Monday, July 25, 2011

Reflections on Conferring - Part 3

This post marks the end of a blog chat based on "Conferring" by Patrick Allen. This chat - hosted by Laura of Our Camp Read-A-Lot, Jill of My Primary Passion, and Cathy from Reflect & Refine has been a new and very rewarding experience for me. I've enjoyed the discussion and hope that even though the official blog chat will have ended we can continue the #CyberPD conversation in the days to come.

As I write this I am sitting on the cabin porch at the Lake of the Ozarks. It is a perfect spot to sit and reflect. It is early and the lake is just starting to come to life. Each summer my family spends a week in this cabin. It is beautiful, restful, and after many years it is full of memories. As I gaze at the dock below I can see the shadows of my children and husband through the years. I remember the conversations that took place on that dock and how they often focused on the year ahead. As I float on an air mattress or relax with a book eventually my thoughts turn to my classroom and this year I've been reading and reflecting on the final portion of "Conferring".

That's as far as I got before the lake beckoned! Now we're back home in Iowa with another week at the lake behind us. This point marks the time when I start thinking and planning in earnest for the year ahead. I love the long days of summer but as they inevitably come to a close I am looking forward to a new start in my classroom. I will be dedicating more time to conferring this year. I know there will be challenges but  Patrick Allen has convinced me that even though "Conferring Ain't Easy" it is definitely worth the hard work. I am ready to begin - though there's a lot that must happen in the meantime!

Allen devotes Chapter 6 to "Conferring Walk-Aways".  These are "the tools or strategies used or discovered as students navigate text and develop the capacity for independence". The list of observed walk-aways is impressive.  I agree that "if teachers are able to identify walk-aways, notice the language they are using during conferences, and think about classroom implications for themselves and their students, they can better understand that conferring is indeed a keystone of instruction". I enjoyed the reading conference transcripts - especially Allen's record of his own metacognition.

In the latter portion of Chapter 6 Allen makes some very important points as he discusses David Elkind's words from "Miseducation" and how "education is not a race".  This really struck me - "When students leave my classroom and another teacher is in my stead, my hope is that students will remember that learning is not a race. It is learning for a lifetime". I have very vivid memories of my years in elementary school. Education was always a race in my mind. It saddens me that I do not remember a single conferring conversation with a teacher until I was at the college level. After spending my first grade year reading "Dick & Jane" my school adopted "programmed reading". I still remember the stories in these independent readers but I primarily remember reading as fast as I could so that no one would pass my level of progress. (I also developed migraine headaches during my second grade year - the satisfaction of being the fastest reader evidently came at a price!) Although my teacher certainly didn't promote "programmed reading" time as a competition that was my interpretation. I do remember her frustration when several of us finished the books designated for Grade 2!  I wasn't exactly hurt by the reading instruction (or lack thereof) during my formative years but many of my classmates can't say the same. I can't help but think what a difference it would have made if I could say that "Every time my teacher sat down next to me, he took the time to listen to my thinking. It mattered."

There is so much more that I could write but I am anxious to read everyone's posts and prepare for more #CyberPD conversation. I'm excited about the upcoming twitter chat with Patrick Allen and disappointed that a family obligation may prevent me from participating. Hopefully I can discreetly check in from my phone!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reflections on Conferring - Part 2

This week's reflection focuses on Part 2 of "Conferring" by Patrick Allen. Thanks so much Jill of My Primary Passion, Cathy from Reflect & Refine, and Laura of Our Camp Read-A-Lot, for hosting this blog chat. What a great experience this is proving to be! I am anxious to read everyone's posts and continue the discussion,

"Conferring" is the right book at the right time. Patrick Allen reaffirms my priorities and beliefs as a teacher and gives me renewed determination to focus on what I know is best for the children in my classroom. I will be returning time and again for guidance as I hone my conferring skills and develop a recording system that works for me. It is "okay to experiment" and I am looking forward to adapting the RIP format as I meet the needs of my students.

