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Why Conferring Matters

Conferring is the interaction missing from many of our students lives.

Consider this:  the current generation thrives on one-on-one attention. They do not remember a time before social media, and many live much of their lives online via their smartphones. They turn to instantaneous interactions that have a direct impact on how they feel about themselves:  Snapchat, Vine, and Instagram over Facebook, which they are abandoning in droves because “it’s for old people.”

Our students crave immediate feedback. They seek personal communication — and they need it.

Think of the implications of this virtual-reality world on long-term relationships and problem-solving. We have already seen how it impacts our students in the classroom: short attention spans, skimming versus sustained reading to name a couple, not to mention the addiction to notifications.

Our students need to experience and understand the importance of eye contact, facial expressions, and body language, and how these physical features create non-verbal communication. They need to interpret and explicate tone.

The students in our classrooms today are different from Millenials. Anyone born after 1995 earns the new title of Generation Z, also called iGen, Centennials, Founders, and my favorite title: Gen Edgers.

As a whole, these students use technology as their primary source of communication — to validate, and to feel validated.

They also value genuine relationships, loyalty, and honesty and are increasingly more careful than the previous generation with the friendships they form online. They want to know their voices matter and that they are okay just being themselves instead of being the perfectly-phrased word count they must craft online.

Our students need opportunities to share thoughts, feelings, ideas, and knowledge in non-threatening situations through real face-to-face conversations.

Conferring opens opportunities to meet the needs of our students at the core of their longing.

When we invite students to talk and affective filters lower. Students relax. They respond.

When teachers confer with genuine interest in the well-being of the child, we grant students permission to be their genuine selves. Research on the brain shows that “positive comments and positive conversations cause a chemical “high,”” and with less pretense and stress, students experience more learning.

Conferring gives students the chance to share their stories; and besides creating trusting relationships, conferring allows us to meet them where they are and help them advance in knowledge and skills from there.

On-going regular conferences ensure that every student receives the one-on-one interaction and instruction they deserve. Peter Johnston reminds us that every student has a personal history that affects our ability to help them advance in their literacy skills.

Through conferring we learn the cultural and personal backgrounds that shape our learners, along with the experiences that shaped them in the past as readers. Both are important factors. By asking questions that invite students to recall their learning histories, we initiate future learning.

Conferring also sparks critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity.

No matter the teaching style — be it an English class where the teacher makes the choices about books and writing topics, or a workshop inspired classroom where students choose what they read and write, or even a classroom of another content area — when conferring becomes a norm, students proactively engage in learning, which results in more growth, independence, and mastery of content and concepts.

Our students learn to ask questions, ponder responses, and seek for interesting ways to show they are learning. Differentiation happens naturally.

Imagine the opportunities students may create and the innovative energy they will have in the future if they experience this kind of learning in their secondary schools.

The children in our classrooms are part of the fastest growing force in the workplace and the marketplace. Their influence is changing companies, marketing styles, and consumer habits.

This generation wants to make a difference in the world. They are pragmatic, self-aware, goal-oriented, and self-taught via YouTube. They’ve grown up “dealing with too much vs. too little information their entire lives.”

They will soon become our peers standing in voting lines, our colleagues standing near the copy machines, maybe even our bosses, or perhaps the officials that govern our cities and our states.

As adults we must provide each child with the education that prepares them for the future they are moving into.

We cannot keep teaching the way we have always taught with one-size-fits-all lesson plans and instructional models. We cannot keep making all the choices about books and reading or essay topics.

We must talk to our students one-on-one about what matters to them personally. Our future, and theirs, depends on it.

And for the teacher who worries about time, conferring provides a means of easy and accurate formative assessment, which saves valuable time spent grading:  time teachers may spend planning effective lessons or conferring with more students.

When done with fidelity, conferring improves the effectiveness of our teaching. I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t want that.

Please share your thoughts on conferring in the comments. What are your conferring routines?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we were to all aim higher to love our fellow man. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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8 thoughts on “Why Conferring Matters

  1. […] to do, but her second piece of advice was even more reassuring.  She explained, “If you go deeper into conferring–more frequently, with more probing questions–you might discover it is actually only a […]

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  2. […] Fostering room for more listening is the first move into creating a culture of conferring. […]

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  3. Kim February 22, 2017 at 5:51 am Reply

    I want to thank you, Amy, for inviting non-workshop teachers into the conversation. I’m a fringy kind of hybrid…but I do believe in giving kids the time to DO some of the reading and writing in class, where they can ask questions, I can coach. And I do believe that I should be busy being available and coaching…and wooing the avoidant, and noticing…rather than sitting at my desk grading papers. Today while students were drafting I walked around asking individuals to explain why they had put their points (answering the question “Who am I culturally, temperamentally, and culturally?”) in that order. We’d done a mini-lesson and a partner-talk the previous day. There were many different orders, but everyone had one, and everyone had reasons. (Formative assessment: check.) Everyone gets noticed. And some important conversations happen–stuff about writing, and stuff about identity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen March 10, 2017 at 11:27 am Reply

      I love this thinking, Kim. There are many students who go throughout the day without any notice — no interaction from peers or adults. The little check ins can do a lot for validating the individual, not just for helping them learn the content. Thanks for being sure “everyone gets noticed.”

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  4. skrajewski February 21, 2017 at 8:17 am Reply

    Conferring about reading has become a routine for me and my students. Conferring about writing has been more difficult for me to keep consistent. My students write every day, but sometimes only quick writes, whereas they read 15 minutes each day and I always have time to confer. Suggestions? Are writing conferences meant to be as consistent?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Estersohn February 21, 2017 at 9:04 am Reply

      When it comes to writing conferences, I can skim a draft quickly and diagnose a simple, fixable issue quickly. I can talk to each of my 27-28 writers at least once in a 30-minute workshop window, with some time for second helpings.

      If that’s too overwhelming, I’d suggest something like asking each student to develop a question they would like to ask you about their piece and document their question in some way (post it note, google form, etc.) That way, you have documentation of what they are thinking about in their pieces over time and it helps figure out where to begin a conference.

      But I’ll be honest: Amy’s post is making me think more about conferences as generative (“Here’s an idea, go be playful with it.” or “Here’s something you really care about, have you also thought about….”) rather than always diagnostic (“Here’s an issue, go fix it.”) I do think generative conferences take time, trust, and a careful approach. I don’t think I run them as well as I could. Looking forward to Amy R weighing in on that constant battle with the clock and that ongoing itch to reach every student for the same number of contact minutes.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen March 10, 2017 at 11:43 am Reply

      Honestly, the majority of my reading conferences revolve around keeping my students reading and engaged in the books they choose, so those go pretty quickly. Writing conferences are different. I spend most of the time helping student get unstuck or helping them with an area of concern. So to answer your question about the consistency of writing conferences — doesn’t it depend on the purpose our students are writing? If they just write and write without giving students feedback, I think we are missing out on the best opportunity to get students to consider that feedback as they make choices as writers.

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  5. Smith-Chavira Terri February 21, 2017 at 8:04 am Reply

    Amen! A message I have stated for many tears! Thank you, Amy!

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