Workshop as Test Prep?

Today my students finished the NJASK standardized test for 6th grade.  Well, they didn’t really finish- math is tomorrow and Thursday.  But the language arts section is done now!  This afternoon I took an informal, conversational survey of my students.  They were all really happy because they felt that the test was “So easy! Much easier than last year!”.  I didn’t notice anything different from years past, so I asked them what we had done this year that they thought best prepared them for the test.  Needless to say, I was thrilled with their answers.

  • Our weekly Article of the Week.  They said that reading the articles helped them feel more confident about informational text, and the written response each week gave them more confidence.
  • The Forty Book Challenge.  Requiring them to read 40 books increased their speed and fluency.  A lot of them said it was the first year that they didn’t struggle to finish the reading selections.
  • Using boxes and bullets for the persuasive essay (a la Calkins)
  • Our read alouds.  They had a wide range of texts to draw on, and they remembered a lot of conversations while answering the multiple choice questions.  One student told me that he just imagined the questions being read in my voice, like they were a part of our read aloud conversation.
  • Letter-essays.  Again, they felt confident about writing a lot in a set amount of time.  And they told me they had a lot of strategies to draw on when they got stuck.
  • Our one week of test prep before the test.  They really liked that we focused on test writing as a genre, because they felt that they really understood the ins and outs of the test better.  Also, they loved the “hamburger method” (from Better Answers) for answering open-ended reading response questions.

But my favorite answer?  “The old ladies!”  See, I tell my classes that the written responses to the NJASK are hand-graded by old, retired teachers who are locked in a conference room for an entire weekend and do nothing but grade tests.  They get cranky, their coffee gets stale, and they don’t want to read messy or bad writing.  They don’t want to have to struggle to understand what the writer means.  I say this jokingly, asking my students how many of them have to explain technology to their grandparents in great detail when all they want is to tell a story about a Youtube video.  This always bring laughs but a lot of nods.  Turns out, you need to explain the same amount in your writing!  I remind them that the cranky old teachers only have the answer sheets in front of them, so you need to explain in DETAIL.  Not just glossing over facts or opinions!

Imagine my surprise when one student raised her hand today and told me that made all the difference in the world for her.  Suddenly, she had an audience in mind when writing.  She didn’t make assumptions that her reader was going to be a teacher who knew her well and could make assumptions about what she meant.  As she told me this, I watched the rest of my class nod in agreement.  Who knew?!  Just picturing an old, cranky teacher was enough to remind them to elevate their writing.  We talk about audience all the time, but this time it clicked.

Needless to say, I am thrilled that everything I do as a part of workshop translated to the test for my students.  I don’t do months of test prep, I don’t focus on the test as the be-all end-all of the year, but they all took it seriously.  What I saw as I was walking around thrilled me!  Of course, I won’t see results until the end of the summer, but I feel confident that they all did their best work.  🙂


Value of a Family Reading Interview

Last week I decided to add a new assignment to my “Getting to Know Ourselves as Readers” unit in reading workshop.  I paged through a few of my resources looking for inspiration.  While flipping through Beyond Leveled Books, Second Edition I came across the family reading interview. I took the idea and ran with it!

I adjusted the questions to fit my students/grade level and was very happy with the results. Students were required to interview one member of their family (high school senior or older) about their reading experiences. They asked about the genres they enjoyed, genres they don’t enjoy, how they choose books, and favorite childhood reads. The students were then required to put all the answers into paragraph form, with their own commentary, forming an essay. I was looking forward to reading some interesting interviews when I collected them today.

I had no idea how amazing the interviews would turn out to be! I’ve already graded 2 classes and they are awesome! My students really got to know their interviewees and shared so much. They learned that they might have a lot in common with mom or dad, or might be the complete opposite. A few students shared their relief in learning that mom or dad wasn’t always a voracious reader. They said it gave them hope that they might also “get the reading gene” at some point. (That’s what I’m hoping to cultivate this year!)

Students also enjoyed learning about their parents’ favorite books. Especially their childhood favorites. I saw everything from Flowers in the Attic and Forever to The Velveteen Rabbit and Peter Rabbit. Quite a collection!

I am so thrilled with the connections that occurred while my students held the interviews with their family members. I learned so much about their families and they learned so much about the person/people they interviewed. I would highly recommend doing a family reading interview in your class! It can definitely be adapted for any grade level!

