For the past 25 years, I’ve taught writing through a workshop model, conferencing for two or three minutes with as many students as possible as they write in class.

I would collect the pieces every couple of weeks and spend long weekends grading them at home. However, a few weeks ago, Aaron Blackwelder’s blog post, How to Value Personal Time While Providing Great Feedback, inspired me to try a flipped feedback approach and assess papers with students. Since then, I’ve dropped the number of students I meet with per class to four or five, and the feedback I give in class has changed drastically.

During the conferences, instead of a quick check-in to see how students are doing and give them some support, I’m actually sitting down with my students to go over their work in detail. I ask the kids to send me their work the night before so that I can read it, but I no longer make any notes on their papers and I don’t give them any feedback in advance. Instead, I take a few notes so that I am prepared to discuss their work, and then I go over things in detail with them in person.

This little tweak has led to profound changes in the way I talk to students about their writing and the way they respond to my feedback. I’ve also seen an incredibly positive impact on their growth as writers.

In the conferences, I focus on questioning students about their writing so that they discover their strengths or areas they need to improve, or I point out something they did well and ask them to try applying the technique more often in their work. To give an idea of how this plays out, let’s focus in on the last few weeks of my flipped feedback experiment. At the time, students were working on coming-of-age stories in class. Here are a few examples of the types of questions or comments I made, and the reactions I got from students:

Examples:

  • Can you show me your coming-of-age moment?” Most students had not made this clear in their story. They would respond by looking up in the air and begin to describe what they thought the coming-of-age moment was, saying, “Yeah my coming of age moment is when my character…” I  would interject with, “Rather than tell me about it, can you point it out in your story?” In doing this, most of them would realize that they had a weak sentence or two that wasn’t clear to the reader.
  • What do you think you could do here to make your writing stronger?” I had recently taught a mini-lesson from After the End by Barry Lane, called “Exploding the Moment,” so many of them realized that this was a part of their story that they needed to slow down and stretch out.
  • Oh, I love this sentence/paragraph. You’ve got some great imagery here. Now let me read you this paragraph…” I would then read a more poorly written paragraph so they noticed the difference. They tended to say, “Yeah, that was a lot more boring. I didn’t really write it as well as that first part.” So instead of simply giving them critical feedback in these one-on-one conferences, I was able to give them a lot of positive feedback while asking them to extend what they’re doing well throughout the rest of their piece.
  • “Hmmm, do you know what this word means? No? Why did you decide to use it?” Often my students try to enhance their writing by pulling “big” words out of the thesaurus—words they don’t know and that they use incorrectly. This was my opportunity to give them a mini-lesson about using the thesaurus to jog their memory for words they’re familiar with rather than plugging in a lot of difficult words.
  • “What have you learned from this that you can apply to your next piece of writing?” I let students know that I was not only teaching them to write a story, I was teaching them to be stronger writers. Although they had focused a lot on writing dialogue and “exploding moments,” I also wanted them to identify other skills that they could apply to other forms of writing.

Impact on student learning:

