Today on the Heinemann Podcast, author and editor Katie Wood Ray interviews Carl Anderson and Jennifer Serravallo, who both recently published two conferring books in Heinemann’s Classroom Essentials Series. Carl’s book, A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences and Jen’s book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences were both edited by Katie Wood Ray.
Katie says that conferring is, without a doubt, the most student-centered practice there is. She started the conversation by noting both the challenges and rewards of conferring, and asked both authors to share a story from a conference that was significant…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Carl: Let me tell you about one conference I had last week that has stuck with me. I was working in a school in Charleston, South Carolina, and I had a conference with a fourth grader. His class is studying historical fiction, and I sit down with this little guy, and you know, how's it going? And so he says, "You know, I'm writing about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in World War II and I think I've just covered too much ground." And I said, "Well, say more about that." And he goes, "Yeah, I kind of start my story with Pearl Harbor and it ends with Hiroshima, but I want to, you know, but I just feel like it's covering too much ground." It's one of his conferences that sticks with me because it was so rewarding on so many levels.
On the first level, here's a nine year old kid that is grappling with some of the hugest topics that we have. I mean, he's writing about war and trying to make sense of this huge historical event and what it means. I just find it such a privilege to sit with kids, whether they're kindergarteners writing stories or eighth graders writing arguments. So this little boy writing realistic fiction about events in World War II trying to make sense of it. It's such a privilege to work with kids that are trying to make sense and figuring out what their thinking is and coming up with important things to say. And it's also rewarding because we get this, we have this privilege and we confer of just offering kids the most amazing tools.
Jen, you say it's where the magic happens. Part of it is the magic of just really teaching a kid. Okay, let's talk about focus and how writers focus. Let's look at a mentor text and talk about how this writer did and here's the strategy for doing it. So I just feel so privileged to be able to offer these craft techniques and these ways of thinking about writing that help these kids shape their thinking in ways that become very powerful when they actually share them with other people. So, that to me is just one of so many thousands of conferences that just flash through my mind when I think of your question.
Jen: I'll share a positive memory too. Recently, and actually I was lucky enough to get this on camera, I had this experience working with a student in a type of conference I described in the book called A Goal Setting Conference. And in a goal setting conference, ideally, you put some work in front of the student and you lead them through questions to get them to reflect and set a goal. And there's always this trust on the part of the teacher that the child is going to be able to reflect and articulate what it is that they really need and say something that's clear from the work in front of them.
And so I was recently working with a student, a fourth grader who was looking over this assessment she'd taken and there were a number of different questions she'd responded to and she was able to really easily sort of identify the places where she had a challenge and I gave wait time and just always, you know, again, trusting that the wait time and some time for the student to think will yield something helpful. And, she was able to come up with some reflection on her work that wasn't exactly what I had thought that made perfect sense with where she was. And in that moment, I just thought how important it is that we allow kids to drive the conferences in some cases and that we give them the chance to do that reflection and do that thinking. And that's to me a lot of the magic, right?
There's so much that teachers can plan for. We can kind of plow ahead with our lessons. We've got our curriculum, we've got our pacing guides, we've got our units of study, we've got our curriculum, we have our standards. But to sit next to a student and really let them have a chance to say, here's what I'm working on or here's what I see in my work or here's what I think I need help with, I think can be really powerful for both the student and the teacher.
Carl: That's just a great story, Jen. We so want kids to become independent readers and writers, and when kids can learn to articulate goals like that, that's such a remarkable moment in the conference. It's a great story.
Katie: Yeah, and you know what strikes me in both your stories is this idea of teaching that really catches students in the thick of it, the thick of their work, which is moving out from behind the desk and being there at that particular moment in time with this child.
Jen: I'm just so genuinely amazed by kids every day, that it's just so rewarding to take the time to be able to have those individual conversations with them and to learn from them and to teach them one-on-one like that.
Carl: Yeah, and it never gets old. It's like every kid that I meet and talk to, it's just always just so renewing for me. Every kid I talk to, it's a remarkable privilege, I've said that word a lot already today, but it is just a privilege to sit alongside kids and learn from them and teach them.
