Tag Archives: reading conferences

Why Conferring Matters

Conferring is the interaction missing from many of our students lives.

Consider this:  the current generation thrives on one-on-one attention. They do not remember a time before social media, and many live much of their lives online via their smartphones. They turn to instantaneous interactions that have a direct impact on how they feel about themselves:  Snapchat, Vine, and Instagram over Facebook, which they are abandoning in droves because “it’s for old people.”

Our students crave immediate feedback. They seek personal communication — and they need it.

Think of the implications of this virtual-reality world on long-term relationships and problem-solving. We have already seen how it impacts our students in the classroom: short attention spans, skimming versus sustained reading to name a couple, not to mention the addiction to notifications.

Our students need to experience and understand the importance of eye contact, facial expressions, and body language, and how these physical features create non-verbal communication. They need to interpret and explicate tone.

The students in our classrooms today are different from Millenials. Anyone born after 1995 earns the new title of Generation Z, also called iGen, Centennials, Founders, and my favorite title: Gen Edgers.

As a whole, these students use technology as their primary source of communication — to validate, and to feel validated.

They also value genuine relationships, loyalty, and honesty and are increasingly more careful than the previous generation with the friendships they form online. They want to know their voices matter and that they are okay just being themselves instead of being the perfectly-phrased word count they must craft online.

Our students need opportunities to share thoughts, feelings, ideas, and knowledge in non-threatening situations through real face-to-face conversations.

Conferring opens opportunities to meet the needs of our students at the core of their longing.

When we invite students to talk and affective filters lower. Students relax. They respond.

When teachers confer with genuine interest in the well-being of the child, we grant students permission to be their genuine selves. Research on the brain shows that “positive comments and positive conversations cause a chemical “high,”” and with less pretense and stress, students experience more learning.

Conferring gives students the chance to share their stories; and besides creating trusting relationships, conferring allows us to meet them where they are and help them advance in knowledge and skills from there.

On-going regular conferences ensure that every student receives the one-on-one interaction and instruction they deserve. Peter Johnston reminds us that every student has a personal history that affects our ability to help them advance in their literacy skills.

Through conferring we learn the cultural and personal backgrounds that shape our learners, along with the experiences that shaped them in the past as readers. Both are important factors. By asking questions that invite students to recall their learning histories, we initiate future learning.

Conferring also sparks critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity.

No matter the teaching style — be it an English class where the teacher makes the choices about books and writing topics, or a workshop inspired classroom where students choose what they read and write, or even a classroom of another content area — when conferring becomes a norm, students proactively engage in learning, which results in more growth, independence, and mastery of content and concepts.

Our students learn to ask questions, ponder responses, and seek for interesting ways to show they are learning. Differentiation happens naturally.

Imagine the opportunities students may create and the innovative energy they will have in the future if they experience this kind of learning in their secondary schools.

The children in our classrooms are part of the fastest growing force in the workplace and the marketplace. Their influence is changing companies, marketing styles, and consumer habits.

This generation wants to make a difference in the world. They are pragmatic, self-aware, goal-oriented, and self-taught via YouTube. They’ve grown up “dealing with too much vs. too little information their entire lives.”

They will soon become our peers standing in voting lines, our colleagues standing near the copy machines, maybe even our bosses, or perhaps the officials that govern our cities and our states.

As adults we must provide each child with the education that prepares them for the future they are moving into.

We cannot keep teaching the way we have always taught with one-size-fits-all lesson plans and instructional models. We cannot keep making all the choices about books and reading or essay topics.

We must talk to our students one-on-one about what matters to them personally. Our future, and theirs, depends on it.

And for the teacher who worries about time, conferring provides a means of easy and accurate formative assessment, which saves valuable time spent grading:  time teachers may spend planning effective lessons or conferring with more students.

When done with fidelity, conferring improves the effectiveness of our teaching. I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t want that.

