Monday, November 30, 2015

Conferring for Growth; Reading in the Wild Book Study

Wild Readers and Learners

I am thrilled to be a participant of this #D100bloggerPD book study. This group of educators is redefining learning together by sharing our thoughts with all who will read and learn from our reflections. +Kristin Richey is our leader and launched the study of Donalyn Miller's Reading In The Wild  in her blog, Reading and Owl of the Above The book is broken into long chapters peppered with short vignettes. "Conferring; What's the Point?" is a vignette that follows the chapter, "Wild Readers Share Books and Reading with Other Readers" reviewed by +Leah O'Donnell in her blog.  I understand Donalyn's thinking that a vignette on teachers conferring with their students should follow that chapter as Donalyn is clearly passionate about talking with her students about their books. 

Conferring, What's the Point?

I chose this vignette to focus on because the act of conferring as a teacher is closest to what I do as a principal. As I talk with teachers about their work in the classroom, I attempt to address the teacher's goals and give feedback to move him/her forward.  I have studied conferring as it relates to my work, over  the past few summers as a participant in cognitive coaching seminars. The coaching conversation requires active listening and the ability to hone in on the other's issues that are a struggle for them. A successful cognitive coach helps the other to construct new learning just as a teacher should in a conferring session.

Donalyn Miller, in this chapter asks, "Conferring, what's the point?" She comes to a conclusion, but I'm not so convinced that, if asked directly, she'd concede that conferring is her strength as a reading teacher. Miller writes that the reading conference is a time to meet individually with students and assist them with their individual goals and to connect with them. However, the conferring that she describes in this vignette, sounds more focused on relationship building than addressing student needs and goals. Her early teaching struggles with using the time devoted to conferring sounded familiar. As do many teachers, Miller had a hard time managing time, often spending too much time with one student and not getting around to more than a couple a day. Managing the conference notes were an additional challenge. Like many of us, she has tried systems that worked for others, but not for her. 

My introduction to Donalyn Miller was many summers ago when I read The Book Whisperer. I encouraged many teachers to read that book as it supported what has been affirmed repeatedly by research; if you want to develop a child into a reader, you need to provide them with time to read and a wide range of literature. Much of Reading In The Wild digs further into "how to" create people that make reading a priority throughout their lives. As a wild reader myself, former primary grade teacher, and mother of two wild readers, I know that talking about what you're reading furthers comprehension of the material. Individual time given to another in which conversation is focused on that person, is bound to secure a relationship. The teacher/student relationship can be necessary when the work of learning is tough. However, as readers, we've developed the ability to use strategies that help us to struggle through very tough literature. The conferring time should focus on strategy work; not just comprehension of the reading itself. Teaching and reinforcing use of strategies across a range of genre should make use of the precious time of the reading conference.  

A couple of years ago, I attended a TCRWP (Teachers' College Reading & Writing Project) coaching seminar led by Lucy Calkins. She provides a roadmap for the conferring conversation that also requires the teacher to listen actively and find the area that the student may struggle. The "research" that the teacher does while the student reads or talks about the literature provides the "teaching point" that gives the student information to advance as a reader. The teacher may guide the student through using a particular strategy. The teacher and student may make a plan that will reinforce the new learning and continue to move the student forward. Teachers are encouraged to keep the conferring conversation under 10 minutes to ensure that the teacher meets frequently with all students. The teacher might give the student feedback or encourage the student to self-assess. 

We often give advice rather than feedback. In order to give good feedback, we need to see what the reader does- (making reading visible to us). We should give feedback to students on what is working and not working. What strategies were used to what benefit? To what degree did the student persist? We have to know what students typically do and don’t do when reading. Since it’s often difficult to get into the heads of readers, we might want to ask questions that invite the student to self-reflect. The talk that is generated is likely to move the reader forward.

Management Systems

Donalyn Miller provides some valuable thoughts regarding management of the conferring sessions. She is very honest about her struggles to find a system that works for her style. One that she describes was used by many who worked with the TCRWP. The teacher prints package labels with her students' names printed on each label. The teacher writes her notes directly on the label and then affixes it to the student's folder. Donalyn uses a system that I have seen used successfully. The teacher records the conference or portion of it on Evernote or Notability. Typed notes can be added to each session.

While I found some fault in Donalyn's conferring methods, there's no denying that her efforts to present reading to her students as the "gift of a lifetime," is genuine and borne of the best of intentions. Every teacher should read this book and make the methods work based on knowledge of her students.

Want to catch up on the #D100bloggerPD posts thus far?  Click here to access the links and view the schedule for future posts. Next up on December 2nd is Pershing School's fabulous literacy coach, +Meg Hanisch . She will take on Chapter 4; "Wild Readers Have Reading Plans."


  1. Great blog post Marilyn! I remember struggling with conversations during conferencing with my kiddos. I learned that I needed my conferences to pack more of a punch strategy-wise in order to move my kids along.

  2. I hope as you continue to read Reading in the Wild and examine all of the sections on conferring throughout the book (there are conferring points in every chapter), you can see how students' strategy use is supported through meaningful conversations about reading. Thank you for participating in the book study!

  3. I loved this post. Having read both Lucy Calkins and Donalyn Miller's work I definitely believe there is a need for both styles. However, due to our limited time and need to move our students along the concise, strategy focused conferences take precedent. But I do believe the love and desire to read will greatly affect our students' progress towards their goals.

  4. Marilyn,
    Lovely reflections about a complex practice! I think short and focused discussions with students about their reading is difficult for most teachers until they create their own management systems but this honest vignette reinforces that its important to keep trying.

  5. Marilyn,
    Thanks for your reflection. I find the hardest thing about conferring is "what" to confer about. It feels very cumbersome to set goals with each student and confer about those goals. I haven't yet got I to a flow. Baby steps.
    Thank you for sharing.