Some relevant backstory: I am a bit of a hypochondriac. I have been banned (by friends and family, not – yet — by the sites’ owners!) from more self-diagnosis websites than I can count. However, I stubbornly maintain an interest in reading about doctors and medicine and horrifying diseases.
Most of the time, this just makes me more anxious than usual. But every now and then, it pays off in some unexpected way. Like when I discovered this article on NPR, about the success of an experiment in which doctors shared their notes with patients. Apparently, patients who participated reported dramatic improvement in their understanding of their health needs as well as their control of and consistent use of treatments for different health conditions.
Immediately (because I am a teacher and because the article didn’t actually feature any horrible flesh-eating diseases for me to worry about) my thoughts went to teaching and to the copious notes I tend to take when conferring with students.
I started to wonder what kids thought I was writing when I sat down with them. Without really intending to, I had used conferring notes almost exclusively as a teacher tool – something we might use to plan, diagnose, write report card comments, and so on. Something professional and private, in the way that a doctor’s notes are, traditionally, about you but not for you.
As it happened, I went to a new doctor around the same time as I read this article, and she took my history with the computer facing me. Before she finished a section she showed me what she wrote and asked if that was right. I left feeling respected and listened to and a partner in my health care – just the way I want my kids to feel about their education.
Walking out of her office, I felt confident in her care and I felt empowered about my next steps as a healthy person – and I also felt pretty confident that my records were accurate. This is a bigger deal than I realized — apparently, mistakes in medical records can be a huge problem. People are sometimes coded as having ailments they don’t really have, which impacts later insurance costs and also, more frighteningly, the treatments they get.
In classrooms, we’re not risking performing surgery on the wrong organ when we get something wrong in our notes. But we are risking missing what really needs to be taught, and even more importantly, when we get it wrong, we’re risking missing an opportunity to connect with a kid.
We’re also, a lot of times, missing out on conference notes altogether. Let’s be honest – we all know we’re supposed to keep conferring records, but many of us aren’t, or aren’t as consistently as we’d like. A lot of times, I think the reason is that we’re not ever using them. They feel like busywork, or work we use to prove to someone else that we’re doing our jobs, which is never an especially motivating reason to write.
But what if we started to think of conference notes not as teacher tools, but as teacher-and-student tools? What if we changed the purpose and intention and power of conferring and conferring notes? What if, in fact, we thought of them not as a tool at all? What if we thought of conference notes as a structure or a routine, like gathering on the rug or keeping a writing notebook, something that creates time and space for something we value?
Here’s what I have been finding. When I share my notes with a kid as I confer with him or her, there’s a different tone to the conference. It feels more like working with the student, and less like interrogating or assessing them. Inviting a student to see what we’re writing makes it clear that we’re not writing our private judgment of their work, but instead that we’re taking them seriously enough to write down the words they say. It makes schooling feel not like something we do to kids, but something that kids actively participate in.
I conferred recently with a 7th grader named Christopher who was reading Night by Elie Wiesel. The teacher and I were initially a little concerned because it was a bit higher than his level, and we weren’t sure if he had the background knowledge needed to handle the book. We went to confer with him and see how he was doing with the first few pages. Here are my notes, which I shared with him as I wrote and afterwards:
What we found was that Christopher had a much better grasp on the historical context than we realized, and that he had a passionate desire to read this book. We found a few different things that we could teach him, too, and invited him to choose which one he thought might help him the most.
The conference went well. But what really stood out to me was not the academic content of the conference – it was how interested Christopher was to look at my notes, to comment on what I wrote down, and to decide where his work as a reader should go next, and how we could help. Instead of sitting anxiously by a student, wondering when and if inspiration will strike – what is he doing in his reading? What is he good at? What am I supposed to teach this kid? – Christopher’s teacher and I were able to spend our conferring time really listening to what he had to say, engaging with him as a reader, and brainstorming some next moves he might need to make. The stress of figuring out the One Best Teaching Point, or of trying to look like a teacher who knows what she’s doing? Gone.
We all want to be the kind of listener, the kind of teacher, who inspires kids to not just do what we tell them, but to own their learning and push beyond what we have thought to teach. This is a tough job – certainly much harder than just assigning tasks or goals, no matter how well-planned! Open notes conferring could be a path to greater independence, more engagement, and stronger connections between us and our thoughtful, fascinating readers.