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.

Under Construction


It is the
   First-day-of-School Eve

Lessons are planned
Seated charts are composed

And yet there are still
     things to do

But as I sit down
   one last time tonight to think about

I remember, one thing matters:

The Kids.

I get one chance to meet my students
   for the first time

One chance to welcome my classes
   and lay the first-day groundwork

One chance
   to start this crazy learning adventure

So the fact that the books aren’t sorted
   Materials haven’t arrived
   Technology isn’t set-up

Doesn’t matter.

The Kids do.

While attempting to sort out my classroom library, I discovered the book Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni. I saw Giovanni speak at UW-Madison a few years ago, and her quick wit, sharp voice, and spunky demeanor have stayed with me. I immediately tucked the book into my backpack for a weekend read. The text is a collection of essays and poems. Reading Giovanni’s work inspired me to write in verse. 

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.

Strategies & Volume

For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been working on designing my teaching to focus on the essential and cut out the rest. While reviewing reading workshop materials at a K-8 Literacy action team meeting, something clicked.  When it comes to designing ELA curriculum, there are two things that matter: strategies and volume.

  1. Strategies:  I want to teach my students meaningful, transferrable reading, writing, and thinking skills.  For me, this means having a clear teaching point each day, posting today’s goal in which the students apply the teaching point to their daily work, and ending class with a share, in which students review the teaching point, and explain the progress they made on it.  (One of my favorite ways to do the share is to have students do a write-out, answering a prompt addressing the teaching point, and then share it with their reading/writing partner.)
  2. Volume: I need to provide my students ample time to apply the skills they learned.  This year, I feel like I’ve honed my ability to identify and teach strategies.  However, one growing edge I have is being sure to provide my students with enough volume: enough time to work, enough interesting and diverse materials to engage with, enough opportunities to repeatedly practice and apply skills.

As I move forward in designing curriculum, designating class minutes, and choosing what to include and what to cut out, these questions will be on my mind:

  • What strategies am I teaching?
  • What opportunities am I providing for my students to apply these strategies?
  • How am I teaching for independence?  How will my students know how to transfer and apply these skills in other situations?

Making It Count

Today I entered the classroom with a huge case of the Mondays.  School seemed overwhelming,  meetings cluttered my schedule, my email inbox was well into the double digits.

When I left school, however, I realized I felt energized and fulfilled.  I was happy in a way I wasn’t earlier that morning.  What was the difference?  Somehow, I did a good job today of putting aside the endless to-do list and focusing on my interactions with students.  Today was a reminder of why I love my job, and my energy levels were a good check-in for how I want to approach my days from now until the end of the year.

To help me stay focused in the craziness of fourth quarter, here are my end-of-year resolutions:

  • Focus on the kids.  They are what are most important and most energizing about my job.  No matter how many papers I have to grade, the parent phone calls I may need to make, the classroom library books that need to be resolved, they are always what matter most.  I can’t get back the face-to-face time I have with them during class.  The moments for laughter, conferencing, and exploring of ideas only happen during class time.  We have six weeks left.  I need to take advantage of every moment.
  • Get down to providing feedback, right away.  This year, I started scheduling my prep.  I’ve worked hard to prioritize and make time during prep for tasks that are meaningful, but that I don’t like to take home with me.  The number one qualifier?  Grading.  (As a side note, I am trying to mentally shift “grading” to an opportunity to provide feedback.  Goal for the future?  Cut out grading entirely, and focus solely on feedback.)
  • Reuse the good.  At this point in the year, I have plenty of curriculum materials to draw from.  I don’t have to create a new lesson idea for every day.  There are many skills we worked on earlier in the year that can be reviewed meaningfully and applied in new and unique ways to their current reading book.  Today’s example?  A throwback to a lesson on uncovering layers of conflict in a novel.  The discussion my students produced around this was nuanced, mind-blowing, and a great reminder that review doesn’t have to be boring.
  • Tolerate discomfort.  I have to remember that everything can’t get done.  My classroom will be messy.  The books won’t get put away.  The lesson slides won’t all have the perfect graphic. And I will probably forget my keys.  I have to remind myself, it’s okay.  What matters is the kids.

I half a month and a half left with these kids.  I want to make it count.