Please share your thoughts on conferring in the comments. What are your conferring routines?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we were to all aim higher to love our fellow man. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Advertisements

10 Things We Did That Invited Initiative — and Growth

It is 6:00 am. I stayed up all night playing with this blog and our Facebook page and Pinterest and Instagram and exploring this app and that extension and whatever else called on me to click on it. I didn’t even realize I’d blown the night up until my Fitbit buzzed telling me to get up and workout. Thank God it is a holiday!

I cannot help but think (besides about how tired I will be all day) about engagement. I remember a while ago I read Danial Pink’s book Drive and then watched the RSA Animate video on motivation. We really will spend time, lots of time, doing the things we want to do be it reading, writing, learning a new skill, climbing a mountain, or sinking into the social-media–abyss. We just have to want to.

So how do we get our students to WANT TO do the things we know will make a difference in their lives, namely, read more, write more, communicate better, think more critically?

We keep trying.

i just finished a semester with my students. I wish I could say that every child read more than he ever has in his life, wrote better than she ever has since she held a pencil, learned to speak with ‘proper’ English and clear eye contact, and thought like a rocket scientist trying to get a man to the moon.

Some did. Some did, and honestly, the first few days of school, I didn’t think they would. But I kept trying.

Here’s a list of the top 10 things I kept doing, even when I was tired, even when I thought they weren’t listening, even when we all wanted to hide behind dark curtains and ring a bell for a cup of tea. (That will be me later today.)

We read at the beginning of class every day (almost — we had about six days throughout the semester when something somehow got in the way of that, i.e., fire drills, assemblies, wonky bell schedules, my car dying on the way to school).

We talked about books A LOT. Book talks, reading challenges, reading goals, tweeting book selfies, and more.

We wrote about our books enough to practice writing about our books. Theme statements, mirroring sentences, analyzing characters and conflict and plot — just enough to keep our minds learning and practicing the art of noticing an author’s craft.

We wrote about topics we care about. With the exception of the first essay students wrote, which was all the junior English teachers committed to as a pre-assessment, students chose their own topics or wrote their own prompts. Donald Murray in Learning by Teaching says the hardest part of writing is deciding on what to write about, yet we so often take that hard thinking from our writers. The worst essays my students wrote was the only one in which I gave a prompt, and before you think it’s just because that was their first essay, nope, I asked them. They just didn’t care — and that is the worst way to start off the year in a writing class.

feedback-on-prompts

feedback-on-owning-topics

feedback-on-self-selected-topics

We read mentor texts and learned comprehension skills and studied author’s craft. I chose highly engaging texts about current events in our society:  police shootings and being shot, taking a knee during the national anthem, race relations, our prison system, immigration issues — all topics that make us ask as many questions as the writers answer. Inquiry lived in our discussions.

feedback-on-writing-as-a-writer

We talked one-on-one about our reading and our writing. I conferred more than I have in the past, taking notes so I wouldn’t forget as students told me about their reading lives and their writing woes. We spoke to one another as readers and writers. We grew to like each other as individuals with a variety of interests, backgrounds, ideas, and dreams.

We shared a bit of ourselves — mostly in our writing — than we ever thought we would. Abusive mothers, alcoholic fathers, hurtful and harrowing pasts and how we grow up out of them. We talked about respect within families and how we can hurt the people we love the best when we ignore their love because it’s masked in fear and strict parenting.

a slice of Daniel’s semester exam essay

We celebrated our writing by sharing what we wrote, by performing spoken word poems, reading our narratives, or reading our quickwrites. We left feedback on sticky notes and flooded our writers.

