Conferring: The Heart of Learning

What exactly is conferring?

Conferring is a strategic conversation between you and one student.  In the beginning, you are always the listener as you look for things your student already does well, recent growth, and new areas to grow. Once you have this information, your roles switch, and you teach your student one strategy or skill to work on next. In this post, I discuss conferring with readers, but conferring is a strategy all teachers should use to individualize and accelerate learning.

How will you know what to do?

Step 1: Go to one student, and ask what they’re thinking. It sounds like a no-brainer, but some teachers will schedule kids to come to their desks for reading conferences. The movement of students ends up disrupting the concentration of other readers, and the set meeting-time limits original thinking for both the student and the teacher.  Seriously, I sit right next to them and say, “So, what are you thinking?”

Step 2:  Listen, and point out something they do well. Listen to your student read a page from their book. Point out one or two things they did well while you were listening. Many teachers will skip listening to reading at the middle level, but I can’t stress how important it is to get your kids comfortable reading one on one with you. If you, as their mentor, read and think aloud regularly, students will understand that the heart of real reading means slowing down to process ideas, noticing breaks in comprehension, and using fix-ups. Once this is the norm, you’ll glean so much data from a one-minute reading. Even at the middle level, we have kids who do not yet have phonological awareness. We also have students who think reading means decoding words and nothing more. If you don’t hear them read, you won’t be able to teach them at their reading level.

Step 3:  Choose a strategy or skill, and teach it. Choose a strategy or skill to teach, or ask your student to tell you something they want help with. Teach only one strategy.  Directly teach what this strategy is and how it helps readers. Model the strategy, and have the child practice with you. (Think one-on-one, wicked fast gradual release.)

Step 4: End with the good, a goal, and log it all. Leave on a good note. Then remind your student of the new strategy (At this point, I conferring notesalways refer to this strategy as their next goal, and I write it on a post it for them to keep in their novel.)

Next, log the important parts of the conversation. (I always record the title and page of the book my student is reading, what strategies they’re using, what instruction is needed, and what I taught during the conference.) I use a binder with a page for each student. The front of the page is for conference notes and the back of the page is for book titles. I also have a checklist of twenty strategies and skills readers need, so I date each strategy when I observe it to make my conference note-taking easier.

SIX TIPS I CONSTANTLY REMIND MYSELF:
  • Carry your current novel or book journal with you so you can show how you use reading strategies, when applicable. journal
  • Record what each student is reading. It helps track how often the child finishes or ditches books (The most common reason people ditch books is that they aren’t thinking while reading. You’ll figure out which thinking strategy will book titleshelp the child connect fastest by having them read aloud to you.)
  • Once in awhile, instead of doing one-on-one conferences, record reading behaviors. Note whether the student is easily distracted, constantly checking the time, recording their thinking, or pausing to think…
  • Once in awhile, ask students to reflect on post-its versus in their notebooks, and keep their ideas alongside your conferring notes.self reflection
  • Keep a running list of strategies and skills each student needs or has mastered. Here’s a checklist to use so that you can decide whole class needs and small group needs.
  • Do whatever you can to make your note-taking efficient. If I handed my binder to another teacher, it would take them awhile to understand what I wrote. That’s fine. Your notes are for you- so you can pick up where you left off after each encounter, so you know where to go next, and so you can track growth. Notes don’t need to be neat and tidy, but they do need to be logged.

Truly, whether I’ve had 140 students or 40 students, conferring has been the heart of my teaching for 15 years. If I didn’t touch base with each student in this way, I wouldn’t have a direct line to each one of them. Each year I learn more about how to confer. Each year I tweak parts I thought were steadfast.

I’m determined to make conferring a part of everyday learning for our students. In my work as a reading specialist, every single one of my kids, every single year will tell me they’ve only fake read for the past few years. Too often, I wonder: If only my own teachers had met with me briefly, one on one, way back in the 70’s and 80’s?  If only I would have that direct line to what I could do to understand reading? The impact this one practice has on motivation, engagement, connection, and understanding? Indisputable.

