Conferring with students is one of the best ways to improve their reading and writing because the four to five minutes of a one-on-one conference between student and teacher can meet a student’s specific needs. If a student would benefit from two or more conferences, hold these on consecutive days. And keep them short—no more than five minutes! Focus the topic of a conference: For example, instead of having a conference on revision, which is a broad and general topic, confer on revising to strengthen verbs or make nouns specific, or to improve the lead or introduction. Students can only absorb so much, and short, focused conferences enable them to improve and move forward. Moreover, you’re inviting behavior problems to develop if you spend twenty minutes with one student. When you feel that length of time is necessary, then meet with the student before or after school.
Types of Conferences
Making the Rounds: a quick coaching and cheerleading meeting. Clipboard covered with sticky notes in hand, circulate among students while they read, write, collaborate on a project, work at computer stations, or hold peer conferences. The purpose of making the rounds is to observe students, validate what they’re doing, provide quick and immediate support, or jot, on a sticky note, the name of a student who needs a scheduled conference. Often, I write my suggestion for the student on a sticky note and give it to him or her as a reminder.
- Scheduled Student-teacher Conferences: these are preplanned and happen while the class works independently on reading or writing. The teacher chooses a single topic to focus on; the topic emerges from the student’s writing and/or observations the teacher has made while making the rounds. Document these conferences by writing the students’ name, the date you conferred, the focus, feedback offered, and whether you need to schedule a follow up conference. Be a good listener during a conference.
- Peer Conferences: are student-to-student conferences, and students can confer about their writing, a book they’ve completed, a project they are working on, or an oral presentation. The conferences you have train students to confer with each other. Peer conferences develop independence and responsibility among students and at the same time free you to scaffold readers and writers who struggle.
- One-On-One Conference: for me, the goal of teacher-student and peer conferences is to nurture students’ ability to confer with themselves by having in-the-head conversations about their reading and writing. These in-the-head conversations can support every stage of the writing process and help students successfully apply reading strategies such as “Questioning the Author” and “Close Reading” to unpack meaning from a challenging text.
- Carl Anderson, the conference guru’s tips on conferring.
- Carl Anderson’s website
- Teacher2Teacher Help for individual Writing Conferences
- How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring With Student Writers by Carl Anderson, Heinemann, 2000.
- In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Heinemann, 1998.
- Teaching Middle School Writers: What every English Teacher Needs to Know by Laura Robb, Heinemann, 2010.
- Teaching Reading in Middle School, 2nd edition, by Laura Robb Scholastic, 2010.
Finding Time to Confer
Time seems to be a great challenge for middle school teachers. While students work independently, you can confer with those who would benefit from extra one-to-one time with you. Start with one 5-minute conference and work your way up to meeting with three to four students. On the chalkboard list the names of students you plan to meet with that period.
Materials You’ll Need
A clipboard, dated sticky notes, and a pencil are what you’ll need as you make the rounds. I always carry a pack of sticky notes just in case I want to jot my suggestions on one for the student. During a formal conference, I have notebook paper, the student’s writing, response journal, and sticky notes with my observations. To confer with students and have some privacy, I suggest you have a student desk or a small table in a quiet place in the room. My conference table always faced the class and the clock so I could observe students and make sure I did not confer for more than five minutes.
The Cornerstone of Conferring: Providing Feedback that Facilitates Learning
The feedback you offer students during a conference holds the potential of improving their reading and writing and deepening students’ understanding of what they need to do to progress.
So what is feedback? For students in our classes feedback is information from the teacher about how they are doing regarding a reading, writing, or content area goal, as well as what students can do to reach that goal. For example, if a goal in writing is to have three examples, and the student has one, then feedback would raise student’s awareness of this need so the student can revise the writing. Basically, feedback relates to a goal, because the goal defines what a student needs to do. Teaching provides a mental model of what we want students to understand and should include individual goals for students. The goal for a task enables students to understand how to put their mental model into action. Feedback from a teacher during the conference should show students how to reach their target or goal. Non-Feedback Statements: “Great Job, Solid Work, Loved Reading Your Story, You are so Artistic!” Feedback Statement: Your goal is to revise this memoir for marking paragraphs. As you reread your memoir, I’d like you to focus on dialogue and start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. Feedback is not a compliment or a grade. It is what a student needs to work on to meet a negotiated personal goal or a goal the teacher has established for the class.
Websites to Explore
Professional Books to Investigate
The Principal’s Corner
Feedback is the key to excellent instruction, and at team and department meetings, it’s beneficial to discuss how teachers use feedback to move students forward. You’ll find some outstanding articles to share with your teachers in the September, 2012 issue of Educational Leadership (Vol. 70 No.1). Have teachers read and discuss these articles to help them shift from advice and value judgments to setting goals that enable them to offer students concrete feedback. In addition, tell teachers that during a specific time frame, you will complete walkthroughs that focus on conferring and teacher feedback. Here is a short checklist to use so you can provide teachers with immediate feedback that supports their instruction and use of conferring. Use the focus or goal for your walkthrough and the checklist to provide helpful feedback to the teacher.
Walkthrough Focus: Circle one. Feedback to Students Making the Rounds Scheduled Conferences
Checklist: check those appropriate to your focus.
___Teacher sets goals or targets for individual students.
___Teacher explains goal or target to student and offers suggestions and strategies for reaching the goal.
___Teacher circulates continually, pausing at students’ desks for a brief conversation that includes feedback based on what the student is doing.
___Teacher has written the names of students with whom he or she will confer during that class.
___Scheduled conferences with students are focused on one topic or one part of a goal and are in a quiet, private place.
___The teacher is a good listener.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.