Physical Therapists and Conferring


I’ve been thinking a lot about conferring again.  I’ve recently read a couple of books on the topic and have decided it is an area I want to focus on for the rest of this school year. Several posts ago I shared my epiphany about how much the daily work of a teacher is like that of a doctor in Doctors and Conferring.  Today…more thoughts on this topic.

My doctor ended up sending me to a physical therapist.  While having my neck manipulated by the PT, I told her I was going to write this blog about her.  She was sharing with me how much she loves the work she does and how her philosophy of treating patients has changed over the years.  She said, “I used to prescribe a pre-determined plan for my patients. I used to think that I already knew what they needed.” She went on to explain that she now takes time to talk with and listen to her patients, get to know them, and really get to the cause of the pain, not just treat the symptoms.

As workshop teachers, how often have we sat down to confer with a child with a pre-determined plan for what to teach that child that day?  In his book How’s It Going? Carl Anderson teaches us that the first step in a writing conference is to find out what the writer is working on.  My favorite way to begin a conference is with the question “What are you working on as a reader/writer today?”  As I probe and listen to the child, my job is to figure out what the reader/writer is trying to do and teach into that intention.  It is my job to ask what this reader/writer needs today.  Sometimes that means putting aside what I thought I might teach the child.

I recently adopted a 4th-grade class where I can spend some time conferring with readers. Today I conferred with one reader for the first time. I had planned on getting to know her a bit, talking to her about her current independent reading book, and assessing some of her reading skills and strategies.  My plan was to determine which reading skills might be a focus for future conferences or strategy groups. Within the first 30 seconds of the conference, my plans were already foiled. When I asked her what prompted her to select her current book, she said, “Oh, I just picked it off the shelf.”  Further probing revealed that this is how she generally chooses her books. Right then, the conference shifted course. I knew that today we would not be working on fluency or comprehension or any other specific reading skills. Instead, we needed to talk about living a “readerly life”. If this reader is going to be a lifelong reader, she needs to learn strategies for selecting books.  Just “picking a book off the shelf” is not likely to keep her engaged in books for long. Undoubtedly, her teacher has discussed book selection with her class in the past, but for today, she needed to hear it one more time.

On subsequent physical therapy visits, I noticed that my PT drew on her expertise and her experience with other patients, but she never let that trump the information she gathered by listening to her patients each day and never presumed to have that day’s regimen already planned.  As literacy teachers, we have a lot of expertise about the teaching of reading and writing, and of course we should draw on that knowledge and our experience. But I think we can all take a lesson from this physical therapist and learn to listen to each student as we conduct our conferring research to determine what will most move them forward today.

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