We grew in confidence and that showed in our work. I held students accountable with high expectations — and lots of mercy. Most rose to the challenge, even those in their first AP class and those far behind who needed to catch up. Most exceeded their own expectations.

feedback-on-high-expectations

feedback-on-writing-as-a-writer

feedback-on-writing-confidently

We joined communities of readers and writers on social media, building a positive digital footprint that shows we are scholars, students who care about their literacy and want to go to college. We wrote 140 character book reviews and explored Goodreads and shared covers of the books we were reading. #IMWAYR #readersunite #FridayREADS #FarmersREAD

martina

rozlin

I will miss the juniors in my block class who are done with English for the year. They were a joy, although a challenge, pretty much every day. And my AP kiddos, they are ready for the kind of learning we will do to face down that exam come May.

We will keep doing what we do: Whatever it Takes to Grow as Readers and Writers (even if it means a lack of sleep.)

What do you do to motivate your learners? Please share your ideas in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

disclosure

Try it Tuesday: Partnering Up for Reading Conferences

Sometimes inspiration strikes at the most opportune times.

One day last week I had the honor of hosting two small groups of teachers from a different high school as they observed my classroom, one class period in the morning and another in the afternoon. Many of the teachers on their campus have been exploring and practicing with the workshop model for a while now, and they wanted to see my workshop classroom in action.

After each lesson, we met to debrief and hold a kind of question and answer session. Talk about an awesome experience (except for the voice in my head that kept saying “When did you become the expert on workshop? Yikes.)

I think one of the best things we can do as teachers is invite others into our rooms to watch us teach. Talk about keeping on the A Game. That’s a Try it Tuesday suggestion all in itself.

Here’s another one:

During one of those debriefs, one teacher asked about the conferences I conducted as my students read for the first 15 minutes of class. “What questions did you ask?

I explained that it depends on the student.

If I go with “How’s it going?”

My students answer, “Fine.”

If I go with “What are you thinking?”

My students answer, “Nothing.”

So I usually lead with “Tell me a little something about …will ya?” And then I listen to see what direction the conference might take.

That’s pretty much the genesis of every conference with my readers.

Another teacher mentioned that she and a colleague had been thinking about asking students to bring a question, thought, or problem to their reading conferences. You know, kind of like we ask students to do when we meet with them about writing. I’d never thought about it for a quick reading conference though. She wanted to know if I thought it was a good idea.

The image of this book came into my head. I found this copy of The Fault in Our Stars at a thrift store. It looked just like this:  plastered with sticky notes that reflect the student’s thinking. Now, I have no idea why this book is tattooed with notes, but I can imagine a not-so-great idea.

tfiosmarkup2tfiosmarkup

I hope a teacher didn’t assign this book and ask students to bring ideas to a reading conference. If that happened, I doubt this student got into reading flow. I doubt this student enjoyed this lovely, heart-wrenching book. I doubt she felt the beauty of the language and felt the loss of a beloved character. Maybe all that happened, but it wouldn’t have happened for me.

I want my students to love to read. I think we have to be careful with what we ask them to do with their independent reading books besides fall in love with the story and the language. Sure, they may recognize craft, they may recognize characterization. But the important thing is that they recognize that they are liking to read. That is so important to so many of my readers. They have to realize they like reading.

I do believe we can, and should, ask students to revisit passages — and maybe even the whole of a book — from time to time, even quite often. We can teach many important reading and writing skills that way, but we have to temper our desire to teach a book to death, even the books students choose to read themselves.

What I told my inquiring friend:  What if before independent reading time, on any given day, we ask students to read for a specific purpose.

Read to find interesting figurative language. Read to notice clever imagery. Read to discover how the writer shares an insight about a character. Read to find a beautiful or startling sentence. Or maybe a sentence that’s not really a sentence.

fabian

Fabian before class sharing his awe at the writing style of Jonathan Safron Foer in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Isn’t this what readers do? I do. When I read a passage that strikes me in some way I want to share it. And let me tell you:  When my students start to do this on their own? That’s celebration time.

“What about the student who cannot find anything to share?” you might ask.

Well, that’s important information, isn’t it? I don’t know, maybe like the kind we might discover in a one-on-one reading conference.

