Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Interview with Patrick Allen, Author of CONFERRING: THE KEYSTONE OF READER'S WORKSHOP

Today, Patrick Allen's new book, CONFERRING: THE KEYSTONE OF READER'S WORKSHOP is available through Stenhouse. I am excited to read this book. I have heard Patrick Allen speak at several conferences and he is BRILLIANT about conferring. I spent some time reading parts of the book online but am anxious to get my hands on a copy now that it is available! I interviewed Patrick about his book and about reading conferences. Enjoy!

Franki: Tell us a little bit about the title of your book-what do you mean by Keystone?

Patrick: It’s kind of an ironic story. I write about it in my introduction. I was talking to my eldest sister, Joy, about my students and the work I was doing with conferring. During the course of our conversation, she compared the work I was doing with readers to the craftsmanship of my father (a stonemason and bricklayer). After our conversation, I wrote about an experience I had with dad years ago when he turned to me and asked me, “So… what do you think?” It was the first time I remember anyone looking me in the eye, asking my opinion, and then waiting for a response.

A keystone is the central voussoir of an arch. It is said to hold the weight of an arch and is often the last stone put in place, but it is the most important part of an arch. So, I thought a keystone was a perfect comparison.

To understand the power of conferring in reader’s workshop the keystone became the metaphor I chose to use as I wrote. The work keystone comes from the Latin clavis for “key”… meaning imperative, vital, essential. The same words I would use to describe conferring.
I had the idea of the keystone in my mind long before I wrote my first word… I love the image.

Franki: What is the place of conferring in a reading workshop?

Patrick: I think it is one of the most essential things we can do with readers. Conferring is of utmost import.

Ellin Keene points out, conferring is one of the five most powerful instructional tools we have at our disposal. And, conferring is something that I have spent a lot of time honing—learning to do better (and I’m still learning). I look forward each day to the conferences I have with readers during the composing portion of the reader’s workshop. Lori Conrad (a friend and colleague) and I have come to realize that conferring:
• Mirrors rich conversations
• Shepherds developing readers and writers
• Provides an authentic context for ongoing assessment and response

Conferring has become a nonnegotiable routine in my classroom. It provides the opportunity for my students and me to discuss and explore ideas in a manageable, thoughtful way. It’s the shared “coming to know” that I value most. Conferring is the most important thing I do with readers. It’s my favorite part of reader’s workshop.

Franki: You talk early in the book about purposeful conversations. Do you see conferences as conversations?

Patrick: I see them as conversations and so much more. My favorite conferences take on a conversational tone; the most effective conferences do. But, they also provide meaningful instruction, stretch thinking and monitor understanding, leave the reader with a specific goal, etc. Ultimately, I think conferences strengthen the capacity for students to be independent readers.

In Chapter Six of the book (titled “Conferring Walk-Aways). I write about what I hope students walk-away with after a conference or series of conferences. My friend, Cheryl Zimmerman and I created a list of walk-aways after she visited my room. The list continues to develop.
If I can make the experience of conferring more authentic and conversational in tone, I think readers become more metacognitive, and ultimately, more independent. There’s an amazing since of trust that develops if we confer honestly and sincerely. As I was writing the book, I was shocked about how many times I used the word conversation. It’s an important word when it comes to conferring. And, purposeful is an important descriptor of those conversations.

Franki: What makes reading conferences more difficult for teachers than writing conferences?

Patrick: Good question. One I’ve thought a lot about…
For me, reading conferences seem somewhat less tangible than writing conferences. My colleague, Lisa Olsen, once said “I think the reading conference is shrouded in mystery largely because we think some sort of divine intervention needs to, or is going to, take place...” Lisa explained that if we see conferences in this light, we neglect to see and hear the simple truths of what can emerge from each and every conference. We have to focus on the reader, then those truths can emerge.

There are many parallels between writing conferences and reading conferences, but there’s a twist that makes reading conferences unique. I love the challenge of conferring with readers; it’s about what a reader is thinking, wondering, discovering about himself and his process. It’s a grand discovery. I feel so blessed every time I sit down side-by-side a reader.
There’s been a lot written about writing conferences, so it’s been so much fun for me over the years to learn from great conferrers like Debbie Miller and Ellin Keene. I love the ambiguity of trying to really study how reading conferences work… it has been and continues to be an exciting inquiry.

