Better Student Writing Through Conferencing and Revision

Mark Nepper is a high school English teacher at West High School in Madison, WI. In this guest post, he reflects on changes he has made in his classroom to push his students towards better writing

“I thought this draft was a completion grade. How come I lost points?” Rick asked when he checked his score on a first draft.

My response came quickly but not without thought. It connected to a dramatic change in my approach to teaching writing at . On conferences writing guru Don Graves said, “The purpose of the writing conference is to help children teach you about what they know so that you can help them more effectively with their writing.”

My shift in pedagogy has nudged students toward more meaningful drafting through repeated revisions and conferencing opportunities. Students now find themselves talking to me or their peers three and four times before submitting a final draft.

Conferencing Practices: Nuts and Bolts

In conferences students often will push their paper at me, but I want them to talk about their writing first. They identify their topic, purpose, what they believe works well and what they struggle with. They identify specific areas of their writing they would like me to address. In this way they set the agenda for the conference. After we talk then I address the specifics of their writing. A typical conference usually lasts about 10 minute, longer if necessary.

Students find value in these conferences. Steffi, told a class recently, “I’m really glad I met with you to talk about my essay. It helped clarify my thinking, and I’m really happy with the paper I wrote.” Her testimonial made me smile, and I almost felt as if I should pay her. The number of students scheduling conferences increased after her endorsement.

Changing the Approach: Making Conferencing a Part of All Students’ Writing Process

I have always found conferences valuable. This year, though, I have consciously made different kinds of conferencing a routine part of the writing process for all, not just those who seek them out. It has made a difference in students’ writing and how they feel about that work. Issues become magnified through conferences. When I see the same writing issues appear repeatedly, I craft mini-lessons with focused attention on specific writing strategies.

As I worked through another summer last year with the Greater Madison Writing Project, I found myself pondering my approach to teaching writing, especially conferencing. As I considered changing my approach, I reflected on the why I would change. If I didn’t have a clear explanation for the why, then an interesting idea would likely last no longer than the latest fad. So I began asking myself this question: If I want to make regular conferencing part of the writing process, why would I and how would it benefit students?

Through regular conferencing I can continue to provide students with feedback they can use for the next revision. The conferences don’t have to be complex. During two recent conferences, I posed this simple question: “What is your purpose with this essay?” Then I let students just talk about their writing. With some additional prodding, they reached clarity of purpose, which gave them direction to pursue with their revision. With this conference, as good students they would have turned in a piece of writing. It would have been lackluster for them to write, and others to read — like eating plain, dry oatmeal.

Students have several opportunities to receive feedback and formative assessment leading to summative assessments with final portfolios. They continue to explore and revise using different writing strategies.

Students who don’t go through repeated drafts of writing will often express disappointment with grades. “But I worked really hard on this,” they say with a pout. But working hard on something doesn’t necessarily ensure success. Few people get something right the first time. Some struggle to get something right even after numerous attempts. I always think of the engineers who designed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which ended up collapsing.

The failing Tacoma Narrows Bridge

I’m sure they worked hard on their design, just like my students who boast of their hard work on essays. Like the bridge, sometimes the writing collapses. Writers have an advantage, though. They can always rebuild.

Real Benefits for Student Writers

Students wondered how this would affect their grades. “I hope it will improve your grades,” I said, and it seemed logical. If they have more formative opportunities to draft and revise, it seems like their final drafts would be more polished and refined. Summative assessment wouldn’t come until they had several chances for continued improvement. I also stress the art of writing. In my mind, no piece of art, no piece of writing is ever perfect. Opportunities for improvement always exist.

I tested this approach with my Advanced Writing class. Students who take this class show high levels of motivation to both write and improve their writing. So for this experiment it seemed like the perfect class.

The process works like this: students submit a draft. I give it a fast read, spending three minutes per paper. I try to return those drafts within two days. I leave them two specific comments that usually deal with broad writing or content issues. When I return the papers to students, I then hold lightening round conferences with students. I meet with each student and speak to them for about a minute, stressing the major issues they should address. They also can schedule a formal conference. Typically about half of the students will schedule a longer conference with me. The next step requires students to complete a next draft within two days. Students will run that draft by their peer editing group. Back to the drafting table they go and complete another revision, which they then resubmit to me. I spend more time reviewing this draft and provide more detailed comments. Students then have the option of completing more revisions and submitting a final draft in a portfolio they complete at the end of the grading period. In the portfolio they submit two final drafts and all previous drafts and comments. They also write a letter to me where they reflect on their writing and their process.

Through these letters of reflection, the student response has validated this approach. Students have reported their satisfaction not only with their grades but also with their writing. Ariana wrote, “I have become much more aware of the process. Now I revise regularly instead of just writing a last minute draft and thinking, ‘Good enough.’ I have realized that my writing gets better with each successive draft.”

The improvements became obvious. As their drafts improved, the likelihood of better grades became assured. After the first quarterly assessment, 25 of 28 students, 90 percent, earned A’s.

So back to Rick’s and his question: given all I am trying to do in regard to teaching students revision through conferencing, when he asked about the completion grade on his first draft, I quickly responded:

“Your draft is not complete yet.”

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