Step Six: Use conferences to focus on feedback instead of points to #StopGrading

When people find out I don’t put points or grades on individual pieces of writing, one of the first questions I get is what I do instead. I focus on feedback–as much as I can provide, and conferences are a key component of that.

I just finished my first full week of the 2016-2017 school year, and already I’ve had reading and writing conferences with over half of my students. I’m tired–conferring takes a lot of energy. But there’s nothing else that provides the space for frequent, individualized instruction–a must for helping readers and writers grow. I’m still on a journey figuring out how to confer most effectively, but I’ve gotten better at making space for conferences, at getting more intentional about them, and at keeping track of my conference conversations so that I can harness those discussions to drive my instruction.

Making space for reading conferences:

My class starts each day with ten minutes of silent reading. Students come in and get their books out and start reading right away so that when the bell rings, they’re already reading. I take attendance quickly and then grab my clip board and start conferring. I have to be honest–reading conferences have been difficult for me to actually do. Those ten minutes can be awesome for me to deal with administrivia for each class. Or maybe for me to sit and read too. But for the last few years my students are just not reading as much as I wish they would. I’ve read so much about the power of reading conferences to help students to build a reading practice, so I know I need to use those precious minutes for reading conferences.

Even so, other things got in the way too: I didn’t want to break the silence of my classroom while my students read. Wouldn’t it be annoying for them to have a whispered conversation happening somewhere in the classroom while they were trying to read? But more than this, I hesitated because I wasn’t sure what to even talk about in a reading conference. Actual reading instruction was not a very big part of my teacher training, and in my own classroom practice it is something I’ve been learning and figuring out in the last several years. A recent read, Scott Filkins’s book, Beyond Standardized Truth: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Inquiry-Based Assessment, really helped me with reading conferences. He suggests putting in front of students a list of the kinds of things successful readers do and asking them to point to one and discuss how it’s going in the context of whatever they’re reading.

So that is what I’ve got on my clipboard–a list of several habits of successful readers: monitoring comprehension, visualizing, making inferences, asking questions, using fix-up strategies, establishing a purpose for reading, etc. When I sat down with each student this past week, I started with, “how’s the reading going?” We just started reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so invariably this question lead them to some thoughts about Chris McCandless. From there, I pointed to the first habit of successful readers on the list–monitoring comprehension, which I reviewed very briefly in class the first day we started reading conferences–and said, “tell me about your reading comprehension. What do you do to make sure the words are actually sinking in and that your mind isn’t just reciting them?” They told me about all kinds of fix-up strategies they’ve used when they realize their comprehension is breaking down. As the year goes on and I have the opportunity to review the other habits on the list, students will be able to talk about any of them. But in these short, less than 2 minute conversations, I am already learning so much about my students as readers–much more than I would learn if the only way I was inquiring into their reading was through some kind of a quiz.

Making space for writing conferences:

I have done a better job with making space writing conferences in recent school years. Last year I started planning each week with a template for the week that reserved wide swaths of time for students to be writing. Our weeks start with reading and discussion and writer’s notebook exploratory writing. By the end of the week, we take that notebook writing and work toward drafts of various genres by Friday afternoon. I want my students to do a lot of writing in class so I can be there to talk with them as they work and so they can turn to each other for feedback as they work. I’ve got all of Friday and at least half if not all of Wednesday or Thursday block periods reserved for writing and conferences.

I start conferences with “what are you working on?” There are many people who have written about conferences and how to move through them. What seems to work for me from all of these is to start by listening to students to get a sense of how they are thinking about their writing, then identify something that I can teach them quickly or challenge them to work on, and then to end with having students identify their next steps.

Getting more intentional about conferences:

Years ago, I thought that a teacher wasn’t conferring unless she was stationed outside her classroom in the hall talking to one student at a time while the class watched a movie in the classroom. Or that teachers who conferred did so by filling up their planning and prep periods with student meetings for conferences. I just wasn’t doing either of those things. But I was popcorning around my classroom as my students worked on their writing, something that I realized was essentially conferring on the fly. I was having brief instructional conversations with my students as they worked on their writing, and some days I would come out of class absolutely exhausted from all of the conversations and the constant bouncing from student to student chaotically.

