What Do You Want to Know- Question #1

I’m so excited that my last post received so many comments!  I will be answering everyone’s questions over the next few days.

The first question is from Mary:

I teach 4th grade in a self-contained GATE class. I also teach Language Arts through a workshop format and I struggle to find enough time in the day to meet with each student at least once a week. How do you address this issue in your classroom? Right now, I meet with groups of students on a rotating basis and check their notebooks and chat about their books, but I’d love to hear other ideas!

I have to be honest here- conferencing is the weakest part of my workshop.  Right now, I teach two classes for 2 hrs each, but I have to cover reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary in that time.  I combine as much as I can, but I still feel crunched for time.  (Don’t remind me that next year I will have 4 classes for 1 hr each!)  But I do conference with my students as much as possible.  I talk with my students about their reading constantly.  Some of these conversations are informal- on the lunch line, at the end of the day, during homeroom are just some examples.  But I do document anything I learn during these conversations.   A conference is a conference, right?

The best decision I ever made was to use letter-essays in my reading workshop.  About 3 months into the year, I teach a writing unit of study on literary essays.  Upon completing the unit, my students are assigned letter-essays.  Once a month, they write me a friendly letter about the novel they are reading or have just completed.  The letter-essays force them to think metacognitively about their reading and their book selection.  I have about 50 students this year, with about 10 letter essays due each week.  My morning class is due on Tuesdays and my afternoon class is due on Thursdays.  This allows me time to write back to each student without becoming overwhelmed.   I learn so much about their reading and thinking through these letters that it is well-worth the time I spend on them.  It does take a lot of training at the beginning, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And the letter-essays are graded on a 4-point rubric.  This way, I have an assessment for my grade book, too.  

Before learning how to write letter-essays, my students fill out a brief reading log reflection after independent reading in class.  I do this in the beginning of the year while they are building their stamina and I am getting to know them as readers.  Plus, I can tie the mini-lesson into the reflection, which my administration prefers.  This way I have tangible evidence of learning during independent reading.  Once my students move to letter-essays, they can work on those during independent reading time- some of them use post-its, some write in the margins, some take notes.  It’s all a part of fostering their independence before moving to middle school.

As for writing workshop, I meet with students about once per week, unless they request to see me more.  My conferences are usually brief and I don’t always teach a skill/concept during this time.  But I do discuss their writing, how they are feeling about their writing piece, and any major revisions/edits I might see.  To be honest, I spend  a lot of my conference time helping kids through writer’s block and anxiety.  My students haven’t had a lot of workshop experience and by 6th grade they tend to hate writing.  I spend a good portion of the year building their confidence by complimenting what they are doing well in their writing.  So far, it’s working great for me!  Most of my students this year have improved by leaps and bounds.  It almost makes me wish I could loop with my kids to 7th grade.  Almost. 😉

I hope that answers your question, Mary!  I apologize for not being a better conferencer in my workshop!

2 Responses

  1. Do you base you unit of study on literary essay writing on the literary essay book that is part of Lucy Calkins Units of Study? or Do you have another recommendation to teach literary essay? Do you have them write an essay or just use the type of thinking it requires?? Thanks.

  2. I base my UOS on the Calkins book. I don’t have them write a full essay, but shorter responses (2-3 paragraphs) before moving on to the letter-essays.

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