How To Confer Like A Boss

How To Confer Like A Boss by A Word On Third

Conferring can be really tough for a lot of reasons... finding the time, figuring out what to teach, getting your students to practice effectively, keeping them short... the list goes on! I'm going to share my favorite conferring tips with you. These have totally changed my way of conferring and have improved my instruction ten fold.

FIRST... Find a record keeping system that works for you!

Some people love to do things on the crazy interwebs. There are apps like Confer and EverNote that can help you organize all of your data. A LOT of my colleagues rave about Confer in particular. I'm thinking about trying it this year, but I'm not sure if I want to make the switch to conferring with a device. People tend to like to like Confer because:

  • You don't need to lug around a heavy binder everywhere.
  • Your notes are available anywhere you bring your device, which makes for easy planning and report card commenting.
  • You can tag students as needing help with a certain skill, and the app creates strategy groups for you.
I'm nervous about trying it because I like seeing my paper/pencil version right in front of me--I can see who I've met with, when I've met with them, etc. I'm sure that Confer does this too, I just need to get used to it. Honestly, it's probably a better system, but I don't like change. Confer also costs money, so that's a down-side unless you get your school/district to pay for it.

If you are more of a paper and pencil gal (which I think I may be in this case), you will need to fiddle around with your system until you find what's perfect for you. Personally, I have
a big grid with everyone's name on it and I write my notes in each box. On the back of the previous page's notes (which is right next to the notes I'm writing), I put sticky notes on and write about the strategy groups I teach on those notes. I put checkmarks next to each student who gets strategy group instruction on my grid paper. Now I see how many times I've met with each student each week. Here is what my conferring system looks like:

How To Confer Like A Boss by A Word On Third

As you can see, the sticky notes on the left have been moved so the names of students who worked on skills are kept confidential, but you get the idea.

Now, let's move onto the format of an epic conference! If you follow this order and keep it short, you'll see results and get to more students.

1. Set the tone for the conference. 

Sit down with the student you've picked and ask him/her what he/she is working on. If the student tells you he/she is working on reading fiction, get the student to be more specific. Is he/she working on envisioning, retelling, accumulating text, etc.? If he/she can't be more specific, or the he/she says that they are working on the part where (insert what is happening in story here) you've got your teaching point right there for you! You've got to teach about goal setting and helping this student to be more self-directed to work on specific skills. If not, great! You can have a talk about what that kid is doing. Your conversation might look like this:

Teacher: Hi, David! I want to meet with you to talk about your reading. Is now a good time?
Student: Sure! Let me finish this part real quick. --Ok. I'm ready.
Teacher: What are you working on as a reader today?
Student: I'm working on reading more fluently. I'm trying to read the punctuation smoothly to add more meaning.
Teacher: Ok. Can you show me what you've been working on by reading to me?

Remember... it takes time to get your kids to talk like this, so spend time teaching what you expect to happen in conferences in the beginning of the year! You could even have a lesson with a sample script like this and have kids talk about what they notice in the conference. You NEED to teach this if you want it to happen in your classroom.

2. Start researching.

Hopefully, your student has been able to identify what he/she is working on and your conversation was similar to what you saw above. You can ask students to read during this part of the conference and just listen to what they are doing. If students are working on that skill they said they were practicing, take note of it and look for possible next steps. If not, you can help with a different skill. You might need to ask questions like, "What did that word/part mean?" if you need more information. Is the student stopping to think about the text? Pay attention to every behavior here.

This should really only take you a minute or two. I know it's hard to stick to a minute or two, but it's best to do that. If you can't find anything in a minute or two, consider having a compliment conference. This is a conference in which you tell the student what they are doing well and tell them you don't have anything new to teach. You might plop that student in an enrichment strategy group later on.

For the sake of this post, we're going to pretend that the student you observed didn't know what a word meant and kept reading ahead without attempting to figure it out. We're going to teach him how to use context clues to figure out word meanings later.

3. Get prepared.

Tell the student to stop reading and that you know what you want to teach. Tell them to read on their own for a moment while you prepare. Rather than teaching in the child's book, I recommend finding a place in a mentor text where you can model the strategy you're going to teach. Afterwards, the child can practice the strategy in their own book. This prevents you from doing the work for the child and gives them an authentic place to practice. 

Once you've found the spot in your book where you'll model for the student, jot down your teaching point and the student's name on a post-it (post-its get lost easily, and I find the names make a big difference in my room!)

4. Compliment.

ALWAYS start with a compliment! It's short. Tell the student what you noticed them doing, and tell them that that is something that strong readers do. "I noticed you really worked hard to read fluently by reading the punctuation. You picked a goal for your reading today, and you stuck with it too. Those are both things that strong readers do. Good for you!" 

Use your language wisely here. It's not about what you like that they're doing ("I like how you read the punctuation!"). It's about what they are doing well--a little language tweak makes a big difference in terms of intrinsic motivation. 

5. Model the teaching point.

Now tell the kids that because of that good work they showed you (your compliment), you know they are ready for their next step. Model what you're going to teach. Let's pretend you want to teach figuring out a word meaning by using context clues. You're going to tell the student what you're modeling and why it's important for readers to do that. Then you're going to show how you might do that in YOUR OWN MENTOR TEXT. Bonus points if the students read it before, but it's OK if they haven't. Show how to do that once or twice.

As you teach, refer to your post-it note with the teaching point and the child's name as a visual. It's like a little mini anchor chart for that child. You might even have a drawing or example on your post-it.

6. Give the student a chance to practice.

The student should now go back to the book they were reading and try that strategy you just taught. Now they have an authentic opportunity to practice this. And truthfully--it doesn't matter if they succeed. It matters that they practice. I mean, it's nice if they succeed. And if they don't, take note. But it JUST matters that you get to see them practice this.

7. Send the student off.

Before you send the child away to keep reading, I like to leave the student with a physical reminder of what we did. I give the student their post-it note from earlier and tell them to hold onto it and use it. I ask them to tell me what they are going to practice for the next few days, and they should be able to restate the teaching point in their own words. If they can't, remind them and ask them again.

VIOLA! You have just confered. Like a boss. Like the big, bad boss that you are!

I'm going to be honest with you--I still find fitting conferring into my workshop period to be hard. I am developing a tool that I think has the power to be a game-changer in many classrooms. I have been developing it for a few months now, and I want to hear from you. Please share your answers with me below, because I want to make a tool that is as effective and helpful for other teachers as possible. Your answers will be kept confidential!

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