This article is cross-posted on Teachers Going Gradeless
As an English teacher, teaching writing and supporting developing writers is paramount. I want to see my students write regularly and hone their skills to communicate meaningful ideas. However, every essay means time for me to read, make comments, and this usually means sacrificing hours of personal time.
According to The Washington Post, the average teacher works 53 hours a week, and those who coach a sport or advise an after-school activity are on the upwards of 11.5 hours a day. As a teacher and boys (fall) and girls (spring) golf coach, I can attest to this. The amount of time I spend away from my family during both golf seasons takes its toll.
A couple years ago I challenged myself to limit the amount of time I spent away from my family. Reading essays often meant I had to spend an entire weekend locking myself in my room, away from my family, so I could give students meaningful and timely feedback that is essential to their development as writers. However, I was never quite certain if my students actually took the time to read or if they understood my comments. I didn’t know if they had questions or concerns. Assessing in isolation seems empty.
For years I’ve conferenced with students during the writing process. I’ve valued this time because it always gave me the opportunity to read student work, answer questions, and provide meaningful feedback. I could also help jumpstart students stuck in their writing. I began to wonder what impact might conferencing have if I were to do it after the writing process. The thought intrigued me.
The greatest challenge one-to-one conferencing imposes is time. Let’s face it: reading essays requires attention. There is the time to read the work, think about it, identify strengths and weaknesses, and make suggestions to challenge students. Spending this kind of time with an individual student means sacrificing multiple class periods that could be used for instruction. However, I believed it would be time well spent. As a teacher, I have three core values. And if I value these things, I should make time for them:
I value getting to know my students.
I value student learning.
I value time with my family.
Setting aside time during class to conference with students was something that easily fit in with my core values.
The first step in setting up conferences was to create a schedule. I made a signup sheet on Google Sheets. I considered how long I felt was appropriate for me to spend with students (this varies from grade level to assignment.) Then, a few days before conferences begin, I have students sign up for a day and time they would like to meet with me to discuss their work. I call this time my “Due Window.” This “Due Window” allows flexibility for students as it gives students ownership over when their work is due.
know some students may need some extra time beyond the Due Window. I share that if students do not finish their work within the time frame I still expect them to complete it. And when they do, they can sign up for a conference with me outside of the class period either before school, during Advisory, or after school. Each week I post a conferencing schedule on my door and the time usually fills up quickly.
After the conference, students are provided feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their work. Whether the work needs extensive revisions or if it is a polished final draft, I try to offer next steps or some challenge to help my students develop as writers. I believe there is always room to grow and every student needs to be challenged beyond their current capabilities.
The question I’m most commonly asked is, “What are the rest of the students doing during the conferences?” Well, there is plenty to do. Some are working to finish their essays, some are making revisions, a few are reading their lit circle books, and others play games like Uno or checkers, which I keep in my class. I trust my students to make good choices for themselves.
Alfie Kohn suggests, “We need to attend to deeper differences: between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and between ‘doing to’ and ‘working with’ strategies.” The more I find I am “working with” my students the more engaged they are.
The follow-up question I get is, “If you aren’t watching them how do you know kids are learning?” My response is this:
I know they are learning because I see their growth throughout the year as my kids develop as writers. I am “working with” my students and it is apparent in the quality of their work and their growing confidence as writers.
I want my students to see me as a person who is personally invested in their learning. I also want to be available to my wife and kids when I’m home. Making class time for one-to-one conferencing helps ensure I am meeting both of these goals.