Of course, one of the best indicators of success with conferring (or applying mini lessons or using mentor text moves or utilizing feedback or adapting a quick write…) appears in student writing. Did the student try time cues in her This, I Believe piece after examining the mentor? Yes, I can see that application. Did the student use the strategy of highlighting important lines in the essay and then rearrange them to build a poem? Yes, the drafting shows the highlighted essay, and the poem synthesizes those powerful lines. This is feedback, information I can use to continue to tweak, modify, adjust, and adapt how I confer with writers.
One day recently, though, I thought: I should ask my students to assess the conference. Maybe what compelled me that day originated from working with Making Thinking Visible and a desire for my students to make more concrete a thoughtful conference–one involving curiosity, creativity, and connection from student and teacher. Maybe it originated from Cornelius Minor’s We Got This and an increased urgency to seek more direct feedback from students (in the most unobtrusive ways). Maybe it originated from observations that some of my students seem reluctant participants, participants who lack experience with this kind of conferring. Maybe it originated from my deep desire to anticipate and insure that I meet everyone’s needs.
Whatever the genesis that day, I knew a simple strategy, one my instructional coach used with me. When experimenting with a collaborative multi genre research project this fall, I realized I had little experience with group conferring. So, I invited my instructional coach to observe. He scripted each of the three conferences; he asked me to assess the conferences based on a scale of 1-10 (this is a Jim Knight instructional coaching strategy); he and I then described what we noticed. Looking back, we kept the “source of truth” (in the words of Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in “The Feedback Fallacy” featured in the Harvard Business Review) of the words with me, allowing me to examine my conferring practice without a sense of external judgment.
In these 10 minute conferences, I learned that . . . I asked a lot of questions, between 10-15; I paraphrased regularly; I directed them to mentor texts; I offered micro lessons. Though I assessed no conference higher than an 8/10, and though I wondered if I questioned my groups to death, I noticed ultimately that I exercised flexibility, stretching in the direction of my groups’ needs. Yet at the time, I wasn’t sure what would constitute a 10/10 in my assessment. But now I’m sure what I’ll need to try to reach this (well, almost sure). Student assessment. Because what I see manifested in their writing makes visible only some of the effects of conferring (if any at all!).
So, on that recent day, I tried it. To my students, I had not indicated I would do so nor had I trained them for what the numbers could mean, nor given them any other parameters. With the handful I tried this with, here’s what I noticed:
- It affirmed my writers’ needs were met. A few were quick to offer a 10/10 rating (surprising me with their smiles and affirming nods) because they “got what they needed”–had their questions answered, discovered next steps, or received resources they could further collaborate with.
- It prompted reflection. One offered an 8/10 rating. Upon seeking explanation, the student explained that the conference may have been more valuable had he been more prepared with his writing; there was a limit to the benefits of the conference when his writing was not as “ready.”
- It cued them to symphonize. When directed to explain their rating, the students then engaged in integrating their thinking with my noticings, reactions, or inquiries into their writing, an orchestration of thought that helped them internalize next steps.
- It compelled me to remember that my perception of success in these conferences was just that: my perception.
Possible Next Steps
- More routinely ask students to assess our conferences and offer explanations, and then keep a record of these so I can see patterns across a student or through a room over time;
- More routinely self-assess conferences and record my self-assessment and why so as to study my practices;
- Assess the conferences for different skills or effects–academic or affective (modeling of a strategy, level of safety, etc.);
- Video select conferences to assess and study OR invite my instructional coach to script.
True to when my brain puzzles over any novelty (book, song, teaching strategy), I’ve been testing this outside the classroom. The other night, working with my son as he practiced cello, I asked him to rate, on a scale of 1-5 (which seems a more manageable range for a ten-year-old), his performance of “Lightly Row.” He assessed it at a 3; I asked why and he explained. Then I asked what he thought he should work on, and since he wanted to get it up to a 5, he took charge of figuring out what he needed to do to perform at that level. Music to my ears.
When I confer with my students, I can orchestrate even more opportunities for growth, especially when I discover ways like this to share the baton.
Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She’s been trying to work on feeding her writers and herself in 2019, and she appreciates how this sounds in her classroom.