Jennifer Serravallo made me a believer that, “The conference is the “heart” of the workshop.” I lapped up her books: Conferring With Readers, Teaching Reading In Small Groups, and The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook. Carl Anderson made it clear to me in his book, How’s It Going?, that, “Conferring is not the icing on the cake. It IS the cake.” These experts, along with Lucy Calkins of course, have proven that to teach the writer and reader instead of the writing and the book, you must confer with students. They supplied me with the philosophy, pedagogy, and enthusiasm to make conferences efficient, effective, and centered on student growth. Why then does conferencing, the irreplaceable life force of Reading and Writing Workshop, continue to be a thorn in my side and that of so many other teachers?
I have decided that the sheer significance of the conference’s importance to student growth has filled us with anxiety and activated our flight mode response. Let’s change that to a fight mode response. We seem to be overwhelmed with the organization and documentation of conferences. Take action by making a plan. This year our grade level teams made a doable plan for meeting with students before our start to the school year. Serravallo refers to this as the “choreography of conferring.” We spent time laying out a workshop schedule template that created slots and times for different types of conferences, and small group instruction. We took a hard look at how many students we could reasonably expect to conference with during our workshops and made a week long plan which allows us to touch base with all of our students in several ways. Laying this out on a spreadsheet and seeing it in black and white made it seem more doable and less overwhelming. We were delighted to find that we do indeed have time to touch base with our students several times a week.
The next step in relieving some of our anxiety was to make some organizational decisions and have our anecdotal record keeping ready to go. We decided to create labels that were 12 to a sheet and pre-printed with students’ names. These label sheets are perfect for carrying around on a clipboard. It only requires a glance to notice if any students have been overlooked. Once a label has been filled, it can be transferred to a page in a binder specific to each student. This makes it easy to look over a student’s page to plan for next steps in conferencing. It is also a one stop shop for any parent conferences or student needs meetings.
There are different kinds of conferences, but for the most part they all have the same basic architecture: research,compliment, decide, teach, and link. The key is to jump right in and fine tune as you go. Practice makes perfect! Lucy Calkins always says that, “Approximation will lead to mastery.” With this idea in mind, I have even started practicing on my family! They have no clue of course. My husband is unaware that I have been using the research, compliment, decide,teach, and link structure of a conference to have a “honey do” conference with him. My teenagers are oblivious to the factthat I am using the same structure to try and grow their chore potential. I haven’t taken any anecdotal records in order toreview my data on whether these conferences are in fact working, but I am getting much more comfortable with the structure and language of the conference. This is the conference structure that I am most comfortable with in the classroom. Start where you’re comfortable and grow your expertise from there. The Continuum of Literacy Learning by Fountas and Pinnell and the Learning Progressions in Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study provide the quick support often needed to help to decide what to teach next. Letting students know that you care enough about them to talk to them about their own personal journeys as readers and writers builds relationships that foster trust and risk-taking. Great leaps of growth are made by students that feel safe and encouraged. Conferencing only creates a win-win situation. As the teacher grows in expertise, the win for the students just gets greater!
Take that first step and have a fabulous workshop week! ~Alice Terwege