Making Writing Instruction Work: Conferencing

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Mark Overmeyer’s Blog

Here’s an open secret about teacher education: While politicians and pundits have been criticizing teacher education intensely since the Obama administration (think VAM), we in teacher education are disturbingly aware that many (if not most) of our candidates do not and cannot practice what they are taught once they enter the classroom.

Let me focus here on writing instruction as an example of that conflict.

Applebee and Langer’s most current and comprehensive research revealed some disturbing conclusions about “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (LaBrant, 1947, p. 87):

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15–17)

As I explain in my review of their research:

This gap between research and practice, reaching back to LaBrant (1947), is highlighted again and again throughout this volume — in ELA, social studies/history, mathematics, and science. Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research (Graham & Perin, 2007; Smagorinsky, 2006), professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

Teacher education struggles mightily against the persistent “considerable gap,” in fact, but the stalemate between informed practice and the realities of day-to-day classroom teaching can be alleviated.

Recently, I was again reminded of this problem when an early career teacher who completed my program was struggling with student-teacher conferences.

One of the greatest benefits I have experienced by moving to higher education (teaching first-year writing) from secondary education is the ability to require conferences from my students and having the time to make these conferences highly effective.

Since I have de-graded courses (as I did when teaching high school by the way), I include minimum requirements for student participation (see my fist-year writing syllabus). Those minimum requirements for writing-intensive courses include submitting full initial drafts, conferencing with me, and submitting at least one revision based on the strategies we identify in those conferences.

My feedback on writing has shifted significantly away from marking essays (using track changes and comments in Word) and toward more and more face-to-face conferencing.

I have, however, far more time available for conferencing than secondary ELA teachers, and my student load for my writing-intensive courses hovers around 20–24 students (a dramatic difference when compared to the 100–150 students most secondary teachers have).

Now if we confront that many K-12 teachers do not practice what they are taught as research-based best practice, we must also address that this gap is driven by the impracticality and inefficiency of effective writing instruction in the so-called real world of secondary teaching.

The early-career teacher mentioned above was exasperated because she had spent a couple days conferencing with students about their first essays of the academic year but had many students still to conference with. This amount of time and energy for conferencing was, she admitted, overwhelming and impractical.

She simply cannot sustain this over the semester weighed against all the other responsibilities she faced as their teacher.

As we discussed how to make writing instruction work, I mentioned I had addressed these problems in her methods course — although we both had to realize that here is another paradox of teacher education: Much of learning to teach cannot and will not happen until teachers are in the classroom, and that learning is an ongoing journey, not something to be acquired and then practiced.

Teacher educators too often oversimplify teaching during teacher preparation (the art of teaching tends to be framed as the science of teaching — rubrics, model lessons, etc.), and then practicing teachers feel they enter the classroom unprepared once the complexity and unpredictability of teaching become a daily reality.

Here, then, let me focus on the conferencing dilemma noted above.

First, when teaching students to write, we all must do less better. Teachers at all levels should decrease how much they mark student writing and then must narrowly target the time and content of face-to-face conferences.

I mark about the first quarter or third of student essays, and then add a few additional comments throughout the rest of the essay. When I conference with students, we create a two-to-three-point revision plan.

Less is more effective, and we must all resist the urge to martyr ourselves. (The lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or on social media about how much of our lives outside of school is spent lugging around and marking student writing is something we should all stop — the lamenting and the time, by the way.)

So, yes, face-to-face conferencing with students learning to write is a powerful research-based part of effective writing instruction, andconferencing is incredible time intensive, nearly unmanageable in the real-world of secondary teaching.

These are pragmatic compromises between best practice and reality that serve teachers and students well while remaining committed to the effectiveness of conferencing:

  • Regardless of how we conference, we must set realistic time limits and then not break those structures. And we must recognize that a few minutes can be more effective than marathon sessions that overwhelms teachers and students. I schedule my student conferences in about 20-minute blocks but we use less than that most times. Conferences of 4–5 minutes can be very effective in the secondary classroom — if well planned and targeted.
  • Another essential element of responding to student writing, whether by marking or in conferences, is to frame that work within students being required to address what is marked. If there is no structure for required revision and editing, and if the amount of revision and editing is unmanageable, then the time spent marking and conferencing is just more martyrdom.
  • While responding to student essays, and remaining committed to marking less, keep notes on common issues among most of the students to drive whole-class instruction (a companion to conferencing*, in fact), and group students by less common patterns to facilitate small group conferences as an alternative to individual conferences. This last practice allows teachers to manage 5 or 6 small group conferences of 5–10 minutes each (one class period if you are on a block schedule) versus trying to conduct 25–30 individual conferences of 5–10 minutes (several class sessions).
  • Create a schedule over your grading period that guarantees each student at least one or two individual conferences by targeting a handful of students for each major writing assignment, but not conferencing with all students for every writing assignment. Here I want to stress Henry David Thoreau’s “A [hu]man has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong” (“Civil Disobedience”).
  • Related to the point above, and significant for all aspects of writing instruction, teachers must have identified goals for each writing assignment, and again, the fewer the better. Responding to student writing either by marking student drafts or conferencing often suffers from teachers marking too much (wasting their time) and overwhelming students to the point of paralysis. But that targeting should also consider levels of importance to that feedback. Elements of revision addressing content and organization as well as word choice and sentence formation should be emphasized over basic editing (not to be ignored, but to be positioned at the end of the writing process once the writing deserves editing).
  • Student-teacher conferencing should work symbiotically with peer conferencing. In fact, student-teacher conferences should have the goal of making students more autonomous so that peer conferences and individual drafting become more and more effective, the role of the teacher gradually reduced. Teacher time and energy, then, more pronounced early in a course but relieved throughout the course. Also, student-teacher conferences can gradually focus on revision while editing can be gradually shifted to peer conferencing.

An irony of how we can close the gap between research and classroom practices is that effective writing instruction grounded in workshop methods requires a great deal of structure and organization. Many falsely see workshop as haphazard and traditional teacher-centered teaching as structured, if not rigid and authoritarian.

However, teaching writing well does not require that teachers martyr themselves. In fact, writing instruction greatly improves once we learn to do less better.

* Another way to make best practice practical is to step back from the practice and understand the concept. One of the key elements of conferencing is that it is based in student artifacts of learning. If most students are struggling with endings in their essays, a whole class session on endings is nearly as effective as meeting each student one-on-one. Here, whole-class teaching grounded in evidence of student needs is honoring a key aspect of conferencing without creating the stress of time.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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