When we fail. . .

2016-02-09 09.53.18I took a hiatus from my blog during January to work on my dissertation. My chair told me I needed to have a complete draft by the end of January to graduate in May. I didn’t make the deadline. (I am now shooting for completion by April to graduate in July.)

This is the season for college applications, which means the season of writing lots of recommendations and editing lots of admission essays. A question I see that keeps popping up for college applicants as well as job applicants—in some manner or another—is name a time you’ve failed and how you overcame.

In my English 10 classes, we are working on our Shakespeare themed units. I wanted to do something different with this unit, and I wanted to provide choice. I planned what I thought was a great structure to do that. I would be lying if I said this unit had been a success. There was something lacking in the unit.

Failure has been on my mind.

What do you do when you are a teacher and you feel like you didn’t succeed, or more 2016-02-09 10.58.18bluntly put, failed at a lesson or unit? Reflect, self-assess, make notes and adjustments, learn, and do better.

But also, be okay…no be more than okay, be proud that you took a risk, you tried something new, you learned, you grew as an educator (and probably as a person) and your students will benefit from this. Celebrate that!

We have a responsibility to our students, to our profession, and to our future to reflect on our practice. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are reading current research, engaging in proven professional development, and learning from a community of leaders in our field.  We have a responsibility to make sure that we are growing as educators and we are putting that into practice so that our students are growing as learners and citizens.  But if we are doing that, if we are measuring ourselves by the best education has to offer, if we are stepping out of our comfort zone to do what is right, then we also have a responsibility to let ourselves fail, reflect on our learning from the failure, and go back the next day ready to try (with tweaks) again.

I was quite bummed about my unit. I had been so excited about it, and I was frustrated that it didn’t come to fruition as I had envisioned. I was talking with a colleague about my frustrations with the unit. She asked me why I thought it didn’t go like I had envisioned. I responded with something like, “I don’t know. Something just isn’t right.”

The question haunted me. I needed to really reflect: What was it that specifically that went wrong? What was I not happy with? Why did it not go like I wanted? How could it have gone different? AND what did go right?

I realized timing was a bit of an issue with this unit. Since timing became an issue, I didn’t focus as much on reading and writing skills to make up for loss of time. Choice was another issue. Although I didn’t dictate how students wrote in this unit, I felt I forced them into the box of one particular lens for too long. I should have started with the teacher-directed lens and then let them explore others on their own.

Now that I named the failure, I know what to do differently, what to do better next unit.

But I also had to think about what went right. Students’ final tasks as well as their online discussion about the texts showed a real sense of understanding—way beyond the surface level. Students weren’t just reading a Shakespeare play because we always teach a Shakespeare play. They had purpose and direction. Students were able to discuss themes across texts—they talked about the impact of the theme of deception not only in the play they studied for this unit, but also in their independent novels, informational texts, and other Shak2016-02-10 11.14.40.jpgespearean plays.

[Side note: One thing I did make sure we did was have 10 minutes of class reading time for independent novels three to four and sometimes five days a week. After I commented on how I loved seeing a particular student with two books in hand, she said, “It’s because of you. You made us read, and now I can’t stop.” That’s a success.]

Mary Ehrenworth once said something to the effect of it is worse to keep teaching as we’ve always taught than to try to do right by students and not be perfect. I was far from perfect in this unit, but I know I tried to do right by my kids, and in doing so, the failure unit helped my kids grow more as readers and writers than by not doing anything different.

If you want to see some of the end results from this unit, look at these examples and this student created music video.  The final project (which accompanied a paper, a online Socratic discussion, and reading journals) was a creative piece on how a character they studied viewed deception presented from the character’s point of view.  This part of the unit was successful.  Many of them also discussed other themes in their interpretation.

Bonus Read:  Pernille Rip seems to continually challenge me with her thoughtful posts.  And she always seems to know what I’ve been discussing with my colleagues.  I love her openness to conversation about hot topics and her fearlessness in tackling them head-on.  If you have found yourself in a discussion on whole class novels, I suggest you read her post, “So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help.


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I could have written a better paper

2015-12-02 15.15.29I’m in the middle of grading 152 literary analysis papers. As I’m reading these papers, I’m proud. Not because they are perfect—they aren’t. This isn’t even the best set of literary analysis papers I’ve received from 10th graders during my teaching career.

No, the best literary analysis papers I’ve ever received may have been from those students years ago who I heavily guided (probably somewhat mercilessly) with preselected text, a thesis developed by the class and then tweaked by me, and a plan I had constructed for them to flesh out the predetermined structure. But why shouldn’t they have been the best? I was the best writer in the room, and I did most of the thinking work in writing the paper.

There are numerous problems with this teaching practice, which I have worked relentlessly to change over the years.

Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, says, “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, it’s a recipe.” I think the same is true for student writing. We can’t keep giving our students all the ingredients and the recipe for their work. They don’t have to think, or at least not a lot, 51yvxpuquxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_when we do this.

Right now our ELA department is doing a book study on Reading and Writing Project Staff Developer Christopher Lehman’s Energize Research Reading and Writing. He talks about research being “messy and exciting” (9) and says that

“handing students topics and preselected sources removes a natural and important step of learning to do anything: making errors. If we are developing students to be creative, flexible, independent learners, then we cannot scrub away opportunities for mistakes to be made and corrections to be learned” (10, emphasis added).

While literary analysis may not be considered traditional research, Lehman’s challenge here was at the heart of designing this unit. (For more on this unit, see literary analysis post and writing boot camp post.)

Students had almost complete control over their choice of short story to analyze. While during the reading part of the unit I gave students many lenses on how to analyze a text, they decided which ones they wanted to 2015-11-16 09.52.08use in their writing. We looked at tons of mentor theme statements and practiced finding themes, but they developed their own theme statements for their papers. They were never locked in—several students completely changed their story and many changed their lenses as they began to work out their thinking in their writing. One student remarked, “I have to go back to my text because now that I’m writing I realize none of evidence I collected really works.”

This type of learning takes courage—for me and for my students.

I’m not a parent, but I imagine the feeling of not wanting to see your own child fail is similar to the feeling I have about my students. It was hard not to jump in and tell them that I thought they were going to have a hard time with a particular story, or lens, or the evidence gathered. It was a bit scary having students write in such a formal manner about stories that I had not read.

It took courage for the students to work as hard as they did on 2015-11-18 13.40.32independent reading and writing. They were brave in the way they rehearsed their thinking and changed their ideas about the literature and their writing as they went through the process. There were no right or wrong answers to make them feel safe.

So as I sit here grading the 152 literary analysis papers that I could have done a better job writing, I am beaming with pride. I have that “mama pride.” I see their authentic work, their own thinking and voice coming alive on the paper, their depth of understanding that went so much further than when asked to simply plug and play. Not to mention, I was not bored by reading the exact same thing over and over in slightly different words.

Most 2015-12-01 16.20.30importantly, though, my students are proud. Many have said they are turning in their best paper they’ve ever written. Some commented on how they finally figured out how to write about literature. One student, who I’m often lucky if I ever get his work by the due date, turned in his paper on time proudly, saying he even skipped playing basketball to work on his writing.

There is power in giving students choice and ownership. There is power in allowing students the freedom to make mistakes. There is power in students finding their voice through independent writing.

Bonus Read: If you are like me and could not attend NCTE this year (or even if you did and you want to relive it), there are lots of blogs worth checking out. Sarah Zerwin’s daily NCTE blog with an additional top takeaway post is a great place to start. Thank you, Elizabeth, for introducing me to this blog on your Links I Loved Last Week.  Also, check out her Top Ten List about NCTE15. To Make a Prairie gives thanks to NCTE with a beautiful post of inspiration and challenges.

I survived writing boot camp!

2015-11-16 09.48.58This week all my students are participating in writing boot camp during class. What makes writing boot camp different than just a week of writing instruction? It’s very focused. It’s intense. It’s about the mindset.

Doing a little internet research, I found several keys to running a successful fitness boot camp. I think these apply to an academic writing boot camp as well.

  1. Research: Spend time finding out what skills students need additional focus and which ones they already know how to do.
  2. Start with good management: Figure out how to divide the skills across the week, how much time to spend on the skills, and what resources are needed.
  3. Craft the boot camp so it offers something new or different: This week 2015-11-16 10.47.31has to feel different from the other weeks in class; it has to be special. It may be that students are allowed to bring in snacks/drinks or spread out on the floor. It may be that all instruction is focused on this type of writing. It may be that music will be playing while they write.
  4. Focus on quality class structure: Students have to buy in to the boot camp. The first day is the most important. They have to feel like they really accomplish something and are encouraged to do the hard work in the days to come.
  5. Invest in marketing: Build it up in the weeks prior to the boot camp. They should know a challenge is coming but feel excited to meet the challenge.
  6. Invest in resources: Make sure there are mentor texts, access to writing materials, and other handouts for quick teaching of a skill.
  7. Start small: Students have to feel that they have accomplished something (as do you!), so start with something small on the first day that they can use to build on the rest of the week.
  8. Time class properly: Boot camp has to be structured. Time every part of it so that the pace is consistent. Use phrases like, “You have 10 minutes! Ready! Set! Go!” It should feel like a mental workout!
  9. Create a feeling of camaraderie: This is a group experience. The teacher should be walking around reading, encouraging, guiding, gently correctly. The class should celebrate each others work and 2015-11-16 10.02.12improvements.
  10. Structure class like group personal training: Make class adjustments for each class period: change length of times, resources, or focus skills as necessary. Give as much personal and small group attention as possible. Reflect not only on each day but each period.
  11. Reward: Make a big deal about completing boot camp and the accomplishments/growth made during the week.

This is a general overview of our writing boot camp.

We have 50-minute class periods (except Wednesday which is 45 minutes).

Previous to Boot Camp (see more about this in last week’s post):

  • Read three short stories (of your choice, must be approved) and write journal entries on each.
  • Choose one short story and complete close reading lens analysis with six lenses.
  • Establish a theme statement for the short story.
  • Write a 100-words on author bio, context, and summary of short story.
*The minutes indicate quiet student work time and do not include the instruction time in between.

2015-11-18 13.00.27Monday
1. Collect and review all previous work, data, evidence. (2 minutes)
2. Write a flash draft (or quick write) about theme in the short story. (5 minutes)
3. Revise or reword theme statements, as needed. (5 minutes)
4. Deciding on best lenses to prove development of theme (all analysis is a form of argument). Choose three out of the 6. (5 minutes)
5. Write a thesis statement; focus on active verb. (7 minutes)
6. Gather information for context in the introduction. (5 minutes)
7. Write a working introduction (subject to change). (10 minutes)

Tuesday
1. Finish introduction– make it tight. (3 minutes)
2. Focus on one lens and gather appropriate evidence. (10 minutes)
3. To use a quote or not to quote? Summary, paraphrase, and quotations (mid-workshop teaching point)
4. Flash draft for first lens. (5 minutes, 1 minute break, 6 minutes, 1 minute break)
5. Writing partner review. (10 minutes)
6. Brag about something your partner did.

Wednesday
1. Look at mentor text for writer’s craft moves for literary analysis. Chart.2015-11-18 13.02.24
2. Discuss possible structure of body paragraphs (write about each lens separately or blending lenses).
3. Work on body paragraphs (7 minutes, 1 minute break, 10 minutes, 1 minute break, 12 minutes)
4. Share out best sentence.

Thursday
1. Discuss strategies for conclusions.
2. Continue writing paper—work on whatever is needed. (10 minutes, 1 minute break)
3. Work with a writing partner to discuss writing and trouble shoot problem areas. (10 minutes)
4. Continue writing. (15 minutes)
5. Make a goal list for final boot camp day.

2015-11-18 13.40.32Friday
1. Discuss revision and proofreading strategies.
2. Write independently. (10 minutes)
3. Work with peers and conference on final touches. (30 minutes)
4. Reflect on boot camp and name the one thing you are most proud of from this week.

 

What my students said:

Overall, students appreciated the experience, even if they didn’t all love it. Some really struggled with the timed parts. Next time, I will be clearer of how they can use their time and that they can finish later what they don’t finish in that timed session. However, I will not change using timed writing sessions. Our students have to practice timed writing and many of students will take AP the following year. It’s good practice for them, and I believe it kept my students more focused and productive.

Another concern several students raised was that they felt unsure about what they were supposed to be writing. I think this came from not being given a formula to follow. I will not give a formula, but I may do more small group sessions during some of the time writing stages or offer small groups before or after school for more direction, in the future.

As for the positives, I’ll let you hear their voices:

  • I loved that it pushed me to do more in my writing than I ever thought I could.
  • I liked the examples and text given to us in order to aid in our writing.
  • I liked how it pushed me to think faster and write more thoroughly.
  • I’m learning to fix mistakes that I habitually make in my writing.2015-11-16 10.48.04
  • I liked having the option of asking any question right when I had the problem in my writing.
  • I am most proud that I have been about to identify errors in my own paper and identify good things in my own paper.
  • I liked that we had the opportunity to revise our papers as we were writing them.
  • I have learned to weave lenses into my writing the correct and efficient way.
  • The fact that I was able to write for a long time made me happy.
  • I liked the freedom of choice.
  • Writing boot camp has helped me know how to analyze a piece of text.
  • Writing boot camp helped me realize that I could do a lot better.
  • Writing boot camp has helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses in writing. It has also helped me learn to pull information from text.
  • I think writing boot camp was great! At first, I thought it would be just terrible, but it turned out to be really fun and challenging in a good way. I love that we had a chance to really analyze a story.

I think this idea is a keeper. Now just to get some “I survived writing boot camp” t-shirts…

Bonus Read: I really liked Katy’s post (Not) Going Fishing on the Turn and Talk Blog.  One, I am just a Katy fan, and I really liked her voice in this blog.  But most importantly, this post challenged me to think about how and when and why I question in the class.  One thing I learned through this writing boot camp process was how much time I actually do have in the classroom.  Now that we are finished with boot camp, I want to make sure I keep maximizing my time.  Becoming effective with questioning is a way to do that.  Effective questioning is purposeful.  Thanks Katy for the fun metaphorical reminder!

This class is real life

As a student was leaving my class the other day, she remarked, “This class is real life.”

“Reading and writing is life,” I quipped back.

She smiled. “You know what I mean. Classes aren’t always like real life.”

And I know she is right. So many times what we do in class is in a bubble—it’s things that we deem important but have little or no direct connection to students’ present lives, nor their future lives outside our four walls. (By the way, Justin Tarte has an excellent post on why we should stop using the term “real life.”)

I’ve made a very concerted effort this year to make class more reflective of life. I want my class to be an extension of life, a space to examine life, and a safe place to try out our ideas about life.

Below are 5 examples of what we’ve been up to in Room 2414. Some ways I’ve tried to doFacebook Page 3 this are new this year; others have been tweaked or changed from previous years.

Social Action: Three years ago, I was challenged to have my students use reading, writing, and speaking to do something to selfless to impact their world. Mary Ehrenworth says, “We have to teach toward social justice & personal empowerment or there would be no reason to teach at all.”

So I developed a multi step social action performance task that my sopho2014-12-09 12.27.43mores complete throughout the course of the year. You can see an overview of the assignment here.

If you are wanting to implement something of this nature, I suggest using the following books as references: Randy Bomer and Katherine Bomer’s For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action; Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice; and Barbara Lewis’s The Teen Guide to Global Action. I’ve also posted other resources on my Pinterest Social Issue & Justice board.

Each year I am so moved by the comments students make in their final reflection. A few of their comments are below. I also included three of the culminating videos from former students (Domestic Abuse and Feeding the Hungry video links are here). I agree with Mary; this is why we teach.

  • In my opinion, most projects are just for a grade to be put in, but this was more about opening yourself up to the truth in life. I think it was about finding out who you really are and how to use your positive traits to make a difference.
  • I realize that the point of this project was not only to help benefit those in need, or to change how people view an issue. It was so much more than that. The project was to show those in our class that we are all people, we all have feelings, and all of us go through struggles, both big and small. It helped me realize that I’m not the only one who has struggled with their self-image and that even when I thought I was alone, there will always be people, somewhere, willing to listen.
  • Probably about a week ago, we were setting a date and time to go drop our donations off at Loaves and Fishes and I had a sort of epiphany. I realized that what we’re doing really does matter and even though it may not seem like we’re doing a lot, we are. We can’t just sit back and wait for the next guy to do it just because we aren’t the president or Senate. We aren’t even eighteen yet and we can still take action!
  • When we asked people at our school to leave an encouraging message for someone with suicidal thoughts, I honestly was expecting crazy messages. In high school, you always have those people who are going to have immature and rude things to say regardless of the purpose, but shockingly most of our messages were so sweet and inspirational. These messages included bible verses, inspirational sayings, and even personal experiences sharing their own suicidal thoughts and how they were overcome. It really opened my eyes to know that some of my fellow [students], people I might see in the hallway five days a week, actually shared some of the same concerns we discovered in our research.

Relevant application text: We’ve been working on argument this unit. I’m a HUGE fan of George Hillocks’s Teaching Argument Writing. The book (you can get a sample chapter here) gives several ways to teach argument through progression of relevant texts and situations. My students have been engaged in learning, have a deeper understanding of arguments (and the importance of each part of argument), and are more effective in developing and analyzing arguments.

In his foundation chapters, Hillocks discusses how crime shows and court cases exhibit the work we are teaching students. I took two of the texts he mentioned, CSI (season 1, episode 3) and the Supreme Court Case Scott v. Harris, and created extension lessons. You can access the transcript online, or you can use a condensed version (with instructions) I created for my classes.

Students loved using what they we had learned about argument in analyzing these text. There was much rich discussion about claims, evidence, warrants, counterclaims, rebuttals. Both of these text provided complex, rigorous examples that required the students too look closely, go back to the text, and think about the way claims were made and evidence presented. They learned so much more than if they had looked at an artificial text that neatly displayed each element of argument. And, dare I say, they had fun doing it.

Other texts we have used in the argument unit can be found on my Pinterest Argument Text Set board.  More to be added here as we continue through this unit.

Audience: I find providing an authentic audience for my students is hard sometimes, but I also feel it is incredibly important. It is something that I am working hard to do in my class this year. After we completed our memoirs, I had students share their memoirs with an adult and asked the adult to share some written comments with them. I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, but I have been pleasantly surprised. Students asked a variety of adults, including parents, grandparents, former teachers, and even administrators. The adult feedback has been meaningful, instructive, and even humorous at times.

File Sep 23, 1 28 46 PMOne of my favorites was when a student shared her story about an ambulance ride. The student had leukemia when she was very young, but she doesn’t tell people. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim or have people treat her differently. She asked for a former teacher to read and comment on her story. When she got his comments back, she immediately came to my room, crying. She was so moved by the support she received and realized she could be a support for others.

With this type of response, I don’t know how I could ever go back to being the only audience for their work. I will be exploring ideas and ways to connect students with authentic audiences throughout the year.

Article of the Week: I totally took this idea from one of my heroes, Kelly Gallagher. He very clearly articulates the power behind using an article of the week on his website. He also posts links to the articles he uses. I use this website, Newsela (which allows you to change the Lexile level of the same article), and other articles that I come across. I post articles I use to my Pinterest Articles board.

At the beginning of the year, students often struggle with sharing their thoughts on the subjects. We learn how to talk, to support or disagree respectfully, to listen, and how to dig deeper on topics. I am often surprised at how little my students know about the world around them, and I feel this is an excellent way to connect world events with what we are studying and to help them become more educated citizens of the world.

Choice in reading: I’ve written about this in a previous post, so I won’t say a lot here. It is just so important for students to have authentic reading experience—not forced, shallow responses, made up logs, or artificial conversation. If I want my students to be lifelong readers, then I have to help them establish habits of a reader.

Bonus Read: If you read my last post, you know I am a huge Kylene Beers fan. Her blog post about Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction text is very timely. In this post she responds to a teacher’s question:

“How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

She even includes a checklist that will be in her and Probst’s new Reading Nonfiction Notice and Note book that is coming soon.

Choice in reading–how, exactly?

2015-09-04 07.20.16There has been much written about student choice in reading–powerful, challenging calls to action from educational greats such as Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller among many others. I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch Kittle’s video, Why Students Don’t Read What is Assigned in Class?, and read Miller’s blog post, Let My People Read, if you haven’t already.  Kelly Gallagher writes an important piece on combining choice, limited choice and no choice in Moving Beyond the 4X4 Classroom.

I’m not going to try to say what others have already said, and much better than I ever could. Instead I am going to try to show why I believe in it for my sophomore 2015-09-04 07.07.38students and how choice in reading looks like in my classroom.

One year, a group of former students came back to visit me.  During our reminiscing, they began to joke about how they didn’t finish reading the books we studied when they were in my class.  I knew something had to change. I didn’t want students to come back joking about what they didn’t read.  I wanted students to come back and talk to me how much they were still reading.  So I began to explore the idea of choice.

I believe in giving choice, because I know how powerful it has been in my classroom with my students. This year I have focused on giving students choice in reading and allowing them to enjoy it by not assigning a certain number of pages to be read, lengthy responses, or mandatory written reading logs.

Just in case you were wondering, my students are doing this reading as well as a lot of reading in class.  To date we have read and studied in class 1 children’s book, 3 articles, 10 complete short memoirs,  10 excerpts from books, 3 complete short stories, 3 poems, and 2 short videos.

Some of the things I have done so far to foster this in my classroom so far this year:

  • Students were exposed to numerous books on the second day of school.
  • Students have been given time to read in class, at least 3-4 times a week.
  • Students set their own goals on Goodreads.
  • Students log their pages on Goodreads, but they have not been assigned a specific number of pages to complete.
  • Students are given the freedom to abandon books.
  • We have Book Talk Tuesdays. Often our media specialist and assistant join us.  I pin the books promoted to our Pinterest page so students can go back and look (and I can keep up with the titles).
  • Students are surrounded by books in my classroom and have easy access to them. They also have time to go to the media center.
  • I post what I’m reading in the classroom, as well as on Goodreads. Students can always see what I’m reading and how much I’m reading.

I asked my students to complete an anonymous survey (via SurveyMonkey) to gauge how the students felt about their reading this year. (Side note: I foster a safe environme2015-09-03 22.44.33nt where I value what students think and real feedback—with each other and with me. I’m not saying they always tell the truth, but they know I value truthful feedback.) Out of my 151 students, 145 completed the survey.

  • 63% believe they have read more this year than last year.
  • 61% have read 1 or more books since the beginning of school, August 3. Of that 61%, 24% have read 3 or more books since school began.
  • 82% prefer to choose their own books; 3% prefer to have a novel assigned; and 15% said they had no preference.
  • 53% almost never completed an entire novel when assigned; 7% said they never read anything assigned outside of class.
  • 86% said choosing their own books encouraged them to read more; 62% said using Goodreads encouraged them to read more.

Some of the student comments (in their own words):

  • I don’t like doing homework assigned with reading because it makes me feel as though reading is something forced rather than something fun.
  • I don’t feel forced. I can read at my own slow pace and enjoy my book without feeling like I have to cram pages in just for a grade.
  • The book goals give added purpose for reading.
  • Please don’t choose my books for me.

  • I just wanted to make a point that Goodreads has been the most motivational thing I’ve ever used to log reading and find new books.
  • When we got to read the blurb/skim through the many different books in the library, it gave me lots of options and helped a lot.
  • Having class time to read to get me going in my book [motivates me to read]

While I believe passionately in giving students choice, I also know the challenges. I asked some colleagues (thank you Laura, Elizabeth, and Suzy!) to help me brainstorm some of the questions and concerns teachers may have when beginning to give students choice in the classroom. Below is how I navigated (and am still navigating) these on my journey.

Where do I get enough books?

I used a lot of resources. Garage sales and local used bookstores have been a great way to collect titles for my classroom library. I am particularly partial to the Goodwill Bookstore in our area that also gives an extra discount to teachers once a week. I connected with our school media center. They help me throughout the year by having titles available, doing book talks, and making the media center an extension of our space. It does help that my classroom is super close to the media center.

A colleague and I also did a school wide book drive. We asked different organizations, clubs, and sports to donate prizes. We received everything from t-shirts to tickets to games. Then we promoted the book drive through the English department and had letters to parents for Open House and community media outlets (see sample letter here). Students received a ticket for the prize drawings for each book they donated. We received tons of books this way.

How do I help students find the right book for the right student?

I don’t know if I can find right book for every student, especially early on in the year when you don’t know your students as well. I want the students to learn how to find the right books for themselves. I give them lots of opportunities to find books 2015-08-04 09.57.46through speed dating, book talks (and not just from me), and chances to peruse my classroom library, the media center, and Goodreads.