Right?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. What ideas do you have that work for your reading conferences? Please share in the comments.

Big thanks and shout out to @Sean_G_Hood and @mrs_friend and the inspiring teachers at Hebron High School!

 

5 Reasons Reading Conferences Matter–Especially in High School English

return and talkThis summer, we’d like to return and talk about some of our most useful, engaging, or popular posts.  Today’s post, written by Amy in 2015, reminds us that conferences aren’t just for assessment–they’re for nurturing, too.

Please return to this topic and talk with us in the comments–how and why do you confer?


The Attention. Every child needs one-on-one conversations with an adult as often as possible.  Adolescents, by nature of their age, struggle with identity, fairness, stress, and a slew of other issues that contribute to all kinds of problems. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. reports that “9 out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18.” This is not surprising since according to this study, “75% of all high school students have used addictive substances, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.”

I know there are many reasons for teenagers to partake in these substances. I also know that many students think that adults do not care, or will not notice, if they are in class, participating in class, or lucid in class. One way to show our adolescent students that we care is to talk with them. And face-to-face conversations about books and reading is a pretty safe way to do so, not to mention that we model authentic conversations about reading when we do.

Try questions like:

  • How’s it going? (Thanks, Carl Anderson)
  • Why did you choose this book?
  • Do you know anyone else who has read this book? What’d she think?
  • How’d you find the time to read this week?
  • What’s standing in the way of your reading time?

The Relationship. Once students know they can trust us, they will tell us things about their lives, their struggles, and their hopes beyond high school. According to the Zur Institute, teen internet and video game addictions, violence in the media, online bullying, and violence in the home top the charts as some of the major influencers of teen behavior. On the Zur website, there’s a section titled “What You Can Do.” We find language that mirrors the words and phrases that lead to the most effective reading conferences, like “learn what [it] means to your children by talking with them about it,” and “be genuinely curious about what draws them to [whatever it is],” and “discuss balance,” and “keep the conversation active.”

We hear so much talk in education circles about engagement. Engagement comes as a result of relationships. When we talk to our students about their lives and the things that matter to them, and we help them see that somewhere in some book a character has experienced similar situations, conflicts, and heartaches, we show our students that literature is a living breathing source of hope. This Psychology Today post explains it clearly:  “Books are friends we can choose without restriction,” believed John Ruskin, an English art critic of the 19 Century who influenced Marcel Proust “who developed the idea of a novel that was not just a friend, but a friend who enables us to become intimate both with other minds and with our own.” Proust called readers of his own work “a sort of magnifying glass … by which I could give them the means to read within themselves.”

My students and I talk about windows and mirrors. This is why we read literature:  to learn what it means to be human. How do you see yourself in the characters, conflicts, situations, and how do you see out into a world that is very different from your own? The more we grow in empathy, the better relationship we’ll have with our friends, our families and all other people we associate with — at least the idealist in me will cling to that hope as I continue to talk to students about books and reading.

Try questions like:

  • What character reminds you of yourself or someone you know?
  • What part of the story is the most similar/different to your life?
  • Why do you think the author makes that happen in the book?
  • What does he want us to learn about life?
  • How does this story/character/conflict/event make you think about life differently?

The Learning. There are times when I’ve done a mini-lesson, I feel like I’ve talked to myself. I see little application of a skill I know I’ve taught. Sometimes students completely miss the point of the lesson. However, when I take the time to talk to each student individually, and reinforce the skill in a quick chat, the application of that skill some how seeps into their brains much deeper. And you know those students who are super apprehensive — the ones who have to ask “Is this right?” and show us a teeny bit of work before they will really produce any work? Holding a regular reading conference has solved this problem.

Students know they will get a chance to talk with me about their progress, and they are more willing to take risks than when we talk infrequently. Time for reading conferences, and conferences timed to meet the needs of each one of our learners solves many at-risk behaviors and promotes deeper learning.

