As a literacy coach, a big part of my job involves visiting classrooms and conferring with kids as their teacher watches. When I was new to this role, it was nerve-wracking, having other teachers watch me while I went through the steps of a conference. Kids, after all, are unpredictable!
As time went on, I picked up some habits and tools that have helped me become better and better at conferring–and better at helping others with conferring. While it used to seem daunting to confer while being watched, it’s now my favorite part of being a literacy coach. And my conferring toolkit is one of my favorite things that helps me do this work.
Teachers who work with me often see me moving around the classroom with a canvas tote bag on my shoulder, pulling out post-its and pens, samples of student work, and all kinds of other “goodies” at just the right moment in a writing conference. I have everything I need in there, and more. One of my colleagues used to joke that one of these days, I’ll pull out a ham sandwich… just because.
In this post, I’ll share what’s inside my canvas tote bag–a.k.a. my conferring toolkit. First, I’ll list every item, separately. Then, I’ll show you how I organize it all.
EVERYTHING IN MY CONFERRING TOOLKIT:
Clipboard & Note-taking Sheets. My number one must-have item is my clipboard, with my favorite conferring note-taking sheet on it. I like to say that it should feel weird not to have your notes with you while you confer—and a great way to get to that point is to be in the habit of carrying around the clipboard (or notebook, or what have you) all the time. Conferring notes are important data to collect, if not the most important data to collect during independent writing time.
My Own Writer’s Notebook(s) & Writing Folder. Nearly every writing conference involves me doing a quick demonstration using my own writing or an example for the student to see, so I always have my own writer’s notebook and a writing folder with me. I like for my notebook or folder to look just like the kids’ materials as much as possible, but since I’m a coach, I also organize things to help me work across K-8 classrooms. I have multiple notebooks and folders for different types of writing, and for different times of the year, which I’ll explain below.
Copies of Student Work (Exemplars). I keep copies of a few select pieces of student work with me as well. Kids often respond really well to seeing the work of another kid. I try to nudge kids toward the mindset of If they can do it, so can I! Seeing another student’s work, in kid-handwriting, makes new strategies concrete and within-reach. Sometimes, seeing an adult like me accomplish the same thing just doesn’t have the same impact.
Copies of Individual Writing Checklists. Student self-assessment and goal setting play a big role in my teaching, and checklists are the tool that help kids do that work. I carry copies of the same checklists that the kids are using, so that I can model the constant checking and self-assessment that writers (even adult writers) really do. The copies also come in handy for when a student has misplaced their own. A typical checklist lists out our grade-level goals for that type of writing, in kid-friendly language, so that students know exactly what the expectations are for their work. This sample poetry checklist is one that was adapted from the informational checklist in the Units of Study series by Calkins et al. When using a checklist like this with young students, only a few items at a time are shared, with picture clues.
Copies of K-8 Writing Learning Progressions. If you were to take all the checklists for each grade level, and line them up side-by-side, you’d be able to see the grade-level expectations across the grades: That’s a learning progression! Having the learning progression in my hands, helps me assess a student’s strengths and next steps at a glance. They may have mastered leads and transitions, meeting or exceeding the expectations for their grade level, but their level of detail or their ending might still need work. Or perhaps they aren’t quite ready for the grade-level work and could gain confidence as a writer by working on something else first. A learning progression allows me to quickly analyze an individual piece of writing to make those in-the-moment decisions that are key to an effective writing conference.
Mini-Anchor Charts and Micro-Progressions. In Kate and Maggie Roberts’s wonderful resource DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence you can learn all about how to create tools for your writing toolkit that include mini-anchor charts and micro-progressions. Smarter Charts K-2: Optimizing an Instructional Staple to Create Independent Readers and Writers by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz is also an invaluable resource for this.
- Anchor Charts: A mini-anchor chart is just like it sounds: take your anchor chart you’ve created for the whole class and shrink it down so that you can hand out copies of it to kids who might benefit from having it in hand so they can mark it up or refer to it up close. Mini-anchor charts can be easily made by taking a photo of the full-size chart, or just recreating it on smaller paper.
- Micro-Progressions: A mini or micro-progression takes one strategy or goal and breaks it down into tangible “levels” so that kids can self-assess where they are at and work toward the next step. I like to create these together with kids in a conference or small group, but multiple copies could also be made ahead of time to use in a conference. (You can see examples in the video below showing my narrative writing “ring”).
Copies of Mentor Text Excerpts. Whenever I come across an excerpt from a mentor text that I return to again and again, I like to have copies of just that one page or line from the text. I only use mentor texts that have already been studied and are familiar to the kids I’m conferring with. Something about having a copy that is visually the same as the original seems to be really engaging and helpful for kids. The magic of photocopying never seems to wear off with kids!
