“ I cannot believe that I said yes…” I shared with a colleague one busy October morning as we walked our students back to our classrooms after art and music. I explained to my friend about an upcoming presentation I agreed to do at our neighboring middle school.
“Do you think middle school teachers could really use any ideas I have to share? I think saying yes to hosting this presentation was a mistake…” I added with a jittery feeling of dread.
“Well you’re not sounding very confident…” came a bubbly voice a few steps behind me. I pivoted to see the smiling face of Gabby, a charismatic and outgoing student and the source of the unexpected comment.
“Do you want to talk about this with us?” she said with her dark eyes shining while beaming a most genuine smile.
Surprised was an understatement describing my immediate reaction to Gabby’s question. I was not expecting a child to hear, let alone listen and then process my worries. Unexpectedly, Gabby reacted and reached out to offer caring support. Moving past the idea of looking under-confident to a child, I was intrigued by the possibilities of this learning opportunity. What would students say when their teacher revealed her nervousness about an upcoming presentation at another school?
“We always talk about characters and the conflicts they face in their stories. This time we could problem-solve with you and figure out this inside problem.” chirped Gabby, scurrying to walk beside me so we could chat.
Wait…what….??? My eyes must have widened-so Gabby continued her chatter.
“In class we always talk about characters having conflicts that happen on the outside in their world and also the struggles they have on the inside with their feelings. Well… I can tell you are worried…your eyebrows have that crunched together look and your voice doesn’t have the usual pep.” replied Gabby.
The life of a teacher is filled with the necessity of being flexible and accepting the spontaneous needs of children. Ordinarily, I was accustomed to being the one supplying advice or helping students to craft solutions. Taking a risk and accepting advice were two choices I often encouraged my students to consider. What would happen if I showed my students the power of reflection and the acceptance of help? What did I have to lose? More importantly, what did my students have to gain?
“Gabby is going to lead a discussion…” I announced to my students as we settled into our classroom’s community area.
“So you can make an oval to chat.” directed Gabby, finishing my sentence. Once she had the team’s full attention, she explained why we were gathered and shared her thoughts on the conversation she overheard.
“And I wasn’t really eavesdropping…” she added. “Mrs. Smith was talking about a presentation, which is just like a lesson with us, so I figured it wasn’t a private topic. I think she would pick a better place to talk about private topics than the hallway.”
(Note to self-always assume someone is listening to you in the hallway.)
“So it seems that Mrs. Smith is worried about talking to a group of teachers for a presentation.” Gabby stated with a serious and confident voice. “I think she needs a conference. Who would like to start?”
“What are you going to talk about with the teachers?” asked Michael.
I explained how my talk would focus on conferences with students during Reading Workshop. I would describe how we talk about books and students’ reading lives. I was greeted with smiles and lots of nodding heads.
“Is that all?” asked Steele.
I continued, explaining how I would also show the way we use Google Forms to collect information about readers and then how we use the information to keep growing as readers.
“Why are you worried about sharing?” added Steele after hearing the additional information.
I was intrigued by the comfortable conversation hosted by students; their questions peeled away the layers to reveal my question: Were my worries stemming from my teaching practices or the perceptions of my middle school colleagues?
“I don’t know my audience very well…so I am wondering if the information I share will matter to them and their teaching.” I confessed.
“I felt that way when I had my first reading conference with you. I figured you had already read the book, so what else could I say about it?” answered Tony.
“Yeah…me too. But you let us talk.” added Sheri. “You wanted to know what we thought about our books. Isn’t that what you are going to do? Share what you think about reading conferences? So really this presentation is just like a conference. Instead of one teacher listening, you will just have a bunch of teachers listening…Don’t you think the other teachers want to hear what you have to say? You always want to know our thinking in a conference.”
“I never thought about it that way before.” I answered. This conversation was more than a pep-talk. I was learning about my own classroom community and the bonds created through reading conferences and conversations.
“Are you going to tell those teachers about the Google Forms because they help us? Are you going to explain how the conference forms lets us feel confident and helps us tell you more about the books we’re reading?” asked Maria.
“The form helps you to feel more confident?” I asked, rather surprised by this news.
“Well of course…when you started conferences at the beginning of the year, you kept the form on the SmartBoard for everyone to see- even if we weren’t having a conference. We saw and heard what you were doing in a conference. Then we knew what to expect when it was our turn to talk with you.” Maria added, looking surprised that I had to ask that question.
“Letting us see the form on your laptop during conferences really helps too. You also have our Book Partner charts nearby to help us with possible topics for our conference talks. All of this stuff made our conferences easier… and then conferences became fun. Didn’t you know that?” responded Emma with kind disbelief.
“So about this talk. I’m really confused. Are you worrying about the talking or about whether or not people will listen?” Gabby finally asked.
Wow. In one kind but direct sentence, Gabby summarized my worries. The wisdom of children means you need to be ready to wrestle with some hard truths. It never dawned on me that it wasn’t the talking that had me worried, but would my audience care enough to listen. This short “conference” helped me focus on empowering ideas and now I could conquer my concerns as a presenter before a new audience.
A 10 minute conversation with my students accomplished more than easing my worries about a professional presentation. Our talk confirmed my beliefs about class conversations and the confidence gained from a powerful literacy environment. My students reaffirmed how meaningful conversations build the foundation of a supportive classroom community. This confessional conference reminded me of the following truths:
Be a listener.
Let students talk so you can discover their perceptions of selected classroom practices, routines, and rituals. By slowing down and letting a child lead the conversation, who knew I could receive reflective and powerful feedback from my students? By publicizing my worries about an upcoming presentation, I actually discovered how important reading conferences were to my students. In turn, my students realized that their observations and advice helped me feel more confident; their words helped me realize the necessity of being brave so I could share my ideas with others. Empowerment can be a shared experience.
We all have our worries and baggage that we try to compartmentalize and hide away when we live and work in our communities. Decide when sharing your concerns and looking vulnerable is worthwhile so you can hear truthful comments from those around you. Be open to the messages of your colleagues, your school families, and from children. My unexpected confession to students reinforced the idea that we need one another. Sometimes we need support. At times we need to celebrate. Each of us needs someone to listen. We all need caring people in our lives to grow. When students understand they play a role in creating a supportive community, we encourage children to be invested in themselves and in others.
When our short ten minute conversation came to a close, I was compelled to share my gratitude. I made sure my students understood that I valued their advice. I commended their empathy, thanked them for listening and congratulated them on supporting me even when they didn’t quite understand my concerns. Their ideas shed new light on the powerful possibilities of Reading Workshop conferences. I thanked them for the way they focused on positive elements and solutions, helping me to find my purpose, and in the end my confidence. I let them know that instead of making me feel silly for speaking my worries, I felt stronger for sharing the truth.
Confidence In Our Communities
No matter where you teach, our classrooms hold the potential power of a supportive community. When we listen to the honest conversations of our students, their words and perspectives reveal perceived roles in our carefully designed community. How do students value classroom practices, routines, and rituals? Do students see themselves as contributing members with ideas to share? Are they confident enough to offer advice? Do students care about one another, including their teacher?
As educators, we know our roles as leaders, mentors and guides. Do our students understand their roles in classrooms? We need our students’ perspectives and ideas to create thriving communities. When Gabby asked me:
“Do you want to talk about this with us?”
I never anticipated the empowering feedback I could receive from children. I learned that our team gatherings and individual conferences were more than instructional practices. Our classroom communities can be the places we find our people, our voice, and the confidence to speak. Our communities can help to discover the power of us.