Try questions like:

  • Tell me about _____ that we learned in class today. How does that relate to your book/character?
  • Remember when we learned _____, tell me how/where you see that in your book.
  • Think about when we practiced ___, where does the author do that in your book?
  • You’ve improved with ___, how could you use that skill for _______?

The Literacy. Sometimes I think we forget that the purpose of our instruction must be to develop the literate lives of our students. We must provide opportunities for our students to grow into confident and competent readers and writers in order to handle the rigor and complexity of post high school education and beyond. We must remember to focus on literacy not on the literature — just like we must focus on the reader not just on the reading. We must validate our readers, ask questions that spark confidence, avoid questions that demean or make the student defensive, and at the same time challenge our readers into more complex texts. We can learn if a child has read a book, or the assigned pages, with a few quick questions. Then we must turn the conversations to the why, the what, and the how that will get students to choose to take a step up the ladder of complexity.

When students know that we care more about them as the person than we care about what or how much they have read, they will trust us. And it’s trust between the adolescent and the adult that creates the most movement as a reader, a writer, a student, a young person emerging into adulthood. Students will read the rich literature we bless because they know we are leading them into literature that will in turn bless their lives.

Try questions like:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how complex is this book for you? Why?
  • What do you do when the reading gets difficult?
  • Of all the books you’ve read this year, which was the most challenging? Why?
  • How’s it going finding vocabulary for your personal dictionary?
  • Tell me how you are keeping track of the parallel storyline?

The Reward. We can experience powerful rewards as we meet with our students in regular reading conferences. (I wrote about one here.) Every year, after students get to know me a bit, they tell me things like: “We were scared of you at first. You seemed so strict,” and “You intimidated me, and I was afraid to talk to you.” I get how students see me. I’m tall for one thing. For another, I get right to the point and state the learning that will happen in my classroom. Structure and routine are important for the work we do here, and I explain what that looks like within the first twenty minutes of day one. We work bell to bell with very little down time. I get that many students are not used to such habits, especially in our 85 minute classes.

My students experience breakthroughs regularly.  It’s during our reading conferences that they tell me my instruction works. “Miss, I only read two books in all of 10th grade. I was so behind. This year I’ve read SO many. I can’t count. You’ve helped me so much. I wish I could go back in time and read this much in 10th grade,” one girl tells me. Another says,  “I never thought I would like to read. Now, look at me,” as she shows me the copy of Anna Karenina she bought over the weekend. (We’d done a mini-lesson on beautiful sentences, and I talked about the books our mentor sentences came from — not really expecting anyone would want to read that one. Oh, they can surprise us!)

I ask students about their confidence levels in our little chats, and they tell me they know they have grown as a readers. This is the best kind of reward.

Try questions like:

  • How has your confidence grown as you’ve read this year?
  • What do you think is the one thing we’ve done in class that’s helped you improve so much as a reader?
  • How will the habits you’ve created in class help you in the reading you’ll have to do in college?
  • Why do you think you’ve grown so much as a reader the past few weeks?
  • What’s different for you now in the way you learn than how you learned before?
  • Describe for me the characteristics you have that make you a reader.

What kinds of questions work for you in your reading conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

#3TTWorkshop–Tackling the Challenges of Conferring

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?13b04fad-66ef-4eca-83df-3f0c7412bd48

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.

cdbf4b4e-bd86-48eb-8f05-004647b7396aAmy: 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.

 

#3TTWorkshop — Conferring with Our Readers

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.  Part one of this conversation delves into why conferring matters and how we find time in our classrooms to sit down with each student one-on-one.

Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!

Conversation Starter:  Why must we confer with our readers?IMG_9734

Amy:  Conferring regularly is what makes a readers’ workshop classroom work. Simple as that. If a teacher says to me “I tried allowing students to read what they want, and it didn’t work — they still won’t read,” I know I have to ask something about how he confers with his students. How often? What do you talk about? How do you make them feel about reading?