Katie: And even though you both write about patterns and learning to see patterns in work that help you get better at conferring. It's a pattern but it's also completely new every time in this moment, right? Because it's this child with this topic and this moment in time and that's amazing.
Jen: I think the patterns and the kind of the categories and the way I think about reading and the way that Carl writes about the categories and he looks for and thinks about for writing help you not lose your way and to have a conference in a reasonable amount of time because it can be stressful to be watching your clock and minutes and minutes are ticking by and you don't know where you're going. So it's not that it's completely improvised and off the cuff, there is some to how Carl or I make decisions in a conference, but it is always unique, it is always responsive and it's always tailored to the individual child.
Katie: I'm wondering if went into classrooms and talked to some kids that you both have conferred with routinely, and I said to them, tell me about Mr. Anderson and they would answer me based on the you they've gotten to know through conferring. What do you think they would say?
Carl: Okay, well, I'm going to tell you what one kid said. A second grader wrote a poem about me and my conferring with her years ago and I often recite it in a workshop. The poem's called Mr. Anderson and she wrote, “Mr. Anderson is kind, he is sweet and I got to sit next to him. I got shy a little, I love Mr. Anderson.” The line that I love, two lines actually that I love so much in the poem is “I got to sit next to him.” I mean that to me is the heart of that poem, and I got to work with her a couple times. We've actually both visited the school, Katie, so in Atlanta where this little girl goes to school. But, what I'm going to guess you would say is that what she liked about conferring with me was she felt that I made her the center of my universe for the five, six, seven minutes that I conferred with her. I was intensely interested in her as a person, her as a writer and she knew that I knew stuff that I could share with her. And I also think she would say a good sense of humor, I think I joke a lot with kids and have fun with them. Conferring should be a very joyful, fun thing. And so I'm going to guess you would say that.
A couple of years later, when she was in fourth grade, when I visited this school, the principal of the school asked her, you know, and a bunch of kids, how'd you become a writer, and this little girl said, “it's when Mr. Anderson conferred with me in second grade.” That's one bit of feedback that I got. So, I'm going to guess that's what I hope most kids would hopefully say.
Katie: And how about if I ask them to tell me about Ms Serravallo?
Jen: Kids say all the time, “you're that lady.”
Katie: That lady!
Jen: Teachers carry around the reading strategies book and my face is on the back of it so they're always seeing my face. And so when I come into a classroom, you're that lady. But I hope after I have a conference with a student, I hope they feel heard and I hope they feel helped. And a lot of times, a favorite part is when the child says thank you at the end of a conference. Having children of my own, I can tell you, kids often need a little nudge to remember, to even say thank you when someone gives them a gift or hands them something. So I feel like when you get a student who genuinely looks at you after and says thank you, it's very rewarding.
Katie: And you know, you both end up doing tons of conferring but in sort of oddly positioned ways in other people's classrooms. But to me, it seems like that's a really great question for teachers in their own classrooms to ask themselves. If I asked your students, you know, what would they say about you from what they've learned about you through conferring? You both speak to that in your books, that is a relationship building kind of interaction. And so, it's an interesting question I think.
Carl: Yup. Jen, it's so funny they call you that lady. Sometimes I walk into a classroom room or I'm in the hall and a kid runs up and goes, you're the famous author and looked at me. They're kind of puzzled and then they say, but you look just like a dad. I thought you were taller and your hair looks gray now. What did they do to the picture?
Katie: Carl, at least they're not saying you look just like a granddad.
Carl: Closer to 60 than I am to 50 now.
Katie: Here's another question I want to ask, and like both of you, I have years of conferences on video tape from my own work, which is like a whole history of me aging along the way and my hair getting bigger and smaller. But one of the things that I know happens to me a lot when I'm conferring and I don't know if other people can, but when I watch myself confer, I can see the look come over my face is that often I've got two conversations going on. I've got one inside my head because this child is saying something to me and I'm going, oh my gosh, what am I supposed to say, I don't know what to say. That's raging inside my head. And then there's another conversation that's coming out of my mouth. You know, what I'm actually saying to this child. And I'm just wondering from two experts like you, like how do you manage, because that must happen to everybody. First of all, can you confirm for me that it's not just me, and second of all, how do you manage those two conversations of what you're thinking and what you're actually saying?
Jen: It's probably most stressful when you've got two cameras and a boom mic over you, that's the situation where like, I better say something good here. But the advice I give teachers and then I try to follow myself is to be okay with telling the child you need a second. And instead of just continuing to talk, sometimes I think it's really good to just stop for a second and just say, can you give me just a second to think? I also want to think about what you just said. And then just write some notes to yourself or Carl, you taught me a long time ago to keep a T chart, things that I noticed that the child is doing really well, things I notice I might work on. Give yourself a second to look over those notes and just sort of think for a second.
I think that sometimes teachers feel like I have to keep filling the quiet space, I have to keep talking. And I also say to teachers and I try to follow this advice myself, if you really don't know what to teach, you could just give a compliment and say thank you and move on to the next child and that's totally fine too. And in fact, it can be really helpful I think to alternate the kinds of conferences you do. And sometimes it doesn't need to be that you're teaching a whole new thing or that you're giving them critical feedback or moving the needle at all, just praise what you already see and then move on to another student.
Carl: Yeah. So Katie, I definitely am having two conversations in my mind. One thing I've been thinking a lot about recently is a concept that I call worthiness. And I think that's really driving a lot of my thinking and conferring. What I mean by that is kids don't get to choose to come to school. They don't get to choose to have a conference with me when it's time to have a conference. And so, I'm taking five or six minutes of their childhood and I need to be worthy of that time. I think we all do. And what I mean by worthiness is I need to really make sure I'm doing big important work in a conference. And that big important work could be an important mini lesson in the unit or more importantly, like John was talking about before, the conference hopefully is going to focus on something that's really an important goal for the child.
And so, you know, I start with how's it going and as Jen said, silence is really important in conferring. And you know, and hopefully a kid says something about what they're doing as a writer and then I'm thinking is the direction this kid going a worthy direction for this child? And hopefully, most of the time it is. They'll say they're doing something that's really important and I go there. But what I'm also thinking is, you know, maybe that's really not a direction to go in. They're talking about editing when they've just written a sentence. And so, I'll just say then, well, what else are you doing. And I'll redirect the conversation and I'm really looking for something that I think is worthy of this child's time. And I really want it to come from the child because I think conferring goes best when we get behind kids' intentions.
But I think that's what's really driving me, that question in the back of my mind, that belief that I just want to be worthy of this child's time every single time I sit down with them. So I think that's the conversation I'm having in my head, Katie.
Katie: I love that word, Carl. I really love that word applied to what we're talking about right now. It stretches my thinking a lot to think about that. You know what, it reframes it too in such an important way. I'm not sure what the end of it is. I just know that that is a complete reframing from oh my gosh, I don't know what to say to what about this interaction is worthy of this child and this moment in time, which is really different.
Carl: So that's what going through my mind a lot these days and what I talk a lot about with teachers. Jen was getting into I think before, you know, I think her goal setting conference work is really, really important. I have goals for kids too that I confer into. But to me that's really getting at part of what the answer to the question of worthiness is. Just, you know, we want this to be big important work. It's the time when we have that's the most differentiated time. It's the time when we build relationships. It's the time when kids are giving us feedback and it needs to be really important work.
It’s interesting for me at this stage of my career, I am almost 40 years older than some of the new teachers in the field now. And quite honestly, most of the stuff that comes up in conferences now for me I feel really comfortable with and I know what to do. And I think a lot of it goes to what Jen was talking about before. It's this idea of pattern recognition and that kids are approximating writing in not exactly the same ways, but in some ways that a lot of kids have in common, and we're going to see over and over again. So, I just feel like at this point in my career in every genre that kids write in, you know, grades I'm really comfortable with kindergarten through eighth grade and high school too, that generally, I know what to expect. And so, I think part of this is just helping teachers with this idea of recognizing patterns.
