Open Conferring Notes (Or: How A Case of Mild Hypochondria Helped My Teaching)

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:

photo 1 (13)

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.

Sex, Death, and… Summer Reading

I am a self-proclaimed podcast junkie. My love of podcasts began about 2 years ago. I had just moved to Israel with my then-partner and I was struggling. The best way to explain it is like this: if English is my SuperPower then Hebrew was my Kryptonite. It completely disabled me. I struggled with the most basic of levels of communication. My friend Susy, who grew up in a home where both English and Hebrew were spoken, had a long, delightful, belly-gripping laugh when I told her about walking Floyd in the neighborhood and being asked by a fellow dog owner, “kelev or kalbah?” I stood there dumbstruck. What was this person asking me? I knew ‘kelev’ was dog. Every Jew who attends Hebrew school learns that one. But what the heck was kalbah? For the uninitiated, kelev is the masculine form of dog and, you got it, kalbah is the feminine. In other words, I was speechless at being asked whether my dog was a girl or a boy. Kryptonite.

So podcasts became my friends. Literally. Ira Glass, Guy Raz and Mignon Fogarty talked to me in English twice a week as I rode from the North of Tel Aviv to the heart of the city where I attended ulpan (Hebrew language courses). Now that I’ve returned to the states, podcasts remain my friends. I find listening to podcasts to be one of the best ways to pass time when I am commuting, working out or doing chores.

I love sharing what I’ve learned from my podcast listening with others. But, listen to enough podcasts and they all seem to run together. Which is what makes the May 15, 2015 episode of This American Life so remarkable. I cannot stop thinking about it. Here’s the description from their website:

 557: Birds & Bees

MAY 15, 2015

Some information is so big and so complicated that it seems impossible to talk to kids about. This week, stories about the vague and not-so-vague ways to teach children about race, death and sex…

Don’t worry. I am not planning to tackle talking to kids about sex, racism or death in this post. However, I strongly recommend that you listen to the folks at This American Life as they discuss those topics. But I would like to talk about another big and complicated topic: summer reading.

Yeah. Summer reading.

Most of us are well-versed in the research regarding summer reading. Middle-income kids make progress in the summer. Low-income kids slide. About two months. Every summer. Year after year after year. Doesn’t this mean that summer reading isn’t really about summer reading? Doesn’t this mean that summer reading loss is really about access to books? In other words, doesn’t this mean that summer reading loss is really about poverty? And, does that mean that we need to talk to kids about poverty? Because that topic feels big and complicated and I want to be able to talk to kids about poverty in the thoughtful, well-researched ways that Ira and company do. In preparation, I’ve added girls, social class and literacy by Stephanie Jones to my summer reading stack on Katy’s recommendation. (Thanks, partner!)

If you are looking for general ways to sell summer reading to your whole class, I recommend you read @clareandtammy’s recent Nerdy Book Club post.

But, what if you are seeking something more targeted and more specific? What if you want to reach individual students who you suspect will read if they have access to books and choice[1]? Then, I suggest conferring with those readers about their summer reading plans.

Here’s one way a conference about summer reading could go:

Set-up the conference: You could say, “I want to talk to you about summer. As we talk, I am going to take some notes in my notebook. I am setting up my notes into a t-chart. On one side, I’ll jot what I am learning and noticing about you as a reader. On the other side, I’ll jot any ideas or tips that I think might be important to share with you.” (More on open notes in an upcoming post by Katy.)

Research: You might begin your research by saying, “Tell me about your summer. What plans have you made? What else? Anything else?” If a student says that she doesn’t know what her plans are, you can ask about last summer and use that as a predictor of how this summer might go. For example, 6th grader Josh wasn’t sure about his summer plans and said ‘My mom said we might take a trip.’ When I asked about last summer, he shared that he spent part of every day in his room watching TV or playing Xbox and part of his day outside playing sports.

Follow-up: If the student mentions reading then follow up by getting detailed and specific. If the student does not mention reading, ask, “What about reading?” I did this by saying, “You know I’m a teacher, right? So I have to ask about reading. Have you thought about your plans for reading this summer?”

Teach: Then you could explain, “I’ll tell you why I am so interested in summer reading. Let’s take a look at this graph together.” Full disclosure: I used this graph as a visual representation of summer reading loss. I removed the title and did not talk about income. Rather, I talked about progress during the school year and what happens when some kids don’t read in the summer. After studying the graph with a 4th grader named Aidan he said, “It’s like a pattern. Every summer the line goes down a bit. Then every school year it goes back up.”

You’ll want to continue teaching by adding, “Here’s the good news: reading just 4-5 books during the summer is enough to prevent what some people call ‘summer reading loss’. And here’s even better news: It does not matter what you read. In fact, it’s actually better if you choose the books you want to read, rather than the books someone else wants you to read.”

Plan: Next you might ask permission to work together on a summer reading plan by saying, “So let’s get detailed and specific about how you’ll get those 4-5 books read. Ready?” Introduce the planning sheet and support the student as they think through specific titles that want to read. To do this, you might think back to the things the student mentioned during the research phase of the conference. For example, Aidan mentioned that he would be attending baseball camp in the summer and the he liked the “Who Was…?” biography series so we added Who Was Babe Ruth?” to his ‘Books I Plan to Read’ list. Or, you might study the reading log together and recommend read-alike books. “Oh, I see you read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I bet you’d love My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian. (Another shout out to Nerdy Book Club for this post on ten books for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.) Also, it is super helpful to have access to the internet during this conference. I’ve used my kindle, my goodreads account, and the overdrive app while conferring into summer reading plans.

After Aidan and I created his list, I asked, “So how will you get these books?” Without skipping a beat, he said, “At the library.” I asked, also without skipping a beat, “Do you have a library card?” Aidan did not have a library card, but after a bit more conversation he remembered that his grandfather and his friends, E. and S. go to the library so he planned to ask them to take him.

Finally you can map out the when and where parts of the plan on a calendar. Josh set the goal of reading 2 books per month so on the 2nd and 4th Friday of each month he wrote “Due” and the title of the book.

___________________’s Detailed and Specific Summer 2015 Reading Plan


  1. WHAT 4-5 books are you planning to read?
Books I Plan to Read
  1. HOW will you get these books?
  1. WHEN and WHERE will you read?
July 2015
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31
August 2015
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31 September 1 September 2 September 3 September 4 September 5

So that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Conferring with lots of kids about summer reading and helping them get detailed and specific about how they will read those 4-5 (or more!) books.

All this work reminds me of that starfish story. You might be thinking, “I can’t possibly make detailed and specific summer reading plans for each and every one of my students. I can’t put 4-5 books in each and every reader’s hand. I can’t even organize a field trip to the library!” Here’s what I say. Channel the old man on the beach and make a difference when and where you can.

[1] For the research-curious, I reread No More Summer Reading Loss (Heinemann, 2013) where I came across this goodie: “Guthrie and Humenick evaluated twenty-two studies designed to improve reading outcomes and found just four factors that explained almost all the variance in motivation and reading achievement. The two largest contributions to reading achievement were access to interesting books and student choice of the books that would read.”

In the Fishbowl

Okay, raise your hand if you have witnessed partners conferring on writing drafts like this:

Student A: I liked it. It was cool.

Student B: Thanks. I liked yours too.

Teacher: Don’t forget to be specific!

Long pause

Student A: I liked when you said that thing about your dog.

Anyone? Anyone?

You’re not alone.

One way to tackle this is a fishbowl. In a fishbowl, you’ll generally have a kid, or a partnership, or a group in the center of the class, having a conference or book club discussion or some other component of your workshop, while the rest of the class watches, with some sort of purpose in mind.  There are a million and one ways to use this discussion strategy, but if you want to use a fishbowl specifically to highlight what works in discussion, you’ll want to focus the class to listen to the speakers not for their content, but for their process. (Some teachers do this same work with a video of kids discussing, if they feel like their class isn’t quite ready to demo it themselves, or hasn’t practiced that particular skill yet).

Recently I sat in on a fishbowl activity in an 8th grade classroom in the Bronx. Lynn Harrison, the teacher, wanted to set kids up to have more productive partner conferences, and so she asked two girls to model this for the class while their peers watched and listened for phrases and actions that made the conference work.

Meanwhile, I was watching for what made the activity work. Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Prep the kids in advance! It’s okay if it’s a little bit staged – that’s better than it being a complete disaster.
  2. Set up the rest of the class to watch for exactly what you want them to see. For instance, you could ask some, or all, of the kids to watch for what the partners say (jotting down specific phrases that seemed helpful), what the partners do (like eye contact, active listening, and the like), what the partners seem to have done in advance (like thinking of questions or troublesome parts they want help with).
  3. Remember that you’re doing this so that the rest of your class can be independently doing the same level of work later – so don’t participate, or jump in to “save” the discussion. If the kids demonstrate imperfectly, it’s fine! But if you have to heavily intervene in order to make it work, then the rest of the class will expect that level of intervention when it’s their turn to try.
  4. Make sure your fishbowlers speak loudly enough for everyone to hear! You might even teach kids a non-verbal cue to use as observers when they can’t hear the speakers (like Shana describes here)
  5. Debrief afterwards – lightly. Try to collect some of the key phrases or actions that the students notice on a chart, and resist the urge to personally point out every last thing that was done well.

Have you done this in your classroom? How did you make it productive?


The other day, an 8th grade boy named Fabio came up to me at the end of class. I had taught a demo lesson in his classroom, about structuring informational writing. And I had prefaced this lesson, as I often do, by telling the kids that we were here to learn from them and I hoped they would let us know what they were thinking when we asked. The class proceeded, and I ended up gathering Fabio and two peers into a group to help them get more writing done.

At the end of class, Fabio came up and said “So…what did you learn from us today?”


So often, my opening spiel about learning from them is more about me reminding teachers of what our purpose is, and reassuring kids that we’re not all here to judge them. I’ve never before had a kid take it seriously enough to find out whether we actually did learn from them.

Fabio, though, remembered what I had said, and cared enough to ask – that was great – but even better, he got me thinking about that crucial question. What am I learning from the kids and teachers I work with every day? Am I listening as much as I’m talking? Am I walking into schools with a learning stance?

What I realized is that sometimes I’m not – sometimes, I’m coming into schools with a plan (good) and I’m too focused or tired or harried to stop and think about the plan (less good). On this particular day, with several lessons and meetings scheduled, it was easy to focus on charging ahead through the day instead of pausing to enjoy the kids and enjoy the process. Fabio got me to stop and wonder. And, of course, this bustle and super-productivity is our everyday life – we’re busy! We’re teachers! But when kids ask us these kinds of contemplative questions, we have to take them seriously. If they bother to ask, we should bother to consider.

Here are three ways I’m thinking I can work on this stance – and I’d love to hear more in the comments!

  • Go into the day with a goal – to learn 2, or 3, or 4 new things in a day.
  • Make time and space for reflection – set aside a space in my notes, and a time before I get caught up in the bustle of commuting home, or cooking dinner, or prepping for tomorrow, to think about what I learned and how I’m growing from the places I go.
  • Ask kids about things I’m curious about – like “What do you wish adults knew about people your age?” or “What do you think the purpose of this class is?” or “When do you need to write in your life?” (or even just “What DOES “on fleek” mean, and is it a real word?”)

Talk Structures

Talk. It’s a huge part of our personal lives and our schools’ lives. I love what Donald Graves said about why he refused to learn how to use an ATM—he liked going into the bank, he liked talking to the teller, he liked connecting and conversing with people outside of his universe. With all the technology that is at our fingertips, conversation may be a dying art.

I am not immune. You have a much better chance of connecting with me via text or email than by phone. Case in point, my 82-year-old father, frustrated with my reluctance to answer my phone, taught himself to text. Now, we “talk” all the time—via text. But, as reluctant as I sometimes am to engage in voice-to-voice or face-to-face communication, There. Is. No. Substitute. This is true for us, and it is also true for our students.

So how can we make talk a vibrant, essential, and enjoyable part of classroom life?

Club Talk
Club talk gets a lot of attention in the hearts and minds of workshop teachers. There is a sense of anticipation and, if we are honest, sometimes dread when a book club unit is approaching. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because while kids might be fluent talkers of all things non-academic, the minute they sit in a group to discuss a text… you hear crickets. Everything they know about how to initiate, sustain, and switch conversational topics seems to disappear. I believe one possible cause of this is our students do not have a vision of what they are trying to create. (Think Lucille Clifton: You cannot create what you cannot imagine.) Maybe our students cannot have rich, provocative conversations about texts because they cannot imagine what they are trying to make. In other words, club talk is not the beginning of strong talk work, it is the continuation. I suggest beginning with whole class conversation. Whole class conversation provides students with a vision of how readers talk about texts.

Whole Class Conversation
Ideally, you and your students will gather once, or better yet, twice a week to talk about a shared text: the read aloud, a video, an article. As with any predictable structure, you’ll want to establish a few guidelines:

1. It’s your turn to talk if no one else is talking and you have something to say. In other words, no hands, no objects, no roles. In real world conversations, people do not raise their hands, pass objects that permit them to speak or speak only about an assigned job like vocabulary. In the real word, conversations are messy and dynamic—people interrupt each other, topics intersect and people talk about information and ideas. I want the conversations that occur in the classroom to reflect and prepare kids for real world conversations.

2. Sit facing most of the readers. During whole class conversation, readers sit facing each other for the simple reason that listening is an essential ingredient of a strong conversation. Heidi Hayes Jacobs teaches students to listen with their eyes and their ears, their hearts and their minds. Teaching children to sit facing in each other (as opposed to you, the teacher) provides repeated practice in listening with eyes and ears, hearts and minds. This, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to improve talk.

3. Can’t hear? Use our “turn up the volume” signal. Nothing is more disruptive to a speaker, particularly a reluctant speaker, than being repeatedly interrupted with, “What? I can’t hear you,” or, “Could you please speak up?” For this reason, teach your students to use a non-verbal gesture that indicates to the speaker that they need to increase their volume. I usually recommend putting two arms in the air, but any signal can work. And, don’t forget to teach your students to stop using the signal as soon as the speaker gets the message.

You’ve shared a text together. The guidelines are in place. Time to talk! Only sometimes, when presented with the question, “So what are we thinking about… ?” or, “Who can get us started on a conversation about… ?” you can once again hear those crickets. One way to deal with this is to invite students to turn and rehearse their ideas with their partner first. During this time, you can bop to a few different partnerships listening for an idea to launch the talk, then say, “All eyes on… (name a student).” Another way to support readers in saying something is by teaching them to prepare for talk by jotting a “Let’s talk about…” post-it. With post-its in hand, each reader feels confident that they have something to say. Congratulations! You’ve just launched a whole class conversation.

Partner Talk
If whole class conversation provides the vision of what kids are trying to make when they engage in intellectual talk about a text, then partner talk provides day-to-day talk workouts. By this I mean, daily time to meet with one’s reading partner and talk. About texts. Partners might retell or talk about favorite parts or ask for help in resolving a confusion. Partners might talk about the book they are currently reading, the class read aloud text or books they’ve previously read. There are myriad options. The first step is creating leveled partnerships and a predictable time for those partnerships to meet.

And… Back to Book Clubs
Earlier I mentioned that clubs can be a source of mixed emotions—anticipation and dread. Although hopefully more anticipation and less dread now that you’ve created a vision for talk via whole class conversation and provided predictable and ample opportunities for students to practice talking about texts with their reading partners. This is certain to make the club work, reading a common text in sync with a few other readers, go much more smoothly.

I realize this is a tip-of-the-iceberg post. There is so much more to explore related to whole class conversation, partner talk and clubs. I’ve merely provided skeletal definitions. So, I am curious, what are your questions and confusions, struggles and successes connected to talk? I’ve heard Lucy Calkins say that the definition of a good conversation is thinking grows and/or thinking changes. Katy and I want this blog to be the kind of place where thinking grows and thinking changes and for that to happen we need to hear from you. Jot a comment. Tweet an idea. Chat with a colleague. In other words, turn and talk.