Sunday, February 23, 2014

How to have effective writing conferences

Source: A Venn Diagram I often show my writing students.

Teaching College Composition writing, I've done a lot of research through my MA coursework on the best and most effective way to teach the writing process. So often, my students--even my College students--don't like to go back and revise and edit their work. I try to impart to them how important this is, and that writing is a process, not a race to get the final draft done the fastest.

I often tell them that professional authors--people who get paid to write and sell millions of copies of their books--have to go through MANY revisions and edits before it is ready to publish. So if we are amateur writers, how can we expect to have a perfect piece of writing on the first try, when that isn't even possible for people who make a living doing this? Usually it sinks in a little when I say that.

But today I want to focus on one specific part of the writing process that I started doing last year and have had a lot of success with: writing conferences.

The key to having a successful conference is making the STUDENT in charge of leading them. I used to grow frustrated because I would have students come sit by my desk to "conference" and ask questions like "What are you struggling with? Where do you need my help?" and I'd get answers like "I don't know" or "I need help with everything," neither of which are helpful for me as the instructor.

So now, I make sure students are prepared for the conference and that they lead it. The day before writing conferences (this happens AFTER peer revision has taken place), I will give my students a short form to fill out with no more than 7-8 questions. I ask things like:

  • What is the strongest part of your essay so far?
  • What has been the hardest part of writing this essay?
  • What are three specific revisions you plan to make before submitting this essay?
  • Point out one or two specific places in your essay you'd like me to look at, as well as write out specific questions you have about those sections.
I will also have them highlight important parts of their essay like the thesis, topic sentences, maybe the counterargument if we're writing argumentative essays, and they will point those out to me during our conference and defend why they are strong or ask me about concerns they have.

I will only meet with students who have completely filled out the sheet. I do let students fill them out later for partial credit if they decide they want to meet with me after all, but my perspective is that any given conference takes 5-10 min. depending. I have a LOT of students to get through. If you are not serious about preparing for it and actually asking me questions, it would be a better use of time for me to meet with someone else and for you to work on your essay then.

When a student comes up with the form filled out, I asked THEM to walk through the questions with me, pointing things out in the essay and asking me the questions they wrote down. This gives a focus to the conference so it isn't a waste of time. I can also hone in on what is bothering them about the essay instead of asking about a bunch of things they are not worried about.

I will not read an entire essay and "grade" it before the final is submitted for grading. I tell my students that up front. However, I WILL look at specific places in their essays that they struggle with and answer specific questions.

I get a lot of, "Can you read these three paragraphs and tell me what I did wrong?" when we first start out. I will not do that.

But if they ask, "Can you read this paragraph and focus on my transitions? I am struggling with those," that I WILL do.

I think it is SO important for students to be able to reflect on their own writing and pick out what they struggle with and what they excel at, instead of just having teachers tell them those things. It also helps me help them during our conferences, and I found a get a much higher quality of final essay coming in when I conference with them first, so it ends up saving me some time on grading because we hashed out some problem areas beforehand, and they fixed them.

Do you hold writing conferences with your students? What tips do you have to make them effective?

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you that you have to have a purpose for your writing conference. I like to give students a small list (think 3 or 4) areas for focus on each paper. Before we meet, students have to choose the area where they feel they need the most help and have to record specific questions for me to answer. I will give feedback for specific areas or just the first page so they can apply the revisions to the whole paper. Great post!