Slow Down to Go Faster: Handy Tips for Individual Student Writing Conferences
Is Taking the Time to Do Individual Student Writing Conferences Really Worth It?
I just finished 95 student writing conferences on Friday. Besides going through my fair share of coffee and green ginger tea, I have come out on the other side a bit more reflective. This whole process started with a student comment three weeks ago, when students were getting ready to turn in their first draft of their research papers.
One of my third-hour students on a day when many students were missing on a choir field trip said to me, "I feel like all you do is point out the negative stuff in our writing." I immediately informed the student that I appreciated the feedback, and to tell me more, however, inside I was dying. While this analogy seems extreme, I started to think to myself: "I don't have time to do everything that is being demanded of me." The simple truth is, none of us teachers have the time to deal with everything that is being demanded of us. Not a single one. This is why many of my fellow teachers commiserate with me when I talk about waking up at 3:45am thinking about a lesson, or a never-ending to-do list, or simply just feeling overwhelmed 99% of the time. Or they end up leaving.
Despite feeling this particular weight on my shoulders, I also felt the simultaneous feeling of, "my God, she is right." Something had to be done. This is my new mantra:
Positive feedback is just as critical as negative feedback in building our young writers.
I am sure of this. So, as I set out to collect rough draft #1, I also set out to see where I could put some positive feedback. What ultimately happened was me using my coding system to provide the same feedback I always give. I spent 16 hours going through 95 rough drafts on a weekend to do the exact same thing that I said last summer I wasn't going to do. I coded those research papers to my heart's content. I was ready to hand them back the next day. So, I did. However, that student's comment was still in the back of my mind. I handed those drafts back and immediately began researching ways other people are giving positive feedback.
Cue the Problem
Students got their feedback, and they submitted to me revision plans on how to fix their feedback. I went over common codes for feedback that went wrong. This draft focused on Presentation, Ideas, and Conventions of the Six-Traits +1 Writing Program focus (This is how I focus all of my writing feedback). I focused on primarily 4 areas where students struggled with their ideas and presentation with research:
MLA Formatting of In-Text Citations
Adding Research to Sub-Headings
All of this is good practice. All of this makes sense and would be met with affirmation if I were sitting around a group of English teachers. So then, students handed in their rough draft #2s. I collected them and on a blistering cold winter-should-be-spring-time weekend, I opened up the first ones in Google Classroom ready to comment and realized that my students were making the same mistakes that they did in the first draft. While many had made improvements, they still were not revising their writing. Now, this happens many times as we teach students how to revise and edit their writing, but there was a sense of urgency that it was March-the end of March-and students should be acquiring skills that will take them beyond my classroom.
It was at this moment that I knew that something drastic had to be done in order to not only reach my students as writers, but also to not die as the assessor of their writing.
The Writing Conference
I knew this was going to take some time. 95 conferences with 3 different hours of students was not going to be easy considering logistics and also considering that my goal was to not assign them work over the upcoming spring break.
I started with the same form I had used with the first draft, and I added some positive feedback as well.
I also added a reflection form before the conference so I could get students talking about their own writing strengths and weaknesses.
My process was simple, I was going to talk to each of the students about their writing-individually. This was not an easy task; however, it was necessary to answer student questions, give quality feedback, and to affirm them as writers. Ultimately, I don't care when they hand in their final drafts. Originally, we had set this up for the next Monday, but this rolling conference schedule also helped reinforce a skill that many middle schoolers struggle with: asking for help. I gave out extensions left and right as long as they came to talk to me.
Here are the handy tips I found throughout the process:
Handy Tip #1: Pre-Comment on papers when you are able.
I used Google Classroom to give feedback, and it helped move conferences along faster when comments were almost halfway done. Students got to see the highlights of feedback. I started first by reading through all of the papers with the students. While this is beneficial, and it shows true reactions, it was not sustainable. Why do you ask? I only got 3 done on the first day. 95 was going to turn into a month if I wasn't ready.
Handy Tip #2: Grade the papers in front of them. Students can highlight their feedback.
Help students take ownership of grades. Using three-point communication, it is not just you assigning a letter to their writing. I had students highlight their feedback while I spoke, so I wasn't really writing anything during the conference. I was just was focused on commenting, pausing, and listening to their questions. I reminded them to highlight their feedback so they would have a sort of checklist for their own revision process.
Handy Tip #3: Set a timer when you are getting tired.
I don't like this one, but it was necessary for all of these conferences. I got tired right around my fifth hour, and I found it easy to want to give up. It can be obtrusive to use a timer when you are having a conversation, but it is also necessary to make it equitable among other students.
Handy Tip #4: Assign quality work that can be independent.
Choice reading in the library was done twice during this week and a half long process. I also let them start the new class novels without me as we were doing writing conferences. It is not easy letting them work so long without you giving your input into the daily lesson. I assigned Google Classroom Answer, Ask, and Reply assignments, choice reading, and gave time in class for individual reading assignments. Students were going to do this work anyway, I was just giving them time in class to do so while I held conferences.
Handy Tip #5: Prep comments ahead of time for students so that they receive the same message.
An example of this is introducing evidence in an academic essay for student writers. I want my students to know basic ways of introducing evidence, but I also do not want them introducing them the same way and sounding like a legion of robots. I wanted 4-5 different ways you introduce evidence handy for writers to choose what they liked. I wrote this on their feedback sheet and set it on the way, or I put it on a Google Classroom comment on their actual document ready to go. I did this for my main areas that I knew students were struggling with overall.
I can't take this much time every time. For that, my heart is a little sad. However, I also know that this time can be properly invested at key points throughout the year. For example, students can benefit from this during research papers like they did during this project which is our hardest project of the year, or it might be beneficial to establish this early on with their first paper in the school year. Perhaps if I had taken the time to do writing conferences at the beginning of the year, students would not be struggling with making corrections. I plan to keep the conference format because I appreciated the fact that I was spreading out my work over time and not just piling it up on the weekends. Who knows, I may be on to something.
There is a missing link between the teacher and the student when it comes to writing feedback, and I am absolutely certain it has nothing to do with a rubric.