Getting to Know You: Beginning of Year Conferences by Sarah Esberger

I know, it’s not the start of the school year anymore. We’re in, and there’s no going back. Still, I wanted to share how beginning of the year conferences went for me this year, so your next year can get off to a great start. Just tuck this idea away until then. 

We all know it’s important to build relationships with our new students. We also know that, in a writing classroom, it’s especially important to develop a classroom community. If students are going to share their writing and give and receive useful feedback, they have to feel comfortable. Like me, I’m sure your year often starts with get-to-know-you activities that introduce the students to each other, maybe help them problem-solve a little, and also introduce some low-stakes writing activities. 

This year, however, I knew I would be conferencing with my students on a regular basis about their writing and reading, so this process also needed an introductory activity. 

The Process

During the first full week of school, I asked the students to prepare to meet with me one-on-one. These were the directions I gave them: 

I would like to be intentional about conferencing regularly with all of you, usually about your reading and writing. While you work with your groups today and the next two days, I would like to also meet with each of you individually for about 3-4 minutes. I will not conference with the entire class, so if your group has a question about your project, please come see me. I will also come around and check on you.

Obviously, these will be short conversations. I would like you to come ready to tell me about any of the following:

  • What’s really important to you – in or out of school
  • How you feel about this class so far – concerns or worries/excitements
  • Anything you think I should know about you that might affect your performance in this class
  • Any questions you have for me 

Throughout the next couple of weeks (this took longer than the few days I imagined), any time students were working in groups or working individually, I held conferences with students at my desk. I keep a writer’s notebook throughout the year with my students, so I simply created a section for each class period and added each student’s name, leaving space for notes from future conferences.

When they came to speak to me, I set a timer on my phone for 3 minutes, letting them know that this would be a clue to wrap up our conversation, and then I just simply asked, “What should I know about you?” 

We would talk for a few minutes with me taking notes, and then I would move on to the next student. 

Thoughts

I had asked students to complete a Google form asking much of the same information I asked for these conferences, but students told me so much more when we talked in person. I learned who really loved English class and who had other passions. I was able to talk books with my readers and assure my science-minded students that there was a place for them in the research we do in AP Language and Composition, especially when it comes to choice reading. I learned who worked long hours at night and on weekends and who had little siblings to take care of after school. I could connect with them over favorite musicals, traveling, and video games. 

Perhaps most importantly, students revealed mental and emotional issues that they would not likely share in a survey. I learned how I could help my students with PTSD cope with feelings of distraction during class. I learned who may need to see the counselor for anxiety issues. I learned who was a cancer survivor and who had just started seeing a therapist. 

These were important discoveries that may have taken me the whole year to learn. Perhaps most importantly, I established that I cared about my students, their learning, and their lives in the first few weeks. I have noticed that my students have seemed more invested in my class this year. They are taking the assignments seriously, doing their best work, and communicating regularly about their progress even without my prompting. Perhaps this is all because I showed them that I was invested in them.

Sarah Esberger teaches AP Language and Composition and Sophomore English at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, TN where she lives with her second-grader, her husband, three furry friends, and a bearded dragon. She also runs her school’s student-tutored Writing Lab and is always seeking new ways to incorporate James Britton’s concept “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” into her teaching.

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