Tag Archives: student conferences

Are you noticing what matters?

I learned a valuable lesson when my children were young. I do not remember the speaker who said it, nor do I remember much of anything else he said. I do know that two words changed me as a parent.

Notice them.

Notice your child when he enters a room. Acknowledge him with a hello, a question, a compliment. Non-threatening. Kind. Seems rather simple, doesn’t it? I remember thinking: “Sure, I can do that. no big deal.”

Oh, but it is — a very big deal. It’s a big deal to the child who grows in confidence, knowing we are intently aware of him as a person — an individual who matters when he walks in the room.

While i’ve been thinking and writing about conferring with students, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it means to notice, really notice, the students in my charge. Do I take the time to speak to every student individually? What about my body language — am I open and approachable? How about eye contact — am I making it?

Last week I collected my students’ writer’s notebooks. Marked with a sticky note for me to read and scrawled on the back of one student’s writing territories was an entry that gave me pause and broke my heart. It said something like: “I remember asking my grandma about why my mother left. All she would say was that my mom said she could always have other children.”

Just that morning I’d been short with this student for not completing yet another assignment. I bit out a plea to get the work done without once considering why she’d not done it. I made it about the assignment instead of about my learner. Sadly, I do this often and have to continually remind myself of what matters.

Noticing the girl with the dark brooding eyes matters.

And once again I vow to be better than I’ve been.

from BrainPickings.org


[student writing used with permission]

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015


The Consciousness of the Child: Another Thought on Conferring

Much has been written about conferring with younger students, but in the current professional literature, I find little that addresses the needs I have in my secondary classroom. I know when I talk to my students in one on one conferences, they grow more as individuals who engage in reading and writing more critically. I believe that if teachers will talk to their students more, teaching them as individuals instead of the collective, students will respond in ways that delight and surprise us (and often surprise themselves as well).

Teenager with parent

Teenager with parent

The topic of conferring consumes my reading life of late, and I find myself reading Misreading Masculinity with this guiding question:  How does this relate to my study and work on talking to students about their thinking?

The following lines from Newkirk’s book relate directly to what I believe must be our first step in helping our teenage readers and writers develop the sense of self needed to engage meaningfully with the material and skills we need them to in high school English:

“…the ability to think beyond the “logic” of normal school performance in order to inhabit the “logic” of the student (Newkirk, 12).”

. . . The linguist Basil Bernstein elegantly points out the centrality of this ethnographic stance for teaching:

If the culture of the teacher is to be part of the consciousness of the child, then the culture of the child must first be in the consciousness of the teacher…We should start knowing that the social experience the child already possesses is valid, and that this social experience should be reflected back to him as being valid and significant. (1966, 120)

As a credo for education in a multicultural society, I don’t think we can do better than that (Newkirk, 13).

Educators must relate to students as individuals with a variety of interests, passions, backgrounds, and literary histories. We must try to think like they do if we are ever going to develop relationships that engage the teenager in reading and writing experiences that invite them to take on the qualities of readers and writers. Our goal should reach far beyond the idea of school. It must reach into a student’s future life.

In the book Choice Words,  Peter Johnston discusses the importance of tapping into students’ literary Choice Wordshistories in order to give them a literary future. What experiences has the child had with reading and writing that have formed her belief about herself as a reader and a writer? We must learn of these experiences and then validate them if we ever expect to move our students from the starting places at which they come to us.

Regularly conferring with students is a vital part of getting into the “consciousness of the child.” However, many high school English teachers instruct their students as if they all experience the same culture and the same consciousness. No wonder groupthink is so prevalent in our communities and in our politics. It is a reflection of how students receive instruction. This whole class, one-size-fits-all, standardized teaching (not to mention the tests) is detrimental, not just to boys, but to all students who deserve to be instructed at an individual and personal level.

What are your thoughts?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

6 Ways to Confer in the Crowded Classroom

“My biggest struggle right now is that I have 36 students in each class (60 min periods). There’s not an empty seat in the room! Any ideas?”

Maybe this sounds like you. I’ve been there –trying everything to make workshop work in my over-flowing freshman and sophomore classes. Last year I had 38 sophomores in my 8th period. Talk about ending the day exhausted.

My principal said at the first of this year: “40 is the new 30” regarding class sizes. Most teachers I know deal with bulging class sizes every day. We have to adjust to the new normal.

In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Last week I read this English Journal article from 2000 (timely with Nancie Atwell recently winning that awesome teaching award), and I was reminded of how Atwell talks about the tension in a workshop classroom.

I’ve said it many times before:   readers and writers workshop is constant motion, and sometimes the tension becomes a tight rope under my feet as I try to provide my students with the best instruction possible.

I believe it’s student conferences that steady the bouncing rope, but how do we confer with all of our students regularly when our classes are so large?

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about reading conferences in high school. Mrs. Thompson wrote that plea at the top of the page in the comments. I’ve thought about it ever since.

These are black board speech bubble brooches. How cool is that? See gadgetsin.com

These are black board speech bubble brooches. How cool is that?
See gadgetsin.com

I am fortunate to have small classes this year, but balancing the tension is still not easy. Below I share six ways I confer with students. I had to be inventive to confer with those rowdy 38 sophomores. Maybe some of these ideas will help my friend Mrs. Thompson.

