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The Heart of the Workshop: 3 Tips & Freebies for Productive Writing Conferences


I sat in the fourth row behind Mike, my not-so-secret crush. I can still remember the anticipation.  Today was the day Mr. Z was handing our essays back to us.  I looked forward to the red-inked notes he wrote on my paper.  Always brief, sometimes only one word, they had the power to make or break my day. 

In junior high, everyone had a role.  Tim was the class clown. Doug was the joker. Mike was the anthropologist who cried when I picked Pompeii as my research topic before he could get to it. I did it just to spite him. I liked ancient history, too. I was "the writer." That was my handle. Everyone knew it. I loved to write. So on days when our writing assignments were handed back to us...well, it was my day. 

As much as I loved Mr. Z's comments on my papers, they did very little to develop my writing skills.  At the risk of aging myself, these were the days when the teacher gave the writing assignment, you did it and turned it in. Then he read it, wrote a grade at the top, a couple of comments, and that was it. No rubric. No coaching. No self-reflection...only self-flagellation when the grade and comments were less than expected.

Times change, people change, situations change...The only thing constant is change.
                                                                                                 -Anonymous

Times have changed since my junior high days.  Many of us use a writer's workshop approach to teach writing. Hopefully, those days of ineffective comments, and guessing at the assessment targets are gone. When students get their writing pieces back, they should know exactly what writing skills they have mastered, as well as those that they have not mastered. Self-reflection is an integral component for developing writers. 

There are three writing conference strategies that I've identified in my research, teaching and coaching experiences.  We teachers often complicate conferring. It feels daunting and awkward at first. However, three tips can simplify your writing life in your classroom.

Honor the writer. Yep. You heard me. In order for my students to behave like writers, to talk like writers, to think like writers, I have to treat them like writers.

What does that mean? It means I begin each conference with these words, "Tell me about the thinking you're doing today as a writer."  In the beginning, I get blank stares. DON'T GIVE UP! As the school year progresses, your students will be able to answer this question IF you model that type of thinking for them consistently.  

Ask your writer to describe what she's proudest of in her writing. Ask him to talk about his challenges. Ask her if she's tried anything new while writing. Ask them, "What do you want to work on?" Initially, you may get surface level stuff like, "I want to work on my beginning." Don't give up. Ask, "What about your beginning?" Your writers will become more adept at talking about their process if you give them opportunities to do so. Remember that the end goal is not to develop a perfect piece of writing. The end goal is to develop a thoughtful and skilled writer.


 When I meet with a student writer, I pick one teaching point to address. Looking at student writing can be so overwhelming-the punctuation, the sentence structure or lack of, the underdeveloped evidence, etc. But if it's overwhelming for us, imagine what it's like for them. 

I zero in on one teaching point to teach in a writing conference. This saves my sanity, and my students are more successful writers because they can focus on one strategy. We want our students to learn it all...YESTERDAY. Often times, I end a unit feeling defeated because Johnny didn't hit this benchmark or that benchmark.  I have to remind myself, though, that good writing is good writing. The skills translate from genre to genre.  I've begun the habit of tracking my end-of-unit assessment data to inform the teaching decisions I make in the next. 

Data. Did you feel the bile rise up in your throat a bit? Swallow it back down. Believe it or not, writing data can be your best friend. Hear me out. 

When I assess a writing piece using Writing Pathways  or 6 + 1 Traits rubrics, I record all of the scores. I graph them on a grading sheet, so I can see a data picture for each of my student writers. Then I highlight the low scoring  areas. I'm looking for trends. If I have many students who bombed paragraph transitions,  then I teach it again within the same unit or in the next unit if we're moving on. If it's just a few, then I might conduct some small group writing conferences around that teaching point.  If it's just a couple of students, I address it in one-on-one writing conferences. 




I put those writing score sheets on a clip board with other conference sheets I've developed.  The data is front and center for me at each and every writing conference. I can't emphasize how much that has changed the success of my writing conferences and my formative assessment practices.


Writing conferences are one of the most powerful tools a writing teacher has in her arsenal.  They are formative assessments. They are one-on-one or small group instruction. They are differentiation at its finest. They are the heartbeat of the writer's workshop.  Writing conferences beat out a rhythm for the rest of the workshop. Because I am constantly taking my students' writing pulses, my lessons are more tailored for their needs. I know my writers inside and out...no red pen in sight.

Check out the resources & freebies below!

This is a resource I use every year in my classroom. It details how I organize myself for writing conferences. It'll tell you all about my writing clipboard...the one I can't live without. 



We want a strong connection between reading and writing skills for our students. The lessons below are designed to link the two together. Integration of reading and writing skills develops better thinkers! 




These resources are part of this writing blog series. They're developed for getting reluctant writers started and for character development. Both focus on helping students to write like readers and read like writers. 




And finally...I've included two free videos. Click on the pictures below to access them. In them, I chat about writer's workshop practices.




Until next time, may your writer's workshop rock on! 

3 comments

  1. It is often hard to pick for me to pick one teaching point but it is so important. Your resources look fantastic@

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  2. Thanks for you post. It is a good reminder for all of us. And love your freebies too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is so helpful! We use Lucy Calkins writing workshop. I need to work on finding one area of need to focus on in each student's writing during the writing conferences.

    ReplyDelete