STUDENT CONFERENCES: AN OVERVIEW
Time. Conferences as short as five or ten minutes donít allow much time for work to get done. Fifteen to twenty minutes seems like a minimal, but still effective, amount of time. Longer conferences are justified when the assignment is lengthier and/or more complex, or where a number of tasks are on the agenda (Williams, 1998, pp. 96-97). At the Writing Center, sessions are usually 30 minutes long but do run longer for long assignments.
Housekeeping. One school of thought about conferences believes they should be infrequent, in-office conferences (Donald Murray); another school believes conferences should be frequent, in-class conferences (Roger Garrison). Most instructors prefer the former; the latter usually works best with very heavy teaching loads and in community college settings (New St. Martinís Guide to Teaching Writing, p. 54). Conferences are usually scheduled over two consecutive days, with quite a few more slots available than students. Itís best to hand around a sign-up sheet and urge students who have a lot to talk about to take two slots. E-lists or pop mail address book lists work well for reminding students of the conference schedule; it could also be posted on a course web site. Some teachers ask students to submit specific questions before a conference, to write a memo about their expectations for the conference, or to hand in a commentary on the process they went through in writing a paper.
Purpose. The most successful conferences are focused on a specific writing task with some kind of text from which to work. It is important that both teacher and student read the text fully. If at all possible, the teacher has read the text beforehand; if not, she/he assigns the student a task to do while she/he reads the paper (e.g., write out your thesis statement, brainstorm for additional sources, sketch the outline of the paper, etc.). According to the New St. Martinís Guide to Teaching Writing, conferences are most successful when they have one of these purposes:
Agenda. John Bean recommends focusing first on "higher-order" or "global" concerns (content, thesis, organization, argument) because "lower-order" or "local" problems may change after the bigger issues are addressed. Bean also recommends initially setting an agenda with the student, but teachers may want to have their own agenda prior to conferences (1996, pp. 226-227). Some teachers may lead into the conference by asking for the studentís assessment of elements of the class (perhaps even the assignment in question)óa formative evaluation which empowers the student and gives the instructor some feedback.
Roles. Most writers on student-teacher conferences agree that the teacher should serve as an aide, or coach, and draw ideas and answers out of the student with skilful questions. "If you can teach a student to use the conference as a chance to communicate with a supportive, informed reader, you will both relax a little and become two writers, or perhaps a writer and a writing coach, working together to push a draft forward and, ultimately, to improve the studentís overall writing and reading skills" (New St. Martinís Guide to Teaching Writing, p. 58).
Bean, J. (1996). Engaging Ideas: The Professorís Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Connors, R., and Glenn, C. (1999). The New St. Martinís Guide to Teaching Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martinís.
Meyer, E., and Smith, L. (1987). The Practical Tutor. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, J. (1998). Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. 2nd ed. Mayway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.