Tag Archives: Talk

It’s a Good Day to Talk about Talk

Many of us are on edge. You may feel it, too.

I woke today thinking about something I heard in the first professional development session I attended as a new teacher:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human. It provokes a seemingly simple question, and one that’s prompted rich discussion with my students:  What does it mean to be human?

Maybe we don’t talk about our shared humanity enough. Maybe we should do that a little more.

For those of us who embrace choice reading, we often refer to the words of Rudine Sims Bishop:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Let’s think about this line:  “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Shared humanity.

Last year at NCTE, Lisa, Jessica, and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cornelius Minor. We were three white women educators working to listen and learn and do more to advocate for equity and social justice in our classrooms. We knew Cornelius could help. He did.

“We start by focusing on what we have in common. Our humanity,” Mr. Minor told us. Then he highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusivity:  Diversity is everyone sitting at the table. Inclusivity is everyone sharing equal power at the table.

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Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

So what does this mean for me as a teacher, a facilitator of professional development, a writer, a mother, and a grandmother — someone who desperately cares about not just my family, but others’ families, about my country and the interactions we have with one another, about the future and all that entails?

What does it mean for you?

Sure, getting students reading and talking about books is a great starting place. But we also have to open spaces for talk. Cultivating risk-rich safe spaces where readers and writers can share their ideas, struggles, and successes about topics and issues that matter to them is vital to cultivating a civil society. I’ve long thought that our classrooms represent a microcosm of our society. If we can facilitate critical conversations where students respect and truly listen to one another, maybe we have a chance at changing conversations on the street or in courtrooms or press conferences or Congress.

Idealistic? Sure. But that’s the nature of hope.

In her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Bishop concludes with these lines:

Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. One the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human.

We come to understand each other better, yes, through wide reading, curating libraries with diverse, vibrant, engaging titles by authors of diverse heritage and backgrounds. Reading more matters. Couple Bishop’s thoughts with these by Lois Bridges:

Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous—engaged readers spend 500% more time reading than do their peers who aren’t turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life:  deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that’s more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation.

Yes, wide voluminous reading matters. A lot.

But so does talk.

I believe it’s through talking about their books, discussing their similarities and differences, their characters, conflicts, and resolutions; talking about their writing, helping each other see angles they might not have seen, validating ideas and challenging others — all in safe spaces of shared respect — that we fast track students’ abilities to engage with each other and with their world. Our world.

So on this election day, I would ask you, dear reader, one favor:  Between now and the next election, can we all do a little more to open spaces in our instruction to facilitate more meaningful discussions? Let’s amplify our shared humanity.

 

Amy Rasmussen has no middle name, but if she did, it would be “Idealist”. She believes everyone is a child of God and should be loved as such. She’s excited to attend NCTE this month and hopes you will attend her session at 4:15 on Saturday as this blog team presents “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms. 

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

Accountability Through Conversation

In Shana’s post “Conversation is our Most Powerful Teaching Tool” she mentions an article by researcher John Goodland. He states that only 1% of instructional time is given to conversation…insert wide eyed emoji…what?!

That statistic has really stuck with me. I’m not sure if it was more than a subconscious thought until the power of conversation became very clear to me.

In a nutshell, I am a content coordinator who works to support (6th-12th grade ELAR) teachers as they hone their craft. Since I began working in this position, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly teachers need to be and feel successful.

As a district team, we have agreed to implement independent choice reading into our daily routine, as a step toward implementing a workshop model. Teachers are on board and have done some AMAZING things with choice reading in their classrooms, but, regardless of what grade level I am with, or what campus I am on I keep hearing the same question, “how do we know that they’re reading?” We talked about logs, reading responses, summaries, notes, and we’ve shared resources and ideas, but there was still something missing…

Then I had it! A light bulb moment in its truest sense. In classrooms where students TALK about what they are reading, they are accountable. In Amy’s post about shifting control she talks about “find[ing] a space for conversations…” and that if her giving “up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.”

lightbulb

For me, that answers the how do we know question. During some learning walks I saw three examples of conversation from three different rooms…

First example: In a 12th grade academic/on level classroom the students began their class period reading for 10 minutes in a book of their choice. Once the timer went off, the students were asked to talk to a partner (or two) about their book. The teacher specifically asked the students to “sell it”. Sell their book to their partner(s). The teacher roamed around the room while the students were talking and then let two volunteer share their “pitch” to the whole group. It was very clear that the teacher knew what their students were reading, IF they were reading, and how the felt about their books.

Second example: In a 7th grade PreAP class students began their class period by reading for 5 minutes, then when the timer went off they got a 1 minute break. Students were asked to talk to their elbow partner during their break about their book’s protagonist. The teacher provided a sentence stem to probe the conversation. Then after the minute was up, they read for 5 more minutes. The teacher roamed and jotted notes as a “status of the class” during that 11 minutes. The students have been talking about the structure and elements of fiction and how protagonists can shape a story. At the end of the minute, the teacher had a pretty good idea about what her students knew and didn’t know about protagonists, including how to pronounce, or mispronounce, the word. 😛

Third example: In an 11th grade AP class the students began their class period by reading for 15 minutes. While they were reading the teacher met with every student in the class. Her questions were simple; she asked, “what’s the title of your book?” and “what page are you on?” The teacher was able to meet with 26 students in 15 minutes. She was able to see who is meeting their reading goal, who is abandoning books, and who isn’t reading.

