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.


  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.

Problem Solving with Agency


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.

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:

This reflection nailed the heart of the problem: Class wasn’t structured in a way where reading felt important.
This student’s work reminded me that we don’t really have class structures in place to help students find interesting books.
This student and I discussed a strategy which could make the commute more productive: audiobooks.
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.


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.

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.

Readiness Mindset

It was Friday.  My colleagues and I sat down to a lunch of fresh paella and melon in our principal’s office, to debrief our weeks at the Teacher’s College Writing Institute.   After sharing our take-aways, our principal shared his.

¨The way Mary chooses her words so thoughtfully is powerful,¨he said. ¨She draws students in and inspires them to write.  That type of word choice, it takes time and care, but it is so, so worth it.¨

We had spent the morning with Mary Ehrenworth, one of the leaders of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  With Mary, we studied what teachers could learn from coaches.  The way we speak to students, compared to the way coaches speak with students, stuck with me.

As Mary analyzed, so often, coaches give one quick compliment, and move right into the feedback.  Their feedback is timely, direct, and during the work their athlete is doing. She pointed out, coaches choose one thing to focus on with their athlete.  One thing.  The thing that will make the biggest difference in the athlete’s performance. Not a million things.  Not nit-picky things.  Not the easiest thing.  The one thing that is really, truly, worth working on.

This got me thinking, how often do I talk to my students this way?  How often do I spend too much time on compliments, on fluff, before moving into the true heart of the work?

This year, I want to give my students tougher feedback in conferences.  When I speak with them, first, I want to give them a compliment, an authentic comment about what I notice that is going well in their work.  And then, an honest piece of feedback.  One that comes from a place of knowing they can and want to do the work.  One that is supported and followed up with by tools, materials, and examples to help students meet their goal.

But even more than improving student conferences and feedback, I want to give feedback to myself in this way.  If I can talk to myself like this, if I can grow my practice using a coaching framework, a readiness framework, my words will naturally extend to my students.

As a teacher, what can I solidly say I am doing well?  And, what can I identify as the one way I want to grow?  What is the one thing I can do better that will make the biggest impact on my students’ writing this year?  What is the one thing I am most ready for next?

As a writing teacher, I am clear when teaching the teaching point.  I get to the heart of the lesson and stay focused.  Now, I am ready to work on my own writing more.

My take-away from Mary was, ¨Don’t take the kids’ writing home.  Take your writing home.¨

I need to develop a repertoire of my own writing, with the intended audience of my eighth grade students, that I can use and tailor and modify to authentically demonstrate the teaching point of the day.  Just as through reading, it is the content that builds community in writing.  We connect over shared text, and in writing, we have the opportunity to share our stories.  To take risks.  To find our voice.  And through this, we have material to grow in our craft.

Alright.  I have the goal: work on my writing for lessons.  I will report back on my progress.

The Writing is the Thing

“You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.”

-Amy Poehler, Yes Please

As I gear up to start the school year and teach a new grade level, the daunting task of figuring out the eighth grade Writing Workshop curriculum is on my mind. Sorting through this, I keep thinking back to Mary Ehrenworth’s words.  During the Teachers College Training I attended this summer, she told a story of some of the teachers she coached. She recounted:

After spending a summer preparing, these brilliant, brilliant teachers- some of the best I have worked with- came back to school with manicured power-points, the Teaching Point, Mid-Workshop Teach, and Share perfectly displayed for the students. And I said, ‘What are you doing?!  That’s not how we teach writing! That’s not how it works.’

My jaw dropped. It’s not?

The hours I spent preparing Writing Workshop Mini-Lessons, arranging the Teaching Points, finding the perfect image to accompany each slide…. it was all for naught??

Mary continued to tell a story of when Dough Engelbart, an Internet pioneer, came to speak at a Teachers College (TC) training.  She said the folks at TC  had gone all-out to be prepared with tech.  They had all the bells and whistles at-the-ready to equip him with anything he possibly could have needed.

Instead, all he requested was chart paper, an easel, and a marker.

Mary said she was taken aback.  She relayed when Doug was asked why he didn’t need more, he responded, ¨We invented technology to increase communication between thousands of miles.  I would never put it between you and me in this room.¨

Is that what I was doing?  Putting technology between me and the kids?  Building a barrier?

¨We invented technology to increase communication between thousands of miles.  I would never put it between you and me in this room.¨

-Doug Engelbart

Decidedly, yes.  That is what I have been doing.  Because while I have spent hours and hours making perfect power points, what I have missed out on, is the real work of doing the writing.

This harkens back a quote by Amy Poehler that I think of often.  In her book Yes Please, during which she spends quite a bit of time complaining about how difficult it is to write, Amy declares, ¨You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.”

The making of the power points is not the thing. The writing is the thing.

