Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Conferring Ain't Easy"

Today is the final day of our cyber bookchat about Conferring by Patrick Allen (#cyberPD).  I'm a bit disappointed to see it end.  This summer I really wanted to take time to reflect the purpose and effectiveness of conferring in Reader's Workshop.  I had planned to read Allen's book, but I hadn't planned to learn so much from so many others reading it at the same time.  If you haven't had a chance to read all the posts, you'll want to find time to do so. 

Previous Conversations:
Entire conversation is here:  Conferring the Keystone to Reader's Workshop
Part I:  What Brings About a Good Conference Anyway? 
Part II:  What Are the Essential Components of Conferring?

Today we are discussing Part IIi:  “What emerges from our reading conferences?”.   Today's conversation is hosted by Laura Komos at Camp Read-A-Lot.  You’ll want to stop by to join the conversation.

Conferring Ain't Easy, But It's Important
Yesterday one of the participants in #cyberPD had been talking with a friend about conferring, likely sharing her excitement.  The friend replied, "Where's the research on conferring?"  Questions like these make me shake my head, not because they're not important but, because they're often asked to avoid change.  When I read the question I wished I was at school where I could get my hands on research, but in reality I know the difference conferring makes for my young learners.  I also know that the success of conferring has a lot to do with factors beyond just placing myself in a chair beside one student. 

Quick Shifts: In Support of Conferring
Yesterday I was reading the Mac page my computer opens to and realized a new operating system, OS X Lion, is coming out (yes, I live under a rock).  Now as a learner I could read more online to figure this out.  I could take a class to learn about the new operating system.  I could sit with a small group and learn about the system.  OR I could sign-up for a Mac one-on-one session.  Yes, I will learn in all of these situations, but I will learn a lot quickly sitting one-on-one with a knowledgeable instructor.  

The challenges:

  • Online learning:  I'm going to have to spend a great deal of time reading and searching to find articles, videos, and conversations that answer my questions.   There will be a lot of information within these I do not need and may not understand.  There will not be someone close by to answer questions.
  • Large Class:  Have you ever taken a technology class?  If so, you know the challenges.  There will be learners in the room wanting to know how to turn on their computer, learners wanting to know why they need to change, and learners who are trying to learn how to reprogram OS X.  
  • Small Group:  I might be able to find a small group learning about OS X.  Here I will likely be able to find some answers, especially if the leader is knowledgeable.  However, the needs of each person in the group will have to be negotiated. 
  • One-to-One "Conference":  Sitting down individually with an "expert" would allow me to have my questions answered.  The "expert" would be looking at my computer, s/he would be able to consider the way I use the computer as s/he answers my questions, s/he would be able to show me the way the new operating system will most help me do the work I do.  I could learn a lot quickly in this instructional context.  

I'm not saying any one of these instructional contexts do not hold merit in a classroom.  They each provide important avenues to learning and growing, however time vs. learning conferring has to be important.  If we look at some of the times in life we have learned the most we will likely find it was sitting beside an "expert" in something we like to do.  In Fires in the Mind, students tell us "some encouraging person guided them past that point [of frustration] by giving them an engaging task that lay just beyond - but not too far beyond - their skill level." (p. 44 eReader version)  

"The people who sit next to you have a big part in how you get better at something." Janiy (student FIM, p.16) 

The Whole Game and Conferring 
Recently I read, Making Learning Whole by David N. Perkins.  I found it interesting how much workshop models parallel playing "the whole game" as he calls it.  In his book, Perkins tells us, "In a setting of learning, a whole game is generally some kind of inquiry or performance in a broad sense (p. 35)."  He shares a few indicators of the whole game in a learning setting. The Whole Game:  "Walk-Aways"   Perkins states (Making Learning Whole pp. 35-36 eReader version):
  • It's never just about content.  Learners are trying to get better at something.
  • It's never just about routine.  It requires thinking with what you know and pushing further.
  • It's never just problem solving.  It involves problem finding.
  • It's not just about right answers.  It involves explanation and justification.
  • It's not emotionally flat.  It involves curiosity, discovery, creativity, camaraderie.
  • It's not in a vacuum.  It involves the methods, purposes, and forms of one or more disciplines or other areas, situated in a social context.
When I compare this list to Allen's "walk-aways" (Conferring pp. 158-162) it is easy to see the value of conferring.  As I begin the new year with conferring on my mind, I will be recording conversations to see what the "walk-aways" are for my young readers.  My hope is to improve the power of these conversations as the significance (and likely the research) isn't in the fact that I am sitting beside a student, but in the learning conversation we have together.  


