How do you respond to a student’s writing while conferring? And what’s the best way to give feedback?
This week on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re talking about how to support your students during writing conferences. Writing conferences help students build confidence in their writing ability and find joy in the writing process. While conferring with students can feel daunting, author Carl Anderson says, it’s a skill any teacher can learn with time, practice, and the right resources.
Nearly 20 years ago, Carl wrote How’s it Going, one of the most influential books on conferring.
In his newest book, A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences, Carl takes conferring and distills it down to an accessible, easy-to-implement resource for educators at any level.
Our conversation began with Carl’s journey on conferring since he wrote How’s it Going...
Below is a full transcript of our conversation...
Carl: 20 years? Wow. My daughter was born around the same time that book came out, and people say to me sometimes, when I say my daughter's in college, like "How's that possible? In, How's It Going, she's a baby." And so, yeah, she's 20, and the book is nearly that old too.
Let's just talk about what's happened in my life since that book came out. It became a very popular book very quickly, and my life changed in a lot of ways. First, I was asked very quickly to do workshops all over the country, and then across the world. So, I have been in conversation with teachers all over the world about conferring. And getting with teachers, talking about this material, and hearing their questions about their experiences, have helped me explain conferring better to teachers.
I have probably visited a thousand schools since How's It Going came out. And one of the things that I do in schools, what schools ask me to is do a lot of demonstration teaching. So, one thing that it's done for me is, I'm much better at conferring than I was 20 years ago. There are aspects of conferring that I have really had to think out in more depth since How's It Going came out. So, I'm better at conferring.
And because of the constant work in schools with teachers, I have found I have become much better at explaining what I do in conferences, and just what to do in a conference.
And the third thing, and really the most exciting thing that I've done a lot of in the last 20 years is, many schools have asked me to come in and coach teachers as they're conferring. And, it's been fascinating to just visit, at this point I'm going to guess probably over a thousand teachers' classrooms, everywhere from Brooklyn to the Middle East. And, to get in there and to have a teacher say very nervously, "I'm going to do a conference, can you watch?" And, "What am I doing well? What can I get better at?"
And that coaching has really impacted how I talk about conferring, because I've seen what are teachers strong at, what are the typical things that they struggle with. And so, I am much better at explaining conferring, because of all these different experiences. And, I think A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences reflects all of that work that I've been doing in the nearly 20 years since How's It Going came out.
Brett: Well, let's talk about that, because this is a different kind of book. It's a very exciting book, but it's different in many ways from How's It Going. Talk about how this book is different.
Carl: Well, let me give you a little history on this book. I've wanted to do the second edition to How's It Going for many years, and I actually did write the second edition to How's It Going and finished the draft about a year and a half ago. And then Heinemann called and they said, "We'd actually like you to re-purpose the second edition into this new line of Heinemann books, Classroom Essentials."
And one of the interesting aspects of that is, my second edition was about 80,000 words long, and they said, "Well, it's going to need to be about 25,000. You're going to need to cut 55,000 words from the text." And it's been a fascinating process. [Katie Wood Ray 00:02:56], the editor of the Classroom Essentials book has really helped me with this, but I have found that the process of writing this book in 25,000 words has, I think, made it much more clear, much more crisp, much more elegant. I mean, it really helped me think about, what's the essential stuff to say about conferring? So, that's a part of it.
The book itself, I think, is a very different book for Heinemann. The design of this book is extraordinarily beautiful. It looks like contemporary nonfiction. The graphics are beautiful, and they really enhance the meaning. And one of the features that I'm very, very excited about in this, is that we hired an illustrator, my daughter, Ansia, my 20 year old daughter Ansia, to illustrate the moves that happen in conferences.
So, throughout the book, these gorgeous cartoons, for lack of a better word, that really illustrate the different conferring moves. And they area absolutely gorgeous. So, the design of this book is just stellar and beautiful, and I think really enhances the meaning and the reading experience that readers are going to have.
Another feature of this book that I think is really, really exciting, it is linked to over 25 videos with kids from every grade, from kindergarten through 8th grade. And so, the reader of this book will be able to link to those videos throughout the reading experience, and see me demonstrate all the things that I'm talking about in the book.
