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Tech Complements Writing Conferences Critical for Writing Growth

Teaching writing does not have to be this way:

  1. Assign a random or irrelevant writing prompt with teacher as sole audience or an unknown audience.
  2. Expect impeccable writing skills from every student. 
  3. Skip any type of modeling of the type of writing to be done. Students should all know how to write by now. 
  4. Provide no rubric, or checklist or give rubrics and checklists students don't understand. 
  5. Complain when students don't live up to high expectations; blame the previous year's  teacher(s) for students' inability to write. 
  6. Accumulate piles of student writing assignments on or underneath desk, on empty book shelves, all over other classroom spaces, or scatter them on floor of the backseat of a car. 
  7. Tell students and parents you have a tendency to lose writing assignments so they need to keep extra copies.
  8. Procrastinate grading student writing for months.  Spend weekend before grades are due grading students' writing, including lengthy comments on every student's paper about skills students are clueless about.
  9. Mark up almost every grammar mistake in red, purple, pink or green. 
  10. Return writing assignment a month later with a letter grade; let students trash it, or file writing away in student folders never to be seen again.  

Repeat every few weeks, and complain all year students can't write to save their lives!
RESULTS:
So many students can't write to save their lives! "Only roughly one quarter of eighth and 12th graders are proficient in writing, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress' first-ever computer-based writing assessment." 

  • How do students learn writing is a process without ever speaking to their teachers at different stages of writing? 
  • How do students learn how to interpret and apply feedback to correct mistakes and grow as writers if writing is returned to them without any chance of conversation to understand and correct errors? 

So many students develop a negative attitude about the writing process and their own ability to express themselves in writing because there is no modeling or discussion at different stages of the writing process. Prompts are assigned; students write in isolation; teachers grade and return writing without discussion; writing piece is never seen again. Then, we wonder why so many colleges now require freshmen writing courses to ensure students have basic writing skills to survive.
SOLUTIONS:
One of the most important activities when teaching writing is the act of conferencing with students.   In so many classrooms, overcrowding, time constraints, and lack of teacher training in teaching writing, among other factors, prevent students from experiencing what it means to talk about writing so they can grow as writers. There's nothing more damaging to student writers, especially a struggling reader/writer, than a writing assignment without any teacher modeling of the type of writing to be done, and no opportunity to talk with the teacher throughout the writing process.
Individual writing conferences with students serve many purposes, save time in the long run, and improve students' writing ability, and confidence in the power of editing and revising. In the beginning stages, conferencing with students involves concerted time and effort for the teacher to establish routines and structures for students to internalize. Conferencing is not easy and can be exhausting at first; however, the time and energy teachers dedicate to teaching the act of conferencing are well worth it because ultimately, student teacher conferences reduce the amount of time teachers spend identifying fault in student writing so they can focus instead on what's right.  

There are many tech tools with specific features which facilitate and complement writing conferences. For example, on Word or Google Docs, teachers can use the "Insert Comment" feature to add feedback prior to a face to face writing conference.  Adding these written comments and following-up with a conference to discuss the comments are always the most effective way for students to benefit from the feedback; otherwise, written feedback, without a one-on-one discussion, will often fall on deaf ears...or should I say eyes. Struggling writers will rarely read teacher comments or understand how to apply the feedback to improve their writing because they simply haven't been taught how. There has to be an opportunity to talk with the teacher about the feedback for growth to occur. We want students to internalize basic writing traits but circling them in red ink accomplishes nothing; we have to talk about the mistakes with students individually or in small groups. We must ask students questions as they write so they learn how to ask themselves questions.
Unfortunately, so many classrooms are often overcrowded with 40 plus students making conferencing difficult, but teachers must find creative ways to overcome this problem.  Here are some tips for formal and informal writing conferences:

