Tag Archives: conferences

A What-to-Read Conference: Books on Bullying

Many of my reading conferences happen at the bookshelf, as students finish one book and begin the search for another.  Here’s one example I just can’t stop thinking about.

Yesterday, a former student of mine came down to my room to borrow a book.  This particular student didn’t start out as a reader, so I was really excited to see him seeking reading material independently a year later.

“Do you have Winger?” he asked me.  We walked to the bookshelf and looked for it–all my copies were checked out.

“Why are you interested in Winger?” I asked him.

“Christina told me about it this summer,” he explained.  I smiled–books were still going viral, beyond our classroom community and into the summer months.

“Well, they’re all checked out.  What is it about that book that interested you?”

“The bullying,” he said, looking away.  Bullying?  I was surprised for a moment that this particular student was curious about bullying–he was a popular kid.  He drove a cool car, had a boisterous and charismatic personality, and had a trail of lovesick girls whose eyes followed his every move.  But then my surprise faded–all high school students, no matter how popular, confident, or smart they seem, struggle with their peers’ meanness.

I had to decide–what do I teach into here?  This student as a reader, or as a vulnerable teen?  I am no longer his teacher–so I don’t have to teach him as a reader, right?

Wrong.  I chose to treat this as a reading conference…but in doing so, I knew I was giving this student the tools to deal with the issue of bullying.

411MJMpTseL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I began to suggest alternate books about bullying, and I promised him that I’d set Winger aside for him when it was returned.  He ended up leaving with Thirteen Reasons Why, but I also suggested Nineteen MinutesYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Truth About Alice, Speak, Wonder, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe, and By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. 

I knew that when that student finished Thirteen Reasons Why, he’d be back.  I knew that I could guide him toward more books about this issue he was curious about, and that our future conferences could help him climb a reading ladder about bullying.

“Reading ladders take students from one level of reading to the next logical level…We can help them stretch as readers by showing them books that mirror what they already like but that…will challenge them more,” says Teri Lesesne in Reading Ladders.  By continuing to guide this student toward more complex books about the same issue, not only would I be helping him to grow as a reader, I would be offering him more titles that could help shed more light on the difficult issue of bullying.

Penny Kittle is fond of saying “reading saves lives.”  My own classroom library is emblazoned with the quote “We read to know that we are not alone.”  This student was seeking salvation, solace, and information in books.  He wanted to know that he wasn’t the only one feeling the way he felt, and he hoped to find a story that showed him a triumph over bullying was possible.  That he sought this guidance in a library shows the power of teaching readers…not books.

Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

dtrfyguhujSometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking about what I’ll be teaching and learning that day, and feel like a rebel.  That’s right–I think to myself, feeling inexplicably cool–I teach workshop. Yeahhhhh.  Even though this is the most research-based, data-driven form of instruction I’ve encountered in my teaching career, a successful workshop is still such a rarity that I feel like I’m breaking all the rules by employing it every day.  I’m a rebel with a cause.

Still, when I stop feeling like James Dean and reality bites me in the butt, I know I need to be practical and follow the rules by putting some grades in the gradebook–once per week is the suggestion at our school.  If I had it my way, I’d go gradeless and celebrate the myriad acts of literacy within the confines of a classroom.  That’s not possible right now.  I needed another solution, and I think I found it in Amy, right here on this blog.  She writes powerfully about formative assessments in this post.  Her thinking mirrors mine:

I know when I am learning a new skill, I want to be able to practice–free from judgment–so that I might build some confidence before I am formally evaluated.  The same is true for kids.  We should give them opportunities to practice and build confidence.

One grade per week, when I’m grading to evaluate, is impossible.  We don’t master a different skill every single week.  Mastery requires practice.  So, I’ve focused lately on formative assessment for eight out of the nine-week grading periods, and summative for just one.  Here are the four categories I see formative assessment broken down into, and how I put them in the gradebook.


