To Confer is to Validate the Child

Question:  Do you have any tips or tricks for conferring for upper grade students

Answer:  Keep reading.

I love questions, especially questions about my practice and my passions. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve written quite a bit on conferring this past year. (Click the categories tab and go to conferring.)

Conferring with students is my on-going action research. He was the missing person in my workshop classroom for a long while. Then, he was the show-up-once-in-awhile, have a chat, and leave kind of guy. Later, he became a regular guest. Then, after my change and my constant focus, he finally moved in for good, and guess what? He transformed the learning in my classroom. i wish I would have invited him to stay much sooner. I missed a mountain of important talk time with my learners. Time I will never get back.

So, to answer the question I received in an email today, let me start with this:

Most of the strategies for younger grades work well for our older learners, too. Talk to elementary teachers. Use these experienced writing workshop teachers as a resource for your secondary writers workshop. They know how to talk to students, and we should follow their lead in many ways as we approach our writers.

Much of my study on workshop and conferring reveals similar approaches. I’ve found the work of Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Linda Reif, Penny Kittle and other workshop teachers rest on the same core principles of writing instruction:

1) students choosing what to write aboutt,

2) helping students discover ideas through writing,

3) talking to students regularly as writers,

4) modeling the struggle of writing,

5) using mentor texts to study the craft of writers.

Conferring fits into any and all of those principles, but it sits squarely at #3:  talking to students regularly as writers. This is different than talking to students about their writing.

So, I think the most important thing we have to do when we confer is validate the child as a writer (even if he is not a very good one — yet).

In his book Choice Words, Peter Johnston writes about the importance of helping students grow into the identity of readers and writers. In my experience teaching high school English, 9, 10, 11, on-level to AP Lang, most students do not put reader and writer as part of their identify. Few students will be successful readers and writers unless they do so.

This becomes my primary focus in conferences with my readers and writers: How can I help them have experiences where they can see themselves in these roles?

I find that getting students to talk to us about their thoughts, feelings, ideas, struggles, etc with their writing process is the same at every grade level. Perhaps the biggest difference is that teens do not always trust us like younger children tend to do — at least not at first. That is why validating positives with our writers has to come first — before any kind of one-on-one instruction. We have to remove fear and hesitancy. Let them write. Focus on what they do well.

This makes many red-penned teachers with a love of grammar crazy, but marking up a student’s paper is the worst kind of writing instruction — ever. We must respect the writer.

Today my friend and colleague Shana and I were discussing this very thing:

Conferring transforms differentiated instruction into individualized instruction.

So, as you think about conferring with adolescents, ask yourself:

How can I tap into the identity of the individual?

How can I help him see himself as a writer?

What writing experiences does he need to have to feel like he can be successful?

Start conferring there.

Dear reader, what are your thoughts on conferring? How do you answer my questions about conferring with adolescents?

 ©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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5 thoughts on “To Confer is to Validate the Child

  1. […] Faber and Mazlish’s response to this is connected to the kind of praise we offer children, which helps define their self-concepts. The authors give us a simple directive: when children come to adults with something to which they desire a response, don’t evaluate; describe what you see or feel–then students will praise themselves. […]


  2. What Teachers Need | Three Teachers Talk February 25, 2016 at 8:00 am Reply

    […] specific feedback (a great deal of it positive); the resources to do our work well; someone to listen to us and thus validate us; choice in what we teach and how we teach it; an identity as a teacher who is […]


  3. […] fit under a table when they are not in use.  If you would like to read more on conferencing, To Confer is to Validate the Child offers a thoughtful discussion on its importance in the […]


  4. Amy July 30, 2015 at 3:35 pm Reply


    To help students see themselves as writers (your words) I use student models alongside “real” models whenever possible and keep an anthology of student work from past years for my current students to read through at their leisure.

    I choose student models for all sorts of different reasons — a great topic, an unusual structure, etc. — so students from a variety of levels of academic readiness are represented.

    Another Amy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy July 30, 2015 at 3:40 pm Reply

      Amy, you are modeling the life of a writer yourself as you share these helpful tools with your students. Tom Newkirk reminded me this week of the importance of giving our students possibilities for their writing. Sounds like you do that. I am sure they appreciate your help and respond with improvement in their craft. Thanks for the comment.


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