Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rethinking reading conferences, or maybe read aloud

I know how a reading conference is supposed to look. I'm supposed to sit down next to a child, clipboard or neatly organized notebook in hand, and ask the child a rapport- building question like, "How's it going?" Then I'm supposed to listen to the child read, chat a little about the book to determine whether or not the reader is understanding, point out reading strengths, and help the child set a goal, or add a new reading strategy to their repertoire. 

For the past few weeks, though, some of my reading conferences have taken a decidedly different twist. About two weeks ago, J brought her book to me. At that time, she was reading GREETINGS FROM NOWHERE by Barbara O'Connor. J is a fifth grader, reading at a beginning third grade level. At the beginning of the year, she was just starting to read chapter books, mostly stuff like Junie B. Jones and a little MAGIC TREEHOUSE. My first read aloud with J's group was HOW TO STEAL A DOG by Barbara O'Connor. J asked if she could read it for independent reading. She pretty much stayed right with me, rereading the chapter I had just read aloud. She went on to read MOONPIE AND IVY, GREETINGS FROM NOWHERE, and is now starting FAME AND GLORY IN FREEDOM, GEORGIA.

Today she brings the book to me. "Will you just read me a little?" she says. "It's kind of hard."  She is only three pages in, so I ask if she would mind if I started at the beginning.  I read aloud the first chapter and a half, and we chat about the characters and the setting. We wonder why Barbara O'Connor always uses  "weird" names for her characters. We compare Bird, the main character in  FAME AND GLORY  to Georgina in HOW TO STEAL A DOG. We talk about how this book is set in the South, just like GREETINGS FROM NOWHERE. By the time we are done, J is clear on the character and setting, and is beginning to have a sense of the story. It's kind of like I have "jump started" J, I've taken energy from my reading battery and given J a little charge to get her going. 

A day or so later, D's hand waves wildly during independent reading. I'm a little surprised, because one of my sacred and inviolates during this time is NO INTERRUPTIONS, NO BATHROOM, NO WATER, NO MOVING, NO NOTHING. D wants to know if I will read with her, like I did with J. I need to confer with her, so I sit down on the stair beside her. D's needs are very different, however, than J's. D has been a Junie B reader all year long. She's recently started the CLEMENTINE series, and is loving this new friend. The books are probably just about right in terms of reading level.

D, however, needs help on stamina. She can read for about 20 minutes by herself, and then she gets really restless and wriggly. Today, I sit with her for the last seven or eight minutes of reading. We trade off, she reads a page, then I read a page. Again, we chat about the book, giggle over Clementine cutting her friend Margaret's hair with a pair of plastic art scissors, compare Clementine to Junie B. Our few minutes help build D last the entire thirty minutes. I wonder if it will build her reading stamina if I make a point of trying to read with her the last few minutes of reading time every few days, until her body can get used to sitting still just a little longer.

Yesterday, I sat with B. B's family has had a rough, rough year. At one point, we even thought the family was living in their car. I was in B's fourth grade classroom working on writing this morning, and he looked exhausted. During reading, I just wanted to check in, to make sure he was ok. B was reading from the STINK series. In this particular book, Stink's class visits a museum exhibit, and Stink gets cajoled into smelling a variety of unpleasant odors. The chapter is hilarious, and I am glad to see B laugh. I hope he takes away the message that reading can take us out of our ordinary lives, and into some place that is easier and more fun. That message of escape has served me well in my life as a reader.

So in the past few days, I've done three good reading conferences. None of them has followed the typical format. None has involved copious notes, or running records. We haven't set any of our usual goals. And yet, I fully believe that all of these conferences have changed these readers, and helped them to grow bigger reading selves. And when all is said and done, isn't that our real purpose as teachers of reading?


Barbara O'Connor said...

I loved this post. I found it totally fascinating and enlightening! It's wonderful how you were able to connect with these readers on an individual level and see their unique needs and abilities. I also love how you do not disconnect their personal lives from their "academic" lives and see the whole picture. Those kids are SO lucky to have you jump start them and lead them in new directions - but especially that you value their uniqueness.

My hat is off to you!!! Thank you for this eye-opening post.

Susan T. said...

I agree! A wonderful post.

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Mary Lee said...

Amen, sister.

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