Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences

This is part of a series of posts called ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!

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One way I have assisted my lead teachers is by conducting writing conferences with students.

With two different teachers meeting with students, but only one of them grading the students, this needs to be done with intention and good communication. What follows is what worked for us.

Clear Conferencing Goals

We had conferencing days for the express purpose of previewing students’ drafts of specific major writing assignments.

The lead teacher and I established before this class session that we would first check for topic and organization, and then move on to mechanics. We agreed on 15-minute conferences.

Time Slots

Students signed up for a time slot that worked for them. Students signed up to work with either her or me.

Full disclosure: I was last picked! I truly did not take this personally. Our students knew who would be grading them, and of course it seemed best to get advice from the grader herself.

Set a Timer (and expectations)

At the beginning of each conference, I welcomed the student and then used my cell phone’s voice commands to set a timer for 15 minutes.

Then I efficiently explained that I was going to skim their essay for structure. Then if there was time, we’d go back for details.

Start with Basics of Organization

I read their whole intro, identified their thesis out loud, then visibly checked that it matched up with topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph. I then read their conclusion to make sure it restated the thesis and didn’t contain any surprises.

In their argument essay, the lead teacher and I also agreed that we should examine their 4th body paragraph pretty carefully. The counter-argument/concession/rebuttal can be tricky.

For a couple of students, we didn’t get much past this. Other students had this level of organization down no problem and we moved on to details.

Don’t Ignore What They’ve Done Well

It’s tempting, when you’re looking at a strict 15 minutes of one-to-one time, to pile all the advice you can onto each student.

However, having one’s writing critiqued feels personal. If the instructor speaks of literally only negatives, at best it becomes teacher talk and at worst it breaks hearts.

On the flip side, if the instructor is too timid to say what needs to change because s/he is afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, that’s not really instruction.

Yes, address the problems. But also acknowledge some successes.

Touch Base After Conferences

After class, I quickly spoke to the lead teacher about the conferences: overall impression, overall organization, if they had a lot of major revision to do or just detail work, and if I practically begged them to go to the writing center for more help.

In the hour I was there, I could only meet with four students, so this was not an overwhelming amount of information.

However, in the future I think I should also quickly fill out a pre-made form with these basic comments so she could refer back to my notes. I do like notes!

Provide Input on Final Paper

When the final papers were completed and handed in, the lead teacher found class time where I could read through my four students’ final drafts and use the rubrics to share my thoughts about grading.

To be clear, I did not grade them. The assistant teacher is not in charge of grading. It was just input in case she was on the fence between one grade and another.

 

We just did these formal conferences a couple of times in the semester, but it made a big impact! It’s hard to beat one-to-one communication.

How do you do writing conferences?

 

Photo Credit: ASU Department of English on Flickr

You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Writing Conferences, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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On Infrastructure

A great quote from a NY Times Health article a few weeks ago:

“…fragile bones don’t matter, from a clinical standpoint, if you don’t fall down.”   – http://bit.ly/21SoFI

In context it makes sense, makes a point, and is not totally banal.

Out of context, however, it’s in a way the ultimate example of short-sightedness.  And I think it applies to more than just bone density.

I immediately saw an analogy with systems in an organization.  I hear it saying that it doesn’t matter if you have weak infrastructure as long as you never make a mistake and never have to quickly respond to an unanticipated need.

Though it’s tempting to work even harder at being perfect, since thinking about this quote I’ve been focusing more on strengthening the systems at the learning center.

Lessons from Clothing Donations

notice the restless bag of clothes by revecca on Flickr
'notice the restless bag of clothes' by revecca on Flickr

I have had bags of clothes sitting in my apartment waiting for me to donate them for something like a year. Maybe longer. And last week, I finally donated them.

It was one of those unfortunate tasks that was neither important nor urgent but that would take more than a few minutes.  So I just sort of stopped seeing the bags of clothes being slowly shredded by my cats.  When I did occasionally notice them, it was never a good time to dive into such a big project (?) so I left them for “later.”

Lessons learned:

The factor that started me tackling this silly little project with its surprisingly large impact on my living space was a conversation that became a plan.  Those things are powerful.

