Tag Archives: #threeteacherstalk

#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.

 

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#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.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Sentence Boundaries and Adding Some Variety

Sorry, I forgot to record the book’s title.

Even the students in my AP English class struggle with correct punctuation and varying their sentences. In one-on-one conferences, I’ve started to remind them more often to pay attention to how the author of their self-selected books craft meaning. I used to get glossy-eyed blank stares, but students are beginning to understand that writers make intentional moves to draw us in, and keep us within, the pages of their books.

“As a writer, you must do that, too,” I remind them.

This lesson grew out of a conferring conversation with a student who told me:  “I just do not understand all the comma and semicolon stuff, but I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say in my writing.”

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize the sentence boundaries and the variety of sentence structures in their self-selected books. They will make observations about the author’s use of punctuation in these sentences, assessing the writer’s effectiveness in crafting meaning. Students will then use their author as a mentor as they apply their knowledge of sentence boundaries and sentence variety and create, revise, and rewrite sentences in their own pieces of writing. Finally, through peer-to-peer conferring, students will evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of one another’s sentences.

Lesson:  Every student needs their independent reading book. If a student is reading a book of poems, or a graphic novel without many sentences, you will want to supply a stand in book for this lesson or ask the student to find a book she’s previously read.

Tell students that you’ve noticed in their writing that they are ready to make their sentences more sophisticated. Correctness is one way to do this. Varying the length of sentences is another way. Instruct students to turn to a random page in their books, say page 51. Ask them to read the page in search of one long sentence and one short sentence. Give students sentence stips or blank paper and have them write out the sentences they find in their books. They should spell and punctuate the sentences exactly like the author does.

sentence boundaries lessonNext, in small groups, ask students to discuss with one another the structure of the sentences. They might put all the short sentences together and compare them. Then they might put the long sentences together and look at how the authors use commas to separate ideas. Some students will know more about grammatical terms than others, and that is okay. The idea is to get students noticing how writers compose within the boundaries of standard English and to get them to understand how punctuation works to craft meaning. Ask questions that help them discover why boundaries and variety work to produce effective writing.

You may choose to have students imitate the sentences they chose from their books. Imitation is a useful tool for many writers.

Using self-selected books, not just to practice wide reading, but to teach students to read like writers, adds an important element to the workshop classroom. Our writing improves when we take the time to notice and apply the skills of professional writers.

Follow up:  Have students review a piece of their own writing. The writing can be in any stage of the writing process. They should study their writing to evaluate their use of sentence boundaries and variety. Encourage students to revise their writing as necessary, remembering to use the author of their books as their mentors.

Extension:  This lesson works to have students study leads, similar to what Jackie wrote about in the mini-lesson Pick up Lines and Leads. It also works to have students search their books for sentences that include imagery.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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