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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:

IMG_2667 IMG_2668
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

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1e8-sSUYK529guYtJ4o-I6C9eRWyYWo4UC1MqRpBpAz4/edit?usp=sharing

writing survey

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pHYuEwEbOPhINOnJwCe4eXswKHmJYwWF_fLwFk2TWqo/edit?usp=sharing

and parent survey

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1m9g71KYJWWy_cP1ykAzULgPFLRJl-lMcW3gg40s3_-0/edit?usp=sharing

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:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YjvBK_DPJ2lOLMDnIKJQ9SyFdAGFdSAZdSyavXyDsjA/edit?usp=sharing

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

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WoCRgVeUpf1VYsW50-AhTXpNV0dCRmzg8I2oruPSZzs/edit?usp=sharing

and writing forms

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YTrgImXuPK42YIu2hVLrkZq8X_RzyH3byuZ-dUdQGNo/edit?usp=sharing

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.

Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

17 thoughts on “Building a conferring binder Leave a comment

  1. Tara, thank you for this post. I too dabble with the idea of going digital, but there’s something about writing down conferencing notes in my binder as my students look on. The peek inside your binders is indeed very helpful. I like your idea of the weekly checklist.

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  2. This is SUCH a useful post, Tara! While I converted to digital a little over a year ago, it’s only because I’m in multiple schools. If I were still in my own classroom, I might consider going back to binders like these. There is nothing wrong with paper. If it works for you, then that’s great!
    Thanks for sharing your process and your forms with us!

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  3. I am forever trying to improve the record keeping of my conferences. I like the simplicity of your forms- mine are similar. Because I have an EAL coteacher in the room sometimes we are using loose sheets in a folder that we can grab and go, as we share students- that way we can see what the other has done easily as well.

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  4. So funny, this is right on target for me and others in a Voxer group I’m in. Funny how the stars align. I’ve gone back and forth, digital and paper. This year I’m loving paper. I feel more focused with it. Less need to fiddle with potential WiFi issues that waste time and take me away from what I’m trying to accomplish. I have my phone with me to use when necessary. Some kids need that kind of documentation.
    Thanks for this great post.

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  5. This is really helpful, I love the glimpse into the forms you use. Thanks for the links! I really like how you link your notes for both workshops, I never really thought of it that way – even though of course they are so closely linked. Gives me some ideas…
    For reading, my notes are on my clipboard, and that is just pages of boxes, with each student in a box, 12 boxes per page. I use different color pens each week so I can quickly see who needs some time, and who I have met with. I usually fill that up in about two months, maybe sooner, and start all over. I transfer the most pertinent piece (or two) of info and start fresh. I hold onto the old ones of course. I also use these notes for forming small groups every three to four weeks. I wish I did it more often than that, but reality bites.
    For writing I use Evernote, and I really like it. I love being able to take pics of their work, or their body language! and even record our conference at times. It is very helpful at parent conference time. They love seeing the pics of their child in action, or, not.
    That is more than you probably wanted. But there it is.

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  6. Tara, this is such a timely post. So many teachers in my new building are asking about keeping notes, as they are beginning their first journey into reader’s workshop! I have shown them examples, but my biggest message (I hope) has been to do what works for you. I am so glad you are not succumbing to some invisible pressure to go digital with your notes, just because it’s “tech sexy” to do so. You’re one of the smartest, most thoughtful educators I know, Tara, and it’s so kind of you to share all your thinking and record keeping here. Thank you so much.

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    • Thanks, Dana! One of the best things about our profession is the generosity of the greats sharing their work with us – from Nancie Atwell to Donalyn Miller, so it’s in our genes, right? I’m so glad that you are advising your teachers to find what works. That’s the key, right? Why else would we do it and how else could it help our kids?!

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  7. Tara,
    Thanks for the glimpse into your binder. There’s so much power in being organized and planful. I’m still hanging onto the “paper” copy, but ready to dip a toe into the electronic “Evernote” or something world!

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  8. Thanks for posting this. I too made a foray into digital, but disliked having a machine between the two human beings having the conversation. I find now, in my work as a coach, I prefer paper as well. A conferring notebook has a more personal feel than calling it a data notebook. I like that. Thanks for sharing your process. As I encourage my colleagues to step into discovering the value of having a permanent record of “knowing”, and the specificity it creates in responsiveness to students, it is nice to have many examples of forms and ways of setting a notebook up. Ultimately, it needs to be user friendly to each teacher.

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  9. I have been working on my conferring toolkit this year and the ideas in your article are wonderful! I am also working with staff on writing this year. Does anyone have a suggestions for a digital conferring app that might appeal to my more tech savvy teachers? Thank you!

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  10. I inhaled this article and held my breath for as long as I could before I exhaled and figured out how to make it work for my GT kids. Occasionally I come across someone I totally get who has so much to offer me in the way I teach and live my life. You are most certainly that kind of person for me. Thank you for starting what might have been a tough day for me in a most beautiful way.

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