I learned about the importance of conferring just like everyone else who makes reading workshop her pedagogy:  If I do not purposefully sit down and talk with students one-on-one and face-to-face on a regular basis, many of them will not read. They are too used to playing the game of high school English. They know how to flip the pages, move their eyes across the page, and lie to my face about how they liked, or did not like, a story. I teach 11th grade. Some students have done this for years.

The only way to create readers is to get them reading. The only way to get many students to even give reading a try is to talk with them in non-threatening conversations about their lives, about what they are interested in, and why this or that book might be something that matters to what they want to know or feel or do. Conferring is conversing about what matters to my students and talking to them as if they are already readers — until they begin to call themselves readers, too.

I also think this applies to every content area. If math teachers spoke to their students like mathematicians, and science teachers spoke to their students as if they were scientists, maybe we’d have many more students interested and invested in math and science. Every teacher should hold regular and consistent conferences with her students. Even if those students never come to like reading or math or science, they will become more engaged in the learning environment because the teacher has shown personal interest in the life of the learner. Face-to-face leader and learner conferences make for genuine and consistent engagement in the learning process. And teacher and student both benefit.

Jackie:  I love the process of conferring with students, particularly at the beginning of the year when students aren’t quite as used to having their teacher sit beside them just to chat.  Even now as I pull up my mini-folding-conferring chair, I enjoy the shift from awkward first interactions to excited chats about their reading.

Reading conferences aren’t just about accountability, although that is one of the many perks.  During these conferences I get a better sense of what books to recommend to students, how their past history affects their reading practices, what they’re coping with on a daily basis, and what they think about when they crack open a book.  As Don Graves writes about his most formative teachers in The Energy to Teach, “All of these teachers expected more of me and we had a strong personal connection that I did not want to disappoint them.”  Reading conferences allow me to connect with my students on a level that not only shows them that I am committed to their reading journey, but it that I am invested in their life and education.

Amy:  I love how you pull up a mini-folding-conferring chair! I used to have a single yellow chair that I invited students to come and sit in — the special chair. I had to leave it at my old school. I saw this nifty rolling stool at a thrift store and almost bought it. I could have rolled from table to table to confer. I talked myself out of it, but there are days a roll-about-the-room would be handy.

Jackie: It’s the best purchase I’ve made all year! Mine looks similar to this one.  What I love most about it though is I sit at the same height as my students, so I can easily set up next to their desk or join in group conversations.

When do you confer?

Amy:  I’d like to say I confer every day. In my heart I want to have a regular system, and on paper I do. In reality, so much administrivia gets in the way. When I am purposeful, I meet with one to three students every day during our independent reading time (usually 15 minutes.) I try to be consistent because I only see my students every other day. If I am not careful, weeks will go by without me talking to some of them.

I have a binder where I keep conferring notes, and I place sticky note reminders to help me remember to get back to certain students who need a quicker follow up time than me making it around the room again. I’ve also started charging my readers to be advocates of their follow up with me. It’s important that juniors in high school take ownership of their learning. If a reader and I discuss a certain skill, and she decides to complete X, I ask her to be the one to remember to come in and confer. Many of my readers remember, and they are the ones who are gain skills and mature as critical readers much faster. Sometimes these conferences happen between class periods or during lunch or at the end of class when students are working on their writing, and sometimes I let them slip into my normal conferring routine. I’ll never turn a reader down who wants to have a quick chat about her book or what she learned.

Jackie: I agree with Amy–my goal every year is to become better at conferring.  I want to make sure to meet with as  many students as possible, but as the year progresses I struggle with the administrative tasks.  That being said, I typically meet with two students within the ten minute reading time we have daily.  On block days when I allow for twenty minutes, I can get around to four.  

My freshmen enjoy the process of chatting about their books, their interests, and their reading.  They enjoy using new vocabulary we’ve learned in class, and I love picking their brain about writer’s craft.  I also try to focus on reflective questions with them so they look at their reading progress holistically.  With my AP Literature students, I focus more on their depth of analysis within their independent challenge books.  I also take this time to check their critical reading journals as well as to discuss whole class novels.

