Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Conferring with Writers

"You have to dive in and talk to the kids. There's no point just sitting around the room observing."
~Linda Rief 

The green ceramic kettle whistled at 5:30 a.m. Slipping my hand into a silicone oven mitt I lifted it off the gas stove and poured its steamy contents into a stainless steel French Press. The rich scent rose  reminding me of chestnuts and walking through woods. I poured a cup's worth and carried crisp, white porcelain cup to the table where my notebook waited.

I wanted to review my notes from the day before and think about the learning I would take away from my visit to Linda Rief's classroom. The house slept. I sipped my coffee and sifted through my thoughts. Six fifteen came as fast as the end of school vacation, but today wasn't over yet and I needed to get on the road. 

Armed with my smooth talking Gentleman G.P.S., I made my way north east to Durham. I slipped into a visitor's space, parallel parking like a ballerina on point, arriving at the middle school by 7:18. I quickly checked in with the front office, clipped on my visitor's badge and hustled down down the hall to room 201. On the agenda, writing conferences.

Students sit at round tables in Linda's classroom. The groups are flexible and change based on the work of the day. Today, Rief directed students to groups and reminded them of the process: 

  1. Before a writer shares, ask them how you can help with the current draft.
  2. Once you know the writer's concerns, listen for them in the piece. 
  3. Listen to the writer read.
  4. Jot down words and phrases that stand out. Note a question if you have one and phrase your suggestions (In my classroom we call these what you'd propose the writer change or re-see) as "what if" statements. The what ifs should connect to what the writer wants in terms of feedback.
  5. Talk about what you liked in the piece. Share your questions and "what ifs" with the writer and give them time to respond.
  6. Give the writer your post-it response notes; be sure to sign your name to them.

Simple, right? Imagine the teaching moves packed into those 6 steps. 

I sat and conferred with students  in of Linda's 4 classes. As in my own classroom, I brought a piece of writing to share with the group. I chose to read "Lessons from Lilly," a summer blog post that has been on my mind this week. I read first, telling the students that I didn't like the lead of the piece. I told the girls I'd been thinking of cutting the first two paragraphs and getting to the story quicker. They agreed. Thoughtful responders, you can read their sticky comments by enlarging the picture. 
Notes from my journal; post its show feedback students gave me .
Writing conferences empower students. Their voices take center stage. The choice and autonomy they have in crafting the pieces they bring to the table is the hidden lesson here. Each student brought something to share that mattered to her: a poem, a descriptive lead for short story, a vignette. Each writer took risks and in the risk taking soared. 


  1. Thanks for sharing your journey and reminding me of the power of sitting still in a classroom and listening. Excited to learn more.

  2. Really enjoyed hearing about the process the students are taught for conferring.