1. Start before the Bell. Several of my students enter my room two or three minutes before the bell rings. When I am behind in my conferences, which is more often than I’d like, I can talk to a few more students a day when I begin before the bell.

2. Go to Them. My students sit in small groups with their desks clustered in fours and fives. When I want to speak to students individually, I go to them and kneel beside their desk. We talk in hushed tones for a maximum of two and a half minutes. If a student wants to talk longer, before the end of class I pass her a sticky note with an invitation to come in during my lunch. Sometimes she does.

3. Bundle Them Up. Instead of speaking in hushed tones, when I know the topic of the conference will benefit all students in a small group, we speak a little louder. This way I can easily turn to the other three or four students and invite them into the conversation. “You might want to try that, too.”  or “Do you have a question similar to Mark’s?”

4. Make it Voluntary. I know I am not the only one with students who need to talk before they’ve really even started. When I begin conferences with an invitation — “If you’re having trouble getting started, meet me at the sofa, and let’s talk” I can spend five minutes with five to six students, often clarifying ideas or validating their thinking. Once I model how to talk about their work, students learn to effectively give one another feedback. I can leave them talking and confer with a few other students. Five to ten minutes later, I return to the couch. More often than not, these students are now ready to work on their own. They just needed some talk to get them started.

5. Group Them through Feedback. I learned this one from Penny Kittle. Say you are reading through student drafts, and you see the same trouble spots over and over again. Make a note on the bottom right corner, maybe a code like TH if you’re seeing not-so-powerful thesis statements. Then during conference time, ask everyone with a TH on their paper to meet you at the center table. You save time by re-teaching or doing a mini-lesson on thesis statements only with those students who need the refresher. (This works for reading conferences with my most resistant readers, too.)

6. Keep it Silent. Sometimes I get more information about what my students need when they write it out instead of talk about it. I’ve learned to give some of my quiet students the option to confer most often in silent conversations. I leave them notes. They leave me notes back. This is similar to Chris Tovani’s conversation calendars, which when I tried to do with the whole class, challenged my ability to be consistent. When I make the notes optional, those students who want this type of conference take advantage of it — and I can read student notes and respond after the class period.

Do you have other ideas for conferring with students in large classes? Please leave a comment.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

“Mrs. R. You’re the Only Teacher Who Failed Me”

  It’s tradition that at the end of graduation the teachers line the tunnel as students exit the coliseum. We clap and hug and congratulate students as they literally walk out into the sunshine of their futures. I usually enjoy the spectacle of it all: the loud hurrahs and the sweaty hugs. But last spring, instead of the smiles and thanks that in years past I tucked away as a sweet ending to another school year, I got a reluctant side squeeze and a comment that sunk my heart to my toes:

“Mrs. R., you’re the only teacher who ever failed me.”

While he and I both knew what he meant (the silly guy didn’t turn in a paper all year), his words sent me spinning. I left graduation wondering: Did I fail this kid?

Maybe.  But I’ve learned a thing or two that could have made a difference.

I’d recently shifted my teaching from the traditional classroom set-up to a reading and writing workshop approach to learning. I read Nancie Atwell and Donald Graves and Linda Rief. I visited teachers who were models for how workshop works on a day to day basis. I thought I had workshop figured out; it would be easy to get students to respond to my requests for writing on a regular basis.

Not quite.

First of all, different writing coaches call “workshop” different things. A workshop can be a year-long class with small groups of students doing various reading and writing tasks; or a workshop can be a single class period where students “work” through a piece of text.(And in PBL a workshop is something entirely different.) I’d yet to learn what reading and writing workshop meant to me. I knew I needed to use mentor texts, get students writing through the writing process, allow for collaboration with peers, hold mini-lessons as needed, and confer with students about their writing; but second of all, it was plain hard. I learned and implemented most of it, but I was lousy at holding regular student conferences– the one thing that could have saved Jonathan, the one who thought I failed him, as a writer.

Conferring with students about their writing (or their lack thereof) is vital.

Jonathan would come to class empty-handed, and instead of taking the time to say: “How’s the writing going….”, I’d shake my head and tick off in my grade book that he had a missing assignment. I needed to get to the kids who’d actually brought drafts with them—they needed my time, not the slackers. Hindsight is a cruel teacher. Every student needs a conference not just the ones with papers in their hands. A one minute conversation might have made a difference to this boy, who loved playing the drums and moonlighting as a DJ, but had no use for putting thoughts on a page.

In the book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle states in regard to conferring with students: “I work hard to listen, encourage, and direct my teaching toward something that will help this writer at this moment in time.” I needed to do that, too.

Writing conferences are essential to getting some students to even begin to put pen to paper. Some students need coaxing through the whole process. I doubt it matters if they are 7 or 17. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Doesn’t matter. Those initial one-on-one conferences must be purposeful and timely. Maybe if I’d taken the time to listen to this kid instead of demanding something from him, Jonathan’s behavior, work ethic, productivity, and final average in my class would have been different. I missed the opportunity, and he missed out on his credit. Yep, although it was his fault he failed my class, I think I failed him as a writing teacher.

But I’ve learned a thing or two that will make a difference.  Maybe future Jonathans will benefit.

How do you conduct writing conferences? Please share your tips for pulling in and keeping students in the writing process?

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