Author: Evan Robb

Tips for Conferring with Students

Writing workshop allows students to practice specific writing skills, to peer edit, and to have conferences with students.  I asked Laura to share some tips and on conferring with students and some common pitfalls. Here are ten great tips and a few pitfalls that came from our conversation:

Choose One Topic: Zoom in on one strategy such as inferring,finding themes, determining important details, or showing how text features connect to main ideas.

Prepare & Succeed: Reflect on what you plan to discuss and think of more than one possible scaffold to try. Having multiple scaffolds helps because if one doesn’t work, you have another at your fingertips.

Accentuate the Positive: Start by pointing out what the student has done well. It could be something you recently observed or the effort the student puts into analyzing texts.

Allow for Student Response Time: When you ask a question to start the conversation, give the student time to think. The tendency is for teachers to fill the silence with talk and solutions. This doesn’t support students. Though your wait time might feel like an eternity, it isn’t. Resist the urge to talk.

Listen: Avoid interrupting a student. Listen carefully and jot down questions you have; ask these once the student has finished. Throughout the conference, use your knowledge of this student to make comments and ask questions that boost the student’s confidence and encourage him to talk.

Pose Questions: Review a mini-lesson or a think-aloud that relates to the conference’s topic by asking questions that jogs their memory. When you point students to a specific lesson, you shift the focus away from their own thinking, you can free them up to find a solution from the recalled lesson.

Model: Sometimes you’ll need to think-aloud to show the student how you apply a strategy to reading. The brief model you provide can refresh the student’s memory and build the confidence that enables the student to try practicing in front of you.

Negotiate Goals: Start by recapping the conference and then invite the student to set a goal that he or she can achieve in one to two weeks. If the student struggles with this task, suggest two goals and ask the student to choose one. Choice is always empowering!

Help Students Achieve Goals: Having a goal is the first step, but reaching that goal requires a plan. Help the student figure out what he or she has to do to reach the goal and write the plan on the conference form. Give a copy of the plan to the student to tape into his or her reader’s notebook.

Close With Positive Comments: Say something positive to the student at the end of the conference so the student leaves feeling that he or she improved and deepened his understanding of the conference’s topic. Start comments with I noticed…or I like the way….

Avoid these pitfalls when you confer with students:

The teacher does most of the talking.

There are too many topics being covered; this can confuse students.

The conference takes more than five minutes.

The teacher makes the decisions and sets goals for the student.
Check out Laura Robb’s book, The Intervention ToolKit (Shell, 2016) for more on scaffolds, conferences, and interventions.


Leadership: Start a Movement

Principal positions are complex. The position of principal can test your faith in what you believe is right. Your beliefs, commitment to students and staff all reflect on you as a person and your leadership.  Through several blogs I am going to share my thoughts on leadership. Lessons learned and mistakes; I have made many.  

Relationships, commitment to group goals, communication, professional knowledge, innovation, expectations, trust, and putting students first are just part of the many factors needed to feel effective as a principal. As you think about your position or becoming an administrator, you must reflect and understand what you believe and how you lead.

I believe great leaders communicate a sense of purpose, an articulated and understood sense of why they do what they do. If students, staff, and a community are united around a strong sense of purpose, magic can happen.

Part of leadership can be the challenge of creating a sense of purpose by starting a movement.  Uniting students, staff, and a community behind a sense of purpose that generates passion and helps people find their personal greatness. Sometimes when we lead we start out alone with a a good or great idea that others are apprehensive about. Sometimes we need to take people to a place they have not thought of or may fear.

In this blog I am sharing a favorite video on creating a movement.  Notice how the short video initially shows a man going it alone, in the case of the video looking foolish.  But what happens when one follows and ultimately when many follow?

The position of principal can be lonely if you want to take staff to a place they might not be ready to embrace.  Staff must trust you. You can have great ideas but if trust is not a foundation nothing will work.  Pushing staff requires finesse and at times a desire to drive change if it is truly what is best for students.  I have never found it effective to push hard all the time nor have I found the opposite any good either.

Those who lead by never challenging the status quo will never find their personal greatness.   Sometimes it’s lonely at first, be true to your personal “why” and find your greatness!  

Start a movement.

Principals Leadership Sourcebook, By Evan Robb

Reading in Middle School Classrooms

Popcorn reading, bump, and round robin reading do not make for great middle school classroom! Often I am asked what types of reading should occur in a middle school English classroom? Three types or reading should be part of every middle school Language Arts classrooms  

Instructional Interactive Read Aloud

Reading can and should be taught. An interactive read aloud allows the teacher to model in a think aloud how they apply a reading strategy. This modeling during a read aloud builds and/or enlarges students’ mental model of how a strategy works. For this aspect of instruction I suggest that the teacher models with a short text that matches the genre and/or theme that ties a reading unit together.  Short texts can include a picture book, an excerpt from a longer text, a folk or fairy tale, myth or legend, a short, short story, or an article from a magazine or newsletter.

Here are some skills and strategies that you can model in interactive read aloud lessons:

  • Making inferences
  • Identifying big ideas and themes
  • Identifying central ideas and themes
  • Locating important details
  • Skimming to find details
  • Author’s purposes
  • Purposes of informational texts (nonfiction) and literature (fiction)
  • Literary Elements and how each supports comprehension: setting, protagonist, antagonists, plot, conflicts, other characters, climax, denouement
  • Informational text structures and how these support comprehension: description, compare/contrast, cause/effect, problem/solutions, sequence, question/answer
  • Word choice as a guide to pinpointing mood or tone
  • Vocabulary building with an emphasis on: general academic vocabulary, figurative language and comprehension, using roots, prefixes, suffices, discussing concepts, diverse word meanings, and different forms of a word.


Instructional Reading

Instructional reading should happen during class. Students need to read materials at their instructional reading level—about 95% reading accuracy and about 85 % comprehension. Organizing instructional reading around a genre and theme—for example biography with a theme of obstacles—permits students to read different texts and discuss their reading around the genre and theme.

As an example, the class opens with an interactive read aloud lesson that lasts about ten minutes and occurs daily. Next, a transition to instructional reading. Find books for students in your school library, your community public library, and in your class library and school’s book room (if you have one).  Instructional reading books stay in the classroom, as students from different sections may be using the same materials each day.

A teacher can have students chunk instructional texts by putting a sticky note at the end of every two to three chapters. When students reach a sticky note, they stop to discuss their books with a partner and then a group of four. During this stop-to-think time, students can write about their books, connect the theme to the book, and apply strategies and skills the teacher has modeled during interactive read aloud lessons.

Partners should be no more than one year apart in reading levels so they have something to contribute to each other. Students reading far below grade level learn with the teacher.

Independent Reading

Students should always have a book they are reading independently. By encouraging them to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read!

Have students keep a Book Log of the titles they’ve read and reread. Do not ask students to do a project for each completed book, for that will turn them away from reading. A book talk a month and a written book review twice a year on independent reading is enough. Trust and a personal reading life are what your building. Reflecting on independent reading is important; getting hung up on how you will hold students accountable is not very valuable.  Remember, enthusiastic readers of any age do not summarize every chapter they read in a journal.

Students should complete thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main homework assignment. Try to set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school. Reading in a classroom is valuable!

Including the three layers of reading into a middle school curriculum brings balance, engagement, and motivation to the curriculum and holds the potential of improving reading for all students. When the teacher models how she/he applies a skill or strategy to a specific text, the teacher provides opportunities for all students to observe how a skill or strategy works. Instructional reading asks students to apply specific skills and strategies to texts that can improve students’ comprehension, vocabulary, and skill because these texts stretch students’ thinking with the teacher, the expert, as a supportive guide. Equally important is independent reading: easy, enjoyable texts that students self-select on topics, genres, or by authors that interest them—texts about two years below students’ instructional level.

Give this framework a try.  The goal is to increase reading and help students learn how to become strategic readers.

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 Evan Interviews Laura Robb

Differentiating reading instruction is frequently communicated amongst educators but often does not occur in many classrooms.  With wide ability ranges and large classrooms, differentiating can be a daunting challenge even for the best teacher.  What are some ways to allow every child to get the extra they may need to propel their learning? Laura is an expert on differentiating and helping teachers learn how to do it in a way that makes sense.  I call it Monday morning strategies.

Evan: Where does a teacher start with DI Reading Instruction? Which structures and concepts are fundamental?

LAURA: Start by building your background knowledge of DI, which includes understanding tiering, assessment, the role of conferring and self-evaluation, writing to improve reading, creating plans for units, and the research that supports DI. Consider forming a study group with colleagues to read and discuss my book as well as the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, Judith Dodge, and Rick Wormeli. Fortified with theory and examples of practice, you’ll be ready to plan and implement one unit of study. You can plan a unit of study for two to three weeks using picture books. This way you start small and experience the instructional read-aloud, instructional reading at school, teacher-student conferences, to name only a few. The more you self-evaluate and invite student feedback during and after a unit, the smoother the units will run.

Evan: Do very bright students-such as those who’ve been designated as gifted-suffer from low expectations in a class where DI is the norm?

LAURA: Actually, bright students bloom because you are offering them challenging materials that relate to the genre, issue, and theme you’re studying. With one-size-fits-all, these students receive little to no instruction because the work is easy for them and they can complete it independently. They are usually reading materials at their independent reading levels and not moving forward with analyzing, connecting, and synthesizing.

Because a student struggles with reading does not necessarily mean that student is not bright or gifted. The key to differentiation is to match students to instructional texts so they can improve their reading skill. But all students, no matter what their instructional reading levels are, need to think and apply reading and analytical strategies appropriate for their grade level. So, a sixth grader reading at a third grade instructional level uses that material to think and write about texts at the sixth grade level.

Evan: How does writing support DI and improve comprehension?

LAURA: Writing about reading improves students’ comprehension by helping them to compare and contrast within a text or between texts; to clarify hunches and thinking; to make connections, analyze, form hypotheses and prove them; and synthesize ideas across texts. I see writing about reading as an extension of reading and thinking. In my classes, journals are always on students’ desks, poised to receive a reaction, thought, questions, and other feedback.

Evan: Does DI have a role in classes other than reading or language arts?

LAURA: Absolutely! Let me start with a true story. A group of ninth graders reading three to five years below grade level were placed in a special reading class that met five mornings a week. Students read books at their instructional levels and used their texts to do the high level thinking expected of ninth graders. They experienced much success and made one to two years’ progress. However, back in science, English, and social studies, these students had to read grade level or above texts. Animal Farm was one of the English texts. Students became angry and frustrated because they failed or received D’s in other subjects. Though administrators developed this kind of remediation with the best intentions, these students needed to read at their instructional level in all subjects in order to improve. This is one reason why we continue to leave so many students behind.

Multiple texts-texts related to a topic in any subject at diverse reading levels-need to be a part of all instruction. Publishing needs to change to meet the realities of teaching. No more huge textbooks that students can’t read. In their place we need small texts that relate to different aspects of a topic, written at diverse instructional levels. All subjects-not just language arts-need reading resource rooms with books on a wide range of reading levels.

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