Every day my literacy students and I begin the first fifteen minutes of class with independent reading–except on Fridays. On Fridays, the kids get extended reading time while I conduct individual reading conferences. At least that’s how we started, but as the year has progressed, our book conferences have evolved into much more. Yes, we talk about the books they are reading. I ask questions and make recommendations for future reading. Sometimes, I take recommendations from them too. But our conferences have become about more than just books, and the benefits for my students and me have been tremendous.
Here’s why I recommend all teachers set aside time to conference with students regularly:
1. Conferences give me a chance to talk to my students about their performance in my class.
At least twice a quarter, I use part of our conference time to talk to my students about their grades. Even with online access, some of them have no idea what their grade is. Some are surprised to find they have missing assignments or that all those low quiz scores have added up.
More importantly, each week, my students get the chance to ask questions about material we’ve covered or to admit privately there’s something they aren’t getting. I have to be careful that our conferences don’t turn into tutoring sessions. There isn’t time for that. But I can make notes and circle back to the kids who need extra help later or get them the help they need from a peer tutor. Conferencing weekly with my students helps ensure no one falls through the cracks.
2. Conferences have solved my make-up work problem.
I’ve never had a very efficient system for keeping track of make-up work and late assignments, so this has been a game-changer for me. Now I no longer have to remember when each students’ make-up work is due. And neither do they. It’s due on Friday–always on Friday and placed right into my hand, so there’s no question about whether or not it has been turned in. I can also use this time to hand back papers students might not have received because they were absent or to ask them about why they are having trouble getting work turned in.
3. Conferences give kids a chance to open up.
I’m not a counselor, and I don’t pry into my students’ personal lives, but, given the chance, kids have a way of letting me know when something is wrong. Often, it’s something relatively minor like a fight with a friend or a concern about a sick pet. In those cases, I’m usually able to offer some words of wisdom or consolation or at least a sympathetic ear. Occasionally, a student will share information of a more serious nature, and I am able to try to get them the help or resources they need. Whatever the case, a lot of kids are dealing with issues, big and small, that have nothing to do with school, and a caring teacher might be the only person they can open up to. Conference time gives them the space to do that.
4. Conferences allow me to un-push the pause button.
We’ve all had those times when a student is just dying to tell us a story, but we just don’t have time. “Tell me on Friday!” has been a great way for me to allow my students to feel heard without taking up valuable class time. That’s not to say that I never let my kids tell me jokes in the hall or tell stories in class. In fact, I try not to put them off if I don’t have to. But for those times when I just really don’t have the time (or the energy) for another personal anecdote, I just hold up my palm, and say, “I am eager to hear this, but tell me on Friday!” As often as not, they forget, but if it’s important to them, they’ll remember, and on Fridays, I’m ready to listen.
5. Conferences allow me to build a rapport with my students.
I teach three blocks of literacy, so I have almost 60 students. Beyond listening to their problems and hearing their stories, our conference time gives me a few one-on-one, face-to-face minutes with each of my kids. I didn’t understand how important this was until I realized, that without a set-aside time, there are some kids I would rarely talk to about anything beyond the curriculum. For this reason, I’m trying to make a point (at least some of the time) to simply make small talk. It’s amazing how this can open opportunities for more conversations, strengthen my relationships with my students, and build a more positive classroom community.
Of course, not every teacher has a block schedule, so finding an extra 30-45 minutes a week can be tricky. For some, a bi-weekly or monthly conference might be appropriate. For me, it can sometimes be challenging to keep my class engaged while I conference with students individually. They are good to read silently for about half an hour. After that, I usually need to have an assignment or even a low-key group project they can work on. Another challenge is keeping conferences short–not more than two-five minutes, depending on the students’ needs and the size of the class. The timer on my phone comes in handy for that.
Of course, often our reading conferences are just about the book. The important thing is that the kids know they have my attention, and I’m open to whatever is on their minds. Making time to meet with my students individually isn’t always easy or convenient, but despite all its challenges, I’ve found that setting aside a few minutes each week to talk to my students one-on-one has proven invaluable.