With that said, I still do run into conferences where things get a little crazy. I had a conference with a ninth grader in Edmonton, Canada last year and I sat down with him and I said, "Well, how's it going?" And he goes, "I really don't know how to embed symbolism in my writing." And I'd never had a conference about that before. It was actually really, really fun, and I just loved having to think on my feet and then explaining how I did that. And what I did was I thought, okay, do I have my go to places often. What writer of is with me that does something like that in a text that I can quickly learn from and show this kid. And Ralph Fletcher's story Last Kiss has a beautiful flashback scene that works as a metaphor. So, I showed this to this boy and he got it and he tried in his writing, it was beautiful.
And then I add that to my repertoire of patterns. You know, I think that the pattern that I would name that as now is he was a kid that was using detail literally and he needed to stretch his concept of detail and be more figurative with this detail. And so, that's kind of how I'm naming that pattern now. But it's fun. But that's often what new teachers, almost everything for new teachers is like that. It's like, I don't know what I'm looking at. So, part of the work that I think we need to do with teachers is just helping them recognize patterns just like doctors learn when they're new at their practice. They have more experienced doctors show them what things look like and how to respond to them.
Jen: Yeah, I totally agree with that, Carl. And I was in a leadership group with Carl where we basically would just spend, I don't know if you remember this, Carl, but you had an overhead projector and you would just put overhead after overhead of student writing up. And you'd say, say 10 things that are positive, say a few things we might want to work on. Next, we put another one up, say 10 things, and it was just repetition and practice that we got really good at noticing patterns. I think that that experience looking at writing in that way really shaped the way that I approach writing conferences now and it also has impacted the way that I think about reading, which can be I think very kind of nebulous and vague and hard to put your hands around, and everybody talks about reading in different ways. You know, you've got like the Fountas and Pinell Within Beyond About the Text, you've got the Keen and Zimmerman Activating Prior Knowledge Determining Importance, right?
So you've got these different sets of skills, no one has the same list. And I think teachers can feel like, what am I looking for? Where do I go first? And that's why I have this list of goals and I have a sort of action plan of what I do first and what I do later just from lots of experience of looking at student work and conferring with kids and these patterns that appear and learning from experience what seems to have the biggest payoff for a reader in that particular situation. And then once I think you find a goal, once you have some category you're working within, then it becomes easier to sit down next to a student and have a sense of what am I looking for and then making that in the moment decision.
Like you said Carl, even after that symbolism conference, you sort of tucked it away into a file folder in your brain. Like this is the kind of conference that goes, you know, and I think that way too and maybe it's because my dad's an analytical chemist and I grew up in this household of supreme organization and color coding and file folders. And I don't know, it's just that shaped my brain and the way I think. And I find a lot of teachers also thrive on organization and categories. It's not totally real, the reading is, it's all interconnected, it's all, you know, it all kind of mush together, it overlaps.
But I think having some sort of game plan, some sort of approach can help you feel a little bit more sure footed so that you feel less I don't know where I'm going here, which is where a lot of my early conferring felt. It felt like I'd sit down, I'd ask questions, I'd pull something out of thin air or I'd have like this conferring cheat sheet with like my top 10 conferences on it. I'd pick one of those 10 and it wasn't always what the child really needed, to use Carl's words, it wasn't always like the worst worthy thing that I could be teaching to the students.
So, that's kind of how I've made my way out of a lot of floundering into having some sort of sense of direction even with kids I don't know, in books I've never read, in a school I've never stepped foot in prior to that conference. I feel like I have some direction.
Carl: God, you're bringing me back in time. I just remember that group so well, Jen. You pushed my thinking so much in that group. I think that was the time when I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's work from Blink and his ideas on pattern recognition and assessment. And then you guys just really pushed my thinking on that. And you know, and you've really taken that to an incredible length in all of your books. I mean, they're so marvelous and the goal setting work. And, you know, I just think your reading and writing strategies book, your new book, all your books are so good at talking about that so clearly and it's so beautiful and elegant. So, thank you for all of that.
Jen: Thank you, Carl, that means so much to me.
Katie: As we chat, we are less than 48 hours away from the 2019 Oscar ceremony. So I have two Oscar themed questions about conferring. If there was a blooper reel of you conferring, tell us about one great scene that would be on it.
Jen: Oh my gosh, I've got so many. Can I go first, Carl?
Carl: Yes you can.
Jen: Oh my goodness. All right, so I signed up, I don't even know what year this was, but I signed up for a summer institutes section on getting better at reading conferences, back in the day at teacher's college. And on the first day of our week long institute, they asked for volunteers to come up and role play a teacher and a student. So, this was before I was a staff developer, I was still a classroom teacher. I was like, sure, I'm brave, I'll go up and I'll try it. So I'm playing the role of the teacher and I don't know what I did. I remember asking some questions, I remember nodding along, I remember saying something to the person who was playing the role of the student. And then I said to the person playing the role of the student, "Does that make sense?" And then they were like, "Yes." And I was like, "Okay, great." And I walked back to my seat. And the teacher looked at me and she goes, "Is that it?" And I said, "Uh, yeah." She said, "Well, aren't you going to actually teach it?"
And I think that moment, while highly embarrassing, because I'm in front of an audience of other teachers, really taught me that you've got to make the kid do the work in the conference, otherwise you're not really teaching anything. So, as embarrassing as it was and as much of a blooper as it was, it taught me a really important lesson.
Carl: I'm going to tell another story, but your story has reminded me of the same thing happened to me at teacher's college, but in a different context. It was a principal's conference and I'm with Lucy Calkins and she says, "Carl, come up here, I'll be the student, you be my teacher and you coach me, you confer with me." She was a really tough student but it went pretty well I thought. Anyway, but that was stressful but I got through that. Anyway, the story that I want to tell us actually, school-based. Let me set the scene, PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. One of the greatest elementary schools in the world as far as I'm concerned, a marvelous principal, Miss Phillips, amazing teachers. My daughter went to school there, K through five.
And so, it was a Friday afternoon, I was doing some PD there and I was doing some conferring and I was kind of tired and they brought a little boy up to talk to me. And I said, "How's it going?" And he goes, "I'm done." And he didn't say it in a very inviting way. It was a very prickly I'm done. And I'm thinking, Oh God, it's Friday afternoon. So I look at his writing, which is in I'm done conference, I usually end up looking at their writing. And you know, I noticed that he was writing all about peace, like the World War Two kid. And I'm like, you know, I could go there, but you know, that's going to be really hard, this kid's going to probably fight me, so I'll do a little dialog work. That won't be too hard. And I did that, everyone seemed happy with it. He was excited by it. I was excited that he was excited and everyone seemed happy.
And then afterwards we're debriefing the session and Liz, the principal, she's so brilliant. She says, "Carl, I'm curious about that conference little boy that was done because clearly he needed some focus work. In my opinion, you kind of went for something that wasn't that important." And I kind of just looked at everyone and said, "Yeah, I copped out. I just went for the easy route." I think it's conferences like that that have led me to think about that concept of worthiness. I don't think I was worthy of that little boy. And I got called on at that day very appropriately. I really should've just kind of sucked it up and said, I got to do some hard work with this kid. And because sometimes it's not fun really to confer. Sometimes we have to challenge a kid in a way that they may not want to be challenged 100%. But in the end, it's like green eggs and ham. It's like, wow, I like this, that works for me. But I didn't take the risk.
And I've always remembered that conference and told that story many, many times. So that's one of kind of my all time bloopers being called on a decision I made that really wasn't a great decision. And thank you Liz, that taught me a lot.
Jen: You're making me think of how many times I've suggested a strategy to a child in a conference and they just turn and look at me and say, no. Of course in front of an audience of teachers, no, I'm not doing that. That's a recurring blooper. You can find that on many reels.
Carl: A first grader came in to confer with me in a room with three first grade teachers and the coach today. And she sat down and said how's it going? And she's like, I don't want to be here. I made some jokes with her, we got through it and it worked okay.
Katie: If we made a movie about teachers learning to confer with children, what song would make a good theme song for that movie? And you can't say Shallow because that was my answer. And it's not the shallow, it's the diving into the deep end part that you have to do to confer.
