, it might be making sure that their information is organized properly. Try your best to make sure students come back with a question that you can work with. If they aren’t sure, have something you really want to focus on for that one conference so you don’t end up looking at everything.
  3. Set goals – Have students fill out the goal organizers with one or two goals and write down what tools they have to meet their goals. If its notes from last week they can refer back to, make sure you show them where the notes are with the page number or section number.  It could even be another student that’s really good at this individual skill.

Don’t worry about every single grammatical error that you see. That’s not what writing conferences are about.  They are about building skill and quality. All the grammar stuff can be worked on during revision editing. We have a lot of proofreading built into other areas so this shouldn’t be the focus of writing conferences.

Three steps for struggling writers

This can be the hardest part of writing conferences. If a student is several grade levels behind, it’s really difficult. Here are three tips that can help:

  1. Identify common struggles – Look at what students are struggling with. If there are 25 out of 30 students struggling with the same thing, you need to address the entire class. But, if it’s half the class, it’s just a common struggle. You may need to group those students together and teach them that skill. This will save time instead of doing it one by one. For example, instead of doing a writing conference on Friday you can take the students struggling with dialog and pull them back for a mini-lesson while the other students are working on something else. Using the skill checklist for this makes it easy to see who is struggling with what. Simply plug in their name and check off what skills they have. The form is customizable so you can add in any skills you want.
  2. Provide extra support – Pull them back, reteach it, go more in depth, give them additional tools.
  3. Check in & adjust goals – After the lesson check to see where each student stands. Did some students really succeed and others are still working on it? You can adjust their goals accordingly. This helps students see what it’s like to be a real writer because a real writer sets goals and improves as a writer through because of it.

Find what actions to take

I understand that not everything it doable in your classroom. Every situation is a little different. Take my ideas and make them work for you and your students. Then, write out your classroom conference action plan. If you already have a plan in place look for ways to continue to refine it and improve upon it.

Share these ideas!

Written by
April Smith