I recently finished up a stint teaching a three-week summer school class titled Sophomore Reading Academy. This class is for students whose reading score on the EXPLORE test (the freshman version of the ACT) was low enough to be recommended for remediation. At our pre-summer-school meeting, I was told that there were “no magic bullets to get kids to like reading” and was handed a twenty-page packet of reading strategy worksheets. No, this was definitely not the magic bullet.
Outside of that, teachers (especially teachers from the district) are given relative freedom to approach the class how they see fit. BONUS! I always take this opportunity to experiment with some ideas and methods that I’m thinking of implementing the following fall. This summer, after reading and seeing Penny Kittle speak on her new text Book Love, I decided to conduct independent reading book conference with my students.
Now during the course of the regular school year, my students had ten minutes every day to independently read. They would read quietly, I would read quietly, and after ten minutes we would move on to the business of the day. I have found this to be enormously successful and plan to have this be a staple of my classroom moving forward.
Back to summer. Most days, we would spend about 45 minutes of the four-and-a-half hour school day in the computer lab where students would research, summarize, and reflect on current events. While we were in the lab, I took this time to pull students aside for 3-5 minute reading conferences. I found this time to be gratifying and worthwhile, and here are a few of the reasons why:
1. I could tell the students were reading.
With independent reading, cynics are often worried about student accountability. “How do you know they are actually reading?” “Aren’t their eyes just skimming over the page?” While I have never held this mindset, conferences are a great way to check in with students. It’s difficult to fake your way through a 5-minute conversation. Even when I hadn’t read the book the student chose, I was able to get a good gauge of the student’s interaction with his/her book and if s/he was reading or not (All 18 students were reading!!).
2. I could ask individualized, probing questions about reading.
This is the good stuff, the real meat and potatoes of teaching English and reading. By conferencing individually with students, I could differentiate my discussions and help each student with what s/he needs (Penny Kittle talks about ways to monitor a reading life, ways to discuss strategies, and ways to increase complexity and challenge. I tried to model my questions after hers. Seriously, go read Book Love). Maybe it was talking about the tropes of a genre and figuring out how this book is different from others like it in style, tone, plot, etc. Maybe it was talking about what to do when struggling to comprehend and what strategies (predicting, summarizing, connecting, visualizing, etc.) to implement when we get stuck. Many readers do this inherently, but it’s not bad to point these out. Maybe it was talking about pushing ourselves as readers and beginning to climb the reading ladder. During summer school, I found this very satisfying. Instead of giving students a worksheet (or 20-page reading packet), I was able to probe, ask questions, find out where students are having difficulty (or having success), and base my conversations on what s/he needed. And because the conversation was geared toward that student specifically, s/he usually had an engaged response. I was genuinely interested in the reading experience of my students, and they were interested in sharing that reading experience with me.
3. I was able to make kids feel like readers.
One of the main things I struggle with when giving written feedback to students is positive comments. It’s something that I’m consciously working on year to year. However, with conferences, these positive comments come much more naturally to me. It’s easy to see a kid do something great with his/her IR book and compliment him/her for this. One student in my class, who claimed she doesn’t really read that much outside of school, picked up Veronica Roth’s Insurgent after reading Divergent and liking it (already, the mark of a “reader”). Without much prompting at all, she started talking about how the characterization of Tris and Four evolved from the first book, what themes she saw developing, how those themes played themselves out in the real world, and predictions for how the story was going to end. HOLY COW. This girl was a reader, and I wanted to let her know. I started with, “You just did all the things good readers do.” I pointed out the characterization, the theme development, and everything else she just did. I was thoroughly impressed, and I hope that came across in my language and demeanor. Oftentimes, students don’t think of themselves as readers because they don’t read as much as their peers or their teachers, but we can make all kids feel confident about reading, whatever level they are at. We can meet them where they are, accentuate the positives, and encourage them to keep going!
4. Sometimes the conversations veered away from reading.
This was never something that I planned but oftentimes led to necessary and fulfilling dialogue. The most memorable example was from a student who was reading A Child Called It, a nonfiction story about a boy who overcame horrific child abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The conversation we engaged in began with the difficult emotions of the story and how people deal with complicated obstacles put in front of them. What the student began talking about after that was how she often feels uncomfortable in class because of outside encounters with other students. We talked about conflict resolution, her role in the classroom, how literature acts as an “imaginative rehearsal” for real-life situations, and how to move forward. This conversation went on for about 10 or 15 minutes. While this all stemmed from her independent reading book, most of it was not about that text. It went way beyond. And I’m okay with that.
5. Conversations are assessment.
In our ever-growing testing culture, I understand that the above sentence probably sounds like gibberish to many administrators, but it is possible to track learning without assigning a number or a percentage to it. I would hope that the dozen conversations over the course of the year could tell me a bit about the reading lives of my students. And by conferring individually and addressing unique student needs, ideas, and chosen texts, this is more valuable to me as a classroom teacher than a number.
However, some people will ask (and have already asked) how to hold students accountable in the gradebook for this assessment. During the summer, I gave students an all-or-nothing grade for the conference. If they were active, engaged participants in the conference, they received full credit. If they were not (which didn’t happen with any of my 18 students), they didn’t receive credit. This was not an excessive amount of points that would sway their semester grade one way or another, but I did want to acknowledge their work and effort with some sort of credit. With that said, I could possibly see moving forward with this as an ungraded assessment, and I don’t think student involvement would drop at all. In fact, my summer school students didn’t know that they were even receiving credit for the conferences.
6. It takes time.
This is the one major drawback that I see. With my IR system last year, I was able to model good reading for the students (which I think it extremely important), and on top of that, I had a lot of fun with my own reading! There was a sense of camaraderie we had as a class when we could all pull out our books and just go. However, in order to make IR conferences plausible for the school year (50-minute periods), I think I’m going to have to give up at least some of my own independent reading time in class. Those 10 minutes at the beginning of class are probably going to turn into 2-3 conferences. Here are my concerns about this:
– If I have my conferences in the classroom with the rest of the students reading, the conversations will become distracting. My classroom is not very big nor conducive to having a quiet conversation when everyone else is silent. I think it’s important that students learn to (or continue to) read without distractions, and I would hate to interrupt that reading time.
– If I leave the classroom to have the conferences, I would be afraid some students wouldn’t stay on task. Also, I don’t like the idea of exiting the room every time the class is reading. It makes it seems as if I am not a part of the reading experience.
What might work for me is trying to conference every other day with students (location to be determined). This would allow me to be a part of the independent reading while still checking in with students. If I conference with them every other day, I would probably talk with each student once a month (9-10 times a year). However, I might be able to find other time throughout the year to add more conference time (any lab time, after quizzes, etc.).
I would love to hear feedback on how independent reading conferences have worked for you in your classes. What successes have you found? What struggles have you faced? Comments and questions are always welcome. Thanks for reading!
Currently reading And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini