Monday, January 2, 2012

Student Conferences

From The city and country builder's and workman's treasury of design, Langley, Batty (1696-1751). NYPL

Many teachers are in the practice of holding individual conferences with students during literacy blocks. Teachers sit with students to converse about the book they are reading, asking questions like “Is this a just-right book for you?”, “Have you made any connections to the book?”, “What questions came up while you were reading?”, etc. Leah Mermelstein, a literacy consultant, suggests regular, one-on-one writing conferences with students.
What about math conferences? Over the last year, I have used an assessment tool called the Primary Number and Operations Assessment to help me interview students about mathematics concepts. I enjoy the opportunity to sit with a single student and spend time listening as they perform various math tasks and explain their thinking. I always learn important things about the student’s strengths and I gain insight about appropriate next steps for instruction.

Here is an email from my colleague, Sally Hayes, fourth grade teacher extraordinaire, in which she shares her experience conferring with students during math class:


I have to tell you about something I tried recently. It came to me several years ago when I was correcting one of our Bridges unit math assessments. I asked myself, "What is the most important outcome of this assessment?" The answer, of course, is student learning.  As a teacher, I must figure out where each child is on the continuum of learning for a domain so I can help them move forward. Grading the assessments and entering scores into the database is only part of the work. For years I had gone over assessments with the entire class, but it never seemed very efficient or terribly useful for individuals. I realized I should try going over the assessment with each student individually. This would allow both me and the student to gain a clearer understanding of their strengths and areas for improvement as a mathematician.

So, last Friday, the day after correcting our Unit 2 math assessments, I decided to try conferring with each student. After lunch, I gave the class some options for independent work during the next hour, which included practicing math skills, writing in writer's notebooks, and reading. While the class was quietly working, I met with each student to discuss their math assessment. First we looked at strengths and then areas that needed work. Amazing! The conferences were so much better for the student and incredible for me; I finally felt like I was getting something really useful out of a unit assessment. I only wish I had allotted an hour and a half, which is a lot of time, but would be well worth it. I need to refine the way I spend time with the students, but I think it will get better and easier each time that I do it. I was thinking that it would be nice to create small groups of 2 or 3 students that had similar challenges with certain problems. I am glad I finally tried math assessment conferences!


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