A Conference is Just Like A Doctor’s Appointment

It hit me this morning–a good reading or writing conference with a student is just like a good doctor’s appointment!  I’ve recently been diagnosed with frozen shoulder (very painful, and soon I’ll be asking for help shaving my underarms if it doesn’t unfreeze–NOT FUN) so I’ve been going to medical people a lot.  Right now I’m going to a really awesome accupuncturist (Chris Butler) and after one of my visits I realized, hey this is just like having a good one-on-one with a student!

First, he asks me how I’m doing.  Wants to know if I’ve been doing the exercises and taking the herbs he suggested previously.  (Just like a conference when we ask students how it’s going).  Second, he checks me out.  (Just like when we look at a student’s piece of writing or ask him/her to read or talk about a book).  Third, he makes a diagnosis, depending on what I’ve told him and shown him.  This week the pain has been bad, so Chris is going for a more aggressive treatment. (Just like the ‘teach’ part of a conference, when we decide what a student needs and then instruct appropriately.) Finally, the treatment is over, he reminds me to keep up with the exercises and the herbs and I’m done.  (Just like when we send students off to practice what we’ve taught.)

The important part of my one-on-one with Chris is that he knows ME.  He knows my situation, he asks relevant questions and he’s prepared with the right treatment for ME.  He bases his treatment on the now of my condition.  (Extra big needles this time–ouch!)  But it worked.  He sent me off with a plan for the week, and I really do feel better.  Confident that this will heal and that I have a way to help myself.  I can’t ask for more than that.  (Unless Chris is good with a razor…)

Effective In-Class Support

It’s the end of September.  I’ve done my beginning of year assessments and teachers are gathered for our Wednesday staff meeting.  Once business is taken care of I ask who wants me to work in their class this year with ELLs or at-risk students.  All hands go up. Every teacher wants in-class support. This scenario is not a testament to my teaching–it’s a commentary on in-class support when it’s done effectively.  I was a “push-in” teacher for years when I worked in NYC.  I loved it.  The teachers loved it.  We did it because we believed that keeping kids in their classes was less disruptive to their learning and, in the end, helped them advance more quickly.

Too often, pull-out programs are disconnected from what students are learning the rest of the day.  Often, pull-out programs differ in structure, content and texts/materials. So how do you set up an in-class support model and how do you make it work?  I have some basic suggestions, based on my years of working as an in-class support teacher and based on several models I’ve seen in action.  Please note that these programs are not specific to kids with IEPs–those students MAY require different structures or interventions.
Scheduling: This is usually the biggest challenge.  If teachers and administrators plan in advance, however, support teachers can work in highly productive ways.  For example, in one K-2 school I work in there is a large population of ELLs.  Each of the three ESL teachers is assigned to one grade.  In that school there are 6 classes on a grade, so each teacher can push-in to several classes per day.  Students who need double periods can be pulled out.  But, in this situation, the support teacher and the classroom teachers are using the same structure and curriculum across the grade, with texts that are easy enough for ELLs to understand. In schools where there are more ELLs or at-risk students, or fewer support teachers, administrators have opted to cluster the ELLs or at-risk students in fewer classes.  When I worked in NY, my principal arranged it so that I worked with students before school so that these kids didn’t need to be pulled out.  With creative scheduling, in-class support can work really well.
That’s the administrative part.  So what’s the teacher part? Here are some tips for in-class support teachers.
Leave your ego at the door.  Excuse me, what did you say?  This is just my opinion. Based on my experience.  But I believed in following the lead of the classroom teacher.  Don’t worry if you think you “know” more than he does.  Don’t be put off if you believe you’re a “better” teacher than she is.  Once you get a feel for the style of the teacher you’re working with, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to offer suggestions and to teach some of the lessons yourself.  Then you can get in there and show off some ESL methodology or a strategy that you know helps struggling readers or writers.
Know the curriculum and teaching model.  Don’t rely on what you learned at grad school to work in every classroom.  If your school is using balanced literacy, which is considered best practice right now, get to know how it works.  Then use it with at-risk kids.
Get to know the classroom teacher. Make it a point to observe the classroom teacher a couple times to get a feel for his or her style.  Once you get to know the teacher you can decide how you might fit in best. In my schools we were doing reading and writing workshops.  I set up my schedule so that I could walk into the middle of a lesson, help students during the guided practice part, then work with a small group or one-to-one with each of my learners. Most of the time it didn’t matter what specific lesson the teacher was teaching–the kids were sent off to do independent reading or writing and I was always able to help them get a little better by having a conference or a small group session in reading or writing.  Which leads me to small groups and conferences.
Get really good at conferring and working with strategy groups.  I won’t even say get good at guided reading.  Just because kids are all in one at-risk group or all non-native English speakers it doesn’t mean they read at the same level.  Or that they’re the same kind of readers.  Guided reading is based on similar reading abilities or needs and you can’t count on that for your groups.  One way to approach this situation is to teach a strategy that several kids in your group need to know, and they can practice it using texts at their own level.  I conferred.  For reading, I found it much more effective and efficient to sit with each child as he read his independent book, than it was to try to make a group work.
Pass the notebook.  The classroom teachers that I supported kept notes on each of their conferences.  Most used a small notebook that they kept inside student reading folders. The child would come to me with the folder, I’d look at any previous notes the classroom teacher had taken, then do my own conference and add my notes to the notebook.  That way I could build on what the teacher had taught and she could build on what I had taught.
Offer help in your area of expertise.  What classroom teacher wouldn’t want a support teacher to model a helpful ESL-type of lesson?  Who wouldn’t want a chance to see a lesson designed to help the struggling reader or writer? Classroom teachers know the content and we hope that most are skilled at reaching ALL learners, but the fact is, your training and your knowledge of your students is beneficial to all kids and you should feel free to offer lesson support.  In one school I work in, the classroom teacher has two support teachers.  They plan a unit of study together, and each teacher models every third lesson.  If you’re really in sync, one teacher could handle one portion of a lesson and one could model a different part.
Above all, collaborate and cooperate.  Plan together whenever possible, even if it means you do it during lunch.  When you have a good idea, share it in a helpful way. When problems come up, speak openly and honestly.  Two teachers should be better than one.  Remember–you’re doing this for the kids.