Jen: I don't know, Eye of the Tiger. People need to like have courage and like rally maybe, I don't know, that's a hard question, Katie.
Katie: Carl, I know yours is going to be a song so you might as well go for it.
Carl: It's got to be for me With a Little Help from My Friends. The second rung on Sergeant Pepper. Let me just improv a little bit here. I can't really sing this but, you know, maybe I'll try a little bit. You can always cut it if necessary, and I'll just just kind of talk it out. So like, what would you think if I conferred out tune, would you stand up and walk out on me, lend me your ears and I'll talk with the kid, and I'll try not to confer out a key. Oh, I learned to confer With a Little Help from My Friends, I get by with little help from my friends, I'm going to try it with a little help from my friends. So, you know, I guess I'm thinking that song because just, you know, Deb Ball says good teachers aren't born good teachers, we learn to be good teachers.
And I really think we sometimes don't pay enough attention to how much teachers grow in a social context. And we do it with a little help from our friends. And Jen mentioned the leadership group she was in years ago and we all learned and pushed each other. And every time I'm with teachers like that, they push my thinking on conferring. And one little story about, I was in the Newark public, the Newark City schools in Ohio last year for a week, I did 10 conferring workshops for seven schools, K through five. I did 60 conferences that week, and it was a great week, it was a great residency, but that's really just part one.
And it was interesting to follow this school. They tweet about their conferring work, and like they, someone from the school district, I'm sorry, I don't remember the person's name off the bat, but I just retweeted this so you could find that on my Twitter feed. But she tweeted a picture of the fifth grade teachers doing what they call instructional rounds. And each teacher was, there's a picture of the teacher conferring with the child in front of her colleagues or his colleagues. And clearly what they're doing is they're conferring and discussing it. They're each pushing each other. It's so exciting to see that work continue that I started, but they're doing the real work now, the really important work of learning together about conferring. So, we do it with a little help from our friends. And I hope that this joyful work of learning to confer is very social and collaborative. So, I guess that's my song, it's got to be a Beatles song and that's it.
Katie: I also remember listening to an awesome keynote of yours at TC that was all about Beatles songs and how it relates to conferring too. So you're like way light years ahead of me in thinking about music connections.
Carl: Yeah. Well, your kids will bring you into that world sooner than later.
Follow us on Instagram @heinemannpub to stay up to date on the latest books, your favorite authors, and upcoming events!
For many years as the author of bestselling Heinemann books such as About the Authors, Study Driven, Already Ready, and In Pictures and In Words, and as a member of Heinemann’s Professional Development Services, Katie Wood Ray gave teachers resources and PD that transformed writing instruction and helped children discover a lifelong love of writing.
In 2014, Katie “moved to the other side of the desk” and joined the dynamic team of editors at Heinemann where she works closely with authors to craft powerful professional books on a range of literacy topics. Katie is also the series editor for the new Classroom Essentials books from Heinemann. Tasked with bringing foundational, progressive practices to a new generation of teachers, Katie works to ensure that the sharp focus and enhanced design of each book best serve the content. She also teamed up with her longtime collaborator, Lisa Cleaveland, to write one of the first books in the series, A Teacher’s Guide to Getting Started with Beginning Writers.
You can find her on Twitter at @KatieWoodRay.
Carl Anderson is an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for Grades K-8, working as a consultant in schools and districts around the world. A long-time Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Carl is the author of numerous books on teaching writing, including the bestselling How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers.
His latest book, A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences, is part of the Classroom Essentials series. Full of classroom video, the book helps teachers understand the underlying principles and reasons for conferring with students, and how to make writing conferences a part of teachers' daily routines.
Follow Carl on Twitter @ConferringCarl
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann professional books, The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest books are Understanding Texts & Readers, and A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences.
In Spring 2019, Jen’s new Complete Comprehension: Fiction and Complete Comprehension: Nonfiction will be released. This assessment and teaching resource expands upon the comprehension skill progressions from Understanding Texts & Readers and offers hundreds more strategies like those in The Reading Strategies Book.
Additionally, Jen is the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes, where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.
Find Jen on Twitter @JSerravallo