Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First Grade Writing Conferences, Part 1, The 4 Phases of a Conference

What's the most challenging part of teaching writer's workshop? The mini-lesson? Managing behavior? Making sure that students have time to share their writing? For me, it's conferring! When you meet with your students one-on-one, how do you know what to say they will really help them grow as a writer? I mean the little ones have so much to learn- where do you start? It can feel a little overwhelming. I've been reading One to One, The Art of Conferring with Young Writers by Lucy Calkins, Amanda Hartman and Zoe White and have learned some very helpful strategies. Keep reading as I share them with you in this first of three posts!

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- How to Confer

First of all, let me tell you more about this book. It's divided into two parts: Understanding Conferring and Conference Transcripts. Part one is EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know about how to confer with a student. If you are familiar with Lucy Calkins' other books, you know she explains everything in great detail, and she does the same here. Personally, I prefer when the author is more direct (Just get to the point!), however, I still learned a lot as a result of thinking about this book- it was definitely worth the read! I would recommend it to ANY language arts teacher from kindergarten to middle school because the essence of what makes and effective conference is the SAME in any grade level. Here's why....
Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- How to Confer
One of my "ah-ha" moments!

Yes, of course, teach the writer- that would be the student! So you see, it doesn't matter what grade level you are talking about- our focus must be on the learner, not their work. In a way I had been putting the cart before the horse all along because I was fixated on my students' writing... could I read it? Did it make sense? How was the spelling? On and on and on. I think that stemmed from just wanting to get results. As teachers, we are expected to get our students to do wonderful things (learn to read, write narratives, pass state tests...and the list goes on) and I think I have been so results-focused that I (myself, nobody but me) made myself consider this conferring "thing" to be much harder than it needed to be. Don't get me wrong, conferring is definitely complex, but it doesn't have to be difficult. Once you start trusting your teacher instincts and how well you know your kids (we all call them our kids, right?), then the anxiety begins to subside or at least it has for me- we'll see come fall!

Getting back to the point ;) Lucy breaks down the four main interactive steps of a conference:
Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- How to Confer


During this first phase of the conference, the teacher’s goal is to gather information about the student and his/her piece in order to better teach them. First, the teacher listens to the child and tries to understand what his/her goals are for the current piece of writing. The teacher should also compliment the writer on one of his/her strengths shown in the piece and encourage them to continue to use that skill when writing.
My reflections
I think I need to take more time to really observe my students and try to understand what they are trying to communicate through their writing. I can do this by listening more, by asking questions and not just jumping to the teaching point!


This next step requires that the teacher make a decision about what to teach the writer and how to teach it. The teaching point should help to elevate the quality of the current piece, as well as be transferrable for application in future writing. It should also be developmentally appropriate for the child, something they are likely to be able to “pick up.”
My reflections
I want to work on thinking about the "big picture" when I decide on my teaching point- what big idea will help move this writer forward? What will they be able to transfer to the next writing piece? Most of the time that means not focusing on those conventions that tend to drive me crazy!!! Save that for the editing stage of the writing process.


Next, you essentially give the child a personalized mini-lesson by using one of four methods: guided practice, demonstration, explaining and showing an example, or inquiry (seldom.) Guided practice requires the teacher to coach the writer through the learning with step-by-step directives. Demonstration is when they teacher models the learning by showing the child exactly what to do. Explaining/giving an example is when the teacher tells the child the teaching point and refers to an example, from a mentor text perhaps. Inquiry invites students to investigate qualities that they could learn to apply to their own writing.
My reflections
It really helps me to think of the conference as a personalized mini-lesson- differentiated instruction at its best! What does this child need right now? I feel comfortable when I teach the whole group mini-lesson, so I can do this, too!


The teacher concludes the conference by reiterating the teaching point and complimenting the child on applying it. One should also remind the child to continue using this skill or strategy whenever writing in the future.
My reflections
A lot of the time I just don't do this- I don't leave the writer with a compliment or a reminder to apply what they've just practiced to future pieces, but I can certainly start doing this.

What's great about this book is that part two contains several transcripts of writing conferences from multiple units of study that Lucy or one of her associate teachers have had with students, and they are definitely realistic- like the child who doesn't even want to add on any details to his illustrations. I found them to be so helpful because they give you the teacher language to use yourself when you confer- sometimes you just need that right phrase to get students to do what you're asking of them.

In my next post I will share what I have learned about making each of these steps the best it can be for your students. 

How do you feel about conferring with your students? What are your reflections about the steps to conferring? Have you any advice to share?


I love to connect through comments....
Thanks for being thoughtful!