a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Understandings of Conferring With Student Writers

I feel like Jonas as he fled the community in The Giver by Lois Lowry.  As Jonas got further and further away from the community (as measured by space), his memories weakened.  This is much the same way my memories are weakening as I get further and further away from the NCTE convention (as measured by time).

It seems to me that the best way to hold on to my memories is to put these new ideas into practice and build new memories grounded in my experience.  So I am.  And it feels incredible. 

Based mostly on a workshop led by Douglas Kaufman, Penny Kittle, and Linda Rief, I have begun a small revolution when it comes to writing conferences in my classroom.

I am sure I am going to expose myself as a complete moron for not doing this sooner, but I honestly didn’t know any better.  Until now.

The presenters started the workshop by showing ancient video footage of Donald Graves conferencing with a group of students.  I have never conferenced with a group of writers at a time in any manner other than to target a pre-determined skill deficit, which they all shared.  This is the scary thing for me about professional growth.  To grow I need to open myself up to being truly reflective, to really being honest with myself.  Sometimes honesty is hard.  Sometimes it makes me feel defensive.  Or even worse, inadequate. 

That footage made me want to change. 

After watching three more clips, from each of the presenters’ classrooms, I started to understand more deeply how and why I needed to make a change.  So I did.

I started by modeling what the conferences would look like using 4 student volunteers to role-play.  I affectionately called this model our “dead writers’ conference.”  I teach middle school.  Enough said.

Each student had a copy of a piece of writing as well as pre-planned question to ask for feedback about his piece:

Tupac: “Things That Make Hearts Break” Is my ‘So What?’ clear?
Shel Silverstein: “Sick” Do I have enough detail?  Can you visualize what I am describing?
Edgar Allan Poe: first stanza of “The Raven” Does my writing have rhythm? (Poe was a plant.  He was the rascal who thought if he asked about a strength, then he wouldn’t have to change anything- this was to model that no suggestions just make revision more difficult, it will not go away)
Dr. Seuss: a page from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are  Does my writing make sense?

While we walked through the model conference, the rest of the class acted as observers in the field, like Jane Goodall (or as one student suggested, NBA recruiters). 

Each dead writer took a turn sharing the question he had for the writer’s group—what he wanted feedback on, specifically.  Then he read his writing.  The rest of the group responded using post-it notes.  We started by sharing one thing we noticed about the writing (maybe something we liked, but at least something we noticed that is not negative).  Then we went around and gave feedback based on the question that had been posed.  At the end, the writer was given the feedback post-its to attach to his writing and use while revising. 

Upon presenting this model, the field observer students said that they like how professional the conference felt.  Another student brought up the possible issue of having a piece of writing that is too personal to share with a group.  We discussed ways to deal with that.  Students suggested meeting with a carefully suggested group just for that piece of writing or requesting a one on one conference with the teacher instead. 

End result, my students were as itchy to try it out as I was.  It was seriously a, “Hey kids, I saw this in some movie clips, and I think we can do it” moment.  And they were with me. 

Today, that modeling was put into action.  I have only led two conferences this way so far.  And I am sold. 

Some takeaway thoughts from the NCTE session with Kaufman, Kittle, and Rief:
  • When doing Quick Writes, have students stop mid-sentence.  This allows them to pick up their thoughts more easily if they continue writing at a later time. 
  • The writing conference is a learning event, not a teaching event.
  • During conferences, listen to the writer read his/her own work.
  • During conferences, look for elements of craft that interest me as a co-writer who can learn from the writer with whom I am conferencing. 
  • Shorter writing conferences are more effective than longer conferences.
  • If students could only learn one thing deeply, they should learn how to write a good lead—the lead directs the rest of the draft.
  • When it comes to high stakes writing (i.e. college applications essays), the writing conference becomes more about he writing than the writer.
  • Every writing conference should empower students to write more.  If you are not empowering students, make a change. 


  1. This is so wonderful, Christy. I bet the kids loved it! And thank you so much for sharing your learning from NCTE. I was so disappointed that I could not attend.I love the bullet point about conferences being a learning event, not a teaching event. Wow! And I also love the point about when writing is high stakes, it becomes about the writing rather than the writer.

  2. You shared great take aways from NCTE. I'm going to have to do a little more reading about conferencing this way. I love it. It makes perfect sense, but I don't run conferences this way in my classroom. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. So I am reading your posts backwards. This modeling makes quite a bit of sense. Perhaps you have convinced me to give it a try.