Five Reasons to Take Notes When You Confer

Many teachers tell me they don’t take notes when conducting reading and writing conferences.  They tell me they know exactly what each student is doing and that taking notes wastes valuable time.  I ask them to consider the following five points.

1.  My notes inform my teaching in the moment and allow me to reinforce positive behaviors.  When I write down the positive things students do, I remember to compliment them on those behaviors and this makes them think, “Oh, I’m doing a good thing as a reader/writer and I should keep doing it.”
2. When I write down what I’m noticing over the course of a conference, I make a better decision than I would if I just jumped on the first thing I saw.  Here’s an example: I saw a teacher do a writing conference the other day with a first grader who was doing some very good things.  The teacher wasn’t taking notes, and jumped in to teach the kid that he needed to start using appropriate capitals and lower case and spent five minutes teaching that.  There were at least six other things she could have taught, and if she had written down the child’s strengths and needs she probably would not have taught about appropriate capitals and lower case.  In any conference, I sit for a moment and I look at my notes and I think, what is the single most important thing I could teach right now that would have lasting impact?  For me, I won’t know that unless I take notes.
3.  I take notes so I can give the student back his/her exact words.  This is great with little kids who may want to write a whole lot, but really can’t yet.  Once they tell you the story, you can choose one sentence or a word from that sentence to record, and it’s still in the student’s voice.  It’s great for older kids who may use beautiful language or use a catchy turn of phrase and not even realize it.
4.  Notes are also great for noticing patterns.  If I take notes and notice that three out of four students are doing X, then I’m going to plan a lesson around X.  I may remember this in the moment and teach into it during the share, or the next day or that week, or I may not.  If I have it written down, I can reflect back on the particulars of why a writer made a decision and teach directly into that when it’s needed.
5.  If we reflect on our notes over time, we can see if our teaching decisions are making an impact.  If I look at a kid’s work and notice, hm…I keep giving the same teaching point over and over and he’s still not getting it, maybe I need to teach it differently. Or maybe I need to teach a different strategy ’cause he’s not ready for this.
I wholeheartedly believe that an individual conference is the greatest gift I can give a student–my undivided attention and time.  Taking notes helps me make more informed decisions and makes my conferences even better.