Three Simple and Surprising Tips for Powerful Writing Conferences

So as not to disappoint, I first want to start off by saying that this post will not share a list of strategies or resources or thinksheets or structures to print and use for conferring with writers. Instead, these tips rely on you trusting yourself as a teacher, to put aside the requirements and expectations that many well-meaning resources suggest, and instead trust your teacher self. You have everything you need to teach the writers in your class, no matter the age or skill set, within your own head, heart, and experience. As the good witch tells Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, “You had the power all along my dear.”

With this in mind, conferring with writers, I have found, is the hardest part of the Writing Workshop. Most teachers I work with agree and ask to study conferring. Here are three moves that are the secret to meaningful conferences.

1. Be Comfortable with Silence: In one of the most powerful conferences I have been a part of, a third grader named Marisol whose native language is Spanish, reluctantly joined me at the carpet. Her reluctance was understandable-- there were six or so teachers watching us and Marisol overheard them describing how challenging it is to confer with her. I started off the conference in my usual way of first naming what was working for Marisol as a learner, and then I then asked her what was tricky. Silence. Because we are people who care and don’t want silence to feel awkward, a few of the teachers observing jumped in, filling the silence with more questions and suggestions. I gently asked that they give Marisol a second to think. And after what seemed like forever, she was able to name out what she would like some help with. She owned that conference from there on in. She sat up straighter, the tension leaving her face and shoulders, and smiled. All of us came to the same agreement-- silence was key to this conference. Without the silence, I would have taken away the time she needed to think. Students like Marisol need the silence, the think time, to be able to process and respond. It may feel awkward to us as teachers, but it is essential to students like Marisol. Weeks and months later, her teacher has shared with me that Marisol is a new person altogether-- she owns her literacy life with ease and confidence.

2. Be present: Although conferences are quick conversations with writers, our first move is to be completely present with that young author. To be present is not easy in a class of many children and plenty of distractions. Simply put, being present means that in my mind I say to myself that I am ready to give this one child a bit of feedback that they are ready for. I am looking at this writer, their writing, and what they are finding tricky or are wishing to try. I find inspiration in this quote:

Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world. This is why we are here.

Leo from The Three Questions by Jon Muth

3. Become the Writer Next to You: Once present, I always ask myself one question when deciding on what to teach the writer next to me: If I were this writer, with this piece of writing, with this set of strengths and challenges, what would be MY natural next step be as a writer? I virtually put myself in the shoes of this young author and when I do this I discover the most useful, customized, and writer-centered strategy. So instead of looking outward to a list of dozens of writing strategies or following along with the next conference that the teacher resource recommends you confer on, put yourself in the shoes of the writer. So simple. So powerful.

As I started with, these conferring tips do not give you strategies to share or printables to turn to. Instead, all of these moves require you and your teacher-self to be your greatest resource when giving feedback to the writers in front of you. Isn’t that why you went into teaching in the first place?

Patty McGee