Category Archives: Conferring

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Finding More Time…

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

My notes for this blog  (notes that I made in July when I was a VERY different person – pregnant, rested, unfamiliar with the work of Mo Willems…) say that I should write a blog about – not focusing on test prep as testing season begins to rear its ugly head. 

I’m not going to write that blog post…yet (growth mindset…?). 

No, instead, I want to discuss how conferencing and station rotations (which Shelby Scoffield wrote about here just a few days ago) are making my return to the classroom from maternity leave a lot less daunting than I feared it would be. 

First, I really hope that non-moms/dads (paternity leave is just as important as maternity leave) didn’t stop reading…give me a few paragraphs and I’m hoping you’ll find there’s something for everyone. 

Here we go –  there’s a lot of stuff out there about GOING on maternity leave: lesson plans on TPT, blogs, questions about finding subs, questions about who should do the grading while the teacher is gone, questions about structure and organization (elementary teachers rock this part)…and lots and lots of ink shed on how important it is to leave school at school to focus on time with your new baby. Let’s just say I tried my best to go full Elsa and let it all go once our little nugget finally arrived. But with my return to school looming, I knew that I needed to start thinking not just about WHAT we would do when I returned but HOW we would do those things. What attitude did I want for my first few days back? What messaging did I want to send my students? And… I haven’t found a lot out there about HOW to return to class. Apparently, it just goes smoothly for everyone, right?

So with all of that in mind and disappointed that the Internet didn’t just provide a magic answer, I decided to treat this return kind of like the beginning of the school year – a fresh start for us all. So I took a good hard look at what was working for this group of students and what needed to change and began to make plans with those thoughts in mind. 

I also knew that I wanted to hear from the students about their progress while I was gone as soon as possible. So I’m conferencing with all 135 students for 10-15 minutes over the next two weeks. At the suggestion of a friend, I offered them the metaphor of swimming to help them prepare for the conversation. I want to know how they “swam” while I was gone. Did they turn into Michael Phelps and just crush AP Lang while I was gone – putting in extra time, going the extra lap, eating multiple pizzas in a day? Did they just tread water – keeping their Lang muscles moving and loose but not really going anywhere in the pool? Did they get out of the pool completely and take up residence in a nice desert somewhere with no pools or water in sight? I’m going to let them drive the conversation for the first part of our conference – here’s where I am – and then take their temperature (I know, I know – mixed metaphors) to see what they need from me in the next few weeks to feel more comfortable. I’ve made a list of the items they covered while I was gone, and I want us to converse in the last few minutes of the conference about the top 2-3 we should focus on together. Plus, I teach neat students, and it’s going to be nice just to catch up with them. A lot has happened for me in the last 10 weeks; I’m sure a lot has happened in their lives as well. I want to hear about it. 

From here, I’m hoping that the conversation with each student will help put them at ease as we start working together again AND will help me figure out where we are as a group. After these “Check-In Conferences” are over, we will begin our regular writing conferences – looking at pieces they wrote while I was out. 

Now – this second stage of conferencing is where station rotations are key. Before the baby, I would get to work around 7 and stay until 430 or so – holding 15ish conferences throughout the day, using most of my time at school to meet with students and then taking home the grading and the planning. I’m not sure I can sustain that pace right away – if ever again. So I need to find time IN CLASS to make conferences work. Enter MCM’s – for the normal person this is Man Crush Monday – for us, it’s Multiple Choice Monday. 

We work a multiple choice passage from released AP Lang tests every Monday. Normally, students take their MCM individually for 15 minutes. Then, they turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses: “I got A for #1 – here’s how I chose that answer. What did you get? Oh, you got B? Let’s figure this out together.” This process can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the passage.  I give them the correct answers, and they self score. Then they turn back to their partner and discuss just ONE tricky question now that they know the answer. Finally, we regroup as a class and discuss any questions they are still confused about. I rarely do the talking here but ask for student volunteers who got the question right to explain their thinking. Honestly, if we have to do test prep (and we kind of do), this metacognition/discussion/student driven prep is the best method I’ve ever used. 

So, knowing that I needed some class time to conference, I began looking at how we spent our time and where I could work in conferences routinely. MCMs seemed like the perfect place. Here’s my thinking (and any feedback would be appreciated because while station rotations, MCMs and conferencing aren’t new to me, combining them all together is): 

  • Station 1: Students individually take their MCM
  • Station 2: Students chat in pairs about their MCM results – this would be my empty starting station – students can’t complete this station until they’ve done Station 1 obviously. From here, they would either place their MC answer sheets on my desk/in my hands at the end of this station OR grade their own/discuss and then turn their work in.
  • Station 3: Some kind of writing/peer review station working on a skill we’ve been discussing in class
  • Station 4: Conference with me – I think this would be a good time to group students based on their feedback from the “Check In Conference” and work on those skills in small groups.
  • Station 5: Apply what we discussed in Station 4. (For students who start in station 5 – they will do Station 3 work here and then do Station 5 work where other students do Station 3 work. This group will probably be my most self directed group.)
  • Closing as a whole class – we return to the answers and either grade OR discuss as a whole group. 

For all of these stations, I’m stealing an idea from Catlin Tucker about using video directions at each station so students have your overview of each station, written directions AND a video of verbal directions to rely on. I LOVE the possibilities this simple tweak opens up.

This process can obviously be finetuned, but I’m excited to work in small group conferences into my class every week in another routine way while still maintaining my individual conferences at a less breakneck pace. 

Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I was planning on writing something else entirely. I 100% used this post as a place to process some of my thinking. Thanks for following along – if you have suggestions or feedback, I’d love to hear it. Happy Monday!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently binging old episodes of Jeopardy with her husband like the two little nerds they are. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

 

“It’s Beautiful” – A Simple Reminder

Happy Holidays!

I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I hope you are finding your holiday break restful and rejuvenating, filled with warmth and time with family. I know I am enjoying spending time with both mine and my husband’s extended families. Both of our families are large and loud and full of children under the age of ten. It’s chaotic and joyful and, honestly, one of my favorite gatherings of the year – on both sides.

While sitting in church on Christmas Sunday, my three year old niece brought me a coloring page and began to use my lap as a table. The last one to grab crayons, she was stuck with a really drab brown. She enthusiastically scribbled and scrabbled and scratched her ugly brown crayon all over that coloring page with – seemingly – no rhyme or reason. Breathing heavily, she gave it her all for five frantic minutes.

Then she stopped, held up her art, and sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

My heart melted. Of course it was. She saw beauty where I only saw a mess.

It reminded me of conferencing with my students. There’s always something worth praising, something beautiful in their writing. I don’t know about you but my first instinct is to start with what we can fix, where I can teach by showing what the student can do better. When I start conferencing after the break, I want to remember my niece and ask my students: What do you LIKE about this piece? What’s beautiful?

I think that reframing will make for a good moment in our conferences.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently reading and loving Mo Willems’s picture books. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

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.

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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.

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