Question: I want to regularly confer with every reader in my classroom. But, how can I respond to students who persistently seek my attention while I’m trying to confer with others?
Aaron, a second grade teacher, is working to establish both independent reading and conferring in his classroom. However, as soon as he starts to dig in with one student, he finds himself interrupted by other students who want his attention. Joey needs to go to the restroom; Ava has can’t find her book bag; Isaac keeps tattling on the kids around him. Aaron is beginning to wonder if his kids just aren’t ready for this level of independence yet, or if maybe they need something “more structured” than independent reading to do while he confers.
Because conferring calls on us to be wholeheartedly present with just one student at a time, What will the other kids be doing? often comes up when we talk with teachers about conferring. Our answer is clear and simple: they’ll be reading self-selected texts. After all, conferring is our primary means of reflecting on what students are doing as they read independently, so we can find meaningful ways to cultivate thriving reading lives. In other words, conferring is something we do while students read independently, in order to understand, affirm, and extend how they read independently.
However, helping your students learn to carry on with engaged independence is not something that just happens overnight. This is tricky, ongoing work that takes clarity, patience, and persistence on your part. To get you started we offer a handful of strategies that will work with any age or stage of reading development.
- Let your students know what conferring is all about. Be honest and up front with your students. Let them know that you’ll be conferring with individual students and why. Kids need more than just rules. They need to understand the why or reason behind our expectations. “Every day while you read, I’ll be doing this thing called conferring. That means I’ll be having important conversations with individual readers. When it’s your turn, I’m sure you won’t want other students taking my attention away from your important work, so it’s important that you don’t interrupt when you see me conferring with other readers.”
- Avoid reinforcing interruptions with attention. When another child comes tapping on your shoulder, use your teacher superpowers to stay calm and to carry on as though nothing has happened; if possible, avoid eye contact and verbal responses. This reinforces the critical idea that as you confer with one reader you are completely unavailable to others. You can let your students know in advance that this is what they can expect.
- Consider a physical reminder. In the beginning, you may find it helpful to attach a physical reminder to your conferring clipboard or notebook that you can subtly point to without missing a beat in the conference. One of our favorite suggestions for this came from a teacher who using a Do Not Disturb sign from a recent hotel stay, taping it to the back of her clipboard and simply point to it with her finger when someone attempts to interrupt a conference.
- Trust and encourage your students to make decisions without you. Sometimes we can actually perpetuate interruptions by insisting on a great deal of control in the classroom. For instance, if every student needs to check in personally before going to the restroom, every full bladder will mean a conferring interruption. How completely we are able to give our attention to the student next to us is directly related to how much we trust (and coach) the rest of the students to make decisions without us. So, one key to interruption-free conferring is to make sure your kids know you want them to solve problems for themselves. Of course, if there’s vomit, blood, or fire, you’ll want to know, but aside from true emergencies, your students need to know you trust and expect them to work things out for themselves. Clear, consistent messaging can help: “If someone is sick, someone is hurt, or someone is in danger come and get my attention right away. If it’s anything else, work it out for yourself or ask a friend to help you. I trust you to find good solutions for yourselves.”
- Make a note and follow up. Hopefully, whenever you confer, you’ve got a clipboard, notebook, or digital note taking tool at your side. So the next time someone interrupts, just make a note. Jot the name of the student and the reason for the interruption, and plan a follow-up conference to learn more about what’s really getting in the way of engaged reading for that student. Conferring is your path to individual problem solving and action planning.
- Never underestimate the importance of book choice. Whenever we notice students who are persistently off track during independent reading, we immediately get curious about book choice. What’s in that book box or what book is being read? What strategies is the student using to select texts? What texts have worked and not worked for them in the past? What support might we be able to offer to help them find more engaging and well-matched texts? We default to wondering about book choice because we know that book choice and engagement are inextricably linked. When students have books that they care about and want to read, sustained engagement is much more likely. But when the books in their hands don’t engage them, things can quickly start to fall apart for young readers. So helping all readers stay engaged for long stretches of time each day means ensuring they have the access, the strategies, and time to find books that are worthy of their attention.
- Keep teaching toward independence. Independent reading routines are established gradually, over time, with explicit modeling, practice, and feedback. Of course there are many possibilities for what might get in the way and some students will need more differentiated support than others. If persistent interruptions are coming from lots different students, consider additional whole-group instruction to support independence. If it’s more like 4-6 students that need support, consider a series of small group lessons focused on strategies for book choice and/or independent problem solving. If the interruptions seem to be coming from just one or two students, these readers could likely benefit from a series of focused conferences. No matter what the group size, independence increases when we help students develop skills for problem solving on their own, find engaging texts, choosing appropriate reading spots, setting personal goals, and making daily plans for their reading.
We hope the suggestions we’ve offered give you some ideas for problem-solving in your own classroom. Interruptions are a common challenge, but certainly not an indication that conferring isn’t right for your classroom. Hang in there. Trust your students. And most importantly, trust yourself to find your way.
Every child deserves a teacher committed to developing a thriving conferring practice.
This post is part of the ongoing blog series, Conferring: Tackling the Tricky Parts, dedicated to helping every teacher strengthen their conferring practice so every reader can thrive. Watch for our next series installment on April 8, 2018, I Haven’t Read the Book Myself, So How Will I Be Able to Confer with a Reader About It? To get every post in the series delivered directly to your inbox, you can use the FOLLOW box on the right hand side bar or this page. We promise we won’t overwhelm you with junk or share your e-mail with anyone.
If you want to learn more about developing a joyful conferring practice that really works, check out our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader, coming from Stenhouse in late spring 2018.