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

Most Important Elements of Middle School Reading Workshop

At the end of the school year I give an evaluation to all of my students, looking for their opinion on our reading workshop.  I always learn a lot from the evaluations every year, but this year’s evaluation was especially important to me.  Because I will be moving from a two hour block to less than one hour per period, I was especially interested in what my students deemed the most valuable elements of our reading workshop.  While I know what I consider valuable, I wanted to take their ideas into account while planning this summer.

On the evaluation, I asked my students the following question (special thanks to Donalyn Miller for her amazing book, which inspired this question):

9. In the next section, put a checkmark next to the elements of this class that have helped you as a reader.  Circle which factor was MOST important to you.

_Classroom library

_School librarian/library


_Independent Reading time in class

_Class read-alouds

_teacher who reads

_conversations with classmates

_literature circles


_monthly reading logs



I was fascinated by my students’ responses.  This is the first time I have asked my classes to rank the elements of our reading workshop and boy, am I glad I did!  Knowing I will have to rework my schedule a lot next year, I was interested to learn what my students’ considered to be non-negotiables, elements I could not leave out next year.

What are my non-negotiables, according to them, in order of importance?

  1. Booktalks
  2. Read-alouds
  3. Teacher who reads
  4. Classroom library
  5. Conversations with classmates
  6. Independent reading time in class
  7. Letter-essays

Now, a teacher who reads, a classroom library, and letter-essays weren’t in danger of disappearing when my schedule changes.  However, booktalks, read-alouds, conversations with classmates, and independent reading time  will have to be reworked.  I’m thrilled that my booktalks and read-alouds are considered vital by  my students!  

What I find interesting is that the majority of the elements listed above are NOT part of most language arts classrooms.  Classrooms, especially in intermediate and middle schools, are full of basal readers, literature sets, leveled readers, and lectures. 

Read-alouds are considered “silly” once students reach a certain age in most schools, yet my students considered them vital to the culture of reading in our workshop.  As I’ve mentioned before, they begged to read more everyday in our read-alouds.  Plus, the read-alouds permit me to introduce a variety of genres and authors in the classroom and as a result, the students usually go on to read more books from the author or genre.  Without read-alouds, they might not have been exposed to those books or had the confidence to try them on their own.

Booktalks are done sometimes, with little regularity, in most classrooms I encounter.  The person doing the booktalk is usually a student who is presenting the book as part of a book report or other graded assignment.  They are rarely enthusiastic about the novel they are presenting, which doesn’t encourage anyone else to pick up the book.  If the teacher who models booktalks is enthusiastic about reading and books, that will be reflected in the classroom!

We also come back to the idea of social reading, as Jen Robinson wrote on Booklights a few days ago.  Conversations with classmates were high on the list of elements my students noted as vital to the classroom culture and workshop.  A few also wrote in “conversations with teacher” in the “Other” field.  We need to  harness this!  Classroom teachers MUST make time for their students to talk about books with each other.  And teachers must share their own love of books and reading through conversations and conferences with students.  You don’t have to be a bibliophile in order to teach language arts, but you should have books that you enjoy reading and sharing with your students.

What Do You Want to Know- Question #4

Great question from Susan Dee today!

I teach a 4th/5th grade looping class using the workshop model. In the fall I will return to 4th grade to begin a new loop. My biggest frustration has been around grading! We use the traditional A-F system. Any ideas for making it easier???

I addressed this a little in Question #2 earlier in the week.  I also use the traditional A-F grading system in my district and I have managed to infuse it into my reading/writing workshop.    How do I manage this?  Rubrics!  Lots and lots of rubrics.  

I grade almost all assignments using a rubric.  Rubrics make teachers’ expectations clear and show students how to meet those expectations.  From projects to letter-essays, my students know exactly what I am looking for and how I will be grading the assignment.  And the rubrics allow me room to assess each student on an individual basis.  

Because I grade using rubrics, I usually end up with scores like “34/42”.  I do not convert these to an A-F grade.  Instead, I use a point system throughout the marking period.  Each assignment is worth a specific number of points (derived from the rubric) and I put the points a student earns in my grade book.  At the end of the marking period, I add up the points a student earned and divide it by the number of points they could have earned.  That number is then their marking period average!  For example, a student who earned 178 points out of a possible 205 would receive an 86.8% for the marking period.  This would be a B in my district.  

I also like the point system because it allows me to weight certain assignments.  The homework grade is always worth 50 points, projects/tests are worth more than 50 points (usually closer to 100 points and sometimes even more) and quizzes are worth less than 50 points.  Yes, I even grade tests out of points!  For me, this is the most accurate way to reflect the work my students do.  

