Reverse Reading Conferences

Denise Earles

English teacher Denise Earles from Madison Public Schools, CT is part of an innovation project to experiment with standards based grading in a traditional school system.

This post follows somewhat on the heels of my Going in Cold post. I identified in that post that as a teacher with much experience with some texts, I want my students to immediately glean from the text all that took me years to understand. I started wondering how I could best use that knowledge to truly help students understand the text on another level.

Kevin and I were discussing it and one of us (we have worked so closely this year that our ideas can no longer be identified as belonging to one or the other of us) came up with the idea of Reverse Reading Conferences. Reverse conferences work this way: students come up with questions for the “expert” while they are reading and come prepared for a one-on-one or small group conference during which they ask their “most pressing question” to the teacher. These conferences serve two purposes: to ascertain through the questions students ask, their comprehension and thinking about the text; and to offer insight to specific parts of the text that may spark deeper ideas for writing.

I tried this approach when students were finished with reading The Great Gatsby. I waited until then for two reasons, one being poor time management (mine) and one that I am pretty confident at this point in the year that my students are capable of reading the text. I chose to work with small groups and had each student ask his/her question to me, one at a time. I answered each as best I could and even had to take some time to think about some of the questions before answering. The other students in the group began posing responses as well— which I think is really cool. We had some very rich discussions which were focused on student interest. I could immediately tell who looked up the green light on Sparknotes and who actually had thought about the text. Because of my familiarity with the novel though, I was able to push the Sparknotes student further causing him to have to go back into the text.

Some great questions I was asked:

If Nick is unreliable why is he important to the story— or is he? Could the novel have been successful if there was a 3rd person omniscient narrator?

Why do we like Gatsby so much even though we know he’s a criminal?

Why does Gatsby die in the pool?

If Gatsby represented the American Dream in Nick’s eyes, who would represent it if the story was told by Daisy or Tom?

Why does Gatsby have to be a mysterious character?

Is Gatsby only “great” to Nick? Why?

How can we trust that Gatsby truly loves Daisy when he has proven to be a liar in the past?

Like many teachers I ask my students to attend to the “so what” at the end of an essay, so I will challenge myself to do the same here.

Reverse reading conferences, so what?

Students with comprehension questions gained clarity.

Students create and expand on more interesting topics in their essays.

Students are engaged because the essay includes their ideas and inquiries.

Students actually said, “I’m so excited to write this essay now, I love this idea!”

When students created portfolios the paper they wrote on The Great Gatsby was almost always included because as students noted they were “really proud of this idea.” Many students even said that they realized what they were really saying in the conclusion of the first complete draft and revised the essay with that idea for the portfolio.

When we stop expecting students to know everything and allow them to learn, we help them to open their minds to new dimensions.

Have your own Reverse Conference Experience:

  • Choose a time of year after you have built rapport and trust with and within your students.
  • Choose a whole class novel on which you consider yourself an expert.
  • Make sure the reading level is suitable for most students and support those who don’t fall into that category.
  • Allow students to read critical analyses and have small group discussions while reading.
  • Choose the best time during reading for your reverse conferences.
  • Throw away the required topic essay and allow students to write about what interests them.


Voice Co-Creation

By presenting myself as the expert of what the text “says,” students were free to explore what the text “means” in relation to topics that interested them.

My take-away: Assigning the essay topic is bad for me and worse for kids.

This activity is the poster child for co-creation: I have read the book a million times and have also read many critical analyses. The students are brand new to the material, but can relate to current norms in ways that I cannot. They come up with the ideas and I help fill in the resources they can use to explore them.

My take-away: Teen-agers are really cool and have super ideas, but often don’t have any idea how to break them down into manageable topics for an essay.

Social Construction Self-Discovery

At this point in the year I have pretty good relationships with my students (the absence of grading has helped this greatly) so the reverse reading conferences were really like casual conversations. Students got fired up about each others’ ideas and supported each other in the “thinking it through” process. One student told me about an episode of Black Mirror that sparked ideas for two other students. I had never heard of the show, so meeting just with me would not have helped.

My take-away: Even when students appear to be off task their discussions may actually be helping them to be on task.

Students did more research and used more varied resources for this essay than for any other assignment. The research was directed only by their own interests and resulted in many students progressing beyond the Analysis standard to the Synthesis standard (the first standard for AP/ECE English next year).

My take-away: As a teacher, share with students what they want and need to know, when they ask for it, and they will take it far beyond my expectations.


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