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Advice, Peer Review/Conferencing

It’s Not a Pyramid Scheme — It’s Conferencing!


What if I told you that there was a way to take one, maybe two days out of your schedule, and reap exponential benefits—not just for yourself, but for ALL of your students as well?

Would you think I was nuts? Would you immediately go into “skeptical mode?” Well, dust off your believin’ caps and prepare to hop on this train. What I’m proposing is a sure thing, man.

Let me tell you a story.

Yesterday, I finished up my first round of one-on-one conferences with my students. It took two full days to fit in all three of my ENG 1020 sections: ten-minute conferences for each student. It was so worth it. At the end of two days, my students have all told me how to pronounce their names correctly, learned where my office is, completed and talked through initial (or “shitty” as we call them, via Anne Lamott’s fabulous chapter) drafts of their first essays, garnered individual instruction from me, and reflected on their essay content and writing processes. Reading back over all of that, it does sound too good to be true, doesn’t it? But such is the power of the individual writing conference, and if you haven’t tried it yet, or don’t really do it enough, let me tell you about what you’re missing out on.

Helping Students with the Logistics
Some students do get lost on their way to their first conference. I do not let this bother me. They always find my office, eventually. And, plopping down with relief into the extra rolly-chair, they tell me about their adventure with a mixture of tall-tale drama and pride. This is a victory that helps them gain crucial confidence early in their college careers. Not only that, when we engage in one-on-one conferences, students can see me model ways to talk about their writing-moves. Patthey-Chavez and Ferris refer to this a “academic socialization,” and it helps students learn more about ways we talk about writing in the academy, as well as the instructional stances they are likely to meet throughout their college careers (54).

Helping Students with Individualized Instruction
One-on-one conferences are one of the best ways I can think of to identify students’ particular needs and strengths. We know that writers have individual composing processes, and we may even talk about it in class, but how do you provide instruction to meet the needs of the advanced student, the struggling student, and everyone in between (Harris 15-19)? Over the past two days, I have been able to talk to one student about transition words, one about strategies for crafting introductions, one about how we can work around his dyslexia, and another on thesis statements/main points. None of those students needed the same things, and being able to help them with their writing needs allowed each one to leave the conference with a tailored plan-of-action as they move forward with their revisions.

Helping Students Practice Reflection
In their article, “Writing Conference Talk: Factors Associated with High- and Low-Rated Writing Conferences,” Carolyn Walker and David Elias state that conferences provide, “a particularly effective setting for the development of a student’s ability to reflect critically on his or her own work, its content, and the cognitive processes involved in producing the writing” (267). Instructors can facilitate this, of course, by purposefully maintaining the focus on the student and his or her writing (281). This can be hard to do if, like me, you tend to be a nervous talker. It might feel most comfortable to reiterate to the student things you’ve said in class, just to make sure they got it. This approach will not help your students reflect on their own writing, however. My two main tricks for making sure I don’t dominate the conference are 1) ask questions and 2) practice wait time. “What’s up with your draft?” is usually a good, broad opener. Then, I practice wait time and literally wait until the student speaks. This gives the student an opportunity to reflect over their draft and writing process, and then articulate back to me what is, in fact, up.

The end result of these one or two days will be a stronger rapport with your students, a better understanding of where each one is in his or her writing process, and an opportunity for students to practice reflection and awareness in their composing. All for the low, low price of absolutely NO COST TO YOU!!! (Ok, except maybe two rather long days…and perhaps even some numbness in your backside from all that sitting.) What are you waiting for? Schedule your conferences today.

Nicole Guinot Varty received her MA in Written Communication and the Teaching of Writing from Eastern Michigan University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.

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