If you are thinking about introducing peer conferences into your writing workshop, Mark Overmeyer has some advice for you! His new book, Let’s Talk! is full of ideas on how to make conferences more manageable and meaningful.
The Power of Peer Conferring
By Mark Overmeyer
Students should be encouraged to confer with one another about their writing. But if peer conferring is not carefully framed for students, some unintentional things may happen.
If your writers think that working with a peer is an opportunity to “be the teacher,” there may be some negative side effects. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a young child. Whenever I had the opportunity to work with a partner, I tended to be a bit bossy. And because I desperately wanted to “teach” something, I would make things up if I had nothing to offer. So, if asked to work with a peer in writing, I loved marking his or her paper up and giving it some kind of score or grade. My desire to be a teacher led me to take over the writing for another student, which, of course, did not help the writer at all.
Here are some tips for making peer conferences successful for all students:
Suggest that peers question and wonder rather than jump straight to giving advice.
Peers might be more successful at asking questions of one another than giving advice, especially early in a peer-conferring experience. After a writer shares, the reader might ask a few clarifying questions that can then nudge the writer to think of more details to add. I find that peers have more authentic wonderings because they often experience the world in the same way as their peers. They might ask better clarifying questions than an adult because they have less experience with filling in the blanks of a slightly confusing narrative.
Make the roles of reader/listener and writer clear.
The reader/listener can begin by praising the writer for something specifically accomplished, followed by suggestions. It is perhaps best to think of these offerings as “suggestions” rather than “teaching points,” because successful peer conferences require the writer to make final decisions about what to add, delete, or change based on peer suggestions. In a teacher-student conference, it is more likely that a teacher will actually require a writer to try something to improve the writing, because the teacher’s role includes helping the student to become a more flexible writer. In a peer conference, however, the writer has to make the final decision about what advice to take and what changes, if any, to make.
Let the writer take the lead.
Another way to increase the success of a peer conference is to ask the writer to begin by writing on a sticky note where he or she thinks support is needed. If the writer sets the agenda for the conference, he or she is more likely to receive helpful advice from the peer reader.
Focus on content, not grammar and mechanics.
One key to successful peer conferences is to ask students to focus on content rather than on conventions. All writers in your classroom have the advantage of having lived as long as their peers in your class. They have similar life experiences in the sense that fourth graders see the world through fourth-grade eyes, not through adult eyes. When the focus is on content and not on conventions, I no longer have to worry about grouping a “strong” writer with a “struggling” writer. These kinds of labels limit expectations for writers in general, but they can cause particular harm in a peer conference. When setting up peer conferences, I am careful about grouping students together for the purposes of supporting one another but not based on my assumptions about the levels of their writing. Remember what Carl Anderson says about writing conferences: they provide an opportunity for conversation. I firmly believe that all of my students can engage in meaningful conversations about their work if the focus is on content.
The biggest danger in allowing peers to provide advice on conventions is that students tend to take their friends’ advice, even if it is wrong. A peer may unknowingly “help” a fellow writer by correcting a mistake that wasn’t an error to begin with. Editing for conventions is the work of the writer, with the support of the teacher—not the work of his or her peers.
Make peer conferences a choice, not a requirement.
I believe in the power of peer conferences, but once they are established and students can meet with peers independently, I do not require students to confer for every piece of writing. My writers need to know that although it is okay to seek advice from a peer at any stage of the writing process, it is also okay to continue writing without seeking support. I find that, when given a choice, students work with peers in more meaningful and authentic ways because they aren’t doing so to please me or to meet the requirement on a checklist. They are meeting with a peer because they want to meet with another writer.
Debrief with students about the benefits and potential pitfalls of peer conferences.
If you want to know how peer conferences are working in your classroom, go directly to the source: ask your students. After a few rounds of peer conferences, you might gather your students and ask for their honest feedback about the opportunity to talk with their peers. Consider asking questions like, “What do you think about peer conferences? What is working? What might make it better?”