In terms of logistics, I have a cubby where I keep stacks of conferring forms paper-clipped together and sorted in alphabetical order by first name. At the beginning of every period during reading time, I pull out that class’ papers, clip them into my clipboard, and start with the last student I conferred with.  This allows me to quickly keep track of who I met with last and what we discussed.  

Sometimes I can’t keep track of everything and I will reflect back on my notes, jotting down conversations I know I had on Monday when I collected pages or during passing time.  Every minute offers a moment to conference, and while these conferences aren’t always formal, they show students that not only do I hear them but also I am interested in what they have to say.

Amy:  Most days I feel like I do more spontaneous conferences than planned ones. A students needs a new book, so we meet for a chat by the bookshelves. A student finished a book, so we chat for a few minutes in the halls. I almost wrote that these were my favorite kinds of conferences, but that’s not true — I like all conferences. I do like the joy I recognize so readily when my students start identifying themselves as readers though.

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

5 Reasons Why Reading Conferences Matter — Especially in High School English

The Attention. Every child needs one-on-one conversations with an adult as often as possible.  Adolescents, by nature of their age, struggle with identity, fairness, stress, and a slew of other issues that contribute to all kinds of problems. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. reports that “9 out of 10 Americans who meet the medical criteria for addiction started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18.” This is not surprising since according to this study, “75% of all high school students have used addictive substances, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine.”

I know there are many reasons for teenagers to partake in these substances. I also know that many students think that adults do not care, or will not notice, if they are in class, participating in class, or lucid in class. One way to show our adolescent students that we care is to talk with them. And face-to-face conversations about books and reading is a pretty safe way to do so, not to mention that we model authentic conversations about reading when we do.

Try questions like:

  • How’s it going? (Thanks, Carl Anderson)
  • Why did you choose this book?
  • Do you know anyone else who has read this book? What’d she think?
  • How’d you find the time to read this week?
  • What’s standing in the way of your reading time?

The Relationship. Once students know they can trust us, they will tell us things about their lives, their struggles, and their hopes beyond high school. According to the Zur Institute, teen internet and video game addictions, violence in the media, online bullying, and violence in the home top the charts as some of the major influencers of teen behavior. On the Zur website, there’s a section titled “What You Can Do.” We find language that mirrors the words and phrases that lead to the most effective reading conferences, like “learn what [it] means to your children by talking with them about it,” and “be genuinely curious about what draws them to [whatever it is],” and “discuss balance,” and “keep the conversation active.”

We hear so much talk in education circles about engagement. Engagement comes as a result of relationships. When we talk to our students about their lives and the things that matter to them, and we help them see that somewhere in some book a character has experienced similar situations, conflicts, and heartaches, we show our students that literature is a living breathing source of hope. This Psychology Today post explains it clearly:  “Books are friends we can choose without restriction,” believed John Ruskin, an English art critic of the 19 Century who influenced Marcel Proust “who developed the idea of a novel that was not just a friend, but a friend who enables us to become intimate both with other minds and with our own.” Proust called readers of his own work “a sort of magnifying glass … by which I could give them the means to read within themselves.”

My students and I talk about windows and mirrors. This is why we read literature:  to learn what it means to be human. How do you see yourself in the characters, conflicts, situations, and how do you see out into a world that is very different from your own? The more we grow in empathy, the better relationship we’ll have with our friends, our families and all other people we associate with — at least the idealist in me will cling to that hope as I continue to talk to students about books and reading.

Try questions like:

  • What character reminds you of yourself or someone you know?
  • What part of the story is the most similar/different to your life?
  • Why do you think the author makes that happen in the book?
  • What does he want us to learn about life?
  • How does this story/character/conflict/event make you think about life differently?

