Off you go. In classrooms worldwide, those three little words send students off to either read themselves into brand new worlds, or to become the creators of them. Those words also send us as teachers off to become listeners, coaches, and fellow readers/writers. However sometimes, as we grab our conferring clipboards, we look up and our eyes are magnetically pulled to those students who need help. There may be kids with hands up, staring off into space, or just looking stuck. In those moments, we are tempted to head over and use our conferring time to help them get ‘unstuck’. Watching this happen in classroom after classroom had me asking myself, Is helping really conferring? The more closely I watched, the more I realized that the answer is no.
A few months back, I was working in a coaching cycle with a teacher who was interested in studying conferring together. The teacher was a bright and bubbly woman with a forever smile. I watched her as she pulled up next to a student who was sitting and staring at his booklet with his face was scrunched up into a grump. “How’s it going?” she asked. He looked up and quickly said, “I need help! How do you spell train?” Seeing that the student was feeling stuck, the teacher helped him listen for the sounds in the word train. He got to writing, she jotted a note about stretching out words on her clipboard, and went off to visit her next little friend with his hand waving wildly.
You may ask, what’s wrong with that? It does seems like she was able to guide him without giving him the answer. However, when we think a bit more deeply about that conference, we see that her coaching was directed to just that moment instead of any moment he gets stuck on a word.
The problem with helping is two-fold. First, helping typically addresses a specific issue with particular text. In other words, it helps for one moment in one text, but it isn’t necessarily transferable or strategic. The ongoing nature of our work with students when we ‘help’ is random, preventing us from really supporting the next steps of a particular reader or writer. The second larger problem, is that our classrooms become teacher centered! If we spend our time helping at signs of trouble, the students think that they need us, and sometimes our approval, to make decisions or figure out how to problem solve.
So how can we move from helping to conferring?
WATCH CLOSELY. Notice students’ facial expressions and gestures, along with their actions. You can help yourself focus your observations by looking at students and their work through different lenses. For example, if you’re conferring in writing, watch through the lens of engagment. Read the work through the lenses of structure, elaboration/craft, conventions, voice, etc… By changing your view, you’ll notice different aspect of a child’s writing which may bring a new appreciation for the work. Write down your noticings and be sure to include all the things they already CAN do. Then name one of those for them!
Bring the child into the decision-making process. While it is true that teachers often have many ideas for possible teaching points in their conferences, if we don’t ask the child what his/her goals are, we are becoming those “you need us” teachers. Begin each conference by asking something like, “What are you trying to do in your work today?” When first starting this in your class, you may find that students are telling you what they are writing or reading about. If that happens, try asking, “So what are you doing to read/write that book/piece well?” This clues the child into the idea that you are asking about his/her process instead of the content.
To remind students that they are the ones in charge of setting these goals, you may want to ask kids to create a plan for their work before they head to their reading or writing spots for the day.
Speak in general terms. To truly support a student’s next steps as a reader or writer, our language MUST be generalized so that the child can apply strategies we teach to their current work AND their future work. Let’s go back to our little friend who asked for spelling help. Instead of coaching the child through the spelling of train, we might have tried saying, “When stretching out words, we can listen for each letter by tapping the sounds down our arm. We tap the first sound and think of the letter that matches. Then write that letter. After that, we tap the next sound and write the next letter we hear. We do that until we’ve said all of the sounds and written all of letters we heard.” Naming the strategy in general means that it can be applied anytime to any text. Plus, our kiddos won’t need us next time!
Make a plan. Try to carve out a loose schedule of some small groups and students to confer with for the week while you’re planning. This plan will change weekly, as we are not necessarily creating “Monday kids” and “Tuesday kids”. Instead, it is a schedule that ensures that you’re supporting everyone and grouping kids that may have similar next steps in small groups.
Wishing you all happy conferences! Off you go.