I love the process of doing these videos, and meeting all these kids, and doing conferences with them, has been extraordinary. I've gotten to watch these videos a lot over the last couple months as we've been in the finishing stages of this book. And the kids are so smart and so wonderful, and I think watching those videos, for people who read the book, and essentially view the book. I think that's going to be an essential experience, because I do think that you can read about conferring, it's important to read about conferring, but it's really essential to see conferences.
I had that experience at Teachers College when I was new to writing workshop, probably around 1988. I came to a Teachers College reunion Saturday, and watched a staff developer produce some conferences on stage, and it was transformative to me. I noticed all sorts of things that the staff developer was doing that I could immediately do in my conferences. So, readers of the book will have access to these wonderful videos, as well as videos where I explain some of the things I'm doing in each conference, which I think is a nice feature too.
And I think the Classroom Essentials line of books, it's a new line for Heinemann. I'm honored that this book is the first book in the series. And I think the series is really trying to distill what are the most essential principles and content about teaching writing. And of course, conferring is at the heart of teaching writing. It's really what, to me, is the most important part of Writing Workshop, and the most important skill for us to have as writing teachers. So, conferring is a classroom essential, and I'm just proud that I get to write this book in the series.
Brett: Well, let's strip it down a little bit. What is a writing conference?
Carl: Well, fundamentally a writing conference is a conversation between a teacher and a student about the student as a writer. Don Murray, the grandfather of all this wonderful work, he described conferring as writer-to-writer talk. And so how that translates in a classroom, in a kindergarten or a 5th grade or an 8th grade, is the teacher is the more experienced writer, the mentor writer, and the student is the apprentice writer that is the mentee writer who's learning from his or her teacher about writing.
Teachers ask me all the time, this is the question I get probably more than any question in my workshops and my work in schools is, "Fine, it's a conversation, what's the point of these conversations?" And I think it's really important to understand that the point of a writing conference, this conversation, is to help kids become better writers. We don't go in to fix up their writing, we go in to teach them one thing about writing, a strategy, a craft technique, a convention of language that they can add to their repertoire. And through those conferences across time, as well as the many lessons and small groups that they're in, the kids develop that repertoire and become better writers.
And I think it's also important to think of these conversations, just the subtext of these conversations, these conversations build relationships with kids. And, we know from [John Hattie's 00:06:56] work, from [Doug Kaufmann's 00:06:59] work, the importance of relationships in students' learning and achievement, and their growth as writers.
Writing conferences, it's a term that we use to describe these conversations, but it fits in the broader category of differentiated instruction. It's a challenge for every teacher to go into a classroom in any school and be faced with 20, 25, 35 children who are very, very diverse as writers in so many different dimensions. And a writing conference is a conversation that allows us to differentiate instruction with children, to meet any kid's need in a classroom.
We start by saying, "How's it going?" And what that really is inviting a kid to do, is to give us feedback about him or herself as a writer, which we then respond to with feedback and teaching that the kid can act on right away. So, it is a conversation that has a lot going on in it. It's a complex, academic conversation that happens in Writing Workshop that just moves kids as writers, that's a very, very powerful thing to be able to do with kids.
Brett: You're also right about that feedback, it's important not just for the feedback from the teacher to the student, but also feedback for the teacher from the student.
Carl: Right. And we tend to think of feedback in schools as what teachers say to kids. Traditionally as a kid, I got feedback through what teachers wrote in notes on my papers, or grades that I got. But feedback, the more important kind of feedback, is student to teacher feedback. And John Hattie writes about this in his work, the classrooms where there is student to teacher feedback it correlates well with student achievement. So, a writing conference invites feedback from children.
I say, "How's it going?", which on the surface sounds like just kind of a friendly way of beginning, and of course it is, but what I'm really doing is I'm inviting kids to give me feedback about how their writing is going, how their learning is going, what's going well, what's a little bit hard for them as writers.
And then in a conference, and this is one of the challenging parts of it, we need to distill the feedback we're getting, what a kid is telling us, what their writing is telling us about themselves as writers, and then we then turn around and give them feedback, clear feedback ... What's going well? What's your next step?
