What I’ve Learned from a Recent Round of Conferences

Conferring with students has always been a central part of my class. Mostly, though, these conferences focus on what is going on at the moment, the book the student is reading or the piece the student is writing. One of my goals this year, though, has been to spend more time looking at the big picture for each student. Our assessment conferences at the ends of quarters and goal-setting conferences that follow have been a big part of this.

I’ve always met with students at the start of the quarter to go over goals for the next nine weeks. In the past, however, this was always like a race as I tried to get to each student and wrap up the conferences as quickly as possible. This most recent quarter, instead, I took my time, and we did more than just discuss their goals. I’ll get to this in a moment.

At the start of the year, I have students fill out reading and writing surveys. Two of the questions I ask are if the student is a reader and a writer. At the end of second quarter, then, on students’ self-evaluation questionnaires, I ask them these questions again and ask them to explain why they chose their answers.

This year, after reading these and seeing how many students still answered no, I admit to feeling pretty distraught. Their explanations made it seem like so little progress had been made in the previous eighteen weeks, like their views of reading, writing, and themselves as readers and writers had changed so little during our time together.

Right before break, in the little time I had, I talked briefly to a handful of these students, and I realized things maybe weren’t as bad as it seemed based on their written answers. This was enough to pull me back from the edge of the cliff. When we returned from Christmas break, we began our goal conferences for the upcoming quarter. Rather than worrying about finishing them as quickly as possible, I took the time to talk to every student who still answered no to one or both of those questions. I asked them to tell me more about why they put that answer and tried to learn as much as I could. I didn’t try to change their minds; I listened, asked questions, and took notes.

And I learned so much.

In reading, I learned that things really weren’t as bad as students’ written comments made them seem. Based on teaching seventh grade for thirteen years now, I know what a challenge it is to change the way many kids at this age feel about reading because many of them have so many years of bad experiences built up by the time they reach me. However, in talking to my students, I learned that many of them had, at least slightly, begun to think differently: there were books they actually enjoyed reading and moments when they felt driven to read more. Many of these students just need more time to accumulate enough positive experiences to counteract the bad ones in their pasts, and by talking to them, I learned more about how I can facilitate those experiences with each individual reader.

In writing, things also weren’t as bad as they had at first seemed. Every student had some positive experiences during the first half of the year: pieces of writing they enjoyed creating and ones in which they found meaning and value. By learning more about how they felt and why, I learned how I can plan strategically to help each student continue down this path. I learned the parts of the process that still cause frustration, and now I can stop in for a conference when they’re at those stages. I also learned which topics made a difference for them as writers, and now, when needed, I can help guide them towards topics like this in the future. I learned that some students need to be encouraged a little more consistently because of how hard writing is for them. To one girl, I recommended leaving the room and taking a quick break halfway through independent writing each day, and to a boy, I suggested no longer writing his first drafts by hand.

The way students perceive themselves when it comes to reading and writing has always been critically important to me, more important even than whether or not they can do these things well. Students who see themselves as readers and writers are more likely to continue reading and writing in the future, and I want students to leave my class with reader and writer as a part of their identities. As I mentioned earlier, changing this in seventh grade is hard, but it’s always been a challenge that has excited me. These conversations were the perfect way to come back from Christmas break, to start the new year by reaffirming my purpose and providing me with enough information to help me along the way.

Lessons Learned from Assessment Conferences

The week before Christmas break, I finished up my second round of assessment conferences. This time was a little different than the first round because, we were focusing on the progress students had made towards their individual writing and reading goals for the quarter. We have several different categories in which students have goals, so when we met, there was a lot to discuss. As a result, we agreed upon a grade for each goal, but I decided not to talk about their overall grades in that conference. I thought I needed more time to think about this, and I wanted to make sure I got to every student that week. Over break, then, I went back through the students’ planning sheets and figured an overall grade in writing and reading. Afterwards, I compared my grades to what the student had chosen, and as long as they were close, I didn’t think I needed a follow-up conference when school started back up. For the most part, my grades came out close to the students’, and if anything, they were usually a bit higher.

When I students saw their final grades, there weren’t many problems, but I did hear from one parent whose son was really confused by the grades he got. He had ended up with a B+ in both subjects, and he had given himself a B in both areas, so I didn’t understand where the confusion came from. However, after talking with the student and thinking more about our process, I began to realize something: Even though I based the overall grade on the grades we agreed upon, and even though I made sure my overall grade lined up with what the student had chosen, the fact that I made I made the final call without the student present created the impression that I had made this choice by myself. The whole point of these conferences is to make students’ active participants in the grading process, and while they were, they still weren’t there when the final choice was made. Next quarter, they need to be.

I haven’t figured out exactly how to make this work. Maybe I need to do some of my conferencing about individual goals throughout the quarter and then electronically at the end so that when we meet we can just focus on the overall grade. I don’t know for sure, but I know I need to find a way to make time for that to happen.

This experience, along with others this year, has brought something else into clearer focus: the whole system needs to change. It amazes me and my colleagues how often parents have gotten upset because a child has gotten a B or B+ or yes, even an A-. One of the main reasons I made the change to stop grading assignments and only talk about grades when I had to, because of report cards, is that I want students to not have to focus on a grade. I want them free to read, write, and learn without worrying about getting an A. However, as long as we’re still using traditional report cards, parents are going to put pressure on their kids to achieve a certain grade. And as long as that is happening, any changes I make in my individual classroom will never be enough.

I am fortunate that my school is moving towards a standards-based report card. Our youngest classes made the switch this year, and I am thrilled that my daughters (the oldest is in preschool) might grow up without ever receiving a traditional letter grade. Administration hasn’t made a final decision yet about the timeline for moving this system up through the grades, but at some point, it will reach the junior high where I teach. I, and most of the teachers I work with each day, can’t wait for that day to arrive. Going forward, I am going to do whatever I can to make that day come as soon as possible. I started by bringing up the topic in our junior high meeting this week. The next step is to start talking to administration. I’m hoping that knowing they have a whole team of teachers on board will help convince them to move things along as quickly as possible. We’ll see.