15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #9 Prioritize Conferring from the Start

This is going to be a tough one to write. It’s going to be honest, and it isn’t going to be pretty. My goal as a teacher-writer isn’t to paint myself in a glowing light. Quite the contrary, in fact. My goal is to show myself as I truly am: a flawed but dedicated classroom teacher. I also happen to be someone with a deep passion for literacy education- such a passion that I even cowrote a book about conferring with readers. That’s why this is going to be a hard one to admit to…

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

I was an ineffective conferring teacher in April and May of 2020. It’s true. I just really didn’t know what to do. Like all of you, my world was completely turned upside down. If you’re a classroom teacher like me, you probably just didn’t know how to balance it all. My biggest concerns did not revolve around how to confer around reading…

Rather, I was mourning the very recent unexpected loss of a former student with my school community. Additionally, I was worried about my student Aiden’s family- his sister has serious health issues and the family moved to my area so she could be treated. I was also concerned about Angela- would she remember her school login and eventually join us in Zoom? I was deeply worried about Nate- the once happy-go-lucky chatty friend to all in our classroom had turned inward and just stopped talking. My nine months pregnant kindergarten buddy teacher and her family were constantly on my mind. Would they be ok through all this? My brother was also consistently in my thoughts. As a nurse in a busy San Francisco emergency department, was he in danger? Not only all this, but I was beside myself concerned about my parents. Will their age and health conditions put them in danger? When it came to the actual work of teaching, I was exhausting myself following my district’s directions of creating original videos every single day for my students. On a related note, I was often trying to mend my broken spirit when my equally exhausted students admitted they didn’t watch the video I sent that day or that they watched it at 2x speed. Plus, I was trying to keep up with 15-20 minute scheduled Zoom meetings with small groups of students that actually turned into emotional support time for all of us rather than instructional periods. Like all of you, I was trying to wrap my understanding around what a global pandemic was and how we even got there. To be completely honest, I was falling apart.

So, it’s true. I wasn’t even thinking about conferring. And, I forgive myself. You should forgive yourself, too. Actually, there is nothing to forgive. We were in crisis mode. Let’s all collectively grant each other some grace and move forward.

What I Plan to do in the Fall of 2020

Once school starts again, I plan to start conferring right away. Why? In retrospect, I honestly think a regular conferring practice would have actually worked wonders this past spring (not dwelling on it, just reflecting on it). It would have potentially given my students, and even me, some comfort, safe conversation, and an outlet of sorts.

In our 2018 book, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy, Kari Yates and I share that we believe at its simplest, a conference is a conversation between two readers. When we are fortunate to learn alongside teachers in person, we often share our belief that every child deserves a teacher who confers, and every teacher can develop a conferring practice that really works. All it takes is a little heart, tenacity, and a willingness to learn. This also applies from a distance- just a bit differently.

To be completely honest, conferring just isn’t the same over Zoom. Absolutely nothing can replace pulling up alongside a child in person, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the same level, leaning in asking, “May I join you,” and then engaging in a friendly in-person conversation around wonder, affirmation, and learning. Yet, there are things we can do from a distance to harness much of the power of conferring.

Instead of writing in paragraph form how I plan to confer with students this spring, I thought I’d create a more visually pleasing guide.

The guide below explains three different methods for conferring with students from a distance: After the Lesson Conferring, Scheduled Conferring, and Peer to Peer Conferring.

A larger version of this image can be found here.

By providing one on one time to engage with students myself, and encouraging them to do so with each other, I’m hoping students will feel more of a connection with me and with their peers than if I did not intentionally take steps to set up a conferring practice from a distance. Plus, the more I confer with students, the more I’ll really get to know what’s going- both in their school work and in their hearts. In our work together, Kari and I keep two key questions at the forefront of everything we do:

  1. What’s going on?
  2. How might I respond?

There really is no more powerful teaching move than kidwatching (Yetta Goodman, 1978, 2002) and responding. We won’t know how to respond until we’ve explored what’s going on. We can’t exactly fully engage in the traditional instructional move of kid watching from a distance, but we can still figure out what’s going on by conferring on a consistent basis. I plan to do this from the start once we’re back at school- even from a distance.

