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Treading Water During Online Conversations

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Five years ago, I made a poster with James Britton’s famous words: “reading and writing float along a sea of talk.” I whole-heartedly believe this statement as a reader, writer, and teacher. Today, I wish I could talk with him—share the difficulties my students and I face to simply have a conversation. I am trying my best to foster meaningful conversations when masks physically silence my students’ voices and technology digitally mutes them. I never realized how much of my writing-reading workshop hinged on students being together and talking with one another until now.

Struggling to move beyond what was and what is drives me to continually re-see how I can best implement breakout rooms and discussion boards. Although Teams and Canvas cannot come close to the authentic and immediate conversations that occurred in my brick and mortar classroom, I am grateful to have the technology.

What I share below are some of the Band-Aids I am experimenting with for student-teacher conferences and student conversations.

Student-Teacher Conferences: Since I cannot pull up a stool and chat with a student or table group, I started weekly small-group Teams conferences based on our hybrid schedule. I am able to meet with all students once per week to discuss their books and/or writing pieces. It’s not ideal (I previously engaged in many more conversations throughout a class period and week), but I have to re-imagine my student-teacher conferences. I invite online students to lower the volume and I use headphones so as to not disturb the students physically in the room; however, I am still available to answer questions for all students. Below is a chart, showing how I separated my conference groups by hybrid 1, online only, and hybrid 2 students. We meet during workshop time. For some meetings, I break students into smaller groups and assign them different times to meet with me.

Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Hybrid 1 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 2 students in Teams
Meet with 4-6 online only studentsHybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams
Hybrid 2 physically in school  

Meet with another 4-6 Hybrid 1 students in Teams

Table-Group Breakout Rooms and Discussion Boards: Students selected the “table groups” they wanted to work with through a Forms, regardless of their schedule: hybrid 1, hybrid 2, and online only. The first time we tried this breakout room, students in school experienced terrible audio feedback and echoing. To remedy this problem, students in school used headphones or group members sat in nearby desks, so only one person in our physical classroom needed to join the Teams call. Even so, the way the breakout rooms work is ongoing and ever-changing as I learn more about my students and my students get to know one another.

For example, each period is set up a little differently. In 2nd and 5th period, students across the different schedules meet digitally. In 4th period, my students and I worked to regroup students by schedule, so hybrid 1 students work together, hybrid 2 students work together, and the online only students are interspersed throughout. This is helping them stay more focused in our brick and mortar classroom. 7th period is a combination of what I mentioned above. I needed to be flexible in order to meet everyone’s needs. Particularly for a group of three students who work really well together. They all have a different schedule, but they meet to work in Teams throughout the week.

Additional Breakout Rooms: In addition to the Wednesday “table group” breakout rooms, students, who are physically in school, turn and talk from their desks while remaining 6 feet apart. Online students join breakout rooms.

Going into this year, I knew online and hybrid learning would challenge the routines of my brick and mortar writing-reading workshop. Re-thinking conferences and group work is a continual focus of mine. I miss the roar of my students’ voices coming to life after reading their independent reading books or completing a quick write. My students miss the opportunity to easily and naturally chat with peers and friends. Through it all, I remind myself to stay present, breathe often, tinker with technology, and trust that my students’ voices will float whether online or in person.

I would love to hear how you are conferring with students and creating opportunities for students to talk and collaborate.

Teacher to Teacher: How Teachers & Students Use Independent Writing Time

By Lynne R. Dorfman

If we want our students to grow as writers, we need to give them ample time to refine their writing skills by flexing their writing muscles during uninterrupted periods of independent writing. This writing time, if at all possible, should occur daily.

Before you send your students off to write, they need a plan of action or a goal – what do they hope to accomplish today during independent writing time? They may focus on a teaching point from the mini-lesson, but they may also have another goal or problem to solve.

While they are writing, teachers observe and offer roving conferences, actively teaching their students in highly individualized ways. During the first 5 – 10 minutes, you can be a kidwatcher. Everyone is writing. There are no conferences, trips to the bathroom or pencil sharpener, or questions for the teacher. During this short period of time, teachers can observe writerly behaviors:

  • Observe posture, focus on the writing piece, where his eyes look in the classroom
  • Does she reread pages from his writer’s notebook?
  • Does the writer appear to be distracted? Is she focused on her writing piece or looking around the room or perhaps out the window?
  • Are there some topics or a writing type that the writer prefers (has more confidence) than others?
  • Does the writer spend most of his time writing or drawing?  Planning or drafting?
  • Does the writer look at the anchor chart from the mini-lesson?

Take some notes. Does the student create or use a memory chain, add to her expert list, or create a neighborhood map or heart map? Does he illustrate a notebook entry or add details to a drawing for his piece of writing?  Perhaps he is writing an annotation for an artifact in his portfolio or conducting research for an opinion piece he is writing. When she drafts, is she skipping every other line to make revision easier?  The notes you take during the first ten minutes of writing time help you learn more about your writers. Circulate around the room to observe who is getting the concept, skill, or strategy, find suggestions for future topics for mini-lessons, or gather information to place students in small groups for focused instruction.

During independent writing, you may offer a tip from a student in the form of a mid-workshop interruption. As you rove you may see a student doing something extraordinary that could be shared with the writing community. These mid-workshop interruptions boost confidence and self-esteem in the writer you choose to highlight and serve as an inspiration to other writers.

During independent writing time, students can meet in a peer conference or return to a previous piece of writing to rewrite in another format – a poem, perhaps. They can reread notebook entries to look for a new topic or even consider abandoning the piece of writing they are currently working on in favor of a different topic. There are many reasons to abandon a piece of writing. Make it the topic of one of your mini-lessons and create an anchor chart with the students. It may look something like this:


  • When it feels like a chore.
  • You have no passion for the topic – you are no longer having fun writing this piece. 
  • You are thinking about other story ideas.
  • You cannot visualize your characters.
  • You realize you do not have enough background – need to research and read more to be able to write this.
  • You are not the best person to write this piece.
  • It is someone else’s story (your mom’s or dad’s).
  • Rewrites/revision does not improve the piece.
  • The writing lacks energy.  It does not sound new/original or inviting.
  • It is not a topic for the target audience.

Fletcher (2017) would argue that the most important part of writing workshop is the daily independent writing time, not our mini-lesson. That’s why it’s so important to keep our direct instruction short – about ten minutes. If we plan wisely, we can deliver important explicit instruction and still give our students the gift of large periods of writing time each day.

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow of the PA Writing & Literature Project. She is currently working on Welcome to Reading Workshop with Brenda Krupp. Lynne serves as an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and is co-president of KSLA Brandywine Valley Forge, her local reading council. Last Saturday she spent the morning in PAWLP’s writing group and the Continuity session. She looks forward to attending both groups on Nov. 7th. Look for the links on the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project page of West Chester University. Here is the link for the page: