Conferring is powerful. I would go so far as to say that one-on-one conferences are the most powerful teaching tool in my repertoire. In the span of a few minutes I can gauge the level of a student’s work, reinforce what s/he is doing well, and provide a focused, individualized lesson to lift the level of the student’s work going forward. Conferring is differentiation.
Often, conferring is brought up in conversations about reading or writing workshops. Conferring is an essential element in these workshops. But conferring has a place in any content area. Crouching next to a student during math, science, or social studies, in music or PE, is just as important. The message is, “I recognize the work you are doing. Here is something you can use to help you on your journey as a learner.”
I love conferring because it allows me to focus on just one student at a time. Often, I learn more about the student, their knowledge, and their skills through conferring than I do any other way. Students love conferring because they are the recipient of their teacher’s undivided attention for a few precious moments. When we compliment, or recognize, what the student is doing well, that student feels validated. When we lean in and ask, “Can I teach you something?” the student feels like they’re about to be let in on a treasured secret.
A conference begins when the teacher sidles up alongside the learner and takes a few moments to observe. What is the student doing well? What skills are emerging? Where could the student use an instructional boost? After observing briefly, the teacher interrupts the student’s work & begins a conversation. The teacher asks the student to articulate what they’re working on. Next, the teacher compliments the the student. This compliment should be specific. Moving into the teaching phase of the conference, the teacher lets the student know you’d like to teach them something that will further their work. The teaching point should be focused (conferences are brief) and something the student can attempt immediately. Lastly, the teacher wraps up the conference by asking the student to articulate what they’ve learned. That’s it. Conference complete. In 3 -5 minutes you’ve gotten an up close view of the student’s current skills, provided individualized individualized instruction, and left the student with a way to lift the level of their work.
Conferring can feel awkward in the beginning. Sometimes we have to look hard to find something to compliment. Sometimes it’s difficult to choose from the variety of teaching points from which the student could benefit. It takes practice for students to understand what’s required of them during a conference. The teacher needs to find a system of record keeping that is both efficient and useful. But the work is worth it. Over time, the conferring we engage in with our students will yield results. We will know our students more deeply. We will become more adept at choosing a good teaching point. Students will become better at articulating the work they are doing, and taking on the new work we ask of them. We will have a wealth of data to inform large group instruction and the formation of strategy groups.
Conferring is worth every bit of time and effort involved. Carl Anderson’s book, How’s it Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers is the penultimate guide to conferring with students. While the guide is specifically aimed at conferring during writing workshop, the information and techniques are easily applied across the curriculum. Whether you’re new to conferring or looking to improve your conferring skills, How’s it Going? is a terrific resource.