Franki: You talk about conferring myths. Can you tell us a bit about that and one myth that you think really holds teachers back?

Patrick: Well, my colleague Lori and I chose to call them counterfeit beliefs rather than myths. As a classroom teacher, who also works as a staff developer, I’ve heard lots of excuses about why reading conferences can’t or don’t work. Early in the book, I dispel some of the misconceptions I’ve encountered in my work with other teachers. Basically, this list started as Lori and I kept a list of the things we heard teachers say about conferring.

When visitors come to my classroom, they always comment about the way I confer. Questions about conferring take a prominent role in our debriefing sessions. Often teachers say, “I could never do that…” And, I say, “Yes you can…” It is an art, but we can all dabble.

What holds teachers back? I wrote about ten counterfeit beliefs that we encountered, but there may be others. I think teachers need to think about the kinds of things they say to themselves about why they don’t confer more often and then ask themselves, “Why?” and “What am I going to do about it?” That’s the first step.

A lot of Conferring is about the journey I went through as I tried to change some of my beliefs and to enhance my instruction. I hope that as people read the book, they’ll understand that like all great learning, learning to confer takes time, energy, and practice, but it’s well-worth the effort! My own journey has made conferring the keystone of my reader’s workshop.

Throughout the book, I’ve interspersed “ponderings” that readers can spend time reflecting on (it’s my hope that they will take time to think, write, or talk about them). We have to ponder, to think, if we ever expect to get better.

Franki: What tips do you have about record keeping for conferring?

Patrick: You have to develop your own system. Don’t rely on someone else to hand you a system or say here, “Make this…” Can you use their ideas? Sure. But take them as a suggestion.
For me it was first about developing a structure for my conferences (I call it the R. I. P. model). The record keeping system followed. My record keeping system is simple and flexible, personalized (not cutesy), and purposeful. I write a bit about the format I’ve developed. It works for me.

What wouldn’t I recommend? Using someone else’s system without first trying it out… it’s not one-size fits all. We’ve all tried record keeping systems that sound great as we read about them, we copy the idea… then it doesn’t quite work out as planned and we give up.
I created a form that aligns with the structure of my reading conferences (And, I’m playing around a bit with some things I’ve learned from you). It’s all part of the process of learning to confer and confer well.

I think that we can use our conferences as a viable means to monitor a reader’s progress, so we have to keep practicing and exploring this aspect of conferring. And, as I point out in the book, we have to look at conferring versus collecting… which was a great conversation I had with my good friend, Troy Rushmore. And, there are lots of “collectors” out there.

I also recommend that you do something. If we’re always looking for a perfect record-keeping system, often we forget the reason we needed it in the first place.

Franki: Can you talk a bit about the balance between student ownership and teaching with rigor?

Patrick: Balance. That’s an intriguing word. I think that the balance shifts depending upon so many factors—experience, interest, strengths, growth areas, etc. Without moving ownership to the forefront of a conference will it be filled with rigor? If we try to focus on rigor, but readers have no ownership, will our conferences be as effective? We have to ask, “Who’s in control?”
I used the ideas of cultivating rigor, nurturing inquiry, and developing intimacy as I wrote about the essential components of conferring. Ellin Keene says we must, “Create an unseen culture of rigor, inquiry, and intimacy by continually expecting more, probing ideas further, and pressing students to explore their intellect." (2008) I explored conferences through each of these lenses and discovered the answers to some important questions I was having about reading conferences.

Chapter five in the book is all about this very issue.

Franki: What is one thing you hope readers walk away with after reading your new book?

Patrick: One thing? One thing questions are hard to answer, but here goes… belief in children.

In the prologue, I write about a teacher who made a lasting impact on each of my four children—simply by believing in him or her… and by conferring regularly.

Thank you, Franki and Mary Lee, for inviting me to share Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop on your blog. It’s been an honor. I’m so proud of this book and I appreciate the opportunity to share it with your readers.

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