By Mary Doyle, PSU Student
“Terrible,” I judged myself aloud after listening to the audiotaped writing conference that I had with sixth grader Ethan about his poem. His effort to create a rich, rhythmic, and thoughtful poem deserved so much more. I was afraid to count the number of times I uttered the meaningless fillers of “so”, “like”, or “ok”. I never connected rhythm and cadence to his important question about flow. I still cringe at my summary utterance of “awesome” near the conference’s end. Not my greatest teaching moment.
But why was our writing conference so lackluster? Why did the conference seem to fall flat in substance? How could I have helped provide a more effective mentoring experience for Ethan? What can I learn from the experience?
What I Did Wrong
I can only blame myself. The conversation was one-sided—I did most of the talking. I was eager to help, but instead I co-opted his topic and minimally addressed his question about the poem’s flow. This was our 2nd or 3rd conference, and I held onto preconceived ideas about how Ethan’s poem could be improved. With his previous draft, we conferenced and used a mentor text for direction—Prince Ea’s “I Am Not Black, You Are Not White.” I suggested that Ethan use structure and punctuation to affect rhythm and cadence (e.g. line breaks, stanzas, ellipses) like the author did. Ethan learned quickly and wrote a much more readable and engaging poem. But, I saw more that I would have changed. Unfortunately, I let my ideas dominate the conversation, which may have prevented Ethan from examining his work more closely and become a better writer.
What To Do Next Time
Perhaps I could have spurred Ethan’s learning by saying, “I notice this…” more often. Perhaps I could have asked more questions. Definitely I should have connected my ideas about rhythm and cadence to his idea of “flow”. Using questions such as these below might have made the conference more productive:
- What makes this poem work for you?
- What do you notice about the structure of your poem?
- How do you want the poem to flow?
- What can you do to change the flow?
- What happens to rhythm/cadence/flow when you have a long line?
- When you have a short line?
- What else do you want this poem to do?
Making writing conferences a core classroom routine, writing along with my students, and sharing my writing with my students might be the best steps I can take to build an effective writing culture in my classroom. To be a better conference participant, I can bring a cheat sheet with me to all my conferences. An effective cheat sheet for me would list general conferencing guidelines as well as points specific to the participating student and the assignment. Otherwise I tend to forget my objectives and strategies too easily. I need to focus student writers on just one area of improvement. Most importantly, I need to listen more and talk less.
My Antidotes for Conferencing Clumsiness:
- Focus on developing the writer, not on developing the piece
- Make writing conferences a core classroom routine
- Listen more and talk less
- Ask worthwhile questions
- Use cheat sheet with conferencing guidelines and one area of improvement
- Record notes for future reference
Fortunately, Ethan will get more chances to revise his poem and prepare it for publication in our class book. And I will get more practice with writing conferences. I hope, in my next conference, I will be less didactic and more empowering. I aim for less direct instruction and for more effective mentoring.
A more detailed guide to conferencing about From Carl Anderson’s Assessing Writers:
Conferencing Notes and Guidelines:
Practical advice from practicing teachers:
- Holding Effective Writing Conferences (middle school)
- 5 Minute Writing Conferences (high school)