Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why I Attend Conferences: Inspiration from Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller

As I mentioned yesterday, I attended the annual IRC conference in Peoria this week. While there, I was discussing with another educator the merits of teachers leaving the classroom to attend professional development. He shared that he knew of a school where if you didn't miss any school - illness, personal day, or professional days - during the school year, you were given money at the end of the year. 

To say this irritated me would be an understatement. It felt like one more way to devalue our profession. Are other professionals encouraged to come in sick? To send their sick children to school or find other people to stay with them? To purposefully save any growth as a professional until them summer? I simply don't understand. And while I sit here and type, with a box of Kleenex next to me thanks to my beautiful students who enjoy sharing, I thought I might share what I gained by missing a day of school on Friday to attend a reading conference. 

I had the pleasure of attending four sessions on Friday; three with Penny Kittle, one with Donalyn Miller. I have seen both of these amazing women present before, but I would go again and again. Their message is always inspiring and I walk away with new thinking as well as clarification on what I am already doing. 

Penny inspires me as a reader and a writer. She shares passionately her belief that writing in front of her students is critical to their success. Penny uses quick writes in her class as I do, but what she reminded me was the importance of writing in front of them. I often write to the side while my students are writing. She suggests writing under the document camera so they can see what you are writing. It helps to spur on those who are stuck. My favorite part is that she then goes back and rereads her own writing while the kids watch, revising as she goes with another color of pen. She then asks her students to do this work as well. They see that revising makes the piece stronger. That revising isn't just looking for spelling, capitalization, etc. 

Writing together connects Penny with her students. At one point she threw out the idea, "What if there was a quick write with a chance to talk at every faculty meeting? I bet that we would be stronger as a result. Definitely better friends." That would be powerful. I'm sure some would hate it. However, I know that would be a faculty I would want to be part of.

Penny also shared the importance of mentor texts. I know this. I love it. I've learned about this through the works of Katie Wood Ray and Ralph Fletcher. I am grateful to be reminded of it once again. Penny looks for mentor writing while she read, saving favorite sentences and passages in Google Docs to reread with her students. I also loved the reminder to have our kids looking for brilliant sentences as they read. I've had my students do this before, but it has been awhile. Gathering those sentences and posting them in the classroom allows us to be surrounded with beautiful language. So important. 

Finally, Penny reminded us about the importance of choice in reading. Her book, Book Love, speaks to this. She talked about the kids who had used Spark Notes to make their way through high school, and how they finally found books that spoke to them when they were allowed to choose their own books. This isn't to say that she still doesn't use a whole class novel, she does use on a semester - only for 3 weeks. The rest of the time they are creating their own book clubs and selecting independent choice books.

I loved the powerful stories she shared - both with students and teachers. At her school someone teaches a class called Literature in War. He went from a semester of all assigned texts to a plan of one assigned and discussed - Maus, then four books as a choice for book club, and then independent choice in this genre. The kids were so excited and engaged that they ended up adding the second book of Maus, ten total options for book club, and then their independent choices. The students read and discussed far more than normal and the teacher said he would never go back. It was the most engaged he had ever seen students. This is what happens when we give them choice. Scaling back from completely teacher driven to one piece that was driven by teachers and then handing over the reins and letting the kids chose.

I only attend one session with Donalyn before having to dash off for home. The topic was conferring. Critically important stuff here. Donalyn reminded us that conferring is critical to seeing all of the students in our classrooms. That we needed to find whatever system for conferring that worked for us, one that we wouldn't give up. I love, LOVE, her "Golden Gate Bridge" method of conferring. It seems that the folks that paint the Golden Gate Bridge start on one end and paint their way across. Because of the climate and salt water, they are never done. Once they reach the other side, they begin again. So Donalyn's advice in the classroom is the same. Keep a copy of your class list, check off as you confer, begin again once you finish the class. She tells us to stop beating ourselves up because we haven't met with seven kids in a day. Value the one you do meet with.

Donalyn has three types of conferences. One is an assessment, check-in type where she checks to see if they understood a skill that she's taught. She uses this one less frequently. A comprehension conference that takes more time, but tells her a lot about if the students are understanding what they are reading. She uses that one about four times a year. And then a reading habits conference - what they're reading, when they're reading, who are they recommending books to and getting recommendations from, etc. This one is built around the habits of readers from her book, Reading in the Wild

I love conferring with my kids, but I am just now settling into a nice conferring schedule (as in the last three days). The start of the year I feel like my conferring would fall into the "putting out fires" type of conferring. Getting one student on track, helping another find a book, etc.

I'm going to leave you today with some quotes I jotted down from Penny and Donalyn. They were inspiring to me, I hope they will be to you as you start your week off. What an amazing day. 

Teaching is not a symphony, it's jazz. 
-Penny sharing a tweet she was sent

My students' writing rests on a foundation of reading. 
-Penny Kittle

Living as a writer with my kids is the single most important thing I do. 
-Penny Kittle

The number of books a child reads in a school year is the most important thing they do in their school year. It has the largest impact on their future. 
-Penny Kittle sharing a quote from Nancie Atwell

How easy it is to think the book is important. It is the student that is. 
-Penny Kittle

You aren't preparing kids for anything if you aren't marching kids through books and they aren't really reading. 
-Penny Kittle

If we have kids that aren't reading, we have to own that. They are our kids. 
-Penny Kittle

If we control 100% of what they read in our class, they read less. 
-Penny Kittle

Conferring with our students ensures that we have no invisible children in our classrooms. 
-Donalyn Miller

We really only know what kids think about what they read in two ways - what they write about it and what they say. 
-Donalyn Miller

Many students walk into reading a series non-readers and walk out of it readers. 
-Donalyn Miller

If not you, then who? If not now, then when? 
-Penny Kittle sharing a quote from John Lewis