How’s It Going: Conferring With Students

This post is part of the Workshop 101 series, designed to teach the nuts and bolts of Reading and Writing Workshop. You can view the entire series here.

As mentioned in my previous Workshop 101 post, one of workshop teaching’s characteristic components is an approach to differentiated instruction called conferring. A conference is a short, one-on-one conversation between a student and the teacher. During a conference, the teacher listens as the student describes the work she’s doing, observes the student doing the work, and then gives a compliment and a teaching point to help lift the student’s work to the next level. Conferring is truly individualized instruction: the student has already received a whole-group teaching point during the minilesson, and is then given targeted, personalized feedback specific to his or her needs. I find that conferring is when I do the hardest-hitting work of meeting my students’ individual needs, and it’s the time when I see the most “light bulb moments” for my students. Like other forms of teaching, there is an art to conferring. It takes practice, and when you’re just trying it out, you might feel a little nervous or unsure about what to say and do. Today I’ll be sharing some basic, helpful tips to get started conferring with your readers and writers.

Reseach-Decide-Compliment-Teach

Research-Decide-Compliment-Teach Conferences, as described by Lucy Calkins in Guide to the Reading Workshop, are the most commonly used type of conference, and when people refer to “conferring,” this is usually what they mean. During this type of conference, the teacher sidles up to a student at work. The conference begins in the “research” phase, where the teacher is observing the student, discussing his work, and thinking back to previous conferences you’ve had with him. The research phase may sound something like this (note: my example is for a writing conference, but reading conferences take on the very same structure):

Teacher: Hi, Jacob. What are you working on today?
Jacob: Oh hi, I’m working on the middle part of my story. Remember how you told us about stretching out the “heart” of our stories? I’m trying to do that.
Teacher: Oh, wow! Show me how that’s going for you.
Jacob: Well, I think the heart of my story is right here, where I figure out that I can’t see my parents anymore. I’m lost.
Teacher: So what are you doing to stretch out that part?
Jacob: I’m trying to do it like you showed us in the minilesson, where you add lots of describing words to show what it looked like and sounded like. So before it sounded like this, and now it sounds like this.

During this short conversation, the teacher is constantly mining Jacob to figure out his thinking and what he’s been trying to do. Notice how she keeps prompting Jacob to show more and tell more. The research phase is all about gathering as much data as possible to formulate a goal or teaching point for the student. Most important to this phase is listening with your whole heart. The student should be driving the conversation with occasional prompts from you.

The next phase of this conference is the Decide-Compliment phase. During this time, the teacher decides on a teaching point that will be most helpful for the student, and also determines some positive feedback to give the student on his current work. This part of the conference might sound like this:

Teacher: Oh, wow, Jacob! You have been doing some seriously incredible work. First of all, you found the heart of your story, the part where you feel the biggest emotions. I can see that in this part, you were feeling really scared when you realized you were lost. I think you made a good decision to stretch this part out. You know, sometimes kids have a really tricky time figuring out the heart of their story, but not you! You figured it out right away. Way to go. Another thing that you’re doing really well here is that you started to add in more describing words to stretch this part out. It’s like you’re putting your story into slow motion and making me pay close attention to everything that’s happening. Like in this part, where you wrote, “I looked around at the big crowd of people. I could see a man in a baseball cap and a woman in a green dress. There was a guy in a uniform who was helping kids on and off a ride. But I couldn’t see my parents anywhere!” I can really imagine what it was like to be there! But you know, Jacob, you’ve done so well with stretching the heart of your story out that I think you’re ready for the next level. Can I give you a tip that’s going to boost your writing even more?

This transitions right into the last phase of the conference: the Teach phase. During this phase, you deliver the teaching point, have the student try it out while you watch, and then help the student transfer the work to their independent work. It might go something like this:

Teacher: Something really sophisticated writers like Karen Hesse do is to add in what the character is thinking and feeling during the heart of the story. For example, let’s say that I’m telling the story of the time when I got my pet kitten. Remember that story from our minilesson? I want to show what I was thinking and feeling when I held her for the first time. I was really happy. I think I would write it like this…“My dad placed Violet into my outstretched hands. She was so tiny that she could stand on my palms. As I touched her soft, grey fur, she looked at me and started to purr. ‘Oh, she’s so cute!’ I thought. My heart felt like it was full to bursting.” Let’s turn back to the heart of your story. I wonder what you were thinking and feeling when you looked around and didn’t see your parents?
Jacob: I was thinking, “Where’s Mom?!”
Teacher: Oh, man. How were you feeling?
Jacob: I was really scared.
Teacher: Can you show how scared you were? Was your body doing something that showed you were scared?
Jacob: My heart started beating really fast!
Teacher: That happens to me when I’m scared, too. How do you think we can add these awesome new details to your story?
Jacob: Hm…I think I could maybe put it here. Kind of like you did with your cat story.
Teacher: Awesome. Re-read that to yourself and see if you like it. Jacob, remember that really great authors add in what their characters are thinking and feeling. You should definitely do that in the heart of your story, but you can do it in other places, too. I’ll jot this tip on a post-it for you to keep, and I’ll check in with you again tomorrow to see how it’s going.

For those of you who learn best by seeing it in action, here are two of my favorite conferring videos from TCRWP:

A writing conference with Amanda Hartman and the cutest kindergartener that ever was…

…and a truly incredible reading conference with a middle school student.

It’s a lot of information packed into a short amount of time! Most of my conferences last 5-10 minutes. I definitely don’t want to go longer than 10 minutes, because then I am taking valuable work time away from my students. During or just after the conference, I jot down some anecdotal records for myself to keep track of student progress and next steps. I’ll give some ideas for record keeping systems in a future blog post.

What are the rest of the kids doing?

Classroom management is one of the biggest concerns for teachers who are new to conferring. Many teachers wonder, “What are the rest of the kids doing while I’m conferring? How do I make sure they’re on task?” The answer to the first part of this question is that the rest of the kids are engaged in their independent reading or writing. The answer to the second part is a little longer.

Establishing protocols and expectations at the beginning of the school year is key to developing a classroom of independent readers and writers. Students must know that work time is work time, with no exceptions. I find that the biggest obstacle to uninterrupted conferences is not students who are disruptive for the sake of misbehaving, but students who are dependent on the teacher for small tasks. Because of this, I take time at the beginning of the school year to explicitly teach protocols for things like what to do when you run out of paper, what to do when you finish your book, or what to do if your neighbor is distracting you. Once basic routines have been learned, I can usually answer student questions with a quick, “You know what to do.” Most times, if I am in the middle of conferring, I do not acknowledge a student who comes to stand next to me. Eventually they will either figure it out independently, wait for me to be finished, or end up listening in on the conference and learning something new! Never underestimate the power of eavesdropping.

For students who are disruptive during work time because they are off task, I have to consider the individual student’s needs and motivations. If it’s a situation where friends are distracted and talking, I separate them. If a student is lacking stamina and getting burned out quickly, I will try a system of short bursts of work time followed by frequent breaks. I also consider whether the student is reading a book that is too easy or too hard, or if they are completely stuck in their writing and need teacher intervention. I use a system of logical consequences in my classroom, so I always try to problem-solve by reaching for the root of the issue.

With practice, explicit teaching/modeling, and constant reinforcement, students learn their roles during work time, and you will become a pro at conferring!

Got questions about conferring? Let me know in a comment below!

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4 Comments

  1. I work with a beautiful group of ELL students and conferring has always been so tough for me. When I ask my students what they’re working on, they never have as much to say as in your examples, which makes research extra challenging. Do you have recommendations for how to coax more out of a student?

    1. I have this issue sometimes too, especially with students who don’t have a background with the workshop, and who don’t understand the lingo, so to speak. When I ask a kid “What are you working on today?” and they say, “Reading…?” Then I tell them outright what I mean: “When I ask ‘what are you working on,’ what I mean is, what are you doing today to become a better reader?”

      Sometimes that’s enough to get the ball rolling, but sometimes I have a student who really hasn’t set a goal, or who lacks the metacognition of thinking about their reading skills. In situations like that, it can be helpful to turn back to the anchor chart with strategies listed. You can ask the student, “which of these would you like to work on today?” And then go from there. You might want to help this student by providing a visual cue for goal setting, like a bookmark with goal post-its stuck to it, or a writing checklist with a goal highlighted. I would do a quick check in with the student the next day to make sure they have determined a goal for their work.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Do you have any particular documents you use to record conferences? Perhaps specific notes you take while you are conferencing with students? Interest, engagement, comprehension, etc.

    Thanks!

    1. Yes! I have tried several different systems for recording conference notes and I’ll be sharing them in a future blog post, so stay tuned!

      I will say that I always write down the compliment and teaching point I delivered, no matter what!

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