The Role of the Library
At a school using a balanced, comprehensive literacy program the library is the heart of everything. I would like to argue that the library should always be the heart of a school regardless of curriculum.
These are some truths I believe about school libraries. I would like to say that I am not a trained librarian but a classroom teacher. If you are a school librarian, please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Learning from one another is extremely important.
Readers Should Have Free Choice
The only time in my classroom that students don’t have choice is when I choose guided reading books and a few rare other times when I select texts for students. I often recommend texts to readers but they can always turn down my choices. Not all classrooms offer students choice and power over the books they read. Libraries need to be the safe haven that always allows choice.
Students should be allowed to explore their own interests. They should be allowed to check out books that are far too difficult and far too easy for them. They need a space where they are allowed to be a reader. No one prevents me from checking out certain books at the library. Students should have the same privilege.
Just Say No to Levels
I don’t believe that levels are for students and I do not believe levels have a place in libraries. If kids are allowed free choice, their reading abilities shouldn’t limit them.
When I was in elementary school there was a picture book and chapter book section of our library. We had to check out from the picture book section in grades K, 1, 2 and then were no longer allowed to check books out from there in grades 3, 4, 5. In second grade the top three readers were allowed to check out books from the chapter book section. I was so excited to hear the names announced Allison, Grace, and Daniel. It wasn’t me. My teacher later told me that I was reader number four. I was so upset and I spent the entire year checking out books (because we had to) and returning them without reading them. That year I also spent a lot of time at the public library checking out Boxcar Children and Amber Brown. Don’t limit kids because of their reading level. Let them love books!
Checkout Limits Need To Go
If the goal of school libraries is to create book lovers and readers then why do we limit how many stories a child can take out? Don’t we want more books in the hands of readers? Checkout limits are counterintuitive. Of course, some students will need guidance but I’ve found that even without checkout limits kids figure out how many books is right for them. Teaching kids how to self-regulate is an important skill and book check outs are the perfect place for it.
EveryDay Is Library Day
My class visits the library once a week for class. During that class our library media specialist reads a story and reinforces a concept we’re teaching in reading or writing. Then students are allowed to browse the library and check out books. But everyday is library day. So if students go home and read all of their books they can always check out books during the first and last half-hour of the day. I have students who visit the library daily and check out what I’m sure is a ridiculously large number of books a year. Every child has the opportunity to visit the library every day. That is what matters when creating readers.
The library also shouldn’t shut down for large periods of time where it is inaccessible to students. Libraries that close the last month of school aren’t helping create more readers. I know that inventory is an important process but kids having access to books is even more important. Think about the policies of your school library. Do they support growing readers or do the polices stand in their way?
Students Should Be Allowed A Clean Slate
My favorite librarian Barb always had a clean slate club. Each and every school year she welcomed students back into the library and declared that they each had a clean slate. That meant that all of their past library activity was wiped clean. If you had late fees- gone! If you lost a book and never returned it- don’t worry! Every child was guaranteed a clean slate. Clean slate announcements happened throughout the school year as well.
When books were lost and fines weren’t paid Barb didn’t shame children and she didn’t restrict their access to books. She said they were simply building their home libraries. Books are consumable resources. We know that they become well loved and pages fall out or they become lost at home and get added to a home library collection. Not returning books and not being able to pay late fines shouldn’t hinder children. If we don’t allow those kids to check out books we are often limiting our most vulnerable readers. That is against our goal of creating more readers!
The Library Should Be Filled With Book Lovers
You can tell a successful library and a successful literacy program by the whispers and sometimes shouts you hear at the library. Kids should be talking about their interests. They should share recommendations with other students. They should jump up and down when they see the new texts being added to the library. The feeling in the library should be one of loving books. Do these kids love books? Are they given opportunities to share their reading life with other readers?
Books Should Mirror the Diversity of the World
Kids need windows and mirrors. This isn’t a new concept but it still doesn’t happen in all classrooms. Students need mirrors to see themselves and their own cultures reflected back at them. They also need windows to look out and learn about lives that are different than their own. We grow stronger by reading books that are both mirrors and windows.
When I taught grade 3 my class wanted to do a classroom library audit. We dumped all of our books out onto the floor and started sorting by type of characters- animals, white people, Black people, First Americans, etc. One of my First American students was so upset to only find one book that represented First Americans in our library and even more upset when she realized it didn’t represent the Ojibwe tribe. Representation matters. She couldn’t read stories about her own culture in our classroom library and no other students could read about her culture. That isn’t ok. Kids need to see representation across the genres as well. I should see myself represented in historical fiction, poetry, realistic fiction, narrative nonfiction, biographies, fantasies, thrillers, mysteries. You name it and I should be able to find a mirror book and several window books. As a white woman I don’t have too hard of a time finding mirrors but finding windows can be tricky.
Our school consciously purchased more books about Black Americans for our biography unit but then we realized they bought stories about slavery or stories about civil rights. Want to know which biography was the most popular? Gabby Douglas. Kids wanted more biographies of Black Americans of today. By only showing times of struggle the window and mirror view of the Black experience was warped.
Support Reading in All Forms
Magazines, eBooks, audiobooks, printed books, whatever kind. All books are created equal. Earlier this year I was told I shouldn’t put the book I was reading on my door for literacy week because I was “only listening to it.” Sometimes the only way I get to read is by listening to stories as I walk around the city. Each morning on my way to the taxi I listen to an audiobook. I also read book on my iPad and I have paper books as well. Libraries should celebrate all readers and all types of readers!
There Should Be No Censorship
We shouldn’t exclude books from our collections just because it might be controversial. In fact we need to include controversial books. We can’t exclude texts about LGBTQ people. Their lives aren’t inappropriate. We can’t exclude texts on police violence. We need an inclusive library without censorship.
When I was in middle school I went through a phase where I only read really depression books about drug addicts, violence, and teen pregnancy. I read Smack and Go Ask Alice, Speak and Cut. These books were deemed inappropriate for me and I didn’t care. I loved reading those book so much. They were the windows I must have needed at that time in my life. My sister had a teacher call home to tell my mom the Gossip Girl books she was reading weren’t appropriate. Thankfully, my mom does not mess around when it comes to reading. She didn’t care what we were reading as long as we were reading. After going through my dark books phase I started reading the Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging series. Readers go through phases- its ok. Let kids explore and figure out their identity and place in the world through books.
Student Engagement is Essential
Student engagement is key to learning. I know that if my readers aren’t engaged in the work of readers they aren’t going to grow. The same goes for my writers, scientists, mathematicians… if they aren’t engaged they’re not going to grow. Student engagement can be difficult to study. Every once in a while I complete an engagement survey with my students. To complete this survey I usually just use a blank piece of paper sitting next to me but I have attached a freebie engagement survey sheet at the end of this post.
Completing an Engagement Survey
Shown above is an example of an engagement survey. I keep mine simple. After all of my students have found spots to work I jot down their names along the left-hand side. I generally jot them down in the order they are sitting in. That makes it easy to do a quick sweep and record the information. Then I glance up about every 3-5 minutes and jot down what students are doing. This one I have detailed jots of what each child was doing. Sometimes I just use an x to mark off-task or a green crayon to mark on task. I switch it up depending on what I am looking for. In the made-up example above I was looking for engagement in the writing process. That’s why it is more detailed. During this time I’m not walking around and watching over all of my students I am carrying on business as usual. As I confer or lead small groups I look up and around and jot down what everyone is doing. Usually, I have a code for working with the teacher and take note of that too.
Analyzing the Data & Determining Next Steps
Now that you have all the data you have to analyze it. Right now I want my first graders to sketch before they write. It is how they plan their stories. I can note right away that 9 students (half of this class) didn’t start with sketching. Four of them started with writing. I might want to pull a small group and remind them why sketching and making a plan is so important for authors.
The last time I checked in on them all students were actively engaged in writing. Perhaps I notice that it takes some students 10 minutes before they engage in the work for the day. Maybe I am not setting them up for success at the end of my mini-lessons. Maybe I need to hold those students back at the carpet and send them off with a more concrete plan than the other students.
Sharing the Data
I explain very clearly to my students that I don’t take secret notes on them. If I complete an engagement survey with them I always offer to share the results with those who are curious. Sometimes I choose to share with everyone. Usually, everyone is quite curious to see. The next day I might hold mini-conferences with each student to discuss their data together and work together to create a more successfully engaged class.
Try It Out
This will help you complete your own engagement survey in your classroom. Pick a subject, maybe one where student engagement is lacking. You might notice something you hadn’t noticed before.
Let me know how it goes!
Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on conferring. All the kids are independently reading and now it is your turn to teach! Let’s dive into how this works!
You might want to read Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time before reading this post. It breaks down how to decide which teaching move to use during workshop. Conferring is just one option.
Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!
What is Conferring?
Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and a teacher. The teacher typically follows the research, decide, compliment, teach method. First, the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next, the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes.
How Do I Start?
Grab a small post it and make a t-chart. On one side write notice and on the other side write teach. Now, choose a student to confer with. Sometimes I observe a bit before I walk over to the student. Do they have a book out, do they have a pencil, what are they doing with most of their time? I jot down any sort of observable behavior I see.
Research is the first phase of conferring. Here the teacher sees the student working independently. The teacher can see what skills, strategies, and behaviors the student knows, almost knows and, doesn’t know yet. At times this last part will be the most obvious. Sometimes we research and just see lots and lots the student doesn’t know. The mini-lessons we’ve taught that they aren’t using or the previous conferring that isn’t being used. When this happens, look closer. You can’t build off of the unknown, only the known. Read more about the Zone of Proximal Development here.
I like to observe a bit before I walk over and sit down next to the student. I also teach my readers and writers to keep working when I sit down next to them. Sometimes I dig in and read previous pages in their story or look at their reading log or post-its. After I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re doing it is time for me to talk to them. Usually, silent observation only takes about a minute. I like to ask what they’re working on as a reader or writer. I’ve found that opening line to bring forth the best conversations. Different teachers use different things. Try out a few lines to find your conferring style and see what works best for you.
Sometimes I ask guiding questions related to our mini-lesson. At times I’ll ask what they’ve tried that didn’t work out recently or what they’ve tried out that was a big success. It all depends on the reader. The questions you want to ask will tell you what the reader can do and what they need help with. That is what you want to determine.
During the research phase (and every phase) jot down some notes. Record keeping is so important in balanced literacy… and all of teaching. I like to keep open notes. This means that I will always share my jots with the students. It can stress students out if they know you’re writing about them and you don’t show them what you’re writing. Imagine if your principal observed you and jotted down lots of things and then never shared them. It would frustrate me so I make sure not to do the same to my students. After sharing notes a few times students don’t continue to ask.
This phase is sort of incorporated into research but it is significant enough to have its own section. Once you know what you can compliment and teach the research phase is over… and so is the decide phase! A lot of times this phase happens quickly at the end of research. You’ll see something the reader/writer is doing to reinforce and you’ll see something you want to teach them.
The teaching point is something that the student is almost doing. They’re right on the edge but they just need some tips to finally do it. This teaching point is something you want the students to be able to complete independently forever and ever (with a bit of reinforcement) for the rest of their reading and writing lives. Keep that in mind as you choose the teaching point. It shouldn’t be something that they don’t know and aren’t even close to doing. That is much too big for conferring. Think what is one step this reader/writer can take toward this large goal today. One step they can take on today by themselves.
Sometimes you can’t decide on a teaching point. Sometimes you sit and observe a reader and jot down a lot but nothing comes to mind. If this happens, compliment and then walk away. Plan later for that reader/writer and then confer with them another day. Don’t waste their time. It happens to all of us.
The compliment serves several purposes during conferring. It helps build a positive relationship between you and your reader/writer. We all like to hear positive things about what we’re doing. It helps readers and writers recognize the good work they’re doing and encourages them to continue that good work. It also butters them up to hear something that they need to work on. Let’s be real, we all like to hear something good before we hear something that we need to work on. Sometimes my compliment will lead to my teach especially if I want to build off of the good things that are happening.
Every teacher has a different way to document their compliments. I usually put a star by it on my conferring sheet. Sometimes I’ll circle it. Some teachers jot it under the teach and just know the first bullet is always the compliment. Everyone does it differently. Find what works for you. Below I jotted down the language I might use. Remember, this language might not feel natural to you- try out a bunch of stuff to figure out what works for you. You want to come off genuinely during the entire conference so using someone else’s words might not work out. You’ll get it with more and more practice.
Now the reader has heard a compliment and they are ready to hear something to work on. Our readers and writers will get the hang of the pattern of a conference so after the compliment they know they’ll get a tip to make them an even better reader or writer. I always use language to explain that all readers and writers are good but we can become even better. Also… a bit of a tangent here but I share my reading and writing life with my class so they can see my strengths and struggles too. Ok back to the teach.
