Blogstitute Week 1: Student-initiated writing conferences

July 6th, 2011

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.

Entry Filed under: Writing

53 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chris G.  |  July 18th, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Thanks for all of your wonderful ideas. Conferencing is an area I need to improve upon as it seems like I am not able to see everyone. Having the list of conferencing topics will not only help me in scheduling, but also my students in focusing more on their personal needs. Often times they can say they need help, but find it difficult to elaborate on what kind of help they need.

  • 2. Carol Frego  |  July 22nd, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Stacey, I love your analogy of writing workshop to baby Isabelle. I feel that students sometimes need to get over the hurdle of always seeking opinions rather than relying on their inner spirits. As teachers we must encourage that same movement in writing. Sharing at the end of the session builds this promise in the hearts and minds of each little author.
    Thank you for sharing with us.

  • 3. KimberlyGutierrez  |  July 29th, 2011 at 6:31 am

    I loved the breakdown of the different types of conferences that you can teach the children to initiate. I teach first grade and so want to whip out that red pen (I use green – it’s nicer!) and cross things off, change things, etc. But I restrain myself and try to guide them through the process of change. I struggle though because I have heard two different things at my level: 1) teachers must change stuff on the child’s paper and help them to see how writing should look, sound, etc. 2) we should never cross stuff out on a child’s paper – it ruins their creativity and ownership of the piece. So now what? Which is right? What’s the balance?

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