When students know they’re going to be held accountable to explain their book, connect it to what they’re learning through mini-lessons, or just track their progress to their teacher, they respond. It becomes the culture…

This isn’t anything new, and it’s been talked about before in multiple posts on Three Teachers Talk, but what was a game changer for me was seeing it in action. I was able to create a concrete model that I could then replicate. I learned three different strategies or approaches to talking with students/letting them talk to each other by watching someone else in action. Talk about self-embedded professional learning! I mean, can it get any better than that?!

When I visit campuses my first question to teachers is going to be: how are you getting students to talk? Then we shall see where our conversations lead us. 🙂

I’d love to hear from you! How do you get and promote your students to talk? Are you able to visit other teachers classrooms on your team/campus? If so, do you feel like it’s beneficial?

Collaboration 4 Ways

The Classroom

It had been a great week in the classroom: we had shared our stories, written in our notebooks, and analyzed Queen’s awesome “Bohemian Rhapsody” (if that’s not a “fun on a bun” way to dive into rhetorical analysis, I’m not sure what is!). But despite my best intentions, I had not faithfully modeled engagement with writing mini lessons (ML’s) and folded in collaboration the way I intended. Okay, or much at all. You know how it goes . . . you nibble some off this end and things slide a little at the other end.

So, I found myself without time–as I so often do (Help Pacing Gods and Goddesses! Help me learn to be less thorough already!)–and wondered if/how I could efficiently address the 4 ways writers can collaborate. My colleague and I believe writers collaborate with mentor texts, people (teachers via ML’s and conferences and peers), materials, and themselves. How could I satisfy this need, this craving to model these fundamental skills in a totally wholesome way without cramming it down their throats?

Thus, Collaboration 4 Ways was born. Reminiscent of Steak ‘N Shakes’ Chili 5 Ways, I quickly figured out how to model what I wanted to do by synthesizing the 4 collaboration skills into a one-plated ML, focusing on the 6 Word Memoir, which is our lead into application essay writing for our seniors.

  1. I modeled collaborating with a mentor text, using an online sample off NPR’s site, taking note of what worked. I annotated interesting arrangement of words, varied syntax, clever pairings of language and visual, and more. Then I thought aloud regarding what I ought to “throw into the mix”–measuring out words that helped to build meaning.
  2. I modeled collaborating with the teacher; and, pulling the picture of my sweet and silly Ingrid as a unicorn, used the ML strategy of writing about what the picture encapsulated in 17 words or fewer. Ideas first; concision later.
  3. I modeled collaborating with materials (AND my students): gathering small thumb drive size sticky notes, I wrote each word and
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    Here’s what I mixed up–with student collaboration–on the doc cam. The whole sticky notes reflect student suggestions and “drafts.” Note to self: they do sell thumb sized sticky notes . . .

  4. piece of punctuation on one and with student help, moved the words around and changed/added punctuation to truly model that sentences are made of moveable parts and that punctuation DOES matter (what taste it adds, darn it!).
  5. Finally, I modeled collaborating with myself, thinking aloud and reflecting to create my final piece. Does this arrangement of words build meaning? Does it build power? Should I revise the punctuation? Etc.

And, I did this all in 10-15 minutes (what I had originally allotted each day to teach each one of those separately).

Discovery:

Served early in the course, this lesson acted as a catalyst for many of my students. Some use the 6 word memoir approach to generate topics or meanings of topics; some manipulate syntax via sticky notes for their purposes; some spend more time talking through ideas; some realize then and there the value of a mentor text.

As for me, I discovered that maybe, just maybe, I needed to shift my thinking. Because it will shift my students’ approach. ML time has been about modeling what to do and getting help from my students, too, discussing and processing. To me, the ML steps have seemed a recipe for success–a thorough list of ingredients and instructions to follow as they work at isolating and problem-solving a certain challenge in their writing. With someone modeling it all for them. Collaboration 4 Ways allowed me to model possibilities . . . instead of the way, one way with an intended outcome.  Serving up Collaboration 4 Ways reminded me that students need to see what’s possible. And how even a seasoned cook needs to test and try.

Truth: Possibilities precede problem-solving.

Giants whose shoulders I stood on:

Many a giant supported me on this one  . . .

  • My Directors of Teaching and Learning who reminded us before school began that we have more freedom than we are using. And, what opportunity really means.
  • Angela Stockman’s Make Writing 5 Teaching Strategies That Turn Writer’s Workshop Into a Maker Space for inspiring me to experiment more with making writing.
  • My colleagues for holding me to the fire with how I ML because sometimes there’s not much mini about it.
  • Three Teachers Talk Mini Lesson Mondays!

