I use Evernote to record some of my reading conferences. I approach a child while she is reading, then record her reading and our conversation about the book. Later, I take a chunk of time after school to focus my mind and attention on that child via the digital trail I have collected. Often I jot some notes, kind of a freewrite about what I notice. This practice always helps me see that child in a new light, and causes me to connect with things that I had noticed in other settings, but had not recorded.
When I sat down to review some of the notes yesterday I had collected over the last couple of weeks, I expected to learn something. And I did. But this time what I learned was about me, the other voice on the recording.
What I heard was a guy who started out conversations pretty well. I heard questions like these: So, you’ve just read this piece, what are you thinking now? Or, What’s going through your mind right now? These questions often lead to some good conversations, though sometimes rather slowly. (I suspect that the children have not had a lot of practice with these kind of conversations with teachers.)
But I noticed that in the last several weeks my questions have evolved. Whereas I might have said: Tell me more about that. Or, How did you figure that out? I heard myself saying things like this: Don’t you think that…? I thought…What do you think? I thought X, do you see that, too?
While sometimes those observations provoked further thinking, too often there was an awkward silence that followed. I could tell the children did not know what to do with my observation, or my connection.
So, I asked myself: Why did I change the way I talk, especially when the change was for the worse?
This morning I’ve been thinking about that. And it seems clear that I am struggling a bit with the constraints of my new work, my move from 4th to 5th grade. That change brought some new time constraints like 43-minute reading and writing periods where bells ring and kids move. I’m accustomed to longer pieces of time, a more leisurely approach to learning.
Another reason is that middle school emphasizes grades (rather than descriptive narratives) as a way to provide response to student work. Grades are designed to sort. Narratives describe and probe. That change has been difficult enough for me. I’m a nurturer, not a sorter by nature. But as I reflect, I can see that the fact that I have to assign grades has pushed me to “justify” my sorting. Hence the desire to “prove” what I think by seeing if the children can “do” certain things related to the standards that I am to teach.
What resulted from my cognitive dissonance was that I changed the idea of what a conference was. Where I had thought of a conference as an opportunity to see how children were thinking and to respond as a human being to that thinking, I came to see these conferences as a place to “assess”, to gather evidence, to justify a judgment that I was making about the child. All this represents a different kind of curiosity, less open-ended. Less the explorer of unknown terrain, more the tracker, the travel guide.
The time constraints of a short class period changed the nature of the time, too. Gone was the leisurely exploration. I heard in my voice the haste of trying to nail a teaching point.
I don’t have an answer about what to do next, but I suspect that it will come through the doorway opened by Tom Newkirk in his wonderful book, Minds are Made for Stories:
“There are few unqualified generalizations we can make about great teaching. But I will hazard this one: great teachers don’t look rushed, and they don’t make their students feel rushed.” (p. 153.)