Conferring With Writers Who Don’t Know They’re Writers

I have not always identified as a writer. As a child, I was an aspiring writer for sure–I was going to be the next Ann M. Martin….but make it historical. Maybe Babysitters in Bonnets?  

I’ll admit it  needed workshopping. 

Somewhere in high school, though, I shifted and I became an incredibly efficient student of writing–not a writer any longer, but someone really good at completing writing assignments.  Honestly, I think that was my basic attitude toward writing for the first 5 years or so of my teaching career, even. I could create assignments and organizers and guide students through them like a champ. It wasn’t until someone at my local ISD asked me to blog about my teaching that I really started thinking of myself as a writer again.

And so I shouldn’t be surprised that many of my students do not think of themselves as writers. I can shout  “YOU’RE THE WRITER! BE FREE TO MAKE CHOICES” all day long, but the reality is that even my most confident students have been rubric’d to death and their confidence lies not in their writing itself but in their ability to follow rules or guidelines created for them.  

How do we help them see themselves as writers?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because of some Google Form survey results I gathered early in the semester from my students.  I often take attendance in my virtual class by asking them a few quick questions, so prior to starting our first round of conferring time I asked about attitudes towards conferences.  I gave them two different types of conferences and asked them to rank on a scale of 1-5 how useful that type of conference wasl (5=very, 1=not at all).

For me, “Help Me” is infinitely more appealing. I’m well aware of the parts that don’t feel right when I’m writing. I know the places where I’m trying to say something a certain way and it’s just not working. 

My students? 46 said a Show Me conference would be most useful and only 2 wanted a Help Me.  In the open ended “tell me more about what you chose” spot,  they said things like:

“I hate showing people my essays.”

“I never know what to ask.”

“I’d rather you just tell me what’s wrong with it.”

“What do we need to have ready for our writing conference?”

“Is our conference graded?”

Whew. I clearly had my work cut out for me. I wrote about how I approached that last month–prepping for conferences by reading their reflections, giving them clear action steps– but then I wanted to build on it. I didn’t want to get stuck in only Show Me conferences. I wanted to start nudging them towards that Help Me mentality–recognizing their strengths and weaknesses as writers and being brave enough to lead the conferring time. 

Small Group Help Me Conferences

After our first round of Show Me conferences, I had all kinds of information. As I talked to students about their essays, I made notes in a spreadsheet about what they needed to work on and what we had discussed. Nothing fancy–and in a shorthand that probably only makes sense to me– but enough information that I could easily group them. 

I’m only including this sample of my spreadsheet to show that you don’t need elaborate, detailed notes. This is all I needed to be able to more effectively group my students.

I put students in groups of three matching strengths and weaknesses. For example, a student with a weak line of reasoning but some solid, isolated examples of strong commentary was paired with a student who had mastered transitions but had “meh” commentary. Depending on the strength of those two combined, I’d either add a third student who was overall very strong or overall rather weak. 

Next–and this is an important step–I was explicit with them about how I had created the groups and what my expectations were. I didn’t say “You were the weak kid! You were the strong one!” but I did talk about how each student was bringing something useful to the group. 

  • Talking through your own thinking and commentary is useful for others to hear. 
  • Justifying your choices prompts others to think about their own. 
  • Asking questions about whether or not something “works” nudges others to think about what works in their own pieces. 

I set the groups loose (one class was virtual and the other was face to face) with this flowchart to guide their work. I was nervous that this was too quick of a nudge–that they’d revert to copy editing for each other or just stay silent in their breakout rooms–but the combination of their Show Me conferences + the flowchart of explicit steps to follow + the reality that these drafts were DUE at midnight= some solid, though tentative, writerly conversations. I know this because I overheard them in my face to face class (oh, the normalcy!) and I saw it on the google comments on all the essays in my virtual class. The final drafts show it as well. Feedback to one another moved well beyond surface level suggestions and students made some excellent revision based on advice from their peers. 

But What About Talking to ME??

