by Aimee Buckner
Does anyone else feel a lot of pressure when they confer with students? Pressure to say the right thing? Pressure to lift the level of the student’s writing? Pressure to be as perfect as you envision Lucy Calkins, Jennifer Serrvallo, or Colleen Cruz must be in their conferences?
I’ve been studying my own conferring practices and working with a group of
teachers who are doing the same. The first day of the study, I was modeling
conferring in a third grade classroom. Students were in various parts of the writing process – from idea gathering and notebook work to drafting and revising. They kept me on my toes as I went from student to student, monitoring my time with each, and being acutely aware teachers were watching.
When we returned to our conference room for the debrief, one of the teachers
cried out, “How do you do that? It’s like you pull stuff from the air!” This comment stopped me in my tracks. I panicked, thinking, what did I do that
seemed false-as if I was making things up?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, for starters, you pulled that tunnel story from your trip to Vietnam out of your hat. Did you even go to Vietnam or were you making that up?”
“I went to Vietnam and that was a true story.”
“But how did you remember it? How did you know to use that particular story?
And what about the kid who you showed a mentor text to – you just happened to
have the text and the page marked? You didn’t even know the kids and what you
would need. It’s like conferring magic!”
At this comment, I laughed. There is no magic about it.
Prepare: When teachers plan a unit of writing, we not only think through the
standards and lessons we’ll teach, but we’re also thinking about the mentor texts we’ll share and the mentor texts we’ll have on hand. Part of my preparation also includes writing in my notebook and rereading older entries – mining entries and experiences that will help me help my students. As a teacher, you also have an upper hand that I do not have as a consultant. You have opportunities to know your students. You know them academically – their goals, their habits, their potential, and their likes and dislikes. You also know them personally – what makes them happy or mad, how they treat others, their home life, and their extracurricular activities.
Knowing this prepares you for talking with them, understanding their goals, and
moving them forward enough to challenge them without frustrating them.
Experience: Carl Anderson refers to a ‘fistful of knowledge’ about writing that we use to confer with students. This knowledge comes from a lot of preparation, but like many things, our knowledge expands with experience. I have a lot of experience with conferring, but I didn’t always. I started out with a list of questions that was published in the first edition of The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins. I had that list taped to a clipboard and it was always with me in a conference. But the more I wrote, the more I read, the more I taught, and the more I listened and observed my students, the better I got at anticipating what they might need. I now know that some kids will respond best to me when I model writing. Others respond well to using mentor texts. Some need more guided practice than others. All of my know-how goes into each conference.
Understanding: My editor is constantly reminding me of one of her favorite Don
Graves’ sayings, listen more- talk less. We need to slow down in our conferences and listen to what the student is saying or trying to say. When we’re in the research phase of the conference, we really need to ask questions out of genuine curiosity as we try to figure out what new challenge this writer is trying to tackle. All of our preparation and knowledge and all of our experience will mean nothing if we don’t stop and listen. Malcolm Gladwell reminds us of this in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding.” Most students will direct us in the conference. They’ll signal what they are trying to accomplish with their writing. Sometimes we know this by what they say and sometimes we know this by what they don’t say. The trick is to stop and listen long enough to understand the student. Remember the old adage – no one cares what you know until they know that you care.
I am no Lucy Calkins. But I’m getting better and better as I develop the three keys to conferring well: preparation, experience, and understanding. In addition, I’ve learned there is one more thing I do that as teachers we often forget to do or don’t have time to do it. I follow up. I’ll talk.
Aimee Buckner has been in education for more than twenty years. She thrives on the idea that teaching is about helping students develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. The writer’s notebook helps her carve out a place in the curriculum to allow students to truly be themselves and find their own voice. Aimee continues to consult both nationally and internationally as well as speak at state and national conventions. Aimee is a contributor to Choice Literacy and is the author of a number of books and videos with Stenhouse Publishers. Follow her on Twitter @BucknerAimee.
Bibliography and References
Anderson, Carl. How’s It Going?: a Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers.Heinemann, 2000.
Calkins, Lucy McCormick. The Art of Teaching Writing. Heinemann, 1986.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink.