Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.
We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.
This week’s conversation took root over a year ago in a hotel room at NCTE in Washington D.C. As with many of our TTT get togethers, we threw out a question from our classrooms and began discussing our struggles, questions, and ideas. This time it was Amy, asking about conferring. The three of us mutually agreed that one of the greatest challenges we face as workshop teachers includes conferences, yet while they take time, practice, and diligence, they are one of the most necessary and rewarding components of the workshop classroom.
In this week’s conversation, Amy and Jackie discuss the the value of conferring within the reader’s writer’s workshop. Part one of this conversation delves into why conferring matters and how we find time in our classrooms to sit down with each student one-on-one.
Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!
Conversation Starter: Why must we confer with our readers?
Amy: Conferring regularly is what makes a readers’ workshop classroom work. Simple as that. If a teacher says to me “I tried allowing students to read what they want, and it didn’t work — they still won’t read,” I know I have to ask something about how he confers with his students. How often? What do you talk about? How do you make them feel about reading?
I learned about the importance of conferring just like everyone else who makes reading workshop her pedagogy: If I do not purposefully sit down and talk with students one-on-one and face-to-face on a regular basis, many of them will not read. They are too used to playing the game of high school English. They know how to flip the pages, move their eyes across the page, and lie to my face about how they liked, or did not like, a story. I teach 11th grade. Some students have done this for years.
The only way to create readers is to get them reading. The only way to get many students to even give reading a try is to talk with them in non-threatening conversations about their lives, about what they are interested in, and why this or that book might be something that matters to what they want to know or feel or do. Conferring is conversing about what matters to my students and talking to them as if they are already readers — until they begin to call themselves readers, too.
I also think this applies to every content area. If math teachers spoke to their students like mathematicians, and science teachers spoke to their students as if they were scientists, maybe we’d have many more students interested and invested in math and science. Every teacher should hold regular and consistent conferences with her students. Even if those students never come to like reading or math or science, they will become more engaged in the learning environment because the teacher has shown personal interest in the life of the learner. Face-to-face leader and learner conferences make for genuine and consistent engagement in the learning process. And teacher and student both benefit.
Jackie: I love the process of conferring with students, particularly at the beginning of the year when students aren’t quite as used to having their teacher sit beside them just to chat. Even now as I pull up my mini-folding-conferring chair, I enjoy the shift from awkward first interactions to excited chats about their reading.
Reading conferences aren’t just about accountability, although that is one of the many perks. During these conferences I get a better sense of what books to recommend to students, how their past history affects their reading practices, what they’re coping with on a daily basis, and what they think about when they crack open a book. As Don Graves writes about his most formative teachers in The Energy to Teach, “All of these teachers expected more of me and we had a strong personal connection that I did not want to disappoint them.” Reading conferences allow me to connect with my students on a level that not only shows them that I am committed to their reading journey, but it that I am invested in their life and education.
Amy: I love how you pull up a mini-folding-conferring chair! I used to have a single yellow chair that I invited students to come and sit in — the special chair. I had to leave it at my old school. I saw this nifty rolling stool at a thrift store and almost bought it. I could have rolled from table to table to confer. I talked myself out of it, but there are days a roll-about-the-room would be handy.
Jackie: It’s the best purchase I’ve made all year! Mine looks similar to this one. What I love most about it though is I sit at the same height as my students, so I can easily set up next to their desk or join in group conversations.
When do you confer?
Amy: I’d like to say I confer every day. In my heart I want to have a regular system, and on paper I do. In reality, so much administrivia gets in the way. When I am purposeful, I meet with one to three students every day during our independent reading time (usually 15 minutes.) I try to be consistent because I only see my students every other day. If I am not careful, weeks will go by without me talking to some of them.
I have a binder where I keep conferring notes, and I place sticky note reminders to help me remember to get back to certain students who need a quicker follow up time than me making it around the room again. I’ve also started charging my readers to be advocates of their follow up with me. It’s important that juniors in high school take ownership of their learning. If a reader and I discuss a certain skill, and she decides to complete X, I ask her to be the one to remember to come in and confer. Many of my readers remember, and they are the ones who are gain skills and mature as critical readers much faster. Sometimes these conferences happen between class periods or during lunch or at the end of class when students are working on their writing, and sometimes I let them slip into my normal conferring routine. I’ll never turn a reader down who wants to have a quick chat about her book or what she learned.
Jackie: I agree with Amy–my goal every year is to become better at conferring. I want to make sure to meet with as many students as possible, but as the year progresses I struggle with the administrative tasks. That being said, I typically meet with two students within the ten minute reading time we have daily. On block days when I allow for twenty minutes, I can get around to four.
My freshmen enjoy the process of chatting about their books, their interests, and their reading. They enjoy using new vocabulary we’ve learned in class, and I love picking their brain about writer’s craft. I also try to focus on reflective questions with them so they look at their reading progress holistically. With my AP Literature students, I focus more on their depth of analysis within their independent challenge books. I also take this time to check their critical reading journals as well as to discuss whole class novels.
In terms of logistics, I have a cubby where I keep stacks of conferring forms paper-clipped together and sorted in alphabetical order by first name. At the beginning of every period during reading time, I pull out that class’ papers, clip them into my clipboard, and start with the last student I conferred with. This allows me to quickly keep track of who I met with last and what we discussed.
Sometimes I can’t keep track of everything and I will reflect back on my notes, jotting down conversations I know I had on Monday when I collected pages or during passing time. Every minute offers a moment to conference, and while these conferences aren’t always formal, they show students that not only do I hear them but also I am interested in what they have to say.
Amy: Most days I feel like I do more spontaneous conferences than planned ones. A students needs a new book, so we meet for a chat by the bookshelves. A student finished a book, so we chat for a few minutes in the halls. I almost wrote that these were my favorite kinds of conferences, but that’s not true — I like all conferences. I do like the joy I recognize so readily when my students start identifying themselves as readers though.
Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.