The Game-Changing Teaching Tool That Is the Micro Conference

Nearly every teacher I know likes the idea of conferencing with students. When we talk one-on-one with students we can clarify messages, correct misconceptions, build relationships, cultivate key beliefs, and give the students a platform to be heard.

Where the issues with conferencing often come in are in the logistics, which can be next to impossible in an age where teachers often carry 140, 150, or 160 students on their loads. Take my American Literature classes, both of which currently sit at 35 students. If I have a five minute conference with each student and factor in a minute of transition time, the amount of time needed comes to 210 minutes, which is nearly 83% of the time I have with them each week. Add in logistical details like taking role, providing directions, logging into and off of computers, etc., and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that each five minute conference with students requires an entire week of class time.

I have written before about my strong belief in the value of conferencing, and so despite the massive time investment, I do full conferences with students several times a semester, but this has never felt like enough for me.

This frustration over the limited number of times I can meet with my students is why in recent years I have developed something called the micro conference. The difference between a conference and a micro conference is that that while a conference takes roughly 3-5 minutes in the very best of circumstances, a micro conference can be done in under a minute. This allows me to conference with every student in a single class 50 minute class period, often with time to spare.

There are three keys to pulling off a micro conference in this time:

  • First, it must be focused on one or maybe two topics. This may sound limiting, but it seems less so when we consider that most students can process and absorb only one or two big lessons in one sitting anyhow.
  • Second, we need to put the bulk of the work onto the student’s plate instead of ours. This too is actually not so bad because it is exactly what research says we should be doing. Students learn best when they–not their teachers–do most of the talking and thinking.
  • Third, it needs to be more structured than a traditional writing conference, as efficiency is the name of the game. With 35 students, each additional 15 seconds per conference adds nearly ten minutes to the time needed to conference with every student!

In terms of the exact structure, it depends on the topic and task, but there are some structural components that I always use. To illustrate them, I will use a micro conference that I did at the end of last year when my students were writing research papers:

Step #1: Pick a specific topic/s and model it/them for students.

Last spring I noticed when looking at my students’ papers that they were struggling with paraphrasing and how to use direct quotes in research papers. To work on this, I shared with them the following student model from a previous year and bolded the paraphrased parts and underlined the direct quotes. Here is a pdf of that example.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 10.49.18 AM

 

Step #2: Have the students visually distinguish the central topic/s.

I always think of ways to visually mark the key parts, as this allows me to instantly find what we will be talking about. On the surface this might seem like a small detail, but remember that little details add up when trying to fit 35 student conferences into one 50 minute period. In this case of the paraphrasing and direct quotes, after we discussed those topics and looked at the mentor texts, I had students pick a page of their papers at random and code it in the same way the did (by bolding paraphrased sections and underlining direct quotes).

Step #3: Have the students pre-reflect on the central topic/s.

In order to hit the ground running, I have the students answer questions ahead of time. In my example, I had the students answer the following questions, each of which was based upon a common problem I observed:

  • Do you think you have too much or too little paraphrasing?
  • Do you think you have too many or too few direct quotes?
  • Do all of your moments of paraphrasing seem like you truly put them into your own words?
  • Do all of the direct quotes have a reason that you left them as direct quotes?

Step #4: Have the students call you over

Oftentimes the fact that students work at drastically different speeds can be a challenge when planning a lesson, but in the case of micro conferences, it is really useful, as it automatically staggers the responses. My general policy with micro conferences is that once students are ready they raise their hands at their desks until I see them. Once I have identified that they are done, they begin working on their draft until I’m able to make it over to them.

Step #5: Have the students lead the discussion.

To start the conference, I channel Don Graves and ask the students to “Tell me about the paper.” I feel this is good policy for any conference, but it also saves time, as they have done the prep and thus can jump right in, and while they talk it gives me time to assess the situation and formulate suggestions, compliments, and steps forward.

Step #6: Keep the conference focused and only talk as long as needed to 

This is the hardest and most important step for me. My nature is one of over-talking and over-thinking, but in order to keep the conferences clocking in at under an minute without them feeling rushed, I need to not chase any red herrings and keep it focused unless there is a very good reason for changing course and end the conference once we have accomplished our goal.


While the micro conference will never replace full writing conferences in my class, it is a wonderful way for me to bring weekly one-on-one interaction and individually tailored learning into even my most stuffed classes. And while they may seem small, those little sessions can add up over time, and–like compound interest–lead to massive gains in my relationships with the students and student skills over the long run!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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