Conferencing yielded the best papers I have read in years. When I sat down to “grade” the final papers a few weeks ago, I didn’t need several red pens, as I found there were few errors. I didn’t give hours of my weekend away, as the papers read smoothly. I no longer questioned what my students were trying to say as I read, I knew what they wanted to say and I could hear their thinking process in my head. I can honestly say that even though I am a teacher in June (yikes), I enjoyed reading these essays, and dare I say that some of my students really enjoyed the process of writing them.
An assignment that is worthy of a feedback conference…
Every year in my college level (high school) Spanish class I assign a literary analysis type essay. Students read a story or novel from the Spanish speaking world, analyze it, decide on a theme they see present within the text, research using scholarly sources, and write a literary analysis essay. I still find the skill of writing this type of essay extremely useful, especially in the target language. I love how my students have choice to discover a new piece of writing from an author they may have loved during the year or only just heard of, read research on their themes and stories, and see what they can add to the world of academia on this topic. Despite my love for the assignment, one thing I have found in recent years that hasn’t been productive was the way I was giving feedback on these essays.
How it used to be…
I was sitting in isolation reading the papers for hours, writing comments all over them in Spanish, trying to figure out exactly what the students were trying to get at. I wrote the same thing on almost every essay. Red pen everywhere. What is your thesis? Do you have sources to support your ideas? Can you cite the text itself to support what you are saying? Can you be sure each paragraph clearly relates to your thesis? Over and over again. Then I always wondered if the students had any idea what I was asking for when they got the papers back and wrote a revised version. Did they even read the comments? They handed in another version, but most students rarely achieved the level I hoped the would get to. Time for another red pen.
How it is now….
For the past couple of years I have used conferencing as an alternative to bleeding red pen all over my students’ papers. I have been conferencing with students on the first version of their papers, rather than spending hours marking them up. Now I don’t mark them up at all, in fact, I don’t even write on them.
Steps during the conference….
- Initial prompt: Tell me a little bit about your paper. We sit together and take a closer look at the writing. Then I read the introduction/thesis with them present and see if I understand it the way they explained it. Sometimes the way they explain what they want to say and how they expressed that in Spanish doesn’t match. But in a conference setting we resolve what used to be a huge problem in the essay in just 30 seconds. Now I don’t have to constantly write throughout the whole paper: what is your thesis? This doesn’t connect to your thesis. I’m not sure what you mean here…
- What would you like to focus on during this conference? Every student came with their own focus and questions. Sometimes their questions were centered around clarifying something in the story plot in Spanish that they may not have understood correctly, writing a clear thesis, or wanting grammar feedback. This year I found students wanted to discuss the scholarly articles they found and how they could really use them to support what they were saying. This was amazing, because in years past I felt like they just threw in random quotes from sources just to meet the requirement.
- What else can I do to help? I was impressed by how many students were already ready to get back to work when it came to this final question. Some wondered if they could conference again after they did a bit more work. Some still needed help finding good articles to support their papers. In many conferences I got onto the online databases alongside students and helped students find the perfect article.
How I find the time to schedule feedback conferences…
Students sign up for 10-30 minute conferences and come with their papers shared with me on Google docs (most had their personal laptops, as well). I realize that finding time to conference in your classroom can be tricky, but once you see the benefits of it you will whatever you need to do to find the time. Right now I have been using mostly out of class time, although I have done both. If you are doing conferencing during class time, other students will need to be able to be busy working independently while you are in conferences. For outside of class, students sign up for slots during their study halls or free periods, before or after school. I open up my own free periods to them, as well. It will seem at first that you will be dedicating a few days to nothing but conferences (based on the size of your class), but think of the hours of grading at home that you will not be doing. You give up a lot of your day, but in exchange for no grading at home and significantly better papers. No brainer.
Sometimes it is difficult to make a shift away from the way I have been doing things for years, but I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried conferencing. The final papers were the most impressive I have seen in years, I didn’t give up several weekends, and I don’t need to stock up on new red pens! I think conferencing is a great culture to create in your World Language classroom.