Conferencing in the Math Classroom?
Conferencing is a powerful assessment tool often used in English classrooms. Teachers sit down with students one-on-one to discuss a reading and assess the student’s understanding of that reading. Or teachers conference with students about their writing, discussing specific next steps to improve their piece. Oftentimes this strategy is used in History , Language and even Science classrooms….
Conferencing is a great way to set expectations of student work. It’s a relationship building activity that can allow for 2-way communication between student and teacher. There is much to be benefitted by both the student and the teacher during a conference. But Math classrooms? Most math teachers would say “no way!”
I was always jealous when I saw students conferencing with teachers in other subjects. I wanted to be able to do that in my Math class, but just didn’t quite see how it would translate. If I did try conferencing it needed to be meaningful, not forced. I wanted students to feel good about it. Additionally, since it takes so much time to implement, I didn’t want to sacrifice learning. It didn’t make sense to conference to discuss the next steps in their math work, since it was much more efficient to write notes of feedback on the work. So, what the heck could I conference about in Math?
One day, it hit me, there WAS a way I could conference in the Math classroom, but it would be a very different type of conference. I figured out that I could conference around goal setting and progress. In my class it wouldn’t look like a discussion about a specific standard or skill. Instead, it would look like a mid-year check in about goals, work habits, grades, expectations, and general well-being. This felt like a meaningful activity that would help students to reset and increase their productivity while building our relationships.
Now I had to think about what the rest of the class would be doing while I was talking 1 on 1 with students. I crafted a project that had kids working collaboratively to make their own math textbook with a chapter for every unit we have covered so far in the year. It was the middle of the year so there were 6 units completed so far, and another 6 to go. That meant there was plenty for kids to work on, as well as plenty for us to conference about!
I took a day to set up the project and answer questions. I also explained to the class that while they were working on their project I would be conferencing. I explained what we would talk about and told them to prepare any questions they wanted to discuss. At the end of that first day everyone understood what was expected of them and they had the resources necessary to work on their projects.
I took a desk into the hallway with 2 chairs. I set them up, along with my computer, directly outside the open classroom door so I could still see the whole class. I opened my computer and logged into my grading software so I could access students’ grades, as well as their previous state tests score, attendance data and so forth. I called students out one at a time and they sat in the chair opposite me. I began by asking how they were doing and if there was anything in particular they wanted to discuss. I would make notes on their requests and answer any questions right away.
Next, it was my turn to share my observations of their work. I shared 2 – 3 positive things about their performance in class, and 1 thing I thought they could improve upon. For example, “You perform very well on assessments and help others when they don’t understand, and those are wonderful attributed that will take you far and help you in school. However, I see here you only complete homework about 50% of the time. Why is that? Is there something we can work on together to improve that?” And I would give students a chance to honestly share their thoughts on what I had said. We would try to come up with an action plan together to improve on their weakness and I would encourage students to take notes about it.
We would then go through their grades in detail, as well as their performance on previous state tests. I would share my expectations on how they would perform this year, and the sorts of grades I wanted to see them achieve. We would analyze their grades to determine which areas boosted their grades, and which areas dragged them down. For example, “I see here you do very well on classwork and projects, but assessments is your lowest grade average, why do you think that is?” We would discuss what we could do differently to perhaps improve performance on assessments.
We would talk a little more about future goals with respect to school and career. If a student wanted me to I would check their other grades for them. Sometimes I would learn that they lacked the technology necessary to complete certain things at home, or I would learn that they had a job or siblings to care for and that prevented them from completing work. It was so helpful to learn these things and have these conversations so I could determine how to help.
I managed to conference with about 5 – 6 students in a 45 minute period. At this rate it took me 6 periods to finish all my students. This was exactly the same amount of time they needed to finish their projects. They submitted the projects the same day I finished conferencing and we began a new unit the next day.
In the days and weeks that followed I saw great improvement in classroom behaviors. Students also improved upon the weaknesses we discussed in conferencing. I saw improved attention to grades, note taking, studying and assignment completion. Plus, relationships in class were greatly improved. Ever since, I have conferenced once a year at the mid-year point and it has always been an effective practice that greatly helped my students.
The “Textbook Project” I had my students work on is available on my TPT store. Click the link to find it!
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