Sticky Notes. This is probably the one thing (other than my clipboard of notes) I make sure I’m never without. Even if I have nothing else in my bag, or I’ve forgotten to bring the right type of writing that day, I can ALWAYS use a post-it (or two) in a writing conference.
Extra Paper and Extra Pens. How many times has a conference been disrupted because you or the student you’re working with ran out of paper or can’t find their pen? It’s always a relief and makes me feel like a super-teacher, when I can reach into my handy-dandy conferring kit and give the kid a new pen. I order them in bulk, very inexpensively, so kids are usually pretty psyched when I tell them they can keep it.
Tape, Scissors, Dry-Erase Board, and Mini-Stapler. Just like the extra paper and extra pens, these little extras can keep a conference moving, instead of having to wait as a student rises from their writing spot, crosses the room to the writing center, finds what they need, and eventually makes their way back to the conference. Why interrupt our conversation when I could just take care of it right there?
Breath Mints. Pre-covid, I carried these around so I wouldn’t be known as the teacher with bad coffee breath. Now, I carry them so my mask doesn’t smell like my own coffee breath all day!
HOW I ORGANIZE IT ALL
My organization of all this material has evolved over the years. The way I organized things as a classroom teacher was different from how I do it now. As a classroom teacher, I pretty much kept everything in a writing folder that looked just like the kids, or a giant artist’s notebook, like this:
I used “repositionable” glue sticks to glue things into the artist’s notepad, and kept extra copies of things kids might need in our Writing Materials Center in the classroom. The repositionable glue allowed me to move things around, and remove things as needed (and was always a popular feature with kids and teachers alike). I simply added things in as the year went on, using tabs to mark off different units or key resources.
Now, as a literacy coach, I organize things a bit differently — everything goes into four big categories, on rings:
Narrative Writing. Includes personal narrative, fiction, fantasy, graphic novel writing, comics–anything with characters, setting, and a series of events.
Informational Writing. Includes “All About” or Expert Projects, reports, How-To or procedural writing, companion books, research-based informational writing, kid-created websites, feature articles–any kind of expository writing that is informational.
Opinion/Argument/Essay Writing. Includes persuasive letters, reviews, speeches, all kinds of essays (personal essays, literary essays, persuasive essays), petitions, posters, certain kid-created websites–anything that is idea-based, expressing an idea or opinion and then backing it up with support.
Poetry. I used to mix poetry into the other three categories, but now I keep poetry in its own stand-alone category. I often teach kids to think of poems as containing elements of all three (narrative, informational, opinion/argument). For example, when we read poems we often think “Is this mostly like a narrative, informational, or opinion piece of writing?” and when we write poems we can think about them in a similar way. The mentor texts I use during a poetry unit might be poems, but there might also be small samples of all types of writing where the language is poetic.
I take all of the copies of anchor charts, checklists, mini-progressions, student examples, excerpts from mentor texts, and everything I have related to one type of writing and I put the copies into clear sheet protectors, attached to a binder ring. I have a ring (or two) for each type of writing. Often I divide my rings into K-2 and 3-5 just to make things easier to find (but plenty of the K-2 stuff can be used with 3-5 writers!).
I also divide my writing notebooks and writing folders the same way. I have four notebooks and four folders – one for all kinds of narrative, another for informational, a third for opinion/argument/essay, and a fourth for poetry.
As a coach, I used to try to divide things up by individual grade levels, but I found that I was constantly wanting tools and resources from a grade level up or down. I’ve found that modeling the use of materials from a range of grade levels (and a range of various programs and professional resources) helps the teachers I work with understand how to differentiate for each of their individual students, rather than relying on a predetermined Day 1, Day 2 approach.
MY FAVORITE THINGS
As a literacy coach, supporting my colleagues with conferring has grown into one of my favorite parts of my job, in part because I always feel prepared with my conferring toolkit. On any given day, in any grade level, in any unit, I have materials at the ready.
The only thing I’m still missing from my conferring toolkit is that ham sandwich!
Many thanks to Heinemann Publishers who is donating a copy of ONE of the Classroom Essentials books (i.e., winner’s choice).
For a chance to win this copy of one of these books, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Saturday, August 7th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Amy Ellerman will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Sunday, August 8th.
Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Amy 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.) You must have a U.S.A. mailing address—Sorry, no FPOs—to win a print copy of the book of your choosing. If you have an international mailing address, then you will receive an electronic copy.
If you are the winner of the book, Amy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS—FAVORITE THINGS. 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.
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.