Engage meaningfully and gain insight that will support both your instruction and students' growth.
Elementary Education Specialist
Throughout my work as a teacher and a coach, I’ve come across many different interpretations and definitions of what it means to conference with students. At a minimum, conferences are 1-1 interactions between a teacher and a student. At best, they are highly meaningful and informative conversations. They are opportunities to get to know a student, to assess where they are and where they are going, and to provide highly customized instruction aimed at advancing their learning. As Don Murray explains in his book A Writer Teaches Writing:
“Conferences are not mini-lectures, but the working talk of fellow writers sharing their experience with the writing process. At times, of course, they will be teacher and student, master and apprentice, if you want, but most of the time, they will be remarkably close to peers, because each writer, no matter how experienced, begins with each draft.”
How can we maximize our conferences with our students?
When it comes to conferencing, I have always leaned on Carl Anderson’s book, How's It Going? He explains that conferencing has a two-part structure: it’s first a conversation about the work the student is doing, and then a conversation about how the student can get better. As part of these conversations, the teacher and the student have distinct roles that help ensure they are meaningful and productive. Anderson explains:
When the teacher and student enact these roles, the conference becomes a true conversation, whereby the teacher and the student become equal contributors, dedicated to the larger goal of improving the learning.
Facilitating the conversation
In addition to establishing roles, Anderson offers what I think is a helpful structure to facilitate a conference. The structure, which consists of six parts, can also benefit from the use of meaningful facilitation questions that will help guide your conversation.
Launch the conversation
The goal of the launch is to ask: how’s it going? What are you working on today? What do you need help with? This allows the student to take the lead.
Look at/assess student work
It is so important to look at the work of our students in efforts of being able to analyze what they have shared, what is showing up in the work, and how the two compare. This kind of analysis is necessary if we are going to be able to accurately assess where students are and where they need to go.
Decide what to teach
This part of the conference is definitely the most challenging intellectual work. We need to decide what and how to teach during this particular conference. What helps me is to identify what I think is the most high-leverage area, the most urgent need, and not rely on a fix-it-all approach. To help with the decision we can consider things like:
In terms of how to teach a specific strategy or skill, Anderson offers some helpful tips:
Nudge students to have a go
After our teaching, Anderson recommends that we nudge our students to try it out! I appreciate this terminology because it supports the idea that we encourage them to put forth an initial attempt to talk through what they are going to do during the conference, while they have our support. This helps us assess their understanding of the conference, and what they will go do on their own.
Link the conference and stamp the learning
To promote the transfer of skills and strategies, we want to link the conference to students’ ongoing work and encourage them to do the work we’ve discussed right away. As Anderson states, we can ask things like: “What are you going to do now?” or “Tell me your plans for your work…” I like to think of this as stamping the learning.
The last part of the conference, while it can often feel tedious, is crucial. As educators of high numbers of students, we can’t possibly remember every conversation we’ve had with each individual. Each student is unique and has different strengths and struggles depending on the content, the topic, the genre, etc. I highly encourage the teachers I coach to identify a method of keeping conference notes that works for them, and something they can maintain throughout the semester (and ideally the larger school year). In my own work, I used folders and index cards and titled them by the unit of study. Other teachers I know use voice notes/memos, while others have used Google Drive where they created one Drive for the overall unit, and created a folder for each student. Keeping notes and records helps us cater our instruction, monitor progress, and celebrate growth.
Whereas any 1-1 interactions with students are valuable, finding ways to maximize our conferencing techniques such as those mentioned above can be transformative for us as educators. It can be challenging to find the time to conference amidst all that we do, but these highly essential and enlightening conversations can help us get to know our students on a deeper level. When we really know our students, we can most effectively cater our instruction and meet them where they are, which gives us the best chance at truly advancing their learning.
Low-stakes, high-reward discussion practices you can bring to your math classroom.
Elementary Education Specialist
Most teachers I know recognize the importance of discussion in their classrooms, but often struggle with how to best facilitate student-to-student discussions, particularly in a content area classroom like math.
As a former elementary educator, I was responsible for teaching all subject areas — Reading, Writing, Math, Science and Social Studies. Math was always my most reluctant subject. When it came time to teach math, I was guilty of sitting in front of the whiteboard, doing practice problem after practice problem with my students, asking if they had any questions, and then sending them off to their desks to do more practice problems in their workbooks. I could tell they were bored (heck, I was bored), but I was unsure how to shift my teaching to make it more engaging and student-centered.
I was compelled by the idea that practice makes perfect, right? So the more problems they practice, the more likely they’d be to get it. But the drill and kill approach is not adequate, especially in classrooms today, and as we think about the necessary skills of students in the 21st century. We know they need much more to acquire skills and knowledge that will serve them in real life. They need to be able to talk about math, reflect on their processes, and collaboratively problem-solve.
What is Math Talk?
One of my recent areas of focus and interest is helping math teachers incorporate more discussion in their classrooms and move away from the often well-intentioned chalk and talk approach.
“Math Talk,” while a rather new term, is gaining in popularity, as research suggests that when students talk more about their math thinking, they are more motivated to learn and they learn more. It is one of the mathematical practices of the NGS that supports students in clarifying their thinking and understanding, constructing mathematical arguments, developing language to express math ideas, and increasing opportunities to see things from different perspectives.
How can teachers promote this challenging yet crucial mathematical practice in their classrooms? What I share below are three simple, yet effective strategies that can promote math talk in meaningful and manageable ways.
Turn and Talks
Turn and talks are a well-known and commonly used strategy. They support oral language, speaking, and listening skills in a low-stakes way. Math can often promote a lot of fear, and fear of getting it wrong. But because students are talking to a partner, there is often less hesitation than if they had to speak to a larger group. Turn and talks can be a great entry point to promoting discussion.
Gallery walks are another simple yet meaningful technique to support discussion. These support students in being actively engaged as they walk throughout the classroom, and they can be highly effective in problem-solving within a math classroom.
Similar to a turn and talk, a gallery walk could be the focus of the Do Now, as part of guided practice in preparation for independent work, or it can serve as the independent work after some explicit instruction.
Think - Pair - Share
Think-Pair-Share can support students in working together to increase understanding and explore multiple perspectives. Like turn and talks, it is a partner strategy that can be a nice entry point to promoting discussion as its low-stakes and a bit easier for the teacher to manage participation of students. It can be done as part of a Do Now, to review a particular skill, to assess work that is already completed, or as part of independent practice as students apply what they’ve learned.
By no means do I consider myself a math expert; however, I do have extensive experience in promoting discussion in all disciplines. While these strategies are not new or revolutionary, I have witnessed how even small moves can shift instruction to allow for more student interaction and application. I hope you find them helpful as you consider how you can maximize discussion in your classroom, and remember that any of these can be a starting place — as you boost your confidence and experience success, I encourage you to consider your own twists and share them with others.
Promising practices that can help nurture confident, capable student writers.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
The beginning of the school year is a powerful time for setting intentions and establishing expectations. As a former classroom teacher and professional development coach, I understand the importance of making sure students feel safe in their writing environment, so that they feel empowered to put pen to paper. Using the beginning of the year to create a culture of writing can help cultivate a sense of community, boost students’ confidence, dispel some of the myths that exist about writing, and strengthen students’ skills and strategies.
How then, can we create this culture and community?
Creating the environment
As Dan Kirby writes in Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, “…there should be some obvious indications that you believe that the physical environment is important, and these touches need to be present even in a rather sterile classroom setting…the fact that you’ve done something to your room is a signal to students that you care about the writing environment.”
Teachers should create a space where they want to be, as chances are that the students will feel comfortable, too.
Teachers can use questions such as:
By asking and answering these questions, it can inform and inspire the ways in which you design your classroom, as well as what materials or resources you might need or want. Perhaps you want to have a writing corner, or a gallery space for finished pieces. Think about all the spaces in the room — whether it’s a specific bulletin board, the walls, the ceiling, outside the classroom — where and how will writing be honored and celebrated?
When it came to my environment, I recognized the importance of a quiet, comfortable space for students to write. I wanted to have inviting spaces around the room where students could choose to sit, whether it was on the carpet, with a pillow, a large bean bag, or in a comfortable chair near a window. In addition, I would turn off the lights when we wrote and play soft, classical music. This routine, over time, helped signal to students that it was time to write. It set the expectations that when we write, it's quiet and calm. You might be thinking that this can or should only happen in an elementary classroom; however, I have seen it used in middle and high school classrooms, and it was very well received by the students.
I also had a writing center in my room, where students could go to gather paper, pencils, highlighters, and post-its to use for their writing. There was a basket for them to drop writing that they wanted or needed me to read. This empowered students to take ownership of their writing and build their independence as writers by providing them with common resources and tools they could access on their own, as needed.
Establishing rituals & routines
The second promising practice for creating a writing culture is to consider meaningful rituals and routines that value and encourage writing. Rituals and routines involve necessary actions that create purpose and organization, and when done frequently, they become innate. Below are some of my favorite rituals and routines.
I encourage you to start the process of creating a culture or writing by identifying what you are most passionate about, what you are most excited about, and use that information to inspire the ways in which you create your space and establish your rituals and routines. If you have a passion for writing, like me, and/or you are a writing/ELA teacher, then I invite you to use the promising practices shared above, as they were very helpful for me and for the advancement of my students as writers!
Help students independently investigate and interpret unfamiliar words using context clues.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
When it comes to reading, one of the most significant challenges students face is vocabulary. If students come across a word they don’t know while reading, it can have a substantial impact on their comprehension and their confidence. I witnessed this as a classroom teacher, and I’ve heard it from many of the teachers I now coach.
Searching for clues
One of my most tried and true strategies, which I used in my own classroom as an elementary teacher, and one I continue to offer to teachers, involves encouraging students to read texts like a detective who is searching for clues. Asking them to engage in this way encourages students to look for clues that can help unlock meaning, offer insights, and assist them in interpreting unknown words.
But these clues — often referred to as context clues — go beyond the language immediately surrounding unknown words. Clues might be found in the paragraph before or after an unknown word or phrase. Sometimes there are clues in the text features, including pictures, visuals, captions, or word boxes. We need to support students in treating the whole text as a series of clues that can help them become familiar with specific vocabulary words as they read independently.
Monitoring for meaning
Our Monitoring for Meaning resource can support students with this process, particularly when it comes to identifying and investigating difficult words. It offers a helpful template that prompts students to:
This resource asks them to use their best guess and then either confirm or revise their thinking after using a dictionary. Furthermore, it prompts students to lean on their prior knowledge to help decipher new words.
Literacy teachers have the demanding and important task of teaching reading, and while there is no single strategy that can guarantee success, encouraging curiosity and investigation while reading is a high leverage way to support students in becoming competent, confident readers.
Connect the dots between larger goals and the specific needs of your students.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
As an instructional coach and elementary specialist for CPET, much of my work with elementary schools has involved helping teachers unpack and make sense of the chosen, school-wide pre-packaged curricula they’re asked to work with — a curricula that is designed by professionals to meet grade level and subject requirements, and includes most, if not all of the materials needed to teach. I often facilitate workshops and professional development sessions, introduce teachers to the curricula and its components, as well as engage in classroom visits and critical reflection conversations with individual teachers to support the implementation of the curricula.
While the curricula is packaged, there’s often a surprising amount of tweaking and adapting involved to make sure the curricula fits the school calendar, the style of the teacher, and most importantly, that it meets the needs and interests of all students. This can be a daunting and challenging task for educators.
How can you make sense of and revise curricula to meet the needs, goals, and interests of your students?
Identifying your goals
One of the biggest challenges I see when it comes to the adoption and adaptation of packaged curricula is just the magnitude and density of it all. There are often many components, books, inserts, handouts, and templates, and this can make it difficult for teachers to even know where to begin. They often express feelings of overwhelm or lack of time or opportunity to make sense of and collaboratively plan with the curricula.
Because packaged curricula often includes all of the individual lessons, with varying levels of detail and information, teachers often fall into the trap of teaching lesson to lesson and relying on the teacher manuals to drive their day-to-day instruction. But this can result in losing sight of the larger goals and what these lessons are in service of. Essentially, teachers can start to become the mouthpiece of a script.
I recently began to work with a school that had just adopted a new curricula for reading. After using a program for a number of years, many teachers were unsure and rather uneasy about this transition. After meeting with leadership and discussing their needs, my goals as the instructional coach were to:
In support of these goals, it was my intention to facilitate a number of workshops with the teachers to first and foremost ease their anxieties, answer questions, and cater to their varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the curricula. From there, we worked together to unpack the curricula in a meaningful and productive way, the specifics of which I will share with you, as I believe they can be helpful when it comes to adopting and adapting any new curricula.
Starting with the end in mind
In order to know where you’re going and how you are going to get there, you need to understand the larger goals and objectives of a curriculum, the driving questions, and the final tasks or assessments. To do this, I would suggest starting with the end in mind. Most curricula I’ve seen offer a unit overview or summaries that are often found at the front. Taking the time to read or skim these overviews can be a helpful starting place. With the teachers I worked with, each grade level engaged in jigsaw readings, where one teacher took on a portion of text from the overviews and underlined and annotated, made comments in the margins, and then shared their thinking, questions and interpretations.
From there, we examined the culminating assessment, asking questions such as:
This exercise was intended to not only understand the assessment as it’s suggested, but more importantly, to provide a lens through which to recognize opportunities for revision, including scaffolding or extending the task, and then consider the implications for instruction. No curricula can take into account the needs and interests of all students, so it is up to teachers to revise and adapt the curricula with their students in mind.
Lastly, we considered the necessary materials, resources, rituals, and routines that would be needed in order to implement the units successfully:
With this larger, more robust understanding of the curricula, teachers can more effectively navigate their curricula and instruction and move away from feeling bound to a script.
Pushing into the pacing calendar
Most often, pre-packaged curriculum includes a pacing calendar, sometimes called a scope and sequence. This calendar offers a snapshot for instruction, including when particular units, (also known as modules or bends) should be implemented, and for how long. These calendars can be helpful when thinking about a school year at large — where you’re going, and how long it’s going to take you to get there. In my experience, the suggested pacing calendars often need to be changed or revised to take into account breaks, testing, and school events. Perhaps more importantly, the pacing calendars need to be adjusted based on teachers’ understanding of the larger goals, objectives, and assessments.
With my teachers, we compared the suggested pacing calendar to their school calendar and grade-specific calendars, asking questions such as:
Asking these questions supported teachers in taking action to make adjustments. Having a larger calendar for instruction can make things feel more manageable.
Identifying the structure of instruction
In my experience, most packaged curricula have a consistent structure and organization, and even specific rituals and routines that define the units and individual lessons. Looking across the lessons and identifying these structures can be very helpful for teachers. Examples include rituals and routines like turn and talks, reflective writing, stop and jots, or structures such as progressive scaffolding. The adopted curricula of this particular school was organized around the workshop model, starting with a connection which led to a mini-lesson, an opportunity for student practice, and then culminated with a share out and reflection of the learning.
I supported teachers in understanding and unpacking these various components and their purpose and then modeled a few of the lessons for them. To facilitate this, we used a template to plan one or two of the lessons, adopting what we liked, and taking out what we felt wasn’t necessary. We revised anything necessary, based on our larger understanding of the goals of the lesson and what teachers thought would be most relevant and important to students. Lastly, we worked to revise the lesson to ensure it reflected their voice and their style, fostering a sense of authenticity and ingenuity that supports relationship-building with students.
By identifying and understanding the key structures, rituals, and routines of a curriculum, teachers can move through the lessons with more clarity and confidence.
Implementing packaged curricula takes a great deal of patience, persistence, and flexibility. We know that no curriculum can be implemented as it’s written if it is going to meet the needs and goals of a particular school community. We have to work strategically, creatively, and collaboratively with our peers to examine the curricula, consider aspects we can and should implement, and what needs to be revised, replaced, or even eliminated.
Are you adapting curricula in your classroom or community? Get in touch with me to receive support throughout the daunting — but doable! — process.