Monday, March 7, 2016

Acres of Diamonds

The first video footage I ever saw of a teacher conferring with a student about writing astounded me. The conversation wasn't about correction; it was about decisions--the decisions made by the writer. 

[Cue the music of angels and flood the stage with golden light]

EUREKA! There is so so so much more to discuss. There is significant value in discussing the decisions of writers. It is so valuable, in fact, that it is literally worth our time to make it work, to make it happen.

For a few years, I had been scanning the web and thumbing through professional texts for links and QR codes for more examples, but few examples exist. Sure, I found footage of Atwell, Graves and Calkins, and Kittle, but there really is not much (publicly) in the way of video/audio beyond what has already been offered by these Titans. 

I had been so hungry to watch and listen to other teachers in the act of conferring with their kids, that I forgot about the acres of diamonds in my own backyard. And in your backyard! Why spend years scouring the globe when many of the answers I'd love to have are literally right here in front of me...are literally right in front of you, too!

My kids. Your kids. My students. Your students. Me. You. Why wasn't I recording my conferring?

Why aren't you??? (Are you? If so...please share!)

At the beginning of the year, I started using the Voice Record Pro app on my iPhone to record the conferences, and I haven't looked back. Instead of fumbling with clipboards, instead of the daunting task of deciphering hastily scrawled observations, I keep a library of audio recordings of my conferring right on my iPhone.

Through email, or uploading into Google Docs, or into an unlisted YouTube channel, I have shared these audio files with students and their parents. In each case, it has proven to be a concrete method of talking about what the student is saying about their writing in addition to what the student is showing in the writing. After several months of realizing what a goldmine of information my kids were sharing with  me, I decided to take the leap to podcast with my kids.

Three days a week, during lunch, I sit with two or three students and discuss reading or writing. We don't talk about any one specific essay or book per se, because I am more interested in writer and not so much the writing. I am interested in what has and what continues to influence their decisions. Where is their confidence? Where is their passion? Where is their curiosity? I try to say as little as possible. I want their words to build the content.

Learn from the writer, not just the writing.

So, my niche is presenting podcast episodes between 15-20 minutes in length that address these middle school students' perspectives on writing and reading. Students often offer a different (and honest) lens to see the very issues we grapple with as teachers.

So often, my kids tell me that they used to love writing, especially before elementary school. Many claim that up to third grade they still remember loving it. When I ask what changed. they say stress. Expectations. Time. Writing, especially writing for oneself, is no longer important enough. It gets set aside, forgotten. 

In the most recent episode (embedded below), Blank Paper & Big Dreams, one of my students says of herself as a writer, "I had big dreams." Kind of bittersweet to hear kids say this about themselves in the past tense. They are only thirteen and their writing dreams are over? What are we doing???

Give The Classroom a listen, and if so inclined, subscribe to it on iTunes. If you would rather hook up with it on your phone, I included a direct link on my Twitter profile @_briank_

In order to keep the podcast going, and in order to transition from one year and into the next year, I plan to podcast with teachers and authors over summers.

Finally, I would love some feedback...and I would be happy to answer any questions coming up for you. Technology has made it infinitely easy for us to keep audio libraries of our conferring as well as turn that workflow into a podcast--this is something that each of us could do in our own way. I would love to know if anyone gets something valuable from my podcast, but more importantly, I would love to know about your podcast if you decide to do something similar with conferring and talking/listening to your students.

PS Even though this looks like a video, it is an audio file.


  1. Thank you for sharing this! I'm trying to learn how to have more effective conferences in my reading intervention class, and I plan on viewing this later for some ideas. Different subject, but related teaching goal.

  2. Very interesting. I'll give it a listen later.

    I made audio recordings of my reading conferences with first graders last year in Evernote. We used them as a way to collaborate (the classroom teacher and I). I'm so happy to have them now as examples for other teachers. Duh, right?

  3. OMG! Thank you for doing this and making it sound so easy! Why haven't I been doing this?? I will definitely begin this week. I also plan to follow you on Twitter! Thanks again!

  4. I loved listening to this! It was so interesting to hear from you and your students. This is inspiring.

  5. Have you seen Ruth Ayres' website, Discover, Play, Build?

    She has a wonderful collection of videos about writing instruction on You Tube as well:

    Hope you find something there that interests you. She is AMAZING!

  6. Hey Brian! You gave a great commercial for your podcasts at PAWLP this Saturday! (It was really nice meeting you!) I really look forward to listening in to your posts! Thank you for sharing this piece. I love the line: "Learn from the writer, not just the writing!" Thank you for sharing!