And the teaching in a conference is a kind of feedback, as well. And what's great about conference feedback that we give kids, unlike the feedback I got as a child, which didn't often make sense to me, and I didn't understand why they even wrote the comments sometimes. In a conference, I give feedback to a child. It's a conversation, so I get a feel really quickly, this kids understanding me or not, I teach them, I get a good feel, because we try out what I taught in the conference, what we teach in a conference right there. And afterwards, the child has an opportunity to try it right then.
When I got papers as a child, I didn't write another one for a couple weeks, so whatever feedback I got that I understood, I couldn't really do anything with. A conference, the kid does something with it after every conference.
Brett: Carl, what is the best way to invite a student to talk more about their writing?
Carl: Getting kids to talk about their writing, it's something that I think is really, really important, and a big emphasis in the book. Chapter two is all about discovering what a kid is doing as a writer, and a big part of that as teachers are learning strategies for inviting student talk.
And what's great about writing, there is discourse, specialized language that writers use all over the world about writing that we invite kids to speak, from the moment that they enter a writing workshop in kindergarten. There's a video with a little boy named [Mossimo 00:10:03], and it's linked to the book. And it's a gorgeous conference. I start by saying, "How's it going?" He says, "Good." I say, "What's going well with you're writing?" I think I asked a question like that. And he said he's teaching facts to his readers. And there he is, he's learning how to speak as a writer.
So, I think that open-ended question like, "How's it going?", in the wait time ... We talked about wait time before, I think is really critical. What's really interesting about conferences, though, is, as kids are learning to talk about their writing, they'll often talk very generally. I'll say, "How's it going?" And a kid will say, "I'm revising." And that's great to know. That's the part of the writing process where the child is. But that's too general to really help me know where to go in the conference.
And so, one of the really fundamental strategies, and this is something I think Dan Feigelson, in his book, Reading Projects Reimagined, is a wonderful book on conferring with readers. He talks about nudging kids to say more about that. And so, that is an important strategy, so when a kid says, "I'm revising." And I will say, "Well, say more about that." Often they'll say, "Well, I'm adding on to my draft." And I'll say, "Well, say more about that." And the kid will say, "I'm adding definitions to my nonfiction piece." And so, we've gone from revision to a very precise kind of detail this kid is working on. So, I think that's one really critical move, this say more about that strategy.
And then chapter two of A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences, includes a wealth of strategies for either extending student talk, or just scaffolding kids' talk. And I think it's a really, really fascinating thing to focus on with kids.
Brett: You also stress the importance of active listening strategies. You say it's very important, why is that?
Carl: Well, active listening, it's not just about conferring with writers, it's just a conversation in general. When we are our best conversational selves with each other, going out with a friend for dinner, you're with your spouse, you're with your children, you're with colleagues, the stuff that we all understand how to do when we're our best listening selves. Things like our body language and how that invites conversation with somebody else that when someone says something to us, we often will say back just to check that we're understanding them correctly, that we're interpreting what they're saying in the way that they intended us to. So, those are just some examples of active listening strategies, that just come from our lives, that are important parts of conferences.
And I think using the word conversation, going to back to what we were talking about before, what is a writing conference, I like the word conversation, think about it synonymously with writing conferences, because it puts people at ease. When I say that a writing conference is a conversation, the teachers I'm with, you can almost physically see them relax a little bit, because it's like, "Oh, conversations, I know how to do those. And so I can take what I know about conversation in my life, and I can put it into my writing conferences."
Brett: But you also say that it's important that in those conversations, especially after the first question, to be quiet.
Carl: Well, first off, the quiet on the most basic level, when I say, "How's it going?" And then as Don Graves used to say, "Give the kids 10, 15 seconds of wait time." It gives kids thinking time. When you're writing you're in the world of what you're writing about, the story you're writing about, the nonfiction topic you're writing about, the argument that you're making in your writing. And when someone just pops in and says, "How's it going?", it can be disconcerting.
When a flight attendant asks me essentially, "What are you doing, Buddy?", when I'm riding on a plane, I must sound like an idiot, because I'm like, "Well, I don't know, I need to think about that a little bit." So, the wait time is partly, just to give the kids a chance to think about what they're doing and to come up with an answer to the question.
But the wait time also does something else, it shifts the focus of the conference onto the child. Conferring is not about us, it's about the child. And I want children to grow up to be writers with agency. So, when I say, "How's it going?" And I give some wait time, I am shifting the responsibility onto the student, and giving a clear message that you have a role to play in this conversation. I mean, that's something that kids learn over time.
One of the exciting things in the videos, if a reader were to really go through the videos K-8, and to see the progression of how kids get better and better at talking about their writing. Some of the upper elementary and middle school kids are phenomenal. There's some just amazing conversations that I have with some of the kids. But that's because over time, that responsibility is shifted onto them, and they learn what their role is in a conference.
By wait time, the silence that I give is also a statement of faith. It's a way I communicate to a child, "Well, I believe you can do this." And so, the wait time, it's a simple strategy, but it's really powerful in how it shifts that responsibility and invites talk. And it's a hard thing for a lot of us, because I think some of the research on questions and response time and education, as in, some of the research shows in less than a second of wait time, and then often teachers will answer the question themselves. And, that can feel uncomfortable in the beginning when you say, "How's it going?" And, it might feel like hours. It's really just 10 or 15 seconds.
And one of the funny things I sometimes say to teachers is, "We get paid for not saying anything sometimes." In a writing conference that space is important for kids and for us in helping a conference be successful.
Brett: How did conferences get sidetracked?
Carl: Conferences getting sidetracked ... They can get sidetracked in a lot of ways. Some kids, when you sit down with them and say, "How's it going?", they want to talk about the content of what they're writing about. And so I'll say, "How's it going?", and maybe you'll say, "You know, I'm writing about going to the beach, and it was really fun. I had a great time with my sister."
And sometimes we get sucked into long conversations about what the kids are writing about, but those conversations don't really help kids become better writers. So, we have to reboot those conferences and say, "Okay, that's fantastic. You're writing about searching for frogs in Cape Cod, what are you doing as a writer?"
And so, sometimes the kids lead us astray, but sometimes we're our own worst enemies. Sometimes it's our own backgrounds as students of writing, we were all students of writing in elementary, middle, high school, and even college ... If we grew up as most of us did with teachers that just corrected our writing, sometimes I think our natural instinct is just to sit with the kid and get a pencil or pen out and start correcting them. I've seen teachers do that with the pen. I know with the best of intentions, but that's what they know. That's what they went through as a child, so they do that to a child. It's not effective to do that.
And then, sometimes I think another thing that sidetracks conference is that we have some bugaboo about writing that just really bugs us. And it's hard for us, we look at a student piece of writing, and there's something our 10th grade English teacher says is not good writing, and we just go there. And, it's really not what's the most important thing for the child.
So, there are different things that sidetrack conferences, and I think to not get sidetracked, I think we have to trust kids that kids are going to learn to talk about what they're doing, and that we're going to allow that to guide us as writing teachers. And that we also have a clear sense of what we're trying to do. I'm going to a conference to figure out what a child is trying to do as a writer, I'm going to assess how well the kid is doing what they're doing, and I'm going to teach them to do that better.
Brett: You have spent a career focusing on perfecting or really re-working and thinking about conferring, but you're very honest in the beginning of this book about your first conference. It was a disaster, you say.
Carl: Yeah, it was an utter disaster. And I'll circle back to the story in just a minute, but the educator, [Deb Ball 00:17:09], who I've had the privilege of hearing her speak at conferences, one of the things that she says, and I'm just going to paraphrase what she says. There's an exact quote from her in the book. But she says, the good teachers aren't born good teachers, good teachers learn to be good teachers.
And one of the reasons I tell the story of my disastrous first conference, is because it can be intimidating for teachers to have someone who's been teaching writing for nearly 30 years, because at their school ... I often work with teachers that have either been teaching for just a couple years, or teaching writing just for a couple years. And, when you have someone who comes in that's very good at it, it can feel like, "Oh, he was just born that way." Or any of my colleagues, at the Reading and Writing Project, for example, they are wonderful at conferring with children. And again, I think it can be sometimes threatening for people. It's like, "How can I ever be that way?"