Make sure you encourage students to speak in positive terms, and do not allow them to name the peers they worked with as writing partners. This is why I suggest that you debrief after a few sessions of practicing peer conferences. If you debrief after only one opportunity for peers to work together, some students may feel singled out. They may interpret their partners’ comments as a negative reflection on them.
Students might be given a few language frames to help with this debrief:
“One thing that helps me as a writer is when the reader . . .”
“The kind of advice that helped me the most was when . . .”
“It would have been better if . . .”
When used effectively, peer conferences are a powerful tool for creating more independent, motivated writers in your classroom. An added benefit is that students tend to use more age-appropriate voice in their writing. When students confer only with me, my writing biases tend to bleed through: I love descriptive writing and the use of dialogue. I don’t know much about how to infuse humor. I struggle with passive voice, so sometimes I don’t even notice that writers are not using active verbs. Allowing peers to work together on their writing content lets them grow in ways I can’t provide as just one voice offering praise and advice.
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention
November 20-23 • National Harbor, Maryland
Stacey Shubitz, Jeff Anderson & Debbie Dean, Dorothy Barnhouse, Jean Boreen, Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris, Rose Cappelli, Kathy Collins, Ann Marie Corgill, Andie Cunningham, Smokey Daniels, Lynne Dorfman, Ralph Fletcher, Kelly Gallagher, Mary Lee Hahn, Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis, Georgia Heard, Sara Kajder, Heather Lattimer, Cathy Mere, Kate Messner, Donna Niday, Penny Silvers, Lee Ann Spillane, Melissa Stewart, and Annie Ward
What better way to extend your learning from Stenhouse books and videos than to participate in a workshop by a Stenhouse author? Browse the list below for an event near you and make plans to enjoy high-quality PD in the coming months.
Choice Literacy Workshops
• Franki Sibberson: “The Tech-Savvy Literacy Teacher,” online course, January 29-February 9
• Franki Sibberson: “Text Complexity in Grades 3-5: Minilessons, Nonfiction Text Sets, and Independent Reading,” online course, April 2-13
• Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan, and Jennifer Allen: “Coaching the Common Core,” Wrentham, MA, July 16-17
Kelowna Summit: “When Vulnerable Readers Thrive”
• Kelowna, BC, February 21-22
• Peter Johnston and Debbie Diller
Debbie Diller Richmond Institute
• February 27-28
How to organize space and time, how to manage independent learning through literacy and math work stations, how to use standards to plan for and implement work stations, and much more.
The 2 Sisters Daily 5 and CAFE Workshops
Gail Boushey & Joan Moser
• Chicago, March 29-30
• Washington, DC, April 12-13
• St. Louis, May 17-18
• Tacoma, June 26-27
• Minneapolis, July 24-25
• Atlanta, August 9-10
• San Antonio, August 23-24
International Reading Association Annual Conference
• New Orleans, May 9-12
• Gail Boushey & Joan Moser, Kelly Gallagher, Debbie Diller, Diane Barone, Carol Bedard, Jan Burkins, Rose Cappelli, Kathy Collins, Harvey Daniels, Lynne Dorfman, Charles Fuhrken, Kathy Ganske, Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey, Georgia Heard, Peter Johnston, Sara Kajder, Sue Kempton, Clare Landrigan, Steven Layne, Mary McMackin, Debbie Miller, Lesley Morrow, Tammy Mulligan, Julie Ramsay, Kathy Short, Lee Ann Spillane, Tony Stead, Terry Thompson, Kathy Whitmore, and Kim Yaris
Comprehension Times Three (CX3) Summer Institute
• Stephanie Harvey, Debbie Miller, and Cris Tovani
• Madison, WI, August 5-7
Includes expanding comprehension across the curriculum, differentiating instruction, learning targets, assessment, small groups, integrating with the Common Core, and much more.
