In this episode of Teacher's Corner, Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucker, authors of The Literacy Workshop, join Gina Picha, author of Conferring in the Math Classroom, to discuss the art of conferring across both literacy and math. They discuss the parallels between conferring in different content areas as well as teaching strategies that are specific to literacy or math.
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Sarah: Gina, can you give us some background on where Conferring in the Math Classroom came from? What inspired you?
Gina: Absolutely. It started with my work as an instructional coach. I was an instructional coach for a K-5 school in our public school system in Texas called Round Rock ISD, and this particular school was given a STEM designation. So naturally, there was a focus on math and science. So when I was thinking about ways to support teachers, one of the things that I noticed was that, in walking into classrooms and working with teachers, there was a level of comfort with conferring with readers and writers. And teachers seemed really comfortable and experienced with the types of ways that they could have conversations during reading and writing workshop. And as a former teacher myself, I felt the same. I had countless books on how to teach reading and writing, and felt really comfortable with different structures that I was shown in terms of how to confer, and what to do first and next.
So, I wanted to find something that could support our teachers in the same ways during their math instruction. So as students are engaged in problem-solving, what are the types of conversations that we can be having with students, and what should that look like and sound like? So I began looking, and I found a couple of books. But not many, and they weren't exactly what I was looking for. And I found quite a bit of research, but not a lot of...I was kind of looking as a coach for that book that I could begin to use. So began the work of creating something myself, and trying it out in classrooms, and working alongside teachers to find the structure that would work, and also be manageable. So, yeah. The intention was not for it to become a book, but really began as a way to support the teachers in my school.
Sarah: Gina, can you tell us a bit about your background? What experience did you bring to the project?
Gina: Sure. I've been in education for roughly 15 years, and I've taught kindergarten, first grade, fifth grade. I worked, as I said, as an instructional coach, and also a curriculum specialist, and for a short time as a math coordinator. But the majority of my career has been in a self-contained-type situation. Even as a curriculum specialist and an instructional coach, I was working with all subject areas. So I think that what is really important to me in this work is that whatever we're doing to support teachers, that it's really respectful of the fact that there's a lot that they're asked to do. A lot of new initiatives and a lot of new protocols. And for teachers particularly that are teaching every subject, it's just incredible the amount that's put on them. So for me, it's just really important to keep that in mind. And anything that I'm creating in support of teachers, I want to make sure that it's actually manageable and doable in the classroom.
Sarah: Karen and Maria, can you give us some background on where The Literacy Workshop came from and what inspired you?
Maria: Well, the seed idea from Literacy Workshop really came from Karen and I having a conversation about the standards. Gina already kind of talked about this, how we were integrating a lot in our elementary classrooms when we're self-contained. So we were talking about those standards of reading and writing, and how the standards were overlapping, but we weren't overlapping them in our instruction. We were still separating them. As far as in inspiration, that conversation started...Let's see. Where were we, Karen? In Montana. So, maybe the inspiration was when we looked outside and saw the mountains. But basically, it really was just the idea that, if these reading and writing standards are already overlapping, then why aren't we doing that in our instruction
Karen: One of the things that we knew was that, we knew that there were other authors and researchers, Ellen Oliver Keene certainly being one of them, who had done some writing and some work around a literacy workshop where those workshops had been combined. So, we decided we were going to come back and just really hit the ground running in our own classrooms. Maria was in a first-grade classroom. I was in a fifth-grade classroom. So just like with anything else, as teachers, we decided to come back and just have a go at it. And the really exciting thing is that when you take something that is that idea that you know really make sense, and you actually do it with kids, and you see kids integrating their reading and writing, and beginning to make those connections between those, it really is exciting. And you see how much sense it is, and you really know there's no turning back.
The no-turning-back moment for me was when I was having some conversations with kids about having done Literacy Workshop for probably about a week or two, and I had a little girl sitting in the front row of my rug. And she looked at me and she said, "Why haven't we been doing this all the time? Why were we just doing reading and writing workshops separately?" It was one of those out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moments. So we really just knew then that what we knew was right for kids really was right for kids, and Literacy Workshop was born.
Sarah: Karen and Maria, tell us a bit about your background. What experience did you bring to the project?
Karen: I began my career as a primary teacher. I started out in second grade, and then had the opportunity to move to a fifth-grade classroom. So, I left those second-graders behind and moved to fifth grade. And it was really exciting, because I had the opportunity to begin to see and understand some of the why of those foundational skills that I was doing with students in terms of the practices. And one of the things that I loved was seeing those connections that kids made in their own reading and writing. And as I think about how those experiences brought me to Literacy Workshop, and just the foundation that I had working with younger readers and writers, and then being able to see how their reading and writing evolves and how they make those connections, it just really has helped me better understand and appreciate some of those connections. Also, just being able to see those habits and behaviors of literate citizens, and those opportunities for them to be able to use reading and writing in their everyday lives just develop and grow with them.
Maria: What I brought to the project was, I'm a longtime primary-grade teacher. So, I was always looking for ways to streamline instruction and create those integrated learning experiences. And I think I have a knack for also looking at big ideas, which is really the essence of Literacy Workshop. Because all of us, as teachers...Well, I can speak for myself. Sometimes we get caught up in the minutiae of the day-to-day teaching, and we forget about the broad goals for students. Readers, writers, and mathematicians. So, that learning structure of Literacy Workshop really helped us to help students meet those goals in a joyful and meaningful way.
Sarah: Karen and Maria, who is The Literacy Workshop for?
Maria: Well, in my opinion, Literacy Workshop is for all teachers, whatever grade level they teach, but I'm going to focus on primary grades. In the primary grades, a lot of Literacy Workshop really integrates science and social studies into reading and writing. In doing that we're helping students to build content knowledge, and we're also helping them to strengthen their language comprehension. We know how important it is for young learners to be both decoding and encoding at the same time. So it makes sense to have a Literacy Workshop where they have a book in one hand and a pencil in the other as they're strengthening those skills.
Karen: So obviously, I believe that it's great for all literacy teachers as well, but I'm obviously the spokesperson for the intermediate-grade teachers. But one of the things that I think it best serves those middle-grade teachers is that it gives them an opportunity to really help their students see those connections, and begin to understand that reciprocity between reading and writing. A couple of ways that really happens is really helping students begin to think about the choices that they make as readers and writers, and to be able to sit alongside them, and to talk about those choices.
One of the things that I see happening, and I saw in my own practices, was that as children get older, they begin to have fewer and fewer choices in their learning. And one of the things about Literacy Workshop is that you can give student choice about the things that they read, the books that they choose to read, the topics that they choose to write or research about. But then in addition to that, just the ways that they are able to set goals for themselves as learners, and to think about what they want to do to grow in their own reading and writing. And through that goal-setting, begin to map for them those habits and behaviors of lifelong readers and writers. And through that, really create that engagement that not only creates those literacy learners that we want in our classrooms, but will help provide that engagement and motivation to make them lifelong readers and writers.
Sarah: Gina, who is Conferring in the Math Classroom for?
Gina: Similarly, I think that the big idea of conferring with mathematicians as they're engaged in problem-solving is something that can be used in any space where individuals are engaged in problem-solving and engaged in mathematics. My book gives examples of how this looks in K-5 classrooms. But through presenting about the work, I've had middle school and high school teachers talk about, "Oh, I can definitely apply this. I can definitely use this in my classroom." But I think what's really important to me is thinking about kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade teachers. The work in this book, the conferring work, one of the two structures nudges students to make conjectures. That is something that, I think, thinking back to myself as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, I might have thought as being something for upper-grade students. And I would've thought, "This probably isn't something for kinder, and first-grade, and second-grade students."
So I really want to highlight that yes, yes, yes, this absolutely is. The word conjecture itself sounds like maybe it's not appropriate for kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade students, but absolutely. They're already doing this work before they enter kindergarten. This idea of making sense of the world around them and making generalizations. So I think, to me, that's the most exciting thing, is thinking about this work with our youngest mathematicians.
