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A conference is a short conversation between teacher and student, one that allows you to provide direct instruction and/or to gather information for assessment. Whether you use a workshop approach or a more traditional one, you can easily incorporate this strategy into your classroom, and if you do, you'll increase the learning AND cut down on your pile of grading. What could be better than that? 

If you don't conference with your secondary students, you need to start now. It's been a serious game changer in my classroom. Here's why:
Conferences are the quickest, most efficient way to find out what your students know and to help them learn. When you take in an assignment, it can be days before you find out what they have learned and even more days before the student gets the feedback needed to fix or improve something. But, when you are conferring one-on-one with a student, you have access to their thinking in a way that no exit ticket or written assessment will ever give you.  You find out right away what they know and where they might be deficient, and you can get to work right away helping them build the skills they need. That's the beauty of the conference: the teaching and learning is instant. Conferences also put more pressure on the students to actually do the work. They can often fudge their way through an assessment on reading by using Sparksnotes, or by listening to what other students say during class discussion; however, it's hard for them to fake it during a face-to-face discussion.

Conferences can quickly zero in on an idea or skill, and they do not have to be long to be very effective at doing so. Think about a skill that many of your students need to develop. In my class this semester, there have been two things that keep popping up as areas that need work: idea development and embedding quotations, and I've done conferences for each of these. While my students are writing, I walk around with my clipboard and ask students to show me where they have embedded a quotation, for example. Each student points to a place where they've attempted to do so (I tell them before I start, so they are ready when I get to them), and I can quickly assess whether they've done it correctly or not. If they haven't, we have a quick conversation about how they can fix it.  Some of these conversations are very fast -- I just have to look to see that the student is on the right track. Or, I might just have to ask, "what's missing at the end?" The student replies, "Oh! The page number!" and I move on. If they are struggling, I sit beside them and give them more direct instruction. With the conferences on idea development, I call students up to my desk and ask them to show me a paragraph that they think needs more work in that area. I ask them questions, give them suggestions and they go away with a better idea of how to improve that paragraph; the hope is that they will apply this knowledge to the rest of their writing.
We all know that students can "hide" during class activities and discussions. Because of this, we can often go a whole semester without really getting to know some of the kids in our room. Conferences change this.  During one-on-one time, the students  speak to you directly, without concern about what others will think. I've been amazed how some of them open up when they get the chance. It's a wonderful way to not only build rapport with all of your students, but also to really get to know where they are in their learning. You can talk to them about their interests and direct them to books they might like, or help them to find topics to write about. Most importantly, you get that chance to meet them where they are so you can help them learn.
Conferences are effective for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it will cut down on the time you spend grading. Traditionally, the only way we had to assess our students was through tests and written assignments. Yes, we assess oral work like presentations, but the bulk of our assessment tends to come through pen-to-paper work. This results in a lot of evening and weekend work for us, and delayed feedback for students. It doesn't have to be this way. One of our outcomes in my district is that students need to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of literary devices in the texts they read. In the past, the only way I assessed this was the literary essay, and they wrote several throughout the semester, so I could give them feedback on one before they wrote another. Now, I conference with them, asking them to evaluate the use of literary devices in their independent novels, or in mentor texts that we use. I can instantly see their thinking and direct them if they need direction. They still write a literary essay, but only after conferences that allow me to assess and instruct each student directly. The result? The essays are much better -- and I'm marking fewer of them.  
While less grading might be enough to convince you, the most important reason to start conferencing is because your students will learn more. Conferences happen during the learning process, while the students are attempting to achieve a goal, not after. Instead of getting back an essay with a grade, covered with your scratchings about vague statements, underdeveloped ideas and mechanical errors, they have had those conversations with you before the summative assessment -- and have a chance to improve their work before passing it in. The reality is that when they get the feedback a week or more after they have completed the writing assessment, it's ancient history for them. That paper that you poured over, giving lots of instructive comments, goes into their backpacks or lockers (or waste basket) never to be looked at again. Conferences allow you to give your students the feedback when they need it -- while they are working on the assignment and when they are more likely to retain the learning.

I just did a PD session with the teachers in my department on conferencing, so I know what the burning question is. Most teachers cannot deny the lure of a strategy that will cause more learning and create less grading. However, it can mean a big switch in the way we do things. Many of us are used to a "stand and deliver" approach: we develop our lessons, the students sit there and listen, and then they do their work. It's all in our control. In order to conference, we need to let go of that control. If we are conferring with one student, the others are on their own, possibly not doing what they are supposed to be doing. How do we set things up so we can confidently conference while our students work?

