Every international school in which I’ve done a residency has placed a special emphasis on developing students’ writing skills. The educators in these schools understand that, as Tony Wagner discusses in his book The Global Achievement Gap, written communication is a “21st-century survival skill” that students need to learn to do well to succeed in school, at work, and in their roles as citizens of the global community.
One of the biggest challenges that international schools face with writing instruction is the amazing diversity of the students who populate their classrooms. How do we meet the needs of every student—whether they’re students who have rich prior experiences with writing, or almost none at all? Who come with a passion for writing, or a reluctance to write? Who may need learning support, or who are learning to write in English for the first time?
While international schools have been adopting state-of-the-art writing curriculums—such as the popular Units of Study in Writing by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—or designing curriculum themselves, the writing instruction presented in these curriculums still needs to be differentiated for the diverse students in international classrooms. To do this, teachers for Grades K–8 need to develop their conferring skills. Because writing conferences are one-to-one conversations with students, they give us the crucial opportunity to meet each student’s individual needs as writers.
What Is a Writing Conference?
Traditionally, when a teacher has sat with a student to discuss her writing, the teacher’s role has been one of “editor”—that is, the teacher has corrected the errors in a student’s writing as the student looks on. The focus in these interactions has been making the students’ writing better.
A writing conference is a very different kind of interaction. The focus of a writing conference is to teach the student to be a better writer. To do this, the teacher teaches one writing skill—a strategy for navigating a stage of the writing process, a craft technique, or a writing convention—that the student will practice in her current piece of writing. The goal is that she will be able to do it on her own in the future. As Lucy Calkins famously says in The Art of Teaching Writing, in conferences we “are teaching the writer, not the writing.”
What Should a Writing Conference Look and Sound Like?
- We sit at eye level next to students at their seats or at a “conference table.”
- We adopt a curious, personable tone of voice.
- We have a “give-and-take,” “writer-to-writer” conversation with students in which they talk about what they are doing as writers, and we talk about what writers do that they can try themselves.
- We use active listening strategies, such as asking open-ended questions, giving wait time, and reflecting back what we hear students say.
Be the first to read the latest from Shaped.