  • Students develop the ability to self-assess: By answering questions and looking closely at their work, students independently see what they need to do to improve their writing. At first, they tended to be dependent on my questions to guide them, but very quickly, they started to come to the conferences with specific questions or areas they wanted to improve. “Carla, I tried to make this scene better, but I’m having trouble integrating the character’s thoughts. Can you have a look?” My long-term goal is that students will learn to read and revise their work independently.
  • Students gain confidence: During these conferences I pointed out strengths: a strong sentence or phrase, an interesting word choice, or a great ending. When I stopped and said, “Oh wow, that’s a beautiful metaphor. Let me read that again…” and read it out loud, students glowed. I noticed that, after a conference, even my weakest students felt confident and more enthusiastic about their writing.
  • Students gain a deeper understanding of what grades represent: Although I don’t like it, I do have to give grades. In writing, we use a six-trait rubric with criteria that students need to meet. When I first started conferencing, I was hesitant to include the rubric, but I decided to ask students to rate themselves from 1-5 on the criteria for each draft. I saw two major issues: some students didn’t recognize strong work and couldn’t bear to give themselves a 5, while others confused their effort with their final product and gave themselves a 5 far too easily. This led to deep conversations about what the grade represents. In the end, I think that having to actually “grade” themselves helped students learn to fairly evaluate their work and then be able to move forward with improving it.
  • Students learn what revision actually means: Quite a few of my weaker students had an aha! moment when they realized that just because they’d already worked hard on their piece didn’t mean that it was ready to publish. They saw that they still had a lot of work to do and that was okay. Previously, their revisions consisted of a few word changes or the addition of a sentence or two. For the first time, I saw many students doing true, in-depth revision.
  • Students actively apply what they’ve learned to another piece: I wanted the students to see that through the process of writing a coming-of age-story, they honed skills that could be applied to other forms of writing. When I asked them what they’d learned, these were the types of responses I got:
    • “I learned how to edit. I actually put all my sentences on another document and then played around with them to see how I could make them better. Now I’m writing a reading response essay and I’m doing the same thing.”
    • “I’ve never used figurative language before, and now I’m starting to use it in my non-fiction writing too. It makes it more interesting.”
    • “I learned how to combine sentences. I found out that this actually makes my writing better. I try to make my sentences flow.”
    • “I realized that I don’t need to use big impressive words. Instead of writing, ‘He consulted his timekeeper,’ I should just write, ‘He looked at his watch.’ I learned that sometimes simpler is better.”
    • “I learned how to apply mini-lessons. I’ve always paid attention in class, but then I didn’t know how to use the lessons we learned. When you said, ‘Take out your toolbox and let’s look at the mentor text,’ I started to see how I could actually use the tools to make my writing better. Mentor texts really help and now I think I can use them on my own.”
    • “I learned that I’m actually a good writer! I really enjoyed writing this and now I’m not so afraid to write. I always thought I was a bad writer and that blocked me.”

Since I switched to a flipped feedback model, I haven’t spent my weekends grading writing pieces. That’s a fantastic bonus—but one of the best things about the longer conferences was that my students understood what they needed to do. They became more enthusiastic about carrying on with their writing, and their second and third drafts were markedly improved over the first ones. In the past, the majority of them only did light revision and made little improvement. When I asked students about this change in attitude, most of them said, “It’s because I really understand what I need to do now.”

Students also seemed to enjoy the personal attention. Our time in conferences helped us build stronger relationships as we laugh together, have deep conversations, and learn to understand each other better. Students love the conferences and when they walk into class, they ask if they can go first. When they aren’t scheduled for a conference, they often ask to meet with me some other time—some even ask to come in at lunchtime. I give priority to students who share their work with me the night before, since it means I’d already had time to read their work. Students quickly picked up on this, and they’ve started to share their work with me in advance, without reminders.

Overall, my students love this kind of conferencing and they are vocal about how much they are learning  from it. The biggest evidence of this lies in their enthusiasm. Another thing, not a single student handed their work in late. There is clear, ongoing evidence of the positive impact: they’re applying what they learn to other pieces of writing.

Isn’t that what every writing teacher is aiming for?

Carla Meyrink is the co-founder and secondary director at The Community for Learning, a progressive school in the Dominican Republic. She reflects on what she has learned from her school’s successes and challenges at  The Teaching Experiment. You can follow her on Twitter @carlameyrink.

Appendix of Questions:

These questions are just ideas. Not all of my students move at the same pace and some will focus on content for several drafts. But these are the kinds of questions I use to push students’ thinking and allow them to find their own solutions.

First Draft—conferencing often focuses on the content or development of the story:

  • Can you show me your coming-of-age moment? (or thesis statement, topic sentence, analysis, conclusion—any part of the writing that seems incomplete)
  • What do you think you could do here to make your writing stronger?
  • Are you allowing your reader to make inferences about the coming-of-age moment?
  • You’ve got a lot of background information here and then you have some dialogue between the two characters. How can you build a scene by integrating this information?
  • How can you ‘show’ not ‘tell’? What action could the character make that shows how s/he’s feeling, instead of saying “she was _____”?
  • What can you add to your analysis to make it deeper? (connections to the text, to real life, a deeper look at author’s craft)
  • Let’s look at your mentor text. What does the author do here? How could you do something similar?

