The Two-Minute Writing Conference

It's the middle of your writing block and you sidle up to a student to have a writing conference.

And it goes great.

You feel like you made a difference with that kid. You feel like you accomplished something. But then you start doing the math... "Let's see, I just spent 8 minutes with this student, so at this rate it'll only take me... hmmm... 9,000 years to meet with everyone."

It quickly gets overwhelming and you may start wondering, why even bother?

Holding one-to-one writing conferences with students is a really effective way to help them grow, but conferences that last 8-10 minutes a pop just aren't sustainable. Even 5-minute writing conferences are tough. So are 4 minute writing conferences.

2 minutes.

That's where we want to be.

Now, before you start rolling your eyes telling me you'll never get anything out of a two-minute conference, hang on. Let's just for a second assume that you CAN have a meaningful, productive writing conference with a student in two minutes. Okay? If that's the case, what would that allow?

If we had two-minute conferences with a class of 30 students, it will only take us four 15-20 minute writing sessions to meet with every student one-to-one. Less than a week to see everybody! That's motivating.

Writing conferences with your student writers need to be short. Otherwise, how will you meet with everyone consistently? But they also need to be meaningful. Learn how to hold practical, effective TWO-minute writing conferences.

Now I need to prove to you that two minutes is enough. That with two minutes, we can scooch a student writer forward. So let's dig into how to have a worthwhile two-minute writing conference.

We'll break our time into three sections: Learn, Show, and Push.

I want you to keep in mind this isn't meant to be a formula, but I also recognize that it can be really helpful to see exactly how those two minutes might get filled. So let's meet with one of our students, Leroy, and see how a two-minute conference might run.

"Hi Leroy."

And boom... our two minutes have begun.

With the first thirty seconds or so, we LEARN.

  1. We check our notes for the focus of recent conferences with Leroy. (We do this quickly, like 5 seconds quick: Okay, I met with Leroy about leads and setting details recently.)
  2. We orient ourselves to what Leroy is working on right now in his writing. (We do this quickly, like 5 seconds quick: Okay, Leroy looks to be drafting his personal narrative about losing his gerbil.)
  3. We scan a chunk of Leroy's writing, preferably what he's been writing today and/or yesterday, looking for something to focus on with him:
    • We're looking for progress related to the focus of one of our recent conferences. (In Leroy's case, we look at his lead and how he describes the setting. We might also ask Leroy how he's doing with one of these skills.)
      • Do we need to revisit one of these skills? Or,
      • Can we build off one of these skills, either by taking the skill to a more sophisticated level or by choosing a related skill to focus on?
    • We're also open to a glaring need, unrelated to a recent conference, that we think should be a priority to address and therefore trumps the skills we were focusing on before.
    • What if nothing jumps out at us? As a default, we'll use the writing skill/strategy we taught in a recent whole-group minilesson as the focus for this writing conference.

With the next sixty seconds or so, we SHOW.

This is the meat of the conference: the teaching part, the coaching part, the modeling part. We've chosen something to focus on, so let's do it!
  1. With Leroy, let's imagine we noticed him describing his setting, and we think he's ready to take it to the next level. So we're going to first show Leroy what we noticed: "Let's look at this little part you wrote here, Leroy. I see that near the beginning of your piece you wrote two details about the setting, one about being in your house and one about it being a Saturday morning. I can tell you are trying to think about that part of your writing.
  2. Then we model something new for Leroy: "So Leroy, when writers are trying to establish their setting, they do what you did: they describe the place and the time. But to really be successful, they use sensory details that really help the reader imagine the setting. For example, I see that most of your narrative so far is taking place in your bedroom. So we could try adding another setting detail that can help the reader picture your bedroom. If it was my bedroom, I might write, "The stench of my dirty socks strewn all over my bedroom floor almost knocked me over." Do you see how that helps the reader put themselves there in my room? What sense did I use with that extra detail? 

With the last 30 seconds or so, we PUSH.

  1. We transition from showing and modeling to giving the student an action step. "So Leroy, think about your own bedroom and how it was on that morning when your story took place. I want you to try adding a sensory detail that will help bring the setting alive for your reader."
  2. Now we feel out the student. Dots might be connecting. Or blank stares might be forming. Or anything in between:
    • If Leroy gets started right away, we observe and simply be a sounding board for him.
    • If Leroy struggles to get started, we might make a suggestion or ask a leading question to help him get the ball rolling. "I added a detail involving smell. You could do that too, or think about sounds, feels, or specific sights."
    • If Leroy stares blankly at his writing, not sure what to do, that's okay. He might not be ready to make this jump, or maybe he does understand but this particular situation is just stumping him. Again, we might make a suggestion or ask a leading question.
  3. Depending on the student and the situation, we don't necessarily need to stay and continue to watch the student work. We leave the student with a closing push: "As you continue writing, Leroy, and your setting moves, I want you to think about those extra sensory details here and there that you can add, okay?"
Our two minutes have ended. We make a quick note about the conference and move on. Here's a little chart that sums up the three parts of our two-minute conference:

I highly encourage you to get out your phone, set it on the student's desk, and have the stopwatch running during the conference. It's the only way to really keep the timing a priority. There will be conferences when you think, this student needs more of my time, I can't just whisk along and move on here. I get it, that's understandable. Just remember though, if you do that very often, you're going to be right back where you started in this whole thing.

Utilizing this two-minute outline with your students is one key component of a practical and effective system of writing conferences. But what about keeping all the interruptions at bay? And what about other types of interactions like strategy groups and check-ins? And what about the forms on which to keep records? And how does this change the big picture of my writing block? What does a week of independent writing really look like?

Don't worry! Head over to my blog where I get deep into ALL of those questions in my post, How to Have Successful Writing Conferences with Student Writers. You can pick up all the forms I use there, too!

Writing conferences with your student writers need to be short. Otherwise, how will you meet with everyone consistently? But they also need to be meaningful. Learn how to hold practical, effective TWO-minute writing conferences.