Thursday, February 14, 2013

Writing Conferences in Small Groups

Friends Don't Let Friends Conference Alone!         
A while back, I wrote a post about how I have my friends find peer editors during writer's workshop.  I always like my friends to meet with each other and get a peer's perspective.  It benefits both.  However, as the teacher we also conference with our friends.  For a long time, I did this one on one.  I would call a friend who was ready to meet with me to conference on their current writing piece.  Invariably, this would lead to a group of children waiting to meet with me before they could go on.  It just wasn't an effective system.  I had to come up with a better plan. 
I started to think about my friends and the different strengths they had.  Friend A was really good at starting with a good hook but would lack details in their writing.  Friend B may be good at adding details, but struggled with a closing.  Friend C had trouble understanding how the order of events of a story was confused but was good at adding details.  I realized I had to get these friends together for conferencing.  Something more than paired peer conferencing.  Something that involved me so that I could identify the area most in need of help and guide a conference in that direction.  That's when I began round table conferencing. 
When I am ready to conference with a student, there are usually a few ready to meet with me at the same time.  I call them all to the table and explain that we are going to meet together to help each other make our writing even better.  Usually there are about 4 or 5 students at the table.  I tell them 5 great brains working together will think of ways to make each others papers even more amazing! 
We begin with the student sitting to one side of me.  I quickly read over the paper and find the teaching point I want to work on.  I will then ask the author for their input on it.  Then, we turn it over to the group.  Here's an example of how a typical round table conference might go:
Me:  John, I read here where the boys went to the park to play soccer.  I'm really having trouble forming a mental image of the setting.  How do you think we can add to your piece to help the reader make a mental image of the park?
John:  Ummmmm. . . (Now, this is a fairly easy one but often the author of the piece doesn't know how to fix the teaching point you've picked.  If they do, they will quickly tell you and you can move on.  But, I find that they are usually at a loss and this is how the group helps.  Rather than me telling or heavily hinting at how to fix it, I turn to the group.)
Me:  Okay, guys.  John has a great piece here about some boys going to the park, but I'm having some trouble getting a mental image of the park. (Sometimes the author will read aloud the part he/she is having trouble with.)  How can we help John create those mental images of the park in his writing?
Friend 1:  He can tell what he park looks like.
Friend 2:  He can have the boy talk about the park.
Me:  Great ideas.  What would that sound like if I read it?  (At this point, they will start to create sentences that tell what the park looks like.  As they speak, I will quickly jot down key words that they use.  I don't write out exactly what they have said, just key words and/or phrases.  That's important!  Also, once the conversation starts, the author (John) will sometimes have heard enough to be able to also contribute to the conversation.
Me: Wow, that was really great thinking.  John, did you hear anything that you liked and think you could include in your paper?  (99% of the time you will get an enthusiastic yes.)
At this point I have the author thank the group for their help, and send the student off to revise their paper.  But, they don't go empty handed!  I give them the paper of key words/phrases that I jotted down during the conference to take with them.  Having the key words prompts them in what they need to write.  I haven't given them a transcript of what was said, so they still have to create their own sentences and determine how to fit it in the piece.  But, they have just enough on the paper to support that independent writing back at their desk or writing spot. 
Once that author goes back to their desk, everyone shifts over one chair and we go on to the next author. If another student comes up ready to conference with me, they take the empty seat and we keep going.  It may sound silly to have everyone rotate one seat, but it provides enough controlled movement to keep your most itchy-got-to-move kids interested.  It also signals to the class that a seat is open.  You would be shocked at how they will race to get to that seat.  Despite how it may sound, this whole process is fairly quick.  We just don't have forever to spend with each student. I keep these conferences moving.

 One reason our writing conferencing moves along pretty well is that I am generally focusing on one thing the student needs to revise in some way.  And truthfully, that's about all they should be focused on at that time.  When you overload them with too many fixes, nothing sticks.  They become overwhelmed by all the fixes and just see that their paper isn't good enough.  When you focus on one or two points, it becomes more of a learning experience. 