I’ve gotten smarter about this. A class period full of conferences is still exhausting, but by keeping better records of which students I’ve spoken with when, I can be more certain that I’ve worked with everyone as equally as possible. I also maintain a Google Doc that lists the students I want to confer with and why I want to confer with them based on what I’ve seen in their writing as I’m reading and responding to it outside of school. These strategies make me more intentional and purposeful about conferences.

Using conference data to drive instruction:

My ability to use conference data to effectively drive instruction comes from good record keeping. This has taken me a while to figure out. After trying various systems, I’ve settled on using the online gradebook that my district requires of me. The gradebook is not built to house the kind of qualitative data that comes from reading and writing conferences, so I’ve had to hack it a bit. But it turns out that this gradebook makes an excellent system for conference notes. I carry my laptop with me and type my conference note as I’m sitting there with the student. Sometimes my students even help me compose the note.

With every score I put in my gradebook, there is a box for notes or comments, and I can type up to about 250 characters or so in that box. This is plenty for a brief conference note. I have a category in my gradebook called “conference notes” so these notes show up clustered together in their own area of a student’s grade report. The “assignments” I list in this category are “conference 1,” “conference 2,” and on as I go through the semester. In the box where a score would usually go, I type whether it was a reading or writing conference and the date–“writing 8/26” for instance. When I look at the gradebook view with the columns for assignments and rows for each student, I can see at a glance which students I’ve conferred with and when. And when I hover over a score box that has a comment attached to it, the comment pops out right where my cursor is. Hence, I can very quickly access my conference notes just by moving my cursor around the gradebook screen. I can look across a class’s conference data on one screen and I can do a deep dive into individual student data by running a grade report on just that one student.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how well this works (it’s Infinite Campus in case you’re wondering). But the biggest benefit of using the required gradebook to house my conference notes is that no longer are those notes accessible only to me. Imagine a student is at home working on a paper and can’t remember what we talked about in the conference about his current piece of writing. He can log into the grade system and find the note and remember what we talked about. Imagine a study hall teacher or a special education teacher is working with one of my students–having access to what that student and I talked about in our instructional conference conversations is extremely valuable as that colleague works to support our common student for the work for my class. And don’t forget parents–they too have access to reading my conference notes. Over time the notes become quite a story about a student as a reader and writer, 250 characters at a time. This is far more information that a series of numbers provides about a student.

In looking over my conference notes for this last week, I see that I had many conversations with students about including specific details and examples from their lives to engage the reader’s emotions as much as possible. I also frequently talked with students about how they might need to do a bit more work than simply typing up something that they wrote in their writer’s notebook for a weekly draft. I kept challenging them be intentional about genre–what form might this piece of writing take based on your intended audience and purpose? So as I look toward this week and my objective to get them working with mentor texts to help them to find ways to revise their writing, I will target these areas. I want to put examples in front of them that help students to see what I mean when I challenge them to provide more specific examples or to think more intentionally about form. My conference notes, collected in a way that I can look across them for common themes, help me to design instruction that meets my students’ needs, right where they are.

I won’t lie. Conferring is exhausting. I’m an introvert–all those one-on-one interactions drain my energy. Conferring means I’m hopping from mind to mind, each a completely different world, working to see into the reader/writer/thinker/human being to find a way to meaningfully coax that mind along toward growth. Often I doubt my ability to confer effectively–how can I possibly have just the right instructional conversation with each student every single time? I can’t actually. Sometimes my conferences aren’t great.

But I’ll keep working at it because I know that a human-to-human conversation is far better feedback for developing readers and writers than a score on a reading quiz or a number derived from a rubric on a piece of writing.

This is the seventh post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

Check out this folder if you’d like to share your gradeless classroom resources with each other (and with me!) and/or enter into more conversation by joining the Google Group a reader set up. 

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, blog series, conferring, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, not grading, teaching reading, teaching writing, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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