Language arts teacher Marilyn Pryle outlines her approach to writing conferences in this article excerpted from Purposeful Conferences: Powerful Writing!, Pryle's latest book.
I always begin a conference with a positive comment. Sometimes this is easy; sometimes I have to search. I cannot fake it though, not only because adolescents sense duplicity and loathe it, but more importantly, because I want to genuinely encourage them. So I search. I'm not afraid to be silent at first, either reading what they have written or shuffling through drafts and notes. The students are used to watching me think in front of them. And without fail, something,somewhere, exists for me to praise. Even in the worst-case scenario, when a student is angrily sitting in front of a single blank sheet of paper in total defiance, I can say something like "You wrote a wonderful ode a couple of weeks ago; you're good at describing. I know you are perfectly capable of doing this assignment as well." I don't mean that you should coddle — students must always know that they are expected to work hard and thoughtfully — but honest, appropriate praise can often go a long way toward rejuvenating a stuck student, perking up a lazy student, or reengaging a distracted student who is on the verge of misbehaving.
With most papers, I can easily find something — a rich pre-write, a well-written intro, an original simile, well-organized paragraphs — that merits sincere appreciation. In addition to allowing me to connect with the student, praise engages the student even further into the writing: When a student knows that parts of the piece succeed, he or she is more motivated to revise those parts that lag.
I always avoid talking about talent. Even if a student is wildly talented and so naturally gifted that there is little I can teach him or her, I refrain from saying, "Wow,you're so gifted" or "You have so much talent" or "You should think about becoming a professional writer." I will, on occasion, tell a student who is struggling with a certain aspect of his or her writing that he or she is a "natural" at one technique or another, in order to boost his or her confidence, but that kind of praise is extremely specific and clearly used to lift spirits. I would never make a sweeping comment about any student's overall ability, good or bad, during a writing conference. The main reason is that it would discourage the other students in the class. In addition, it may embarrass that student. If anything, I might tell a student how talented I thought he or she was in a private conference at the end of the year, or, if appropriate, during a private parent conference during the year.
Meaning Before Grammar
When looking at a piece for the first time, I check to see if it's substantial enough to deal with as a draft. If not, I must help the student build it up from the inside out. If the draft seems sufficient, then I will generally direct student revision from the outside in: first organization, then details, examples, and language, and then grammar. I resist the urge to fix (or have the student fix) all the little grammar mistakes as I read. At first, this was like stepping on small stones in a yard: somewhat painful and definitely annoying, but I have learned to let it go. It is a waste of energy to address all conventions early on in a piece, unless the muddled grammar obscures the meaning to the point of confusion.
Often, the student will correct something on her own in the middle of the conference; this is natural. But for me to dive into the grammatical issues of a piece at the beginning of a conference dampens the student's momentum and enthusiasm. A writer writes in order to say something meaningful, and if I bypass the meaning in favor of perfecting the grammar, the student is apt to feel discouraged and even slighted.
That said, I do not wait until the final conference to talk about grammar. Often it will come up once the process of revising the details, organization, tone, and such is underway. Once I have a student confidently revising one aspect of the draft, I will mention a pattern of grammatical mistakes that needs attention. Although meaning trumps grammar in the initial conferences, grammar is not insignificant; it is merely secondary. Also, the number of grammatical mistakes plays a role: If a student has mangled every mark of punctuation, after our conferences over other aspects of the piece I do a full lesson on punctuation. If a student missed one apostrophe, I wait until the student hands the paper in to circle the spot and let him figure it out on his own. And if, say, a mild pattern of switching verb tense appears in the paper, I will mention it amid other revisions, as described above.
If a student's paper is saturated with every imaginable grammatical error, I would first help her develop the major aspects of the piece, such as the details, theme, and organization — usually, these areas will need major improvements as well — and then choose only one or two grammatical topics to focus on for an entire class or longer, if needed.
Overall, I enjoy helping students master the conventions of our language. It empowers them. With grammar, I try to take the tone of a teammate rather than a teacher, acknowledging when the rules of grammar are difficult or even illogical, while communicating my belief in the student's ability to grasp them. Regardless of the topic, during each conference my underlying purpose is to convey confidence. I expect and assume that students are trying their best. My ultimate goal is always to help them improve from where they are. They will not all end up as great writers, nor will they be mini-versions of myself. But I believe that all of them can grow as a writers and thinkers, and that their lives will be richer for it. It is with this conviction that I approach the students to discuss what parts of their minds, hearts, and lives they have put on paper for me to read.