Building a conferring binder

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Every July, as I clear away the paper work from the school year just past and begin to think ahead to the new year, I get to my conference binders and think: “Maybe it’s time to go paperless!” So I spend August researching the blogs of smart teachers who have already done so, begin downloading and experimenting with apps that they recommend,  and plan my own launch of joining these  21st. century teachers with 21st century tools.  Then comes September, and I return to my old ways: two binders, one for my morning reading and writing block, and one for the afternoon.  Here are this year’s conference binders:

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And here is how they are “built”…

First, why I keep just one binder for both workshops:

I divide each binder into two parts, one for reading and one for writing.  Since the work we do in reading workshop is so closely  linked to the work we do in writing workshop, I know that I will learn as much about my kids’ reading lives from our writing conferences as I will learn about their writing lives when we discuss their reading.  Often, after a writing conference, I will make notes in a student’s reading conference notes; for instance, that a certain selection of short stories may be just the right next read to get this student to see how an author stretches and bends a craft move we may be in the process of analyzing in writing workshop.  Likewise, a reading conference might shed some light about why a student has suddenly decided to create delicious new words (a Roald Dahl reading kick) or experiment with sarcasm (a Jordan Sonnenblick reading marathon) in their writing.  Having both conferring notes in one binder helps to cross reference the work each student, both when I am planning my next steps for teaching as well as when I am working directly with the student.

The first building blocks:

Our reading survey

writing survey

and parent survey

form the basis of each student’s reading and writing section.  I read these carefully, annotating them with questions to be asked during our first one on one conferences, and cross referencing them to try to tease out their reading/writing stances and inclinations, and the habits they had developed in choosing books and keeping writer’s notebooks.  These surveys also tell me a little bit about spelling tics and grammar issues, and whether these are class wide lessons or small group sessions to plan for.

Then, I sketch out a preliminary game plan for the first quarter of the year:

this is just a rough draft, think aloud place for me to begin the work that will continue in partnership with each student, i.e. setting short-term and long-term reading and writing goals, and keeping track of this progress.

Our conferring forms:

Both our reading

and writing forms

are simple variations on the same theme: what did I notice? what was my teaching point? what is going well?

These are not the neatest of notes, but they are an accurate record of key information about each student’s journey through their sixth grade reading and writing year.  The binder allows me to collect specific examples of work and annotate these as either areas of progress or ones that need further work in our one to one conferences,small group sessions, or whole class mini lessons.  

In the inside front pocket of each binder, I keep a weekly printout of my student rosters for reading and writing.  Every time I meet with a student, I make a quick check mark, and a quick glance at this at the end of a week gives me an idea about who I need to plan to meet with at the beginning of the next week – is there someone I haven’t seen at all? or someone else I am meeting with too frequently? Keeping a close check on a weekly basis helps me ensure that no one falls through the cracks.

I will be the first to say that I am a bit neurotic about these binders.  They are never really out of my sight or out of my mind all the teaching year, for they represent the tracks of my students’ goals and growth, and the work that we do together to make sure that it’s a reading and writing year that counts.   I find that it is also invaluable during parent conferences, where it helps parents “see” the conferring work that is often invisible to them.  Best of all, my students are with me as I jot and note; they, too, can “see” the process and the purpose of their conferences through these notes, and often refer to them to ask questions about prior strategies and work.  We always refer to these notes when we set new writing or reading goals at the beginning of each new marking period. In this way, our conferring notes belong as much to them as growing readers and writers,  as they do to me their facilitator, guide, and cheerleader in chief.

Someday, perhaps I will finally make the break from old-fashioned binder to new fangled conferring app.  But, for now, I have two just assembled conferring binders with which to begin a year of exciting work, and I am happy.  How about you? How do you organize your conference notes? Please share your ideas in the comments below, we’d love to know.