  • If class time is not long enough, use tech tools like Vyew.com, SkypeCollaborizeclassroom,  or Google Hangouts to hold individual writing conferences after school while students are at home. You can even involve parents if you like to participate during the writing conference.
  • Pair up students according to their writing strengths and challenges so they can mentor each other prior to their individual conference. Be sure not to pair an extremely low student with an extremely high achieving student. The point is not for one student to do all the work for another, but rather for both to be able to help each other identify areas for improvement.  Model what effective peer editing looks and sounds like. Provide students with a list of questions they need to ask themselves and their partner about each others' writing. Have students read their writing aloud.
  • Plan ahead and prepare. What will students do while you are busy conferencing with individual students? Prior to holding conferences, provide specific instruction of writing tasks students should perform independently, in pairs or small groups. Discuss norms beforehand and let students know exactly what you expect them to do. Be sure to discuss what you expect in terms of noise level, interruptions, mobility and work completion while you are conferencing.   
  • Structure informal and formal conference sessions so students receive the time and attention they need. Walk around the classroom, stopping by to "chat" with students as they write to monitor student progress, answer questions and provide encouragement. Determine at what stages in the writing process you want to formally confer with students or set up a sign-up sheet so students choose when they are ready to confer. Also, determine how you will follow-up when necessary. Spend between 5 to 15 minutes per student in class, but obviously, if students need more time, schedule a time before, after school, in person or online using one of the tech tools mentioned.  If students are working on a longer piece, prior to conferencing, reading through a writing piece to pinpoint skills or traits you want to address saves time as well as having students generate questions they want answered about their writing. Having a checklist of traits and questions to address during the conference can also help move the conference along smoothly.  
  • Monitoring and assessing mastery of skills can also be done through conferencing. Keep notes on each student about the skills or traits discussed at each conference. If you identify a particular skill a student needs to master, make note of it and follow up with that student to assess student mastery. During the editing and revising process, allow students plenty of opportunities to write drafts until they are able to show mastery of the skill or trait discussed. 
  • Focus on a few traits or skills at a time so that the entire writing workshop process is not overwhelming for both teacher and student. The goal is for students to show growth even if  it's just one minor aspect of their writing. Significant growth will happen over time after extensive writing practice and opportunities to conference.  

Writing Conferences allow TEACHERS to:

  • identify individual students' writing strengths and challenges.
  • build rapport, gain student trust and instill importance of writing as a process.
  • listen to student attitudes and concerns about writing 
  • ask students questions about writing craft
  • pinpoint specific writing traits to teach, reteach and reinforce individually, or in small or large groups.
  • share, discuss and explain specific examples or solutions with students tailored for their individual writing challenges.
  • personalize and differentiate instruction by focusing on what each individual student needs to successfully engage in the writing process.

Writing Conferences allow STUDENTS to:

  • ask and answer questions about the writing craft they may hesitate to ask in a large group. 
  • discuss specific aspects about a writing piece at various stages of the writing process.
  • brainstorm ideas with the teacher's guidance.
  • read writing aloud to the teacher to learn how to edit and revise.
  • learn why we write and how to improve their own writing.
  • learn how to interpret teacher feedback and generate feedback for a peer.
  • learn how to carry out the role of peer editor through the experience of the teacher-student conference. 
  • internalize specific writing skills because of the opportunity to talk about, practice and apply the specific skill. 

If we want our students to be effective writers, then we must talk with them about their writing. We must be introspective about how we teach writing, so we can teach students to become introspective about their own writing. Writing cannot be a silent or solitary activity. Regardless of age or ability level, all students have a voice worthy of expression in writing.   Tech tools today complement writing conferences and help teachers overcome whatever issues may have prevented writing workshop success in the past.  Writing conferences build a community of writers and thinkers. When we empower students to talk about writing, students' natural desire for self-expression will always prevail over choosing to be off-task.
Please visit http://fearlesstech4teachers.blogspot.com/2012/10/tech-complements-writing-conferences.html for a playlist of resources about Writing Conferences.

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