End-of-the-school-year-Sarah is so hopeful, so starry-eyed, so confident that this will be the summer that it all gets done. See, at the end of every school year, I make a giant list of all of the ways I want to improve for next year. I go through all of my chicken scratch post-it notes on old lesson plans, through the emails I’ve sent myself throughout the year (often-times labeled “this” as if that’s helpful or useful), and the articles I’ve saved to my feedly account. I shove all of this nonsense into a google doc and then start working my way through this mess of things that briefly inspired me last year but was marked as not important enough to look at or implement in the moment.
I wade through the torrent of ideas throughout June. I keep some of it. I toss a lot of it. I look for trends.
This year I noticed that a lot of my ‘save for laters’ focused on feedback and building community – so many of my post-its from past-Sarah (who really over-estimated present-Sarah’s with-it-ness) focused on how community improves feedback and how both of these are built through conferencing. Feedback, building community, conferencing: these aren’t new topics for this blog. I’m just looking to add on to the wealth of information you can already find here from these fine people, like here, and here, and here.
I’ve approached conferencing in two distinct ways this year.
First, introduction conferences. We’ve been in school for three weeks, and in this time, I’ve conferenced with 95 of my 96 students for about ten minutes. Our conferences were simple. Students came prepared to answer five questions I gave them in advance, and I came prepared to listen/pepper them with lots of questions. Here’s a quick run down of those questions.
|How would you describe yourself as a reader? What have you read lately?||What did you read for your summer reading book of choice?
Oh, you like this (genre/book)? Have you read ___? I hated/loved that book, what did you like/hate about it?
|This is a softball question – it’s a simple yes or no but there’s a lot of room for impromptu discussions. For some of my students, we spent almost our whole conversation talking about our shared love/frustration with The Kingkiller Chronicles. I liked the opportunity to low-key assess who had already finished their summer reading. Some of their insights also prompted interesting conversations as well. I also liked that this first question highlights one of the most important parts of our class: reading.||A lot of my students labeled themselves as “avid middle school readers.” They were big readers until the time demands of high school forced them to make some tough decisions. This conference, honestly, reinforced for my why choice is so important for high school students.|
|How would you describe yourself as a writer? Have you written anything lately?||What does it feel like when you write? What about in-class writing? Or writing for fun? What did you write last year that you were proud of? When you sit down to write do you have a lot of ideas but it’s hard to get them out or…?||I teach AP English Language so the majority of our class is writing focused. This allowed me to see who already thought of themselves as writers. We also had interesting conversations about idea generation which wasn’t intentional but it was useful information.||Students’ perceptions of themselves as writers are deeply ingrained. Their definitions of what a “writer” is are also often limited. It will be fun to change some of those perceptions as the year goes on.|
|How do you learn best? What kind of learner are you? (For example, I’m a visual learner.)||Not very many follow-ups here. This is a quick question.||I want to group them by kind of learner homogeneously and heterogeneously throughout the year.||LOTS of visual learners and, oddly enough, a lot who go home and rewrite their notes.|
|Last year, typically, how much time did you spend on homework?||Why that amount of time? What other demands do you have on your time? What does your schedule look like this year?||Honestly, I wanted to see what all these kids have on their plates. Some were very full:4 or 5 AP classes, jobs, sports, clubs. Some were less full. This also opened the conversation to talk about their interests as well.||I teach at a Magnet school, and while I know that it can be a demanding school, sometimes I forget how demanding it can be. This reminded me to check with the APUSH and APCHEM teachers and make sure that we’re not doubling up or tripling up major assignments with students.|
|Do you have any questions or concerns or anything else that you’d like to share?||No follow ups- just tried to ease some anxieties.||My class has a reputation for being “worth it, but difficult.” I wanted to get ahead of any anxieties or nerves.||This was so helpful. One, it allowed me to talk over strategies with kids BEFORE the strategies were needed. Two, it allowed me to walk through several accommodations with students BEFORE their IEP/504 meetings.|
This was a highly time consuming endeavor, but I’ll never go back to not having these conferences in person. They were investments that have already started paying off – students are more willing to ask questions, to participate, to follow-up on assignments.
Secondly, I’m changing the way I grade in-class essays. Previously, students would write, we would workshop, I would grade, they would revise and then we’d all move on with our lives. Inspired by Catlin Tucker’s discussions of station work, I’m differentiating between grading (with feedback) and scoring (just the grade) this year. Students will write two AP English Language prompts in a six week period in class. For the first prompt, students will sign up for conferencing times during station time or before or after school, and I’ll grade the essay in front of the student, verbalizing my thinking, offering suggestions, answering questions. I’ll hold off on the grade (which goes into the grade book as a formative grade) until they have their conference with me. This will be a lot of time – ten minutes give or take for 96 students. BUT, I won’t take home a single essay. Then, after everyone conferences and I reteach as needed, students will write a second in class essay which I will only score (summative grade). Just scoring without the feedback will make grading these essays faster, but I’m also hoping that sitting down one on one will mean that we’re doing more with less, that more of the feedback will transfer to the student, that growth happens sooner.
Good teaching is about good relationships, and conferencing definitely helps to build relationships. What have you tried that’s worked for you?
Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of Fallout 4, and she tweets at @marahsorris_cms.