Friday, January 8, 2016

The Heart of it all — the Conference

The new year is always a time for looking back and looking forward, and I have been doing that a lot lately. Looking at all the exciting changes that 2015 has brought me, and thinking about what I really believe in most, almost in a "This I Believe" kind of way, has been what has been driving my thinking for the last few weeks.

There are a lot of ideas that have topped my list. Of course, learner engagement is one of them. Learner engagement, both adult and student, is what has been driving me for the last few years. And then naturally, the idea of feedback.  I have been greatly impacted by a recent conversation with my fifteen year old daughter where she described the transformation in her dancing due to the feedback she receives from one of her instructors.

Then there is the idea of differentiation for all learners. I have been considering how important it is to differentiate adult professional development, in fact, as important as it is to differentiate experiences for our students.

And last, but certainly not least, is the idea of authenticity — how crucial it is to be authentic in our lives in general, but certainly in our teaching lives. Authentic texts, authentic learning experiences, and authentic assessments.

When I look at these four ideas together — engagement, feedback, differentiation, and authentic learning and assessment, I am led to a seminal practice that drives my teaching and learning: the conference.  

A conference is all of those things. It is a structure that engages our students the most. It is teaching that is one-to-one, in direct proximity to a learner, and to what she needs, when she needs it.

It is our best place for feedback and differentiation for our students. A place where we can make the teaching all about them, in the most authentic ways.

One key to successful conferring is managing what you teach and when you teach it. One way to do that is to consider what we bring to a conference and use this to cultivate your teaching points.

What do we bring to a conference?

What we bring to conferences — our current teaching, our prior teaching and texts, student history, and our own intentions and learning can inform our conferring in profound ways.  The key is to consider these domains as lenses and then use them fuel the "what" of our teaching.

Start with You: Notice Yourself as a Reader and Writer – 
Often I am asked how I come up with the teaching points that I use in conferences, and although there are a few places where I draw inspiration, the most fruitful, the one that is most important to start with, is myself. I mine my own reading and writing life and consider the moves that I make as a reader or writer. Considering yourself first as a reader or writer will bring you to the most authentic ways to confer with your students.

Therefore, I recommend that you do just that — read a text to notice yourself as a reader.  Notice your process, what feels good, what challenges you, the strategies and conventions you use, and how you navigate the reading of various genre.  

Write a text to notice yourself as a writer.  Keep a writer’s notebook, and model writing with and for your students.  Notice your process,  what feels good, what challenges you, the craft moves that you make and the conventions you use, and how you navigate the writing of various genre.

When you notice yourself first, conference ideas come easily and quickly.  

Use the information you have on your readers and writers –
Another fruitful and important place to look for teaching points is to your past teaching. An important habit to develop and cultivate is the habit of taking notes on learners, and making time in your life to reread and reflect on those notes. Some of my best teaching comes from the teaching that I am doing on a daily basis.

Therefore, I recommend that you do just that — look at past conference notes. Note what you have taught your readers and writers. Study your notes from the “Read the Room” part of the workshop. What are you noticing about your students?  Strengths? "Ish" moves? Next instructional steps?

When you record your teaching and reflect on those experiences, conference ideas come easily and quickly.

Study your students –
I have always believed that my greatest teachers are my students. They teach me exactly what I need to know and pay attention to, reveal for me what they need as learners, and remind me of what matters most in reading and writing.

Therefore, I recommend that you do just that — take time to study your students and what they are doing as readers and writers. Analyze artifacts from writing — pieces, notebooks/folders, reflections — whatever "evidence" you can gather from their recent writing work. Analyze artifacts from reading — recently read texts, Padlet responses, running records, book logs (lists of titles and genres read), book bins, goals — whatever "evidence" you can gather from their recent reading and writing work.

When you put your students front and center, conference ideas come easily and quickly.

Unpack expectations –
The last place I look for inspiration and information around what to teach in a conference comes from the discipline itself, and from what I want my students to learn in this discipline. When I was an elementary classroom teacher, this included looking at all the disciplines I taught — from humanities, history and reading and writing, to science and math. That may seem like a lot of planning but the key is to start small and think across smaller time zones. What am I teaching in my current unit that can be the content of an upcoming conference? What did I teach today that I want to address more deeply with one learner? What have I recently used in my teaching (text, tool, or experience) that I want to revisit in a conference?

When you consider the content of the discipline, and your own expectations and intentions within this discipline, conference ideas come easily and quickly.

This month, you too may do a lot of looking back and looking forward. When you think about conferring, think about conferring as your opportunity to connect with your students and do some of your most profound and impactful teaching!

– Patty

For more information, materials, and tools for conferring, check out Engaging Every Learner: Classroom Principles, Strategies, and Tools. Happy reading!