Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.
We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.
This week’s conversation took root over a year ago in a hotel room at NCTE in Washington D.C. As with many of our TTT get togethers, we threw out a question from our classrooms and began discussing our struggles, questions, and ideas. This time it was Amy, asking about conferring. The three of us mutually agreed that one of the greatest challenges we face as workshop teachers includes conferences, yet while they take time, practice, and diligence, they are one of the most necessary and rewarding components of the workshop classroom.
In this week’s conversation, Amy and Jackie discuss the the value of conferring within the reader’s writer’s workshop.
Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!
How do you meet with every student when your class sizes have 30 or more students?
Amy: I come back to that word — purposeful. If we plan to meet with students in conferences, and we craft lessons that allow for students to work independently for a time, we can meet with students one-on-one. Yes, when our classes are large, we may not get around to meeting with each of them as often as we like, but consider the alternative — never talking face-to-face with our students. The more I talk with my students about their needs and what would help them learn more in school the more they tell me they crave conversations with adults who will listen to the things they care about and believe in. They want adults to validate them.
Say we have a class of thirty students, and we only meet with each one of them three times in the semester — that is three times more one-on-one contact with a caring adult they would have had otherwise. Every bit of time matters.
I wrote a post with ideas for conferring with students when our class sizes are large here. My favorite is the bundle conference — no, I really like the one in the hallway. Really, any chance to talk to a reader about her reading is one I cherish.
Jackie: I am fortunate that I do not have classes over 30, but like Amy says, there are ways to reach such a large group of students. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible. I advise Writers Club and Government Club, so I know I can reach at least a couple students during that time. I also have a handful of students who stay in my room during my prep, duty, lunch, or after school to work on homework and reading. This means that I see anywhere between six to ten students in alternative settings where we can chat about books.
I also use workshop time to meet with table groups, which consist of four students each, just the right amount of students to chat about books while still gaining some more individualized attention. Furthermore, as Amy mentioned, I rely on bundle conferences when discussing writing. Just last week, I managed to conference with my twenty AP Literature students about their essays in just over an hour of workshop time. Today, one of my students approached me after class, thanking me for the conferencing time and the additional one-on-one tutoring time during a study hall. He said that he felt significantly more confident approaching his essay this past Friday after having such individualized feedback.
Amy: I forgot to add — sometimes I schedule conferences with students. If I notice that I haven’t met with someone for a long time, or if I notice he’s stuck in the same book for too long a time, I’ll invite him to confer during lunch or after school. Personal invitations mean a lot to students who for whatever reason “I haven’t got a round to yet.”
Just last week I tapped Tony on the shoulder and asked that he meet with me during lunch. I’d noticed that he rarely checked out books from my classroom library, yet his record of his reading kept getting longer. I really thought this students was fake reading and calling it good, and since Tony has a lot of social capital I feared he was sending a negative message to his classmates. Tony sat with me for about five minutes during lunch tutorials. I asked about his reading, and he told me enough to know that he really was reading. He told me he thinks he needs to try harder books. So we talked about what books might interest him. I then asked if he knew how much of an example he is with his peers. His eyes started to glow and he smiled a little. “Yeah, I guess so,” he finally said. We talked about the kind of leader he wants to be, and when Tony left my room, we both felt better about what he is accomplishing in class this year. That is the kind of conference I love to have with students, and it provides the one-on-one attention often missing when students share classroom space and one teacher with twenty-nine other students.
What are your best conversation starters?
Jackie: Amy, I’m curious about your most successful conversation starters, particularly the ones you use with those tougher students who struggle to stay engaged. I know that many of my struggling readers love learning from their reading. They enjoy “getting something” out of their books, which means that I tend to talk to them about their hobbies and how it relates to their book. One of my self-defined “non-readers” has been working on a hockey book since the beginning of the year. I love hearing about what he has learned and why it is valuable to his only success as a hockey player. I also enjoy hearing about why a student chose the book they did. Their responses can be unexpected and even surprising. It reinforces the fact that they have a choice in their education.