More Conferring Support from the To Know and Nurture a Reader Blog

Post #10 is coming up on Tuesday! Tuesday’s writing will discuss the big idea that Less is More in distance learning.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

Journaling: The Most Important Writing of the Moment

I’ve now been offering optional screencasted journaling sessions for my fifth graders for a little over a week. Tomorrow marks week three of being away from the classroom. It will be the start of week two for those of us in California sheltering in place.

I’m screencasting a new journaling session each day for my fifth graders. The kids who are taking part are saying that it is really helping them sort through their feelings and just feel better about this situation we’re all in. The cathartic side effects of journaling are like medicine right now. Some of my classroom families have even mentioned they’ve started a journal as well to capture their thoughts at this moment in history.

If they can be helpful to you, I am adding these sessions to this document as I make them. They are not mass made for all, but rather are made specifically for my fifth graders at this moment in our history. If they might help you as a teacher, as a parent, as a human being right now in these trying times, here they are- just know they were made for my students, not for all students.

If you are a teacher, consider recording some journaling sessions for your students (if you’ve never done this before, there are tons of tutorials online, or just reach out- I’m happy to take a little time to help out a fellow classroom teacher right now). We’ll never have this time in history again- I hope. The most important writing, capturing, composing, and sketching our kids (and we) can do right now is to create from the heart, not from a set of standards.

Ten years from now, I suspect many of my students and families will look back on their journals to remember. I know I will.

Stay safe and take care.

-Christina

Even Our Youngest Writers Are Making Strategic Decisions

In our work together, Kari Yates and I often share with teachers our belief that all readers are constantly making strategic decisions. It is our job as teachers to let students in on the secret. Many times, students are using skills and strategies and aren’t even aware they are doing so. When we recognize and name what our readers are doing, it is very likely they will do it again. Thus, they will continue to grow as readers.

Our work as teachers is to celebrate the effort, approximations, and new strategic work that our students are continually doing. Kari and I often talk about this with readers, but the same goes for our student writers.

During conferences and small groups with students, when we recognize, name, and point out the strategic moves they are making, we are intentionally offering teaching that will support them in using these skills and strategies again and again.

I am so excited to share this idea tomorrow with elementary teachers in Los Gatos, CA! In our three professional development sessions around writing workshop, we are going to practice recognizing, naming, and pointing out the strategic moves that student writers are making, and then thinking about possible next steps to help them grow. Can you name some of the strategic decisions these writers made?

As teaching colleagues, one of the most powerful things we can do to refine our practice and grow ourselves is to analyze student work together. I can’t think of a better way to spend a staff meeting, grade level collaboration session, or professional development day. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

180 Days of Literacy Learning: Three Things That Mattered Most

Written off and on a week or so after the last day of school while enjoying a weekend away in the woods at Northern California’s Russian River and also in my backyard after summer school.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

If you’re a classroom teacher, you can probably understand why it took me a while since the last day of school to write the final piece for this blog series. The last few days of school are a bit crazy to say the least- they included an all-fifth grade day long pool party, two 5th grade promotion practices, year book distribution and signing, longer announcements, and just pure and utter exhaustion. All of this encompassed our final four days of school in addition to our literacy and math learning and reflection.

Now that I’ve had a bit of time between between my last day of school and packing up my classroom (which all of us do at my school at the end of the year), I’m reflecting on what mattered most during these past 180 school days. When thinking about our literacy learning all year long, I can easily narrow it down to three consistent, daily practices that mattered most:

  1. Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts
  2. Daily Picture Book Read Aloud
  3. Daily Writing

Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts– 180 days of it- even on the first and last days of school, even on field trip days, even on assembly days, even on minimum days- we did this every single day without exception. When I first read Allington’s landmark piece If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good (1977) while in grad school well over a decade ago, his words made perfect sense to me. It was baffling to think that some in our field expect kids to become proficient readers without really reading much. It just made no sense. From that day forward, independent choice reading has been a daily nonnegotiable in my classroom.