  1. Cathy,

    Wow! What a reflection! You pulled so many things together in this and really spoke to the research question. I totally agree that it is all about the learning conversation that takes place and I think most people would agree that mentoring/one-on-one sharing is a powerful way to learn. It reminds of one om my favorite book titles - "Apprenticeship in Literacy" by Linda Dorn, Cathy French and Tammy Jones. A workshop/conferring model is an apprenticeship - which is a great learning model.

    Thanks for sharing and hosting and organizing this blog conversation. It has been a great way to experience "just in time" learning.

  2. Taking our Conferring text and connecting it to other books you've read this summer shows integration. To think smarter and work smarter we have to integrate. I was wondering if after taping some conferring sessions if I might find some walk aways specific to early literacy/emergent readers. Maybe we could chat more about that, I do know where to find you.

  3. Cathy,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for addressing the research question! Your post reminds me that so many literacy greats have written about the power of apprenticeships and one on one conferences. I think I'll find answers in those learning conversations that you mention, too!

    Amazon would also like to thank you (again) since I just added more books to my wish list after reading your post. ;)

    What an amazing experience this has been so far! I cannot wait to share ideas and experiences with this amazing group that has come together for #cyberPD. I love Tony's idea of keeping the conversation going throughout the year, too!

    Thank you, Cathy!
    ~Laura :)

  4. Cathy,

    I have really enjoyed reading this book with such a great group of teachers. I have looked forward to each week reading everyone's reflections. I Can't thank you enough for organizing.

    I really like reflection on learning how to use the new mac software. I have found myself analyzing different things this summer too and relating them back to teaching. For example, I've analyzed my own two children's tennis coaches and applied how they teach tennis to teaching reading and writing.

    Thanks again,

  5. First of all, thank you for this "conversation" about conferring...I've been listening in and have learned so much!

  6. Cathy -
    I love your analogy of learning OSX. It's so true - we learn best one-on-one, so why wouldn't conferring be research based? (Pfft - I would put up Patrick's book as research!)

    Thanks for organizing the conferring conversation with Jill and Laura. It's been great to read everyone's ideas and be pushed forward.

    Thanks for a great book club!

  7. Pat Johnson of Catching Readers sent me this:
    Part I

    Great post, Cathy, and I agree that some people ask those questions because they want to avoid making changes in their classrooms.

    I read Allen’s book a while back, but reread it when you started the cyber discussion. Last night I was re-skimming the last few chapters and I got inspired to want to work with upper elementary grades again. Since retiring and moving into consulting work, I am only in a school one day a week for volunteering and research. For the past few years I’ve always been in first or second grades supporting classroom teachers with their struggling readers. But I’m thinking of taking a whole new direction this school year. I love the literature that 4th and 5th graders read and I have really missed it. Patrick’s book is so rich with scenarios of him sitting, chatting with kids, that I could feel myself right there! And I want to be there too.

  8. Pat Johnson of Catching Readers sent this response to Patrick's Book: (You can view here)

    Thanks, Pat, for joining the conversation.

  9. Mandy,
    I am planning to tape sessions to and would love to discuss the walk-aways of emergent/early readers. Let's plan on it.

    Barbara, Tara, and Chris,
    It has been a wonderful experience. Short of sitting in someone's living room to discuss a professional book, this may well be one of my best professional reading/learning experiences. I hope we find a reason to do it again. Check your TBR stacks!

    Jill & Laura,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. It has been great fun in the summer. ;o)


  10. Sorry so late to comment. Life got in the way these past 2 days.

    Love that you, Laura, and Jill got us all started on this journey of learning. Thanks so much!!

    Great comparison of conferring to taking a class on "lion" - it is so true. We do learn more quickly when someone is at our side guiding us in the right direction. Apt analogy for conferring!

    Thanks for sharing your thinking about Making Learning Whole and its comparison to Conferring. I was disappointed I missed that conversation, so thanks for including some thinking about it. I so love learning alongside you.

    And finally, I will also be trying to recording some conferences; I think it's the only way to truly hear what happens.

  11. Cathy-
    What a great inclusive post, I am so impressed at how you tied so many thoughts together so seamlessly! As I read you connection in learning OX S Lion I thought of my adventures in learning the beauty of blogging and twitter! I have learned so much sitting along side of you and then taking time to tinker. What a great experience this has been! I have had so many wonderful experience in the cyberverse, not sure what I did before!

    In Julies blog I commented that I also plan to video conferences and would like to get together to discuss and analyze our conferences.It would be nice if we could all meet to help each other and/or we could upload the video to VoiceThread and comment…
    Once again thank you for organizing this wonderful PD. I have learned so much reading such a variety of thoughts from so many different perspectives.