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? Continue reading “Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud”