As teachers, we do all we can to ensure the success of our students. We make syllabi, we develop assignments and rubrics, we grade, and we converse with our students. It is our belief that these pedagogical practices matter to students, encourage learning, and produce the successful writers in the future. And while most of our dialogue occurs in the classroom, much of our instruction and commenting upon writing occurs during our feedback upon students’ projects. In this feedback, we comment upon content, upon idea development, syntax, grammar, etc. But do our students read the comments that we labor upon? Do they create the dialogue about writing and revision we hope they do? And do students actually revise? One avenue for ensuring that student use the comments we provide, not only in the current project that they are working up, but beyond, is to develop a practice of dialogue face-to-face with students via conferencing.
Conferencing has been recognized as an important and necessary technique for the teaching of writing (Graves, 1978; Murray, 1979; Witte et al. 1982; Coleman and Shelby 1998). Teachers find that conferencing provides students with consistent and engaged dialogues for writing development and revision (Freedman, 1985). Conferences should be student-centered where students develop their own ideas and voice their own questions and concerns about writing. When teachers listen to students attempting to describe and analyze their own writing, students begin to develop an awareness of their own work and the audiences in which they are writing. And while student agency is paramount to active engagement with writing development, conferences should also focus upon teachers’ vast repertoire of knowledge. Teachers’ wealth of expertise gives them a unique perspective for meeting the specific instructional needs of their students. Conferences provide the opportunities for this dualistic sharing of ideas and information. However, conferences can often be unstructured, can take time to become focused upon writing, and can lead to dialogue that might be less focused upon student revisions than we hope.
One technique that can be utilized for a focused dialogue and discussion of writing, revision, and development of student ideas is the use of instructor feedback upon students’ texts. I need to highlight here that when I suggest that instructor feedback be used in student conferences, I am focused upon instructor feedback that responds to students’ texts as they are in the process of writing and revision. This is a conversation for another blog post, but too often, instructor comments are provided when students’ have already finished their writing and have no avenue for revision. This practice goes against all that we tell students: writing is a process, writing takes time, writing needs to be revised again and again, and writing is ongoing. Therefore, I am suggesting that instructor feedback, when used in conferences, must be feedback that is provided when students are in the process of writing. For a further discussion of feedback and instructor practices, consult (Ziv, 1980; Sommers 1982; Brannon and Knoblauch 1982; Elbow 1993; Haswell 2006). Moving again towards the use of instructor comments as a rich site for focusing student-teacher conferences, unpacking instructors’ comments upon in-process student texts (1) frames the dialogue, (2) provides a context for extending teacher knowledge, (3) asks students’ to consider both the content and audience of their writing, and (4) places relevance and focus upon feedback as key for students’ development of writing.
In my courses, I build in required student-teacher conferences throughout the semester. For each project, students come to discuss their writing while in process. And depending upon the length and complexity of the project, I might hold more than one conference per project. An important focus of these conferences is the examination and discussion of my comments upon students’ projects that are scaffolded and contain multiple steps. To ensure that our conferences do in fact focus upon my comments upon students’ texts, I require all students to come having read and responding to the comments upon their texts. I make sure that my comments have been read by asking that students bring a printed copy of their commented upon project, that they respond to the comments by writing out questions, responses, and ideas. This approach asks that students become responsible for the focus of the conference. They must read my comments, respond to my comments, and must decide upon the focus of the conference. In this way, both the instructor and the student exercises control over the content and ideas discussed. It also provides dialogue focused upon instructor feedback that is predicated a belief that comments provide instruction for students’ writing development and revision.
And lastly, but not least, these conferences help to develop a relationship between the instructor and student that might not have otherwise been developed. Too often we as instructors miss opportunities to develop an appreciation for our students’ particular histories and stories. In conferences, a fuller and richer relationship begins to emerge where both instructor and student begin to recognize and appreciate each other’s individuality. While we may interact and respond to students in class, it is in conferences that we are able to develop a fuller appreciation of each other and our pool of knowledge. And if we are lucky, we are able to continue our dialogues beyond the classroom.
Jule Thomas is the Director of WSU’s writing center, “The WRT Zone,” and a Lecturer in the department of English. She teaches Intermediate Composition and an advanced Tutoring Practicum for pre-service teacher candidates.