This probably comes down to what your philosophy is when it comes to writing.  I don't see the value in trying to make each piece of writing a perfect piece each time.  I prefer to hit one or two major issues and use them as teaching points.  Of course, students are expected to edit and peer edit the whole paper to the best of their ability and it has to make sense when we read it, but perfection is not expected by me.  I find that over time, the teaching points we focus on each time carry over to the next writing piece and their writing shows real improvement as we move along the school year.  I'm looking for that progress over time.  So, back to round table writing conferences. . .
Here's why I find this type of teacher-student writing conferencing to work so well:
  • Our learning time is so precious we can't have students waiting around to conference with the teacher or doing busy work while they wait.  Having this type of group conference keeps more students actively involved and thinking.
  • As the teacher, I can pick the teaching point that needs to be addressed.  Although we are conferencing in a group, it is still very much a teacher led conference.
  • It highlights the strengths of our students. The students who are good at certain things, such as thinking of good hooks, will speak up loud and clear when you go to the group for help.  Each child has a chance to showcase their strengths. 
  • In turn, it supports those students who have an area of need.  The children get to hear their peers come up with ideas that are helpful to them. It means so much more to them when it comes from a peer.  Teachers are always teaching, but when another student does the teaching they listen!
  • If you are taking anecdotal records for writing, this is a great time to get them for a number of students at the same time.  From their responses and contributions to the conversation, you are able to get a lot of informatin on their thinking about the writing craft and how it is done. It's a window for the teacher. Many times I have been delightfully surprised at a contribution given by a student during the group conference. However, I've also been surprised at students that I thought were on the mark with something, but their comments during the conference showed me differently.  Even if you aren't taking notes, it's valuable information to be aware of.
  • It's a great way to teach the writing trait voice in a meaningful way.  My friends have the opportunity to hear their peers writing many, many times.  After a while, I can read a piece aloud and many can tell me who wrote it.  They really get to know each other's writing voices.
  • It will greatly improve your students peer editing, that time where your students meet one-on-one with each other.  Just by sitting in on the group conferencing, they are learning how to peer edit.  They are learning what an editor looks for when reading a piece.  Think about it.  In your round table conferencing you are modeling editing and revising for them over and over and over again.
  • I have heard students refer to other students in very positive ways.  I've heard unsolicited compliments given on writing pieces.  I have heard students direct each other to students for specific help saying, "Oh, go ask Anya.  She's really good at . . . "  They know this from our conferencing. 
If you plan to try this type of writing conference, I would have one word of caution.  You really must establish a climate of camaraderie.  That table, that class has to be a safe place to share your writing.  The goal of everyone at the table is to make each other's writing EVEN BETTER.  We are there to help, to critique but not criticise.  Establishing a feeling of teamwork is one of the reasons I have every author thank the table when they leave.  
The first few times you do round table conferencing, your friends may be a bit cautious in what they say.  Once they have done it a couple of times and see it is okay to share their writing and to offer ideas and suggestions, I promise it will take off! 

Also, know that this doesn't mean I never conference one-on-one with my friends.  Sometimes they do need to hear just that one knowledgeable voice of the teacher.  But, more often than not I find round table writing conferencing to be the ticket.
By the way,


  1. This is why I check your blog religiously. You have amazing ideas! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

  2. Great ideas! Posts like this are the reason I started following blogs like yours. ;)

  3. This is one of the best ideas I have heard in a long time!!!!!!!!!! So practical and so many benefits. This has just solved so many problems that I have been trying to solve. I can not wait to try this out. Thank you for being so generous and sharing your ideas. Hope you have a great valentines day!!

  4. I love this idea! What a wonderful way to get the kids to help and critique each other, and play to their strengths! Thank you so much for sharing.

    :) Kaitlyn
    Smiles and Sunshine

  5. I love this idea as well. I actually tried something similar to this in my last ELA unit and it worked pretty well. I love how you have structured the whole process. I do have one question though, do these groups conferences have students who need similar writing goals or does it range so that students who struggle with organization can receive advice from students who understand how a piece of writing is organized? You mentioned how student A and student B needed different things but I wasn't sure how this looked during your group conference. Thanks for any advice you can give! I really appreciate you sharing your ideas.

    1. Hi Anon,
      These round table conferences are a first come, first served kind of thing. If you are ready to conference with me, you are welcome to come to the table. You need that variety of strengths for it to really work well.If they were all needy in the same area, no one would have anything to say when we turn to the group for help. I also think the variety of skills covered is one of the things that keeps it interesting for the kids.

      If I am pulling kids with a similar need, I do that as a small group mini-lesson. It allows me to provide direct instruction on one specific skill they all need work on, but this is a much more teacher directed conference. However, you can still use student sample writing pieces for this.