Daily choice independent reading soft starts gave this student an opportunity to read, think, and talk about Inside Tennis, his favorite magazine. This was one of his favorite relaxed reads- he saved his stretch reads for reading workshop time later in the day.

Thanks to learning about soft starts from Sara Ahmed at a conference a few years back (I wish I could remember which conference!), our independent choice reading time has started our every day in the classroom. Without exception, I open my classroom door at 7:55, the kids walk in and take care of any needs (putting their stuff away, ordering lunch, finishing up a conversation with a friend, etc.), then they settle in for 15 – 40 minutes of independent choice reading. During these 15 to 40 minutes, I confer with a couple students, and am also able to do a quick check-in with each of them. Not only do kids get in a lot of low pressure time in with their eyes on text, but also it is a great opportunity for me to build and foster relationships.

On the last day of school, we even squeezed in 5 minutes for our final, almost ceremonial, independent choice reading soft start. We could only do five minutes as school started at 8:00 and we had to line up for our big 5th grade promotion ceremony at 8:25. However, we made those five minutes count! After those five minutes, my fifth graders joined me in our meeting area for our final picture book read aloud and discussion of the year.

Daily Picture Book Read Aloud– yes, again, every single day, we made time for our picture book read alouds. In addition to supporting students in recognizing and learning the skills and strategies that readers and writers use, our daily picture book read aloud was instrumental in both fostering our caring classroom community and examining how we can work toward empowering ourselves and others. Reading a picture book aloud every single day provided students with 180 shared experiences, shared stories, and shared discussions. You can view all of our read aloud titles here.

While I have always valued picture book read aloud in the classroom, this is the first year I made the commitment as an upper elementary teacher to share one every day. The inspiration came from two places: Jillian Heise’s work with Classroom Book a Day and a little prompting from my friend and colleague Jennifer Ford.

One student’s experience with Sparkle Boy inspired her to seek out more books featuring LGBTQIA kids and families, and then recommend those books to friends. Here, she’s recommending Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee to the class.

The day before the last day of school, each fifth grader shared a book talk or screencast around the book that impacted them the most this year. Many of the fifth graders opted to present on one of our picture books. During these presentations, we heard how Duncan’s Tonatiuh’s Seperate is Never Equal prompted one student to further dive into her family’s history in California’s Central Valley. Another student shared that Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman inspired her to seek out more books featuring LGBTQIA kids and families, and then to share those books with friends. We even learned that another student felt she gained more confidence in herself after reading and reflecting on Louisa Belinda’s courageous story in Larissa Theule’s Born to Ride.

On that last day of school, right before we took our last day class selfie (a silly tradition I started years ago) and walked out to line up for our 5th grade promotion ceremony, I invited my fifth graders to quickly write a note about their selected inspirational book or another book on a sticky note for next year’s fifth graders.

Daily Writing– I am so fortunate to work in a school that believes in and practices a daily writing workshop. I say practice because all of us on staff have been refining our workshop practice for years now. I can say this with confidence because prior to working as a fifth grade teacher at my school, I was the literacy coach! At one time or another, I’ve worked with every teacher on staff in developing our workshop practices.

My students came to me as writers- on our first day of school when I said, “Writers, meet me in the meeting area,” they knew exactly what to do and where to go without much prompting. It was pretty obvious the teachers before me helped instill a workshop lifestyle into their consciousness. I’m happy to say we continued that way of life every single day in the classroom.

That being said, it is important to note that I did not deliver a brand new mini lesson each day. Nor did I require students to engage in what one might consider high stakes academic writing each day. We wrote each day, but often times our writing existed in what Ralph Fletcher refers to as the Greenbelt (2017). In his book, Joy Write, Fletcher describes the joy of autonomous, playful, low-stakes writing. On days I would announce, “We’re heading in to the Greenbelt for writing workshop today,” students cheered! They loved experimenting poetry, cowriting fictional stories with friends, creating detailed comics, and even working on stories that they first started in fourth grade! Greenbelt time was their opportunity to have 100% free choice in how they would use workshop time- they chose their writing space, writing modality, genre, topic, whether to write independently or to coauthor pieces, and even their audience. Every single aspect of that time was up to them.