They’re moving in the right direction, but I still want them to get to a place where they feel comfortable talking to me about their choices as writer, too. In an AP class, that’s one of the biggest challenges I face. They are so focused on grades and evaluation that it’s hard for them to move past trying to please me or jump through hoops. 

We are getting ready for another round of one on one conferences and I want them to be ready to lead those conferences like the writers they are. To do that, we are prepping with some low stakes notebook practice where they do some quick writes and then look back and annotate their own work a little. Tomorrow, for example, since it’s the one year anniversary of us shutting down, I’m asking them to choose an image on their phones from the past year and write about it. I’ll share my sample first to model the questions that I’d like them to use to annotate their own work.  

Credit for this assignment idea goes to the principal of my daughter’s elementary school! He asked us to do this with our kids and I realized it was easily adaptable for my students.

  • My purpose was ________ so I did _____________. Did it work? 
  • My purpose is _____________ and I want the whole thing to feel ____ so should I do _____ or ______?

These will be really easy (and interesting) for me to cruise through in their notebooks and give some feedback on quickly in the next few days. Next week, in preparation for their one-on-one conference, I’ll ask them to do the same thing with their argument essay drafts.

I’m hoping this is the nudge that they’ll need to start thinking like writers (again or for the first time) because it’s a nice balance of them getting a little of what they want (validation or evaluation) but also giving a little of what I want–speaking to their own choices. I’ll let you know how it goes next month.


How do you nudge your students into seeing themselves as writers? What do you do to help build (or rediscover) that confidence? Let me know in the comments below, on the Moving Writers Facebook page, or on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

Or, Join me (and my teacher bestie Mike Ziegler) on Thursday, March 18 at 7pm for a Moving Writers Webinar all about conferring.

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  1. Hi Hattie. Just came across this post and have already followed links back to a number of your previous posts. I can’t help but feel like you are adept at many of the skills I am working my butt off to establish in my own practice—despite Knowing the power of one-on-ones, I haven’t managed to make space for them often enough.

    Thanks for sharing here. I look forward to following your writing here in the future, and digging back through the archives as well! One question I have right now is of a practical nature, and one you may well have answered elsewhere: how are you managing “digital notebooks” in a way that is authentic to student process but also easy for you to access specific exercises, etc.?

    1. Hi Noah!
      Thanks for your kind words! I can definitely relate to the “working my butt off” sentiment…after 20 years in the classroom I STILL feel like I’m constantly reinventing everything (and the whole pandemic/virtual teaching thing certainly didn’t help!)

      As for digital notebooks, I’ve had a lot of success this year using Google Slides for notebooks. I give the students a common template at the beginning of the month that divides the notebook into three sections with a table of contents. Each entry is then linked to that table of contents. It makes it very easy for me to spot check quickly. One caveat–the main reason it’s easy (I think) is the Schoology platform we use. All of their digital notebooks are housed in one place and I can click through them pretty easily. I’m not sure this would be quite as teacher-friendly w/o that. Hope that helps and that you find a way to manage them. Beyond the technical side of managing them, the biggest thing that helped me manage notebooks and keep them authentic was giving up the idea that I had to check them constantly. These are THEIR notebooks. For most kids, they eventually (some very quickly, others take time) see the relevance and importance of the notebooks. I spot check and comment on entries all the time. As the semester goes on, they take more and more ownership and I need to do less motivating to keep them invested in them.

      Good luck!!

  2. I really appreciate your post. I particularly love the specific information about conferring.

  3. It’s funny but I’d never thought about explicitly naming different types of conferences for my students until this year. It has helped us talk about expectations much more clearly!

  4. I love this piece. I hadn’t heard of the different types of conferences (Ask Me, Help Me) before, but I really like it. This is a piece that makes it clear that what the system – the way we are expected to teach, the way parents expect students to focus on grades, not learning, etc. – is producing compliant children who don’t care about the actual writing. Rubrics and success criteria sound great to so many teachers, but what they do is keep our students from develop their own inner-sense of what works and what doesn’t in writing. I’m going to be trying some of what you did here sometime next quarter!

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