Writing teachers know that students need to write a lot and get meaningful feedback in order to improve their writing. We also know what it feels like to be buried under a pile of student writing that needs to be read and commented on, and although there are many strategies that can help us deal with this paper load, it’s still a daunting part of our work with students.
When I initially considered conferencing with each and every student in my classes to reduce the need for written comments, I was apprehensive about the time commitment, but with the help of a colleague who had made it work in his classroom, I recently took the plunge and did writing conferences with my students—and it had a huge impact on my classroom and my students’ learning.
Before the Conferences
Prior to meeting with my students, I quickly read their essays, making no marks on the papers and instead recording three things in my own notes: a score from the rubric I was using for the essay, one aspect of the writing task the student did well, and one aspect the student needed to work on.
As I did this, I also made notes about some overall strengths and growth areas for following up with whole class mini-lessons.
I handed back the students’ unmarked papers and gave a brief overview of the strengths and growth areas I noticed in the essays as a group.
Next I had students reflect on their papers with the targeted questions on this handout. In addition to scoring their own papers, students chose what specific growth area they’d like to discuss with me. This narrowed focus was key to making our conference time as efficient and effective as possible.
I explained to students my expectations for the conferences, both for those who were conferencing with me and those who were working independently and awaiting their turn. Because they understood and were invested in the activity and because we had already established norms for independent work time, they were prepared to use the time productively.
During the Conferences
While students worked on a long-term project that was due at the end of the week, I met with each one individually for five minutes.
They would sit down next to me with their essay and reflection sheet. I had the notes I had taken previously while reading the essays, and I set a timer on my phone for five minutes.
The student would tell me what score the essay merited and why, using language from the rubric, and then I would show how I had scored it. Our scores were often similar, but when they weren’t, that let me know that we needed to work on the student’s understanding of the rubric.
Then the student would tell me what one aspect of their writing they wanted to work on in the conference. Referring back to their essay, we discussed improvements the student could make while they took notes. If the timer went off before we were done, we wrapped up our last talking point and I reminded them that they could come see me outside of class hours if needed.
After the Conferences
I gave students a due date for submitting their revised essays, and we debriefed as a class about the conference process. Students said unequivocally that they had learned far more from discussing their writing for five minutes than they ever had from the comments I wrote on their papers.
In the past, I had always told students that I was available to talk with them about their writing outside of class time, but few followed through with this opportunity. After conferencing with them in class, far more students took me up on my offer. Because they had had the chance to experience the benefit of conferencing, they were willing to make the effort to meet with me on their own time.
Why This Activity Is Worth Your Class Time
Because my classes average around 30 students, this activity was a substantial time commitment. It took three full class periods of 55 minutes, and quite a bit of my own focused energy, to conference with each student. The benefits were definitely worth the cost.
With individually targeted instruction, students were more likely to pay attention to and apply the ideas they learned from the conference. This was immediately apparent in the improvement in scores between the original and revised essay drafts.
I was able to communicate my feedback to students much more clearly than I had through my previous brief and often illegible comments on their papers.
Students were able to ask questions about writing that they were unable or unwilling to ask in front of the class. Because of this, I better understood how to improve my writing instruction.
An unintended consequence of conferencing with students was a marked change in the culture of my class. It seems obvious to me now, in retrospect, that talking with each of my students and listening individually to their needs would improve our relationships, but with the day-to-day demands that teachers face, it’s easy to forget the immense value of just a few minutes of connection.