3 Conferences

It’s a huge writing week in my room!  English 11 is starting their Gatsby Scene Analysis paper, so they worked on a remix of a recent notebook assignment to help them outline their thinking.  The “remix” becomes the foundation of our conferring.  In AP Lang we did a flash draft right before break and so this week they have a chance to confer with me about their evidence and reasoning before submitting a final draft.  

In short, I’ve been talking about student writing with students a LOT this week.  

A day in, I’m struck by the different conversations that emerge from conferring about writing this deep into the semester–all of my students are used to it by now, but they certainly don’t all have the hang of it.  Many of them are also still deep in the weeds of figuring out how to think like a writer, and others are still hanging on to the notion that they’ll just resist talking to me and maybe this will all go away (it won’t).  

Since exploring the impacts of conferring with students is kind of a passion project for me, I’ve decided to devote this blog post to some quick case studies of writers.  You’ll probably recognize some of the writers I talked to today and the ways in which their struggles are universal (and overcomeable!).

An Email from Emily

The email arrived around lunchtime and had that casually urgent tone kids get when they decide they need something right now and pleasantries may disappear completely if the email isn’t replied to promptly.  You know the type–it’s like the email arrives in your inbox with an eye twitch and sweat on its upper lip.  

Lucky for Emily, today was Advisory at the end of the day, so I told her I’d be happy to talk over her last AP essay with her and talk through some of her feedback.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from her visit though–she did well on the first essay and I thought her feedback was clear.  Maybe looking to squeeze a couple more points out of me?  Maybe just couldn’t read my handwriting?  

Turned out to be something much more practical–and a model of what conferring can be in its ultimate form.  Emily recognized (on her own!  As a result of thinking about writing really hard!) that our last unit (about the line of reasoning in argumentative writing) was one of the elements her first piece had struggled with a bit, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on how.  So she came to ask me.  In fifteen minutes we talked about: 

  • Transition language
  • Elaboration of evidence
  • Balancing quotes and elaborate data with evidence that cuts to the chase
  • Introductions and conclusions and how really effective ones light up the whole line of reasoning like you’ve wrapped a string of Christmas lights around it
  • How nervous we both were for that first essay in AP Lang (the course is new to me this year too!)

A 15 minute conference with every student is a practical impossibility in most schools (including mine), but Emily here represents an ideal to aspire to.  This is a student who has learned to value writing as a skill and also has learned to recognize it as the sort of skill that can be honed and sharpened.  And thankfully she’s decided that I’m useful as a skill sharpener.  Being able to push high-end writers like this is just as important as bringing up your low ones (it’s telling that the first thing she confided in me today was that she was pretty sure she’d never lost a single point on a writing assignment in HS before she got to my class.  WHAT?!).  It’s also significant that (see last bullet point) she stayed longer than she had to just to chat.  In the chaos of daily school, we sometimes lose sight of how important it is to get teenagers comfortable with just talking to grown ups.

Greg’s Gambit

My most trying conference of the day was with Greg, and it was actually the continuation of a conversation he and I started prior to Thanksgiving.  Greg took a great idea for his first paper in my class–about a passion he had for a certain French car race–and 

  • Sat down for our writing conference unprepared (totally normal for 11th grade writers in early October)
  • Left his ideas underdeveloped for a couple more days while I was conferring with other writers (again, unfortunately pretty normal)
  • Panicked when deadline time rolled around and plagiarized his entire piece (less normal).

So our conversation today was particularly important to me because it had come at his request.  We have talked a lot about him getting his grade back on track, but his idea for this is magical extra credit and mine is…hard work and showing me his ACTUAL writing.  Prior to break, he fell three entries behind on the notebook work that prepared them for the current writing assignment.  This was particularly problematic because the notebook only consisted of three entries.  

Today we discussed some realistic options for him (extra credit nowhere to be found among them) and hit reset on his perceptions about how to succeed in this class.  It wasn’t much of a writing conference except insofar as I was able to talk to him about how NOT conferring about his writing had worked out for him over our first few months (see above!).  Tomorrow he’s bringing me his completed notebook and (hope springs eternal) a more open attitude towards working alongside me to develop it into a piece of writing he feels a sense of success with. Reluctant writers are almost always reluctant conferrers too, but talking to kids is still the best way to turn them into writers.

Carly’s Quiet Conference

My third noteworthy conference came this morning in AP Lang.  Carly is a pretty solid writer, but still in the process of growing into her voice and style.  AP so far has been a healthy challenge for her, but as a somewhat introverted personality, Carly has struggled with engaging with me when conferring.  During our last conference we did have a good conversation about some of her ideas, but I had to prompt her repeatedly with questions to drive the conversation forward.  It’s productive, but falls short of what I want writers to do when they’re fully confident in their abilities.

Today went a bit better, but her reluctance to talk boldly about her writing ideas continues to be a struggle for her.  As we talked over her draft today we were able to 

  • Discuss the inexactness of her current central argument
  • Examine the usefulness and limitations of her current body of evidence (all anecdotal)
  • Identify some types of evidence she might draw from to strengthen her piece’s perspective.

It was productive overall, but in each bullet point I recognize the need to help Carly grow.  I had these same conversations with other writers today, but the results were more productive.  The shyness I saw the first time around wasn’t just “talking to adults” type jitters: Carly lacks confidence in her writing choices. Discussions about broadening evidence created some really fantastic thinking from other students with a little verbal prompting, but Carly just said “Yeah” and that she’d have to think more and figure something out.  She’s not sure where to go from here because she’s never had much chance to talk about her ideas before.  She’s getting there slowly, but she’s exactly the sort of student who you can see grow every time you sit down with her to talk writing.

I’m exhausted already and this was just day one.  But I’m also satisfied by what I heard from writers all day.  I know them all a little bit better now, and they have a little bit more confidence as they set fingers to keyboards again.


How do you build confidence in your writers through conferring?  Let us know on Facebook at Moving Writers or reach out to me on Twitter @ZigThinks 

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