Confession time; I am terrible at conferring with my students. This once proud foundation of my elementary classroom is now a crumbling pillar in my 7th grade English class. Call it a victim of the 45 minute I have to teach everything in. A victim of the so much to do. A victim of not quite knowing how to make it productive. Whatever it is, the conferring that I know I should be doing has simply not been getting done.
Yet a few weeks ago, I realized that the one thing I needed the most (besides more time, more books, more knowledge) was the simple conference. The one to one interaction with every single one of my students if even for just a few minutes. Because conferring is the one way I can really reach all students. Is the one way we can connect the best. Is the one way that I can really see what each child needs. Conferring is the best way for me to be a better teacher to all of the needs must of us are faced with. So even within the 45 minute English class, with almost 120 students spread over 5 classes, there had to be a way. There had to be tweaks that could be made to make it work so an experiment began.
So what has worked and what have I discovered?
Reading conferring happens within the first 10 minutes of class. Every day we start with 10 minutes of independent reading. While nothing new, I now am much more purposeful with how I spend the time. So that 10 minutes is a perfect time for me to confer with students., therefore when the bell rings and the timer starts, so does my mission.
That my individual reading conferences focus on reader identity rather than on typical mini-lessons. There is no way for me at the moment to do one-on-one lessons and still make it to all of my students within about 2 weeks. So I instead focus on their reading identity and gather clues for what types of mini-lessons I need to create for small groups. That being said there are exceptions to the rule if I uncover a particular dire situation where a child is then given the full 10 minutes of time. This purpose for the conferences allows me to do quick check-ins and get to more kids.
That within those 10 minutes of independent reading I can shoot for meeting with 3 students. I come to the students, equipped with my binder and pen, ready to ask them questions. By me moving we save time and they can get as much reading time as possible until we meet.
That I need just one question to start every conference. I used to prepare for all of my conferences by coming up with several questions aimed at a specific child. Now every conference starts with, “What are you working on as a reader?” The direction of the conference then is directed by their answer.
That I need a simple system to keep track of notes. I used to take a lot of notes during my conferring but now find the need really just for three different things; my observations, their answers, and next steps. Every student therefore has a sheet with three different conferring boxes on it, each class has its own 1-inch binder for me to keep track and I write down only what I need to better teach the child. That means I am working on writing down only the essentials, in the moment, and still try to think of what to help them with.
So how has it been? Pretty amazing actually. The concentrated 10 minute effort means that I am fully attentive to what the students are saying ant thinking of other things. The short note-taking sheet means that I am ore focused in what I write down as well as what we need to work on next. The students seem to like it because they are getting more attention and still getting reading time. And the things I have uncovered? They are things I would not have uncovered no matter how many reflections I had students do, no matter how many small group lessons I would have conducted.
So while the 45 minutes of English class will never be ideal, it will never be enough, it will never feel like I can provide each child with the type of learning experience they deserve, it cannot hold us back. It cannot hold me back. And I cannot be the only one that is trying to do this. What has worked for you?
PS: As far as writing conferring, I use the entire class-time when we write meeting one-on-one with students. This has proven to be more effective for the students than doing a mini-lesson for the whole class since their needs are so diverse.
If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books. While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher. Those books will be published in 2017 hopefully, so until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.