Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.
Our second demonstration lesson of the day comes from Matt Hendricks. He’s going to talk to us about the art of conferring with student writers. He begins by reminding us that conferring is incredibly complex, and that he isn’t coming to us with all the answers.
Quickwrite: Describe your first memorable experience a face to face writing conference.
Hmm. I can’t seem to think of anything off the top of my head. What does that mean? I do have a bizarrely deficient memory. The frustrating thing is that I’m sure I’ve had them; I just don’t remember them. For the sake of this quickwrite I’m tempted to make one up, but that doesn’t seem right. Everyone else around the room is fiercely scribbling, so I’m glad others are able to conjure something up! I was fortunate enough to live in an area with a lot of resources, so I’m positive my teachers spoke with me about my writing. I was never really a good student until college. The only piece of teacher feedback I can remember is when my senior year English teacher handed me back a paper and simply said “Think less.”
We share. Someone says their first conference was during college with Lad Tobin. I love Lad Tobin’s writing! Amazing. She remembers how he spoke of nothing but the content, choosing topics and themes instead of punctuation. Another person talks about the bonds created through her college conferring. As the room shares out I notice that most people mention college as the time of their first conference. These are not the answers I was expecting. It’s clear that there is a lot of energy in the room around conferring, around the relationships and the power dynamics and the trust involved in them. What an intriguing start!
Conferences are powerful.
Matt talks to us about the institutional pressures that work against conferring. How instituting a systematic program of conferring with students is likely to come against a lot of push-back. Conferences are a great way to provide students with a safe space to grow and exercise power.
What do we mean by conferences?
This slide has a lot of valuable details on it. While there are different ways to do confer, the most important aspect is just being present for the student and the student’s writing. He reminds us that students are often way more nervous about conferring than we are.
Carl Anderson is often considered a modern expert of the conference. He recommends conferring at every stage of the writing process.
1. Rehearsal: What’s the topic? This is a great way to make sure that students don’t feel sucker punched at the end of a writing assignment. Conferring in the beginning of the process can help the student select a topic that’s going to work.
2. Drafting: Developing the idea, checking out different genres and structures
3. Revision: Rethinking how ideas are being developed and presented, helping the student figure out what’s rhetorically important
4. Editing: Here’s the place, and pretty much the only place, to get at any glaring mechanical errors.
You teach the student, not the writing. The listening space is a learning space, O.F.L. says.
So, how do we do these? What do we say? What do they say? How do we track the conferences? We have so many questions! Carl Anderson provides a simple template to get us started:
1. Listen to the writer! Vicki Spandel says “Writers learn to be listeners first by having someone to listen to them.”
2. Invite them in with a question: How’s it going? What are you doing today as a writer? What do you need help with today?
3. Question: Avoid questions that only deal with content (teaching the paper) and instead focus on questions about the creation of the piece. For instance, why have you chosen this topic? Could you explain what you mean by…? What do you think you want to communicate with this piece?
4. Give specific, useful feedback: Describe what you see and then describe ways and means for students to improve the piece.
5. Teach a strategy or concept: Give an explanation, connect to a writing mentor, remind student of past lessons
6. Leave the student to write.
We watch Penny Kittle conduct three writing conferences with students. If you confer with students I recommend watching this clip. Penny annotates what she’s doing in conference along the bottom of the clip.
We close out our afternoon ready to try out our new conferring techniques in our writing groups. Fantastic!