When I first started teaching reading, I was on my own. Outside of Nancie Atwell, there were very few resources for secondary reading teachers. Through Atwell, though, I learned the importance of helping kids find the right books and talking with them about their books. You may notice that I said “talking with them about their books,” not conferencing. I tried conferencing back then, it didn’t work. I gave it a try again a few years later, it still didn’t work.
You know how construction sites post the number of days they’ve gone without accidents? If I did the same for my independent reading time–“We’ve made it 8 days without disruption,” all I’d have to do to break the streak was try to conference with a kid. Once I started talking–even with our chairs pulled into a corner–our whispering voices seemed to set free the rest. My conference would be interrupted with disciplinary issues, the kids who had still been reading were now caught up in whether or not the violators-of-the-quiet were going to get sent out of class, and even if I might get them all quiet again, as soon as I went back to the corner, eyes would be shooting around the room looking for the next incident, rather than sweeping across pages. This happened in middle school and it happened in high school.
I just gave up. Conferencing with students is not something I can do and I’m OK with it. Instead of beating myself up about my failure, I found a work-around that is much more natural and works just fine for me. I just talk to the students about their books–in the hall before class, at transition times during class, before or after school around campus, even at the football game! I don’t always talk to every student about every book; I don’t track the conversations; I don’t take notes; we just talk. It’s natural. It’s what real readers do. It works.
The key to successful talks, though, is that I have to know the books. I don’t know every book, but I make an effort to read the ones that are the most popular each year. (I’m a little behind, but I’m reading If I Stay right now.) Not conferencing during independent reading time gives me a chance to read, too. If we read for the first ten minutes of each class, that gives me 30 extra minutes of reading time each day! I can cover a lot of ground in a YA book in 30 minutes. The conversations with my students help guide my choices, too. They get a big kick out of turning me on to a new book–just like I am happy when I can suggest a title to them.
I also use exit slips as a way to learn about books. Once a week, students take a few minutes, record which page numbers they read that day and then respond to the prompt or complete the graphic organizer on a Reading Strategy Exit Slip. This does provided evidence of student progress and help me make formative assessment decisions regarding students’ reading skills and habits, but I like them even more for the knowledge it gives me about unfamiliar titles. If I haven’t read a book, I can use the student’s writing about what was important in today’s reading as a springboard for a conversation tomorrow.
Talking about books should not interfere with reading books. Let the books speak for themselves, sparking the fires for the students! Through honest conversation–later–we can fan the flames to keep the fires burning.