Sarah: Gina, what is your favorite way to explain conferring in math to someone who might be new to this practice?
Gina: I would say it's just a conversation with students. One of the things that I love the most about this is, it's not this separate time during your math block. You don't have to rearrange or find extra minutes. It's this time that your students are likely already daily engaged in some type of task or problem, and it's a conversation that you have with your students as they're engaged in that work.
Sarah: For everyone, what's the same and what's different in conferring in literacy versus math?
Gina: This is a question that I love, because this is really important to me. And I think that educators that are familiar with conferring with readers and writers, there's going to be so much that you can bring to the work of conferring with mathematicians. And I think the idea of supporting and nudging students, and being an active listener, and being really engaged in what they're working on, and meeting them where they, are nudging from a strength. But the difference, I would say, is that some of the things that we might do with readers and writers in a conference that are completely appropriate and beneficial for students may not have that same effect with mathematicians.
There are certain things that we might do, such as give them an example of something to mimic, or a mentor example, for example. These types of things are really great for readers and writers, because likely they're still going to come up with a really unique piece. The creativity still stayed with the student. But when we apply some of those same strategies in a math conference, what ends up happening is, students begin to produce the exact same work. The creativity, the choice-making has been taken away. So it's really sort of thinking about, how are we nudging? And not that we nudge. That happens in both places. But in math, how are we nudging? And being really intentional about that.
Karen: I think I'm going to think about just the whole idea about starting with some of the ways that it's the same. Because I think that starting with that space for the conversation, I loved that Gina said that it really is a conversation with a student. And I think that whenever we talk about conferring, anybody who's starting conferring with students and they find it somewhat intimidating, that's always just the very first thing that I know that I say to someone. So I know when I very first picked up Gina's book and was thinking about conferring in math, and knowing that sometimes, for myself, that math is sometimes a place that is not the most comfortable subject for me, or my students sometimes, I reminded myself that it was a conversation. That it was listening to students. So, I found a lot of those things really resonating. So, finding that there were a lot of those familiar places that I saw similarities between what we do with readers and writers and what we do with mathematicians.
Also, as I am beginning to do it more in math time, I'm beginning to see some parallels when I have conversations with students thinking within and beyond a math task. Thinking about how sometimes we have conversations within a text, or we're thinking within a book that we're reading, but also then thinking beyond that book. So, they're beginning to see some of the parallels between some of those conversations. But I also am beginning to see some of the differences in how I approach students in conversations about math and about their literacy, just because ... Exactly what you were saying, Gina, about how you nudge them and when you nudge them. And I wasn't quite sure if that was because who they were, as mathematical thinkers and mathematicians, or if that was just because how I'm beginning to evolve now as somebody who's conferring in math, or if it was a combination of the two. But it's interesting now, beginning to think about those similarities and differences between conferring in math and conferring in Literacy Workshop.
Maria: You kind of already spoke to this, Gina, but the difference that really struck me was that whole idea of the anchor chart or tool. In math, we choose not to provide that tool, because often it gets kids to a prescribed method. But it made me really re-look at the anchor charts and tools that we use in Literacy Workshop, or in reading and writing, to make sure that those anchor charts are helpful, yet open-ended enough to still allow for that creativity and innovation. I think sometimes, when you go back ... I think that is a very helpful exercise for teachers, to do some reflecting on the tools and charts that they provide for students across subject areas, and think about, "Is that tool or chart leading them on a certain path, or is it open-ended enough to support them, yet allow that creativity and innovation?" So that really struck me, and is a difference. But also kind of a similarity, because you have to be careful in both. In reading and writing, and in math.
Sarah: Karen and Maria, what parallels did you notice between Conferring in the Math Classroom and The Literacy Workshop?
Maria: We've talked about this conversation that we're having, whether it's in math or in literacy. And if we think about how that conversation goes in both, it is about careful listening, active listening, and observation. So those are the parallels, and then that idea of descriptive feedback. So providing students feedback that's going to move them forward, and also support them so they have those ideas running through their head when they're out on their own. So, that feedback that really hones in on learner strengths.