Why Five Weeks?

The short answer: it was arbitrary.

The medium answer:  I was looking for a happy medium between a long-term self-education project I would never stick with and a project so brief that I would have no chance of significantly expanding my knowledge.  Five weeks seemed good.

Squared Stack by pbo31 on Flickr
Squared Stack by pbo31 on Flickr

The long answer:  The short and medium answers are true.  But there’s another dimension that’s harder for me to explain.  Before you get too frustrated with me, know that I do have educational psychology on my list of future 5WCs.

I notoriously have trouble with categories.  Especially categories like “relevant” and “not relevant.”  I’m an interweaving thinker.  With some people, it seems like the more they understand something, the more they’re able to divide it up into perfectly cubic little boxes arranged in a line.  For me, the more I understand something, the more I say “oh wow, that’s similar to this and this, and this indirectly but significantly affects that, and category A is both a parent category and a subcategory of B depending how you look at it,” and I definitely don’t end up with a neat row of cubes.  Knowledge is like a web of many long threads in my mind, and it feels unnatural to divide it into sections; doing so feels like cutting a square out of the middle of a knit sweater.

Seriously, it’s a thing for me.  Look how many categories I list my five-week project posts in on this blog.  Even after I designated a category specifically for five-week projects.

Lace Knitting by Amanda Woodward on Flickr
Lace Knitting by Amanda Woodward on Flickr

What I’m saying is that I have no trouble arguing that idea A is related to idea N even though they’re 13 steps apart.  This was nice back when I was on the debate team, but it’s not particularly helpful when it comes to defining a manageable self-education project.  I thought that a time limit would help me determine that while Topic X is indeed relevant to Topic A, it is not relevant enough right now.

It seems to be working for me so far.  My category issues are quieted by the possibility of future five-week courses.  Excluding a line of inquiry doesn’t feel like taking scissors to lace when I know the exclusion is temporary.  So the number five was indeed arbitrary, but the time limitation was quite intentional.

De-Cluttering My Office: Best Decision Ever

Yesterday was my first work day in the office I had roughly de-cluttered over the weekend.  It was awesome.

It’s like taking some flotsam out of the office has cleared it out of my mind too.  Working was just so much easier without unconsciously fighting the resistance of Stuff.

I’m also glad to say that I’m about halfway done with my follow-up lists and have hope of finishing this evening.

Here’s to making your work environment work for you!

Unofficial Office Clean-Up

I popped into the office this weekend for some uninterrupted office maintenance time.

A Messy Office by Beth77 on Flickr
A Messy Office by Beth77 on Flickr

Basically, it’s a medium-small office that lots of people use throughout the week, and I’m in charge of it.  I do a pretty good job of keeping the day-to-day stuff under control, but it was feeling cluttered.  And why organize what I could just toss?

I decided to attack the stuff that had no discernible use but still took up space.  It was a single-minded stuff-reduction rampage.  And it was beautiful.

The rampaging actually only took an hour and half.  I spent another uninterrupted hour and a half dealing with statistics (learner hours, etc.) and am proud to report that they’re soundly under control.

The Desk!  Its...neat! by Rae Whitlock on Flickr
The Desk! It's...neat! by Rae Whitlock on Flickr

How I made the most of clean-up time:

  • I made sure there were no distractions.
  • I went for a huge, noticeable impact, inspired by the 80/20 rule and my mother.
  • I only set two goals.
  • My follow-up plan is written down: a list and a few neatly labeled piles.

Successful and satisfying.

It would be great to hear about other successes in office wrangling!

What I learned on my last day

Yesterday was my last day at my old job!

The #1 thing I learned was that I could have led a much less cluttered existence months and months ago if I’d taken 2 hours to throw out old papers.  Seriously, it would’ve been a great investment.

The new job starts on Wednesday.  I’ll be with the same organization.  The difference is that I’ll be working directly with adult learners and volunteers, and that I won’t be at the main office.

In the time between, I’ll be out of town for the second half of my summer vacation.  I will not be blogging during this break.  Enjoy the long weekend!