By: Jessica Michael Bowman
When I transitioned from my role as classroom teacher to that of literacy coach, I knew it would take some getting used to and I expected there would be growing pains. While the transition was still fresh, a colleague asked me what it was that I would miss most about not having my own classroom, and I didn’t skip a beat with my reply. “I’ll miss the relationships I built with my kids,” I said. “I’ll miss them everyday.”
Fast forward to today, and I love literacy coaching. I love championing teachers, seeing their confidence in themselves grow as they reflect on their practice and hone their craft. I love working alongside them, co-teaching and co-planning as we work toward our student learning goals together. I love the feeling of furthering my reach – impacting the lives of even more children each day and making a larger investment in the teaching and learning happening in classrooms across my distrcit. More than this, I love still being able to teach students each day and seeing them grow as readers and writers, feeling proud of them each step of the way.
As much as I’ve grown to love my new role, if I’m heartbreakingly honest with myself there were times in those beginning days that I did not love it, times when I would cry. On these days, I fretted over my decision, weighing back and forth whether or not it was a mistake. They were emotional days; like the one when my daughter, an inquisitive into-everything-toddler, found a box that held notes, cards, and letters from my former students and scattered them across the floor of our home. As I gingerly picked up each memento with the intention of returning them to the box, I hesitated and instead sat down and began to reread them. As I pored over the words and pictures, I cried.
To me, these keepsakes are a tangible way to measure the impact I’ve made across my teaching career. You know them well and you have saved them, too: poems about how students lives have been changed by you, letters thanking you for what you’ve taught them (often beyond the curriculum) and little notes written just to brighten your day. They are reminders that you made a difference each and every day. You created readers and writers, fostered a love of learning and a culture of empathy. You inspired world shakers and mentored leaders. You made a child feel valued, safe, and loved.
That is what I worried I would miss out on – seeing the fruits of my labor each day; noting in subtle and tangible ways (beyond student data and learning goals) how I have helped them, challenged them, and loved them. I worried I would miss looking around my classroom and seeing how the relationships I’ve built with them led them to a love of reading, and that through this love they found books that became mirrors into their own lives and windows into the perspectives and experiences of others. I would miss our conversations, our laughter – even our tears.
So when I stepped into this new role, I had to ask myself, How am I going to build those intentional relationships with someone else’s students? As I travel from classroom to classroom to teach and learn, how will I know that I’m making a difference in their learning and in their lives?
Shockingly, and refreshingly, it was easier to accomplish than I had anticipated. When I stepped into someone else’s classroom that first day, I did something I had done every day in my own and continue to do now in others’. I opened a dialogue with each child, invited them into a conversation. I used conferring, an essential best practice of reading and writing instruction, in these new classrooms as I always had in my own. And it has been through conferring that I have been able to build, and more importantly sustain, relationships with students who are and who are not “my own.”
Conferring as Responsive Teaching
At a glance, conferring with readers and writers is responsive instruction and immediate, ongoing feedback. During reading or writing workshop, the teacher moves around the classroom, engaging students in one-on-one conversations, coaching them and providing individualized instruction for each child. Conferring is both an authentic form of formative assessment, and a means of holding students accountable and ensuring they’re engaged. Throughout the conference, the teacher records anecdotal notes – qualitative data that serve as a springboard for future instruction and a record of growth. So much of students’ learning is invisible work, and conferring makes this work visible, for both the teacher and student. It nudges readers and writers toward metacognition and pushes them forward with new insights, teaching points, and inquiries.
As a literacy coach, I confer daily with students about their reading and writing and also work with teachers to hone their conferring skills. While there a many types of conferences one might engage in with writers and readers, there are two types that I consistently use in classrooms and in professional develop settings: the coaching conference and the research-decide-compliment-teach conference. Both are used by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University and provide an organic structure to conferring that maintains responsiveness while increasing productivity.
In the research-decide-compliment-teach conference, a teacher begins the conference with an invitation for the student to join in a conversation. This research portion sets up an inquiry of the work the student is doing. It begins with an open-ended question, often something like, “What are you working on as a reader?” or “How’s your writing going?” Once the teacher understands what the student is doing and where the work is heading, the teacher then decides what the teaching will be. What is it this student needs most in this moment? What teaching point or tip will lift the level of their reading or writing?
Then, the teacher offers a compliment, celebrating something the reader or writer is doing well before launching into the teach. The teach phase is a brief tip or teaching point, often briefly modeled by the teacher and then practiced by the student. Next steps are discussed that link this teaching to their ongoing work and the student launches back into this work, while the teacher pulls a small group or continues conferring with others.
Sometimes a teacher coaches right in to students’ writing and reading with strategies, while other times the focus of the conference might be to create a “book buzz” when introducing a new series, or to nudge students to set up an inquiry around their own work. Whatever form it takes, it is quick, purposeful and responsive teaching. And yet conferring is so much more.
Cultivating Relationships Through Conferring
“The relationships that grow out of writing conferences are not the by-product of conferring—they are one of the important goals, since these relationships are so central to students’ growth as writers.” – Carl Anderson
Rereading my overview of conferring, I admit that it feels stiff and technical, even stale. My description lacks the vibrancy and energy that is the trademark of a conference. It’s missing the ebb and flow of conversation, the steady pull and gradual push. You don’t quite hear the rush of an excited, hushed exchange of ideas or feel the deep, reverberating silence of reflection.
At it’s heart, conferring is a more than a best practice. It is the root of a relationship, and it’s also the bud that forms slowly, but over time unfolds. It is the gentle tending, the guiding care. It is witnessing and appreciating the fruits of your labor, and continuing to sow more seeds. Conferring is how we lay the foundation for the relationships we grow and tend with our readers and writers. When we make conferencing with our students a priority, we tell each and every child I see you. I am invested in you and the important work you are doing as a reader and writer. I care enough about you as reader, writer, and person to check back in and to make the business of your learning the business of my teaching.
It’s no secret in our profession that when students feel seen, accepted, and loved by us, then they can learn from us. It is in this way that the same conversations that spark their love and understanding of literacy begin to form the connections that build and sustain relationships. And these connections are made measurable by a smile first thing in the morning, a handwritten note on your desk just because, or a student greeting you with, “You’re back! I missed you!” when you walk into a classroom that has a name different than yours on its door.
I’m starting to witness seeds taking root, a few buds beginning to bloom. While I’m not afforded the privilege of observing each exciting moment of change in every classroom I coach in, it’s worth all my toil and tending when I do. I may not greet each student at the door in the morning, cup of coffee in my hand and smile on my face, but I can use the limited time I have to be intentional about connecting with them. It’s through our daily conferences that these connections are cultivated and learning also achieved.
So, whatever your role as an educator, making conferences a priority in your teaching won’t merely enrich your students’ literacy lives – it is one of the best ways to really get to know who they are as readers and writers, and as people. As Karla pointed out earlier in the year, we make time for what we value. If being intentional about building and sustaining relationships with your students matters to you, I encourage you to start a conversation with each child… and keep it going.
WVCTE is wondering… How do you build and sustain relationships with your students? What does conferring look like in your classroom?
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Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.