I hope this helps!

What Do You Want to Know- Question #2

Christy asks,

I teach 5th grade reading/language arts. What types of activities and assignments do you take grades from?

First, let me explain that I teach using the workshop method, but I do not teach in a workshop-based school.  We grade on an A-F scale, and I am expected to assess my students on this scale.  However, I have managed to modify assignments and grading to make it work for me.

I should begin by pointing out that I grade on a point scale.  Each assignment is worth a specified amount of points.  At the end of the marking period, I add up the amount of points a student received and divide it by the number of points a student could have achieved.  This works well for me, because I use a lot of rubrics.  It also allows me to easily weight assignments.  

Now, my reading assessments are varied.  As I have explained previously, my students are responsible for one letter-essay every 3-4 weeks.  These letter-essays are assessed on a 1-4 scale, using a rubric.  Each student hands in 3 letter-essays each marking period.  I also do a lot of reader’s response and metacognitive response work.  For example, my students just finished their Holocaust/WWII book clubs.  Each book club was responsible for answering 4-6 essential questions from the unit, using knowledge from their book selection.  This was worth 50 points.  Then each individual was responsible for a reader’s response activity that focused on theme (adapted from Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6).  Each question was worth 10 points on a rubric.  Together, this was added up for a 100 point grade in my gradebook.  This is just one example of an assessment I use.

I do give traditional tests and quizzes.  Vocabulary is tested using quizzes and the points earned are added to my grading book.  And while I don’t do whole-class novels often, I don’t dispose of them completely.  At certain points during the year I do give traditional comprehension tests on novels.  I try to only do this 1-2x each year, because I use so many other assessments.  However, my students need to know how to take traditional comprehension tests in order to survive middle school and high school.  I also try to use these tests to assess their writing.  For example, I include essays and literary essays after we finish those units of study.  It helps students to realize the link between reading, writing, and the content areas.

Finally, we do projects!  These are always graded with a rubric.  Always.  I DO NOT do book reports.  Please, don’t assume project=book report.  Instead, we do activities related to our unit of study.  For example, our current read-aloud is The Lightning Thief and we are studying mythology in class. (This goes hand-in-hand with their current social studies unit). Most recently, my students did a project where they modernized a Greek god/goddess. They drew a picture of their modernized god/goddess and wrote a modern myth about them. One student explained the war in Iraq as the result of a fight between Ares and Hades. Another wrote about Poseidon causing Hurricane Katrina. It was awesome! They got to have fun and be creative with art, reading, and writing and I had a great assessment.

Hopefully, this helps explain my assessments.  It’s hard to boil it down into a blog post, so please comment if you need any clarifications or have more questions!

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!

New from Aimee Buckner!

Be sure to check out Aimee Buckner’s contribution to the Share a Story – Shape a Future blog tour.  It’s a great read!

Aimee is the author of one of my favorite writing workshop books, Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook. I use it everywhere during our first unit of study. I am especially excited because she is coming out with a new book, Notebook Connections: Strategies for the Reader’s Notebook. I can’t wait to get my hands on it! And if you check out Aimee’s post above, there is a link to a sneak peek of the book!

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.

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

On January 26th, Kelly Gallagher will be here at TheReadingZone answering your questions!  His newest book, Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, will be released on February 10, 2009. However, thanks to Stenhouse, we can get a sneak peek at the entire book before Kelly stops by!

So here is your assignment: Get reading! I have read the book and it is amazing– count on a review in the next few days. However, now I need you to read the book. This is your chance to pick the brain of Kelly Gallagher….when will you get this chance again?

You don’t need to read the entire book. One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 2: Endangered Minds (beginning on page 27). Gallagher presents a flood of information on the dearth of reading material in our schools and the effects on our kids’ reading. Read it, make notes, and come back here to post your questions! Kelly will be here on January 26th and I can’t wait!

Kelly will be participating in a five-stop blog book tour. Each of the following blogs will post either a Q&A with Kelly, or a review of the book, or will give you the opportunity to submit questions to Kelly. So browse the book and then check out all of these blogs in the coming days and discuss this vitally important topic!

Blog tour dates and stops:

1/20 – A Year of Reading 
1/22 – The Tempered Radical 
1/23 – The Dream Teacher 
1/26 – The Reading Zone 
1/28 – The Book Whisperer < span>