What do you need? It is such a simple question. A friend recently shared that her therapist suggested she teach the people close to her to ask her this question when she’s in the midst of an episode of spiraling anxiety. It seems that the escalation of her powerful, swirling emotions can be disrupted when she switches to processing her immediate needs.
I love a beautiful question. What do you need? It is a perfect way to approach conferences with sixth-grade readers.
This year, it seems I have more students than ever who are not completing reading-notebook entries. Initially I felt frustrated and overwhelmed by their disengagement.
Then I thought through the purpose of reading notebooks. I want students to capture thinking on paper because the simple act of doing so causes us to have thoughts we wouldn’t otherwise have. I want students to write notebook entries so I can see their thinking, too.
Given those purposes for reading and then writing notebook entries, I wondered what the students who weren’t engaging might need. The first thing I came up with was that maybe these students did not know how to keep a notebook entry. So, I started by selecting a peer with a strong understanding of the notebook expectations to reteach small groups how to create a notebook entry. Perhaps hearing how someone else approached the task might help clarify the steps.
That strategy worked for about 50 percent of the disengaged sixth-grade readers in my class as they turned in notebook entries the following week. For the remaining 50 percent, I planned individual conferences. I suspected that these students were still not completing notebook entries because they simply were not doing enough reading to sustain notebook entry completion, which might mean they had not even chosen a book to read.
My conference with Jayla turned out to be just that simple. I started the conference with a smile on my face. I wanted Jayla to know she was not in trouble for failing to complete notebook entries. I told her I noticed she hadn’t started her reading notebook and asked, “Are you currently reading something, or should we start by finding you a book?”
Because I was genuinely entering the conference with the idea of getting Jayla what she needed to jump in and get started rather than focusing on the work she had missed, she immediately opened up about her challenges. She explained that she had not been writing down the titles of books I shared that she might want to read someday. She admitted that not knowing the titles meant she wasn’t sure how to ask for help finding a book. After a quick exchange of question and answer, I was able to figure out that one of the books she wanted to try was Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake.
We made a plan for her to get the book and discussed the kind of notebook entry she might try first, and she was on her way. By putting Jayla’s needs as a reader before my needs as a teacher, she ended up with a book in her hands much more quickly.
For students who are regularly completing notebook entries, answering the question of what they need looks a bit different. I start by reviewing recent entries to look for what students are doing as readers. I record this in a table under the heading “What I Noticed.” Then, I think about a logical next step for the reader and jot that down in the “What to Try” column.
When planning a conference with Mike, I noticed that his entries on Ghost by Jason Reynolds were detailed, accurate summaries. I started the conference by naming the strong thinking he was already doing. I pointed out that he was identifying causes and effects and that he included the protagonist’s thoughts. A logical next step for him was to work on including the protagonist’s feelings as well. Once a reader has a strong command of plot, character analysis work is not far behind.
Other examples of next steps for readers include these:
The most rewarding conferences can also be the most puzzling at times. Sometimes, when a reader is highly skilled, it can be difficult to determine next steps. That was the case for Navya.
When I reviewed her notebook entries before meeting with her, I noticed they were very thorough. Each entry was written in a different style, which showcased a wide variety of reading skills. Navya included analysis in addition to summary, and I noticed she was writing about which characters she was pulling for. She was hoping for a particular outcome for the protagonist. One entry even included words to savor from the book, along with an explanation of what was so delicious about the writing style of that particular passage.
When a reader reaches the state of empathizing with characters and admiring author’s craft, she is at the point where she no longer needs comprehension strategy enrichment. Rather, she is demonstrating outcomes of comprehension.
Because Navya had even modified one style of notebook entry that notes how a character changes, I felt she was completing taking ownership of her work as an independent reader. So, I decided not to give her a challenge other than to continue exactly the kind of work she has been doing. My biggest goal for her is for me to stay out of her way and allow her to continue to thrive as a reader.
Although the actual question What do you need? never came out of my mouth during reading conferences, it guided the moves I made as a teacher and fellow reader. It turns out that when I put my frustrations aside and take an inquiry stance instead, I make more room for readers to grow and flourish.