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

A Friday Reflection in the Spirit of Halloween: On Gut Feelings & Questionable Decisions

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You Haven’t”

-Thomas Edison

Media

Animated short “Francis” directed by Richard Hickey, and written by Dave Eggers. From production company CGI Brothers: The story of ‘Francis’ came about interestingly from the famed radio show ‘This American Life’. Broadcaster Ira Glass asked 6 American writers to create a short story about Adventure. One of these stories, written by novelist & screenwriter Dave Eggers, was read on the show to much acclaim and praise. Richard worked with producer Kevin Batten & a team to turn the words into this short film. The film has been shown at Cannes Film Festival and Raindance.

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for seventh and eighth graders and high school, but please view it before showing it to them; it’s creepy. I will choose another video for my sixth graders when we do this reflection.)

*My students will watch this video once before our reflection on its themes and how they apply to our lives. We always use the  Notice and Note Signposts to analyze character motivation, predict plot, and uncover themes. We are several weeks deep on practicing the signposts, so students will be able to recognize the signposts and ask and answer the signpost questions quickly with this film. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

  • Francis is a bit of a rebel and lives according to her own terms. The night of her “accident,” there were several points that she should have had, and even might have had but ignored, the gut feeling that she was doing something wrong and possibly dangerous. Eventually, she made too many wrong decisions, gave up, and… well, you know what happened in the end. Why do you think she didn’t listen to her instincts? What do you think she should she have done differently? 
  • We are not in the middle of a lake with no one around to help us get back to shore, but it is a good metaphor for some of the things we struggle with.Think of a time when you struggled to learn something new or with having to do something that seemed so hard that you wanted to give up. What did you do: Give up? Avoid the difficult things? Find a way to keep trying hard? Did you stop to think about what people who care about you would want you to do? Did your “gut” tell you what to do?
  • How can we use the themes in “Francis” in our lives? 

Discussion

  • We’ve inferred that Francis didn’t like listening to the advice of the adults in her life (She was a rebel. She sneaked out of her tent in the middle of the night. She smoked cigarettes- yuck!) Sometimes kids decide not to listen to their parents’ advice, and rely on their friends. If you were giving advice to people in this class on how to become better readers, what would you say?
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students? The more we share, the more we learn!

Friday Reflection: What Can We Do to Support Each Other So That We All Reach Our REAL Potential?

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’” -Audrey Hepburn

Media

Animated short Zero directed by Christopher Kezelos. The producer, Zealous Creative, describes the film: In a world that judges people by their number, Zero faces constant prejudice and persecution. He walks a lonely path until a chance encounter changes his life forever: he meets a female zero. Together they prove that through determination, courage, and love, nothing can be truly something.

This film is incredible- it captivated my daughter when she watched it, my students when they watched it, and my colleagues when they watched it! Even if you do not think you’ll use this reflection, I recommend watching Zero!

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for middle school and high school, but please view it through your students’ lenses before showing it to them; it addresses sensitive social issues. This reflection does not go into depth on these issues, but as students study stereotypes and discrimination the next several weeks, we will use this video as means to recognize the stereotyping and discrimination in our society.)

For younger students, substitute the movie with a book with a similar theme. Oneby Kathryn Otoshi, is a story about accepting each other’s differences.

*My students watched this video twice this week as we discussed the Notice and Note Signposts. We use signposts to uncover the themes the video presents. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

Zero is born into his place in society and not allowed to break out of it. Eventually, he does bust out because he and his friend believe they are something, they have courage, and they have love.  Looking back on our first 9 weeks of this school year, what have you achieved that seemed impossible in August? Which people in your life and what behaviors and mindsets helped you achieve it? (Consider all of your family members, friends, and teachers.)

Discussion

  • Think about the time we’ve spent together since August, and consider how you’ve grown more comfortable each week. Think about Zero and the challenges he was able to overcome once he met his friend who accepted him. Use your experiences in this class and Zero’s experiences in overcoming his challenges to answer this question: What do people need in order to feel safe enough to learn? *I will ask students if they think it would be valuable to list these things on an anchor chart so that we can see them and think about them daily. Most will think it’s a good idea, and then we’ll have a good part of our learning about how to learn from 1st Quarter right there for us to use during 2nd Quarter.
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students at the end of the quarter or semester? The more we share, the more we learn!

Friday Reflection: How can we turn our difficult experiences into seeds for success?

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a quote, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Theme

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” 

-C.S. Lewis

Media

Animated short: Tamara by Jason Marino

*My students watched this video several times this week as we discussed the Notice and Note Signposts. We used the signposts to uncover the themes the video presents. (To read this lesson, see “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts.”

If you do not have access to YouTube, you can also use the book Dear Mr. Falker for this reflection.

Reflection Prompts

  • What is your earliest memory of having difficulty learning something? (I always share my memory from the end of my kindergarten year. My mom found me in my bedroom in tears because my teacher had told us that some kids wouldn’t be going on to first grade because they didn’t know how to read yet. I remember holding the book and trying so hard to figure out what it said, but I just couldn’t.)
  • What has been difficult for you this year that isn’t so difficult anymore? What did you do to make it easier?
  • What is still difficult for you? What steps can you take next week to start making it feel easier?

Discussion

  • As a group, we’ve changed a lot since the beginning of the year. (This is a following to last week’s reflection “Friday Reflection: What Have You Done Differently This Week?” What things should we try to improve in order to help each other continue to learn?
  • Any compliments for anyone? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

Teachers, what types of reflections do you do with your students? The more we share, the more we learn!