The Learning. There are times when I’ve done a mini-lesson, I feel like I’ve talked to myself. I see little application of a skill I know I’ve taught. Sometimes students completely miss the point of the lesson. However, when I take the time to talk to each student individually, and reinforce the skill in a quick chat, the application of that skill some how seeps into their brains much deeper. And you know those students who are super apprehensive — the ones who have to ask “Is this right?” and show us a teeny bit of work before they will really produce any work? Holding a regular reading conference has solved this problem.

Students know they will get a chance to talk with me about their progress, and they are more willing to take risks than when we talk infrequently. Time for reading conferences, and conferences timed to meet the needs of each one of our learners solves many at-risk behaviors and promotes deeper learning.

Try questions like:

  • Tell me about _____ that we learned in class today. How does that relate to your book/character?
  • Remember when we learned _____, tell me how/where you see that in your book.
  • Think about when we practiced ___, where does the author do that in your book?
  • You’ve improved with ___, how could you use that skill for _______?

The Literacy. Sometimes I think we forget that the purpose of our instruction must be to develop the literate lives of our students. We must provide opportunities for our students to grow into confident and competent readers and writers in order to handle the rigor and complexity of post high school education and beyond. We must remember to focus on literacy not on the literature — just like we must focus on the reader not just on the reading. We must validate our readers, ask questions that spark confidence, avoid questions that demean or make the student defensive, and at the same time challenge our readers into more complex texts. We can learn if a child has read a book, or the assigned pages, with a few quick questions. Then we must turn the conversations to the why, the what, and the how that will get students to choose to take a step up the ladder of complexity.

When students know that we care more about them as the person than we care about what or how much they have read, they will trust us. And it’s trust between the adolescent and the adult that creates the most movement as a reader, a writer, a student, a young person emerging into adulthood. Students will read the rich literature we bless because they know we are leading them into literature that will in turn bless their lives.

Try questions like:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 how complex is this book for you? Why?
  • What do you do when the reading gets difficult?
  • Of all the books you’ve read this year, which was the most challenging? Why?
  • How’s it going finding vocabulary for your personal dictionary?
  • Tell me how you are keeping track of the parallel storyline?

The Reward. We can experience powerful rewards as we meet with our students in regular reading conferences. (I wrote about one here.) Every year, after students get to know me a bit, they tell me things like: “We were scared of you at first. You seemed so strict,” and “You intimidated me, and I was afraid to talk to you.” I get how students see me. I’m tall for one thing. For another, I get right to the point and state the learning that will happen in my classroom. Structure and routine are important for the work we do here, and I explain what that looks like within the first twenty minutes of day one. We work bell to bell with very little down time. I get that many students are not used to such habits, especially in our 85 minute classes.

My students experience breakthroughs regularly.  It’s during our reading conferences that they tell me my instruction works. “Miss, I only read two books in all of 10th grade. I was so behind. This year I’ve read SO many. I can’t count. You’ve helped me so much. I wish I could go back in time and read this much in 10th grade,” one girl tells me. Another says,  “I never thought I would like to read. Now, look at me,” as she shows me the copy of Anna Karenina she bought over the weekend. (We’d done a mini-lesson on beautiful sentences, and I talked about the books our mentor sentences came from — not really expecting anyone would want to read that one. Oh, they can surprise us!)

I ask students about their confidence levels in our little chats, and they tell me they know they have grown as a readers. This is the best kind of reward.

Try questions like:

  • How has your confidence grown as you’ve read this year?
  • What do you think is the one thing we’ve done in class that’s helped you improve so much as a reader?
  • How will the habits you’ve created in class help you in the reading you’ll have to do in college?
  • Why do you think you’ve grown so much as a reader the past few weeks?
  • What’s different for you now in the way you learn than how you learned before?
  • Describe for me the characteristics you have that make you a reader.

What kinds of questions work for you in your reading conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

%d bloggers like this: