Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

[Podcast] Focused Group Conferring

[Podcast] Focused Group Conferring

I've been asked several questions regarding conferring...specifically focused group conferring. This makes me because writers need other writers to talk to. We have a long history in art of portraits of writers sitting alone with their thoughts and a sheet of paper.

While we are alone with our thoughts for large chunks of time as writers, the social aspect of writing receives the least amount of attention in schools.

Some questions have come from blog readers and listeners of my podcast, and other questions have been from teachers reaching to me via email after presentations at recent conferences. Teachers have asked if they can hear an actual writing conference from my classroom, and some have asked if they could hear what the social aspect of the writing process sounds like: "doesn't that invite chaos?" "...what are the other students doing?" "...do you follow a list of questions?"

Clearly, most of my podcasts sound more like interviews of students and parents and less like a traditional conference "in the moment" where students talk about a particular piece of writing. I would need my own production crew following me around to capture those moments. As it is, I do set my iPhone down to record during some conferences, but like any act of note taking, the kids notice recorder. In most cases, they don't seem to mind--at least they don't say as much--but I imagine that some may be uncomfortable speaking when they know the audio recorder is rolling.

In this podcast episode, four 8th grade students in the midst of writing a personal essay sit down for a focused group conference. A bit of background--these four sit together every day by choice. They function as writing partners for each other and are often very focused in their conversations. Yes, there is a constant stream of chatter among them, but it is most often about their writing...and even if it is not, they redirect back to the writing without many cues from me.

Points for your consideration surrounding this focused group conference:

  1. each writer shares a different obstacle in their writing

  2. when three of the writers are listening, they offer focused insight as to how their classmate might address the obstacle

  3. in the background, you can hear the moment the class finds a need for a collective break from writing in order to talk (and this is ok!)--it sound almost like a collective exhale

  4. each of the writers hears the other writers receiving feedback in a small, supportive community where I model positive and encouraging feedback

  5. the writers laugh; what is going well is discussed in addition to the obstacles

Among the questions I receive about conferring on social media and email, I read a majority of questions regarding time

How do I find the time to confer?

The time is there. We don't have to find time. The time question is an important one because I think it comes down to priorities--and I am not suggesting my priorities are better than anyone else's. However, everything can not be a priority. We can agree that that is just not possible. I value students learning how to listen and respond to one another; therefore, a significant chunk of time in class (daily) is dedicated to students talking. I dread considering the ramifications of students growing up without ever learning how to talk with others beyond socializing for fun. We can teach our kids to be social in the act of working, social in the act of writing, and social in the act of being lifelong learners. 

Yes, the standards can exists withing the social component of the writing process. We make the standards work for us. We do not enslave ourselves to the standards.

That statement, more so than anything else I have said, is the most quoted in the follow-up emails I receive after presentations.

When I say that I mean that we use the standards as an artist uses a palette. No one is directing my painters to start with red--paint only with red--and then next week we will work with burnt sienna (and only burnt sienna). My painters use any color they have access to. They borrow colors from others. They mix colors--sometimes incorrectly so that it makes mud. But as they use the palette according to their curiosity and readiness I make it my business to find as many opportunities as I can to teach them something about painting.

In the studio environment, my writers write more this way than when I prescribed writing in my first decade of teaching. Writing in volume matters.

In the studio environment, writers talk. Writers laugh. Writers collaborate. Writers learn from other writers. There is an inner locus of control that the young writers become accustomed to over time--this is, of course, after several weeks of frustration. Early in the year, some students, used to an external locus of control (teachers prescribing writing), do not know how to find an idea worth writing about. Often, they have been indoctrinated to believe that the only ideas worth writing about come from external influences: teachers and assessments.

These writers need the focused group conferences the most...and they come to learn to appreciate the constant stream of daily conferencing with a supportive writing partner. Unfortunately, education has become so hell-bent on teaching kids that writing is an act that occurs in a silo, that writing alongside others in a stream of conversation feels so free that some kids have trouble grasping the actual discipline embedded in what they are doing.

So, if a focused group conference take twelve minutes and the next focused group conference takes five minutes, so be it. If I stop by a student's desk for thirty seconds and the next student for two minutes, so be it. My presence as a mentor is fluid. Their writing partners' engagement is fluid. Time is fluid in the writing workshop. As teachers and students, we learn to let go of restrictions when we are living as writers. I am there to support and mentor students...not only as a writer but also as an internal locus of support in the conferences.

Students learn from listening how I handle writers. They imitate what they hear. They do not hear me criticize the grammar and punctuation. They hear me say what I hear and what I may not be hearing. They hear me wonder. They hear me make references and piece together connections which could be useful for the writer. They hear me encourage and use positive language like yes and I love and I like.

It takes time and repetition, but by mid-year many young writers are talking about writing more as writers and less as editors.

While a focused group conference may take longer than an individual conference, we are amplifying learning as writers through the reinforcement that we are a community of writers. Our actions respect and value the authentic processes of writers. 

So, as requested by some new colleagues who I have met at conferences, here is a sample of what focused group conferring can sound like and accomplish. 

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