Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Structure of a Conference

A few weeks ago, I presented an hour-long workshop to our district's elementary special education para-professionals. These are the people who work with our most struggling students, frequently in a one-to-one or small group setting. These people do intense and critically important work for our district, and, more importantly, for children.

One of the greatest challenges of their work is building independence with a population that tends to be dependent. As a district, we assign one-to-one para support only when a student is so impaired that he/she needs constant support. Therefore, talking to them about ways to build independence with their students seems almost like an impossibility--a foray into an oxymoron. That being said, I have been in classrooms since this workshop, and I have tried to help some of the paras figure out ways that they can move away from students, but have those students continue to get some writing done.

To have students, at any level, work successfully on their own, educators at all levels should understand the four components of an effective writing conference. The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has an incredible collection of videos of instruction, including one of Jennifer Serravallo conferring with a fifth-grader about considering audience. While the skill may not be relevant for all elementary students, this short clip is a powerful example of the structure of a writing conference.

1. Research:
Ask the student questions-
    • "What are you working on?"
    • "How is it going?"
During the research part of the conference, the student should be doing most of the talking. This is also an important time to remember that the teaching is about the student and not about the writing piece. If there are flaws in the writing piece (and there will be), we are not trying to make the piece better; we are trying to teach the student how to make this piece and future pieces better. 

2. Compliment: Find something specific to tell the student that he/she is doing well. I have found it extra effective to do this step loudly enough so that other students working in the immediate vicinity hear it and are reminded by it. Really effective comments can incorporate some of the teaching points from recent workshops.
    • "You are working so hard to use proper capitalization rules! Look at how you have capitalized....!"
    • "Look at the amount of writing you have done! You really have worked on our lesson of keeping your pencil moving--wow!"
    • "Love that you are trying out different beginnings in your writing!"
If there's any step that is going to be forgotten by experienced conferrers, this is the one. However, especially as a guest teacher in the room, I can attest to the fact that the compliment is what makes the student malleable and receptive to the teaching point. When you watch the conference that Jennifer Serravallo gives in this video, you can watch the student absorb her compliment and become readier for her teaching. 

3. Teaching point: Both student and educator should walk away from the conference knowing the explicit learning that has happened  that will help not only the current piece of writing, but also future pieces of writing. This is a responsive moment in the conference, and an incredible opportunity for differentiation. It's not about the minilesson--it's about what that student needs at that time. Some examples, thinking across different grades and genres are:
    • "I want to show you how writers stretch out words so that readers can read their pieces."
    • "Let's take a bit of a challenge here. Sometimes writers slip in word for word quotes from books in order to make their points stronger."
    • "When we write stories, sometimes writers slip in background information about characters within the action."
Whatever you decide to teach should be clear to the student and will be most effective if there are opportunities to practice the skill, if it within the zone of proximal development for the students, and if there is some kind of system for accountability.

4. Next Steps: Speaking of accountability, this is folded into next steps.
    •  I love the line "I'll be back and I want to see the evidence of my great teaching." Students laugh at this one. 
    • "Moving forward in your writing, you have a new challenge--here's what it is..."
    • "I have a post-it and I'm writing down what you are working on so that you remember on this piece of writing and on future writing pieces, as well."
For students at any level, this is the point where the conference ends, the student has responsibility as a learner, and the educator steps away from the student. So often, especially with struggling students, educators stay with them throughout independent writing time, believing that these students won't write without them there and teaching the students that they can't write without them there. 

I created a chart that could help remembering the steps of a conference and I could even see teaching students with it. It is important for students, as well as educators, to know their responsibilities in a conference.

Conferring is a wonderful tool to use in order to build independent writers, and each step is so important to the end goal of stepping away from the student with a mutual understanding of purpose and intent.

Happy conferring,


  1. I've been working with a teacher, trying to get him to see the importance of even having a conference one-on-one, Melanie. This is terrific, will share, & it will help because you're so clear in the steps. Thank you!