Category Archives: Conferring

Why You Should Get Coached: Part 2. And, 20 Questions to Guide Conferring

I’m about to get coached. And I know it. It’s ahead of a planned observation of a PLC meeting I’ll facilitate. This coaching experience will be, well, different from those I experienced as a classroom teacher. Not only will I be netting my own thinking as my co-coach surfaces it, but also I’ll be observing the questions she casts. I’m hoping to catch more than ideas for how to best support the team of teachers I’ll serve. I’m hoping to hook on to more ways of listening, more ways of asking the right questions, more ways to perfect the timing of my casts.  Like many of you, I began this work through conferring with readers and writers. And, hence Part II of Why You Should Get Coached: to further build your conferring skills. 

When I attended Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days Conference last October, they spoke to this, with urgency. In their eyes, conferring is the single most important strategy for an ELA teacher (I’d argue for ALL teachers but I’m still working on how to angle that for other content areas) AND it’s the one teachers need the most professional development around. In Katie Martin’s Learner Centered Innovation, she cites research from Joyce and Showers (2002) that demonstrates that “teachers who were coached in the classroom implemented 95% of skills over time compared with 5% of their peers that implemented instructional practices in their classroom without coaching.” When you invite a coach to be a part of your classroom story, you’re acquiring direct access to listening and questioning and reflecting skills. Imagine the outcome! When I invited my coach in to observe small group conferring and when I invited him in to observe video of my conferring, my tackle box of strategies swelled. So did my confidence. So did my trust in my coach and my students’ trust in me. This occurred for me because of talk that invited it.

Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 11.01.01 PMKittle is right: “The language we use to invite talk begins with the questions we ask.” Because coaches’ learning centers around building rapport, trust, and reflective capacity, and because we are (or at least should be!) the most coached in a building, we’re uniquely centered to model questioning and listening and to coach on it.

Here are some of my new favorite questions you might toss out when you need to reel in student thinking. 

  1. What’s on your mind?Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 11.00.36 PM
  2. And what else?
  3. What all have you tried?
  4. If you were someone else, what do you think you would try?
  5. If you did know the answer, what would you think?
  6. What have you tried in the past that might work here?
  7. On what past successes might you draw on as you do this work?
  8. So how do you feel about _____________?
  9. What’s the most important part of your work?
  10. What are you hoping to accomplish with _________?
  11. What skill or process are you looking to really strengthen with this?
  12. What will guide your decisions about _________?
  13. What might your classmates think (especially in terms of strengths) is important for you to focus on?
  14. Which of these is the biggest challenge right now?
  15. What’s keeping you up at night?
  16. It seems you might be feeling _________. Would you like to talk about that?
  17. Looking back, what would you do differently?
  18. What is most important to you?
  19. What do you think your next steps are?
  20. What was most helpful today?

Your coaches will lean into other, even better questions. And they’ll listen to you because they see your value. Why not toss out an invite?

Kristin Jeschke loves questions and really appreciates (in her new role as Instructional Coach) that she doesn’t have to have the answers. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

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.

New Learning Territories and a Growth Mindset

I’ve mentioned before that I have two new “preps” to which I’m slowly adjusting. I’ve had a tendency to shoulder forward into new experiences with mixed results.  HulkSometimes enthusiasm and energy carry me through the learning part at the beginning. Other times, I’ve made mistakes caused by my straight-line approach that could have been avoided. Perhaps I’ve trended more towards the Hulk, when a more intentional, Bruce Banner style might have served me better.

Patience, I’ve learned in my old age, is truly a virtue.

Moving into the realm of an advanced class that focuses on rhetoric is a challenge all to itself. Couple that with a move to sophomore English where students have different literacy needs than the freshman I worked with last year, and I’ve gotten myself into a situation that demands open-mindedness, near constant reflection, and growth.

While these classes appear to diverge completely in content, I would argue that they have something important in common: an environment where workshop works.  In one class we learn about building narrative, in the other we explore the rhetorical situation. For me, success lies in the “invitation.” I can’t drag them towards a greater understanding of reading and writing anymore than I can make my daughter move faster when we are headed out the door in a hurry.

Examining the structure of a Rhetorical Precis recently, I took the risk of holding back the “notes” and letting the students tell me what they thought the elements of an effective rhetorical precis might be.  I had MY notes, of course, but the students built the anchor chart that we use. Unsurprisingly, each of the three classes noticed elements that the other classes didn’t, providing me valuable data and helping me understand the learners even better.

As I shared my writing with them, I had to be vulnerable. When they asked me about my writing decisions, I needed to have answers. This held true across both levels.

Our sophomores learned about creating effective characters, and it was their search through the mentor texts that informed their understanding, and those elements found their way into the writing.