Your teaching point should follow the same sort of format as a mini-lesson teach. It should be quick, focused and explicit.
Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing today that is going to help you as a reader. Readers pay attention to many details while they read a book. One thing they keep track of is the characters in a book. They get to know them just like they are old friends and can predict what they’re going to do before they do anything. To keep track of characters at the beginning of a book or series. You may want to make a post-it for each character, just in the beginning, to help you keep track. Let’s do that here. Who are the main characters?”
Student: “Jack and Annie” *inspired by Magic Tree House*
Teacher: “Ok, let’s list Jack here and Annie here. Let’s list down some things we know about Jack here. What do you know about Jack?”
Student: “I don’t know.” Here a student might say something. If you already know this is going to be the response skip the question.”
Teacher: “Let’s read a bit to help us figure out what we know about Jack. We can pay attention to what the characters say and how they act. That will teach us a bit about who they are.”
This goes on until we have a few things for Jack. Then the teacher could prompt the student to try Annie on their own.
The teacher will want to circle back to this student at the end of the book but before the student reads the next book in the series. Students should know that Jack likes to follow the rules and complete the mission according to the rules every time. Annie is more impulsive. She likes to explore and is more adventurous than Jack. Annie always puts them into some sort of danger at the last moment and Jack is so worried. They always escape just in time. Knowing these things about Jack and Annie will help the reader of any Magic Tree House book.
Knowing how to get to know book characters by paying attention to their actions and their words is a skill that a reader could use in every story they encounter.
Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing that will help you become a better writer. Writers use paragraphs when they write to organize information for their reader. Let’s take a look in this story to see how writers use paragraphs.” Here I would pull out a class read aloud or a familiar story to show paragraphs.
Teacher: “You can see that each paragraph is about one topic. It helps to organize information so that the reader can read it easier. Can you imagine if this whole page was just words without breaks? It would be sort of hard to read. Do you see that each paragraph starts on its own line and the first word is pushed in a little bit, that’s called indented. Now, we won’t rewrite your whole story but let’s figure out where we could make a paragraph.” The teacher and student could reread the story so far and add a mark where each paragraph should begin. Perhaps this student is one sentence into what should be a new paragraph, then you might consider having the writer erase and start a new paragraph. Don’t make them erase lots and lots though, that’s discouraging.
Circle back to this writer before the end of workshop to check in and see if they have paragraphs. You might even want to sit with them and watch them write until it is time for a new paragraph. It all depends on how much support the writer needs taking on this new knowledge. Make sure to compliment them when they do!
Using paragraphs can be a hard thing to master. If we push students into paragraphs before they’re ready they use them infrequently and often incorrectly. Using paragraphs is a huge transferable skill. Often we teach students a number of sentences in a paragraph but writers don’t count sentences. Do you think J.K. Rowling went back through her paragraphs to make sure they were 3-5 sentences in length and somethings seven? No! That isn’t what writers do. Teaching paragraphs through writing conferences when a student is ready will ensure greater success and less formulaic understanding. We want writers to understand what they do and why so they can transfer that knowledge into new contexts.
Now you’ve complimented, taught and you’re ready to leave your reader/writer behind. You might want to leave behind a reminder of the conference. Sometimes I re-create a piece of our anchor chart to leave behind on a post-it. Other times I leave a small note of encouragement. I make sure the reader/writer can continue their work as I leave them with high levels of success.
Now… I used educlips clipart here but I don’t just draw like this on the go. These would most likely (100%) be stick people. Don’t feel like your artifact has to look this beautiful!
The lines here would probably be scribbles. I might want to label the new line and indent if I think the writer might need them. I also refer the writer to a page to check if they aren’t sure. This helps to create independence in the new skill.
Are You Ready to Confer?
This week choose just one or two students in your class to confer with. Grab a post-it, make a t-chart and start. Your conferences won’t always go perfectly- I’ve been conferring for over 8 years and mine still don’t always go according to plan. Just try it and then keep going. I highly recommend starting out with compliment only conferences. These might be the least intimidating. All you have to do is find one thing to reinforce with the student through conferring.
Leave your questions and comments below! I can’t wait to hear how conferring is working out for you!