Friday, October 30, 2015

When the Child Talks, We Learn

Who has (or does) conferring belong(ed) my classroom?

Many images of conferring show teachers sitting in chairs or kneeling alongside of students. The teacher asks the questions and the student does the talking.

In theory, conferring belongs to both the student and the teacher. The student learns by talking. Donald Graves writes, "Children don't know what they know. Most learners don't. When we speak, or when someone else elicits information from us, it is as informative to the speaker as it is to the listener." If we agree with Graves, how do we ensure that the experience, results, and impact of the conference remains with the teacher and the student beyond that single moment?

Writing as the teacher, I realize record keeping matters. Yet, it can be challenging. I have tried many variations of coding and shorthand. In the process of conferring and recording by hand, I find myself distracted and not fully absorbing what the student says. Additionally, my ability to engage the art of conversation--listening and asking questions to nudge the speaker further into his/her thoughts--suffers. In the end, my hand-scrawled notes serve as nice evidence of conferring, but they did not necessarily help me help the student.

I'm struck by something specific that Donald Murray wrote, "I must listen and the students must do the talking."

If Murray meant listen and write he would have written listen and write. But he did not. He wrote listen. Yet, I have often felt obligated to scribble hieroglyphics onto yellow legal pads while students poured out their thoughts, struggles, triumphs, and discoveries. I wonder what opportunities for growth we may have missed...

Over twenty years ago Graves suggested, "Keep tape-recorded samples of your conferences with children who do well and children who struggle." I wonder, if Graves were alive today, if he might amend his advice to record every conference on a personal device. 

I have read that students should write four times more than a teacher could possibly read or respond to--could the same be true of conferring? Should students be conferring 4x more than a teacher could ever participate in?

I imagine this depends on who we feel the conferring belongs to.

Currently, I use the app Voice Record Pro because it works on my iPhone, but more importantly I use it because I am able to easily store and manage conferences in a variety of places. These options include sending it by email or SMS, saving conferences to Google Drive, Drop Box, OneDrive, Box Cloud, or Sound Cloud. Also, I can send the recorded conferences to a personal website or even Facebook. However, I immediately upload the conferences to a private/unlisted YouTube channel.

By keeping records in this manner, I am able to place my device down on the desk and truly engage my listening in the moment with the student. I am also able to go back and listen to conferences and I am able to share conferences with the students, parents, administration, or guidance counselors if need be.

I can even share one with you here.

However, I am back to my original question--who has (or does) conferring belong(ed) to in my classroom?

Do I still wield more ownership than there needs to be--even if the student is doing the bulk of the talking? Have some of the conditions of conferring improved for both the teacher and the student since Graves wrote his advice decades ago?

One way I am going to examine and reflect on these questions is by inviting my students to record their own conferences with their writing partners. My classroom is a BYOD classroom and most students bring in a personal device. For those who do not, I have a classroom set of iPads and Chromebooks.

My students sit with self-selected writing partners. We write 4 out of the 5 days in class, and the writing partners discuss and share throughout the entire process when they feel they need it.

I am wondering how Graves and Murray would feel about the possibility of students recording their own student-to-student conferring sessions and then uploading selected conferences (student choice) to a classroom YouTube channel or a shared classroom folder in Google Drive or DropBox.

I imagine we may be crossing into a new and relatively unexplored territory of ownership and access. Imagine building a library of student-to-student and teacher-to-student conferences where all students had the ability to listen and learn from each other--beyond their writing partners, beyond the one-on-one with me, and beyond the confinement of time and space in school.

My current classroom research with Dr. Jolene Borgese has led me to experiment with the creation of just such a library.

After all, some students already set up shared documents--on their own--or email stories to friends for feedback. The more I set my yellow legal pads down, and the more I simply listen, I hear the students tell me that they want feedback...they want conversation...they want to share...and they want it with their peers. They want to own the conferring process because it is deeper with a friend than with a teacher.

Since deeper might just mean more meaningful, why wouldn't I create the space and conditions for those deeper, more meaningful, connections and discoveries?

I have been recording conferences (such as this one with two writing partners) where students share just how much--how deeply and specifically--they discuss writing without me. This is powerful and instructive for me to hear.

In their own way, students have been telling me, who the conferring should belong to in this classroom.

I am wondering if my students are speaking to you as well?

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