We just posted a preview clip from Mark Overmeyer’s upcoming video How Can I Support You? Strategies for Effective Writing Conferences. In his new video you can watch Mark as he conducts six individual writing conferences and one group conference with students in grades three and five. Mark describes how he uses conferences to meet the needs of all writers, including beginning English language learners, advanced students, and students who struggle to develop their ideas. A bonus section includes a peer conference with Mark’s comments about how to help students support each other.
We kick off the Stenhouse Summer Writing Blogstitute with a post from Stacey Shubitz, coauthor of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Stacey, who is also one of the Two Writing Teachers, writes that teaching students to recognize when they need help during the writing process is an important skill. Make sure you leave a question or comment to be entered to win a package of five writing books. The next entry in our blogstitute series will appear Monday, July 18.
Student-Initiated Writing Conferences
In late April my daughter, Isabelle, attempted to roll over. I noticed her back would arch when she’d try to flip from her back to her belly. She’d make a funny sound whenever she was about to attempt the feat. Every time Isabelle tried to roll over on the floor, she’d get stuck on her right arm. No matter how hard she tried in the beginning, she was unable to roll over.
I went to a mom’s group and asked other mothers for their opinion. I was told to move her arm and give her a push to help her get to her belly. I thought about this deeply and discussed it with my husband, who wanted our daughter to roll over as much as I did. We decided we’d put up with the back arching and shrieking until Isabelle was able to initiate the rollover on her own, so that it would feel natural to her. On May 2, after lots of crying, shrieking, and yelling, Isabelle rolled onto her belly. The best part of her accomplishment was that my husband and I were sitting on the floor next to her when the big moment arrived.
In writing workshop, we don’t want our students to be dependent on us coming over to them to have a writing conference. If you teach writing workshop to a large class of students, you probably have a system for meeting with everyone. Perhaps you have a class conferring manifest you keep on top of your conferring notebook to help keep track of when you meet with each student. In fact, you should do that so you ensure all students are conferring with you on a regular basis.
Although teacher-initiated writing conferences are important, and should make up the majority of your conferring time, students need to learn when and how to request a writing conference with you. When you’re setting up your launching unit for writing workshop this year, consider adding a day where you teach your students how and why to approach you for a writing conference. Here are some of the potential opportunities for students to initiate a writing conference with you:
Author’s Craft Conference: One of your young writers notices an author’s craft in a book she is reading and wants to try out that craft move on her own, but she needs a little insight on how to do it well.
Brainstorming Conference: We don’t want our students to rely on us to help them come up with ideas for writing. That being said, there are times when students are engaged in a piece of writing and may need assistance thinking of other ways to get their point across, say something differently, or make a character come alive.
Editing Conference: While a writer may have learned a variety of strategies for editing his piece in your mini-lessons, he could still have editing-related issues. Therefore, he may wish to set up an editing conference with you. Rather than using a red pen to mark up his paper, you might try conducting this conference as if you were a tutor in a college writing center, allowing the student to point out the conventional problems with his writing so he is in the driver’s seat when it comes to editing his own work.
Revision Conference: As you know, many writers struggle with revision. Sometimes young writers need help fleshing out which parts of their writing are best to omit and which parts should be fleshed out. If a student is toying with different ways to revise a piece of writing, she might choose to seek out your help by asking for a revision conference.
Sense-Making Conference: Sometimes a writer needs an adult’s eyes on his writing to ask, “Does this make sense?” Sometimes teachers can help a child realize how to clarify a point or when to elaborate.
We want to remind students that student-initiated conferences shouldn’t be for asking “Is this good?” When I taught full-time, I banned that question from the classroom because good is in the eyes of the beholder. Rather than asking for approval, I believe we need to teach students to ask other people for assistance when it comes to specific writing-related items they wish to improve upon.
Just as Isabelle took her time to roll over independently, it’s important that we allow students time to initiate a writing conference when they are ready to approach us. If you teach students how to initiate writing conferences, in time they will come to realize that as a writer it’s their duty to seek out assistance when it’s needed.