How to Confer Like a Ninja


We all know it is the true Special Sauce in the workshop classroom.  Without conferring, it’s just Silent Sustained Reading, which ironically does little-to-nothing to actually SUSTAIN READERS.

However, we also all know #teacherlife.  When we get into the thick of things, it’s easy to lose our groove when it comes to consistently and effectively conferring with students about their reading lives. (Writing lives matter, too, but that’s another post.)

So, enter my new tutorial, How to Confer Like a Ninja.  I know many of you are imagining me in something resembling an all-black suit and stealthily skulking around whispering, “What are you reading? Why’d you abandon that book?”  I hate to disappoint you, but my students know I’m anything but graceful.  I regularly trip over Chad’s backpack with his tennis racket sticking out the top.  That thing is a weapon of mass destruction.

Instead of the stealthiness of a ninja in terms of moving about the room, I’m going to teach you how to ask questions that students would NEVER even know are conferring questions!!

For all other ninja-moves, please see Coach Moore, or maybe Lisa, or Shana’s daughter Ruthie.  They seem–stealthy.


Here are my four favorite questions for conferring like a ninja:

  1. How’s it Going?  I could write an entire book on this question alone.  Lucky for me–and you–Carl Andersen already did.  This is a completely low-stakes question that leaves room for the student understanding that you respect them as a reader–even if they are a struggling one–rather than feeling like they’re in the middle of a spotlight and interrogation room situation.  Ninjas are nice.  Ninjas are welcoming.  Ninjas just want students to become readers.  (Okay, so my analogy is breaking down a bit, but stay with me.)
  2. What’d you think?  This one I usually pull out in the hallway when a student runs to me in between classes to tell me they finished a book.  I usually get one of three responses: 1) “I’ll have to tell you later, I don’t have enough time!” 2) “Eh, it was okay.” 3) “Ugh!  Mrs. Paxson, I’m so mad!!” All three of these are great because it gives you an entrance–like a ninja–into a larger conversation.  Yes, even the “eh” response is perfect ground for finding them their next great read.
  3. Would you recommend this to a friend?  The answer to this question tells a lot about the journey of a reader.  If they would recommend it to a friend, that means they really do like it and they would risk being ridiculed by said friend if they thought it was boring, weird, etc.  Students don’t often risk that for just anything.  Also, if you can get a student to recommend a great book to one of your holdouts, they are scientifically about 83% more likely to actually read that book.  Yep.  That’s right.  I said SCIENTIFICALLY.
  4. Would you read it again?  Okay, be careful with this one.  I can feel you getting a little eager over there, and you can’t just pull it out of nowhere.  This is the perfect question to test the true level of a book in a reader’s mind.  But, THAT’S the ticket.  This question is for readers.  I would not pull this question out at the beginning of the year, or with one of my reading holdouts.  If I asked one of those students this question, they would stare at me, appalled that I would suggest such a thing.  However, real readers re-read.  It’s a true test of love for a book.  So use this one sparingly, but it will allow you to examine if a reader liked a book, or truly developed an undying love and will miss the characters long after the fact.  Our biggest nemesis in workshop teaching is time, and everything else that is competing for it in our students’ lives.  If they volunteer the information that they would be willing to spend MORE time reading something they’ve ALREADY READ, that means we’ve got ’em.  Take that, cat videos on YouTube.

All of these questions are part of my favorite aspect of a workshop classroom–the in-between.  Its difficult to quantify the leaps and bounds made within any given reading and writing workshop, but don’t let that distract you from the magic of the inconspicuous–or some people call it “normal”–conversation.  Getting to know our students, their reading tendencies, and their journey is part of what shows them that we are different.  We care about teaching them how to learn instead of just what to learn, and we are willing to support them on that journey as often as we can.  Even in the hallways, in transition time, and everywhere in between.

Happy teaching!

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, a deadly combination at 7 in the morning. Her students frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much. 


3 thoughts on “How to Confer Like a Ninja

  1. Charles Moore March 7, 2018 at 12:14 pm Reply

    Conferring can be difficult but rewarding form of formative assessment. These questions are great! I also like to ask, “What are you planning to read next?”


  2. angelafaulhaber March 6, 2018 at 11:39 am Reply

    I love these questions and how you really think about connecting with the readers. It’s such a crucial part of a reading community. Whether I read something I love or hate, the first thing I do is look at goodreads to see what other readers thought!


  3. skrajewski March 4, 2018 at 11:39 am Reply

    I use the first three questions a lot, but I feel like they still aren’t enough. I’m not necessarily trying to quiz my students every time I confer with them, however I’d more than “It’s going well” and “I like it. It’s interesting.” Maybe it’s that my high schoolers are embarrassed to talk to me when their classmates are reading right next to them. I’m not sure, but it’s like pulling teeth sometimes. I’m taking Carl Andersen’s Heinemann webinar that starts Tuesday, so you hope to learn even more. Any additional suggestions would be much appreciated!


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