Last year on day two, my AP Language students threw me for a loop. I had asked them to do some writing as summer work and our team of teachers had decided we’d conference with the students about the pieces rather than grade them. Conferences in the first week of school seemed like the perfect way to get to know the kids!
During the very first conference, though, I saw skepticism.
It was written all over his face. You’re not grading this essay? You’re not writing all over it? Why did I do this?? He didn’t know me or my class expectations; I could tell he felt he’d been had. He needed me to be doing something with his work rather than just talking to him about it.
I grabbed a notebook and started taking notes.
As we talked, I learned all kinds of things. He had read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah over the summer and loved Noah’s humorous story-telling style. He had tried it in one small place but was pretty sheepish about pointing it out. It was a timid attempt at humor, for sure, and seeing how he talked about it told me a lot about how I might help him and motivate him in the future. I made some notes about it in my notebook, we talked about places where he could be a little more daring with his attempts at humor, and I sent him on his way.
As he walked away, he pointed at my notebook.
“What’s that for, anyway? Is that for my grade?”
“Nope. It’s just so I can remember what we talked about next time and build on it.”
He didn’t look convinced, and, frankly, neither was I. I hadn’t put any thought into these notes, but now I felt obligated to follow through. As I moved through the conferences with these new students, the pages on my notebook filled and, slowly, a life-saving workshop routine was born.
As the semester progressed, each student’s page became somewhat organized.
- Reading: The top of each student’s page was dedicated to a book list. As they finished books, I’d put a check by the title to indicate it was finished or a heart if the student had loved it. Sometimes underneath I’d scribble a recommendation I had shared. This section of my notebook became more and more useful as the year went on. When I’d circulate during independent reading, I could quickly scan my notes to see who was reading what, which students I could connect to recommend books to one another, and who was stalled out and might need a one-on-one with me or our librarian.
- Conference notes: Each time we met I’d date the entry and jot down a few notes about the student’s progress on his or her writing at that time. I might make notes of a particular struggle or victory we had discussed. This was also where I kept track of students who were missing deadlines or trying to avoid conferences with me. It became very difficult for quiet students to get lost in the shuffle or for frequently absent students to consistently get missed.
- Things to work on: The last part of each student’s notebook section was dedicated to specific skills I had worked on with the student so that I’d remember to check back on them later. One young man was a solid thinker with ideas and opinions to spare, but could not write without needless fragments in every single paragraph. We talked about it once and I made a note of it. The next time we conferenced, it hadn’t improved so I knew that he needed different instruction. It took at least three different conferences, but by the end of the year I was starting to see the skill transfer to his writing.
By the end of the year, my workshop notebook had become one of my most important teaching tools. Each student’s story of reading and writing development was mapped out on its pages. When my laptop battery died in the middle of parent teacher conferences, I whipped out my notebook and suddenly had more interesting information to share with parents than a grade book could ever begin to reveal.
I think, too, that my students, began to see its value. They knew that conferences would pick up where we left off the last time. They knew I would likely ask about what they were reading independently. And they knew that I wouldn’t forget about a suggestion or conversation we’d had.
Keeping notes on my students and our conversations sent them some clear messages:
- I want to get to know you. Opening day questionnaires and surveys can be great, but in the rush of opening weeks and the crush of so many students, many of those lovely tidbits that help me see my students are forgotten. I laughed out loud on Tuesday when I read Allison’s post about Slow Septembers because she nailed it perfectly: I decided to act like a real person and get to know my students through conversation as I would any other person I was meeting for the first time. Now, a real person probably doesn’t keep notes on conversations with a new friend, but when you’re juggling 150 new friends at once, it’s a good way to keep them all straight.
- You are a writer. Conferences allow us to individualize instruction and give a writer what he or she needs right at that moment. When I started keeping notes about my students’ writing successes and challenges, our conferences shifted to become less about a particular writing piece or assignment and more about how this piece fit in with this writer’s individual strengths and weaknesses.
There are so many ways for us to learn about our students as writers and readers, but if you are anything like me, you can become quickly overwhelmed by the number of students in your room and their wildly varied needs. A simple notebook has helped me shift from conferences about assignments to conferences about writers.
How do you keep track of conferences with your writers? What do you do to meet their individual needs and build relationships? Connect with my on Twitter @TeacherHattie or comment below!