|Writing Workshop||Architecture||Assessment||Mentor Texts and Charts||Sample Lessons
Conferring may be the heart of workshop, but for many teachers it is the hardest part. One reason for this is because it’s difficult for teachers to know exactly what to say to each student. To help alleviate this problem, many writing teachers have found it useful to follow a predictable structure within their conferences. This predictable structure or architecture includes the following parts: research, decide, compliment, teach, and link (Calkins, 1994; Anderson 2000; Anderson, 2005; Calkins, Hartman, & White, 2005; Calkins, 2006).
See Sample Lessons by Component for video clips of each component of the Architecture of a Conference.
The Architecture of a Conference
At their core, writing conferences are conversations. Though the goal for the teacher is to teach the student how to be a better writer, the form this teaching takes is a discussion between two individuals. Because the intent is to have a discussion, it’s important that the teacher foster this by sitting beside students so she can look them in the eye, as opposed to standing above them (this authoritative stance isn’t conducive to encouraging an open form of discourse). As in all conversations, the participants have roles to play. The teacher will generally take the lead role and initiate the conversation; however, her goal is to quickly turn the conversation over to the child so she can begin her research. To accomplish this, most teachers begin every conference with a predictable question such as, “How’s it going?” (Anderson, 2000). It doesn’t really matter what question the teacher uses, so long as it gets the child to talk about his or her writing. As the child talks, the teacher listens closely and reads the child’s work.
There are two big decisions the teacher must make as she assesses. She must first decide what to compliment in the child’s work, then she must decide the most important thing to teach the child at this time (Calkins, 2003).
A conference needs to begin on a positive note with praise for the writer. If teachers approach conferences with this in mind, they will begin to notice all the wonderful things their students are doing (especially if they focus on the content of their writing). Though the compliment is a form of encouragement, adding a name to the compliment turns this praise into a teachable moment. Bomer (2010) proposes that teachers begin every conference by noticing what a student is doing (or attempting to do), praising them for it, and then naming it. She writes,
I believe this naming portion of the writing conference is not a throwaway moment, not empty praise, or a pat on the head for being a good girl or boy, but in fact the key to teaching students something they may not have consciously realized they are doing so they can build on it and do it again (p. 9).
Calkins (2003) suggests that as we consider what to compliment we might think, “What has the child done-or gestured toward doing-that represents the outer edge of the child’s development and therefore would be wise for me to extol?” (p. 75). Therefore, not only will teachers want to notice and name the writerly things students have already mastered, they will also want to admire something the student may have only attempted or what Marie Clay called the “partially correct” (1993).
The teaching phase of the conference should begin with an announcement by the teacher. This announcement is similar to setting the stage for the new learning when the teaching point is announced in a conference. The teacher might say, “Today I’m going to teach you how to __________.” or “Can I teach you one thing today?” or “Let me show you how I go about _____________.” Each of these kinds of announcements lets students know the teaching has begun and they should pay attention. The goal of every conference is to teach the student one new thing. One important strategy that will help him or her the most at this time and in the future. This doesn’t mean when teachers assess they won’t notice many other things they need to teach the child, but the teacher must choose just one concept. When too many things are taught in a conference, it becomes a negative experience for the writer and may make him feel like the teacher’s job is to correct all their mistakes rather than help them become a better writer.
Conferences should come to a close with a reiteration of the teaching point and a link to the student’s ongoing work. This is generally done by repeating the name of the strategy and mentioning how this writing concept will help the student in their current and future work. Saying something like, “So every time you’re writing and you’re trying to _____________, you can always ____________.” This announcement lets students know the work done during the conference wasn’t a one-time fix,rather it was a strategy which may be used each and every time they write.