First of all, are we every truly confident that our students are actually working? Just because we have a beautifully planned lesson, and they are sitting at their desks quietly, doesn't meant they are working -- or more importantly, learning. You may have delivered the most amazing lesson on embedding and citing quotations. Your slide show may have been beautifully engaging. Your class may have sat there quietly as you taught. But, some of them, many of them, even, may not have really learned the skill. When you conference, each student is held accountable to the learning. And, if Joey and Johnny are chatting about the basketball game while you conference with Sally, they are still going to get that one-on-one time with you later, time that will hopefully result in them learning. Let's face it, Joey and Johnny were still thinking about basketball during your beautiful lesson too!

So, I invite you to try some conferencing in your classroom. It takes some time to get the hang of it, but once you do, it will become a very important tool in your teacher toolbox.  Grab this form to use as you conference. Fill in your students' names and, across the top, write in the topics that you are covering during the conferences. You can assign them a number grade, if you wish, to help you remember where they were at the time of your discussion. You can download it here.

Have you tried conferencing with your students? If you have, I'd love to hear about your successes and failures. Leave a comment!


  1. I like your idea, a couple of questions: How long do the conferences last? Do you get through all of your students in a day's class period? I would like to use something like this at the beginning of an art project but I am concerned about getting through everyone in a timely manner, I have as many as 36 students in a class.

  2. Hi, Kris. The length of the conferences depend on my focus. I used the example in the post of checking their ability to use quotations properly. Those conferences could be done with thirty students in one 75 minute class, because it would take seconds for the students who had mastered the skill and a little longer with others. However, if we're looking at ways to develop ideas or how the authors in their novels are developing theme or character, these conferences need a little more time. Generally, the longer ones take from three to five minutes, so it might take me three classes to get through everyone. I know it seems a little daunting and, as I said, it can be hard to get the hang of it when you start first. But, I think once you try you'll see great benefits!

  3. Informative blog! Honestly loved it. The tips you have shared are simply impressive. Will definitely use them in managing conference. Have to arrange a conference at one of popular meeting space San Francisco. Will take my friend’s help in arranging everything in nice way.

  4. This post was really helpful! I might return to this again next week with a couple questions after I change up my process a bit! Thank you so much!!!

  5. I conference daily, either individually or in small groups. With a large class of 31 it drastically cuts down on my marking and the students really enjoy this time.

  6. I commented here back in April about coming up with a better system to conference with my students. Needless to say, I'm still working on coming up with a better system. I'm going through a bit of trial & error, as the make-up and behavior of each class is very different. Three of my classes are able to manage themselves during our conference time, but two of my classes are a little more "needy" and need my constant interaction and attention or they get WAY off course. These two classes are my 9th graders.

    I would prefer to meet with everyone during class time over a two day period, but my 3rd & 6th hours instead have to sign up to meet with me before school, on their lunch, or after school. I am able to meet during any lunch period because my planning period is 4th hour (during their lunch), so I actually get the most kids during that time. It is difficult for many of them to come early or stay late because so many take care of their siblings when they are not at school, just as a parent would. Each conference falls betwn 3-7 minutes and takes about 2-2.5 weeks. The problem is that it takes so long to get through everyone that by the time I meet with some kids about their current essay, it was already due. I meet with some of them during their writing process and some of them after it is graded. The kids I meet with during the process seem to get much more out of the deal.

    Any suggestions? I thought about having them do a separate 1 page timed/standardized essay each month that would serve as a "Conference Essay" because I figured any mistakes they were making would be consistent across all pieces, and since the only "due dates" would be writing day and conference day, the kids wouldn't feel like it was "too late" for them to receive feedback and improve on their skills. But, then it just seemed like more work for me and them, when what really needs to be fixed is fitting them all in during the time-frame set for their current piece of writing. Ahhhhh! I don't know what to do. I'm sorry this is turning into a novel length post. You just posted this at the right time! :-) Thank you for your help. You really are appreciated!

    1. Hi, Tara. I totally get what you're saying about each class having different needs. I have a large class this year that has a lot of students who are easily distracted, so conferencing isn't as easy with them. as it has been with other classes. What I've started doing is having much shorter conferences. It's why I came up with those bookmarks that I wrote about it my latest post. They focus the kids on particular skills and I can call them up to my desk and ask them to quickly show me what they know. It helps me get through them much more quickly than the longer ones I was having. I have an assessment checklist on a clipboard and that helps too-- just a class list with room for a mark out of four for the conference.

      That's for reading. With writing, I do something similar in that I pick a skill (let's say focused topic sentences) and I wander with my clipboard. When I stop at a desk, they know they need to be ready to show me their topic sentences. This, again, takes less time than the sit-down conference. I also use Google Docs a lot--they will have to submit a portion of their writing, and either highlight an area I ask for, or one that they have a question about. I can quickly find the section and comment on it on their document. It's not as ideal as a more detailed conference but when you have larger classes, it is a good compromise.

      The other thing you can do is train the kids to give peer feedback. I know that takes a bit of time, but it's very effective because the kids get better at spotting areas for improvement, and it saves you time. I'd suggest you start that with something small -- paragraphs, rather than essays.

      I hope that helps!


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