By John Spencer
I didn’t begin student-teacher conferencing with the students in mind. Honestly, it was more of a survival thing for an introverted teacher who needed to move away from the whole group and see students as individuals. After a week of it, I realized that this was one of the best methods of assessment that I could do.
I organize the conferences so that I can meet with three students per hour. That’s a reasonable goal, given the fact that they usually take five to ten minutes a piece and they happen during group and independent work.
In a departmentalized setting, this usually means that I can meet with each student once every two weeks. However, there are times when it’s closer to six a day and I meet with all students each week. In a self-contained classroom, it has meant that I can meet with all kids multiple times per week.
I have two types of conferences I do with students. The conferences vary from focusing on specific standards to focusing on specific work.
I explain to them that I am a coach there to ask questions and help them articulate how they are doing. The goal here is student self-assessment and I am simply the facilitator of the process.
To what extent have you mastered __________?
In what area are you still struggling?
How would you describe ____________?
What would happen if ____________?
How do you feel _________ went? Did it turn out like you had planned?
What are some things you’re noticing?
What I’m hearing you say is (paraphrase). Is that accurate?
What are some steps you might take to improve this work?
What do you think will happen if/when ___________? Alternate: Tell me where you’re seeing this going?
What are you hoping to learn from ________?
Here, I am the expert. I know, I know. I’m supposed to be a “guide on the side.” However, the truth is that I know a thing or two about writing and reading and math. This type of conversation allows students to figure out where they need help and what questions they can ask.
Sometimes students show me a work they have and other times they bring up conceptual questions. The goal is for them to reflect on their own learning in a way that helps them see the very nitty-gritty, practical side of learning.
I don’t have a set of questions that I use, but I offer them the following question frames:
I was noticing that ____________. Are you seeing the same thing?
Could you show me how ____________?
Why is it that _______________?
I’m stuck with ______________. What resources would you recommend to help me?
How could I __________?
What are you noticing when you see me _____________?
I used to have a desk where these conversations happened. However, I quickly realized that the desk was an authority symbol for them. I was higher up, in a comfortable chair. So, now we have a small table specifically for this purpose. I sit next to, instead of across, from the students.
Is that necessary for all teachers? I doubt it. However, it’s what works for me.
John Spencer is a teacher in a low-SES, Title One school in Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at educationrethink.com and writes a column for Kappan Magazine. He has also written Pencil Me In, A Sustainable Start, and a chapter in The Nature of Technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @edrethink.
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