Metacognition in Reading Workshop

Assessment in Reading Workshop is always difficult, especially in an education culture that begs for grades at every turn.  I always struggle with how to assess my readers without cramming quizzes and tests down their throat at every turn.  I do test their basic comprehension when we read class novels- a necessary habit/evil that they must practice in order to be able to do it in middle and high school.  Plus, I love our class novels!  And they should be easy grades for every student, as long as they pay attention to our class discussions.

Assessing independent novel reading is a struggle for me.  I firmly believe in the Atwell school of thought which states that independent reading is pleasure reading.  Therefore, testing or grading that reading is counter-productive because it only makes reading a chore.  But of course, we need to give grades.  I think I finally have an assessment I am happy with this year.  It isn’t the be-all-end-all of my grading, but it does provide me with more data about my students as readers while also giving me a quick 5 points/week in our semester grade.

After reading Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6 by Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak I decided to implement a weekly in-class reading log.  I used a basic reading log last year which just asked the students to fill in the title, author, number of pages read, and the date. It served its purpose but I wasn’t getting anything from it.  This year I implemented Franki and Karen’s weekly reading long instead.  This log asks for the title, author, genre, and pages read.  But it also asks for a comment on that day’s reading.  So we read for 20-30 minutes and when we stop the kids fill in their comment.  Sometimes I shape their comment by asking them to use our daily mini-lesson.  For example, we were working on thick vs. thin questions this week so I asked them to write a thick or thin question after their reading.  At the end of the week they also fill out one thing they learned about themselves as readers that week and a goal for the next week.

I have now collected the weekly logs twice and I am thrilled with them!  They give me a great picture of my kids and their reading.  The comments have been getting better with each day and I love seeing how they think about their thinking at the end of each week.  Thank you Franki and Karen for the awesome idea!  

(For grading, I use a point system and divide the number of points earned by the total points for the marking period for each student.  The weekly reading logs are worth 5 points and the only reason a student doesn’t get full credit is if they don’t fill out the log or hand it in incomplete.)

Learning About Our Students as Readers

Over the last few days I have been trying to get to know my new students as readers. At the end of last year I was a walking encyclopedia, a who’s who of book recommendations. Even now, I read a book and immediately think, “I know exactly who would love this”! But a new class means starting over from scratch. While I love the clean slate offered by a new year, it frustrates me that I am not an expert on my students yet!

Yesterday we organized our classroom library as a review of genres. It served as a great way to review genre definitions while also letting the students see the variety of titles the library has to offer. There were a lot of stunned reactions, let me tell ya! While most of my students told me that they dislike reading, I told them that’s just because they haven’t enjoyed the books they read up to this point. I promised to find them a genre, author, or series they will enjoy this year! But it’s hard when I don’t know them yet. :)

Today I booktalked a few “guaranteed” titles before we headed to the school media center; just a few to whet their appetite while I start reading interviews and read their literacy profiles. The titles I talked about today included Life As We Knew It, Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, The Face on the Milk Carton, Just Grace, Turnabout , and Cirque Du Freak Life As We Knew It was a huge hit, and Cracker! went over well with the war buffs.  Every student left school today with a book.  Even better?  When I ended independent reading today, there were a few soft groans.  I asked for a show of hands, saying “How many of you were annoyed that I interrupted your reading?  How many people didn’t want to stop?”  About hald the class raised their hands.  One boy said, “This has never happened to me before!”

It’s amazing how passion is contagious.  Our kids deserve our passion- whether it be for reading, science, history, geography, math, or anything else.  That passion will spread, as long as our passion is genuine.  That is true teaching.

I’m off to read more reading inventories now, and hopefully get to know my students better!

Possible Read-alouds

I recently began thinking about what I will read aloud to my 6th graders this year. While I don’t stick to any prescribed list (including my own) I do like getting some ideas before the school year starts. My lists change as new books are published and as I get to know my class and their needs. But here are the books I am already considering:

Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- I love starting the year with this book. I usually only read it with my homeroom, during the week before we begin switching classes. It’s a great book about a class that has to work together when their school forgets to call a substitute for their teacher. The characters and situations are very realistic and it is a great community-building story. We talk about expectations, behavior, routines and procedures, and respect while reading it.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (review)- Like FLYING SOLO, this book is also a definite. I will read this aloud, though I might wait until later in the year. It’s a gorgeous story, but I think I have to get my students to love reading before I can get them to understand THE UNDERNEATH. This is a non-negotiable, though. I will be reading it aloud!

