Using reader’s workshop in the high school English classroom is a teaching practice that has been generating a lot of buzz. Elementary teachers having been using it for years, and it has slowly made its way through the middle school into the upper grades. It’s a terrific idea: kids pick books they’d like to read and work on a variety of tasks involving those books instead of reading class novels that are set at a specific level that may not be appropriate for students’ lexile level. It sounds like a logistical nightmare for someone like me who favors an orderly and predictable classroom routine (everyone’s doing something different!). However, the promise of a classroom filled with kids actively engaged in reading and writing was too good to pass up.
To say that I was building a plane in midair is putting it mildly. I had some great resources – Room 213 has some great products and I purchased her reader’s notebook to get started. Our building has a well stocked media center, so the kids were easily able to find books that interested them (or were short enough to inflict minimal pain.) However, there was one stumbling block:
Student conferences are something in twenty years I have never been able to master. I’m sure my problems are the same as everyone else:
- How do I get through 28 kids in 50 minutes?
- What can I have my students doing that will keep them occupied and won’t supply constant interruptions?
- What will I talk about? And what if we can’t come up with anything to talk about?
I had no good answer to these questions, so I put off the conferences for a couple of weeks hoping that something ingenious would come to mind. Every day I thought about doing them, I found some compelling reason for why I could put them off- the kids needed my help with whatever they were working on, they hadn’t read enough yet, I hadn’t had enough tea to get me through it. I never tried to structure the period so I could conference because I wasn’t sure I could do it successfully, and I shared every teacher’s fear of spending a period looking like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.
However, I found myself with three extra days before the rest of the freshmen teachers were ready to start our research project, so I had a good stretch of time that I could fill with reader’s workshop activities. And I knew that I had the perfect time to do conferencing if I just set my mind to it.
Sometimes things align for what you want to do. My students had been working on a suspenseful narrative earlier in the week and I was able to get the laptop carts at the last minute. This gave students two options for the period: work on their stories, or work on their reader’s notebook, both of which I knew they could do with minimal help.
I also had the idea that conferences would go better if I did them in groups. We already had groups set from an activity from the previous week, so I kept those groups and called them up to a table I set in the middle of the room for our chats. Completely on accident, I created an ideal environment for what I wanted to do.
And guess what? It went really well.
It turns out kids really like to talk about books if they like what they are reading. I asked every student about the conflict in the book and gave them something I wanted them to look for in the pages they read between Friday and Tuesday. Initially I wanted to give every student the same thing to look for, but as I became more comfortable talking to them, I began to ask them to engage with the book differently depending on what they were reading. Most of all, I communicated I was interested in their book and what they had to say. I was also about to almost get through everyone in the period. I only had a few students left that I had to conference with on Friday. Not ideal, but something I can work on.
For those who are thinking of using reader’s workshop and conferences in the classroom, here are some tips:
When I asked kids to fill out the reader’s notebook, I gave them too much to do. It would be better to focus on three things than six. This will help them get the drift of what they are doing, and less for you to manage. It’s easier to get more complex as you go on.
Make sure the students have the right activity to do while you’re conferencing.
During the second set of conferences, I asked the kids to read or finish up their reader’s notebook activities while I was conferencing. However, most of them were done with their notebook, and reading wasn’t enough to keep them occupied and quiet without being off task. Conferencing is counterproductive if kids aren’t doing meaningful work when they aren’t in a conference, so you have to pick a task that will keep them busy and minimize the risk of off-task behavior.
Don’t schedule conferences too close together.
Most of my students had not read enough from Friday to Tuesday to answer the question I had posed. It seems like a week or a little less is optimal.
Conferencing for a period is fairly exhausting.
You have to think on your feet a lot, which can be draining if you are doing it period after period. Be prepared. Don’t have all your classes doing conferences on the same day.
As much as I liked it, I still have some lingering questions about reader’s workshop. I still don’t know how to build rigor into it. I don’t know whether the books they choose are making them better readers, or whether I can ask thoughtful, engaging questions that force them to think about the book at a higher level. I’m also not sure that some of the books that they pick allow a deep engagement with theme. Perhaps this will be the subject of another post.
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