How to Confer with Your Readers

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It’s been just over a month since school started. My fourth graders and I have spent four weeks building community, establishing routines and practicing procedures. Every day we increased our reading stamina by agonizingly slow (for me!) increments, until we finally reached the 20 minute mark – and the heart of my teaching. Finally, a week ago, I was able to begin conferring with my students.

For me Reading Conferences are the reason to use a Workshop model. This format allows me to meet with each and every student, discuss their reading, set goals, and tailor their instruction in a way that nothing else can. I know every child’s reading habits, strengths and challenges, and I work with them to grow their learning over the course of the year.

I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic, trying to find the perfect formula for my conferences and there are some great resources out there which I’ve listed at the bottom of this post. But the truth is, the way my conference goes depends on the student sitting in front of me. And to my mind, this is the way it should be. The whole point of conferring with my students is to be able to create an individualized plan for each and every one of my readers. I want them to feel like they have a ‘personal trainer’ for reading – someone who will guide, support and celebrate their reading goals. That being said however, I usually follow an outline that helps keep me on track and ensures I cover all the important bases.

The first conference I have with a student usually takes longer than future conferences will. This one sets the tone and provides momentum for learning.  Below is an outline of what my initial conferences look like:

1) This is What I’ve Learned About You as a Reader
We review the Reading Survey students filled out for me at the beginning of the school year, and then go over assessment data (formative and summative). I also review their Reading Logs to see what they’ve been reading since school started.  I make sure to give a compliment and highlight strengths.

2) This is an Area We Could Work on Together
I always ask first, “Is there an area of reading you feel you need to work on?” (I use the broad categories comprehension, fluency, accuracy and vocabulary – there is abundant research to support these as the building blocks of reading). I want my students to feel like they have some control over their learning.  If students are unsure, we go back and review the data and pick an area together.

3) Now You Pick a Strategy to Focus On
I use Gail and Joan’s amazing CAFE Menu for this part. The CAFE Menu lists reading strategies under the four categories above. My mini lessons have already explored many of these strategies and taught students how to implement them in their own reading.  I let students pick one that they would like to focus on and we highlight it in their Readers Notebook.

4) Here’s a Plan to Help You Grow
I provide students with a step by step plan to implement this strategy. This is the central part of our conference – it’s the ‘teaching moment’ and differs for every child. The depth and complexity of the plan depends on the needs of each student. This is where your knowledge as a reading teacher is so crucial. You need to know what will help your students meet their goals.

5) Tell Me Your Plan and Put it on Paper
I have students write down their focus area, and strategy plan in the “Goals” section of their Readers Notebook. I ask them to tell me in their own words what their plan is. They also write their name on a small sticky note and place it on our Reading Strategy Board under their area of focus.

6) Let’s Set a Date
I mark a date on my calendar to meet with the student to review the work they have done on their goal. This is when I will assess their progress and we will either move on to a new strategy if they have mastered their first goal, or rework our plan if they are still struggling. The frequency I meet with students depends on their needs. I may be checking in with some students every day if they are well below grade level expectations. Others I may not see (in a formal conference) for two weeks if they are working well above grade level, and their goal requires significant time and thought.  I will still check in with them informally in a “how’s it going?” style in between formal conferences.


I have so enjoyed the conferences I’ve completed so far.  Right now, I get through 2 or 3 in one Independent Reading period (25 minutes).  It’s a slow process, but I’m already seeing amazing results.  This year, I made sure to incorporate goal work into my students’ Readers Notebooks, so now I have a written record of the work they’re doing (pictures to come in a future post).

Below are some of the best resources I have found for conferring.  I welcome your comments and feedback – how does conferring work in your classroom?  What are your conferring strengths and struggles?

Have a great week!

Annabel

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This Much I Know is True – Putting Your Beliefs in Writing

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This week I was lucky enough to Skype with Ruth Ayres, who is working with me as a Writing Coach. I feel very confident in my ability to teach reading, but I’m not completely satisfied with my writing program as yet. When Ruth posted that she would be available to work as a Writing Coach, I was thrilled beyond belief to have the opportunity to learn from someone with her knowledge and skills. This year my District adopted new curriculum for both Reading and Writing, and I’ll admit I’m finding the Writing more challenging to work through. I wanted some extra insight and a chance to get feedback from someone who really ‘knows her stuff’.

I’ve been feeling more than a little frustrated with the way things were going in my Writer’s Workshop. I couldn’t quite put it into words, but it just didn’t FEEL right. I contacted Ruth and she listened patiently to my frustration and confusion and in her sweet and thoughtful way said “I think a little list in your notebook called, “This I Know About Teaching Writers…” might unleash some of your beliefs and help you filter through the (new writing) resource.” So I sat down and started writing. WOW. This assignment really did ‘unleash’ my thinking in a way that nothing else could have. Putting my philosophy about teaching writing on paper really made me think about what I do and what I believe to be TRUE. It gave me clarity and direction and helped me pinpoint why I’d been having so much trouble. I think the hardest part about adopting a new curriculum as a veteran teacher, is that we already have some knowledge about what works well for our students and a philosopy that guides the way we have taught that subject. Correlating what we believe with what the new curriculum is asking can be a stressful and sometimes conficting experience.

However, the very act of putting in writing what I believe gave me such a sense of peace. I took a breath and gave myself permission to admit what I know and believe is true for my students, and ultimately I realized I’m just not that far apart from the new curriculum I’m teaching. I may not teach it in ‘exactly’ the same way, but the bottom lines are there.

I will be forever grateful to Ruth for giving me this assignment and I HIGHLY recommend it for every teacher. Putting what you believe about teaching in writing is an experience that will both center you, and help your every day teaching. When you know what’s at the core, the edges are not so blurry.

Have a great week

Annabel

Thank you Ruth for your wisdom and patience. Ruth’s Website

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If you’re interested, here is what I came up with: My Writing Truths

It Takes Time

Back to school is always a time of contradictions for me. While I love the ‘clean slate’, fresh new group of fourth graders, eager, smiling faces and loads of possibilities, I’m also feeling frustrated about having to re-teach the rules, start at the beginning, and remember everything takes longer than I think it will. I want to be diving into curriculum, having great group discussions, watching partners work with each other, and reading astouding fourth grade thoughts – NOW! I want that hum of a busy and productive classroom that was my favorite part of last year.

But I know that all these amgood thingsazing things come with a lot of hard work and time. It takes time to establish routines, behavior expectations, and most importantly, trust. Some students will walk in your room ready to take risks and dying to share. Others will come to the conversation over time. Each deserves the best education I can give them. And that takes patience. Right now I’m reminding myself daily of the importance of slowing down. I know that an effective classroom takes time. Time to build reading and writing stamina, time to grow relationships with and between students, and time to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. One day last week, I had to stop independent reading after only five minutes because a student got up to walk across the room. I didn’t ask why, or single out the student for reprimand. I just stopped the session, explained why we had to stop and told students we would try again tomorrow. Their disappointment was almost as deep as mine. But the next day we made it to our goal of 10 minutes – easily. These are the lessons that are so very important. Sure, I want them to read for 20 minutes right off the bat so I can start conferring, but I know that if I don’t take the time to do it the right way now, my quietly humming classroom full of hardworking, engaged students will never exist.

Every day, I’m chanting quietly to myself, “it takes time, it takes time, it takes….time”. I’m stopping to enjoy the smiles, handshakes and stories that greet me at the door and giving a few extra minutes of partner sharing about the weekend. I’m starting over when I have to, and reminding myself that in end these small moments are what will make our classroom the special place I will miss when I begin again next year.