I've been asked several questions regarding conferring...specifically focused group conferring. Some questions have come from blog readers and listeners of my podcast, and other questions have been from teachers reaching to me via email after presentations at recent conferences. Teachers have asked if they can hear an actual conference from my classroom, and some have asked if they could hear what a group conference sounds like: "doesn't that invite chaos?" "...what are the other students doing?" "...do you follow a list of questions?"
Clearly, most of my podcasts sound more like interviews of students and parents and less like a traditional conference "in the moment" where students talk about a particular piece of writing. I would need my own production crew following me around to capture those moments. As it is, I do set my iPhone down to record during some conferences, but like any act of note taking, the kids notice recorder. In most cases, they don't seem to mind--at least they don't say as much--but I imagine that some may be uncomfortable speaking when they know the audio recorder is rolling.
In this podcast episode, four 8th grade students in the midst of writing a personal essay sit down for a focused group conference. A bit of background--these four sit together every day by choice. They function as writing partners for each other and are often very focused in their conversations. Yes, there is a constant stream of chatter among them, but it is most often about their writing...and even if it is not, they redirect back to the writing without many cues from me.
Points for your consideration surrounding this focused group conference:
Among the questions I receive about conferring on social media and email, I read a majority of questions regarding time.
How do I find the time to confer?
The time is there. We don't have to find time. The time question is an important one because I think it comes down to priorities--and I am not suggesting my priorities are better than anyone else's. However, everything can not be a priority. We can agree that that is just not possible. I value students learning how to listen and respond to one another; therefore, a significant chunk of time in class (daily) is dedicated to students talking.
We make the standards work for us. We do not enslave ourselves to the standards.
That statement, more so than anything else I have said, is the most quoted in the follow-up emails I receive after presentations.
When I say that I mean that we use the standards as an artist uses a palette. No one is directing my painters to start with red--paint only with red--and then next week we will work with burnt sienna (and only burnt sienna). My painters use any color they have access to. They borrow colors from others. They mix colors--sometimes incorrectly so that it makes mud. But as they use the palette according to their curiosity and readiness I make it my business to find as many opportunities as I can to teach them something about painting.
In the studio environment, my writers write more this way than when I prescribed writing in my first decade of teaching. Writing in volume matters.
In the studio environment, writers talk. Writers laugh. Writers collaborate. Writers learn from other writers. There is an inner locus of control that the young writers become accustomed to over time--this is, of course, after several weeks of frustration. Early in the year, some students, used to an external locus of control (teachers prescribing writing), do not know how to find an idea worth writing about. Often, they have been indoctrinated to believe that the only ideas worth writing about come from external influences: teachers and assessments.
These writers need the focused group conferences the most...and they come to learn to appreciate the constant stream of daily conferencing with a supportive writing partner. Unfortunately, education has become so hell-bent on teaching kids that writing is an act that occurs in a silo, that writing alongside others in a stream of conversation feels so free that some kids have trouble grasping the actual discipline embedded in what they are doing.
So, if a focused group conference take twelve minutes and the next focused group conference takes five minutes, so be it. If I stop by a student's desk for thirty seconds and the next student for two minutes, so be it. My presence as a mentor is fluid. Their writing partners' engagement is fluid. Time is fluid in the writing workshop. As teachers and students, we learn to let go of restrictions when we are living as writers. I am there to support and mentor students...not only as a writer but also as an internal locus of support in the conferences.
Students learn from listening how I handle writers. They imitate what they hear. They do not hear me criticize the grammar and punctuation. They hear me say what I hear and what I may not be hearing. They hear me wonder. They hear me make references and piece together connections which could be useful for the writer. They hear me encourage and use positive language like yes and I love and I like.
It takes time and repetition, but by mid-year many young writers are talking about writing more as writers and less as editors.
While a focused group conference may take longer than an individual conference, we are amplifying the learning as writers through the reinforcement that we are a community of writers who respects and values the authentic processes of writers.
So, as requested by some new colleagues who I have met at conferences, here is a sample of what focused group conferring can sound like and accomplish.
The objective was simple. Read something. Think and talk about it. Write. Nothing earth-shattering in that plan. However, one small wrinkle framed the exercise--writing partners. In pairs or threes, talk out your questions and ideas, and write something together.
I don't care what you write about or what it evolves into, I just want it to come from a collaborative effort floating on conversation.
When I sat down with two 8th graders and asked them how this experiment in collaborative writing went, Sebastian shared "at first it was a one-sided conversation..." Classmates asked for his opinion about Cuba, Communism, and Socialism. They knew that Sebastian liked to read history and current events. Our shared article about Castro and Cuba sparked different questions from many pairs and groups of students.
However, Sebastian noted that the learning process turned around for him personally the more he spoke. He discovered that the act of speaking his prior knowledge, current curiosity, and evolving thinking gave him something back--clarity. Talking helping Sebastian refine his ideas:
"...the act of you responding to questions was helpful...I had that information in my head, and I was trying to put it down on my own paper...I was just having problems [writing], but once I started talking I started explaining it and [writing] became easier..."
The other young man in the conversation, Ansh, explained that three pairs of writing partners sat together in a larger group of six. So, as three different essays were in development each partner pairing leaned on other partner pairings for ideas. They shared ideas with their direct writing partners and they cross referenced ideas with others. Ansh said, "we kind of merged our ideas together and yet we still wrote very different papers."
Ansh added, "having [writing] partner makes your views different...you see things from a different perspective...and that helps...working with peers, it really made my writing better..."
Collaborative writing isn't new. And it certainly isn't a stretch to ask people to do it. As a matter of fact, writers rely on the act of collaboration every day in order to develop their thinking. Perhaps one does not always co-write an article or a novel, but a writer will talk and share ideas with writers as his thinking evolves. We learn that writers collaborate using many methods, many strategies, and many sets of eyes and ears.
I love that these boys made a large group of six, some wrote and talked with one partner exclusively and continuously, while some others in the classroom worked in a partner pairing that only touched base in increments (after the individuals wrote privately, away from others). Even more rewarding was the discovery that Ansh and Sebastian discovered that because of the things they do naturally as writers that they were "on the path" of not only becoming better writers, but "on the path" of writing for themselves as observers of the world.
Together, we learned that the collaborative writing process was as varied as penmanship and that fact is ok.
With space for agency, any human being (of any age) will collaborate how they need it, when they it, according to their strengths and comfort level.
All of our students can learn to collaborate effectively to become better writers. Yet, collaborative writing is not a move that teachers instinctively add to their classrooms since collaborative writing is not part of the process when students are assessed by the state or how one has traditionally evaluated writers. Collaboration has been relegated to "edit my work"...and it can be much much more than that.
Someone may want to inform the state that if they want to see kids write well then we may want to start by rethinking the model found on all of our state tests and increasingly inside of classrooms: writing bound and gagged inside a silo.