This is the third in my series of posts leading up to my NCTE Ignite Talk on how to be as effective and efficient as possible with feedback to student writing. If you want to read the first post on when teachers should provide feedback during the writing process and the second on how much feedback they should provide, please click on the links provided.
Writing conferences with students lie at the heart of the writer’s workshop model and are advocated by nearly every writing teacher of note. They have found widespread usage in elementary classrooms, thanks in large part to the work of Lucy Calkins and the Columbia Teacher’s College, but the writing conference has struggled to find the same hold in many secondary classrooms. This is likely due to the increased logistical challenges that come with conferring with every student in a secondary class, and as a secondary teacher, I can attest that the logistics of that are daunting. Last year my classes averaged 33 (which is the new normal in a lot of districts). Multiply that by five sections and you get 165 students, which makes having substantive in-person conferences really hard. If I take only five minutes per conference and factor in one minute of transition time between each conference, the end result is almost 17 hours of total class time required each time that I conference, and that doesn’t even include prep time for the conferences.
Whenever faced with using that much class time, it is important to ask whether it is worth the time invested, and if so, how it can be done as efficiently and effectively as possible, so let’s begin.
Are Conferences Worth It?
My answer to the first question, whether it is worth it, is an unequivocal yes. Even with the time investment required, I feel that conferences are indispensable in writing classes for the following reasons:
- Studies have found that nearly every writing teacher looks for different things when grading student writing and anyone who reads student writing knows that no two students have the same combination of strengths and weaknesses. With such varied understanding of writing on both sides, having face to face conversations are essential.
- Comments on papers are not enough to fully meet the personalized writing criteria, as students regularly misunderstand instructor comments, including a significant amount of the comments that the instructors view as the most clear.*
- In a previous post, I mentioned how student feelings towards writing often range from indifferent to antagonistic. Personal conversations are the perfect place to start shifting those feelings in a positive direction, which is essential to increasing the speed of student gains.
- Conferences allow students to voice their questions and feel like a more active participant. Both of these aren’t done if the teacher solely gives written feedback.
- Personal conversations have been proven to be especially useful for students who struggle with writing, with one study finding that when teachers talked with students about writing the gap between those who struggled with writing and the class average shrank by over 50%.
- Peter Elbow once said that “The written comments you make on a student’s essay will often be the basis of your relationship with that student.” I think that is true, but I would amend it to say that your in-person comments are even more central to developing a strong relationship with students.
Ok, But How Am I Supposed to Conference With 150, 160, or 170 students?!
While conferences come with a whole host of advantages, the logistical question of how to hold them in five sections stuffed with 30, 33, or even more students without displacing a huge amount of curriculum remains. The answer, like so much in education, is that we need to work smart and learn from each other. With that in mind, here are best practices from across the writing instruction world and my classroom for making your conferences as efficient and effective as possible.
Find Time by Having the Students Write and Revise in Class
The first and biggest step to finding conference time is something that writing classes should be doing anyhow: giving students time to write and revise their writing in class. It is pretty universally acknowledged that for students to write better they need to write and revise a lot, with many writing experts advocating between 30-60 minutes every day. The only way to get students writing that much is to give them class time, but an additional benefit of writing more in class is that it frees up time for teachers to conference with students. At the start of my career, I’d always wanted to conference with students, but it was hard to find something to occupy students while I conferred with writers. Once I started having my students write more in class, I suddenly had more time to confer with student writers, which meant that that switch gave my instruction two simultaneous boosts: students got more writing time and also received more personal feedback.
Pre-Plan to Be More Efficient (Without Adding to Your Workload)
I give the bulk of my feedback during the formative stages of the drafting process, as that gives students more of an opportunity to learn the lessons, but one other advantage of giving comments earlier is that it means that I have already read and responded to student papers when I sit down next to a student (side note: I come to them, as having them approach the teacher’s desk has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of conferences because it feels less like a conference and more like a lecture). This means that I can jump right in without having to take time to read and assess the paper in the moment, and those saved minutes allow me to do more with the limited time I have.
Have Them Pre-Plan
I also require students to prepare for conferences as well. This is a tip that I got from the blog Metawriting, which suggests that “Perhaps the most important lesson [for conferences]…is to let the writer set the agenda for the conference. Ask them to prepare for the conference by considering the state of the work…[and] a very short list of specific troubles or challenges they are facing with this project. This makes your job easy because you are now simply responding to their needs.”
I generally ask students to have already read my comments and prepared a core list of no more than four central questions, concerns, or struggles for me. Not only does my “core list” quietly teach them how to metacognitively prioritize during revision, it also allows us to get to the heart of the matter, which can save hours when spread out over 165 students.
Beware of Time-Monopolizers
I don’t set a clock during conferences, but I generally try to keep conferences at five minutes or less. Of course, sometimes extenuating circumstances arise, but if both sides have prepared, five minutes provides more than enough time for an excellent conference. For most students, the five minute perimeter is no problem, but there are the occasional students who would clearly prefer 10, 15, 20 or more minutes to talk, even if that means no one else gets to confer that day. For these students, when they start monopolizing, I give them actionable tasks to do before I will continue the conferences. For example, I might say something like, “I don’t want to give you too much to think about. How about you work on your [fill in the blank] first, and then we can talk about the rest of the paper.” This helps them to feel like you aren’t blowing them off while simultaneously allowing you to move onto the next conference.
Conferences, even if well-designed and executed, require a significant commitment, but they are worth it. Writing is, at its core, an exercise in human-to-human contact, and so to teach it well, one needs a human touch as well.
Yours in Teaching,
*Crisp, Beth. R. “Is it worth the effort? How feedback influences students’ subsequent submission of assessable work.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 32.1 (2007): 571-581. Print