SCENE: My classroom
AMY is holding onto a clipboard and attempting to drink from a thermos of coffee while still Looking Important. She surveys the room of readers and stops at a student who has read an uncharacteristically large amount from the past day. She stops at the student’s desk.
AMY: How’d you do that?
STUDENT looks up from book.
STUDENT: Do what?
AMY: You know, how did you read 50 pages since the last time I saw you?
STUDENT (shrugs): I don’t know. I just did.
STUDENT returns to book.
Some teachers might find exchanges like these evidence of an unsuccessful conference with an uncommunicative student. Some teachers might want to go into further questioning: “Well, when did start reading? How long did you read? Where were you? Are you on your way to achieving a reading goal?” but it’s easy for that kind of reading conference to quickly turn into an episode of Law and Order: Minors After Midnight pretty quickly.
Instead, I tend to find conferences like these home run victories. This student is looking to end this conversation so that he can get back into reading. Isn’t that the best compliment of all?
Granted, if every interaction with the student went like the above, I’d probe further. However, I look for three key ingredients when I evaluate these kinds of exchanges:
- Is this student reading at an increased volume than he or she usually does?
- What’s the student’s body language like before the conference? Is it a “please don’t talk to me right now” vibe?
- Does the student act unsurprised by the idea that he or she read a lot?
If the answer to the three above questions is “yes,” I score that conference as a major reading victory, because:
- I already de-incentivize book volume and page count. Students gain no reward for claiming they have read 20 pages when really they have read 2. This way, I trust when I see students reading more that that reading is their honest performance.
- Students should like reading more than they like talking to us.
- The student might not be able to accurately recall his or her extended reading period because he or she entered a state of flow. I don’t know how I managed to watch three episodes back-to-back of Survivor over the weekend. Students who don’t know how they managed to read a lot might not know because they entered a state of flow.
Okay, so where do you teach this reader in future conferences? They can’t all be this non-verbal.
- Use this book as a benchmark of reading excellence for that student. Ask that student in a few months, “How does the book you are in right now compare to your experience of reading book XYZ?”
- Help the student find more books like it using tools like Amazon.com, goodreads, or by talking to other readers. I am always amazed at how few students know how to look up another book by the same author.
- Ask the student what mattered to them most about the experience of reading the book. Ask about the book, but ask about their feelings while reading, too. Keep in mind that for some readers a distinctive literary pattern emerges across their reading — say, books about kids with cancer, books about troubled homes, books about the apocalypse, books with strong female characters battling high school drama. For others, it might be about feelings — they liked or disliked a character, they enjoyed the world the author built for them, etc.
Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE Gallo Grant. And she hates being interrupted in the middle of a good book. Follow her on twitter @HMX_MsE.