I try to confer with students every day and every class period. I try to confer with each student at least every two weeks. These are challenging, measurable, and attainable goals. But I rarely meet them. Life gets in the way, and official conferences don’t happen as much as I’d like. So when we have conferences, I really try to make them count. I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated, though.
In chapter six of Book Love, Penny Kittle describes three different purposes for conferencing with students: Monitor a Reading Life, Teach a Reading Strategy, and Increase Complexity and Challenge.
I’ve gotten comfortable with the first category, Monitor a Reading Life, which is essentially a check-in. I absolutely do this type of conferencing in class, but I also do it informally all day, every day. It’s the “What are you reading?” when I see a student in the hallway. Kittle’s go-to question is now my go-to, and it has power while still being casual and comfortable. It’s a great way to help make up for the lag time I’m experiencing with students between more official, sit-down conferences. I also ask questions such as:
- “How is Angela’s Ashes working for you?”
- “How many pages did you read last night?”
- “What’s on your next reads list?”
- “Do you have enough to read over the weekend?”
There’s a lot of power in these unscripted, impromptu hallway conversations. I can tell right away if a student is excited to read a book, whether I should consider counseling a student to drop a book, and most importantly, if a student is regularly reading enough.
I’ve also gotten comfortable conferencing with the third category, Increase Complexity and Challenge. After I’ve monitored the reading life of a student (the time required varies from student to student; trust your teacher instincts), I can easily judge whether or not a student is challenging herself.
For example, when I noticed that one of my students was only reading books that contained essays or short stories, but not text of any significant length, I talked to her about choosing a short novel so that she can increase her stamina and stick with one longer narrative. When I noticed that one of my eleventh-grade boys was only reading Percy Jackson, through a series of conversations I encouraged him to read something different; he reluctantly chose A Thousand Splendid Suns, and has since moved on to enjoy an expanded comfort zone.
For the whole-class text complexity challenge, students drew categories of text out of a bag and then committed to at least trying to read some of these new categories during semester two. Some cards are specific- like Biography A-J. Others are more general, like Long Title or Setting in Asia. Students had fun with that activity and there was really good energy about the challenge. I pictured the bag of challenge cards here on the right.
The category of conference that really intimidates me is Teach a Reading Strategy. My inner dialogue is all “You aren’t a reading teacher! You teach literature! Reading teachers teach the little kids! Your students are almost adults!” All semester I doubted myself and my ability to teach mini-lessons that I could just conjure out of thin air. At least that’s what it felt like.
The flexibility that is required when conferencing with students is vast and unpredictable. As teachers, we often pivot when asked questions during class, we allow students to explore different ideas and topics, then we bring them back to the topics we think they are supposed to learn. That’s hard enough when dealing with one whole-class discussion. How was I supposed to do that with each and every individual student in each of my classes? How was I going to prepare for unpredictable, off-the-cuff mini-lessons?
The only answer is to just try it. Just jump in to conferring, talk to kids, and see where the conversation goes. You see, conferences are just structured conversations, and we have dozens, if not hundreds, of unpredictable conversations every day. As teachers, colleagues, and employees, we are good at communicating.
An example of one of these conferences happened in an “official” conference last week. One of my more reluctant readers is reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. This student started by trying to fake read, but didn’t realize that this is a book that I am very familiar with. So it was even easier than normal for me to see through the fluffy conversation of the conferences, talk honestly, and convince this student to really try. I wasn’t promising success, and I wasn’t asking for miracles. I just asked for an honest effort.
So, for the last few weeks, this student has been honestly trying to read the book, and has made some progress, which I of course made the point to notice and point out. It’s important to be proud when challenging oneself through some difficult text. The next thing I did was to ask this student to open to the current page, and give me a short description of what was happening on that page. The student was able to do that for the most part – great!
So then I asked the student to choose one sentence and read aloud (pictured above, page 100 of Into Thin Air ). This was an interesting moment. The chosen sentence had the word February in it – but instead of referring to the month, it was a person’s name. The student had used context clues and had already sorted that out. Good on him.
The next word we talked about was trail. I had flagged it because it was read aloud as trial. I asked my student to say it again. Trial.
What’s that word?
What’s that word?
What’s that word?
OOOOOhhhh, trail! That makes so much more sense!
We then discussed careful and close reading, and that when something doesn’t make sense, like why these guys in Nepal would be talking about a trial, maybe the decoding of the words needs to be checked. That helped my student to understand the why behind the strategy of rereading. That gives her buy-in, and she’s likely to try it again on her own.
The next word we talked about is the italicized word out. I asked why that one little word is in italics? What’s the purpose of that? The answer was that it must be important. We pushed on that a little, and got to the answer that it was unusual that a team of climbers would be coming out of base camp rather than going in. The purpose of the italics became more clear with that quick line of questioning, and I am confident that she will pay closer attention to them the next time she sees them.
Wow! Two topics (mini-lessons?) in less than ten minutes! I hadn’t prepared for those specific conversations, nor was I predicting them. But the conversation was natural and deliberate.
Rich conversation and learning came from a quick one-sentence read-aloud. That’s pretty simple.
I think we are all a little bit unsure of the unpredictable nature of conferencing, especially when it comes to the mini-lessons. But we are teachers. We’ve got this.