This is the year I’m going to keep better records.

August 2018 Blog Series and Twitter ChatI craved chocolate chip cookies, eight summers ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter. Despite needing compression stockings to quell the swelling in my legs, I had no qualms about standing in the kitchen to bake chocolate chip cookies from scratch. I was very pregnant and willing to try many recipes in the search of the perfect cookie. After tasting what I thought would be the best cookie yet, I was happy for a while, but after eating several cookies, I typically had a complaint. Some recipes were too crunchy while others were too greasy. Therefore, I’d try to figure out what to change (e.g., a different ratio of brown sugar to white sugar, softened butter instead of melted butter) and bake another batch.

Besides finding the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, there are a handful of things I’ve become obsessively passionate about getting right. One of the other things I’ve tried to perfect are my conferring records. In fact, I’ve obsessed over record-keeping forms even more than chocolate chip cookie recipes. When it came to record-keeping forms, everything I tried worked for a while for the purpose of organization and documentation, but the information wasn’t truly driving my instruction.

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Click on the image to enlarge.

Why does record-keeping matter?

Record-keeping can seem challenging. But, like anything else, it’s important to think about why we keep records. Record-keeping helps you distribute your time equitably amongst your students. It allows you to see the tracks of your teaching. Record-keeping helps you monitor student growth. It also helps with goal-setting.  Finally, keeping records of conferences and strategy lessons allows you to determine the next steps with each student, small groups, or the whole class.

Regardless of what kind of record-keeping form you use, it’s helpful to jot down notes in the moment, rather than waiting until the end of the school day. I suggest teachers take notes when their students are actively involved in trying out the strategy you taught them or in-between writing conferences. Writing notes when you’re in the moment allows your record-keeping to be accurate and detailed.

Now that we’ve established that record keeping matters, I want to share my record-keeping journey with you (complete with a variety of forms you can download at the end of this post).

Timeline - Conferring Notes

Class-at-a-Glance Grids

I started obsessing over my conferring record keeping sheets when I was a fifth-grade teacher in Manhattan. I tried using a class conferring manifest, which is a single sheet of paper that has all of the students’ names, dates you conferred with them, and the teaching point you delivered on one sheet of paper. Thing is, I taught 26 – 32 fifth graders so I couldn’t fit all of my students on one sheet of 8.5” x 11” paper! Therefore, I had to keep two sheets of paper on my clipboard, which meant I couldn’t glance at the manifest quickly. In addition, the manifest didn’t feel detailed enough for me since I couldn’t keep track of the compliments I gave to my students when I met with them.

Three-Column Notes

Next, I created sections for each student in a spiral notebook that allowed me to track my observations and teaching points or the compliments and teaching points I delivered every time I met with a student. I used stick-on tabs to separate each child’s section, which was four back-and-front pages, from the next. I used a sheets like these on and off for a few years. What I didn’t know then, that I understand now, is that these pages were too sparse for me.

Carbonless Notebooks

I went through a period where I used this same three-column system, but housed it in a carbonless notebook so my students could have a “carbon copy” of my conferring notes. (They housed their carbonless copy in their writing folder.) Eventually, this system became cumbersome since there were always a handful of students who misplaced their carbonless copy. Once I learned about the idea of leaving behind a tangible artifact for students at the end of a writing conference, my carbonless notebook became obsolete. Another idea, which I learned about recently from Melanie Meehan, are conference cards, which can be a useful tool for a teacher as s/he has a conference and for the student to recall what s/he discussed in the writing conference after the teacher has departed.

Forms for Three-Ring Binders

After studying with Lucy Calkins and Carl Anderson in the summer of 2008, I realized my conference record keeping forms needed a massive reboot. I bounced around a lot that year, going back and forth between my old three-column chart and using a three-ring binder to house a variety of record-keeping sheets in every student’s section that captured more information (e.g., next steps, mentor texts).  

I took a week-long course in Assessment-Based Writing Instruction with Carl Anderson at the 2011 TCRWP Summer Writing Institute. After studying with Carl, I realized conferring record-keeping sheets should have a space for students’ writing goals so they can be kept top-of-mind. Therefore, I updated one of my three-ring binder forms so it had space for each student’s name, his/her writing goals, and then ample space to record a compliment, teaching point, and future teaching plans. Finally, after seven years of tinkering with record-keeping forms, I finally felt like I got a record-keeping sheet right.

Digital Records

In early 2013, my PLN was a buzz about Evernote. (I purchased a premium subscription that same summer and have allowed Evernote to transform my life by digitizing all of the paper that used to surround me.) Cathy Mere shared her expertise for using Evernote to keep digital conferring records in a December 2013 guest blog post here on TWT. Once I read her post, I decided digital conferring notes would be a smarter way to go for me since I see kids in different schools due to the nature of my life as a literacy consultant. Having paper records just doesn’t make sense for me at this point in my career.

Initially, I created templates for 1:1 conferences and strategy lessons on Kustomnote. However, when Kustomnote was bought out by Transpose, I started keeping more simplified notes in Evernote. This was ineffective since I often forgot to write down key information. Eventually, I came across an Evernote how-to about creating templates. Therefore, once I created conferring and strategy lesson templates, all I have to do when I want to use a template from my template library notebook, is to right-click and choose “copy to notebook” from the pop-up menu. Then, I select the notebook I want to copy a template into and I’m ready to keep my records.

What’s great about Evernote (BTW: I don’t work for Evernote. Simply put, I love their product!) is that you can take photos of student work to embed in each student’s note file. Also, you can record audio clips of your conferences or strategy lessons and place them in your notes. Not only will this help you hold onto what students are working on, but your digital conferring notes can make parent-teacher conferences come alive since parents will get to see and hear their students in action.

Why did I take you on this journey?
I could’ve written this post and included links to a variety of record-keeping forms (You’ll find links to all of the above-mentioned forms below!) with the hope one of them would transform your record-keeping this year. However, I wanted you to realize that even if this is the year you’re going to keep better conference records, then you must understand that you, too, will go on a journey to find a record-keeping system that works for you. Don’t let anyone tell you what form to use! You must find a system that works for you even when it feels messy and giving up (and not keeping records) seems like the better option. Therefore, pick something and try it out for a week. Reflect. Refine your record-keeping tool or start anew. You’ll know you have a record-keeping system that’s working when you regularly examine your notes in order to plan for future conferences, strategy lessons, and mini-lessons. Don’t be afraid to tweak your record-keeping system until you find one that feels as right as the perfect chocolate chip cookie tastes.

Let this be the year you’re going to keep better conferring records!

Ready to get started? Here are some action steps to take depending on how much (or how little) you’ve kept records in the past.

Start Conferring Tomorrow

Links to Record Keeping Forms:

Bonus Links to My Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes:

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Leave a comment on this blog post for a chance to win a copy of this book. Please read the giveaway information before you leave a comment. Thanks!

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom,  please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 12th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 13th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KIDS 1ST. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.