What’s My Non-negotiable? Conferencing.

photo of yellow light bulb

Yesterday, my amazing English department met to discuss Why They Can’t Write. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.) We spent the morning discussing and questioning the text, our practices and ourselves as teachers before breaking up to think about how the ideas from our morning conversations could be applied in our classrooms. It. Was. Amazing. PD.

See, I crave these conversations in my professional life; I’m constantly having them with myself in my head – especially when I’m driving by myself – and I’m lucky enough to have a fabulous PLC who are willing to indulge in these wide-ranging deep dives into our practices almost at the drop of a hat. However, the more I have, the more I want. So to be able to have such a thoughtful conversation with such intentional educators was so inspiring. I left with so much to think about, so much to question; in fact, one of our final takeaways inspired me to change the content of this blog post. I was planning on writing about using station rotations in large classrooms. However, after we asked ourselves to use the last few weeks of summer to think about our non-negotiables when it came to the instruction we offer and the relationship-building we crave, I wanted to reexamine my non-negotiables.

After some reflection, I realized the biggest sacrosanct practice is conferencing with students. A few weeks ago, we reposted an excellent piece by Angela Faulhaber; she included an image that quoted Carl Anderson: Conferring is not the icing on the cake; it IS the cake. And, man, does that hit the nail on the head.

Regular conferencing improves student performances and my relationships with my students and, honestly, their relationships with each other unlike any other practice I’ve ever tried. After trying conferencing for a year, I can’t see myself ever teaching without it. It’s a staple of the 3TT world as well: we’ve written about it here and here and here.

Even with all of the value that I find in conferencing, I have to admit that the first conferences last year went… well… poorly. They were super awkward and sometimes stilted. The kids hadn’t bought in yet, and, really, I probably just seemed like a weird lady who wanted to know about their reading habits a little too intensely. I’m also an extreme introvert, so I’m always worried that the conferencing – which doesn’t come naturally to me – is made more uncomfortable for everyone because those early one on one conversations are so out of my wheelhouse. It takes a while to draw reluctant students out of their shells and for both of us to become more comfortable with each other, but the end results are so worth any early awkwardness.

Here’s how this first conference runs: 

  • I created a Signup Genius form, and students chose a time that works for them. I scheduled ten minutes per conference. I set a timer and tried really hard to stay within the ten minute time frame; I wanted to be respectful of their time. 
    • This year, I think I might extend the sessions to 12 minutes. 
  • Students prepared answers to a series of questions before they came to the conference, so no one was put on the spot. I wrote about those questions and their results last year
  • This year, I’m revamping those questions just a little. Last year, students responded to each question. I think this year, I might allow them to choose two or three questions to respond to, hopefully allowing us to get to the ‘meat’ of the conversation a little faster.
    • Instead of asking what students have read lately, I want to draw a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for class. So I am asking students to discuss one on one with me their aha/agree/disagree moments from their summer reading selections, and then I’ll follow up with a question about how they see themselves as a reader/what they read for pleasure. I thought some of them seemed guilty or ashamed when they said they didn’t read for pleasure last year. I want to try to avoid that feeling for them. 
    • Instead of just asking them to talk about themselves as writers, I’m toying with the idea of asking them to bring a piece of writing that showcases how they feel about themselves as a writer. Last year, I realized that students didn’t really view themselves as writers really – but they had very firm impressions of themselves as a ‘good’ writer or a ‘weak’ writer, but they couldn’t really articulate WHY they felt that way. Hopefully, changing this question will lead to more celebrations of what they already are or have accomplished.
      • I do think it will be interesting to see who goes the reader route and who goes the writer route and try to tease out why they chose that particular question in the conference. 
    • I’m getting rid of the how do you learn best question entirely; that’s right out. We ended up spending a lot of time on this question, but I didn’t use it to change my instruction that dramatically. I just need to remember to vary my instruction for different learner types throughout the year.
    • I’m also getting rid of the homework question from last year. It’s ok if I don’t know that they turned in homework on time or turned in homework late when they were sophomores. In reality, I actually ended up using this question to discuss their current schedule, trying to suss out how much they had on their plates. I can just run a report in our grade book to figure this out.
    • I’m keeping the last question, which is designed for students to ask questions or bring up concerns, unchanged. This one led to some very rich, necessary conversations and allowed me to calm nerves, change seating charts, and offer strategies BEFORE they were needed. I’m hoping that I’ll have more time for this question after revising the other questions.

I’m excited to see what these changes will bring to my new set of students. Last year, I noticed an immediate uptick in class participation, discussion and a willingness to ask questions and seek out help and understanding after students had their conference. I’m hoping for more of the same this year as well. 

If you offer introduction conferences, what do you do that works for you?

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently wondering if Steve Harrington’s name was chosen before or after the casting team saw Joe Keery’s impressive head of hair. (It’s summer, and these are summer thoughts!) She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

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One thought on “What’s My Non-negotiable? Conferencing.

  1. jennifermicheletti July 11, 2019 at 8:48 am Reply

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