Skip to content

Distance Learning: Creating Digital Reading Conferences in Canvas

by Anna Gabriel

There are few sounds as precious as pure silence in the classroom. While our room usually buzzes with students chattering to one another—reading aloud, sharing important passages, offering analysis—the first 10 minutes of every class period is reserved for independent reading. During this time, silence is preserved; students are immersed in their own worlds, speechlessly anticipating the next plot twist. The steady hum of the projector is all that can be heard.

I must admit that it is not my students, but rather myself, who ultimately loses the quiet game every day. While my students are busy flying around Hogwarts, playing capture the flag at Camp Half-Blood, and raging a rebellion against the Capitol of Panem, I am busy facilitating individual reading conferences. I walk around the room, pull up a stool next to a student, and record their book title and page number on my clipboard. After recording the data, the real fun begins, as we engage in an authentic discussion about their independent reading book. Some of my favorite questions to ask during a conference are:

  • What’s going on in your book right now?
  • What has been the most exciting moment in your book so far?
  • On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best, what would you rate this book and why?
  • How does this book compare to your last one? What makes it better/worse?
  • Who is your favorite character and why?
  • What are you planning on reading next?

I also use conferencing time to make book recommendations, expand my own knowledge of YA literature, and generally check in with each student. I value my conferencing time because—in addition to igniting my students’ interest in reading—it allows me to have a differentiated conversation with each student. At the end of each week, I can proudly state that I have had at least one one-on-one conversation with every single one of my 100 students.

The importance of allowing students time to read independently in the classroom has been proven time and time again by teacher-author superstars such as Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Nancie Atwell. The 10 minutes of independent reading in my classroom is sacred; every now and then throughout the school year, I have to relinquish this time due to two-hour delays, standardized testing, what have you. The few times where I do this prompts a chorus of sighs and groans and “NO.”

So, when faced with the multiple challenges of distance learning, the barrier that posed the most threat to my classroom environment was the loss of my independent reading conferences. How am I supposed to ignite a love of reading if my students are not setting aside time to read every day?

I found my savior in Canvas individual discussion boards. Every week, my students are expected to log on to Canvas and complete the week’s modules in order. The first two modules are labelled “Independent Reading” and “Independent Reading Check-In.” The first module is a timed 10-minute quiz, in which students are asked to pause and read their independent book until the timer runs out. Next, students move on to an individual discussion board between the two of us. These discussion boards function similarly to any online instant messaging platform. Every week, students are asked to post to the individual discussion board by responding to a few questions.

I change the exact directions each week, but students are always asked to share their book title and author and their current page number. This allows us to keep a running log of the student’s reading progress, just as my clipboard does in class. I respond to every student’s post by the end of the week, commenting on what they shared, asking questions about their book, and sometimes offering future book recommendations. Having the book recommendations solidified in the discussion is useful because every time that student needs a new book, we can easily scroll up and find a selection that I have previously curated for them. 

Recently, I have been asking students to leave short video/audio messages sharing their book title, author, page number, and the most important moment from the day’s reading. I respond with my own audio message, again attempting to mimic our in-class conferences as closely as possible. It has been heartwarming to hear their voices; it is almost like we are back in the classroom, having a real face-to-face conversation! In their video this week, one student read their favorite poem from Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and then offered their analysis of the poem (without being asked to do so)!

Below are examples of my conversations with students:

While I miss our in-person conferences, Canvas conferences via the individual discussion boards allows me to accomplish the same goal as my in-person conferences. By the end of the week, I have had a one-on-one discussion with every single student.

After reading and reflecting on Lauren Foley’s “Rediscovering Routines” post, I realized that our students are also missing the rhythms and routines of the classroom. By mimicking our in-class routine via Canvas, I am providing my students with some semblance of the structure they are missing. They are asked to pause for 10 minutes and then engage in a one-on-one conference about their reading, just like they would be asked to do in our physical classroom.

Completing our conferences in the Canvas individual discussion boards has also allowed me to better track each student’s progress, as I am no longer solely relying on my clipboard. It has also allowed students to better track their own progress. Moving forward, I plan to continue using this space to have students track their reading, even on the glorious day that we return to the physical classroom. It will also be a space where I recommend books to them, and they can check back at any time to find their personal playlist of books.

These discussion boards are just one way that my future in-person instruction has been enhanced by distance learning. Even though this has been a challenge, teachers and students will emerge from distance learning with a brand-new skill set for the future.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What digital programs are you using? What lessons have you tried out? What routines and expectations are you establishing?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

Edit this

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sarah Sistrunk #

    HELP! I have 63 students and I want to set this up. But how??


    October 14, 2020
  2. janiceewing #

    Anna, these sound like great strategies! I think the best part is that you were able to recreate the reading community that you had in the classroom, in an authentic way. What a great accomplishment to be able to conference meaningfully with all of your students!


    May 27, 2020
  3. lhfoley #

    Hi Anna,
    Thanks for sharing your use of Canvas discussion boards! Based on your ideas, I implemented reading discussion boards instead of reading assignments. I have seen an increase in conversation! I am even going to try table group book and quick write discussion boards to virtually simulate student collaboration time that they would be having in our physical classroom. Thanks for the inspiration!


    May 21, 2020
  4. Michelle A #

    Anna–I love both your present use of Canvas discussion boards to keep the reading spirit alive and your future plans for its use. Thank you for the inspiration!


    May 5, 2020

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Distance Learning: Mastery Learning Fosters Formative Feedback and Growth Mindset | write.share.connect

We'd love to hear what you think! Please comment below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: