Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading Conferences, Who's Problem Is It Anyway?

Conferencing, the CAFE Way

A few years ago daily conferencing sessions came to the classroom with a whirlwind of change. Along with a plethora of comprehension strategies, it was argued by the local region that regular reading and direct teacher instruction would lead to an overall improvement in student reading levels. This change was all based around the work of Gail Boushey and Joan Moser and their book The CAFE Book: Engaging All Students in Daily Literary Assessment and Instruction.


Boushey and Moser divide the act of reading into four clear areas: comprehension, accuracy, fluency and expanding vocabulary. This is where the acronym, CAFE, comes from. Associated with the focus on the different areas of reading, the program also has a big emphasis on making thinking visible, particularly through the use of tracts. Overall, there has been many successes since the initial implementation, the most obvious of which is that students now sit and read uninterrupted for fifteen minutes each day. However, looks can sometimes be deceiving, for when you dig just beneath the surface, there is an issue that seems to be raising up again and again, the issue being the lack of responses and deep student engagement with the program.

Conferencing, Whose Problem Is It?

If you go back to Boushey and Moser, their program was originally devised to be run for an hour a day - something not possible in a Secondary environment - where you would meet with four students, therefore meeting with every student at least every fortnight. In the Secondary classroom, the time allocated to reading only allows for one student conference per day. Subsequently, you are only able to see each student maybe twice a term. One of the problems that arises with this is that students can go for a month without conferring with a teacher, but more importantly, actually responding to the text. For many students, the time spent with the teacher is the only time that they 'respond' to their texts in any sort of meaningful and explicit manner. Even though responding is stipulated as a requirement at the start of each year and set as a 'goal' for many students through the conferencing process, a lot of students simply ignore it as there is no direct consequence. Before I move on, I just wish to clarify what I mean by 'responding'. To me responding can be anything ranging from using tracks to record new words to writing reviews of their books once they have completed a text. Basically, any form of explicit action taken while reading, in regards to the conferences, this action is usually in a verbal manner. This all begs the  question, whose problem is this? We talk about problems all the time and finding answers and solutions. However, the issue with this problem is that no one quite owns it. Without any direct ties to curriculum, a part from an informal association with English, who owns it? Does the problem reside with the teacher facilitating the conference and setting the goals or with the student reading but not responding?

Real and Imaginary Reading

One of the big criticisms that students often raise is that 'leaving tracks' is not real reading, that is, it is not natural to stop reading midstream to jot down a question or make a connection. Firstly, I'd argue that many of our habits are learnt and not necessarily natural. While secondly, It is not the 'done thing' amongst teachers either in the classroom or within their personal reading. I maybe wrong, but I know many teachers who practise a 'do as I say, not do as I do' approach to such learning. This may work with tasks where the explicit goal is set within the task through assessment rubrics. However, this does not necessarily work when the task at hand is open-ended, primarily driven by the student and does not have a clear end in sight.

Originally, I thought that the answer was to create a collaborative document using Google Drive to share the goals and touch base with students in between conferences by getting them to record their responses. However, what I found was that most students who I conferred with still showed little interest in responding, let alone placing their responses in the document.

One of the biggest hurdles that I have found with developing responses is encouraging students to respond when they need to rather than when then have to or even worse, when they are forced to. This sense of authenticity is, in my view, is what is most lacking in the whole process. Personally, I have always annotated my texts as I read, this has only been enhanced through the use of technology, from making highlights and capturing quotes while reading eBooks to posting quotes and ideas via twitter and other such social media. One of the keys to this though is that it is 'personal' and has been my choice. No one told me to do it, instead I saw some greater good, some intrinsic motivation, to taking action in what I read. However, not everyone sees it this way, whether it is staff or student. 

Repositioning the Student

All this discussion of readers led me back to a book that got bandied around a few years back The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac.


Pennac mentions many things within his book, all of which strangely lead back to the reader and even more strangely lead away from a teacher centred process. I think that this is currently one of the big problems revolving around the way conferencing is currently being practised, the focus is too centred around the actions of the teacher-cum-facilitator and not around the student-cum-reader. I have therefore gotten to the point where something needs to happen to rebalance this equation. Some possible ideas of how to reposition this whole process include the gamification of the reading process through the implimentation the notion of badges in the classroom. In setting these achievements students would then be given some point of guidance through various competencies found within the reading continuum. However, as +Kevin Miklasz suggests: 
That structure behind your badge system is much more important than the simple fact that you use badges in your activities.
To point is that such a change would need to involve a complete rethink of the whole process and would be bound to fail if it were done in some sort of ad hoc fashion. Another plausible element of change is to make responses more authentic and meaningful by posting to a wider audience, not just for the teacher. Some possibilities include posting to social reading sites, such as Goodreads, or creating a blog to share with those in and out of the classroom. I have been particularly inspired by the work of Pernille Ripp and her blog Mrs. Ripp Reads. Although I am sure that she is not the only teacher out their using blogs to develop responses. What these things did teach me was that the first point of change in the whole process should probably be the teacher as leader learner, modelling what they preach, not preaching an empty practise.

In Conclusion: Is Reading Really Reading Without Responding?

I have come to the realisation that unless students are empowered and shown where the value exists for them, by teachers, and given more opportunities to develop authentic responses then the problem will continue to exist for teachers. The reality is, whether staff or students, we are all readers, therefore, in the end, we all need to find our way of responding. You may not want to write reviews online reviews or write extensive tracks in your margins, but the question needs to be asked: are you really reading if you are not responding?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Listening to the Other Voices in the Classroom

Moving From 1.0 to 3.0

One of the biggest challenges for the 21st Century is the move away from the notion of teacher at the centre, 'sage on a stage', in control of learning and the classroom, to the idea of the teacher as a facilitator, supporting students at the side, just as much a part of the learning process as everyone else. A chart adapted from the work of John Moravec sums up this conundrum by splitting education up into three versions:


Although there seems to be a big chasm between education 1.0 and education 3.0, the first challenge in many classrooms is to give voice and empower the different people in the classroom, moving beyond just those who seek to be heard. This inclusiveness includes teachers, not just students. In my endeavours, I have found that technology can be a great support in helping facilitate this change, particularly in an environment where students have 1 to 1 access to computers, laptops, netbooks and tablets. Below I will go through some applications and how they can be used to give voice in and out of the classroom.

Pinboards and Sticky Notes

Online pin boards containing posts is great place to start sharing online. Padlet is one such space where students can post digital sticky notes. Similar to Google Docs, Padlet allows different levels of accessibility and also allows the creation of unique web addresses for each page. One of the benefits to Padlet is that it not only allows users to post text based comments, but also attach web links and documents. In my view, one of Padlets biggest selling points is that you do not necessarily need an account to create a wall and add a sticky note (although this can also be a danger). One of the limitations of Padlet is that there is no avenue to comment on each of the posts, other than adding another notes, therefore limiting the scope for any sort of digital dialogue. Some of the ways in which I have used Padlet in the classroom is to develop brainstorms, collect together different resources, garner reflections, as well as share and publish work.

Forms and Surveys

A more formal way of collecting information and listening to different voices is through the use of forms and surveys. A part of the collection of applications associated with Google Drive, Google Forms allows you to create forms, incorporating a wide range of options, including short answers, multiple choice, scale and check-boxes  Forms can be completed by anyone who has the link. In addition to this, Google recently added to the ability to insert images and develop Forms collaboratively. After using one of the many URL shorteners, I have used Google Forms to gather opinions relating to book choices, conducting term and unit reflections, as well as providing students with a means to assess themselves. Once completed, the results can be viewed in an associated spreadsheet or in a visual format. One of the strengths and weaknesses of Google Forms is its anonymity. In my view, students and teachers are often more willing to write things and provide their thoughts when they feel that they will not be held to ransom.  However, this also limits the ability to provide any direct feedback, that is unless you insert a question such as: 'what is your name'. I have done this when the task is focused on the responses of individual students.

Response Systems

Similar to the idea of forms and surveys, student response systems are a flexible way to gather information and responses in the classroom. Socrative is one such student response system, whose claim to fame is its ability to run on any system. Like Google Forms, Socrative offers a range of question formats, including true/false, multiple choice and short answer. It also allows you to create (and share) quizzes, as well as pose questions on the fly. There are two different welcome screens, one for teacher and the other for student. When teachers register, they are given a unique room number. All students need to do is enter the associated room number in order to participate. One of the interesting potentials of Socrative in regards to giving voices to students in the classroom is the idea of an exit ticket, where students need to complete a series of short questions in order to 'exit' the classroom. Like Google Forms, responses to quizzes are put into an Excel document and can be either accessed online or sent to the email attached to the teacher profile. However, responses to single question activities need to be copied into platform or else they are lost. I have particularly used Socrative to capture ideas and answers on the fly.

Social Bookmarking

Another powerful method for engaging different voices in and out of the classroom is through the use of social bookmarking. There are many different sites dedicated to collecting and sharing online, such as Del.icio.us, Pinterest and Diigo, just to name a few. What these sites also provide is a means for critically and collaboratively connecting together information by saving, liking and commenting. For example, in the case of Diigo, you are able to not only keep your own library of resources, but also share with groups that you may belong to and follow the activities of other people in your network. Often planning documents have a stagnant list of resources, at the very least, sharing this information online allows it to be something more organic which is constantly changing and adapting.

Which Voices Are You Hearing?

I am more than aware that for every program, there may be other possibilities and potentials, such as Survey Monkey for creating structured surveys and Poll Everywhere for capturing spontaneous responses. In addition to this, I am more than willing to accept that many of these applications merely substitute something that already occurs or could occur in the classroom without technology. However, the one question that remains is: how are you giving voice to students in the classroom?