When we weren’t in the Greenbelt, we were largely working within the TCRWP Units of Study in Writing. While the Writing Units of Study for 5th grade was the foundation for our workshop mini lessons, my grade level partners and I often infused in our own teacher-created mini lessons based on what we thought our students would benefit from after talking about their writing. This collaboration with my grade level partners not only helped me grow my practice as a writing teacher, but also it helped my students grow as writers. Three minds thinking about student writing is definitely greater than one!

This student felt so proud when he was reminded of where he came from as a writer!

Perhaps one of the more powerful things we chose to do as a grade level team was invite our fifth grade writers to take time to view their saved writing from previous grades to reflect on how much they’ve grown in their writing practice.

One of the most satisfying experiences for a writer is realizing how much they’ve grown. While reading old pieces of writing can be scary for some adult writers (I’ve shuddered rereading some of my first blog posts), the experience was quite different for my fifth graders. On the day that I handed out their K-5 writing portfolios, the room was filled with kids poring over their old pieces with wonder. The sounds of joyous laughter, shared discussion around old pieces, and gasps of realization of growth filled the room for well over 45 minutes. These 45 minutes were time well spent with three days to go in the school year.

On that last day of school, with only 25ish minutes together with my class, we independently read, shared a beautiful final picture book and discussion, and jotted notes to future fifth graders. We make time for what we value. And that concluded our 180 days of literacy learning.

My annual last day silly Waterlogued selfie with the fifth graders… Wow- I really miss them. Thank you for sharing in our literacy learning this school year.

For more information on why these three practices matter, I highly recommend these resources. There are many more resources in addition to the ones listed below, these are just a few that I’ve turned to again and again in my practice.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy Learning Blog Series

So much is emphasized, written, and said about the first 20 days of school. Well, I’m entering my last 20, and the work isn’t even close to being done. This blog series will chronicle the literacy learning of the last 20 days of school in my fifth grade classroom.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy

How are you making your last 20 days count? Share your work!

Modeling Vulnerability

I’ve always loved writing. My earliest memory of feeling like a writer was in Mrs. Jones’ sixth grade class at Piedmont Middle School in San Jose. I distinctly remember how Mrs. Jones invited each of us in class to write about a memorable experience we had. I chose to write about a boogie boarding experience gone wrong. I don’t remember everything about that exact piece, but I do remember finally feeling like a writer. Ever since this writing assignment in sixth grade, I have loved writing. I constantly find myself writing down my thoughts, lists, informational pieces, narrative tidbits here and there, and even responses to things I read. However, I have never ever sat down to write poetry. In fact, poetry made me really uncomfortable. Honestly, I can’t pinpoint why. The fact is, I never considered myself one who could actually write poetry. It was intimidating.

Yet, as a writer I know that my best writing often comes when I push myself out of my comfort zone. Come to think of it, the best of many things in life come when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones. So, on the first day of this month, National Poetry Month, I decided it was time to become comfortable with discomfort. I decided it was time to start writing poetry.

During the first few days of April, I found myself on spring break, so I had a little bit of time to warm up to poetry before writing in this form with my students. After seven days of writing it on my own- stressing about the right words, thinking my poems will never be up to snuff, I decided to just stop worrying about it and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So, when it came time to write poetry in class, I sat in front of my students, only the classroom document camera between us, and I started chatting with them about free verse poetry. When it comes to writing, I am not a rule follower. As a student, my assigned five paragraph essays were always four or six, and I always refused to use the teacher mandated planning pages because I wanted to make my own plans (I suspect this does not surprise anyone). Naturally, I gravitated toward reading and writing free verse poetry.

So, when it came time to finally write a poem in front of my students, I told them that after reading and discussing our ideas around Jacqueline Woodson’s poem Reading from Brown Girl Dreaming, which was projected on our board, I suspected that poets often write poems about strong feelings or emotions that became overwhelming or all encompassing. I suspect that they do not worry about rules and fitting into prescribed boxes. It sounded something like this…

“Based on Jacqueline Woodson’s poem Reading, I’m guessing one way poets might think of ideas is by identifying really strong feelings or emotions they’re having. Then, I suspect they just start writing from their hearts and minds without worry.”

