Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Teaching and the Student-Teacher Conference

I can't help it! Calvin & Hobbes is always relevant.

While Neal Lerner's article on the student-teacher conference focuses on the usefulness of conferences to the student writer and the varying degrees to which strained resources limit the teacher's time and ability to hold conferences with students frequently, I have to admit that leading up to our RHET student conferences I have been thinking more about the usefulness of these conferences to me as a new teacher. I hope that I will hold conferences that help the students to better understand the requirements of the course, where they are succeeding, and how they can go about improving their writing, but what I am really looking forward to is the chance to improve my teaching based on these conferences.

I have mentioned in seminar already that I am particularly challenged by the difficulty of gauging not just my students' grasp of the concepts we discuss in class, but their level of interest and engagement with it. It is hard to know whether to speed up or slow down when all you have to go on half the time is a sea of blank faces. The few office visits I have had already have been illuminating for me as they have suggested areas for me to focus on in future classes. Written assignments can indicate what a student's writing strengths and weaknesses are,  of course, but a one-on-one conversation invites questions that don't get brought up in class, and provides me as a teacher with a better idea of what needs to be emphasized and expanded on in class. It also provides a testing water for how to go about explaining concepts in ways that are readily understood. In a one-on-one conference I find myself rewording my points far more than in a classroom discussion, and I get a much better sense of what needs to be reworded and repeated, as well as which rewordings are understood. Is it too optimistic to think that after one-on-one meetings with all 19 of my students I will have a better understanding of how to approach full-class discussions in a more productive way for everyone? Or does having just one session of conferences mean that in a few weeks I'll be back where I started, staring a sea of blank faces trying to gauge how they're coping with a new concept and new assignment?

One thing that Lerner doesn't discuss in his article is the actual content of student-teacher conferences, and I wonder to what extent the content and focus of conferences do – or should – change depending on the frequency of occurrence. If we had a conference for each assignment, for example, it makes sense to focus primarily on the work the student is currently producing. But if I want my once-semesterly conference to benefit both me and the student for the rest of the semester, how do I tailor it to do so? Is that even possible? Indeed, to what extent should I be tailoring it, when this is the student's opportunity to ask the questions that he or she may not otherwise do?

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