Nancie Atwell Responds to Choice in Reading Workshop

You must, must, must watch this video.  Nancie Atwell responds to the recent NY Times article regarding Reading Workshop.  I found myself wanting to shout, “Yes, yes, yes! You go, girl!” while Nancie spoke.

This video should be mandatory for all parents, teachers, administrators, and school officials.

http://www.heinemann.com/shared/emails/AtwellChoice.html

In This Corner….”Junk Books” vs. the Classics!

I was reading some of the blogs in my Google Reader today and saw that Lois Lowry, one of my favorite authors, responded one more time to the NY Times article on reading workshop that created such a buzz this weekend.  While I respect Lowry and absolutely adore her work, I’m going to have to beg to differ with her opinion here:

“Those who feel that once we get kids to “enjoy” reading by way of Gossip Girls and its ilk, they will eventually move on, on their own, to the “classics”—-AIN’T. GONNA. HAPPEN.  They will move on to read popular novels, and there is nothing wrong with that. But not one of them will ever voluntarily pick up Joseph Conrad or Henry James or Virginia Woolf.”

Not so, Ms. Lowry!

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

First of all, we have to differentiate between the classics and good literature. There have been plenty of books published in the last 25 years that will someday be considered classics.  If kids are reading those then I am perfectly happy and consider those books just as important as the classics!  In this instance I will include both classics and those destined to be classics.  My students who sometimes begin reading “junk” books often move on to more “important” literature.  Keep in mind that literature is important in the eyes of adults.  For my students, their current “junk” book might be more important to them at this point in their life.  Maybe they finally found themselves in a character.  Or perhaps they learn to look at life from a different perspective.  Even “junk” can teach us something.  Plus, one man’s junk is another’s treasure, as we all know.

As for anecdotal evidence, I have seen it with my own eyes.  I have plenty of students each year who begin school reading what many would call junk.  Do I stop them?  Never!  That junk will be the reading material that opens their eyes to a world of possibilities- the world of reading.  All their lives they have been told no, don’t read this.  Don’t read that.  Only what we (parents, teachers) say is important counts.  You can’t be trusted to choose good books or read decent literature.

No wonder so many adolescents and tweens hate reading!  No one allows them to find their niche.  When I tell my students they can read anything they want they are overwhelmed at first.  For far too long they have been shut down and shut out of the conversation.  So they take advantage of the “whatever you want” aspect of my independent reading time.  Yes, Twilight is a popular choice with many of my reluctant readers. So are books like Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare and fluffy graphic novels like Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!. None of these are “great literature” or someday classics. In fact, many people would refer to them as junk books.

But in a few short months, those choices have led to new books, modern classics like Speak, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, and The Stand.  Why?  Because students have learned that reading is actually fun and enjoyable!  They know what they like- graphic novels, or realistic fiction about social issues, or horror.  It’s a natural progression as they seek out more and more books.

Does every student move on to the classics?  Of course not.  Not every student is starting at the same level.  But learning to enjoy reading means that they will read the classics someday or at the very least, the odds are better that they will!  It also means they are more likely to understand the books assigned in high school and college because they have built up their reading stamina.

Unlike the teacher in the article, I don’t have my students read the whole period, every period.  We do a few whole class novels (including Lowry’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0440237688?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0440237688″>The Giver</a>).   My post from yesterday details my reading workshop and the way I teach whole-class novels and read alouds.  But my students do get to read books of their choice every day and my lesson plans revolve around those books 80% of the year.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So Ms. Lowry, we will have to agree to disagree here. Writers don’t write no junk in my eyes, because as teachers we never know which book will be the key that opens the door to the world of reading.  Whether it’s Gossip Girl or Virginia Woolf, all the keys fit the lock.

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

2008-2009 Class Book Lists (Read-alouds)

Each year I keep track of the books my class reads together.  This year we read some great ones!  This year on my year-end survey I asked my students to tell me their favorite read-aloud.   Below is a list of the books we read and some of the students’ comments.

 

Read-alouds:

Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- This was the first book we read together (in my homeroom). We read it aloud during the first week of school and it was one of our favorites for the year! A great way to start off the school year, with the story of a class that has no substitute when their teacher is home sick.

 

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (Whole-class Novel)- A gorgeous story and well-known as the greatest children’s book ever written.  One of my favorites each year.

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt- This was the first book we read together as part of our unofficial mock Newbery. I first read The Underneath over the summer and I knew I had to read it to my class. It took a few days for them to get into the story, but within the first week they loved it! This is a difficult but beautiful story- my students needed scaffolding but it was worth it. Plus, Kathi is awesome and corresponded with my class over the course of the school year. They were THRILLED!

 

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson- The second book we read for our mock Newbery, this was a huge hit. My students learned about the Revolutionary War in 5th grade, but Anderson presents a whole different perspective. The novel taught my students a lot and they enjoyed it. Most of them were begging for the sequel at the end of the year and are annoyed it’s not out yet!

 

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost- The final book we read as part of our mock Newbery. I read this aloud while presenting it on the document camera, which worked great. You can read more about this 21st-century read-aloud here.    For many of my students, this was their first verse novel and many of them turned to verse novels again and again for the rest of the year.

 

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Whole class Novel)- This is my favorite dystopian novel for young adults, and one of the first I remember reading in school.  Another book that takes some scaffolding, I love teaching it every year.

 

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- We read this as a companion to our Valentine’s Day charity work each year.  While gathering donations for the children’s cancer ward, this novel is the perfect companion.   Sonnenblick has crafted a gorgeous story of a young boy whose family is touched by cancer. It also made us laugh out loud a lot!  

 

The Journey That Saved Curious George : The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden- This was a new book for me this year and the anchor of our non-fiction unit of study. I loved presenting a new side of the familiar Curious George tales my students know and love while growing up. And our read-aloud even inspired one student to further research H.A. Rey and his wife Margret for her National History Day presentation!  (It was also a great lead-in to our Holocaust unit).

 

The Devil’s Arithmetic  by Jane Yolen- This is the anchor of our Holocaust study and this year I read it aloud instead of as a whole class novel. This year’s class enjoyed the read aloud while working with other WWII novels/non-fiction in book clubs.  Yolen’s haunting story of a girl who does not want to remember is a powerful testament of the strength and courage of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

 

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- Definitely oneof my classes’ favorites! A great adventure story that infuses regular kid problems, Greek mythology, and tons of adventure! A must-read!  I’d say close to 25% of my students began reading the rest of the series before school ended for the year!

 

 

A few comments from my students:

“My favorite read-aloud this year was The Lightning Thief  because I found out that I like mythology.”

“My favorite read-aloud was Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie  because it was funny.”

“My favorite read-aloud was Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie  because I really felt for Jeffrey and Steven!”

“I loved The Devil’s Arithmetic .  It taught me a lot about the Holocaust that I didn’t know.”

Diamond Willow was my favorite because it was emotional and reminded me of my relationship with my own dog”.

“My favorite book this year was Chains because it told a great story.”

“My favorite was Chains because it leave a cliffhanger at the end.  It has lots of action.  It made me want Ms. M. to read more.”

“I really liked Flying Solo .  It was so funny.”

The Underneath was my favorite read-aloud this year.  I just loved it!”

There were many more comments- every book resonated with a specific student.  That’s why I make sure to share a variety of genres, authors, themes, and books with each class!

What Do You Want to Know?

As readers of this blog know, I teach 6th grade language arts using a workshop method.  It’s not always easy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!  Is there anything you are wondering about how I handle reading and writing workshop in my classroom?  If so, comment here and I promise to answer any questions!

Teammates by Peter Golenbock

Today I used Peter Golenbock’s Teammates for a lesson on inferencing themes with my 6th graders. I had never read Teammates before this week and I had no idea I was missing out on such a great book!

Teammates is the story of baseball player Jackie Robinson’s friendship with PeeWee Reese, a teammate who risked his career (and possibly his life) to stand up for Jackie when he joined the Dodgers.  Golenbock looks at a single moment in American history and turns it into a gorgeous narrative.  The story is illustrated in paintings and photographs.  The story is powerful and timely- one that every student should hear.

The subject of baseball, Jackie Robinson, and segregation is one that appeals to all of my students, and especially the boys.  They were thrilled that we were reading such a “cool” picture book.  And it lent itself so well to the lesson I had planned on inferring themes!  I highly recommend this one for all ages.

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!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,957 other followers