And what I really appreciated, Gina, was that idea of having them share out. We all know the reality of the day. Sharing, when something goes, it's probably the share. But incorporating that into the conference where, "Okay, how are you going to share this out? How are you going to teach your classmates about this," is very smart and very helpful for teachers. Because as I said, that sometimes gets wooshed away when we don't have enough time. So I think that we could certainly incorporate that in our Literacy Workshop conferences, where at the end, they're going to come up and share an understanding that they came to as they were reading and writing. Karen, you want to go?
Karen: One of the things that we talked about in our book was, as you're thinking about conferring with readers or writers, is generally thinking about, our conferences generally fall into three different types. You generally are sitting with a student, and you're either assessing that student. You're sitting there, you're teaching them a particular skill, strategy, habit, or behavior. Or it's just that sharing conference. That it just is that time that a student might be sharing about their reading or their writing. And as I was going through Gina's book and thinking about how I could take what I was currently doing, the practice that I was comfortable with, and find that parallel, and begin to do the work that Gina had suggested in math time, I began to look at the idea that generally you were looking at basically two different types of conferring with students.
One is assessing what it is that they know and using that information to help guide instruction, and then using those conversations to scaffold student learning. And then how do you use what you hear students say to help build on what it is that they know, and take them to that next place? And then thinking about how, within those conversations, you are using that whole idea about naming strengths, which is something that obviously transcends the conversations that we have with readers and writers, and being able to leverage that. And then just that idea of naming and reinforcing strategies. Which I love, because I thought, "How many times in my math instruction are we talking about different strategies that we use, especially when problem solving?" But I never really sit with students and say, "Hey, I notice that you've used this," or have students identify what strategy that they're using. And then using that as part of the conversation to be able to either know that this is what they're doing and be able to recognize that, or be able to use that as a scaffold to move them to something else.
So just being able to think about, "Okay, these are the types of conferences that I do in Literacy Workshop time." And then be able to, "Okay, I know this. I'm comfortable with this, and this is how this might look as I'm conferring with students during math time."
Sarah: Karen, I understand you read Gina's book and came up with some ways to implement conferring techniques from the book in your math classroom. How have you implemented these ideas, or can you describe some scenarios that were fruitful examples?
Karen: I created quite a buzz in my building as soon as they saw Gina's book. And now that they know I'm actually here with Gina, I will get even all kinds of more questions tomorrow, because she's become quite a celebrity. But I think that the thing that I found the most was, I realized that I wasn't having the kinds of conversations with kids about their math learning that I was having with students about their reading and writing. And just as I read the book, I realized really how manageable it would be. I think one of my favorite parts was looking at some of the things that you identified as strengths. Looking at that whole idea about focusing on the collaboration, and the organization, and the representations. As I looked at those things, I really saw those as paralleling to some of the things that we saw as habits and behaviors of readers and writers. And those are the things that, during math time, those are really those habits that I want my students to be doing.
I want to see them collaborating with each other. I want to see them being able to have those structures where they're organizing information, and being able to talk to me about how did they organize their information when they're solving a problem, and why they chose to put things in a table, or a chart, or a graph, or drew a picture. Those kinds of things, and then them be able to talk about that. And it's been so insightful to me to just stop and have that conversation. And you're right. It's not carving out, "Okay, now I'm going to take 20 minutes of my math time and do this." But it's just really integrated into the time that we're doing.
I loved the section of the book where you talked about just being able to collect data on those conversations, and the note-taking aspect of it. One of the things that I have learned a lot over the years from having worked with Maria is, I've learned an awful lot about being organized, and very conscientious in being able to take notes and collect Data. So, looking at that part of the book is really helping me then begin to ... Now I'm having these great conversations, but now what? So, being able to think about how to very explicitly and conscientiously begin to collect data on that. Because as teachers, and especially with my students in math, I want to be able to have more data than just a standardized test score, or even just a math test grade, to be able to say, "This is who they are as thinkers." And this has just really given me a whole different layer of information and insight into them that has just really been just very exciting and extremely helpful. And just personally and professionally, I'm very grateful for that.
