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  • Heather Frank, Maria Gunther, and Amanda Peisel

Certainty Anchors: Adding Predictability to Writing Conferences

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The last time I (Heather) trained for the New York City Marathon, I made it a habit to run my recovery runs (the shorter and slower runs the day after long training runs) along the final two miles of the marathon route in Central Park.

  • Having run marathons before, I knew that racing the last few miles could be unpredictable and taxing.

  • There were so many factors out of my control on race day: the weather, the direction the wind was blowing, the crowd support, and how I was feeling physically as I neared the finish line among others.

  • By strategically running the course’s final miles every Sunday, I trained my tired legs to recognize every hill and turn along the route. I wanted the final two miles to feel so familiar that I could focus on pushing myself rather than anticipating what was to come.

As I think about my life outside of marathon running, I recognize that I crave a similar predictability in both my personal life and my teaching.

  • My family’s daily bedtime routine has looked the same since my children were babies: take a bath, put on pajamas, floss and brush teeth, read books, rub backs, hug and kiss good night. Think: lather, rinse, and repeat.

  • In spite of a routine we have had for over six years, sometimes bedtime goes…awry: A favorite book cannot be found on the bookshelf. A doll is missing a shoe. The necklace they planned to wear to school the next day has a knot in the chain. They have one more existential question that needs an immediate answer. 

The bottom line: Having a routine doesn’t necessarily make any of these hiccups easier, but it can afford us more bandwidth to handle them with intention.

Understanding the Concept of Certainty Anchors

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How often have we tried to create a sense of certainty as a way to cope with constantly-changing personal and professional worlds? 

Recently, I stumbled across the idea of certainty anchors.

  • Jonathan Fields, the author who coined the term, defines certainty anchors as a process or practice that adds reliability to your life when things feel uncertain.

  • Their consistency is what helps people navigate unpredictable, and sometimes chaotic, experiences and times.

  • As Fields puts it, “their power comes from the simple fact that they are always there.”

Fields argues that we cannot control many of the circumstances we experience day to day.

  • These ever-changing moments demand conscious energy from the part of our brains that controls executive functioning and self-regulation.

  • By creating regular routines and following them daily so that they become rituals, Fields suggests we are able to actually change how we respond to the constantly-changing world.

The bottom line: The routines and rituals we establish help to free up brain power so we can put our energy and creativity elsewhere.


✏️Navigating Moments of Unpredictability in Writing Conferences

As I played around with the concept of certainty anchors in my head, I found myself thinking about conferring tools I co-created with a group of elementary teachers.

  • During a professional learning session, a teacher shared the challenges she experienced when conferring with writers about elaboration.

  • These challenges included: choosing what to teach writers, how to make a meaningful instructional decision, and how to ground that decision in what student writers were trying out.

Thinking about my conferring practices as a classroom teacher, I distinctly recall encountering similar moments of unpredictability and discomfort.

  • Making an on-the-spot decision about instruction in conferences frequently felt overwhelming and endlessly open-ended.

  • Because I did not feel confident in the moment, I often sought out a strategy that I was most comfortable teaching or one that was fresh in my mind.

  • Sometimes those teaching points were not the most appropriate skill or strategy at that moment for writers.

What teachers are saying: “I’ve watched for years…the writing conference that always looked so flawless. The writing conference that looked so easy to do, until you actually tried it. Time and time again I would fall back on what felt most comfortable to me: the mechanics of writing.” —Maria, Grade 1 Teacher 

I would go into a conference telling myself to focus on one pre-selected teaching point and to stick with it. I had fallen into the trap of trying to teach too many skills in the past. However, I realized this strategy was not allowing me to address the needs of each individual learner.” —Amanda, Grade 4 Teacher

The bottom line: If/then conferring tools can serve as certainty anchors in our conferences, so we can be explicit, responsive, and present for writers. 

💬If/Then Conferring Tools Explained

The ifs in an if/then conferring tool focuses on the skills writers are trying or applying in their own writing.

  • They are grounded in developmental progressions, learning standards, and curriculum units.

  • The ifs give us language to explicitly name for learners what they are doing or attempting in their writing pieces.

Elaboration conferring tool for grade 1 informational writing in how-to and expert books. The ifs, or noticings are grounded in a developmental model for writing and represented as a progression of skills across the columns.

The thens offers explicit ways we might offer next steps by building off of what is already in place (reinforcing) or teaching an entirely new skill (introducing).

  • Because the possible instructional points are tied to our observations of the writer, we are able to create cohesive learning experiences over time.

  • My brilliant friend Pam Koutrakos always refers to this approach as strategy stacking: identifying what is being approximated and thinking of the connected and prioritized next step for learners at this moment.

Elaboration conferring tool for grade 4 argument writing. The thens, or possibilities for next instructional steps, are broken up into skills that reinforce what writers are doing or introduce a new skill.

What teachers are saying: “Having the if/then conferring tool by my side has eliminated the moments of, What am I teaching this writer?, What skill or strategy am I focusing on?, and How can I deepen this moment and really get this writer to produce more? The conferring tool provides a roadmap of where a writer is and what the next steps could be. It makes your instruction direct, keeps you focused on what your teaching point is, and guides both you and the student to dig deeper into elaboration.” —Maria, Grade 1 Teacher

“I travel around the classroom with a few key tools that have changed the game for me. My own writing notebook, student-facing progressions, and the if/then conferring tool. They have helped me target the skills that each individual student needs. They not only give me a clear picture of where the student is, and what I can teach to take their writing to the next level, but in conjunction with the student facing progressions, it also allows the students to see new possibilities for themselves…and that has been powerful. —Amanda, Grade 4 Teacher

The bottom line: By leaning into what students are already approximating as writers, if/then conferring tools provide a flexible pathway that help us create cohesive and responsive learning experiences. 

Teaching Tips

  • Use writing progressions, writing standards, and your curriculum units to identify how elaboration-focused skills might develop.

  • Look at each skill along the progression to come up with possible instructional points that reinforce or extend what the writer is doing in their piece.

  • Think of a few open-ended questions that you might use as conference starters. You might use language like “show me” or “how did you try to…?”

  • As you begin a new unit, change out the materials in your writing folder. Your writing notebook, post-it notes, writing progressions (teacher and student facing), and the if/then conferring tool for that unit. Switch out as needed. It’s great to have everything you need in one easy to access location! –Amanda, Grade 4 Teacher

  • Play around with the tool: try it out, tweak it, adapt it. Consider it a living document. 


🏗️Create your own if/then conferring tool using this template.

(Make a copy, and add it to your Drive.)

🎧Learn more about certainty anchors in an episode of the Good Life Project podcast with Jonathan Fields.

📖Read about student-facing progressions that you might choose to use alongside an in/then conferring tool. Find the blogs in that series here and here.  

💭Consider other ways that you might add certainty anchors to your literacy instruction. What process, practices, and/or tools might you create and use regularly, so you can engage more fully in your teaching OR students in their learning?

Dr. Heather Frank, PhD is a Literacy Consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC. You can learn more about her here.

Maria Gunther is a first grade teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. and her Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from St. John’s University. She is a veteran  teacher of 27 years and has taught both first and second grades. She has been the Grade 1 team leader for the past 14 years and serves on Hillside’s leadership team alongside esteemed colleagues and administrators. 

AmandaRae Peisel is a fourth grade teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. She is the general education teacher in an ICT classroom. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Childhood and Early Childhood Education from the State University of Cortland, and her Master’s Degree in Literacy from the State University of New Paltz. She has been a classroom teacher for 12 years, and has taught first, second, and fourth grade. She loves all things literacy related, and is excited to continue to expand and share her learning with fellow educators.


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