My students were nodding while looking up and me and Jacqueline Woodson’s poem projected on the board. I continued…

“So, I’m going to try that right now… Last night I went to a concert. I saw Weezer and the Pixies. It was just amazing!”

(As an aside, a few knew Weezer’s music, but I was alone in my love for the Pixies among my 10 and 11 year-old poets)

“When the band came on, the lights dimmed, the crowd jumped to their feet, and the beat of the drum and the strum of the guitars started to just overtake me. I felt pure joy!”

Then, I turned on the document camera and started writing in view of all my students. I just wrote what I felt while thinking of the previous night.

Once my poem was written, I continued chatting with my students…

“So, did you notice how I just thought of a really strong feeling I had? Did you notice how I just wrote from my heart without really worrying? It’s now your turn…”

Before I could even get my last words out, I noticed many of my fifth graders had already started writing their poems- from their hearts.

What they envisioned, felt, and created that day just blew my mind! I am so excited to see where the rest of the month, and actually the rest of this school year takes us. Sometimes, our most powerful lessons come when we don’t make exact plans and we just model vulnerability as writers and poets (yes- I’m a poet!) for our students.

Here are some of the poems my students wrote that day. All poems are shared with permission.

Thank you for reading and welcoming my vulnerability.

-Christina

Rethinking “I’m proud of you.”

Andi, a student of mine, was so excited during writing workshop today. After trying a few different things out, she finally wrote an introduction to her persuasive essay that she felt would really grab her readers’ attention. She excitedly requested a conference with me to ask what I thought about her introduction.

I didn’t plan to meet with Andi today, but she was so excited to share her writing that I certainly couldn’t say no. When we settled in for our conference together, I started off how I typically do with my fifth grade writers, “Hi Andi- what would you like to talk about?”

“I think I really wrote a great introduction! I want to know what you think!”

“Ok, can you read it to me?” I responded with a smile.

Andi then read her introduction aloud, which I have to say was very clever, and definitely made me want to read more. As soon as she finished reading it aloud, she looked at me with a huge smile seeking out my approval by asking, “Do you like it?

Some of you might be thinking- that’s great, she wants to share her writing! She’s seeking out the teacher to share her great work.

Well, I honestly had a different reaction. The last thing I want as a writing teacher is my students seeking out my approval. I don’t want them to look for the standard response of “I’m proud of you” or “Great job!” Their job as writers (readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc) is not to gain my approval. So, I responded with something else. I tried to respond in a way to get Andi to seek out her own approval and to notice exactly what she did as a writer to make her feel this way.

“Well, what do you think about your introduction? Do you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?”

Andi quickly responded, “Yes! Definitely. I think my reader will want to keep reading. I think the statistic I shared will surprise them and make them want to know more about the topic.”

I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Andi, recognize how you’re feeling right now as a writer. Think about the decision you made to provoke this feeling in your future readers. This is potentially a strategy you can use again in your writing. I bet you can even share it with some classmates to support their efforts. Would you be up for that?”

“Yes! I’ll share why I decided to use the statistic to start! I really like how it sounds.”

“Take note of the pride you feel in yourself right now, Andi. Consider jotting down the decision you made as a writer in your notebook. Revisit it the next time you’re starting a piece of writing or perhaps when you’re conferring with a friend to support their work.”

“Ok. I will! Thanks, Ms. Nosek.” Andi then jotted down the strategy she made the choice to use in her notebook, and walked off feeling proud of herself as a writer. With that, our conference ended.

Now, imagine if I just told Andi that I was proud of her. If I used those words, it would have made her writing about pleasing me instead of empowering her. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling kids we’re proud of them. However, I’m making the effort with my teacher language to help them recognize when they are proud of themselves. The goal is helping my students empower themselves, not making me proud. Simple language choices make a big difference.