Thursday, February 26, 2009

Effective Talk, Effective Teaching

I have listened in on many reading conferences that sound more like inquisitions than conversations. “Who’s the main character? What’s the problem? Where does the story take place?” Children obediently respond but I often find myself wondering as I walk away, “Aside from confirming this child can recall literal details from the story, what do I know about this child as a reader?”

This question has forced me to reflect on my own conferences and take measures to question students differently. In a fourth grade classroom I’ve been working with, we’ve been investigating the question, “Am I understanding?” My conference today started with, “So, are you understanding?” The child nodded confidently. I asked him to tell me how he knew. He responded by saying that he could easily summarize what he had read, a strategy that we had talked about using when monitoring comprehension.

I continued our conversation by asking him to reflect on whether or not there were times when he knows he is NOT understanding. His reply? “Not in this book because it has short chapters but sometimes when I read books that have long chapters, I don’t always understand.”

Wow. I never would have got that had I stuck to the typical repertoire of comprehension questions. I was so glad I asked because now, he has got me thinking about how to support him when he reads longer texts. He also has me wondering if other children are facing the same struggle. This conversation made me take pause and consider where to take my comprehension monitoring instruction next.

Without this kind of talk, my teaching would be much less informed and consequently, less effective.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Teach the Writer

When I run a writing workshop, I can count on there ALWAYS being at least one child sitting doing absolutely nothing. Without fail, I can predict why this child sits whittling away precious time. It’s not because he’s defiant or lazy. It’s because he’s experiencing the ubiquitous writing workshop problem: He doesn’t know what to write about.

There is something very uncomfortable about a child who isn’t working. When we begin conferring, these writers are our top priority. Very often, the conferences go something like this: “Johnny, I see you are having trouble getting started. What’s the problem?” (He shrugs). “Well, we’re writing about things that we want to convince other of. Let’s look at our list. Do you want to write about no homework?” (He shakes his head no). “How about longer recess?” (Another head shake). “Better cafeteria food? Saving the environment? Younger voting age?” (No. No. No.)

We begin to sound frantic. We start to share his frustration. We wonder, “Is he defiant after all?”

Because the problem of kids not knowing what to write about is so prevalent, we need to step back and ask ourselves about the quality of our conferences. Reread the conference I just shared. What did we teach this writer?

Answer: That whenever he is stuck, the teacher will do his thinking for him. That won’t be very useful to him when he’s at home trying to write something on his own.

Imagine now that our conference went like this: “Johnny, I see you’re having trouble getting started. That happens a lot to real writers everywhere. What we need to figure out here is how to get unstuck. What have you tried so far that isn’t working?
Instead of rattling off a bunch of things he could write about for today’s assignment, we’ve begun to help him recognize his problem and guide his thinking about how to solve it. The likelihood is that he will face this challenge again sometime. This conference will show him how to fix the problem now AND in the future. THAT’S teaching the writer.