One [Paper] Stone, Many Birds

Are you feeling more and more like you’re drowning as the school year is progressing?  And if this isn’t your first year, are you feeling like each year is getting harder?

You’re NOT alone!  Student needs, both academically and behaviorally, are definitely increasing.  In too many schools, districts, and states, the mandates are increasing.  And sometimes,  parent demands are increasing.  

What’s not increasing?  Our time.  

So, we have to really fine-tune and be efficient with what we have.  


By weaving together what we do in one part of our day with the other parts.  There are several ways to do this, but in this post I’ll explain just one, and it begins with conferring during reading and writing workshop.

When we confer with our students in reading or writing, it’s important to first make sure you’re taking notes.  That’s a big first step, but surprisingly, one that many teachers never actually get to.  Relying on our memory or piles of sticky notes are just not going to work.  I’ve found that I like a one-pager the most, and it’s key to a lot of my next instruction.  More on how in a minute.

As you confer, you’ll find that you’re seeing some similar needs and even coaching the same kinds of things with different students.  I find it helpful to write these things down in the same way on my note catcher. 

What it looks like:

This note catcher is something I learned years and years ago from my favorite Reading and Writing Project staff developer, and it continues to be my go-to.  It’s simply a sheet of paper with the name of the unit at the top and small, roughly 2 x 2 boxes for each child.  Their names are pre populated in each box, and the word “date” with space for me to write it in.  Under that, I just write an “O” to stand for “observed.”  Here I jot down what I notice the child is doing.  Often, what I note is what I also compliment the child on, to reinforce that move. 

Then, under that, I just have “TP” for “teach point.”  This is self-explanatory.  Over the years, depending on what I myself need, I’ve added some things to this page, like a list of main goals for the unit to help guide my teaching.  When I switched grade levels or tried a new unit this became very helpful.  But after I became super familiar with the grade level and my teaching goals for each unit, those scaffolds for myself were no longer needed. 

My point is that this simple note catcher is also very flexible.

What did I do with those notes?  A LOT!

For example, across a week or two of conferring, I might have had, among a range of needs, a fluency conference with 3 different kids, a just-right book choice conference with another 3, and a monitoring for comprehension conference with 4 more.  For each of these similar conferences, in my “teach point” section, the part where I jot down what I taught them, I write the same phrases for each thing.  My fluency notes might say “use the punctuation as a guide,” my just-right book choice group is simply “JR book choice,” and my comprehension conferences might say something like “pause to retell VIP (very important part).  It works exactly the same way in writing, and, incidentally, math.

Later, because I use a one-pager (or front and back of one page depending on class size), I have my most current class data right in front of me, at a glance.  No flipping pages back and forth, or juggling multiple notebooks or binders.  Now, I look at the trends.  Those 3 kids who needed to work on fluency?  I highlight them in one color, say pink.  My comprehension group gets another color, maybe green.  And a third color for my other group.  More often than not, I can group most of the class by similar need into nice-sized groups.

And this is how I know what to teach in my next small groups. 

If there are a lot of kids who need something, then I know I need to teach that thing in whole-group instruction, and to also reinforce that work in small groups.  

Not everyone will fit into a group each time.  That is totally ok!  They’ll still get my guidance through 1:1 conferring, or they might be ready for a guided reading group.  The decision I make about what kind of grouping structure a child would most benefit from depends heavily on their needs.  

Once I have all the information at a glance, I can leverage the balanced literacy components of shared and interactive writing, shared reading, and interactive read aloud to frontload, reinforce, or take learning further.  These are also the places where a plethora of other skills are taught:  word work, fluency, comprehension…really any reading or writing skill that students need.  As much as possible, and if it’s a natural fit, the text I use for these whole-group lessons also might well be a text that will help bolster content knowledge in social studies or science, or is a text I plan to later use to serve as a mentor text in writing…or both! 

See?  Many, many birds…one stone. Such a time-saver!

Once this structure is up and running…a balance of 1:1 student conferences and small group work, I have ongoing, real-time student data that constantly helps to drive my instruction.  Of course I also keep in mind the rest of the data that is gathered (ongoing small group notes, class work, formative checks, more formal assessments, etc), but the conferring notes are my bread and butter because they’re so in-the-moment and authentic.  

Weaving together a variety of teaching methods from the components of balanced literacy helps me get a lot more bang for my buck.  And because these lessons are taught in a variety of ways, my teaching is more impactful.  

And it all started with one simple sheet of paper:  my conferring notes. Not fancy, but so very powerful.  

Want some help getting student conferences underway, guidance on how to conduct them, or help in getting the most out of them? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!   And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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Related posts:   Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Lesson Planning Tips That Help You Do More, Better [In Less Time], “Small Group Instruction” [What Does it Really Mean?], Anatomy of a [Reading or Writing] Conference, Why You Need to do Shared and Interactive Writing, How to Get the Most from Shared and Interactive Writing Lessons

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