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- I love ending the year with this action-packed tale. My students are learning about Ancient Greece in Social Studies at the same time, so we are able to do a lot of cross-curricular activities. Plus, most of them end up running out and buying the next books in the series, so it is a great way to start off summer reading.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (review)- I love this book. And the edge-of-your-seat events really pull kids into the story. I am not sure if this makes a better read-aloud or literature circle book. But I will definitely use it in some way. And it is a survival novel, which I love to use as our first theme.  Hmmm.

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson (review) or Peak by Roland Smith (review) – I like to start the year with a survival or environmental themed book. LEEPIKE RIDGE is a great adventure/survival story. As is PEAK. I love them both, for different reasons. But I can’t decide which one to use!

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry (review)- I am considering doing an author study of Lois Lowry this year in Reading Workshop. THE GIVER is one of our district reading requirements (and one of my favorites) and I would love to begin with THE WILLOUGHBYS, discuss NUMBER THE STARS (which is read in 4th grade) and other Lowry works, and then go into THE GIVER. Does anyone have any suggestions?

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (review)- Another favorite. This is a great character book, and it appeals to middle schoolers because it does such a great job describing middle school life. I really want to share this with the entire class.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (review)- Most likely a non-negotiable. We read this aloud while preparing our Hope Chests for the Center for Children with Cancer and Blood Disorders. It’s too perfect not to share as class, especially during that time.

Wow, that’s a lot of books!  Especially when I know that even more books will be added to the list when I begin reading the Fall publications.  Eep!  But I love the looks of this list so far, so it is going to be a great year!

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.

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!

My Middle School Language Arts Classroom…

I have spent the past few days beginning to plan out next year. I am a third year teacher, so some of my units are ready to go, others need tweaking, and some are being rewritten from scratch! However, I wanted to share what my normal day looks like so that other teachers can possible get some ideas!

I teach in a team setting: I teach Language Arts and my students have a different teacher for math, and a third teacher for science/social studies. I have two classes- my homeroom and my afternoon class.  I teach Language Arts in a 2 hours block.  M homeroom stays with me all morning, then we go to lunch, afterwards I get my afternoon class before they go to special.  Because of this, we start each day with a Do-Now. I am in charge of the Do-Now for my two classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. Traditionally, we use DOL as our Language do-now, but I want to change that next year. Granted, the ease of use is a big temptation, but the research shows that DOL doesn’t help kids use correct grammar in context. And I am willing to bet half my students just put any old answers down and wait for us to go over the correct answers together. So this summer I am revamping all of my grammar plans! This means I need a do-now. It has to be something quick and easy (we have a ten-minute homeroom) but also needs to hold students accountable. Any ideas?

Word Study: This year, I plan on using a mix of direct instruction, inquiry, and grammar in context for grammar. Right now I am writing my curriculum, based on our state and district standards. I am using Don and Jenny Killgallon’s Story Grammar for Elementary School: A Sentence-Composing Approach and Grammar for Middle School, Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, And Style into Writer’s Workshop and EVERYDAY EDITING: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop. Last but not least, I am waiting for Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching. I know, it’s a lot! But when I went to the Columbia Teacher’s College Reunion Saturday back in March, I went to great session on teaching grammar in middle school. The presenter introduced all these great books to me, and I was inspired.

We have a district spelling curriculum, which means we have a spelling pretest on Mondays. Students complete a spelling contract during the week (that I wrote) and take a final spelling test on Friday.

Vocabulary is something I am still struggling with. Last year I followed Linda Rief’s model. I had my students find 5 vocabulary words each week from their reading. They then defined them, wrote each word in the sentence that they found it, and handed it in. For extra credit they included the etymology of the word. I just didn’t feel it was successful with my students, so I am searching for a new idea this year.

Reading Workshop: Reading workshop, reading workshop, reading workshop!!! I start my reading workshop with a mini-lesson. My students have one Language Arts binder that is divided in 8 sections. (I may amend this to 6-7 sections this year.) One section is devoted entirely to mini-lessons and notes from mini-lessons. The section begins with a table of contents that the students fill in each day, noting the subject of the lesson.

This year, I plan to use more short texts in my mini-lessons, so that my students have common texts but can still focus on their independent novels. This will allow me to differentiate more in conferences, but all the students will have common texts at hand. For this purpose, I am reading Less is More: Teaching Literature With Short Texts, Grades 6-12 by Kimberly Hill Campbell.