Interested in learning more? These two books offer in-depth information and will serve as troubleshooting guides:

Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop In workshops with teachers, Patrick Allen encountered a long list of “counterfeit beliefs” teachers hold about conferring. Some of these include: “I don’t have time. I don’t know what questions to ask, It’s too hard, I don’t know what to write in my notes, I don’t even take notes, I don’t know how to go deep. .  .” Allen argues that the benefits of conferring outweigh the effort it takes to do it well. He shows you how to overcome your perceived obstacles to make conferring possible.

How’s It Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers One-on-one talks with our students during offer opportunities to zero in on what each student needs. As Lead Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Carl Anderson has provided hundreds of teachers with the information and confidence they need to make these complex conferences an effective part of classroom practice. Although his book is focused on writers, the process for conferring remains. Carl Anderson is one of my go-to educators. I promise you can’t go wrong with him.

If you have tips or your own or questions to ask, please comment or email.

For more information and strategies on teaching readers, see This I Know: On Becoming a Reader and Ten Ways to Grow Readers (Out of System and Self-Proclaimed Non-Readers).

Please note, some Teaching Thinking posts contain affiliate marketing links, which means it is possible I will receive a small share of the sales of some of the products or services that are linked from these posts

This I Know: On Becoming a Reader

Next year, I’ll begin a new role in our school as a Literacy Specialist.  Initially, this position entailed teaching one class of partially-proficient readers at each grade level (the readers we know as “bubble kids” because they are right at the edge of being proficient).  When I use this term, I always picture being able to fill that sweet “bubble kid” up- with enough enthusiasm, skill, and inertia- to let them pop to the other side of the chasm which is cut between partially-proficient and proficient readers. My principal, assistant principal and I had planned on having the rest of my time spent in classrooms working with small groups and with teachers.  Sounds perfect, right? It’s my dream job. It always has been.

But it didn’t feel right.

If the bubble kids float over the chasm with my help, what do the other kids do? Sit and watch. Stare. Ignore us? Cope? Yep. They do all of those things as they realize they’re being left behind. We hadn’t planned on leaving them behind.  We have interventions in place and we have skilled teachers who individualize and differentiate as students need, but it still didn’t feel right. The need is too high.

Luckily, my assistant principal and I both felt this “not right” feeling at just about the exact right moment, so there was no time wasted trying to convince the other person of what we needed to do: We’d fill my time with our kiddos who are hanging out on the wrong side of the chasm.

That felt right.  But then I panicked!

I do not just want to try to help these kids.  I will not just help them. I will make them readers. Period. End of story, as my dad always said.

That’s really not that hard of a task with most of our non-readers, right? A good classroom library, book talks, targeted instruction, conferring, goals, progress monitoring, teacher enthusiasm… In 13 years, I can’t think of a kid who didn’t have that aha moment we all had when we realized that we love reading.  I still remember my own aha when I was in seventh grade and read The Outsiders with my teacher’s guidance. Then I went on to read And Then There Were None and Lord of the Flies the same year. My reading enthusiasm fluctuated for years until I was in college, when reading became a staple. I know that all my non-readers leave me with a newly uncovered appreciation for books, and many realize they actually love books. I know that that love either dies or flies as their lives change. I’m good with that. But until next year, the majority of my kids have come to me reading at the 25th percentile and higher. Next year, the game is changing.

I’ll need to instill a love of reading with these kiddos who can’t even see the chasm from were they stand.  If the chasm is halfway between here and there, these kids have only seen others attempt the crossing and assumed that they aren’t up to the challenge.  These kiddos have spent all of elementary school not being able to read. Many of them have come to hate reading because they can’t read- it’s not fun, it’s too hard, it’s embarrassing. It breaks my heart, and I won’t have it. So, we’re going to try something different.

This is what I know about becoming a reader:

  1. We learn to love reading on the laps of those we love.  Picture yourself reading as a child. What is the lighting like?  Where are you sitting?  Who is with you, and how do you feel with them?  Is there soft music in the background?  Is someone cooking
    Dad and Brady reading
    My dad and Brady (at 11 months) reading

    dinner? Humans associate. We can’t help it.  It is our nature. I know that I need to recreate this safe, comfortable, exploratory environment for my very lowest readers. What will I do? I’ll take my alternative seating further.  My classroom will look like a family room. I talked with my principal today about ordering rocking chairs. You have to love this: His only question was, “We can do that. I mean, it’s not like you want thirty, right?  Just a few?”  I also talked with him about having a large, round table (much like the kitchen table we all grew up around) for our book groups to meet. I’ve never had a typical classroom setting, but next year, I’m giving it my all. I will do everything I can to help these kiddos correlate learning to read with comfort, kindness, safety, and companionship.

  2. We learn to love reading because someone let us pick books ourselves. Picture yourself reading as a child. Where were books displayed?  Who was in charge of
    Ryder Reading
    Ryder (at 1) choosing books

    taking care of the books? Who was in charge of buying books? When I was growing up, we had books everywhere. There were books on shelves, in piles, under our beds, on my parents’ bedroom shelves. We got to choose what was read to us each night, and as we began reading ourselves, we got to choose which books we read. As a teacher, this has always been nonnegotiable for me. Kids will choose their own books. I read a ton of YA LIT so that, if needed, I can match books to readers in terms of interest, level, or etc. But they’ll choose their own books. Period. End of story.

  3. We learn to love reading because someone showed us reading is loved.  I vividly remember trips to our library with our dad: My dad is shuffling through each of our library cards, with the librarian grimacing, because we have too many books OUT and
    Brady books sleeping
    Brady (at age 3)

    LATE on this card or that card! My dad, my siblings and I parade out the sliding doors with armloads of books. I also remember my Grandma Phyllis reading to us the nights we spent at her house. Grandma Phyllis cherished books. Ah! The way she read, her interest in spending time on each page of a picture book, letting us each share one detail we noticed… Period. End of story.

These moments! Picking our own books, keeping books far past their due dates, books piling and spilling and left under our beds! These showed me that books are important.  I really don’t remember my dad ever telling me books were important.  I remember him reading.  I remember my mom, my dad, and my grandma reading to us.  I remember my older sister reading, reading, and then continuing to read more.  I remember worrying that I was “not a reader” until seventh grade when I found chapter books I loved. I remember wondering “am I really a reader” until I went to college, when I had the ability to reflect, slow down, and remember all of my reading moments.

I’m not panicking anymore- at least not at the same level.  Now, when I meet my kiddos who can’t see the edge of that chasm, I know what I need to do to help them build their bubble. And I know what I won’t do: I won’t start with formative assessments so that I can determine where they are and what they are lacking.  I won’t show them all of our books and ask them to find one they like. I won’t put them through the awkward “get to know you” games. I won’t even tell them how incredible books really are. Nope.

I will welcome them to our space. I will ask them to come sit so I can read to them.  And I’ll smile a lot. Read and smile. And when they come back the next day, I’ll read and smile. And read and smile and talk. And guess what? About three or four days in, someone will look over at our bookshelves. Someone will ask about our books. Someone will wonder if they can look at them. And then we’ll have our reader beginning.  Just like I did. Just like you did. They’ll discover books.

P.S. Once they’ve done that, I’ll formative assess their little hearts out.  I’ll show them books.  I’ll ask them to find ones they like!  I’ll tell them how incredible books are!  But only after they’ve had a new reader beginning. Period. End of story.

Are you interested in reflecting on your own reading evolution in the effort to help students understand theirs? These reflection questions will help you begin:

  1. What are your earliest memories of reading? Do you remember reading before you could read words? Who read with you? How often?
  2. Did anyone in your family or close circle read often? What did they read? What did you learn from watching them?
  3. Think back to when you began school. What was reading instruction like? How did you feel about it?
  4. What reading experiences stand out as important to you? Positive or negative, these will give you insight into what students might need.
  5. What did you need from a teacher when you were a K-12 reader? If you were ahead of the class, what did you wish your teacher would do for you? If you were behind, what did you need? If you right in the middle, what were you wanting?

I’d love to hear from you as your think through these questions. Let’s keep this conversation going.

60 Books in 6th Grade

This year I decided to do something kind of crazy:  I asked my 6th graders to attempt to read 60 Books in 6th Grade!  I based the idea on Donalyn Miller‘s work in her book The Book Whisperer. I liked the seemingly insurmountable challenge Miller described,  but I wanted more kids to be able to access the varying genres without being frozen with fear by book length.  I co-teach LSS (learning support services) and ELL (English-language learner) classes, and I have many kids who enter sixth grade with reading scores below grade level. I needed to make Miller’s challenge appear a bit more accessible, so I lowered the number of chapter books and increased the number of overall books!

Miller is adamant that teachers not change the book challenge in ways that negate its original purpose; she writes about this in a blog post titled The 40 Book Challenge Revisited. I read her book ages ago, and I’d felt like I’d found my kin.  The reason I’d connected to Miller’s ideas was her main message: Find what you love to read. Read a lot. Those aren’t Miller’s words, but that’s what I gather from her work, and it was just what I needed to hear since I’d struggled with “being a reader” until I was in college.

Another way to illustrate the purpose of Miller’s work is this: This year, I did the 60 Books in 6th Grade Challenge along with my students. Guess what? I did not read 60 books, although some students did. What did I do? I read more than any other year of my life. I found a lot of new authors I like. I realized I like science fiction. That’s HUGE!  And it was huge for my readers to see me grow with them.

Believe Me- This is not as crazy as it sounds!

In today’s high-stakes testing environment, many companies have developed computer-based reading programs that promise to increase test scores.  Yet we all know what students really need to do to improve reading skills: They need to read.  And read.  And read.   Students need access to a variety of books, they need targeted instruction, and they need time to read.

That idea alone is what makes 60 Books attainable.  Students spend a lot of time reading in 60 books quote 2my classes.  The 60 Books log helps them track which genres they read most, it is a record of author’s they prefer, it asks them to step out of their comfort zone and try new genres, but does so by including picture books as an introduction to the various genres.

Believe Me- They’re all reading more!

Some teachers have asked how I make sure students don’t lie and just fill in book titles. The truth is, there is no reason for them to lie.  This assignment isn’t worth points.  We talk a lot about the fact that it really doesn’t matter whether you get to 25, 40, or 60.  What 60 books class photomatters is that this year we are reading more than any other year of our lives! Students feel really good about that! Challenge by choice is a perfect term to describe this assignment- Students are given the task of reading 60 books of various genres and lengths. Students decide how far to take it! The only “requirement” is that students go further than they ever have before!

And you know what?  They are reading more!  We all have students who are shocked because they suddenly realized that they love to read.  When the appropriate structures are in place, students do unearth a love for books.  Yet, 60 Books was a game changer in my teaching and in student growth.  Students have noticed themselves changing as their book logs got longer and longer, and now they realize that attempting to accomplish something that seems really overwhelming and out of their league, can actually happen.  They just need support, time, materials, perseverance, and a plan to get it done.  Intrigued? I hope so.

5 Tips to Help:

  1. Designate independent reading time every day.  Period.  Don’t get rid of it when time is short and you feel like something has to give.  Time to read is exactly the one thing we can’t give up.
  2. Schedule extended reading time once or twice a month. This time should be set aside just for 60 Books!  (Our school has shortened class periods about once a month BeFunky Collagedue to PLC meetings, so we used these days to celebrate our successes and look into what we still had to accomplish on our 60 Book logs.)
  3. Talk about the 60 Books log often.  As soon as a student says they’ve finished a book, celebrate, and ask if they’ve added it to 60 Books.  When a student is looking for a new book to read, ask them to open their 60 Books log and help them narrow down which genre they want to try next.
  4. Talk about effort and honesty often. All year long, discuss that getting to 60 is not exactly the point. The purpose is to read more than ever before, to discover new genres, and to learn about and reflect on reading habits.
  5. Do 60 Books along with your students. This is a huge challenge- there is no way around it. Even when we focus on growth, even with all of the support we give students, this is a big challenge! So, I did my own 60 Books log. I shared my reading challenges- like having to read science-fiction!  I shared my choices- books I knew they’d love too. Seeing me attempt this task alongside them, helped make it real.

