By Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser
Everyone, no matter their profession or hobby, benefits from tools. Carpenters certainly need them, but so do yoga instructors, painters, chefs, and us teachers. We’ve realized that conferring just doesn’t work when we sit down with students empty handed. We end up talking to students aimlessly and leave them wondering, “Did I make an impact?” Educator Judy Wallis taught us that you are not teaching reading if you don’t have a book in your hand. We can’t really confer with readers in ways that elevate their thinking, talking, and engagement if we don’t have a few key tools at our fingertips.
Many of us teachers are reluctant to confer because there is no plan to follow, no foolproof script that guarantees success. We may fear we don’t know what questions to ask, what to listen for, or what to look for in order to reliably make an on-the-spot teaching decision.
Conferring is a form of improvisation in the same way playing soccer or really any sport is. I can practice the moves and plays, develop strength and endurance, and scout out the competition, but I won’t know exactly what to do until I am in the moment. All responsive teaching is based on this same set of skills that athletes have— the ability to prepare for what might happen and have confidence in ourselves to make a choice based on what is going on right now. Luckily, we can help you think about what might happen and build your own confidence for conferring.
The truth is, we can’t plan for a conference, but we can be prepared. We can’t plan because most of the teaching navigation arises from what the reader says, does, and reveals in the moment of the conference. With tools in hand, however, we are equipped with lenses to look through and practices to lean on before, during, and after the conference. Perhaps most importantly, tools scaffold our knowledge to the point that we can finally let go of the notion that to be effective, we have to have read the book a student is reading. We have learned that the teacher reads the reader, not the book.
There are many ways to prepare for conferences and we found that the following seven steps help us silence our fears and sit down with confidence by growing our teacher toolkit.
Choose an instructional focus. We suggest you choose five main focuses across the year that alternate between fiction and nonfiction reading. The following chart is a sample of a Fifth Grade Year At-a-Glance.
Have some questions in mind to ask the reader. Create questions that focus on the reader’s process and invite them to openly share their thinking with you. The following questions align with a third grade unit on Interpreting Themes in Picture Books and Short Stories.
STEP 3Know what to look and listen for. Know where you want students to end up and map out a sequence of thinking for how you might help them get there. The following Look and Listen For Chart comes from a third grade unit on Interpreting Themes in Picture Books and Short Stories.
Mark up some teaching texts for modeling. Teach in your texts and not the students, by carrying around a few that you know well. Jot down ideas for think alouds on sticky notes and place them in the text. The following tool shows teacher language for modeling our thinking that leads to student transfer.
Create reading notebook entries for modeling. Teach how to develop thinking on the page by writing your own notebook entries ahead of time to show students. These entries serve as possibilities for students of what they might try out in their own notebooks. The following notebook entries are teacher examples that also align with the grade 3 unit on Interpreting Themes in Picture Books and Short Stories.
Manage a system for note-taking. Based on the type of information you want to collect, use note-taking forms that can help you identify patterns and next steps for students. The following two examples show a whole class form focused on reading identity and building stamina as well as the third grade unit focused on Interpreting Themes in Picture Books and Short Stories.
Study conferences with colleagues. Invite colleagues into your classroom or watch videos together of conferences so you can notice and name teaching moves you want to refine in your own practice. Don’t forget to celebrate and reflect upon what is already working well too. The following video is a conference between Gravity and Talia, a fifth grader who is focusing on comparing perspectives across nonfiction texts.
Taking these seven steps will likely help us feel prepared but the daily commitment to practice conferring is also necessary. That confidence we are looking for will only come with preparation and practice. The work we put in as teachers will benefit our students as they become more engaged and thoughtful readers and it also benefits us. We become more engaged and thoughtful teachers of reading who can find joy one conferring conversation at a time.
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