Thursday, February 2, 2012

Halfway Point Reflection: Conferring

At the halfway point of my school year I am asking my students to reflect today in their Writer's Notebooks--list the moments, decisions, experiences that have had made a significant difference for you (as learner, person, friend, family member, musician, athlete, artist...) --write about some.

Today will be a long stretch of writing--force them to develop that writing and reflection muscle.  I'll use the time to take advantage and continue conferences.  I began them on Monday but only got to a 1/3 of each class as I sat down at a table and spent 3-5 minutes with each student.  Today I will do it by walking to the students at their desks with their most recent drafts in hand.  This will keep me moving, but will give me an opportunity to touch base with many more students today.

At the bottom is my list of reflections (in no particular order) about my teaching year thus far--I extracted conferring as the one topic that I just wanted to spill my guts about:

Ten Things That Have Made a Significant Difference in my Teaching just this year


Finding the willingness to seek help over the past three years has enabled me to incorporate conferring in the classroom.  In the form of reading and trusting the research and reflections, and through workshops and collaboration with the NWP and our local affiliate PAWLP, I have resuscitated teacher-student conferencing as a regular event.

By finding my own willingness, that same attitude had rubbed off onto the tenor of my class and the attitudes of my students.  I used to wonder why kids never came to see me for help with their writing--after all, I spent hours writing pithy comments and suggestions along the borders of their pages.  Didn't anyone want to ask for help?  Didn't anyone need help?

Sometimes I think we'd rather drown than ask for help--teachers and students.

This summer, I heard colleagues from other districts wonder how people had time for conferring.  Over the years I've questioned how it is possible for one teacher to possibly confer a lot.  Before I landed a full-time teaching job I worked as a theme-reader for a local high school--I was paid to read and confer.

While training in the PAWLP (NWP) Writer's Workshop, we read again and again that the research, pedagogy,  and reflections recognize conferring as a valuable tool, but I fear that it may be one of the weakest instructed and supported skills for teachers coming out of universities and perhaps even supported through professional development in the nation.  That is my assumption.

Conferring with students (and parents) takes confidence and it takes having something to say something meaningful beyond the surface errors.  Specifically, conferring about writing can backfire if all we are doing is pointing out every mechanical and grammatical error--doing that is a also a time chewer and would dissuade teachers from going back to it.  I could simply mark all the errors on a paper and it is up to the student to look at them and make the corrections, right?  Honestly, teachers could conference for 15 minutes or more over one paper and one student--and that is just with the teacher talking and lecturing over each sentence.

The difference for me came when I learned to ask the student writer to reflect on aspects of the piece, or to talk me through their struggles and breakthroughs as if I were a reader.  Asking them to read a section of it, to lead a discussion about an error or area of improvement (something that confuses me as a reader/listener...something I want to know more about as a reader/listener) made more students make more improvements faster.  I see the changes:

a) conferring contributed to a shift my relationship from grammar cop to mentor
b) conferring built confidence as students understood I was willing to listen to them talk about their writing
c) conferring places a value on the piece of writing as more than just an assignment or means to a grade
d) frustration has dwindled--no longer are students gnawing through their thirteen year-old understanding to try and figure out what I want, how to please this teacher in this environment this time...rather, they are seeing themselves as capable and that everyone can improve
e) I know my kid's work and I know my lowest are rising...I can name three low scoring students (on state testing) and three very different deficiencies in their writing and how they have specifically grown (by leaps and bounds)
f) those in the middle and those on top demonstrate a desire to write and see the revisions through to a satisfying result, not an end; in other words, the perspective of my students has shifted from writing assignments are isolated to writing is a recursive process that I can get better at...and I know how.

The hurdle for me was understanding how to make conferring happen--where is the time?  I can't create more time--how do I find it?

Conferring stikes me as similar to exercise and weight loss--we identify and universally agree that each is healthy and go hand in hand--but in order to achieve the end result many of us need to make lifestyle changes, alter our schedule, think differently...we need to change.

Conferring is the same thing as those commitments in that it probably will not fit as neat little package into what we currently do as teachers (assuming many follow the traditional teaching model of instruction and use of time).  In order for a change we must first make that decision to change....and commit to it.

In order to use conferencing as an ongoing supplement to classroom instruction we have to be willing to break and redefine the traditional mold of how we were taught and the habits we've acquired since we left student teaching.

How many student teachers have come in ready, willing, and planning to confer with students one-on-one as a matter frequent classroom practice?  I've had six student teachers over 17 years and none have--furthermore, I did not do it as a student teacher.  (In that respect I'm lucky that I got to cut my teeth on conferencing as a theme reader).  It would be great to see more student teachers ready and willing to take that leap--you can't get good at it unless you do it, but it would be even better for all of us interested in conferring to read contemporary educational pioneers such as Penny Kittle, Nancy Atwell, Kelly Gallagher...the list goes on...discuss it with colleagues, seek training and professional development in it, and come to the understanding of how to make it work.

I heard a colleague lament this week that he/she would love to confer with his/her students, but doesn't have the time in the schedule--there is just so much to teach.  That is the universal critique of conferring from Maine to Florida, New Jersey to Oregon.

Finding the confidence and understanding how to manipulate time in the classroom, so that I can confer better and more often, has been one piece of a positive transition for me as a teacher this year.  As I recently told a colleague in the National Writing Project, now that I understand how to make conferring work in my classroom, I want my first 15 years of teaching back.

Other topics on my list that I may write about in the near future:
Writing alongside of my students

Rethinking myself as a mentor of skills as opposed to a judge of skills

Vocabulary quizzes built on context

Mentor texts

Being Positive

Independent Reading of Self-Selected Texts

Alternative Seating Arrangements

Reading and Writing Online

Reading and Trusting Education Research & Reflections

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