One-on-one conferences play a crucial role in writing classrooms. Conferences give students a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, receive feedback, and map out next steps for their work.
In my own classroom, students report feeling better prepared to tackle writing challenges after conferring with me.
That’s not to say writing conferences are all sunshine and rainbows.
Without proper planning and boundaries, conferences can turn into a logistical nightmare. How can you carve out class time to meet with 20, 30, or more students without disrupting your calendar? How can you tend to the diverse needs of each student?
Whether you are new to conferencing or want to improve your process, follow these practices to make your conferences efficient and effective.
1. Integrate conferences into writing workshops.
When you give students time to read and write in class, you free up time for conferences. The workshop/conference model has dual benefits: 1) research suggests students should be writing between 30 and 60 minutes a day, and 2) formative feedback leads to better writing outcomes.
2. Wait until students are done drafting.
Conferences can work at any stage of the writing process but are most effective when students have a piece of writing to show and discuss. With a draft to discuss, you can address specific needs, and students can revise with the advice fresh in their minds.
3. Create something for other students to do.
When conferring with a student, assign something for other students to work on. (Again, this is why a writing workshop model works so well.) Consider creating a choice board to give students options for reading, writing, designing, or researching.
4. Set a time limit, and stick to it.
While it would be wonderful to talk with each student for ten or more minutes, that’s likely not feasible with the number of students you see each day. Instead, limit your conferences to five minutes or less. That way you can speak with up to 9 students in a 45 minute class period. Adjust the time limit as needed depending on how many class periods you want to devote to conferencing.
5. Have students prepare conference questions.
Figuring out what issues to address during a conference wastes valuable time. To identify a focus for the conference, have students fill out a pre-conference questionnaire before you meet.
Copy a conference planning sheet.
6. Focus on just one or two issues.
You won’t have time to read and address every issue your students bring to the table. Focusing on one or two writing issues makes conferencing more manageable for you and the writer.
7. Try not to dominate the conversation.
Encourage students to lead the conversation. You might start with an open-ended question: “So, how are things going with the writing?” For some students, this is all the invitation needed to join in. For others, you may need to refer to the student’s pre-conference questionnaire for additional talking points.
8. Differentiate feedback based on needs.
In general, struggling writers benefit from more direct feedback and instruction than high-flyers. For confident writers, keep your feedback open-ended, encouraging students to make critical choices independently.
9. Agree on next steps.
Conclude the conference by asking students what actions they will take next with their writing. The goal is to keep the writing process moving.
10. Have fun!
Conferences offer a chance for you to get to know your students and for them to get to know you. Making personal connections builds trust and confidence, which helps students persist and improve as writers.