A conference is a short conversation between teacher and student, one that allows you to provide direct instruction and/or to gather information for assessment. Whether you use a workshop approach or a more traditional one, you can easily incorporate this strategy into your classroom, and if you do, you'll increase the learning AND cut down on your pile of grading. What could be better than that?
If you don't conference with your secondary students, you need to start now. It's been a serious game changer in my classroom. Here's why:
Conferences are the quickest, most efficient way to find out what your students know and to help them learn. When you take in an assignment, it can be days before you find out what they have learned and even more days before the student gets the feedback needed to fix or improve something. But, when you are conferring one-on-one with a student, you have access to their thinking in a way that no exit ticket or written assessment will ever give you. You find out right away what they know and where they might be deficient, and you can get to work right away helping them build the skills they need. That's the beauty of the conference: the teaching and learning is instant. Conferences also put more pressure on the students to actually do the work. They can often fudge their way through an assessment on reading by using Sparksnotes, or by listening to what other students say during class discussion; however, it's hard for them to fake it during a face-to-face discussion.
Conferences can quickly zero in on an idea or skill, and they do not have to be long to be very effective at doing so. Think about a skill that many of your students need to develop. In my class this semester, there have been two things that keep popping up as areas that need work: idea development and embedding quotations, and I've done conferences for each of these. While my students are writing, I walk around with my clipboard and ask students to show me where they have embedded a quotation, for example. Each student points to a place where they've attempted to do so (I tell them before I start, so they are ready when I get to them), and I can quickly assess whether they've done it correctly or not. If they haven't, we have a quick conversation about how they can fix it. Some of these conversations are very fast -- I just have to look to see that the student is on the right track. Or, I might just have to ask, "what's missing at the end?" The student replies, "Oh! The page number!" and I move on. If they are struggling, I sit beside them and give them more direct instruction. With the conferences on idea development, I call students up to my desk and ask them to show me a paragraph that they think needs more work in that area. I ask them questions, give them suggestions and they go away with a better idea of how to improve that paragraph; the hope is that they will apply this knowledge to the rest of their writing.
We all know that students can "hide" during class activities and discussions. Because of this, we can often go a whole semester without really getting to know some of the kids in our room. Conferences change this. During one-on-one time, the students speak to you directly, without concern about what others will think. I've been amazed how some of them open up when they get the chance. It's a wonderful way to not only build rapport with all of your students, but also to really get to know where they are in their learning. You can talk to them about their interests and direct them to books they might like, or help them to find topics to write about. Most importantly, you get that chance to meet them where they are so you can help them learn.
Conferences are effective for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it will cut down on the time you spend grading. Traditionally, the only way we had to assess our students was through tests and written assignments. Yes, we assess oral work like presentations, but the bulk of our assessment tends to come through pen-to-paper work. This results in a lot of evening and weekend work for us, and delayed feedback for students. It doesn't have to be this way. One of our outcomes in my district is that students need to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of literary devices in the texts they read. In the past, the only way I assessed this was the literary essay, and they wrote several throughout the semester, so I could give them feedback on one before they wrote another. Now, I conference with them, asking them to evaluate the use of literary devices in their independent novels, or in mentor texts that we use. I can instantly see their thinking and direct them if they need direction. They still write a literary essay, but only after conferences that allow me to assess and instruct each student directly. The result? The essays are much better -- and I'm marking fewer of them.
While less grading might be enough to convince you, the most important reason to start conferencing is because your students will learn more. Conferences happen during the learning process, while the students are attempting to achieve a goal, not after. Instead of getting back an essay with a grade, covered with your scratchings about vague statements, underdeveloped ideas and mechanical errors, they have had those conversations with you before the summative assessment -- and have a chance to improve their work before passing it in. The reality is that when they get the feedback a week or more after they have completed the writing assessment, it's ancient history for them. That paper that you poured over, giving lots of instructive comments, goes into their backpacks or lockers (or waste basket) never to be looked at again. Conferences allow you to give your students the feedback when they need it -- while they are working on the assignment and when they are more likely to retain the learning.
I just did a PD session with the teachers in my department on conferencing, so I know what the burning question is. Most teachers cannot deny the lure of a strategy that will cause more learning and create less grading. However, it can mean a big switch in the way we do things. Many of us are used to a "stand and deliver" approach: we develop our lessons, the students sit there and listen, and then they do their work. It's all in our control. In order to conference, we need to let go of that control. If we are conferring with one student, the others are on their own, possibly not doing what they are supposed to be doing. How do we set things up so we can confidently conference while our students work?
First of all, are we every truly confident that our students are actually working? Just because we have a beautifully planned lesson, and they are sitting at their desks quietly, doesn't meant they are working -- or more importantly, learning. You may have delivered the most amazing lesson on embedding and citing quotations. Your slide show may have been beautifully engaging. Your class may have sat there quietly as you taught. But, some of them, many of them, even, may not have really learned the skill. When you conference, each student is held accountable to the learning. And, if Joey and Johnny are chatting about the basketball game while you conference with Sally, they are still going to get that one-on-one time with you later, time that will hopefully result in them learning. Let's face it, Joey and Johnny were still thinking about basketball during your beautiful lesson too!
So, I invite you to try some conferencing in your classroom. It takes some time to get the hang of it, but once you do, it will become a very important tool in your teacher toolbox. Grab this form to use as you conference. Fill in your students' names and, across the top, write in the topics that you are covering during the conferences. You can assign them a number grade, if you wish, to help you remember where they were at the time of your discussion. You can download it here.
Have you tried conferencing with your students? If you have, I'd love to hear about your successes and failures. Leave a comment!