After the mini-lesson and guided practice, we break into independent reading. During this time, students read independently, putting into practice the skills we have learned. During this time, I have individual conferences with students and pull small groups. I also sometimes (especially at the beginning of the year, when I am building the reading foundation) just read with the students. This models an adult enjoying reading, something they don’t always see. They also see me enjoying their literature, children’s, middle-grade, and YA, valuing it.

I do teach whole-class novels, as they are required by the district. But I love the novels we do together, and they allow us to have a common text. Plus, I don’t assign the reading for homework- we treat it as a read-aloud/whole class novel. I do a lot of text marking, teaching them how to annotate their books. It’s a skill they will need in future years and one I never learned (and wish I did!). Our whole class novels are: Tuck Everlasting, The Giver, and The Devil’s Arithmetic .

Writing Workshop: My students keep a writing notebook. I start the year with a lot of activities from Notebook Know-How: Strategies For The Writer’s Notebook. My students have a little bit of experience with the workshop method in the primary grades, but not since then. I really have to ease them into it. For the first half of the year, their weekly homework is to write 4 entries in their notebook. I collect these as a homework assignment.

This year I will be using the front half of the writer’s notebook for their writing and the back half for notes and mini-lessons. I am hoping this helps keeps them more organized. And to be honest, it will keep me more organized, too!

In 6th grade, we focus a lot on persuasive writing because it is tested on the state tests. But I start the year with launching the writer’s notebook. Then we ease into personal narrative. I am working on what we will do after that! I do know I will be doing my poetry unit again because it was such a success. :) And I plan on doing my multi-genre projects again at the end of the year. Right now, I am paging through Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5 for ideas.

Read-Aloud: My favorite part of each day is at the end of class. That’s when we have our read-aloud. During the read-aloud I model higher-level thinking and other comprehension skills. And the students love it! We experience various genres and everyone. To see what we read this year, check out this post.

As for how I choose my read-alouds, it’s all about the kidlitosphere! I read reviews, read Newbery contenders, and of course turn to some of my personal favorites. The read-alouds change with each class and each year. This way, they stay fresh and personalized!

I still have a lot of work to do for next year, but I am getting excited. I love my grade level and I love teaching language arts. Hopefully, this post can help some other middle school English teachers!

Summer Literacy Packets and Summer Reading

At the end of the school year I handed out a Summer Literacy Packet to my students.  I told my students it was completely voluntary, and I am very happy to say that a few of my students have been sending me weekly emails detailing their progress.  And come August I expect a few more to pop their notebooks in the mail to me.  It’s been awesome being able to continue our literacy dialogue through the summer months and I am enjoying the deeper conversations we have been having over email.  But today I received a letter essay from one of my students that only further fueled my anger with required summer reading lists.

This particular student is a very strong reader, and an avid one.  She is currently reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  (Three of the six books on our summer reading list are classics).  The email I received from her today broke my heart.  This girl loves to read and shouldn’t be forced to read a book that she is hating.  All year long I preached choice, choice, choice.  I taught my students to choose books on their level, and to be aware when books are not on their level.  Tom Sawyer needs a good deal of scaffolding for 7th graders, and that scaffolding can’t happen over the summer, when students are on their own.

I want to share a few quotes from her letter:

Today, I read chapters 15 and 16 in Tom Sawyer.  So far I rate this book a three out of ten.  this book is really boring and I do not understand it.  Every chapter talks about something different then the last chapter.  It doesn’t flow very well.  It also shocks me that it is considered a classic because I am not enjoying it.  I expect more from a classic than this book has to offer

Is this how we want to introduce the classics, the canon of English literature to our students?  How long will this attitude stay with these student?

Also, they talk in old southern accents and use older words and use old fashioned tools and devices.  Finally, it is boring because the print is small, it is hard to read, the characters are boring, the adventures are boring, and basically the whole book is boring.

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!  This should not be happening!  The vocabulary is difficult, the accents are hard to decipher, and a lot of the “adventures” require a good deal of historical background knowledge.  All things students are not being supported with during summer reading.  Ridiculous!

I would recommend this book to no one except older people from the South.  This book is boring and a waste of time.  I can’t wait to finish this book and be done with the required summer reading!

The only thing these required reading lists is doing is making our students despise the classics.  There is nothing wrong with the classics, but forcing students to read them independently, without the background knowledge and support they require is practically cruel.  It really is a shame.

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