Conferring between a teacher and a student is critical to the success of a comprehensive reading or writing workshop. It’s how we know, as teachers, what our students need on both the individual and whole-group levels. Conferring is genuine, intentional conversation that allows students to build their confidence and identity as readers and writers. It’s a setting that offers students a safe space for taking literary risks and practicing to articulate their thoughts.
In conferences, we often learn from students as much as we teach them. We learn what makes students tick as learners and how we can harness that information to help them progress. Conferring keeps me on course for the vision I have and the learning outcomes I’m driving toward.
Writer and consultant Margaret J. Wheatley once wrote, “When I’m in conversation, I try to maintain curiosity by reminding myself that everyone here has something to teach me.” Somehow, this little reminder helps me be more attentive and less judgmental. It’s with this stance that I approach the sea of readers and writers in front of me—post mini-lesson—and plan my conferring for the day.
With notes in hand, planning out what to do, the questions I always ask myself are:
1. Who am I curious about? Because teaching is—and should be—a constant formative assessment, I reflect on the mini-lesson and the places where a student lit up, had a confused look on his or her face, or asked a question that piqued my interest. I want to know what they intend to do in their reading or writing and how I can help them execute their plan even better.
When you approach a conference with curiosity, it’s much easier to avoid the trap many of us fall into when learning to confer. In writing, that trap may be resorting to editing a student’s paper. When this happens, teachers leave the conference with no real answer for the question, “What did the student learn from this conference?” Most likely, unless it is a true editing conference, all the student learned is that only the conventions of writing matter. Instead, we want to walk away knowing that the student is planning out how to end his narrative effectively, for example; has learned a new strategy to effectively do so; and can apply what was learned to future assignments.
2. What do I need to know? As I continuously plan my daily instruction within my overall vision for the reading or writing unit, I need to know how the students are progressing—whether through assurance that they are adequately challenged, which allows them to engage and be productive, or from the realization that I’ve left them stranded on some remote island. If the latter, I need to truly understand their thinking and current proficiency to adjust my instruction, through mini-lessons or small strategy groups, to get each and every student back on track.
In reading, it could be that a mini-lesson I taught in our nonfiction unit requires some revisiting as I realize students need to understand that narrative nonfiction reads like a story while non-narrative nonfiction doesn’t. We read each of these very differently, yet we can do some of the same thinking within. Knowing this information guides what I teach next and how I teach it. To execute the vision for the learning outcomes, I must continually adjust my teaching to ensure I’m driving toward those outcomes based on what I discover the students know and can do.
Ensure Equity in Conferring with All Students
Of course, I always operate with the idea that all students deserve conferences over a period of time, so I keep track of whom I’ve conferred with and when. But the most important thing I remember—and want every teacher to remember—is that every student deserves the same type of conference. Every student should engage in a conference with the teacher that honors the work the student is doing. It’s not just the struggling students who must receive one-to-one conferences; it’s also the students who love to write, or read, and who already do these well. This means giving every student an opportunity to articulate their intentions, the space to try new things and the ability to take risks in their learning. It also means receiving genuine feedback that is forward-looking, not simply corrective.
The teacher should approach the struggling writer with curiosity in the same way that the teacher approaches the gifted writer. The struggling reader should be asked, “What are you thinking about in your reading today?” in the same way the gifted reader is. All too often, teachers instead ask struggling readers and writers to read aloud their book or writing piece. “Read me your writing” invites judgment, while “What are you thinking about in your writing today?” invites conversation.
To reiterate, it’s in genuine, intentional conversation that students grow in confidence and literary identity. Enabling them to safely take literary risks and voice their thoughts will build not only great readers and writers but also curious, well-developed individuals. By reminding ourselves that everyone has something to teach us, we model genuine curiosity as a path toward authentic growth.
View my recent Lead the Way to Literacy webinar on this topic here.
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