Teaching for Independence: Student-Led Conferences

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One of my goals this year is to teach for independence.  Not only do I want students to have meaningful and transferable learning skills they can apply in their classes and their life beyond school, but I also want them to have an arsenal of learning strategies and the confidence they can overcome challenges in any form.

Studies have show that self-assessment is a key component of moving students forward.¹  Beyond that, I view self-assessment as a life-long skill that is helpful and necessary in any domain.

The way I talk about it with my students is, “You won’t always have me here to give you feedback, but you will always have you there to give you feedback.”

This year, we took conferences as a chance to practice that.

Here’s how we prepared:

  1. We took time in class to self-assess.  Students self-assessed their learning behaviors, their academic achievement, and their progress on independent reading.  We spread out the self-assessments over a couple of days, and each time I reminded the students this was an opportunity to celebrate successes and set goals, to create a resource that would help them lead their conference, and to take time to communicate with me and their guardians anything they thought we should know.
  2. I compiled grade-print outs.  I like having the spreadsheet handy of student grades, so we can reference areas to celebrate and areas in which to set goals. We use standards-based grading, and I find the end-of-quarter grades particularly useful in analyzing patterns and addressing individual learning needs.
  3. I gathered my students’ Writer’s Notebooks.  We had student Writer’s Notebooks handy.  During conferences, when reviewing areas of strengths and challenges, students often reference them to show specific examples of their work.
  4. I framed the conference, setting expectations for the conversation that would follow.  When students and guardians walked in, I took a minute to touch base.  After greeting one another, my standard phrase was, “There a couple ways this conference can go.  (Student name) took some time to self-assess, so we can hear from (him, her, them, etc.), or if you have specific questions or concerns, we can start there.”  In most cases, guardian’s wanted to hear from their students first.
  5. I provided feedback based on the student’s lead.  For example, when the students shared their self-reflections, I would follow-up by sharing what I noticed about the strength they listed, and what I noticed about the challenge they identified.  To me, this felt like an organic way to hear the student’s perspective, share successes, and identify areas of growth as a team.
  6. I asked the parents or guardians, “As a (parent, family member, etc.), what are you noticing?”  After the students shared their thoughts, I wanted to create time for guardians to share their feedback.  After all, they know their students more than anyone else.  I found “What are you noticing?” to be the magic question.²  I learned more from asking this question and listening to what parents noticed than I could have anticipated. Additionally, I think parents appreciated the space and invitation to speak openly about what they noticed with their student and me in the room.
  7. I had a notebook to record ideas and action steps.  Every time a new student entered the room, I flipped the page in the notebook and titled it with their name.  I noted strengths and struggles we identified, and when we made individual plans or ideas for following-up, I noted it down.
  8. I listened for patterns. Throughout the day, I noticed patterns in student successes and student struggles. For example, I heard many of my students say they struggled with planning and organizing their writing for timed writing prompts, such as On-Demand Assessments.  I realized we had spent a lot of time identifying and practicing note-taking strategies and strategies for introducing and explaining evidence, but we hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about how to quickly plan and organize and essay. One of my take-aways from the day is to spend time in the next couple of weeks teaching strategies for flash-drafting.

Overall, I found conferences meaningful, productive, and enjoyable.  It was a time to get to know my students and my students’ families a little better, and a time to constructively problem solve together.

This time, I noticed I did a lot of the note-taking and was in charge of recording next-steps and ideas for the future.  Next time, I want my students to have joint-ownership of this, recording their thoughts, take-aways, or actions steps in their Writer’s Notebook too.


References

  1. McMillan, James H., and Jessica Hearn. “Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement.” Educational Horizons, 2008, pp. 40–49.
  2. Johnston, Peter H. “Chapter Two: Noticing and Naming.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Stenhouse, 2004, p. 17.
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Problem Solving with Agency

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We had a problem.

My students weren’t reading.  Upon reviewing their 40 Book Challenges (a project to record and celebrate the titles of the books they read independently), I discovered most of my students had only read the required book group books.  Despite continual reminders of our two-hour-a-week independent reading expectation, and regular 40 Book Challenge check-ins, the reading wasn’t happening.

I flipped through their reading reflections, and got continuous confirmation of this:

  • I am not able to read every day.
  • I have not found a good book this year.
  • I didn’t read outside of school.
  • I need book recommendations.
  • I read way more last year at this time than I have this year.

What was happening?

I thought over the beginning of the year.  Due to the amount of curriculum we had to cover in class, my students hardly had independent reading time.  They certainly didn’t have regular independent reading time. My classroom library was still not organized or easy to use, and we hadn’t even visited the school library yet.

My students and I had been doing amazing things, but cultivating our independent reading lives wasn’t one of them.

This made me think about student agency, because while most of the class wasn’t independently reading, there were several students who were reading a tremendous amount.  Several students, who despite the lack of support from our classroom structures, were finding good books, going to the school library, and making time to read.

Why were they able to succeed while other students were not?

Building on my thinking about agency,  my current hypothesis is that a lack of agency comes from a perceived lack of options.  Moving forward with this, my job, then, was to help my students figure out what their real options are.

To do this, I decided my students and I were going to take some time to practice problem-solving strategies.

I gathered the students in our mini-lesson area, and opened the lesson by having them help me brainstorm solutions to a problem that was affecting all of us; a problem that I perceived as my fault: the complete lack of organization in our classroom library. (Our classroom library was still Under Construction)

For the lesson, I took some time to prepare my own writing in my Writer’s Notebook, a strategy I have been working on this year, after being inspired by Mary Ehrenworth’s advice.

First, I provided the context of the problem.  Then, I used thought prompts, which we’ve been working on in class, to push my thinking, and explore what this was really about: a lack of time. After that, I outlined strategies I felt like I had to organize the classroom library and explained why they were unsuccessful for me.

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My Writer’s Notebook, after the students helped me brainstorm solutions.

Then, came the work of the students.  I explained that a lot of times, I think a lack of agency comes from the difference between the options we feel like we have and the options we actually have.  Looking at the “Strategies I felt like I had” column, the students and I realized there were many more options than only the ones I identified.  I asked them to help me brainstorm ideas.

After a turn-and-talk, I recorded their thoughts.  They were full of solutions and excited to volunteer ideas and help.  (You can read their ideas above)

After that, we moved into the next level of problem-solving: institutional solutions.

We discussed how people have control over their behavior, but many times, there are things institutions can do to help set people up for success.

In my example, while it was absolutely my responsibility to get our classroom library organized, there were small changes the school could’ve made that would have made a big difference for me. At first, the students seemed to struggle with the idea of institutional support, but after I gave one example of this, they got it.  They turned and talked, and then chimed in with lots of other ideas.

Now, it was my student’s turn.  Moving into workshop, their job was to apply this problem-solving strategy to their own lives.

Here were the steps for workshop:

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And here are some examples of the work they produced:

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This reflection nailed the heart of the problem: Class wasn’t structured in a way where reading felt important.
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This student’s work reminded me that we don’t really have class structures in place to help students find interesting books.
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This student and I discussed a strategy which could make the commute more productive: audiobooks.
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For students who were successful with the 40 book challenge, they brainstormed ideas to make our class reading community stronger.  We talked about how even if they were successful individually, reading would be a lot better if everyone in our class was reading and sharing ideas.

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Gotta love the student honesty.

At the end, we made a plan, and students did a write-out.  The write-out question was, “What’s the one thing Ms. Gould should really do to help?”

You can see their plans and write-outs reflected in the work above.

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My plan for the classroom library.  (Please ignore the fact that I spelled “labeled” wrong in my hasty demonstration writing.)

 

After reading through their reflections, I made a list of strategies I can use, as a teacher, to help.

Here’s the changes we’ve made:

  1. We take the last ten minutes of class to read.  No matter what.  I set a timer on my phone, and no matter what we are doing, we stop, and read.  With time, I know my lessons will adjust to this, and I will be able to plan so it won’t feel like we have to stop what we are doing.
  2. We set up the classroom library.  We took 30 minutes of class to sort and organize books.  It’s almost done.  We have a committee of students who are taking independent reading time now to help finish getting it set up.
  3. We did a class activity swapping book recommendations.  Students completed a write-in on the best books they’ve read in the last year-or-so.  Then, we did an inner-circle/outer-circle partner interview, where students shared their recommendations.  The best round was when students were challenged to give a recommendation based on what they knew about the specific person they were talking to.
  4. We visited the school library.  I set up a time to meet with the school librarian.  She came to visit our classroom, facilitated the book recommendation activity described above, and then took us to the library.  She pulled out books that were new and displayed recommendations for students.

It’s not perfect.  Not every student has the right book yet.  Heck, the classroom library still isn’t all-the-way put together.

But we’re acknowledging and addressing the problem, and slowly but surely, we’re making gains.

So now, the next steps are on my mind.

Now, we are ready to:

  1. Spend time addressing expectations for independent reading time in class. I notice some students get settled and focused right away, and others aren’t using the time (which they advocated for!) wisely.  We will be having a discussion about what independent reading should look like this week.
  2. Negotiate how frequently we visit the school library.  I wonder if my students want to set up a bi-weekly or monthly time to visit, or if they would prefer to go individually or in small groups when they need books, or if there’s another way they would like to approach the library.  I am going to ask them for their preferences this week, and we’ll make a plan together.
  3. Set up classroom structures for swapping book recommendations. I am playing around with the idea of creating a google doc where students can share their 40 Book Challenges, ideas, and recommendations.  I need to think more about this, but creating structures for students to share ideas with each other is something I want to do.

Overall, we are taking this as a learning experience.  I agreed with the students that institutionally, I can be doing more to help their independent reading lives.

However, we also discussed that moving forward, into high school and beyond, teachers or other adults are most likely not going to be creating space for independent reading.  Therefore, our goal is to get strategies and structures in place for students to support themselves and each other in their independent reading lives.

This is a project we will be working on all year, and a learning an adventure in independence that I am looking forward to.