Un-gradeable, amazing writing

1. Writer’s notebooks – I collect writer’s notebooks every two weeks, and students can receive up to 20 points per collection.  If all of our prompts and exercises are present, and I can see the student’s effort, he or she gets the full 20/20.  I also ask students to mark for me anything they’d like feedback on.  I check to see the status of their to-read, wondrous words (vocab), and cool craft (quotes) sections, but I also look for a telltale pink sticky note.  If I see one, I read the marked piece and write back–just feedback.

2.  Reading logs – Our reading logs are quite messy; you can see one example here.  There are arrows everywhere, new reading rates scribbled in, and tons of titles being read every week.  When students complete their reading goal of two hours per week–determined by individual reading rates–they get 10 points, every week.  Reading logs show me the big picture of a class’s progress, while conferences help me go deeper.  The reading log lets me know, at a glance, who’s soaring and who’s not–helping to give my conferences direction.


Word play

3.  Vocabulary – I still remember my orange Sadlier-Oxford vocab books from high school.  Those well-worn paperbacks were the source of many a cramped hand and a frantic fifteen minutes of homeroom before English class.  I know from personal experience that I don’t retain new words by completing fill-in-the-blank exercises–I learn by reading widely.  So, I ask my students to maintain a “wondrous words” section in their notebooks, writing down unfamiliar or unknown words as they read.  Then, I give them a different activity to complete with those words every two weeks.  The activities are worth 10 points each, and run the gamut from writing stories using the words to drawing pictures illustrating their meanings.

4. Honest self-assessments – When we finish a unit of any kind, usually about once a month–a writing unit, a reading unit, a book club, a challenge–I pass out a half-sheet with self-assessment questions on it.  I begin each half-sheet with a disclaimer:  “Be honest.  There’s no judgment here.  I just want to know why you were as successful as you were with this unit, and to know how I can help others be successful in the future.”  Students answer very truthfully, sometimes humorously so.  If their answers are thorough, they receive 15 points.

These four formative assessments total about 115 points per month.  With 9-week grading periods, students’ grades therefore are made up of about 2/3 formative assessments (230 points or so) and 1/3 summative assessments (100 points or so).  Well over half of the formative assessments are credit for the simple acts of doing the assigned reading and writing–no evaluation of those acts, just credit for the effort.  I value practice and process over product–and this grading system reflects that.

How do you handle grading, formative assessment, evaluation, etc.? Please share in the comments!

Conferring: On the Lookout for Gifts

“I think parents should read this book — these kinds of books, too,” Monica said as we chatted about the book she just finished, Impulse by Ellen Hopkins. “They need to know what we go through and how we think about things. It would help so much.”

I listened as she shared her feelings. She needed me to hear her disappointment at the ending. The characters mattered to her, so I knew they needed to matter to me.

The relationship between student and teacher changed in that moment. We gave each other a gift in that brief conversation about a book.

When we consider our conferring moments with students, do we give enough gifts? Do we allow our students to?

Think about the origin of confer:  Latin conferre to bring together, from com- + ferre to carry.

At the end of that three-minute conference with Monica, I carried a bit of the burden she had on her heart, and she carried the knowledge that one more adult cares about what she thinks. A conversation about a book brought us together.

I love that.

At NCTE I asked a room of teachers what part of their workshop classroom they struggle with the most. They all said student conferences.

Finding the time, being consistent, knowing how to prod students into thinking, allowing students to do most of the talking —  these concerns all emerged as trouble spots that we’d like to overcome.

In a perfect classroom with perfect students it would be easy. What’s the big deal? Just talk to your students. Yeah, right.

I asked one colleague how she conducts her reading conferences. She replied quickly, “Oh, I don’t do those. I cannot talk to one kid without the other 35 talking.”

Yes, that can be a problem.

I don’t think we stop trying though.

One-on-one conversations with students create the heart of my workshop classroom. Our relationships grow and change as we gift one another with ideas and information. We learn and change together as individuals who are trying to make sense of our world. Regular conversations make this happen.