Maria: I know our conversation today is about conferring, but when I read chapters four and five about questioning, I really felt like those could apply across not only subject content areas, but across our day. And particularly the part about funneling questions, those questions that lead students in math particularly to one right answer. I think we're all guilty of doing that. Not only in math, but also in literacy. We have that big idea in our mind, or the theme, or somewhere where we want children to go. So we ask those funneling questions, rather than keep the questions open-ended.
So I think readers who are reading your book really can take all of that information in the chapters about questioning and apply that across their day, week, month. And for us in Literacy Workshop, even in our whole-class demonstration lessons, thinking about our questions very carefully, and seeing if they are more of an open-ended question. Or are we funneling them to where we want? So that really spoke to me, because I do a lot of work with teachers on questioning. So I think I will definitely use that, and help people to understand the difference between the funnel question and the open-ended question.
Sarah: Gina, what is your favorite connection between conferring with mathematicians and conferring with readers and writers in the classroom?
Gina: Yeah. I think my favorite thing about both of these practices is their purpose, which is really to just get underneath student thinking, and support students, and to position students as capable readers, writers and mathematicians. I think in both of these practices, students are positioned in ways in which the teacher becomes, as in the book The Literacy Workshop, the phrase is used, the guide on the side. And I think very much the same when conferring with mathematicians. We're really looking at ways to identify student strengths in both of these conferring practices, and nudge students forward. Thinking about, what is on the horizon for them? What is next for them? Not in terms of perfecting this one piece of writing, or reading this one book, or solving this one math problem. But conferring with readers, and writers, and mathematicians, the one thing is the same is that we're really trying to nudge them in thinking about, what are these generative skills that are just going to really help them as lifelong learners in these subject areas?
Gina: In the book The Literacy Workshop, I really enjoyed the conversation about the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. The book, to me, is something I've shared with my other colleagues in education, and particularly a couple of literacy coaches that I know. Because this is a conversation, this is a need, this is a desire that a lot of people in education have had for a while. Seeing and understanding this relationship, and really wanting to support students. And when you're writing a piece, you're thinking about the reader. And when you're reading a piece, you can be looking at it through the lens of a writer. And it made me really stop and reflect on that in terms of the math classroom, and in terms of conferring. And wanting to think about, is there a reciprocal relationship there too?
And I think so. I think that the relationship is not so much that there's two things mathematically being done in silos in math, but more so that only one of them is traditionally being done. Which is sort of being a doer of math, but not necessarily having that experience of thinking of being a consumer of math, and being a critical consumer of math. So, developing a classroom community in which those two things are happening simultaneously. I'm working on this math problem. I'm working on ideas to share with my classmates, whether it be conjectures or just ideas about how I've done things. And my classmates are going to essentially be consumers of this math, of this idea. And they're going to push back, and they're going to think of counterexamples, and I'm going to have to justify my thinking. So I really appreciated that, because it caused me to stop and reflect on how, in some ways, that reciprocal relationship traditionally hasn't been met in the math classroom either.
Gina: I also just really appreciated, there was a comment in the book that talked about that a nudge can give students a renewed sense of purpose. I just really loved that and thought about that for a while, because it's something I've felt and experienced happen. But I never put that into a sentence, or into an idea, or into words. But absolutely. I think in terms of math, a lot of times students are coming to us with maybe a history of more of a dependent style of learning. And when there's these moments, when the nudge is given in a way that really lifts them from their strength, that they're feeling this renewed sense of, "Oh, this is my role. This is my role as a reader, a writer, and a mathematician in this moment."
Maria: Well, and I think what you're talking about, Gina, is really...We talk about literate citizenship. I mean, you're talking about math citizenship. Not just using it in the classroom. Not just doing it, but understanding it enough to apply it in situations outside of the classroom, to have those mathematical conversations. So, I mean, I think it's really very similar.