If 60 Books in 6th grade (or 40 Books in 4th grade…) seems like a challenge worth your time, please let me know how it goes!  If you run into trouble, I’d be happy to troubleshoot with you.  I can say with all honesty, this task was worth every minute we spent on it.  Kids are really proud of how far they’ve come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment

My most recent experience doing my own assignment is recording Notice and Note Signposts from the book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading while reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  I bought 11/22/63 soon after it was released, in November of 2011, with the failed intention of having a 2-person book club with my husband. My husband read the book, but I ditched it. I tried reading it a couple more times over the next few years, but I always abandoned the book in the first 50 pages.

The Miniseries Made Me Do It

Tacky truth: A few weeks ago, when my hubby told me that the miniseries was soon to start on Hulu, I got the urge to read 11/22/63 again! It was like the stars had aligned: My students had learned the definitions of each signpost. I’d already modeled my thinking, we’d found signposts together, and I’d supported groups as they worked together to find them.  Just after I gave students the task of using signposts on their own, I attempted 11/22/63 again.


 

My Very Own Aha! Moment

The signposts made it possible for me to stick with 11/22/63!  The signposts and guiding questions slowed me down, of course, but in slowing me down, they engaged me.

3 things I learned by doing this assignment:

  1. I learned the signposts inside and out. (This didn’t really surprise me; we learn by doing.)

  2. I learned that signposts can be difficult to notice sometimes because readers just want to keep reading!  (This didn’t really surprise me; I’m naturally intense.  Pausing to be mindful is something I had to learn to do.)

  3. Looking for several signposts at once helped me understand and “get deeply into” the book quickly. (This surprised me; I read a lot.  I love to read.  I hadn’t even noticed that I’d been missing something which would help me be a better, more interested reader until I practiced these signposts with my own novel.)

I learned a ton by completing this assignment: I had to think critically about the characters and plot just as students had to, and that made it possible for me to teach them the thinking moves I’d made as I identified the signposts and asked myself the guiding questions.  I’d practiced signposts with picture books and videos, but using them in a novel helped me understand them on a deeper level. There were times I found myself having to stop every page or two to read the signpost definitions and think about whether I’d missed one.  Initially, this felt counterproductive, but once I began valuing the guiding questions, it felt natural.

The Big Debate:  Teach Signposts Individually or at Once?

I also realized that teaching all of the signposts at once is the way to go because different readers will connect to different signposts, initially.  This connection is key to the “buy-in” struggling readers need.  If readers have taken a week or two to learn each signpost, but after several weeks, haven’t connected with one that reveals big value, then every subsequent signpost has already lost its meaning.

Teaching all of the signposts within seven school days allows readers to build a signpost onebook-signpostsstockpile with which to attempt reading.  Signpost stock is invaluable in tackling a book. (For me, it was a book I really wanted to read, but couldn’t seem to finish. For many of our readers, this is any book because they haven’t learned the thinking skills to engage them for an entire novel.)

I worried that teaching the signposts all at once would be a double-edged sword for my struggling readers.  Typically, they are the readers in grave need of learning how to stick with a book, and they are the readers who cannot manage learning a lot at once.  I found that learning signposts all at once was best, and then offering differentiated assignments so students could choose ways to use signposts was the natural next step. Once students were comfortable using signposts at their own pace, they were really excited to attempt finding all of them each week.

Now What?

We can’t complete every assignment we give kids; but it should happen when we think they need it (or as in my case, when the stars align). It should be visible to students. It should be reflected upon.  We need students to see the mistakes we make and the smart moves we learn.

I’d love to hear which of your assignments you’ve completed and what you learned from doing them.  Why do you find this practice valuable?  How often do you manage it?

Featured Image Photo credit: ginnerobot via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Kim Klassen via Foter.com / CC BY-NC