With class size increasing to 35 to 45 students in middle grades and middle schools in many states, holding scheduled ten-minute writing conferences for all students becomes an exercise in frustration. But there is a solution: making the rounds conferring. As you circulate among students while making the rounds, stop and ask, “How’s the writing going?” Quickly scan their work.
Students realize that you stop at each desk to listen to their thinking and offer support. The bonus is that you can meet one-on-one with a class of 45 students every three days and check the pulse of students’ writing progress.
To make the rounds, all you need is a clipboard with sticky notes and a pencil. Each morning set up the clipboard with a set of dated sticky notes. As you make the rounds, you’ll jot three types of notes:
Observations. Students’ questions, responses, behaviors, and what you noticed about their work. These notes can help you decide if you need to see that student for a few minutes during the next class, pair-up the students with a peer who can provide support, or schedule a longer conference.
Decisions. Based on your observations and interactions, you’ve decided that a student might require more than a few minutes during one to three classes. Meet with that student during part of lunch, before or after school, or during class time once you’ve completed making the rounds.
Student Reminders. It’s helpful for students to have notes of your conversation that include suggestions made by you and the student. Place the sticky note on the students’ work so she can refer to it as she continues to write. Ask the student to keep the sticky note on her paper so you can observe the edits or revisions and the improvement.
Keep the Tone Positive
While making the rounds, ask each student questions; offer them choices. Questions and choices show students that you respect and trust their writing knowledge. Be kind and sympathetic to students’ writing issues.
Choose one topic: Explain to students that these brief meetings are conferences. Keep them short and focus on one element: the writing plan, the lead, the ending, significant details, problems and outcomes, etc. Be positive to build trust among students; trust means that students will ask tough questions because they’ve come to value your feedback.
Be a great listener: Avoid interrupting the student or dominating the conversation. Jot down questions you have on the sticky note and share with the student once the student has finished talking. Prompt the student to reflect and talk and guide the student to figuring out positive solutions.
Model by Writing: Use this strategy only when other techniques haven’t helped the student figure out a solution. On a sticky note or a separate piece of paper, show the student how you rewrite, how you circle strong verbs and find alternates, or how you read the piece and figure out where to mark paragraphs using the paragraph symbol.
Questions and Prompts for Positive Scheduled Conferences and For Making the Rounds
Use the questions that I share below to generate your own versions while making the rounds and during scheduled conferences. The questions stimulate thinking and talking; give students time to process after posing a question. Avoid jumping in and doing the thinking and talking because a goal of conferring is to guide the student to his own possible solutions. Keep the questions that follow in a notebook, periodically reread them, and bring them to conferences in case you need to refresh your memory.
- I noticed that you are enthusiastic about your topic. Can you tell me why?
- I’m pleased that you used questions to add more ideas to your brainstorming. How does this help?
- I noticed that you have been thinking about your writing. Can you tell me about it?
- You have so many terrific ideas on this list. Do you need to talk to someone to figure out which idea you want to develop?
- It seems that there are many ideas for stories here. Do you have a favorite?
- Would you like to chat about these to find the one you want to pursue?
- Can you work with a partner and ask that person to generate questions about your brainstorming?
- Does your plan provide the map you need to draft?
- Can you tell me why you included more than one possible outcome in your plan?
- Does your plan have enough details to develop the support for each paragraph?
- Can you skim the text to find specific details for your plan?
- Can you define the setting with more details?
- Can you show how the dog/character/person felt at that moment?
- Does the ending grow out of the events in your story?
- Can you think of two or three possible endings to this story?
- How do you feel about the problem?
- How does your main character change? What causes these changes?
- Can you add dialogue? Where might dialogue be effective?
- What do you want the dialogue to do in this story?
- Can you help me understand the differences between both characters?
- Do you feel that your ending is believable?
Essays and Articles
- Should those details go in a sidebar?
- Can you find more details to support your position?
- Do you feel that you need to elaborate and develop the details?
- Can you circle the general nouns in this paragraph and make them specific?
- Can you circle the repeated and/or weak verbs in these paragraphs and find strong ones?
- Your lead includes excellent details. Try writing an alternate that either sets a mood or uses a short anecdote.
- I noticed you bracketed two run-ons; great spotting. Would like me to help you rewrite one and you do the other?
- Can you use the paragraph symbol to mark paragraphs?
- Can you read your piece out loud and listen for missing words? For repeated words?
- Can you circle the openings of sentences in each paragraph? How can you vary these? Can you check to see that the lengths of your sentences are varied?
Documenting Scheduled Conferences
Making the rounds and closely observing students during writing workshop will provide you with the data that can enable you to decide if students require a longer, scheduled conference. It’s important to document these conferences so you have a record of your conversations with students. Sometimes you’ll schedule one or more meetings with the same student and gradually release responsibility to the learner. Other times you might have the student confer with a peer partner, especially if they are close to understanding an editing strategy or revising technique. To record key points of a teacher-student conference, use the Writing Conference form below or adjust it to your needs.
The Principal’s Corner
Walkthroughs can enable you to observe teachers making the rounds or conducting scheduled conferences. This means you’ll have to adjust your schedule to complete walkthroughs during the day. Complete the form the day of the walkthrough and give it to the teacher that day. Immediate feedback shows that you care about instruction and want to provide helpful feedback.
Here is the walkthrough form I suggest you use to observe making the rounds. You can observe this type of conferring in all disciplines, but start with English teachers because conferring should be part of their teaching practice. The form is positive as teachers need to feel that parts of their practice are working well for students and themselves. In the “Comments and Questions” section of the form, state what worked first and then ask one question that can help the teacher reflect on a practice that needs refining.
Besides the principal completing walkthroughs, teachers can do walkthroughs in colleague’s classes and provide feedback. I suggest that these walkthrough write-ups do not come to the principal because teacher walkthroughs are a form of professional development. This means that teachers will be candid and open with their comments and suggestions.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.