Nanci Atwell: The middle school guru who was one of many to revolutionize writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I first learned about writing conferences after reading her book, IN THE MIDDLE. Her concepts sold me on what was possible with students. The teacher meeting with students to talk about what they were writing, how their writing was going, the pitfalls, the high notes, and the struggles. Wow! Where could the text be improved as well as what were the strengths? Was the writing ready to be polished? Was the voice, tone, and word choice appropriate to the audience? All of this occurred over multiple conversations between the adult and child. I kept thinking if only I had had these opportunities as a student, perhaps I would have been a better student writer!
At the time, I was teaching part-time with adults and teens working toward their GEDs. Obviously these were not the pre-teens Atwell referenced in her book, but when applied to my own students, the conferencing still worked. More importantly, it positively impacted my student’s learning!
When I moved to the middle school classroom a few years later, I eagerly applied more of Atwell’s techniques; her book was my “bible”. It served me well! The most important puzzle piece that I used from Atwell continued to be the student-teacher conference.
The beauty of conferencing that so many teachers don’t understand — and is now part of my job as a coach — is that the teacher gets to know who their students are. Writing is a powerful tool; that is a pretty well-known fact. Students can be verbally shy but willing to write. However, sometimes getting to know them comes from what you pry out of them in order to help improve their writing. Each student deals with writing differently. Writing is a puzzle to many students, but conferencing helps them start to see where the pieces fit together. For some it takes longer than others; after all, everyone can see the puzzle come together at different rates and in different ways.
I’ve seen teachers silently write notes/comments in a student’s documents without any student interaction and call it conferencing. Objection! There has to be a conversation, and these discussions cannot be one-sided or the teacher is not facilitating; he or she is dictating. The entire point of conferencing has been lost if that is the case. Everyone has their piece in the puzzle — both student and teacher.
At first I tried to help my writers repair every part of their writing: Editing and revising. What a mistake! A student meeting with me would last for 30 minutes — that didn’t work too well with 25-30 students in a class. After more research about writing workshop where conferencing is paramount, and reading from experts such as Ralph Fletcher, Jim Burke, Laura Robb, and the other middle school guru Kylene Beers, I learned to fine-tune my facilitating and have students take more responsibility for their work.
In some ways this can feel as if the puzzle pieces are upside down. Students have come to expect that teachers will provide answers; many kids are not thinking for themselves. They can’t put those puzzle pieces together: Not because they are unskilled, but because they are used to parents, relatives, coaches, siblings and teachers, telling them where each piece fits.
My students now chose what 1 or 2 elements they want to talk about based on the rubric. This was a big change both for the students and for me. Focusing in on a few things in our conference, though and getting them correct, helped those skills follow through to the next writing. DEPTH NOT BREADTH: This is the center piece to the conferencing puzzle.
So, here is my writing workshop puzzle amended from the writers named above and many others. It works for me, and I’ve seen it work in similar ways for my team teachers.
- Introducing the writing task based on the literature and have students explain it
- Providing a clear rubric that is written so students understand it and can explain it — better yet have the students create the rubric
- Planning in some form which works best for each individual student
- Teacher tracking — spreadsheets works best for me — where each student is in the writing process
- Tracking the process
- Peer conferencing
Do you see a pattern to the puzzle?
Without a doubt, conferencing takes time, management — for the teacher and the students, patience — for the teacher and the students, the willingness to release control to students, and planning. It’s messy. But the outcomes are worth it.