The kids don’t need to be told the teaching points, they need to see the teaching points authentically demonstrated before them.  They don’t solely need to read and analyze mentor texts, they need to see mentor texts being written in front of them.

As their teacher, it is my job to demonstrate this for them.

So, as I prepare for the year ahead, gone will be the perfectly organized power points.  Instead, rather than spending my time on making slide shows, I am going to spend time on writing.

For this is where the real learning will take place.

Reflecting on it,  this type of preparing- doing the writing itself- sounds way better than making power points anyway.

To read more about my experience at the Teachers College Training, read here and here.

“You’re doing it now”

It was Sunday afternoon, and I sat in a café scrolling through Twitter.  My heart broke and stomach churned as I read story after story about the violence in Charlottesville, Virgina.

Finally, I read this tweet by Aditi Juneja, a lawyer, activist, and writer:

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Answer:  I would have been….. sitting in a café in Spain, sipping a late?!

Not the scenario I was anticipating for myself.

The question of “What does it mean to be an American living abroad?” has been on my mind since I moved here.  Today, at a time when I am simultaneously grateful to be away from the country and aching to be with my students at home, the question sits differently with me.

Today, the question is not just about navigating my privilege or claiming my culture, it’s about figuring out how to exist, teach, and live abroad as a critically conscious citizen. How can I be committed to racial justice from the other side of the ocean?

In thinking about what I can do moving forward, the answer for me, is the same as it was when I lived in the states:  My job is to make a difference in the community in which I live.  Right now, that community is my neighborhood and my school in Barcelona.

So, in these communities, here are some of the things I am doing and can do to make a difference:

  1. Commit to Discussing the US with Nuance:  As an expat, I am often asked questions about the U.S.  Some are thoughtful, others blunt, and others still shed insight on the ways in which people around the world think about us.  A small sampling of the questions I’ve been asked by folks from all over the world include: ¨What is traditional American food, anyway?¨ or ¨Do you like your President?  How did he get elected?¨and ¨What is the difference between free speech and hate speech in your country?¨or ¨What’s the deal with Walmart? ‘Fo Real.¨ While it’s easy to brush these questions off with a joke or sarcastic remark, I want to commit to truly discussing and exploring them with the people that ask.  The truth is, the American experience is complex.  It’s intensely personal. The intersection of our individual identities, our family histories, and our location causes us to have a million different experiences all while living in one place.  And while I understand folks who ask these questions aren’t looking for a lecture on the past 400 years of race and class in America, I am committed to explaining my point of view with a critical and compassionate lens.
  2. Take Stock of My Classroom Library:  Moving to a new school, I am not entirely sure what my new library will hold.  Whose stories will be represented?  Whose voices will be missing?  Can my students see themselves reflected in the material? Or, for the students who always see themselves, can they find books that are windows and doors, rather than solely mirrors? (Thank you Rudine Simms Bishop for that framework.) My task is to figure out the books I have and the books I need to get.
  3. Take Stock of My History Curriculum:  Again, starting a new curriculum, I am not entirely sure what the year holds.  As I gear up to teach eighth grade American History at an American School of Barcelona the questions on my mind are: Whose stories are we telling?  Whose stories are left out?  How can we represent history through multiple timelines? And, as I teach in a school that is comprised of a myriad of nationalities (the student population is about 20% American, 35% Spanish, and 45% International Students), the largest question on my mind is: How is American history relevant in Spain?
  4. Commit to Reading the News…. Now, more than ever before, it is important for me to know the news in order to be able to teach it.  For me, that means reading my traditional American news sources, seeking out world news outlets, like BBC, and also, finding local news sources in Spain and the community of Catalonia.
  5. …And Incorporating Current Events in the Classroom: In addition to reading about the news, incorporating current events into the classroom is paramount.  With student news sources, like Newsela, I am able to teach about world events through developmentally appropriate texts.  My thoughts this year lie with how to layer historical knowledge with current events so students can see build a narrative of past events that impact and affect the present.
  6. Get to Know My Students:  Of course, most importantly, I need to get to know my students.  Their likes and dislikes, their preferences, what makes them tick. I can’t wait to begin to learn the knowledge they come into the classroom with, the values and beliefs they hold, and their understanding of right and wrong and justice. I can’t wait to read with them.  To write with them.  And to grow and explore with them.  For after all, we are all in this crazy mess together, trying to make sense of the world, one day at a time.

What are you communities?  Remembering Mary Ehrenworth’s words, “Social justice is in the small things,” what can you do to make a difference?

Shout out to Aditi Juneja and Rudine Simms Bishop, who inspired much of my thinking in this post. 

If you want to read more from Aditi Juneja, check out her website or twitter handle.

If you want to learn more about Rudine Simms Bishop, you can check out this short biography or read her books,