The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling

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The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling

“There are three important rules that you should keep in mind whenever you go to your tumbler. These are: 1) Garbage in means garbage out; 2) Avoid contamination; and, 3) Great results take time.”

To begin this post, I’d better clarify my analogy. I do not identify with the camp that proclaims that students are as “dumb as rocks”, nor would I be disappointed to have received rocks on Halloween, unlike Charlie Brown. If you’ve read my first two posts, you know that I find rocks fascinating and filled with potential.

While I’m not sure how long this rock analogy will play out in my blog, I woke up quite early this Sunday morning with the idea of how student conferencing is much like tumbling rocks. Excited to get a bit of inspiration from the experts, I googled “rock tumbling” into the search bar. (Yes, I really did use “Googling” as a verb. It felt weird, but I did, in fact USE Google!)

My first hit landed me at http://rocktumbler.com/. Umm-hmmm….these amateur geologists aren’t into cutesy, clever names. Let’s just call it what it is: rocktumbler dot com. Alright, then—if I’m to continue with this analogy, I suppose I am the “rock tumbler” in my classroom. Looking at the different models, I would be a Thumler Model B.

The Model B has a single 15 lb. metal barrel with a rubber insert and gasket. If you fill this barrel about 1/2 to 2/3 full of rock as recommended it will process about ten pounds of rock. The soft rubber insert and gasket will tumble your stones with a minimum amount of noise. It has the low speed, 1550rpm, overload protected motor. Age Recommendation: This is a large-capacity tumbler that should be used by adults.

Considering my years in teaching, I would probably be the largest, most expensive rotary tumbler. Not too noisy and has processed lots more gems than the smaller, less expensive models. Perhaps my mentors, such as Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, and Cris Tovani, are the Thumler Model UV10, processing many more gems in half the time. But I digress…

Garbage in means garbage out

When I consider the first rule of rock tumbling, “Garbage in means garbage out,” I remind myself of those weeks I have been tempted to opt for no student reading conferences, weeks like last week. The expectations in my new district are huge for football, so lots of emphasis is placed on the celebration of Homecoming. We had the typical dress-up days which can’t help but distract from the learning process. We had a guest speaker on Wednesday which ate up time from two different classes. Friday, we had the Homecoming Olympics starting at 10:00 am (my team pic is featured on this post) and an early out at 12:00 to get ready for the Homecoming Parade. All of this was great fun, but I kept thinking, Should I really take up one class period with reading conferences? 

My answer came from not one, but several students asking, “Aren’t you going to conference with us?” “Are you gonna talk to me about my new book?” “Hey, Mrs. G! I read a lot this week. Can we talk about how I did it?” Really? How can I say “no”? Yes, I could have spent that period teaching more about our Article of the Week lesson, but I know that next week’s reading for many of my students would be “garbage”. They still need a one-on-one push, a validation that I know what they’re accomplishing with their reading despite their busy schedules, and a discussion about how books have rocked their world.

Avoid contamination

So far I haven’t heard the dreaded words, but it may come. It will sound something like this: You mean you waste a whole class period discussing individual reading with sophomores? Aren’t they old enough to do this on their own? Couldn’t you use that time to teach them about split infinitives, Beowulf, and Grecian Urns? While these questions might come from colleagues, from parents, from administrators, they often come from within myself. I question and wonder and doubt often. Do reading conferences really need to happen in high school? Is it a waste of time? Shouldn’t we be doing “English-y” things every day?

The answer hides in each conference I have. When a student realizes that he read past his weekly pages and asks to “bump up” his goal, when a student begs to be the first one because she’s figured out the mystery of the book’s title which leads to us discussing the book’s theme, when a severely dyslexic student reads 5X the amount he read last week even if it is “only” 55 pages in a week, my decision to have reading conferences at the high school level is validated, a student at a time. Every week, it becomes easier and easier to ignore the contamination and to really know what I’m doing is right.

Great results take time

Don’t be in a hurry. Spend time doing a great job. If you tumble a batch of rocks through the coarse grind and they still have a few rough edges or are not nicely rounded, don’t hesitate to run them through that step again.

Exactly! While we know, as teachers, that we don’t have a lot of time, we have to remind ourselves that great results DO indeed take time. In conferencing with students, I’ll come across a few that had a bad week. I’m finding out that sophomores have so many more distractions than 8th graders. I have students who are in marching band and are football players. I have others who are working at the local pizza joint or another fast food restaurant until 11:30 on several school nights. Other students already have families of their own, and figuring out how to fit self-selected reading into their world seems daunting.

Part of my job as a “rock tumbler” is to help my students figure out how to carve out time. Maybe they can read on the bus on their way to a football game. (Some of my boys said this worked for them despite getting mocked by a couple of coaches! I was so proud of them for forging onward.) They can take their books to work and read a few pages during “down time” at work. I’ve suggested reading their own books to those that have babies. On Friday one 16-year old student whose first sibling is a month old said he simply read his book to her while helping his mom out! Talk about creative reading.

Rough patches happen especially with teens. I have to make the effort each week to have these special conversations with my students about reading. Sometimes, all it takes is helping them to realize they can find snatches of time within their busy weeks. When this occurs regularly week after week after week, like rocks in a tumbler, students’ rough edges begin to smooth and they begin to sparkle.

Happy rock tumbling, readers!

Rock Tumbler Instructions. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2014.

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About Katrina Gonzales

Having taught almost 30 years, I have a wealth of knowledge to share about the field of education---some good knowledge, some not-so-good knowledge, and some knowledge that might just blow your mind, or not. I decided to name this blog "Mining the Magic" as a tribute to those magical moments that surface often unexpectedly in the classroom. After this much time in education, however, I realized that those magical moments are never random; lots of planning, hard work, and the establishment of a community of learners precludes these extraordinary, and seemingly magical, times in the classroom. Currently, I "mine" the "magic" in Room 320 at Sonora High School. In the past 29 years, I've been known to teach Early Childhood Handicapped, 8th Grade ELA, self-contained elementary, and even adults as a consultant at Education Service Center XV. While I am turned into a claustrophobic mess at the thought of actually spelunking in a natural cavern, the lovely formations that occur in the classroom fascinate me. It's with this eye for a "jewel" with a student that I set out to explain how to "mine the magic."

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  1. Pingback: The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling | miningthemagic

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