I’m reminded of a line I boxed in bold when reading Choice Words by Peter Johnston: “Talk is the central tool of their trade.” Their meaning teachers who create environments wherein through language they help students “make sense of learning, literacy, life, and themselves” (4).

Talk is central

That’s what I want as I create opportunities to confer with the students in my classroom. I want to help my students make sense of all it:  what happens in the classroom, what they read in books, what they’ll face in the future, and what they see in themselves. That’s a tall order, and the only way I know how to do it is to talk to more of my kids more often.

My burning question now circles on student conferences. How can I improve the precious moments of time I have with each of my students?

I am paying a lot more attention to the gifts we give as we converse with one another.

What about you? What are your ideas, concerns, questions about student conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

It’s about the Process. C’mon Guys!

There’s this thing about students with attitudes. Sometimes I just do not deal well.

Last week while meeting with students one-on-one to discuss their improvement in class and their current writing piece, I felt a little beat up.

How is it that two students can ruin the euphoria I felt after conferring with everyone else?

First, N tells me that narrative will not fit anywhere in his piece.

“Why not?”

“Because of the topic,” he told me.

“And your topic is?” I said.

“Governor Perry,” he told me.

“You’re writing something like a bio of the governor. Why won’t narrative work anywhere?”

I do not remember the actual words, but what he meant was “ I do not want to spend anymore time on this writing.”

Later, A tells me that no matter what she writes I tell her it’s not good enough.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Because you always ask a question about what I wrote,” she told me.

“And why do you think by asking questions I’m telling you your writing isn’t good enough?”

“I’m just giving up,” she told me, completely avoiding my question.

I do not remember the actual words she said next, but what she meant was “I do not want to work any harder.”

Tough luck, kiddos.

Writing is hard. And writing well is even harder. Hemmingway quote

Too often my students just want to draft something roughly and turn it in for a grade. I’ve stopped even putting grades on papers, unless we are at the end of a grading period and the policy says I have to. So many students stop their process once that score sits on their page.

Here we are just starting our final nine weeks, and I must figure out how to do more with teaching writing process over writing product.

It’s an uphill stretch.

Students come to me with specific writing habits, and many are stalled on the hill, resisting the charge to be better. Since many of my kids have been in gifted and talented classes for years, they often think that learning comes easily. Maybe in some classes it does. But in my experience with English, too many teachers have not demanded growth through process and have been satisfied with students just turning in papers that will score an A. Mind you, not ALL teachers, but I can tell which teachers at the sophomore level value process over product and which do not, based on the attitudes and practices of the student when they come to my room their junior year. Or, maybe those sophomore teachers haven’t been able to change those bad habits either. I get that, too. Some of these students are stubborn in their know-it-all-ness.

I struggle with this every year:  You know the student who walks in the door at the beginning of the year and could make a 5 on the AP exam if she took it that week. Do you grade her on the struggle of the writing process and her improvement as a writer, or do you grade her on the writing she is capable of at the beginning of the year, even if it’s already an A?

I tend to want to see improvement in all my writers– even the ones who are already pretty good at it when they come to me.

But this year, maybe I haven’t emphasized that enough. I’ve written in front of them, shown them my struggle, used mentor texts, conferred with them individually, begged, prayed.

I pulled out Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg a while ago and read a few pages in the front of the book. I got my center back. I also got a few thoughts I may write on sticky notes and hand to N and A as they come to class tomorrow.

“You practice whether you want to or not.” p11

“You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” p11

“It’s the process of writing and life that matters.” p12

“We must continue to open and trust in our own voice and process.” p13

“Writing is so simple, basic, and austere.” There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive.” p26

No doubt when I keep reading I will find more and more advice from Goldberg that will help me help my students. I love that about good writers who want to help others become good writers, too.

Where do you go to find your center? Who are your personal writing coaches?



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