“The one-on-one sections were definitely my favorite to do because I was able to be comfortable enough to ask questions and get true help on assignments.”
–An FYC student in my class
When asked about my favorite part of teaching first-year composition (FYC) in the pandemic time, I would say having one-on-one conferences with my students. And my students might feel the same way based on their kind comments in my teaching evaluation.
However, my first-time experience with one-on-one conferencing at the beginning of teaching FYC during the pandemic was not as enjoyable as I expected. I anticipated students to lead the conference and ask questions when we met in Zoom. But they joined the Zoom call and asked no questions at all. Their silence kept me thinking about how I could make the writing conference meaningful, productive, and helpful to my students in a Zoom class. Drawing on previous in-person writing lab tutoring experience, I started to consider ways to build up a rapport with students and create opportunities and relaxing moments for them to share their worries, confusions, issues, concerns, excitements, surprises, or joys about their writing.
To facilitate the conversation at conferencing, I set up goals for each conference and built it as a semi-structured one to achieve the goals. For example, for a big writing project consisting of two stages, I scheduled a short individual conference with every student for like 5 to 7 minutes in the first stage. My goal for the conference at the early stages of the writing project was to make sure that students understood the assignment sheet clearly, they knew how to get started with the assignment, they were on the right track to search for sources for their writing, etc. When it was time to turn in their final drafts for that big writing project, the goal of the conference would be to offer them detailed feedback on their first drafts, discuss with them some confusing places or issues in their writing, point out to them how they can address the issues, and encourage them to keep working. At this time, the one-on-one conference lasted from 10-12 minutes so that everyone had sufficient time to talk about their writing.
Specifically, there are three parts in the semi-structured one-on-one conference. The first part is greetings, rapport building, and temperature check, which helps students feel relaxed and removes their pressure or anxiety. The second part is check-in questions that I have formulated and prepared based on their progress in the course. These questions are very specific and related to the writing project we are working on. The third part is for students to ask me questions. With the lead-in questions, I found that students were no longer silent and they either created their own questions for discussion or followed the thread of the formulated questions to ask more. I also took advantage of the Zoom feature of “share screen” and invited students to talk while pointing to specific places in their writing where they had questions or wanted a further discussion.
Upon reflection, I think that one-on-one writing conferences can be very productive, individualized teaching and conversation moments between an instructor and students if they are structured well. Conferencing can be tailored to fulfill some of the teaching objectives that we may not have time to accomplish in a Zoom teaching session. By having one-on-one conferences with students, I was able to have a more in-depth conversation with them and see where they are, what their interests are, if they need extra help or any further clarifications, or if they need to brainstorm some research ideas or questions with me. At the same time, I consider conferences to be an empathetic moment to show care and support to students in the pandemic. I feel the one-on-one conference is a private space for me and for students, whereas the teaching sessions are more like a public space. For teaching writing, even as we return to in-person classes, we need this private space to build up a supportive environment and closer connections with students in the new normal. Such personalized and engaging conferences can be very helpful to students.