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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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 🙂

With all that I have, in the time that I’ve got

This week was a frustrating one in my classroom.
I don’t know if it was the full moon, the anticipation of a four day weekend ahead for my students, or poor teaching on my part, but things just did not go as planned. More than likely it was a combination of all three.

When things don’t go well in my classroom, it’s hard not to take it personally. I’m my own worst critic and I want everything to go perfectly all the time. This year, my goal is to focus on the positive and to look at things in terms of a continuum, not an end game. Don’t get me wrong, I still want everything to go perfectly, but I’m learning to reflect in a way that opens doors rather than shuts them.

So – what went wrong this week? In my last blog I wrote about putting my students into reading partnerships a la Lucy Calkins. Their first meeting – interviewing each other, thinking of a partnership name and drawing a logo was a great success. I should state upfront that assigning reading partners is not something I’ve been comfortable with in the past. I believe strongly in choice – kids who choose their own partners tend to be more invested in the work. But, I wanted to try this. There are benefits to putting “like” readers together, and giving students the chance to work with someone new. They can read the same books and talk about them together. I envisioned lofty conversations and highly engaged students sharing their love of reading with each other. I mean, thats what happened in the readers’ workshop book right?!

But here’s what I saw in my classroom this week. Bickering about where to sit, awkward silence when it came time to discuss novels, refusal to participate, tears, hurt feelings and anger. My response was to call everyone back to the rug, ask what worked and what didn’t work and send them out to try again. Some did better, most did not. Why didn’t it work? I mean, it’s mid way through the year, I feel like I’ve established a community of readers and a safe place to talk. We’ve done group work and partner work all year. It was definitely time to pull back and reflect and here is what I came up with:

1) no matter how many times we’ve discussed books as a class, my students needed more than just a list of things to talk about. (Your sticky notes, characters, plots, predictions). They needed sentence starters and more structured conversations. I was way too ambitious. In her book Writing about Reading, Janet Angellilo says “carefully scaffold students towards accountable talk, that is including everyone in the conversation, staying on topic, keeping with the text and so on”. P5. But there’s so much hidden in that “and so on”. This week I started thinking about WHY my students were having such a hard time talking to each other and sharing their ideas about books.

2) I teach in a Title 1 school where 50% of my students are in the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. I have students who are homeless, students whose parents are on drugs, students whose lives are anything but stable. I realized this week that I needed to look outside of my own middle class values and realize that many of my students do not have good conversational models at home. More often than not they are likely to witness arguments rather than conversations. If they do not have two parents at home, their conversational models are more likely to be the TV or radio. My own child attends my school and is in my grade level. Both his parents have post graduate degrees, and he hears us talk about books and current events on a regular basis. More often than not we sit around the dinner table and talk about our respective days. I’m sure this happens in the homes of some of my students, but not all. The children who have this experience are already so far ahead of those who don’t. They know how to interact politely and respectfully with others. They know how to share differences in opinions without offense. They can CONVERSE and LEARN from each other. How do I give my students what my son has learned in 9 years of life when I have such little time with them?

3) The answer is……with all that I have in the time that I’ve got.
I CANNOT not do this. I’ve been searching online for a curriculum that teaches accountable talk. I’ve found Pinterest boards and sentence stems. This week I plan to implement all that I can and have students talking to each other as much as I can. We have a lot of work to do.

So, I will not abandon my reading partnerships yet. In fact, I have made it my goal to get those kids talking to each other about books in a respectful manner if it kills me! We will bond, we will practice, we will talk, we will learn. From each other.

Please let me know if you’ve found anything that has helped your students practice the art conversation.

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Reading Peeps

Today was one of my favorite days so far this school year – I gave my students companions in their reading journeys. Each student was paired with a reader of similar ability and given time to interview each other, choose a reading partnership name, and design a logo for their partnership. We began by talking about what a good interviewer does and what kinds of questions they would need to ask to get the most out of their interviewee. This idea came from Lucy Calkins’ Readers’ Workshop books. I have been usingDaily 5/CAFE for the last two years, and now I’m trying out some of the original Readers’ Workshop ideas. I’ll admit I’m a little dubious about pairing children up long term. Up until now, my classroom has been all about choice – choosing who you read with and how often. But I can see the benefits of sticking with one partner, reading the same books, and having extended conversations about literature that are based on a shared reading history. So I’m giving it a go.

I have 2 classes of thirty fourth grade students. Today took a great deal of planning – I wanted to make sure each student was paired with someone that I felt would be an excellent reading companion, and a good match personality-wise. At the same time I was also looking to create ‘new’ partnerships by putting students together who wouldn’t naturally gravitate to each other. When you factor in the students who are overly shy, on the spectrum, or just generally anti-social, this becomes an overwhelming task. But today, I was ready.

And it worked. Really well.

My students were serious in their interviewing. They discovered shared likes and dislikes, created some very cool Partnership Names (The Reading Peeps, The Book Bros, The Fictioneers to name a few), and had fun designing a logo for their partnership (I scaffolded this activity by asking them if they were to design a t-shirt for their partnership what would it look like). What with all the preparation and the discussion of our next Project (creating a Book Trailer using iMovie) our 90 minutes flew by. They were literally groaning that they didn’t have time to read their book with their partner today! Actually, I’m glad, because it keeps that anticipation and excitement going for tomorrow. It’s like looking at the present under the tree that you can’t unwrap yet. So much of what we do in our classrooms involves framing things in the right way to motivate students and I can tell you, today was a BIGGIE!

Naturally, there were two or three partnerships in each class that I have some concerns about. I knew it would be more challenging for them to find common ground and/or communicate with each other. Some were boy/girl partnerships, some were students who would never choose to work together on their own, and some were challenged by their social skills – which is actually one of the main reasons I want to do this. I want my students to learn to converse with each other in a trusting, respectful manner about books and hopefully about life. I think this is a set of skills we need to TEACH – especially at a school like mine where students are struggling with so many of the issues associated with poverty and low Socio-economic status. So, here was my strategy for starting those groups off on the right foot today. As they were interviewing each other I approached them and told them, I was so very excited about this particular partnership. I outlined the strengths of each reader, and explained that both students were at a point in their reading lives where they were ‘taking off’ with their reading. I told them that together they would be unstoppable and I couldn’t wait to see how far they would go. Without fail, their eyes lit up with pride and they were excited to get back to work.

I know there is still so much work to do, but I feel great about our first day as long term reading partners and the way it will shape the learning that happens from here on out. I’m very proud of my Reading Peeps.

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Juicy Goodness

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This week, I have been able to experience my absolute favorite reading feeling. I spent several days immersing myself in some truly incredible professional books and lapped each paragraph up for its juicy goodness. I mean, I feel like I have the juice of ripe fruit dribbling down my chin, the sticky chocolate bits on my fingers, and the melt in my mouth gorgeousness of sugary meringue on my tongue. There were so many wonderful nuggets in these books that I literally had to set them down every 20 minutes or so and spend some time just absorbing what I’d learned. My family was slightly amused by my desire to start conversations with them about reading, and to discuss the meaning and validity of certain teaching practices (not so easy with my 9 year old who was lucky enough to be home with me most of the time and the recipient of the majority of my ramblings!) I miss my co-workers!

This, my friends is my reading Nirvana – my truly happy place. I love exploring my profession and learning from others. I am the proverbial “sponge” that can’t wait for school to start on Monday so I can implement the things I’ve read about. But more importantly, I can’t wait to tell my students how much I enjoyed my reading life over the break. If I could boil my teaching down to one single statement it would be “find your juicy goodness”. Well, maybe to be a bit less amorphous, “Find your reading bliss”. I want my students to discover the books that make them smile, exclaim “YES!”, grab the nearest warm body to discuss, sometimes cry, wail, and ultimately be changed forever. If I can do this lofty thing, then I have created readers for life or Readers in the Wild as Donalyn Miller would say. Connecting students with books that make them want to read more is, after all, the best way to start them on the road to educational success.

I hope you have enjoyed this respite we call Winter Break, and had a chance to rejuvenate your teaching core. I know I’m ready to jump back in and I can’t wait to get my students reinvigorated for 2014. I will share my reading life with them, and spend some time helping them set goals for the rest of the school year – including reading goals. I can’t wait to hear what my accomplished readers and formerly reluctant readers read over the break, and I will begin anew my quest to bring those last few stragglers into the fold of juicy goodness.

Best wishes to you for 2014 and may you always have a good book on hand.

Annabel Hurlburt

If you’re interested, my amazing reads this week were:

Writing about Reading by Janet Angelillo (I’m starting a book study with this book at my school – inspired by a post Donalyn Miller shared on #titletalk)

Building a Reading Life by Lucy Calkins
A Guide to Reading Workshop by Lucy Calkins
These books were a part of this set
(I do a form of Reading Workshop in my classroom already – Daily 5 and CAFE which was designed by the Two Sisters and I LOVE it. I wanted to read Lucy’s work and see how they compared and where I could add more. )