6 Ways to Confer in the Crowded Classroom

“My biggest struggle right now is that I have 36 students in each class (60 min periods). There’s not an empty seat in the room! Any ideas?”
Maybe this sounds like you. I’ve been there –trying everything to make workshop work in my over-flowing freshman and sophomore classes. Last year I had 38 sophomores in my 8th period. Talk about ending the day exhausted.
My principal said at the first of this year: “40 is the new 30″ regarding class sizes. Most teachers I know deal with bulging class sizes every day. We have to adjust to the new normal.
Last week I read this English Journal article from 2000 (timely with Nancie Atwell recently winning that awesome teaching award), and I was reminded of how Atwell talks about the tension in a workshop classroom.
I’ve said it many times before:   readers and writers workshop is constant motion, and sometimes the tension becomes a tight rope under my feet as I try to provide my students with the best instruction possible.
I believe it’s student conferences that steady the bouncing rope, but how do we confer with all of our students regularly when our classes are so large?
A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about reading conferences in high school. Mrs. Thompson wrote that plea at the top of the page in the comments. I’ve thought about it ever since.
I am fortunate to have small classes this year, but balancing the tension is still not easy. Below I share six ways I confer with students. I had to be inventive to confer with those rowdy 38 sophomores. Maybe some of these ideas will help my friend Mrs. Thompson.
1. Start before the Bell. Several of my students enter my room two or three minutes before the bell rings. When I am behind in my conferences, which is more often than I’d like, I can talk to a few more students a day when I begin before the bell.
2. Go to Them. My students sit in small groups with their desks clustered in fours and fives. When I want to speak to students individually, I go to them and kneel beside their desk. We talk in hushed tones for a maximum of two and a half minutes. If a student wants to talk longer, before the end of class I pass her a sticky note with an invitation to come in during my lunch. Sometimes she does.
3. Bundle Them Up. Instead of speaking in hushed tones, when I know the topic of the conference will benefit all students in a small group, we speak a little louder. This way I can easily turn to the other three or four students and invite them into the conversation. “You might want to try that, too.”  or “Do you have a question similar to Mark’s?”
4. Make it Voluntary. I know I am not the only one with students who need to talk before they’ve really even started. When I begin conferences with an invitation — “If you’re having trouble getting started, meet me at the sofa, and let’s talk”— I can spend five minutes with five to six students, often clarifying ideas or validating their thinking. Once I model how to talk about their work, students learn to effectively give one another feedback. I can leave them talking and confer with a few other students. Five to ten minutes later, I return to the couch. More often than not, these students are now ready to work on their own. They just needed some talk to get them started.
5. Group Them through Feedback. I learned this one from Penny Kittle. Say you are reading through student drafts, and you see the same trouble spots over and over again. Make a note on the bottom right corner, maybe a code like TH if you’re seeing not-so-powerful thesis statements. Then during conference time, ask everyone with a TH on their paper to meet you at the center table. You save time by re-teaching or doing a mini-lesson on thesis statements only with those students who need the refresher. (This works for reading conferences with my most resistant readers, too.)
6. Keep it Silent. Sometimes I get more information about what my students need when they write it out instead of talk about it. I’ve learned to give some of my quiet students the option to confer most often in silent conversations. I leave them notes. They leave me notes back. This is similar to Chris Tovani’s conversation calendars, which when I tried to do with the whole class, challenged my ability to be consistent. When I make the notes optional, those students who want this type of conference take advantage of it — and I can read student notes and respond after the class period.
Do you have other ideas for conferring with students in large classes? Please leave a comment.
This text was reprinted with permission from Amy Rasmussen's post "6 Ways to Confer in the Crowded Classroom"on the blog Three Teachers Talk. 
©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015
  • File Type: Text
  • Selected Literacy Topics: Reading, Speaking, Writing