The Gift of Conferring
By Lynn Cashell
A long line snaking around the room. Children calling out my name. Others staring into space in a stupor. The line to see Santa in the mall? No, my conference time during my 4th grade Writer’s Workshop.
Managing 20+ 4th graders during Writer’s Workshop was nightmarish at best. Everyone wanted my attention NOW! I never felt I spent enough time with any student, some students never seemed to conference with me, and when given “editor’s checklists,” they always checked everything as great, when it most certainly was not.
Attending various PAWLP workshops and reading books by writers like Katie Wood Ray and “the Donalds” changed all that. Now, I teach one writing domain at a time, spending four to six weeks using mentor texts (Thanks FOREVER to Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli), raising up each domain at a time. I teach mini-lessons covering the expectations of each domain, share my own writing samples, write with the kids, and have them try, try, try, letting them loose to experiment within the domain.
Since my focus is one domain, when I conference, that is all we discuss. Before a conference on content, I ask the students to be prepared by choosing a sentence or paragraph that “shows” content via examples, details, facts, and the like. This way, they are ready for our conference, not first reading over their piece. After our initial chat, I quickly peruse the rest of their piece, ask questions, and give a challenge to continue to revise within the domain expectations. Conferring has become a quick read aloud with the student, choosing one area related to the specific domain, a challenge and move on, checking back within 10 to 15 minutes to hear the revision. Often the student is asked to share his/her revision with the class at the end our Writer’s Workshop. This type of conferring broke me from my former rut of scanning for errors and therefore spending conference time editing.
The problem of the line of six or so kids wanting my attention at once persists, however. During my PAWLP experience, we worked in small groups to peer conference. I want to bring this type of peer conferencing to my class, but remembered that reading aloud my work to someone else was intimidating, plus 10 year olds probably would not know what to do. My solution? I plan to model how to conference, impressing upon them honesty and using a revision model as a guide.
I have taught several mini-lessons on revision and one that the 4th graders understand and know how to use is ARMS (Add, Remove, Move, Substitute). I want to use this technique to model for students how to peer conference, not just check off everything on a “peer buddy” checklist. My plan is to divide the class into peer buddy groups so when they are ready to revise, they can work with their peer group first, instead of staring into space or calling out my name.
Once this plan is put into action, modeled, practiced, and practiced some more, I’ll let you know how things are going. Rather than Santa bringing presents, I am hoping that my students’ gifts as writers and editors will shine.
Lynn Cashell has been a 4th grade teacher at Bethel Springs Elementary School in the Garnet Valley School District for the past 13 years. The first 6 years at GVSD, she was the Instructional Support Teacher at Concord and Garnet Valley Elementary Schools. She became a PAWLP Fellow in 2011 and has taught the Young Readers/Young Writers summer program for the past 3 years.
Lynn, this post is wonderful! I really appreciate the way you have a student share at the end of class. I also like how you discuss modeling the writing conference for them as well. Even at the high school level, I find that some students have a hard time knowing what type of feedback is effective. One thing I’m going to do with my class is a “fishbowl” type peer conference to continue to model what type of response can be most helpful. Thanks for sharing and reminding me of the importance of not just “scanning for errors.” 🙂
Thank you for sharing conference strategies that can easily be tailored to any grade level — including my freshman composition class. I love the idea of asking students to share their revision strategy at the end of the workshop. Thank you for sharing your thinking!