We read self-selected books and utilize reader’s/writer’s notebooks in all my classes. They may diverge in content, but the importance in those connections remains paramount.

Conferring with readers and writers dominates the time before and after mini-lessons.  The effectiveness of one-on-one instruction doesn’t change because one student might read or write better than another.

One size does not fit all, and I know that teachers deserve autonomy.  The autonomy afforded me empowers our workshop to work in two totally different environments with totally different sets of students.  Their needs, however, are the same. They need to move forward in their literacy; be better tomorrow than they were today. The skills are different, but that’s where my work comes in.

This journey can not be survived alone.

I’ve learned, in a few short weeks, that the only path to success this year runs through a few very specific places: the office of our instructional coach, the room of my department head (from whom I’m learning how to teach rhetoric), and the room in which our sophomore team gathers as we plan our units and our lessons. It’s going to take a village to raise this learner.

I remain steadfastly committed to a workshop that centers on readers and writers, and the first five weeks of this school year have only strengthened that resolve.

Many of our readers at 3 Teachers Talk have brilliant ideas, and I hope to learn from our writers and our readers.  If you want to collaborate, email me at mooreliteracy1@gmail.com.


Charles Moore loves watching his son play football for the first time ever.  He loves to read, write, and learn along side readers and writers. Check out his twitter at @ctcoach.  If you headed to ILA, come see us at 11 on Saturday October 12th for our presentation on novels in verse. Our clothing will coordinate… I promise.

Keeping Students’ Emotional States in Mind as We Recommend Books

I came to respect The Great Gatsby as a work of literature only after rereading it in college, but prior to that time, the feelings I associated with it could best be described as loathing and resentment. I can imagine the gasps as I type this. Gatsby is, after all, a beloved American novel which almost every American student has read, or “read,” by the time they graduate high school. Someone who reads this post will want to tell me all about how it’s his or her favorite book and that maybe I just don’t understand it or realize the literary genius it represents. Some of you will fondly remember the teacher who thoughtfully guided you through the text. I can only assure you that I fully understand it, and I liked my junior English teacher well enough.

So why didn’t I like one of the greatest American novels of all time? It comes down to two reasons, and a lot of us are already doing our best to address the first:

  1. The book was assigned to me to read. I had no choice – at a time in my life when I craved I read it because I was supposed to, but I resented the time it took me away from the books I really wanted to read. This website is a testament to the work that we’re doing to provide students with at least some choice. For more information on how to provide choice in a variety of classroom settings, I encourage you to peruse the wonderful posts on this site as well as the publications of Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller.
  2. Here’s the part that many of us are still developing: we talk with students and recommend books – often based on what they’ve enjoyed reading previously – and try to match students with their interests. We need to go further with our talks. Had my English III teacher spoken with me enough to understand even a little about my background, she would have known that being the poorest kid in the class and having another eviction notice on my apartment door made me reluctant (“angry” might be a better descriptor here) to spend my time hanging out with the likes of Daisy. I was surrounded by Daisies who worried about what seemed trivial to me. I worried about not eating; they worried about whether or not their nail polish would match their prom dress. I didn’t feel like maturely comparing my situation to the text; I wanted to escape via literature! I didn’t want or need to read a book at that point in time so fixated on money and superficiality. The assigned book caused me psychological distress that I still remember almost thirty years later. If this seems overly dramatic, imagine how texts were typically taught in the 1980s and still are in some classrooms today. We drudged through the book for at least a month, and I listened to conversations about wealth daily. Not cool.

Many of us get to know our students fairly well through book talks, conferences, class discussions, and casual conversations. A growing number of ELA teachers begin the course with writing assignments that shed light on a student’s favorites as well potential

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 7.47.17 AM

Mrs. Davenport’s class created picture frames that represent how they view the world.

emotional triggers, such as Mary Davenport’s frame activity, in which students decorate construction-paper “frames” and write brief, introspective pieces around the borders about the experiences that shape how they view the world. Davenport often gleans background information about her students that helps her recommend books to them, as social and emotional factors are every bit as important as reading (or dare I say it: Lexile) levels. Finding safe ways to learn about her students’ lives has allowed her to match readers with books they enjoy, and that is our mission: to expand our knowledge base about our students’ lives, without prying or making them feel vulnerable, so we can get the right books into their hands.

I would love to help teachers who are less experienced with conferring with students, and improve my own craft, so please share your strategies for getting to know your students’ emotional needs (as they relate to reading) in the comments.

Screen Shot 2019-09-04 at 9.20.51 PM

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition, PSAT Team, English 4, and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She wants her students to know that language is power – one that she hopes they will be able to wield for Good. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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. 

