Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Power of Conferring

Conferring with students, conferencing one-on-one with students, individual conferences...whatever you want to call can be so powerful when you take time to analyze and reflect on your work with the students. 

In January, I committed myself to ramp up my reading conferences. I wanted to make a concerted effort to meet with each student once a week. I had started off the year strong with conferences in September and October and then November and December were a bit more inconsistent. 

Since ramping up my conferences, I have had so many aha moments about the importance of conferring. I have conducted reading conferences since I started teaching in 1998. I had a wise friend who taught me (as a first-year teacher) to always point out a "praise point" and a "teaching point." She suggested I label it PP and TP while keeping anecdotal records and it is something I have done since 1998. I loved the idea of always praising a child for something, as well as finding a teaching point to focus on each time. Meaningful compliments or "praise points" are so important for building a trusting relationship with your students.  I usually only give out compliments for the first month of conferring, before I begin to give teaching points. Students are more receptive to the teaching points after you have built that safe and trusting relationship. I try to make our conferring sessions feel like a one-on-one laid back conversation about books. The students then WANT to come up and conference with you and will actually ask..."when is it my turn?"

An example of conferring notes
Over the years, I have experimented with many different ways of keeping track of my conferences. Post-it notes(no-way...they were all over the place), an anecdotal grid with each child's name in a box(this worked really well for me...but the papers would pile up over time), a whole class conferring binder(this ended up being a HUGE binder that was hard to carry around and would fall apart halfway through the year), and finally what I use now. Now I use 5 different colored binders, one for each day of the week with 5-6 names in each binder divided by tabs. I read about this idea from Steven Layne and his book, "Igniting a Passion for Reading." I love this idea because I can focus on a certain set of students each day. Inside these binders, I include certain reading assessments, my conferring notes, and other data that gives me a comprehensive picture of each reader. 

Color-coded binders for conferring

When meeting with the students, I love the conversations that we organically have around books. They share with me their thoughts about reading in 4th grade, how their reading lives have changed since the previous years, their thoughts about why they are loving their book, their thinking about their books, what they are wanting to read next, their feelings about themselves as readers, their passion for a certain genre or series....the list could go on! 

It's important to listen and to model "good listening" when conferring. (This can be hard with all that we have to manage and observe while conferring!) I usually only ask open-ended questions when I meet with my readers. I also will sit and wait for my students to respond or for them to elaborate on their thinking. I don't rush them through their thinking or through the conference. I sometimes need to paraphrase what they are saying to familiarize the student with academic language. I will name what the child is trying to say as inferencing or say that they are using their background knowledge and the text clues to help them make an inference. This helps the child recognize what they are doing as they are reading and reminds them about what an inference actually is. 
An example of my notes...I paraphrase in my notes.

There are so many possible ideas for teaching points and that is where you as the expert teacher gets to make the decision about what that child needs to work on next. Do they need to work on reading the punctuation, thinking deeper about the text by using strategies that you have given them, building their reading stamina, setting reading goals, slowing down to think about the book, tracking how a character changes throughout a text, or whatever else the child is ready for NEXT in their reading life!

When I sit and confer with my students, I have so many feelings of affirmation. It reminds me of why I teach reading the way I do (using the balanced literacy approach) and why I have the goal of teaching reading so that every child in my classroom LOVES to read and walks away with a lifelong love of reading. I want them to read the pages willingly, find phrases that resonate with them, stop and think about the author's writing, make connections to the text, reread pages that didn't make sense or are worth going back to reread, and think about how that book has enriched their reading life. 

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