Amy: I tried to keep track of what I say to start a conversation, thinking I’d realize I say something like Carl Anderson suggests in his book “How’s it Going?” Sure, sometimes I say that, but really, my conversation starter depends on the student. It changes all the time. The important thing to remember is to get our students talking about their reading experiences. Our role is to listen. If we do not listen, we do not have a chance to assess where our students might need help, where the gaps in comprehension are, or how we may encourage them to take risks and try something more challenging so they grow. We need to remember to let the student direct the conference. I still struggle with this sometimes.
Suppose I say: “Tell me what you’re thinking about this book.” Depending on the student, he’s likely to say “It’s good” or “It’s okay.” That just means I have to ask another question to get the student talking. But if I ask something specific about the student and/or the book, I can usually spark a conversation immediately. For example, I love to ask questions about book covers, especially if I can tell a student is about half way through the book.
I’ll say something like: “I can see you’re about halfway through. I wonder if you’ve thought about the book cover design at all. You know, most people judge a book by the cover. How well do you think the cover represents the book so far? Based on what you’ve read, why do you think that?” This lead works well for book titles, too. Of course, I want my students to talk about their books in a way that I know they are actually reading them, but more importantly, I want my students to be able to talk to me about what they are thinking about their books as they read. This is difficult for many students, but the more I encourage and validate and stay consistent with conferring, the easier it gets for them.
Jackie: You are right–there is no scripted answer to asking the right question, but as you said, some promote more discussion than others. I also enjoy having students compare their current reading books to the ones they’ve read previously. After picking up The Compound at the urging of his friends, one student said, “I actually think Dopesick [by Walter Dean Myers] is better than this book.” His willingness to state his opinion led the same friends who recommended The Compound to turn around and read Dopesick.
What do you do if you figure out a student isn’t reading during your conversation?
Amy: I wish I didn’t have to answer this question. I wish I could say all my students read. Just isn’t true. I’ve written a few times already this year about how I still have non-readers. I mentioned it in my #FridayReads post last week. I’ve found the two major reasons my students tell me they do not want to read: 1. I’m too busy, 2. I don’t like reading. Not necessarily in that order.
When I discover in a conference that a student is stuck in his book — bored with it, or just flat out flipping pages — we talk. I try to get him talking about his passions.
Most of my boys love soccer. “Why do you love that sport?” I’ll ask, and usually, he will describe the friendships with the guys on the team, the love of being outdoors, the competition. I want him to show me emotion about something he loves.
Then, I’ll say something like: “I don’t know much about soccer. I’ve never played. How can you help me love it?” And he’ll go off talking about exercise and health and having fun. I listen and nod.
Then, I’ll ask: “What do you suppose that has to do with reading?”
And sometimes he gets it, and he’ll say, “You mean like if I never read I may never know if I like it?”
Of course, then I pile him up with book choices and encourage him to try a book he thinks looks interesting. We talk about the importance of reading the first several pages, hopefully in one sitting, to give the author enough time to draw us into the story. And then I monitor this reader closely. I do not wait to talk with him in a week or two. I talk with him as soon as I see him again and ask what page he is on and if he likes the book. These are the students we tenderly nurse along until they can get up and run on their own.
Jackie: It’s funny that states away we use the same comparison. I am constantly talking with my students about how reading is like exercising and how our brains are muscles that require nurturing as well. I remind myself of this metaphor every time I go to the gym, everytime I try a new exercise class I loathe, and every time I look at the ridiculously jacked woman next to me who is jogging at my breakneck speed.
Reading requires patience; we do not become readers overnight. I think what shocks my students most though is my resilience to find a book they will enjoy. I go through a similar process as you, Amy. Asking what about the book is tedious or boring, helping them make time by offering my classroom before and after school. I will stop at nothing to find a book that catches their interest, even if that means devoting shopping trips to that one kid who hasn’t read a whole book since the start of the year. For those tougher kids, I know that one book can change them. The trickiest and most exhilarating part is finding that book to transform their outlook.
Amy: Tricky and exhilarating = absolutely. I love this work, and I know the value of students building stamina, growing in confidence, and challenging themselves into more complex texts. Of course, all those things happen as a result of regular and consistent conferring practices. Every time I feel like my reading workshop gets stuck, or kids are not reading like I think they should be, I pick up the notebook with my records and start conferring more. It might not work magic, but it’s close.