Today's post must focus on the the portion of Part 2 that not only defines and clarifies my frustrations but gives me direction as I prepare for a new group of students. In Chapter 5 Allen discusses the relationship between the  "D word, data" and the "C word, children". I know from years of communicating with parents that Allen is correct when he writes of what parents want when they sit down with their child's teacher. I think of how I cringe (and sometimes cry) when hours of mandated professional development time and teacher effort is directed into producing mammoth directories of data to present to parents. I understand, as Allen so eloquently states, that we have to show growth, evaluate effectiveness of instruction, document progress and focus on specific points of intervention. I applaud his qualifications of doing so with wisdom and purpose, keeping the individual child in mind. In reflecting on his conference with a student Allen writes, "Our conversation gave me some of the D word, but the most rewarding and long-lasting consequence of our conference was the focus on the C word."   I am looking forward to cultivating those types of conferring conversations in my classroom - conversations that focus on the "C word"!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reflections on Conferring - Part 1

I always begin the year with a plan to confer to confer with my students. Over the years I have organized students by colors, numbers, and days of the week and have promised myself to meet with each student on the specified day. Some years I've prepared checklists or "fill in the blank" templates for record keeping purposes. As I sort through various boxes of teaching detritus I find the remains of these good intentions. There is a spiral notebook with running records and scribbled notes about hobbies and special interests. There is a clipboard with index cards carefully overlapped so I can flip to the right child's name. There are sheets of labels so I can write notes and then peel them off to stick in place. My latest creation is really a work of art - a colorful binder with matching folders and accessories inside - tabbed sections with the children's names. All the parts are in place and I intended to carry this with me daily. I begin meeting with children immediately for assessment purposes and I use my lovely binder a bit. I have jotted down a few goals and teaching points but soon  the binder is moved to the shelf and eventually forgotten.  I tell myself that I know my students well and I really think I do. They read and write daily and they grow both as readers and writers. When I think about reading conferences I tell myself that I am doing them - just in a rather informal way - a conversation here or there, my observations of the books they choose. Obviously I am not conferring with students but I am too much of a perfectionist to take out the binder again. That "system" failed and I will come up with a new plan for the next year.

As I read the first part of Patrick Allen's book - Conferring: the Keystone of Reader's Workshop - I begin to understand why my various "systems" have always failed. I have viewed conferring as an informal or even negotiable part of my reading instruction not as a "keystone".  I loved Patrick Allen's explanation of a keystone in the introduction to his book. His writing is conversational and easy to read. The keystone is indeed a perfect metaphor. He is very direct - "Regular opportunities to confer with readers must become a daily ritual in our reader's workshops."

There is so much to reflect upon in Part 1. I need to "define my beliefs about conferring" and just as importantly (at least to me) "become mindful of what reading conferences offer my students".  My past actions show me that I have viewed conferring as something for me, and as such I have been willing to sacrifice it.  I have not appreciated the benefits for my students.

I am looking forward to "digging deeper" and learning from all of you!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Blog is Born

     About a year ago I ran across Cathy Mere's blog, Reflect & Refine. I was in the midst of reading her book - More Than Guided Reading and on a whim decided to search for her on the internet. She had just posted "Technology: What are the Questions to Ask?" and I read it eagerly. My district had announced that our computer labs were to be dismantled over the summer in order to bring more computers into our classrooms and allow for better technology integration. I was somewhat resistant - what we were doing seemed to be working just fine. My class had a scheduled time in the lab twice a week and by dividing the class into two groups I could send one half off to lab and work with a small group in my classroom during their absence. Our computer lab associate checked in with me each week and we discussed my students' needs and tried to make sure their time in the computer lab was well spent. We also had two macbook carts in the building available for classroom use so it seemed we had the best of both worlds. Cathy's post was very timely and helped guide my thinking in the right direction as I prepared for the new school year.

     My class amazed me. They blogged, skyped, and even did a little tweeting. They created stories on Storybird, were introduced to Glogster and we learned together as we created our first glogs. They discovered Web 2.0 tools at home and taught me how to use them. We even experimented with Edmodo during the last weeks of school. Now I can't imagine just sending my class off to the lab once a week and very occasionally bringing the macbook cart into my classroom. By the end of the year scheduling the cart in our building was becoming increasingly difficult and I started dreaming of the day when every second grader would have a device at hand to use throughout the day.

     I also started looking at Twitter a little more closely. I followed Cathy and a few other teachers. I got brave enough to retweet something I found relevant or interesting. I cautiously interacted a bit and have gradually begun to feel a bit more comfortable. Not too long ago Cathy started tweeting about this summer's professional reading. I have quite a stack ready to read and when she tweeted an open invitation to join a discussion on Patrick Allen's book Conferring: The Keystone of Reading Workshop, I decided to do more than just sit back and watch. I also decided I wanted to be able to link my reflections back to a blog so here I am - somewhat nervously beginning a blog that is more than just my safe classroom blog with news and photos. The conversation begins tomorrow. I hope I'll be ready (and I wonder what I'll be saying about this experience a year from now)!!