How to move students forward with the “reverse lesson” approach to 1-1 conferences


A conference is a lesson in reverse. If you don’t quite get me yet, catch the conversation I recall from last school year at the end of this post.

In a typical lesson, we begin with a hook. This typically relates to the topic or content to the kids. It might relate to the objective for the class.  It might be some way to get kids moving, thinking, speaking, writing, or reading. It’s a way to pull the kids into the action of learning.  Teach Like a Pirate is  a book with many great hooks. Hacking Engagement (and the follow-up) collectively contain 100 ideas for hooking students into a lesson. There are many approaches if you’re willing to look into them. 

Then, we instruct. We might do a reading lesson on a specific skill. We might have a read aloud. Or, there might be some sort of speaking event for the kids. This is the part that we typically think of when we hear teaching.

Lastly, we assess learning. Of course, this happens throughout class. However, classes often end with a formal assessment. This might be an exit ticket. It might be a specific question to discuss. It might be some piece of an essay that kids turn in for review.

Notice that this structure works well for a large group. Part of the reason it works is that we have to get everyone on the same page for learning to begin. We need the majority of students to be doing what we’re asking them to do, to buy-in to our lesson, in order for it to work. So, it makes sense to begin with the hook.

Then, we instruct after we have this buy-in.

And the assessment at the end is important because it informs everything that happens next. The results of this assessment often go in a grade book. The data is used to plan tomorrow’s lesson, or even how the teacher will change the lesson for the afternoon’s class. We want to know what students know and can do before they leave for the day.

When I confer with kids, I switch this format. Hook, instruct, assess becomes assess, instruct, and hook.

I can best illustrate it with an example. There’s a conference I have on video from last year that I refer to in workshops for teachers. Ryan and I sat down to confer about his independent reading book in the spring of last year.  Here’s how it went:

Assessment — How is Ryan doing and how can I help him? Am I focusing on the book, the reading, or the reader here?

(I’m D, Ryan is R.)

D: How’s it going?

R: Not bad.

D: Ok, good good. What part of the book are you up to?

R: I’m kind of at the beginning parts.

[This comment gave me a hint that he hasn’t done much reading so far. It was the uncertainty of “beginning parts” that tipped me off in retrospect.]

Instruction — What can we say or do right now so Ryan moves forward?

D: Ok, I understand. A little bit busy lately?

R: Yea.

D: Alright, so where’s your book?

R: I don’t have it with me. It’s by my bed.

D: Ok, well that’s great that you’ve been bringing it home. And you know what, I can totally relate. I’m someone who gets really wrapped up in his own thoughts. And that makes me super forgetful. So, when I have to remember something, I literally put it right in front of my front door. Or, I put my cell phone on top of it. Which one of those could you could try?

R: I think I could try…with the phone.

D: Ok, great. Put a reminder in your phone right now to leave your book next to your phone for next class.

R: Ok.

Hook — How can I send Ryan back to his seat ready to keep working?

D: Let’s go take a look at the bookshelf. There are a couple of books, like comedy books and pictures books, that are great to read just for a day if you forgot your book.

I choose to share this conference because it’s one that looks like a dud. The student forgot his book. How did I help him out with it? Well, if I consider the book, the reading, and the reader, then in this case I’m focusing just on the reader. I want to help Ryan as a reader develop his habit of bringing his book to school every day.

To recap:

I assess the reader’s current status and figure out the purpose of the conference.

instruct the reader based on his need. Can I help him decode the page he’s on? Choose his next book? Relate this scene to our shared readings?

Lastly, I hook the reader back into the reading. Will I check in at the end of class and see how far he’s progressed? Ask him to jot down examples of the writer’s voice showing through? Review the answer to a specific question I posed.

The typical lesson structure works because it gives us a general framework that we can use to improvise. Flipping that structure allows me to use conferences to move readers forward.

How do you approaches conferences? Do you have any favorite questions? Share in the comments.

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