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

Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over

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This week my students and I are having a well deserved Spring Break. When we return to school, we will have a short 7 weeks together, and then the year is over. I’m resisting that urge to squeeze as much as I can into that short time, and instead I’m focusing on what I think is most important.

We still have one novel left to share, and it’s my favorite, Esperanza Rising. Every year, my students leave telling me they loved Esperanza the most – they even come back to my current fourth graders and tell them how much they will enjoy it – which is why I will squeeze it in, even though we are fast running out of time. This coming of age story filled with love, loss, pain and triumph is the perfect vehicle for discussing so many aspects of literature and life. Despite the fact that this book is set in California in the Great Depression era, there are still so many ways my students today will relate to her situation. My Spanish speaking students love seeing their language and culture explored in the pages of the novel. We will all laugh and cry together as Esperanza undergoes the transformation from indulged child to empathetic, wise, young woman at the tender age of 12. Sadly, I know more than a few of my students will relate to Esperanza as she struggles with issues of poverty and is forced to become ‘the responsible one’ well before her time.

But the reason I truly adore this novel and continue to teach it every year is because of the underlying theme – “Don’t be Afraid to Start Over.” If I could leave my students with only one message to carry with them as they move on in life, it would be this one.

“Kids are so resilient” was a phrase I heard often around the hospital wards we frequented with my daughter when she was younger. And it’s true. I was always astounded by the strength and optimism I saw there. I can say the same about the Kindergarten classes I taught and even the first grade children I see in my hallway now. But something happens between 1st and 4th grade. Kids start to worry about taking risks. They want to get the ‘right answer’. They are afraid of making mistakes. Somewhere along the way in their educational journey our children’s optimism is defeated. Maybe it’s ‘the tests’, maybe it’s poor teaching, maybe it’s pressure from home, or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

But I want my students to be resilient. I want my students to know that making mistakes is part of life. That the reason we are who we are is because sometimes we’ve made the wrong choices. Life and learning are always about starting over. About trying again, about seeing opportunities to learn from our mistakes, and about knowing that we are more than one test result.

Next Tuesday we will be back at school and I cannot wait to introduce Esperanza to my students. We will talk about mountains and valleys, love and loss and not being afraid to start over.

“Authentic Learning”

I’m tagging on to Ruth Ayers Celebration Writing, although I know it was supposed to be up yesterday!

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We have been working on a unit for Opinion Writing in my classroom over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been feeling more than a little frustrated, wondering if my students would ever ‘get it’. The strong thesis statement backed up by logical reasons, the engaging hook, the neatly formed paragraphs, the sound conclusion – and don’t forget citing evidence from the articles we read! It’s overwhelming what I want these 9 and 10 year olds to do and I admit I was feeling a little disheartened by the task.

But then, during my Daily 5 workshop time, two boys approached me with that ‘look’ on their faces – that look that means “we know we’re not supposed to interrupt you Mrs. Hurlburt, but we have something really important to share”. I can never turn them away when they look at me that way 🙂 With words bubbling over and an enthusiasm 10 year old boys don’t usually like to show when it comes to reading and writing; this is what I was told:

“Mrs. Hurlburt, Ethan and I were just talking about what we thought was better, the PS3 or XBox console.”
– I admit I may have those console names wrong – and at this point I was ready to jump in with – “and what does this have to do with reading???!!” – but I held my breath and I’m glad I did, because this is what came next:

“And then we both said at the same time ‘OPINION WRITING!’ So we both want to write an opinion essay on which one we think is best – is that OK with you?”

Is that OK with me??? Do you know how hard it was not to burst into song/tears/shouts of joy right then and there?! It was one of those moments where I took a deep breath, smiled my biggest smile and said “Boys, I think that’s a great idea” while secretly high-fiving myself all over the room.

This, my friends, is what makes my day/month/year as a teacher. When my students see a way to apply something they have learned in class to their own lives – well isn’t that the ultimate definition of “Authentic Learning”? It truly was a celebratory moment.

Later that week, I did a 4th Grade Feedback Survey with my students (I got this idea from the fabulous Mr. Jones. You can access my version here if you’d like to try it with your class). And here is one of the responses I received to the question “What project, experience or lesson did you most enjoy this year?”

‘I loved the opinion writing it was my favorite I liked it so much I actually started to do one with ethan’

Wow.

We still have a ways to go with our opinion writing. We will have a benchmark test at the end of April. But I will carry those words with me for much longer. I know that at least two of my students discovered that writing has purpose and power. They know they can use their words to convince others, to create change and to make their mark – even if they don’t have the perfect ‘hook’.

Freedom to Teach

The last two weeks I have been down the black hole of report cards, immersed in grades, comments and discussions with my partner teacher about the progress of our students and where to go next. I’ve also been a leader on a committee that is creating our District’s new Standards Based report card that will reflect our implementation of Common Core and a new 1-4 grading rubric. In short, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about assessing students – how it’s done, how it’s shared with parents, students and teachers; and what it means for those fourth graders that sit in my classroom every day.

This year California teachers and students were given a rare and precious gift. The California Legislature chose to opt out of the State testing that typically happens in April, in order to prevent students from having to experience a ‘double testing’ regimen of STAR plus the new Smarter Balanced pilot tests.

I like to think of myself as a teacher who does not ‘teach to the test’. I look at the standards and plan my curriculum accordingly. I teach what I think students need, based on where they come in to my class, and where I want them to be by June. I give them academic and emotional support. I try to share some life lessons along with my reading and writing lessons. I have high standards for my students – I want them to soar academically and socially. And I am fortunate to have an Administrator who supports me.

But not having the STAR test looming over our heads this year has taught me an important lesson. It changed the way I teach. This year I took more risks, I tried different strategies, I took more TIME. I focused on what I really wanted my students to get out of fourth grade, without worrying about whether I had covered every way they could be asked about a particular aspect of writing strategies and conventions. We had more book talks, more partner work, more book clubs. I finally started my long-planned but never implemented Breakfast with Books Club. I did ‘close reading’, but with texts that I knew the students would be drawn to (every single copy of The False Prince has been checked out of our school library since we read closely from the first chapter last week). My overarching goal was for this group of students ( at least 40% of whom came to me reading below grade level) was to get them excited about reading. To teach them the joy, fear, excitement and grief that can be found in the lines of a text. To make connections with characters and authors and to share their love of reading with each other.

As I assess my students at the end of second trimester, I feel very positive about where we are. Monday mornings are filled with conversations about books we’ve read over the weekend. I hear students randomly discussing characters and plots from books during their free time. Spontaneous book clubs have sprung up as kids share their love of Harry Potter and the Stranded Series of books. They are reading for pleasure and knowledge. And in the end, this is what I wanted. Are they ready to take the Smarter Balanced test? I’ll know in May when we take the pilot. But from what I’ve seen and read so far from other Districts, we will most likely do very poorly. However, in my mind, my students have already succeeded.

I am not an anti-testing advocate. I believe we need ways to assess our students – but we need multiple measures. No single test should define the way we teach. And I’m especially concerned about the money and industry that has sprung up around testing our students. For myself, this year has been enlightening. I am a different teacher when April isn’t looming as ‘testing month’, and I like what I’ve learned.

Having the freedom to teach has indeed been a precious gift.

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Giggles, Tears, and the Secret to Success in Teaching

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Last week was a challenge. You know those days……the days when well planned lessons go awry, even our ‘best’ students seem to have forgotten that well laid foundation for independent work, and the more challenging students are spinning notebooks on their pencils during the mini lesson, or passing notes to each other during work time. Call it Spring Fever, call it barometric pressure, call it a full moon – whatever you call it – you know how it feels! I think the ‘high point’ was when a visiting teacher, coming to learn about my workshop model, helped one of my students dispose of a cockroach that had cozied up to him while he was writing on the floor. You can imagine how much learning happened in the following 10 minutes!

We’ve all had those days, those weeks, and sometimes those years when the reality of your classroom doesn’t quite match the vision in your head. Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon and if it were in my power, I would make sure every teacher in the country had access to it.

My teaching partner.

I am lucky enough to teach with a person whose passion for teaching rivals mine. We have similar teaching styles, but enough differences that we complement each other. I know this is a rare and precious thing, because in my 9 years of teaching, this is the first time I’ve experienced it. I know that when I have those days, I can walk next door and tell my stories and we can both have a good laugh and/or cry – this week we laughed until we cried and it was such a wonderful release. Everyone should have a good giggle like that on a regular basis!

What makes our partnership even more special is the model we use to teach. I certainly take no credit for this model – it was well and truly entrenched at my school when I arrived and boy, am I glad I was willing to give it a try. I’ve recently heard it called ‘platooning’ in this article from Edweek. But you may know it as Departmentalization or Specialization. It’s the norm in Middle and High schools, but pretty rare at the elementary level.

Between us, my teaching partner and I have 60 fourth grade students – two homerooms of 30 children each. I teach Language Arts (reading and writing) and some Social Studies, and she teaches Math, Science and Social Studies. For example, my regularly scheduled day means I start by teaching Reading Workshop to my homeroom for 90 minutes, until morning recess. After a ten minute break (yard duty for us), the students switch homerooms (we are right next door to each other) and then I teach the same Reading Workshop to the second group of students for 90 minutes. Lunch time is 40 minutes and then I see both groups again in the afternoon for 50 minute blocks of writing, social studies, or grade level novel work. Mrs. R., my partner teacher, teaches Math to both groups in the morning, and alternates Science and Social Studies in the afternoons. Our students get all the required minutes for their subjects, plus the following benefits:

1. Movement and Variety – students move between the two classes and work with two different teachers.
2. They have two teachers who are specialists in their subject matter and teach accordingly – i.e. very well!
3. Students have two teachers who get to know them over the course of the year and work together to come up with ways to support and/or challenge them.

The benefits for teachers are as follows:
1. Having the opportunity to dive deeply into your content area and really expand your expertise – “Common Core” anyone??!
2. Getting to know twice as many students and make twice as many connections.
3. Sharing ideas/celebrations/frustrations with a partner who knows ‘exactly’ what you experience in your classroom. Say goodbye to feeling isolated and alone in your four walls.

I couldn’t think of a better way to teach. But I know that I’m lucky to work with someone whose ideology and beliefs about school, students, and teaching are similar to mine.

You may not have the opportunity to Departmentalize at your site, but you always have the opportunity to connect with another teacher. Trust me, this is the thing that will get you through the hard days, help you celebrate the great days, and smile at everything in between. Forge that connection – start small with a short conversation about curriculum, or how to help a struggling student. Make the jump to embrace connectivity – of the old fashioned kind 🙂 I promise, good things will happen.

I wish you giggles and tears and a partnership that brings your teaching to a whole new level.

Thanks Mrs. R. for being my other teaching half 🙂

Just Happy to Be Here

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Wednesday was the highlight of my week last week. I was able to spend almost the entire day discussing books – with students, with other teachers, and with administrators. This my friends, is my Happy Place.

The morning began bright and early with my first Breakfast with Books Book Club Meeting. I invited all 60 of my fourth grade students to join me for breakfast in my classroom every two weeks to discuss books and share literary experiences. I had been wanting to do this for a while, and finally took the plunge after reading a tweet from Patrick Andrus and checking out his blog . I’m so glad I did. I had 8 students sign up and it was perfect. We shared out the books we are currently reading and voted to read one together – Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. I wanted the kids to choose and I haven’t read this Newberry Honor winning book yet, so I was excited when it came out on top of our list. Breakfast with Books started at 7:45am and went until 8:25am when the bell rang and it was time for school to start. Everyone left happy and eager to start reading – I’m sure the donuts added a little pep to their morning too!

The rest of Wednesday morning was spent collaborating with my fellow fourth grade teachers from around the District, creating a Common Core Unit of Study for the novel Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan. I adore this book, and convinced my colleagues it would be a way to teach reading, writing and California history through the pages of an outstanding novel. As we transition to a Reader’s Workshop model and move further into Common Core, many of our teachers are struggling with what it means to teach without worksheets and a pacing guide. Our first attempt at this collaboration did not go so well, but thanks to the perseverance of our Curriculum Director, Common Core liaison, and a few fourth grade teachers, we tried again with great success. Teachers worked in small groups (not organized by site/school) and had wonderful discussions about the powerful themes, language and characters in the book. As people talked about their experiences with the novel, they were beginning to see the power of having students think deeply about what they read. The opportunities for thinking, talking and writing about reading were instantly obvious and I was so excited to see the buzz and enthusiasm that ensued. It was an extremely productive and enjoyable morning,

But as much as I loved this experience, I missed being in my own classroom with my own students. They are making some great strides right now and I am really enjoying watching their progress. As I reflected on my Breakfast with Books experience and the joy I saw on those faces, I realized THAT is the feeling I want to create in my classroom every day. Not just for those 8 children, but for all 60 of them. I know that the Daily 5/CAFE Workshop model I’m using has gone a long way towards helping me to create that atmosphere, but I still have a ways to go. This summer I am hoping to participate in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. This is my Holy Grail, my teaching Mecca. I will be on the computer on February 26th completing my application with all fingers and toes crossed! Hopefully I will have the opportunity to attend, and learn from the people I think are the very best at what they do. I will be just like one of those 8 students in my classroom on Wednesday morning, eyes lit up, face beaming, brain going full-speed ahead – just happy to be there 🙂