Writing Conferences in the Primary Classroom

Conferencing with kids during writers' workshop can be overwhelming in the primary classroom...

How am I going to have time to get to #allthekids?

Can little kids really write independently while I try to conference?  And for how long?

What do I even conference about?  How do I choose what's most important to talk about that day?

All these burning questions and more go through the minds of new and sometimes even experienced teachers.  I'll be honest, after 10 years in the classroom, I sometimes had to remind myself that it was OK that I was conferencing about the same 4 or 5 things every. single. day.

Here's a peek into my routines for conferencing during writers' workshop.  We talk about how I decide who to conference with each day, how I choose which point to conference on and how I manage the how class during conferencing time.

Setting Up Writers' Workshop for Successful Conferences

On the second day of school, we write about what they want to learn in first grade.  Really, this is just a pre-assessment for me.  You can use any prompt at the beginning of the year.  I collect the papers and sort them into four stacks:
1) Super low (below basic) writers,
2) low (basic) writers,
3) proficient writers and
4) advanced writers.

This is not a formal assessment...it's just a quick, gut reaction on where each kid is at the beginning of the year before they get much help from me.

Once I have my piles, I divide each pile into 4 groups {pink, orange, green and 1...I usually have a yellow group instead of a 1 group, but I could not find any of these silly stickers that had four colors this particular year!!!!  GRRR!  So, I had to settle for a "1" group! :)

Anyways...I give each colored dot a friend from my lowest stack until I'm out of lows....then I pass out the proficient stacks to each dot....then the advanced ones.  This gives me 4, heterogenous groups to work with.  Each group has 6 friends in it.

My groups aren't on anything fancy....just the ol' handwritten index card with dots.  But it works!!  Monday-Thursday I conference with one of these colored dot groups.  Fridays I can conference with an additional group, a different group {like more intervention for my lows} or it just leaves it open to not conference and do some whole group writing activities.  I've used this system for most of my 10 years teaching and I love it!

I should also mention that pink dots aren't always on Mondays.  Sometimes, our weeks are cRaZy! #truthtime So the most important thing to me is to make sure I meet with everyone as equally as possible.  That means if I met with my orange dots the last time we conferenced, then I meet with green dots next...no matter what day it is!

Why heterogenous groups?  Mainly, it's a time thing.  If I conferenced with all of my low writers one day, it would take for. ever. to finish our conferences because they need so much from me.  If I conferenced with all of my highs one day, I'd be done in 5 seconds.  So, I mix it up so that I use up just the write amount of time conferencing!

Managing the Whole Class During Writing Conferences

Writing conferences happen during independent writing in writers' workshop.  That means we've had a quick mini-lesson as a whole group and they've been sent to their seats to write independently and practice the skill we learned about in our mini-lesson.

When, I release kids from the carpet/mini-lesson, I always release my conferencing group first.  This gives them time to get their writing folder and meet me at my back table.  I'll say, "Pink dots, go get your things and meet me at the back table."  Then, I dismiss my independent writers.

As a set up note... at the beginning of the year, after I organize my kids into writing groups, I revisit my seating chart.  Usually by the end of the first week (or first day, sometimes!) there needs to be a few adjustments in our seating chart.  When I do those first adjustments, I *try* to make sure each group of four desks has one person from each colored dot.  No, it's not always perfect.  But I try.

The reason I try to do this is so that when I'm conferencing, I never have a "full" table of independent writers.  There is always at least one person missing from the group table.  This is just a management trick I use to keep the talking quietened!

My conference kids start writing independently at my back table.  They do not wait on me.  Once, I've released everyone, I turn on classical music.  This is our writing music.  My rule is, "If you can't hear the music, you are too loud."  This does a really good job of helping kids manage their voice levels!  Once the music is on and my independent writers are settled, I head to my back table to begin conferences.

How long is too long to write independently?
My experience in first grade is that independent writing time will vary depending on  your group of kids and the time of year.

In general, I start with 15-20 minutes of writing time at the beginning of the year.  And I slowly increase that to 30-40 minutes at the end of the year, depending on how independent the group is.

How Do I Know What To Conference About?

Once I'm ready to conference, I just dig in and get started.  It doesn't really matter who you start with...I've changed that up over the years and haven't found that any way is better for me.

The first thing I do is look at our mini-lesson skill.  Let's say, for example, we are learning about opinion writing and we spent our mini-lesson modeling and working on our introductory opinion sentence.  When I start a conference, I read through the student's story so far and look to see if he has a good introductory sentence.  If not, I revisit the mini-lesson with that student and help her write a strong intro.

For my lower babies, this may not be something I even look at.  Depending on how low they are, I may even have already given them an intro sentence to copy before I start conferencing.

After I take care of this mini-lesson skill, I refer to the writing rubric we've been working on.  So for this writing sample below, the opinion intro is there.  The self-check shows that she thinks she did all 6 mechanics skills correctly.  I notice that she doesn't have a good handle on capitals or periods.

But there are more mistakes with capitals.  So that is my conference point for the day.  I will do a quick mini-lesson or reminder about capitals.  It might sound like this....

"Your opinion intro is great!  But I notice a few mistakes with capitals.  Where do we use capitals in first grade?"  (first of the sentence, the word I, and names)

"And where do we NOT use capitals?"  (in the middle of words)

"Let's look slowly together at your writing and see if we can find the 3 mistakes that I see."

Then, I will have the student run her finger under each word very slowly.  If she passes a capital mistake, I'll stop her and we will chat on that.  If she doesn't find any capitals, then I will help by circling all of the capital mistakes and have her go back and fix those.  Then after I have conferenced with another person, I'll go back and check to see that the mistakes have been fixed.

This conference would be about 2 minutes or less.  But in order to do my conferences effectively, I have to know my writing standards and rubrics like the back of my hand!

I use these rubrics during my mini-lessons because they are kid friendly and many are for self-assessing.  They help the kids and me learn what I expect for each type of writing.

Then, once I know the rubric well, I can mentally go through the rubric to find the most important point of conferencing.

And that's almost it!  If I finish all 6 conferences before our independent time is over (which happens more towards the end of the year), then I walk around and conference with my low babies to check in on them!

So, we've conferenced, now what??  Next week, I'll blog about how I follow up with kids after conferences, help them remember their conference points, and use conferences for share time and planning mini-lessons!
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