Q & A: How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

Questions Answered

Recently, I facilitated a readers-writers workshop training with a small team of brilliant teachers in Minneapolis. We shared an inspiring two days together, exploring and discussing how to shift instructional practices to allow for choice, challenge, and the authentic moves readers and writers make as they mature in their craft. In these trainings, I tend to talk a lot about conferring. I think it’s the linchpin that makes all the essential parts of a workshop pedagogy work. (It’s also the thing I still struggle with the most.) Towards the end of our time together, one young teacher said, “Have you tried everything? It sounds like you’ve tried everything.”

Pretty much.

At least it feels like it. I’ve pretty much tried anything and everything I think will help my students want to read and write — and want to improve as readers and writers. (I am still learning. Send me ideas!) And when it comes to conferring with my readers, I’ve tried a lot of things.

One thing I know for sure:  The expectations we set matter — a lot.

When I work with teachers, I get this question often:  How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

I don’t. I want to cause a distraction, especially for the one student I’m conferring with at that moment, perhaps for the couple of students sitting near enough to listen into our conversation, maybe for the student across the aisle who needs to know it’s not as scary as she may think to talk to a teacher about a book.

Besides — I may only distract a reader for a moment before I move on to the next reader. Right? And with a class of thirty students, it may take several days to loop back around to distract that reader again.

Sure, I could ask students to come to me — maybe at my desk or at the side of the room or just a step outside the door (I’ve tried all these locations), but scooting up in my rolling chair, or kneeling beside them, at their space seems much more authentic to me — less threatening, more inclusive. In my experience, our conversations are richer when my readers share their space with me.

I know it can be hard to concentrate and read when someone is talking, even in whispers, to someone else a couple of feet away. (I tried reading on a plane yesterday, but the couple next to me kept talking, talking, talking, and I finally took a nap.)

Expectations matter. If we build a culture of reading within our learning communities, where all students know we expect them to read during sacred reading time, and all students expect us to talk to them about their reading lives, every student will come to expect our conferences. It’s part of the overall workshop routine. It’s a huge part of what makes self-selected independent reading work on the daily.

The weight of the distraction just doesn’t come close to the impact of regular one-on-one conversations with our readers.

 

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen lives, loves, and teaches in North Texas. She will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall — teaching seniors! This week she is in Chicago at a conference sponsored by The Poetry Foundation. So cool! If you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

 

Q & A: How do I know what mini-lessons to teach? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered

When I first started trying to implement readers-writers workshop, I was the master of the quickwrite and pretty much nothing else. It wasn’t until after a lot of volume writing that didn’t go far in helping students improve in style or structure that I knew my instruction was missing something. I had to teach into these quickwrites. Ohhh.

Over time, I’ve learned how to develop lesson plans that not only engage students in the non-negotiables of workshop instruction, but to actually feel confident that I am teaching the ELAR standards.

We all have standards, right? These might be Common Core —  or determined by whichever state we teach. Texas has their own standards (Of course, it does).

The beauty of workshop instruction is that we can practice independent reading and writing — and teach into students’ skills development independently. We just have to plan accordingly. . . and leave space, knowing we will do more on the fly.

Take a look at this —

Minlessons

So how do we know what mini-lessons to teach?

When planning, I start with my state standards. In Texas we have Student Expectations, SE’s. Each one of those can be a mini-lesson. I introduce the SE to students, model what it looks like in a text or task. We discuss, question, and practice it by applying it to our own independent reading or writing.

Then, I pay attention. Sometimes, based on formative assessment or conferring, I may need to teach the mini-lesson again to the whole class, or sometimes small student groups or specific individuals.

These are the mini-lessons I plan in advance. However– and this is a big however — just because I know I must “teach” the standards, does not mean readers and writers must “master” them. (Don’t even get me started on standardized testing.) When it comes to writing, especially, student writers may choose not to apply specific moves in their own writing. That’s the beauty of teaching writers instead of teaching to rubrics or a specific format (Ugh, five-paragraph essay). Real writers makes choices depending on their intent for meaning and their audience. I love how Linda Rief explains more about this here.

So what do responsive mini-lessons look like?

These are the pop ups — the ones I know I’ll need to teach on the fly — based on what I see in students’ learning and growth. Maybe students are struggling with strong thesis statements or putting punctuation in places that actually aid the meaning of their sentences. I respond to their needs, and I teach specific mini-lessons, using mentor texts, to help students see how language works to craft meaning.

There is no list of mini-lessons we may teach in any given year. Your students’ needs are different than mine, and probably different than the teacher next door. Lean in, listen, identify their needs as readers and writers, that’s the best way I know how to know what mini-lessons my students need me to teach them.

 

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, which is still on her teaching bucket list. She lives in North Texas and will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall. Alas, all gap years must come to an end. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass — and if you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

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