Although you're likely to find them time consuming and exhausting, the individual conferences you hold with your students will be time well spent: by talking directly and individually with students about their writing, you can have a profound influence on how they interpret your assignments and your comments on their work, on how they approach a draft or a revision, on how motivated they are to write; and you'll understand your students as writers and thinkers far better than you ever can from only seeing their written work. Remember that talking--about ideas, about drafts, about revisions--is an essential part of writing, and that conferences provide ideal opportunities for that talk.
You will, of course, adjust your conference strategies to suit the student you're talking with, the purpose of the conference, and the time of the semester; but here are some general suggestions that may help you and your students make the most of conferences.
1. Before each round of conferences, think through your purposes for them. Some of many overlapping possibilities:
- establishing a good working relationship with your students
- reassuring anxious students
- motivating students to get started, persist, or work harder on their writing
- helping students generate ideas or arguments or plans for papers
- clarifying your expectations for papers
- answering questions students have
- elaborating on your written comments
- checking students' understanding (of written comments, of course material, of assignments . . .)
- understanding why students have done what they've done in papers
- individualizing your teaching
- helping students make a thesis or argument more complex
- helping students focus a topic or argument
- helping students anticipate and plan to address counter-arguments
- coaching students to be more precise or accurate or thorough in their representation of others' ideas
- coaching students through the process of writing an effective introduction
- modeling how to organize ideas within a paragraph
- helping students see the need for transitions between sections and creating some
- teaching how to identify and correct a grammatical problem
2. Before your first round of conferences, talk in class and give students a brief handout about what to expect during the conferences. Spell out the logistics: where to meet you, how long the conferences will last, what to bring, what to prepare, how to reschedule. And briefly explain the purpose of the conferences and make some suggestions for how students can get the most from them. And remind students that conferences are a mandatory part of the course.
3. At the beginning of each conference, work to establish rapport and to put students at ease (especially early in the semester) and be sure to set an agenda for the conference, one that's realistic given the time you have. Be selective: a 15-minute conference goes by quickly, so there's time to talk thoroughly about only a few writing issues.
4. Keep the conference focused on what most needs work and on what's appropriate for the writer at that stage of working on that particular paper. If, for example, a student needs to work on developing ideas more fully or on clarifying a main point, concentrate on that; don't get sidetracked into talking extensively about problems with grammar or punctuation or word choice. It's fine to say near the end of a conference that once she's worked on these larger issues, the student will need to work carefully on catching and correcting sentence-level problems. If necessary, suggest another meeting with you to focus on those issues.
5. To help focus and establish agendas for conferences and to encourage students to think critically about their writing, consider having students write out some questions in advance. If the conference is to discuss a draft of a paper, ask students to submit questions with their drafts.
These questions should be specific: not "What did you think of this paper?" but "Do you think I stray from my main point in the long paragraph on page 3?"; or "What do you see as my main point?" or "Should this closing story be my opening hook?" Early in the semester, work with the class to generate a list of model questions, and then hand out copies of the printed list. (Robert Connors and Cheryl Glenn, The St. Martin's Guide to Writing, 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1995, 41.)
If the purpose of the conference is to review written comments you've made on previous papers and guide future progress, ask students to come prepared with specific questions about your comments on previous papers--and tell them they'll be in charge of setting the agenda.
6. During conferences, get students talking--generating ideas, articulating plans, experimenting with language, posing questions, responding critically to their own ideas and drafts. You may need to work to resist the urge to do all the talking, and because some students will be uncomfortable meeting with you individually, they'll be glad to let you do all the talking. Learn to ask focused questions or make requests: e.g., "Tell me what you're planning to write about." "In what order?" "Tell me why."
7. Encourage students to ask you questions, and be concerned if students aren't asking any. Ask students to tell you how you can help them.
8. Listen carefully. Incorporate what students say in your advice and in your questions. Robert Connors and Cheryl Glenn explain some of the many things we should listen for and address in conferences:
If your purpose in a conference is to respond only to the student's text, you might as well take the papers home and leave the student out of the process altogether. Instead, you should be making room for students to articulate what they know or sense, allowing them to realize what they know . . . . Ideally, you respond to the student's response to the text. You respond fully and immediately, not only to what is on the page but to what isn't on the page: intention, process, ideas for revision, and so forth . . . . Gradually, your students will begin to see you as an interested and knowledgeable reader rather than as a nitpicking critic or a grammar enforcer. When students accept you as a reader, their work is transformed from putting words on a page in order to fulfill the assignment to real communication. (41)
9. Encourage students to write down specifics that emerge from your conversation: ideas, plans for revisions, clarifications, rough thesis statements, outlines . . . . You should be concerned if students aren't writing anything down, and you should prompt them to do so. Thoughts and conversations are very ephemeral.
10. Make your advice as specific as possible. And check that students are understanding what you're saying.
11. Offer specific praise whenever you can. And offer lots of encouragement--writers need it!
12. Require follow-up conferences for the few students who need more individual attention from you.
13. Learn to make effective referrals to the Writing Center. (See pages 161-163.)
14. After a round of conferences is over, spend a small amount of class time talking about them--asking students what was helpful about the conferences, sharing some students' effective ideas and strategies with the whole class, explaining what you've discovered many students need explained, reflecting on what you learned from the conferences, asking students for suggestions for improving the next round of conferences . . . .