Kristin Jeschke, in addition to enjoying Chili 5 Ways during late night study sessions back in college (too many years ago to mention here), appreciates constraints, good talk, and post it notes (lots of them, in all sizes) when writing. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke. 

What’s the right way to book club?

I belong to a lot of book clubs.  Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest.  This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.

Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.”   Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.

We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?”  As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway.  Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class.  The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.

And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either.  They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies.  But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life?  To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation?  To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club?  To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?

I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.

While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Give generous choice in partner selection.  I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey.  A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends.  If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
  • Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with.  I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries.  It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
  • Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing.  One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card.  Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles.  If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.
AmEOnceimage

Once by Morris Gleitzman is the first of an incredible series. Bonus to a book club choice!

If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat.  I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs.  (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.)  I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium.  Maybe your book club reads poetry.  Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting.  Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.

Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?

 

Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member.  She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

 

 

4 Ways to Get Kids Talking…To Each Other

af115350d91f58bfb8c402b3b6159935--changes-in-life-quotes-change-your-life-quotes.jpgToday is a day worth talking about.

For one, it’s been 16 years since the Twin Towers fell. Sixteen years.

For two, much of Florida is waking up to the terror of Hurricane Irma, probably in the dark, without power–but not without hope. And Texas is still recovering from Harvey’s rage. But they’re Texas, so they’re tough.

Days like today should never become routine. And these are the things we should be talking about in our English classrooms. But to have the heavy talks, of course, we need to be able to listen.

“English teachers have rare opportunities to get to the deep, real work of an education,” Mitch Nobis writes. Yes, we do.

We have a multitude of opportunities for important, valuable, world-changing talk to happen in our schools. Before these kinds of conversations can happen, we need to be comfortable being vulnerable, truly listening to one another, and confidently articulating our thoughts–and then revising them.

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We make time for talk in my college classroom every day

Reasons like these are why I make talk a priority in my classroom every day. In such a digital world, it’s not as easy to get kids making noise as it used to be. Where early in my teaching career I had to work to settle down a chatty room, now I have to exhort myself to hear the sweet sounds of uncertain arguments and not the click of a quickly-locked iPhone.

Like all other skills we want our students to master, thoughtful speaking and listening is something we must teach. Rather than being frustrated by our students’ silence, we need strategies for helping kids close their apps and open their hearts and minds to one another. Here are four of the most effective I’ve used this year:

img_2223.pngQuickwrites that make us vulnerable – Getting to the heart of our wonders and fears and hopes and dreams in our writer’s notebooks builds community, sets a precedent for the type of writing we’ll be doing, and gets down on paper what’s really important: who we are, and how hard it can be to say that definitively. Strong mentor texts that invite this vulnerability are essential–imitating Mari Andrew’s illustrations is a great place to start. Writing about our scars is another favorite early-year activity. These first pages in notebooks don’t often get shared, but they get kids to do the early scaffolding work of honest thinking that leads to honest talk.

Turn and talk and LISTEN – The “turn and talk” directive is a common one in ELA classrooms, I hope, but I kind of want to change it to “look at your partner and LISTEN.” I tell students before a turn and talk that we’ll be sharing what we hear, so the purpose shifts from drafting their thinking through talk to expanding their understanding through listening. After the chatter has subsided, I ask students, “Who heard something great? Share with us what you learned from your partner.” This is a subtle shift, but one that cues students to turn their ears away from their own voices and toward their peers’.

On the record strategyWritten feedback is amazing, but if I’ve learned anything from doing a million reading and writing conferences over the years, it’s that the power of talking with someone about your thinking is incredible. For this reason, when I ask students to conduct peer writing conferences, I ask them to record themselves. Using apps on their phones, kids begin this practice by simply talking about the student’s writing they’re reading, but gradually progress to leaving one another specific, recorded feedback to be replayed at home. While “on the record,” I find that students become much more deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in their feedback by simply slowing down their thinking.

Silent discussion – An early mentor of mine used this strategy to scaffold his students up to sophisticated Socratic seminars, and I still love using it. Students bring in a written response to a question, or a draft of a piece we’re working on, or a favorite quote from their independent reading book they want to mine. We hang these nameless papers all around the classroom, then kids get their earbuds, a stack of post-its, and a pen and progress into a silent discussion. The classroom is magically quiet–almost sacred. This is my favorite part.

First, they circle the classroom, writing lengthy responses to their peers’ thinking on large post-its. Each student receives two responses this way. Then, we do a counter-clockwise circle with small post-its where more feedback is offered in the form of short remarks or questions. Each paper receives three additional comments in this round. The following day, I redistribute the papers to their original writers and watch students drink up the feedback, which is made all the more valuable because it didn’t come from me.


I hope these four strategies for student talk make your classroom a little more conversation-friendly this week. Please share with us how you get your teens talking in the comments, on Facebook, or via Twitter!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, no-bake cocoa oatmeal cookies (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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.

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