Reading letters/essays

On a recent post about my reading workshop, Jenna asked how I handle letter essays in my class:

I just finished The Reading Zone Recently. I”m curious to hear how you handle the reading letters. I have such a hard time keeping up with the grading. How do you do the reading letters with your class?
Jenna

Now, keep in mind that I have anywhere from 35-50 students for language arts each day. When I read The Reading Zone: HOW TO HELP KIDS BECOME SKILLED, PASSIONATE, HABITUAL, CRITICAL READERS
I knew that I wanted to begin using letter essays in my class.  However, I also knew that I could not handle responding to almost 50 letters on a weekly basis (without losing my sanity).  So I modified the assignment for my classes.

At the beginning of the year I introduced the letter essays by letting my students know that we would be working towards writing them independently.  However, I did not begin assigning them until closer to December.  My students do not come from a workshop background, so I had a lot of work to do before they would be capable of producing the type of letter essay I was looking for.  We spent a few months really digging into talking about reading and then writing about reading.  I shared examples of letters I wrote and examples from Atwell.  Together, my students and I developed a list of sentence prompts to help with their thinking/talking about reading.  I typed the list up and it was placed in their binders.  Finally, I began assigning the letter essays.

I divided each class into 4 groups.  In my morning class, Group 1 was due the first Tuesday of the month.  Group 2 was due on the second Tuesday.  Group 3 on the third Thursday, etc.  My afternoon class was divided the same way, except their letters were due on Thursday.  This allowed me to collect between 5-7 letters on Tuesday, respond to them, and return them before getting the next class’ letters.    It was overwhelming at times, and I admit I often fell behind.  But each student always received a letter back from me, with a response to their thinking, my thoughts on the book, and sometimes a recommendation.  The kids loved it.  And their letter essays only got better as the year progresse.

In order to keep them accountable, I assessed each letter essay out of a 4-point rubric.  The rubric was very simple- 0 meant no letter essay was handed in, 1 meant there was no thinking (just summary) and it didn’t follow the directions (at least 3 paragraphs), 2 was a good effort but not quite there, 3 was almost there, and 4 was perfection.  I do my grades on a point system, and the letter-essay grade worked out to be about 20 points/marking period.  Just enough to make the students accountable.

Snow by Cynthia Rylant

I don’t review a lot of picture books, despite using many in my reading and writing mini-lessons. However, when I received a review copy of Cynthia Rylant’s new book, Snow, I was thrilled. Rylant is one of my favorite authors and her books are both gorgeous as stand-alones plus they serve as wonderful mentor and touchstone texts.

Snow is no different. The illustrations, by Lauren Stringer, are wonderful and evoke a feeling of home and warm nights spent by the fire. And Rylant’s poetry/prose is wonderful. I have a hard time putting into words how I feel while reading her books, so I will leave you with a few quotes:

The best snow is the snow that comes softly in the night, like a shy friend afraid to knock…

p. 1

Some snows fall only lightly, just enough to ake you notice the delicate limbs of trees, the light falling from the lamppost, a sparrow’s small feet.

p.9

Gorgeous, isn’t it? Rylant is a gifted writer and Snow is a welcome addition to my classroom library. I can already foresee using it in my poetry unit, in my non-fiction unit (focusing on one topic and writing beautifully about it), and in small-moment stories.

Oprah’s Book List for Kids


I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical when Oprah announced that she would be publishing a list of books she recommends for kids. While I certainly enjoy many of her adult book club picks, I wasn’t sure how a kids book list would turn out. However, I felt a little bit better when I heard that she had contacted the ALA for help.

Well, I finally got a chance to look at the list. Can I just tell you how THRILLED I am?!

Here is the press release from PW Children’s Weekly:

As of tomorrow, the Book Club section of Oprah Winfrey’s Web site will offer a list of recommended children’s titles, courtesy of the American Library Association’s Quick Lists Consulting Committee. According to Diane Foote, executive director at the ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children, the organization was contacted by Winfrey’s staff in the spring about putting together such a list. “We were gratified they came to librarians to do so,” Foote says.

The ALA compiled a list of 100 titles (including both recent and “classic” titles) in five age categories: infant to two, three to five, six to nine, 10 to 12 and 12 and up. The ALA’s Quick Lists Consulting Committee has prepared recommended reading lists for numerous organizations in the past, including the PBS Kids Web site, Toon Disney and the National Endowment for the Humanities Bookshelf Grant Program.

The list is divided by age. The 10-12 year old recommendations list includes the following titles (these are just my favorites):

New Releases- Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, , The Willoughbys, and Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. YES YES YES! DIARY notwithstanding, these books all need to find more readers. EMMA JEAN is a personal favorite of mine and I would love to see this little book take off. And CRACKER was a huge hit with my readers this year.

Classics- Anne of Green Gables and Bridge to Terabithia.

Again, YES YES YES! These are the classics middle schoolers should be reading. Take note summer reading list makers!

And the 12+ list looks just as good!

New Releases- The Patron Saint of Butterflies, Paper Towns (which I haven’t read but I already know it is amazing), Found (Missing), The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Trouble, and The Wednesday Wars.

And I love all the classics!

Kudos, ALA and Oprah! Kudos! Hopefully, some of these books will now become more mainstream and make their way into the classroom. I would love to see Oprah put out an updated list every few months. Maybe schools and teachers (who aren’t aware of the vibrant kidlitosphere) will use the lists as a jumping off point for getting new books into our schools!

Colored Moleskines!

A few months ago (February?), I saw that Moleskine would be producing their softcover oilskin notebook with colorful covers. You could choose from 2 different shades of blue, green, and pink and I was thrilled. Moleskines are my notebook of choice for writing, and I am a sucker for a cool cover. In fact, I won’t write in notebooks without cool covers. Unfortunately, this was also true in college so I was forced to buy all kinds of pretty notebooks in order to encourage myself to take notes!

But back to Moleskines. The colored versions became available for preorder back in June and I immediately ordered the Moleskine Volant Notebook Ruled, Green Large: Set of 2. And a blue one.  In the smallest size.

I have been waiting patie……Heck, forget that. I am so impatiently waiting for them to be shipped! Apparently I have to wait until August 26th. But I check the order status EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. I want my moleskines! I want to use one as my new writer’s notebook for the school year!

Patience, Sarah, Patience.*

*Hmm, that looks like a list of names from a Puritan family.

Amazon Prime Free Trial

Just a note for all those teachers who are frantically ordering supplies, books, shoes, what-have-you from Amazon-

Amazon Prime Free 2-month Trial!

Amazon is currently offering free trials of their Amazon Prime service, which provides free 2-day shipping (no minimum purchase!) for a set yearly fee. However, the trial is completely free. When you sign up, just be sure to immediately sign into your options and uncheck the “bill automatically” button.

I love Amazon Prime because it lets me order one or two things without having to add up $25 worth of goods to earn free shipping. And there are just some things I can get on Amazon and can’t get here at home. It’s a great service, and even better when it is free! The downside is that I suddenly justify making lots of small purchases, a book here or resource there, and my bank account becomes very unhappy. :(

Boy in the Striped Pajamas Trailer

This book has been on my TBR pile for ages and I haven’t yet been in the right mindset to read it when it reaches the top. But I have to say, the movie does look powerful.

Violet on the Runway by Melissa Walker

Violet Greenfield wants nothing more than to be able to fade into the background of high school. Unfortunately, her height makes that almost impossible. To compensate for her long legs and ever-growing body, she tries to dress inconspicuously and avoids drawing any attention to herself. Even her job, at the small hometown movie theater is designed to keep her hidden- anyone in their right mind (even Violet) goes to the megaplex across town to see a movie.

In Violet on the Runway , Violet’s life is forever changed the day she meets the woman in Chanel glasses at the movie theater. In the midst of complaining about her movie-going experience, the woman is stunned by Violet and hands over a card for Tryst modeling, asking if Violet is “signed anywhere”. Violet accepts the card, but laughs it off. However, over the next few days the card burns a hole in her pocket. Is this woman, Angela, right? Could she possibly be model material? She eventually decides to take the plunge, which takes her and her mother to New York for go-sees, appointments with designers. When four designers choose Violet to walk their Fashion Week runways, she is suddenly thrust into a whole new world.

Is modeling all that it’s cracked up to be? Can Violet survive being a runway model, the next “It” girl, and a high school senior? Can her life back home and her relationships with friends and family stay intact? Most importantly, can Violet survive, intact?

I really enjoyed this book! It was a great look at the world of modeling and glamour, but with a likable heroine. Violet is genuine and real, you feel like you know her. She struggles and makes mistakes, but you don’t blame her. She just wants to be something more than P-L-A-I-N. And really, isn’t that what we all want in middle school and high school?

I plan to recommend this to students who enjoy THE CLIQUE novels and Meg Cabot’s AIRHEAD. And I am thrilled that it is perfectly acceptable for 6th graders. I often have a hard time finding acceptable readalikes for these books, and Violet on the Runway fits the bill. Even better? It’s a series (be sure to check out Violet by Design and Violet In Private )! I already sent a recommendation to a few of my former students who I know will enjoy Walker’s books.

This month, Melissa Walker’s Violet books are the pick of the month at readergirlz. And there’s more! I was excited to see an opportunity to win a signed copy of the book on Hope’s Bookshelf. And the author, Melissa Walker, is having a release month party on her blog where she is giving away a book she has read and loved every day. The grand prize is going to be signed copies of the Violet trio.

Deep Down Popular by Phoebe Stone

A few of my girls read Deep Down Popular by Phoebe Stone earlier in the school year and recommended that I read it. It was in the Scholastic book clubs all year and usually got an order or two because the cover is intriguing (and fun). Who doesn’t love crazy socks? I finally got around to reading this over the weekend, and I have to admit I abandoned it. In fact, I abandoned it about 25 pages from the end. I just did not love it.

The book is well-written and the plot it cute. My first problem was that for the first 10 pages I had no idea if I was reading a historical or realistic fiction novel. The story is set in a small town in Virginia, and maybe it’s just that I have no experience with that. But I really had no idea if the story was taking place 50 years ago or yesterday. I think that will turn a lot of kids off.

Second, the book seemed very unrealistic. If it was historical fiction I might have cut it some slack. However, it is supposed to be taking place in the recent past/now and too many things made me say, “Huh?!” For example, at one point the main character decides to leave school at lunch. Now, there are plenty of smaller schools around here that do allow elementary students to go home at lunch, as long as they have a permission slip on file. However, Jessie Lou just up and goes home without telling anyone! Then, she gets back late after lunch and no one notices! In this day and age, I don’t care how small the town is- schools are responsible for students and Jessie would get quite a talking to when she got back to class. But not in the book. Incidents like that kept bothering me throughout the book.

The story is cute, but that’s really all I can say about it. I wasn’t dying to know what happened at the end and couldn’t even force myself to finish it. It just seemed very “blah” to me. I wouldn’t tell my students not to read it, as it is well-written. I just don’t see myself booktalking or recommending it to them.

Reading Workshop in the Middle Grades

I have had a lot of questions over the last few days asking about how I run my reading workshop. For some reason, there aren’t a lot of resources out there about using reading workshop in grades 6-8. However, I have read a lot of professional resources, observed in various workshop classrooms, and modified a lot of activities originally for the primary grades. Over the next few weeks I will make it a point to post about different aspects of my reading workshop as I get ready for the new year and plan out my units of study.

Today, I will take some time to recommend the professional resources that I have found to be the most important for my knowledge and planning.

Books:

1. In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning (Workshop Series) by Nancie Atwell- Nancie Atwell is the reading workshop guru for the upper grades. IN THE MIDDLE is an amazing resource that will allow you to see how she sets up both reading and writing workshop in her 7th grade classroom. She first published this book in 1987, and she shook the world with the idea that the drill-and-kill methodology of teaching reading was not working. In 1998 the second edition was published and it is even better than the first. Now, Atwell sees the teacher as a facilitator, actively involved in the students’ reading and writing. This book will revolutionize the way you teach reading.

2.The Reading Zone: HOW TO HELP KIDS BECOME SKILLED, PASSIONATE, HABITUAL, CRITICAL READERS by Nancie Atwell- In her newest book, Atwell focuses on the power of independent reading. This practical guide will help you shape routines and procedures that will get your kids reading. In my opinion, this is the most important book for my classroom. It honestly changed the way I teach and the way I view independent reading. Even better? It worked for me. My students became readers after I implemented my version of Atwell’s methods.

3. Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels- Literature circles are another important aspect of my reading workshop and Daniels book has proven invaluable. The minilessons included touch on routines, procedures, and reading strategies that kids can use in their groups.

4. The Read-Aloud Handbook: Sixth Edition (Read-Aloud Handbook) by Jim Trelease- My favorite part of the workshop is our read-aloud. Jim Trelease’s seminal work on the importance of reading aloud is a must-read for all teachers and parents.

5. Less is More: Teaching Literature With Short Texts, Grades 6-12 by Kimberly Campbell- I only read this book over the last few weeks. However, I have already adapted many of the ideas. Using short texts allows me to use my literature anthology (making my district happy) while retaining the shape and flow of my reading workshop (making ME happy). Campbell’s book suggests stories that help teach the higher order thinking skills, which is wonderful!

6. Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6 by Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak- Assessment has always been the hardest part of reading workshop for me. This book saved me!! I can not recommend it enough. Franki and Karen’s ideas for frequent assessment in their own classrooms has changed how I assess my students and it has made me a better teacher while keeping my students accountable.

7. Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook pack: A Workshop Essential by Linda Rief- I have used Linda Rief’s student notebook as a model for my own. My students keep a reading binder, which is a combination of Rief’s and Beth Newingham’s (see web resources)

Websites:

Beth Newingham’s Teacher Resources:  Mrs. Newingham’s teacher resources are aimed at the primary grades, but I love them!  I have modified many of them for my own use.  Be sure to check out her Reading Notebook, genre posters, and the pictures of her bulletin boards.

ReadWriteThink: Great lessons for literacy!

These are the resources I turn to most frequently while planning my reading workshop. Hopefully, this helps some other teachers in the intermediate grades. :) Please let me know if you have any other must-have resources!

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes Interview!

Today, I am interviewing Amelia Atwater-Rhodes as part of her blog tour! (See the full schedule below the interview.) I am very excited, because as a writer who began getting published as a teen, she is a great inspiration to my own students.

Thanks for stopping by TheReadingZone! As a young writer, you are especially inspirational to myself and my middle school students. How did you begin writing?

I have always told stories, and since learning how to write, I have always attempted to write them down. The earliest attempts were of course nearly illegible and lacking in any notable grammar, but the point is, it’s something I have always done.

The first novel I finished, I started in fifth grade. I had particularly incredible teachers that year and the year before. I had performed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, had helped transform my fifth grade classroom into first a lighthouse and then a rain forest, had participated in trust-falls and egg-drops and other activities, and just in general had developed a great deal of faith in myself, and in life in general. When a lazy summer came about, it seemed perfectly natural to finish a novel.

What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?


Absolutely by the seat of my pants. Occasionally I outline, when I have ideas faster than I can get them down, but I tend to stray from even the briefest notes. I love discovering the story as I go along, just as I would if I were reading. I outline when I go to revise.

Do you write everyday? Do you have a specific writing schedule?

Part of the “seat of my pants” method involves never knowing when I’ll even have time to sit down at my computer. I have no set schedule; if I did, I would only break it.

I tend to write more when I’m insanely over-scheduled, and get little done on vacations when I should have plenty of time. I write in the five-minute breaks between other things, in my head while I’m trying to fall asleep, in the margins of my class notes, and occasionally on my hand in movie theaters.

Congratulations on graduating, and I hope the job hunt is going well! What inspired you to become an English teacher?

Three things inspired me to teach: the wonderful teachers I had, the awful teachers I had, and all the readers I’ve had a chance to speak with over the years. I have known, as a student, the kind of power a teacher can hold to inspire, and I have known as a writer how wonderful it feels to see the spark of inspiration alight in someone you have been working with.

Your books delve into complex fantasy worlds, fraught with numerous characters, histories, and stories. Do your characters come to you first, do the stories come first, or do they shape each other?

It tends to be the characters who drive my stories. I’m lucky if I figure out the plotline before the fifth or sixth chapter of a first draft, but in that time, I get to know my narrator. Once I know the character, I can figure out the story.

What can we look forward to next? Are you working on anything right now?

The next book, arriving at bookstores on December 9, is Persistence of Memory. It returns to modern day, with the vampires and witches and shapeshifters. After that is Night’s Plutonian Shore (tentative title), which explores another facet of Nyeusigrube’s magic.

What is your advice for other writers, especially young writers?

The first piece of advice I always give is, do it. If you want to write, if you have stories and characters in your head and know you need to share them somehow, just pick up a pen or go to a keyboard and start. So many people never get started because they wait to have everything perfect first. First drafts exist for a reason; they’re supposed to be messy. Write first. If you decide to share your work, you can always edit later, but get the story out first.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Amelia! I am sure you are very busy getting ready for the beginning of the new school year. Good luck with your students- they are lucky to have such an accomplished author as their teacher!

Make sure to visit the other stops on Amelia’s blog tour:
July 22nd – Bildungsroman
July 24th – Cheryl Rainfield
July 25th – BookLoons
July 28th- Mrs. Magoo Reads
July 30th – Teen Book Review
July 31st – Saundra Mitchell
August 4th – Bookwrym Chrysalis
August 5th – Here!
August 7th – Through a Glass, Darkly

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