COMPOSING CONVERSATIONS: IMPLEMENTING WRITING CONFERENCES IN HIGH SCHOOL
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Talking one-on-one with students about their work is one of the most effective instructional techniques a teacher can use. Conversations encourage the reflection and feedback that educators know is essential to student learning. With traditional written comments, frustration can be two-fold; teachers are frustrated when students simply look at the grade on the paper and then shove it into a notebook or folder, while students who do read the comments are often confused by the teachers' notes and repeat the same errors without ever developing strategies for improvement. Sitting down together to talk about the writers' strengths and weaknesses helps both students and teachers focus on the students' continued growth as writers.
Conference with students at any time during the process of their writing. Pre-writing conferences, for example, can help students focus and refine their ideas before they begin writing. Teachers can suggest alternatives that may prevent frustration in later stages. On the other hand, drafting conferences can help students focus on elaboration and analysis of examples. All students may not need to conference at the same stage. Conferencing with different students at different points of their writing processes helps teachers manage time and individualize instruction as well. Students can select the time of their conferences or the teacher can assign conferences to target student needs. Because they feel that the teacher input comes before the final product, students often appreciate process conferences and feel less threatened by the feedback. However, students may need to be encouraged to take the conference seriously and bring their best first efforts to the conference for refinement, rather than waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do.
Try grading students' papers aloud, with the students taking notes on your comments. Make no written comments or marks on the paper; you can make holistic written comments at the end or let the students' notes be the record of your assessment. As you read the work, discuss your impressions with the student. Hearing the paper aloud, interwoven with your questions, may help students see areas of confusion, while witnessing your metacognition will help students
understand your expectations. Moreover, by listening to the students' responses to your comments or reviewing their notes, you may find out which comments have been understood and which aspects still confuse students.
Meet with students to discuss comments and suggestions that you made while grading their papers. After papers have been returned and students have reviewed them, have students ask questions about areas of confusion, summarize their overall conclusions about the biggest areas of concern, and make plans for improving those areas in future assignments. Like the grading conference, these conversations can help both students and teachers recognize which comments make sense to students and can allow for additional clarification of other points.
Focus on the possibilities of revising completed papers. In addition to discussing students' questions and confusions about the comments on the paper (as in the post-grading conference), logistics of the revision can be considered: What should the primary focus of the revision be? Will (and how will) the students mark or annotate changes so that you can more easily identify the revisions? How might the revision change the students' grades (replacing the original, averaging with the original, adding a certain number of points, etc.)? A written "contract," signed by both the teacher and the students, might help clarify these issues and keep the students focused on content revision instead of editing changes.
At the end of a quarter or any unit, sit down with students to review collections of their work. The students can prepare for the conferences by identifying pieces that illustrate growth throughout the unit, perhaps even focusing on one area of development, such as supporting details or analysis of ideas. At the end of the conferences, students and teacher together can evaluate progress and then identify the next steps for the students, setting goals for future assignments.
Tips for Successful Writing Conferences
Set manageable goals
- Instead of trying to conference with all 150 students on each paper, try to identify one class or group of students per assignment (or per stage in a longer process assignment) for focused help. Rotate groups so that each student has some individual conference time each semester.
- Keep conferences brief. Help students maintain focus on the most important areas for improvement during the conference, rather than trying to discuss every possible revision.
- Discuss content and organization with the students. If you respond as a reader to the students' ideas and styles, rather than as a proofreader to their mistakes, students may be more likely to try alternatives you suggest, rather than just correcting errors.
- If you do notice substantial grammatical or mechanical problems, you might address them briefly at the end of the conferences and/or suggest that the students come back for help with the grammar at another time, after the content has been revised.
Listen to the writer
- Establish a friendly tone for the conference by beginning with a quick personal question for the students. Anything from "How are you doing?" to "Did you enjoy the game last night?" reminds students that you care about them and their growth - not just about their performance on the compositions you will discuss
- Encourage students to lead the discussion. This can help you understand better the students' confusion and questions about the papers. Students also respond well in conferences when they feel that their concerns and efforts are respected.
- Offer alternatives and suggestions when possible, rather than commands or directives.
- Try not to hold a pen or pencil yourself - let students take notes. Students can internalize the information, and teachers will have time to reflect on the focus of the conference.
- At the end of the conference, ask students to review the notes which they have taken. Make sure the students share your understanding of the conferences and of their strengths and weaknesses in the compositions.
- Let student notes with teacher's initials serve as records of the conferences for accountability purposes.
Prepare for the conferences
- In some cases, you may read or review the papers before the conferences; however in others, you may want the conferences to be your first interaction with the students' work.
- Help the students understand your expectations for the conference time. Having students prepare a list of questions in advance makes them more focused and gives the conferences a place to start based on the students' concerns. Help guide them to look at content rather than just editing concerns.
- If conferences are held during class time, have thoughtful and worthwhile activities to keep other students on-task while you meet in individual conferences. Focused group activities often work well; the entire class does not need to be silent while you talk with one student. Make sure all students understand and respect your time with the writers.
- If conferences are held outside of class time, perhaps before or after school or during lunch, set up a realistic schedule for students and yourself to meet. Having a sign-up sheet helps everyone (students and teacher) keep up with the appointments and the time allotted for each conference. Let students know in advance the consequences of missing their scheduled conference times.
- Since it is easy for students and teachers to forget or misunderstand what was said, keep written records of the conferences (teacher and/or student notes). As students revise the composition or work on the next paper, they can review the notes from the conferences. As you assess the students' progress, you can use the conference notes to see if the students have focused on the skills that you discussed together.
- For accountability purposes, make sure students keep comments attached to their work. If the conference resulted in a grade, be sure to write your notes down before the students leave with the conference records.
- Make sure both teachers and students initial the notes, indicating common understanding of the conference discussion.
A simple chart like the one below may help students come to the conference more prepared and may serve as a record of the discussion.
Questions I have.
|Notes from the Conference:
|Content: main idea, supporting
details, reasons, examples,
organization, coherence, etc.
|Language: style, transitions,
mechanics, grammar, etc.
Student:_________________ Teacher:________________ Date:___________________