I love conferring with my students; I find that it’s a great way to get to know them as people, as learners, and as readers. This year, I look forward to getting to know them better as writers, too. But it’s not easy.
There’s much to consider and so little time in which to do it. For example, we have many students, some of whom are reluctant to confer, and we have to make a bigger effort in order to ensure we confer with them regularly. We have others who are eager to confer all of the time, and we have to gracefully prioritize everyone. Conferences should be meaningful while lasting between two and four minutes. The list of conferring challenges goes on… I’m sure we can all make our own lists of struggles.
Last year when I started teaching with the reader’s workshop model, I did my best to follow the advice and directions given in chapter six of Book Love. It’s invaluable, and if you haven’t read it, do.
In that chapter, Kittle organizes reading conferences into three different types:
- Monitoring the student’s reading life.
- Teaching strategic reading.
- Helping the student plan the complexity and challenge of her reading.
I like this organization and approach, and I found it to be a big challenge to do it exactly as described.
At the core, what I do with my students is what is described in Book Love. I only slightly modified it, and I like how it works. Below, I’ll share my thinking on the different purposes of the conference that are described in chapter six.
To me, the monitor feels like a check-in. It can be done in an official conference, but it often unofficially happens in the hallways, the library, at the beginning of class, and when I read the words they’ve written about their reading lives. I overhear student conversations, I participate in class discussions, and I ask the question “What are you reading?” all the time.
So when I need to check in with a student, I’ll ask some basic questions like How’s this book going for you? or Why did you choose it? What do you like about it? Does it feel like a challenge? too easy? or just right?
If I’ve already had that hallway conversation or have recently read a written response from this student, there’s a good chance I’ll know already which direction the conference needs to go in, so instead of asking those questions, I’ll move into either a help conference or a push conference.
Before I get to those two types, let me just point out that sometimes the conference stays in that first category – it is simply a check-in, and if the student is fine, reading something that seems on point considering all I know about the student, then I move on. I don’t linger; I let that student get back to the healthy reading life that she has.
However, if an answer to one or more of the questions (depending on how many I ask) seems like something is amiss, I quickly decide if the student needs help or a push.
If the student is struggling, then I try to determine if he needs some new reading strategies, or some help. Then I do my best to deliver. The goal is to help the student create meaning and to make the difficult text accessible, especially when the student is motivated and excited about the book he’s reading.
Over time, when students have found success with challenging books, have learned new reading strategies and skills, and have read more words and pages than ever before, previously challenging books become easy. In this case, we move into the push category of conferences.
This is a good time to ask about next reads lists, talk about the progression of the students’ reading over the course of the school year (reading ladders), and challenge students to expand their comfort zones and to read more challenging books. Challenging can mean many things: new genres, new forms, or higher Lexile levels, to name a few. It’s a time for long- and/or short-term goal-setting, and to remind students of how far they’ve progressed. The reminder and celebration of the personal accomplishments can inspire challenging reading goals that the students believe they can accomplish.
When I was doing some thinking and processing about student conferences last year, I came up with a mini-anchor chart for teachers, or a placemat, I guess, which can be used when conferring with students.
It’s still hand-written, and I’m sure at some point I’ll digitize it. But at this point it represents my thinking about reader’s workshop conferring, and it works for me. I’ve pasted a copy in the front cover of the notebook I use when conferring with students, and it serves as a gentle reminder to me when I talk to students about their reading lives.
I really want my students to cycle through the help and the push category of conferences, because that’s when I know they are learning. They need help with difficult texts until those texts become independently manageable. Then they need a push, into more difficult texts, and the cycle repeats.
I love Penny Kittle’s work. I have been able to take her ideas and use them directly in my classroom. They are practical and simply make sense. They also push my thinking and my practice, and are adaptable, as I’ve described above. I would suggest that Book Love should be required reading for all teachers who teach using the workshop model, even though I believe in the power of choice reading.
I wish that all teachers find success with conferring. I know it’s sometimes intimidating and can seem unmanageable, but it’s so worth the time and effort. Getting to know our students as readers is essential, and conferring might just be the best way of doing it.
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