And so I tell the story of that first conference, which was an utter disaster, because I think it positions me with my audience. No one's got the gene for good conferring. There's no one that's predisposed to be good at conferring, and if you don't have that gene, you're not going to be good at this. This is something that you have to learn to do. And I think that's true for any practice in education, whether it's conferring, whether it's doing small-group work, doing a mini-lesson, doing guiding reading lessons. Any of these kinds of methods that we use to teach children, nobody's just good at them, you have to work hard to get good at them.
Teachers usually laugh when I tell the story. They think it's hysterical. And I had to tell it in a very, very funny way. It's always great to start a day with the funny story too, and laugh a little bit. But I think it makes people feel like, "Oh, that's where he started, and he's gotten better at this. So, yeah, mine aren't going that well, but that gives me hope that I can get better."
Brett: Is that sort of our key to demystifying workshop, is to just keep at it, keep coming back to it? Because, as you said, it can be intimidating.
Carl: I don't remember who said this, but anything that's worth doing well, is worth doing badly at the beginning of it. And I think, it's a normal thing when you're starting something new, whether it's teaching writing workshop, whether it's learning a new dance, learning a song on a guitar, you're never going to be very good at it in the beginning.
When I first started doing a writing workshop, there were just a couple books. There was Lucy Calkins, The Art of Teaching Writing. There was Nancy Atwell's, In The Middle. There was, Don Grave's, Writing Teachers and Children At Work. There was a way that writing workshop ... you just kind of read a little bit and just started. And it was kind of a pioneer spirit about it. And now there's so much material. There's so much gorgeous material. The units of study from Teachers College. I mean, my gosh, what I would have done to have those 25 years ago, as a scaffold for me as I started this.
I think it's helpful to demystify the whole thing. I mean, first off, just a workshop is simply a room where people are doing work. And as they make their writing, we are going to give mini-lessons to start the period. We are going to very importantly have writing conferences with them during the writing time where they're making those pieces, etc.
But, I do think to demystify it, and also just to encourage people, there's a way that it's a very simple structure, there's a way that it can be very complex, be this is a lot to know, but I think people need to give themselves permission to not be very good at it in the beginning. And that's hard, because a lot of teachers are perfectionists. They feel extraordinary responsibility to children, which obviously is important and I think is characteristic of most teachers that I work with. But, you have to start somewhere, and you're going to have some strengths, you're going to have some areas of teaching writing you need to get better at, but I think we have to give ourselves permission to do our best and to get better over time.
Brett: How can this book help writing instruction for new teachers?
Carl: Well, I think teachers need guidebooks to help them with conferring, to help them with writing workshop, to help them with guided reading. I think bottom line what this book will do for them is, I think the writing is clear and will give them a clear image of what a conference is about, and what the different parts of the conference are, and how to navigate those parts. And the video will give them, I hope, a very clear image of what conferences look like.
They can watch over and over again to get a feel for how conferences go, and can impact their practice. I've seen new teachers become better, so much faster than I did, because of the kinds of support that they have. Books like A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences, I hope were one of those supports. Their coaches, staff developers, institutes they can go to, the books that are out there. But to me, a book like, A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences, I think will help people navigate this very challenging terrain of working with children one-on-one about their writing.
Carl Anderson is one of the nation’s leading experts on teaching writing to students in grades K-12. He dedicates his energies exclusively as an education consultant and writer.
Carl recently worked for Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University as a Lead Staff Developer, providing staff development in the teaching of writing grades K–8. He spent school days in New York City elementary and middle schools demonstrating effective teaching in the writing workshop and coaching teachers. He gave day-long workshops for teachers at Teachers College on launching the writing workshop, conferring with student writers, mini-lessons, and developing curriculum for the writing workshop.
Carl is the author of numerous books including the bestselling How's It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers, as well as Assessing Writers and the series Strategic Writing Conferences: Smart Conversations that Move Young Writers Forward Grades 3-6.
His latest book, A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences, is part of the Classroom Essentials series. Full of classroom video, the book helps teachers understand the underlying principles and reasons for conferring with students, and how to make writing conferences a part of teachers' daily routines.
Follow Carl on Twitter @ConferringCarl