Second draft—conferencing tends to focus on word choice, sentence structure, and voice:

  • Oh, I love this sentence/paragraph. You’ve got some great imagery here. Now let me read you this paragraph…how could you make it just as strong?
  • Hmm, do you know what this word means? No? Why did you decide to use it? What could you say instead?
  • Let’s look at sentence structure. Can you read a paragraph aloud for me? What do you notice?
  • How could you take these (two or three) choppy sentences and combine them? Try that for me.
  • You embed all your quotes by saying ‘____said,’ Can you think of another way to embed this quote?
  • Are you comparing or contrasting here? What kind of transition word would make that clear to your reader?

Final draft—we looked at growth and what students learned:

  • Can I give you one last mini-lesson on…
  • What have you learned from this that you can apply to your next piece of writing?
  • What do you see as your strengths as a writer?
  • How have you grown as a writer?
  • What’s an area that you feel you still need to work on?
  • Wow! This piece has come a long way. Let’s look at your first draft and compare it to this one. What changes do you notice?

6 Comments

  1. Hello, I love this idea. I was wondering about class size. I have 45 kids a class. Would this still work? Any suggestions for modifications?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Kristina, how much class time do you have with your students? I spend about 10 minutes per student on these conferences. Another idea might be to meet with 3 or 4 students at the same time and maybe extend the time a little. I do this for students who are struggling with the same issue and find that it works well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am not very familiar with a writer’s workshop model. What are your other students doing while you are conferencing with only four or five students per class period?

    Like

    1. Sarah, in writing workshop, I give a mini-lesson that should be 10 – 15 minutes long (and may often include a short practice activity) and then students write while I conference. I teach 4 days per week: 2 days of writing workshop and 2 days of reading workshop. This is the model I continue to use on weeks when students don’t have to hand in a draft.

      During the weeks when students are going over a draft with me in longer conferences I give 2 mini-lessons on writing and 2 on reading. But while I’m conferences the rest of the students have choices: they can work on reading or writing, or anything else we might be doing (sketch quotes, reading responses, grammar activities).

      If you want to learn more about writing workshop, there’s a lot of information out there, but I think The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins is a great place to start. I began teaching through a workshop model about 25 years ago after reading In the Middle by Nancie Atwell – which is still a book I highly recommend.

      I hope that makes sense. Please let me know if it’s not clear.

      Like

  4. I would like to know the answer to this question too. I’m a middle school teacher and my students don’t do so well when I am focusing on just one person at a time for so long.

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    1. Diann, I’m originally a middle school teacher too, so I understand where you’re coming from. In our school we struggled with students talking too much during writing workshop. So we decided to schedule moments when they had to work silently, broken up by moments when they could talk to each other (teachers teach this routine explicitly and practice it until it becomes second nature). Many teachers have a pie chart on the wall which shows the use of time during the workshop. I’m adding a link here so that you can see an example :
      https://drive.google.com/file/d/1N_J5p9Z3QnipmE9eTmT_qnd2PQLuIJMr/view?usp=sharing

      Generally, once the students get immersed in their writing, they don’t want to stop and talk. They also learn to focus for longer periods of time. I know middle schoolers can be challenging, but they also love to feel independent and we’ve found that they respond well to this format.

      You might want to start with shorter periods of silent work time and then build up. During each work time you could conference with one or two students. I would probably keep the conferences down to 5 – 7 minutes and keep one ear on the class to make sure they’re on task. My experience with the longer conferences has been that students truly understand the feedback I give them and, since they know exactly what they need to do, they’re motivated to revise their work and they’re much more engaged.

      I hope that’s helpful. I’d love to hear about how this does or doesn’t work for you.

      Like

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