First Grade Writing Conferences, Part 2, Tips for Improvement

Are you looking for ways to improve your writing conferences? Today I'll be sharing more (helpful tips) about the 4 steps of conferring as explained in Lucy Calkins' book, One to One, The Art of Conferring with Young Writers. Click HERE to read my first post about the 4 phases of a conference.

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- Conferring Tips

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- Conferring Tips
The research phase is quick, but jam-packed with things to consider. I think it's the hardest part of the conference because it's what leads you to "decide" what to teach your student.

It helps to consider the following three questions while you stand back and observe the writer in action before initiating the conference with him:
  1. What is the writer trying to accomplish in this piece? This can be hard to determine without asking questions. Your assumptions could be totally wrong.
  2. What can the writer already do well? This can be the skill or strategy that you compliment them on before getting in to your teaching point.
  3. What are the next steps? This leads you to your teaching point.

The most important tip I picked up from the book was to ask questions to understand the writer, not just what they wrote. A lot of times in the past, I wouldn't ask my students enough questions about what they were thinking or trying to do in their writing- I was asking questions about the content of the piece, and the mechanics of it. I'd dig right in by saying, "You need to ...." Not so great. We want our questions to guide the student to come to realize on his own what he needs to do. Our questions will lead to the student having more ownership of both the process and the piece.

Lucy recommends that you "ask questions and probe to explore the child's answers." So, you may initiate the conference by asking: "What are you working on as a writer today?" or "What's your plan for writing time today?" Bu then, more importantly, follow up their responses with some more probing questions, about their writing intentions, not details about the piece. You know that young learners can't always articulate what they want to say, so it's our job to get it out of them. My goal for the next school year is to resist the urge to tell my students how to "fix" their writing, and to instead, asking them guiding questions that will help them to become more independent.

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- Conferring Tips
Based on your "research", you will decide on three things (all within a few moments!)
  1. Something to compliment them on (a strength, as mentioned above) Sometimes your compliment will extend into your teaching point because it might be something the child is just starting to do, and you have the opportunity to elevate their level of skill.
  2. Your teaching point (something realistic and relevant) What is something you think the student is almost ready to do on her own? What is something relevant to her original intentions? You want your teaching to move her toward her goal, not another different one.
  3. HOW you will teach your student (what approach will you take?) Will you demonstrate? Give an example? or use guided practice?

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- Conferring Tips
Well, now that was quick! It's now showtime! I think this is the most comfortable phase for most of us- after all, this is what we do! We know how to teach!

When you demonstrate, remember to name what you want your writer to learn, show them exactly how to do it, and then debrief your demonstration by reiterating what you hoped they saw you do. (Name it, show it, remind them of it!) Much of the time, you will use a mentor text or another student's work, but of course, you can show them what you would do and how you'd do it.

Giving an example is a lot like demonstrating in that you will usually refer to a mentor text, or a text you have written/modelled in class. Just make sure that the example you provide is within their grasp (zone of proximal development).

The most popular mode of teaching during the conference is guided practice, when you are essentially coaching the child through the process. We are sitting side-by-side, providing a scaffolded experience. Your prompts should be short and precise- the child is working, so don't bog them down with too much talk. Lastly, make sure you remember your two instructional bookends: name the teaching point and reiterate it once the conference is done. Which leads me to.....

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom- Conference Tips
By now you're probably realizing that a conference is very similar to a mini-lesson - and you would be correct! You want to leave the child reminding them of what they learned to do as a writer and encourage them to keep applying it, "today and every day," as Lucy says. You want your students to take ownership of the skills and strategies that you teach them so they can mature as authors. In the linking phase, you can also switch it up and ask the student to tell you what they learned, "Can you tell me about what you just did as a writer?" What a great way to check their understanding!

In my next post I will share thoughts about how to troubleshoot those bumps in the road that may pop up while you're trying to manage your writing workshop.

I hope you picked up some helpful ideas to use during the different conference phases. Which one seems to be the most challenging for you?

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