I used to sit in the back of the classroom so that teachers would never call on me. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that totally worked, especially in my public school. The teachers didn’t seem to really care. They seemed to only be in it for the paycheck back then. Or, at least that’s what it felt like.
Having been bullied in elementary school with no recourse from the school or teachers, I carry a bit of disdain for some of my early elementary school teachers. They didn’t try to help me or step in and prevent me from being teased. So, I tried to hide from my peers and the teachers. Sitting in the back of the room allowed me to do this, until my vision became an issue. I almost failed the fourth grade because I couldn’t see the blackboard and always wrote down the wrong thing. However, this didn’t change how I acted in class or where I sat, I just got glasses. I tried to avoid contact with the teacher as much as possible. My teachers seemed totally fine with this as well. I don’t remember ever having to chat with my teachers prior to sixth grade. I just coasted by. Those first seven years of school prior to fifth grade, I had to go to transition following Kindergarten, were not memorable or happy times. I was like an invisible child back then. No one saw me for who I was and I was okay with that.
Then came sixth grade. I had an English teacher who cared about me. She wanted me to like reading and writing and brought out the best in me. It started with workshop conferences. We would meet once a week to discuss my reading and writing. It was a magical time. I had Mrs. Lacombe all to myself. It was great. I could ask her anything and talk to her about everything. I felt special for the first time in my academic life. Those conferences inspired me to enjoy school and want to do something more with my life than just be. I wanted to be someone.
In Humanities class yesterday, we had our weekly Reader’s Workshop double block. We began the class with a mini-lesson regarding the reading strategy of Back-Up and Re-Read. We used our class read-aloud text Seedfolk by Paul Fleischman as our mentor and model text for the lesson. Following that, the boys moved into their reading time. Some of the boys chose to read at their tables while the others read in our reading nook area. They had a full 40 minutes to sit and enjoy their books. During this time, my co-teacher and I conferenced with our small reading groups. I had the chance to conference with all five of my boys in class. It was phenomenal.
These conferences gave me a chance to check-in with the student. How’s it going? How was your weekend? I engaged them in a personal discussion before we even began talking about reading. These weekly meetings are crucial in building respect and rapport as well as a safe and caring classroom community. I then get into the heart of the conference. I asked the student about their current reading book. What page are you on? What’s happening? Do you like it? I then had the students read aloud to me from their book so that I could gauge their fluency. I followed that up with some comprehension questions to see where they are at in that area. While we don’t always do this next part, we sometimes take the opportunity to share grades with the students individually so that we can provide them meaningful feedback regarding their progress in the class. Yesterday, I shared the grade the students received on the current events discussion that took place in class on Saturday. I gave them feedback along with their grade. I also made suggestions for how they could improve for when they are assessed regarding this same objective again. I wrapped up the conferences by allowing the students to ask me any questions they had. I then sent them back to their reading. Each conference only took about 5-8 minutes, but they were vital and important minutes for both the student and me. It’s all about relationship building.
These one-on-one conferences allow me to be sure the student is emotionally feeling well. They also give the student a chance to share things with me that they don’t feel comfortable sharing in front of their peers. Some students will occasionally tell me about how another student is mistreating them. They might also share insight regarding their roommate situation. The chats help the students feel safe and cared for.
The conferences also allow me to help the students grow and develop as readers. I can ask them questions and check their reading skills weekly to be sure they are progressing. I assign some of the students weekly goals to work on. This gives them a focus for their reading and allows me to challenge and support them appropriately. In one conference yesterday, a student explained to me that he had finally found a just-right book for himself. He was very happy. This is great. Luckily, I had a chance to praise and support that international student as he grows as an English Language Learner.
Despite the brevity of these conferences, I worry that I would not be able to build such strong relationships with my students without these weekly meetings. The classroom community is formed around the respect and closeness that we share as teachers and students. I know my boys on very different levels because of these weekly meetings. They pack a lot of power. I hope that my students feel the same way. I hope that this sixth grade year is a transformational one for them like it was for me. It’s all about making connections and allowing the boys to feel heard.