It used to be that I did one-on-one reading conferences with my students because I believed that I was supposed to do one-on-one reading conferences. I treated them as one more item on my checklist of what a good readers’ workshop included. Because I had no real purpose for my reading conferences, they became little more than a chance for me to check-in with and check-up on my students.
I would sit with a student, ask her what she was reading, ask her to tell me about her book, ask her how long she had been reading her book, ask her how many pages she planned to read this week, ask her to tell me what she was thinking about and then I would move on to the next student. I felt like I was looking to catch my students. I was looking to catch them if they weren’t really reading. I was looking to catch them if they weren’t really understanding what they were reading. I was looking to catch them “JUST” reading and not paying attention to their own thinking.
The problem with this kind of reading conference is that my students were absolutely NO better off after conferring with me. In fact, these kinds of conferences became detrimental to my students’ reading lives. When I stopped my students from reading, with no real purpose for our conversation, I was ruining the flow of their reading and interrupting the work that they were doing. The important work of reading. These meaningless reading conferences sent the message to my students that I was out to get them and that I was looking for where they would mess up.
While I might have gained some information about how my students were doing, they gained absolutely nothing positive from our time together.
But I was checking off names on my checklist and I was able to talk about how often I was meeting with my students.
And all of that meant nothing.
A few years ago, I started to realize that my reading conferences should actually be moments of instruction. While this sounds like an obvious thing to realize, it really did take me a few years to figure it out. I should actually be teaching my kids something when I sit down to confer with them. At the time it was mind-blowing.
So then my reading conferences began to change from chances to check-in with my students to opportunities for instruction. So then, when I met with my students, I would ask them to tell me about their books, tell me what they were doing as readers and then ask them to think about something that was connected to the mini-lesson we had that day or connected to the strategy work that we were doing together as a class.
And this felt better. But it still didn’t feel right.
I still felt like nothing more than an interruption. I still felt as if my students were probably better off without me stopping by. I still felt that as soon as I walked away, my students forget all about the goal that we set and just went back to the important work of reading.
Throughout the course of last year, as I focused on making my conferences better, I came to realize that my major misstep was that I was still using reading conferences as a chance to push my own agenda. Yes, my agenda had changed from wanting to check-in on my students as readers to wanting to teach my students something as readers, but I was still the one in control of the agenda. So of course these reading conferences felt meaningless to my students. My students and their ideas and their voices were being left out of them.
Yes, I spent time listening to long winded summaries of the books my students were reading. And yes, I listened as my students told me about what they had been thinking about. I listened to their connections and their questions and their predictions. And then I still gave them a goal to work on that met my own needs more than theirs. And so when I walked away, my students had zero desire to work on these goals. Because they were not their own.
So this year. My conferences with my students became something different. Instead of being a time listen for the things that my students were not doing well enough. Instead of being a time to listen for the proof that my students were or were not really reading. Instead of being a time to listen for the things that my students were getting wrong. My reading conferences became a chance to listen for moments of brilliance.
Often, these moments were moments that my students themselves did not recognize as brilliance. But they were the moments when my students shared deep insights. They were the moments where my students genuinely wondered about a character’s choice or an author’s choice. They were moments when I could see my students’ faces actually light up with excitement, or disgust, or curiosity, or intrigue, or interest. I looked for those moments where I could see that my students were passionate about what they were reading and had things that they wanted to know and wanted to investigate about their books, their characters and their authors.
Sometimes, these moments were fleeting. But it became my job and my mission to catch them.
Because once I did, then I had a place to launch off from. And that place HAD to come from the students themselves. Once they gave me the moment of brilliance, then I could help them to push that thinking into a goal that would allow them to stretch themselves as readers and to dig deeper into the texts that they were reading.
So now. That is what my reading conferences have become. A chance for me and my students to explore their thinking together in order to find the parts that are worth holding on to and following further. These have become their reading goals. These have become what they share at the end of our reading workshop. These have become the way we measure our growth as readers. These have become the lessons that they teach to their classmates. These have become the things that I find my students excitedly whispering about with their classmates.
And now, our one-on-one reading conferences are the absolute heart of our reading workshop.