When I first started teaching, it would take me forty minutes to mark a 4-page essay. Ten minutes a page. Twelve years later I’ve cut that time in half to twenty minutes. Marking takes a lot of time, and I’ve often felt like it wasn’t a valuable use of my time. Students received their work, looked at their marks and either shoved the papers into their binders (ignoring my comments) or headed over to my desk to ask about their grade (again ignoring my comments). My students were not gaining anything valuable from the process, and I was draining myself of the time and energy that I needed to put into my daily teaching.
I think there is a better way. Assessing work and giving feedback will always be a time-consuming task, so I’m not saying that I’ve found the solution to the stack of papers sitting on your desk. However, I’ve found what I learned helped me to increase the impact of the precious time I spend looking at student work by prioritizing writing workshop conferences. I will add a post about the timing of these conferences and how they can fit into the flow of your semester, but for now, I want to offer what I’ve learned about making conferences work in my classroom.
Tip #1: Conference in small groups when possible
Even after a cursory glance at student work, I can usually spot similar issues that students are having. I’ve had small groups of students who struggle with supporting details and other groups that just seem to love run-on sentences. Instead of spending my evening editing and commenting on their papers, I spend my time sorting their work into piles so that I can hold small conferences the next day. Each group receives a mini-lesson as the rest of the class works on their writing. This type of conferencing is precise and targeted. It is feedback that they can immediately put into practice.
Tip#2: Use conferences even if you haven’t had time to read the student’s work before you talk to them.
You may not have time to look at student work outside of class everytime you want to give feedback. This does not have to be an obstacle to using conferences.
Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, suggests having students read their work out loud during a conference so you can hear how they intended the reader to engage with the piece. This allows the teacher to talk to the student about the discrepancy between how the student wants it to sound, and how it actually sounds based on the writing conventions the student has used. Sometimes if I read the student’s work first and make a list of revisions, it leads me to tell the student what to do, rather than show them what they have done and help them decide where to go next. When students are working on longer pieces of writing, I ask them to identify an area of struggle so that we can focus on that and then they can apply our discussion to the rest of their work.
Brian Weishar, a ministry consultant and classroom teacher, taught me that the purpose of a conference is really for the teacher to ask students questions about their work. I needed to stop doing their thinking for them. Yesterday, I was working with a student who was struggling to organize her ideas. I could see that many of her ideas fell into similar categories. My pre-Brian-self wanted to tell her which ideas to group together. Instead, I asked her which ideas she thought could be consolidated. I then ground my teeth for five minutes resisting the urge to give her the answer while she looked at her work, but then she did it. Two important things happened. She learned something about grouping ideas, and I was able to observe her ability to sort and organize ideas (Overall Writing Expectation #1!).
Tip #3 Students will value feedback when they see that you expect them to respond to the feedback, and after they see the results of responding.
When students ignore teacher comments on their work, some teachers assume that it means that students do not value their feedback. Quite often students receive this feedback at the same time they receive a grade. The grade becomes a distraction to further learning. Whenever I want students to respond to feedback, I only give suggestions. There are no grades, no levels, no checkmarks- just questions for consideration and recommendations for next steps.
When I finally evaluate a finished product, I use a one-point rubric with suggestions for improvement built into the rubric. At this point, students should be well aware of the issues in their writing so they will understand the feedback checked off on the rubric. I’ve included a downloadable copy of a one-point rubric that I use for my students’ article of the week blog posts. Constructing the rubric can take some time, but it saves time when you are in the evaluation phase of a writing project.
I also require students to track the feedback they’ve received, and they continuously write down their goals and next steps for their writing. My teaching partner Pam and I even turned this idea into an exam for our students in our ENG 3U courses. You can take a look at the exam, and I may address it further in a future post. A word of caution here: Students need to be taught how to reflect deeply. If this exam is given without a lot of reflection throughout the year, you will receive answers with limited depth.
Tip#4 You will think that you don’t have time to conference, but you do.
We don’t have time not to conference.
If students are writing, the teacher can be conferencing. Conferences do not have to be lengthy. Either use the method of grouping students with like issues together or give each student five minutes during a writing workshop. You will not get to every student every day, but over time you will be able to have conversations that move students forward. Last year I was conferencing with a student, and she said, “Miss I feel like I’m learning something.” I laughed and said, “I actually feel like I’m teaching you something.” Not only did my students’ work improve, but I got to know my students and their skills more deeply than ever before.
Tip #5 Establish a classroom routine for conference periods
I’m going to write an additional short post about this, but the routine is important. Before starting conferences, start with a 10-15 minute mini-lesson using a mentor text, your own writing, or a student’s writing. I’ve been surprised by how many students are willing to have the class look at their writing. Starting with reading and talking as writers will encourage students to be productive in the limited time you have.
If you use conferencing in your classroom, feel free to leave additional tips below.