Lucy Calkins makes no bones about it: “Research is really clear that even just five minutes of conversation about books ramps up comprehension.” It’s those three words ramps up comprehension that I think about when I visit classrooms and observe students who don’t get opportunities to share their book thoughts.
“I want my students to be talking about books,” said Mary, a fourth-year teacher. “But I don’t know exactly how to guide them toward meaningful conversations.” Mary’s words resonated with me. Reflecting on my own reading workshop when I was a classroom teacher, I wanted students talking to each other and I gave them time to do it. But I didn’t have a structure that lead them to effective communication about books: the kind that really ramps up comprehension.
Where are we going and how do we get there?
I knew the ultimate goal of a peer conferring structure was to get kids talking about their thinking. There are so many crucial conversations beyond “This book is good,” and “I liked it.” In order to move students toward the goal, the classroom teacher and I would need clear expectations for a structure and a strong model. Modeling would be the first step, with opportunities for student practice soon to follow.
These questions guide my initial conversations with teachers about peer conferring:
1. How will we provide excellent models of peer conferring? What will our students be asked to “notice” in the model?
2. How will we know our students are ready to try on a peer conference? How will students receive meaningful feedback as they give it a go?
3. When is it time to allow students to independently engage in peer conferring? How will they be held accountable to quality, thoughtful conversations?
Providing Multiple Models
When fourth-grade teacher Melissa Styger and I began to plan for peer conferring in her classroom, she was clear about her end goal. Melissa values peer communication, and wanted her students’ conversations to reflect the type of thinking she was asking of them in their reading. We knew that her students would need to see what that looks like and sounds like.
Teacher-to-Teacher Model: Because we’d clearly established our purpose and goal, Melissa and I were able to plan a “model conference” with role plays on the first day of instruction. Using the Peer Reading Conference Guide that I’d created, we established our roles and practiced the dialogue. Finding time to practice before ‘taking it live’ allowed us to model the structure and our thinking comfortably and naturally. (It’s not always possible to do the teacher-to-teacher model. Other alternatives would be arranging with an older student to model, a parent volunteer or another respected adult in the community: principal, counselor, librarian etc. You could also move directly to the teacher-to-student model.)
Melissa introduced the concept to her class and set the purpose: “When I read a book that I’m really enjoying, I can’t wait to talk to my friends about it. When I do, I find myself thinking even more about the book than I did before, and I start to understand more about it. Talking to our peers about books is an important way to build our comprehension.”
Each student was given a Peer Reading Conference Guide and a highlighter. The group was split down the middle, with half watching me (Partner A), and half watching Melissa (Partner B). As we engaged in our model conference, students were asked to watch for evidence of the behaviors outlined on the form and highlight them as they were observed.
Amanda: I’m really excited to tell you about a book I’m reading right now. It’s called The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor. I’m loving this book because the main character is basically a good kid who is thinking hard about making good decisions. The way he struggles with the choices he makes reminds me of how I feel when I’m faced with a tough decision.
Melissa: Can you tell me more about the decisions he’s having to make? What’s going on with him?
Amanda: Well, there are actually two big things. One is that he’s keeping this huge bullfrog as a pet, but he knows the frog isn’t happy living in captivity. You really hear him struggling with that — what to do with the frog. Also, he’s found a submarine that fell off the train tracks near his house. He and his friends want to try it out in the pond, but they know it doesn’t belong to them. Owen is conflicted — he knows he shouldn’t, but he really, really wants to.
Melissa: Wow, it sounds like he has some exciting things going on and some tough decisions to make. Thanks for sharing!
Amanda: Thank you!
The roles were reversed as Melissa shared her book thoughts, and Amanda modeled active listening. We then asked for feedback from the group. Students shared that they’d noticed we really talked about our thinking, and gave specific details from the books we’d read. They observed body language that indicated focused listening. They were able to pick up on the types of questions we asked each other — questions that evoked deeper thinking about the text. We ended the minilesson there, feeling that students had successfully picked up on the important thinking we’d demonstrated in the conference.
Teacher-to-Student Model: Since we were asking deeper thinking of students, Melissa and I knew that it would be some time before we’d release them to confer with their peers. The next day, we chose a student to model as my partner. Jasmine and I met before the minilesson and practiced our roles and dialogue, much like Melissa and I had done the day before.
Once again, students used the Peer Reading Conference Guide and highlighters to watch for the expected behaviors. Each point on the form was highlighted as it was observed, and students reflected on the conference in the group. Comments from students indicated that they recognized the quality of the dialogue. One student said, “Jasmine didn’t just say ‘The book was funny,’ but she explained why the character was funny and how she connected to her.” These were important distinctions for fourth graders to make about what peer conferring is — and what it isn’t.
Student-to-Student Model: By day three, I knew the students had seen enough of me. Two students were chosen to practice a conference before the minilesson. Like the two previous days, the students provided a model, and the class watched for the desired behaviors using the guide. With each model, Melissa and I noticed an increasing depth of reflection from students.
Each model provided a different level of support during the gradual release phase. In the teacher-to-teacher model we were able to demonstrate all the important aspects of the peer conferring structure. In the teacher-to-student model, the fourth graders were able to see that it was possible for a peer to engage in this level of talk. In the final student-to-student model, students were engaged by watching their peers, and clear on the expectations that would help them be successful with their early attempts at peer conferring.
Just three sessions in and we were already on our way to ramping up comprehension and moving beyond I-like-this-good-book peer conversation. In the next part of this series, I’ll explore how we gave meaningful feedback while the students practiced peer conferring.