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My Favorite Kind of Meeting: Individual Conferences in Action

by Michelle A. Phillips
April 15, 2014

I’ll admit it. I’m the kind of teacher who actually enjoys going to meetings. I love finding out about what is going on in the school building and brainstorming ways to improve student achievement with my colleagues. But even though I love them, staff meetings are not my very favorite. My favorite kind of meeting is the individual kind that happens between teacher and student during your writing block: the individual student conference.

It’s the rare teacher who hasn’t sung the praises of writer’s workshop. We know the structure—mini lesson, writing time, conferencing. We understand that it’s all about choice—the students decide what they want to write about instead of teachers choosing for them. We’ve seen the grins of children who can’t wait to write about their last birthday party, their favorite athlete, or a series of school poems. But not every teacher has been able to truly harness the power of the individual conference. And while I would never claim to be an expert, I know the way I’ve honed my student conferencing has enhanced my teaching and allowed my students to make great gains in their writing.

p: World Bank via photopin

Each day, once I’ve taught my mini lesson on a topic of choice, I release my students to their independent writing time and I grab my conferencing binder. I quickly refer to my calendar and call over my first scheduled “appointment.” Making appointments with my students for their individual conferences not only means the students know when they will be meeting with me, but it ensures that I meet with every student, not just those who need the most support.

Writing conferences generally last about 3-5 minutes. I always begin by greeting the student warmly, then reviewing his or her writing goals. We then discuss what we accomplished during our previous meeting. This helps remind both of us where our focus was the last time we met. In most situations, the student has a small assignment I asked them to complete for me at the end of our previous conference. We look at that assignment and discuss ways the strategy worked or did not work for them. For example, a student who is working on adding descriptive details to her writing may be trying to include more figurative language to add detail. So she comes to our conference with a rough draft of a personal narrative that has at least 3 examples of figurative language highlighted.

A student who is working on beginning his writing with a strong lead will come to our conference with three possible leads written for his biography. We then discuss what the student has prepared and talk about what else needs to happen to continue working toward each writer’s goals. Sometimes this includes a brief “micro-mini” lesson about a particular writing topic (writing conclusions, sensory details, etc.) or it simply encourages the student to continue practicing a particular skill.

The conferences are brief but powerful. Because they are individual, the student gets my full attention (something that is rare in a class of 29!). Since each student is working toward his or her own personal goals that he or she helped set, they have a vested interest in what we are discussing. And since they are personal conferences, I can tailor my micro-mini lessons to each individual student, taking differentiation to the maximum degree.

Harnessing the power of the individual student conference has made a tremendous difference in my students’ writing abilities and in my relationships with those students. They are willing to work hard because they know I care about them and their education, and they know that the work they are doing is making them better writers! I love the feeling when I call a student to meet with me and I hear a quiet, “Yes!” as they grab their writing materials. Individual conferences are fairly easy to implement, yet pay great dividends. Here’s how you can make writing conferences work in your classroom.

5 Tips for Integrating Individual Conferencing into Your Writing Block:

  1. Use a calendar!
    With 29 students in my class this year, there’s no way I would be able to keep track of which students I have met with, and which students I have not, if it weren’t for my calendar. I keep a calendar page for each month of the school year in my conferencing binder and I always schedule each student’s next conference on my calendar before our meeting concludes. You can print calendars or purchase one that helps you stay on track.

  2. Find a data-tracking system that works for you and stick with it.
    I use a simple, two-columned chart for each student. It lists their writing goals at the top, has one column to note what we discussed during their conference, and another column to write what the student is going to do to practice the skill before their next conference. I also always give my students an appointment card before they leave the conference. It tells them three things: the next time we will meet, the strategy or skill on which they are working, and what they need to do before their next conference. This means they know what skill to practice (they can even tape it into their assignment notebook) and I can look back at my data and see what we talked about the last time we met. Everyone’s on the same page!

    Whatever system of data-tracking you decide to use, make sure you use it consistently. It will keep you organized and is a wonderful tool to use during parent-teacher conferences. My students’ parents love to see that I am teaching their child one-on-one for a portion of the school day and love to hear that their child helped to set his or her goals.

  3. Select a teacher’s assistant to handle questions while you are conferencing.
    This makes everything so much easier. Instead of students constantly coming up to ask you questions or get permission to use the restroom, they go to the teacher’s assistant. It frees you to devote your attention to the student with whom you are meeting and gives the teacher’s assistant a sense of ownership in the classroom. Win-win.

  4. Truly listen to and interact with each student as you meet with them.
    Not only does this allow you to tailor your “micro-mini lesson” to each student, but it gives you a perfect opportunity to build relationships with your students. It isn’t very often that a student gets your full attention. Focus on them, and make that time worth it.

  5. Individualize the student’s lesson and task.
    Each student has his or her own personal writing goals. When you meet with each one, you can pull from the writing lessons you taught earlier in the school year or lessons you know you won’t have time to teach to the whole class that fit with the student’s goals. You can also differentiate for your lower ability and gifted writers. While some students are working on spelling words correctly, others are working on including multiple perspectives in their writing. Every student gets what he or she needs to improve his or her writing in a brief period of time.

    Students should leave with some small task to practice between conferences. This way, you increase the likelihood that the student will transfer what you discussed in your conference to their actual writing.

It doesn’t take a great deal of preparation to start implementing individual conferencing into your writing block. Since students are fairly independent writers by this point in the school year, you can simply print out a calendar, jot down some names, grab a stack of writing, and get started! Your students (and their writing) will thank you for it.

Michelle Phillips teaches Grade 5 at Dundee Elementary School, an Omaha Public School.
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