But what probably helps them the most is giving students the freedom to abandon books. Students didn’t feel pressured to pick the one book that they will like enough to finish it. They can try out a book, see if they like it, and then decide on whether or not they want to finish. For students to who don’t normally read to find a book they want or for readers to try new genre, they have to feel safe that they can try it and walk away if they don’t like it. All I ask is that they read 10 pages before deciding. Most of the time it only takes 1-3 tries before we find a book a student likes. One particular student from last year, it took 10 tries. But he finally found a book he liked.

Will students actually read outside of class?

Yes, most of them will actually read outside of class, but that doesn’t excuse us from not giving them time in class to read. If we think it is important, if we value it, we will make time for it in class. By the time students reach high school, an alarming amount of them, who used to like reading, don’t do it any more, or rarely read outside of class. Sometimes they just need the time to remember the joy of reading2015-08-04 11.12.34 and get hooked again. There are those who don’t like to read, even some who hate it. Requiring them to read, even a book of their choice, is not going to make them magically like reading. Chances are they don’t even know how to choose a book they like.

Just like I would do with any skill I was teaching, I am going to give my students lots of tools (speed dating, Goodreads, book talks, freedom to abandon, etc) to help find books and time to practice their skill (reading in class). I’m also going to talk to them about their books. I have reading conferences as often as I can with them.

What do I require of them?

There are a lot of different thoughts about this, and I’ve tried a lot of different ways. This year I had them set their own reading goals for the number of books they wanted to try to read this year. I asked them to update Goodreads once a week, but there were no requirements on many pages. Most of them update during class after we have read. I do ask that students read 10 pages before they decide to abandon a book. This is the least amount of requirements I have ever had, and it has been the most successful year.

When I required written logs and a certain number of pages each week, it felt more like forced choice reading—which wasn’t fun. Students often made up the logs right before they were due. I don’t know about you, but I hate assigning, reading, and grading work that isn’t real, probably as much as students resent it.   So I require that students always have a book in class for reading time. I require that they read during reading time. I require that they update Goodreads once a week. I require that they talk to me about the book. There are times I will ask the students to share in class conversation or in writing how a certain skill we are studying is being used in their books.

How do I hold them accountable for something I haven’t read?

Talk to them. You don’t have to have read the novel to talk about it. If you are a reader, you will know enough about books, characters, plots, themes, etc to ask questions about books you haven’t read. Ask them questions about their books—the characters, the plot, the title, themes. Have them show you parts in the text that are significant and meaningful. I find that when students know they are going to talk about their book, they read. Million Words Campaign has great resources conferring with students about independent reading and questions to ask (Making the Most of Independent Reading Using Student Conferences).

How do I hold them accountable? Grades?

I hold them accountable through talk, Goodreads, and asking them about how skills we are learning are showing up in their books; however, holding them accountable does not always mean grades. There is an expectation of reading in my class and tie to do it. Grades are something I am constantly trying to figure out and it is still evolving.

Right now, I grade on preparedness for our conferences or when I ask them to do a quick write showing how a skill was used in the book. I will ask students to do some written reflections on their reading but not every night or week. The Reading and Writing Project has a great resource of different reading responses that allows students to react to the text in a way that works for the student and is meaningful rather than having students write to a generic prompt. I’d love to hear your thoughts or ideas on this.

What if they choose something inappropriate (or that their parents deem inappropriate), but I didn’t know it was inappropriate (or that parents would see it that way)?

I try to handle this in my syllabus. I use the parent letter Kelly Gallagher shares in Reading Reasons. It’s a well-written piece to explain to parents the goals for reading and the purpose of the classroom library. I then ask parents to sign giving permission for students to check out books from my library.

I also ask parents to sign on whether they allow students to read any book they choose or whether they want to give permission for each book. Out of my 151 students, all parents gave permission to check out books from my classroom library and only one parent wanted to give permission for individual books. Find a copy of the permission page from my syllabus here.

Bonus Read:  Two Writing Teacher’s Dana Murphy provided a treasure trove of resources in her Back to School Post on TWT.  She includes resources for topics such as conferencing, conventions, minilessons, organization, read alouds, routines and so much more.  This is one to bookmark so it is easily accessible throughout the year.