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

Being Nikki by Meg Cabot

Being Nikki (Airhead) is the second book in Meg Cabot’s Airhead series.  I read and reviewed Airhead last March and enjoyed it a lot, but it left me wanting to know more about Em and Nikki.  When I received an ARC of Being Nikki I put aside the book I was reading and started in right away.  I knew I had a few students salivating for this one so I didn’t want to hold on to it too long!

Being Nikki picks up right where Airhead left off.  I enjoyed the first book in the series because it was a great mix of smart girl heroine + fun fashion chick lit (not an easy combination to pull off).  However, the second book was nothing like I expected, in a good way!  Em is still working as the world’s most famous supermodel after having a *SPOILER ALERT!  STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AIRHEAD YET!* a brain transplant.  Em is struggling to lead her own (old life) and her new life as Nikki.  She is going to school, trying to see her own family as much as possible, and still jet-setting around the world for photo shoots and commercials.  Of course, no matter what she does she isn’t a typical teen.  Most high schoolers don’t have to walk the runway wearing nothing but a bra and panties during the equivalent of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.  

At the same time, Nikki’s body is starting to assert itself more.  Em finds herself melting for guys she despises, like Brandon Stark.  And she doesn’t fight it when she finds herself making out with Gabriel Luna.  But she is still completely in love with Christopher who thinks Em is dead and barely notices Nikki in school.

Everything changes when Em comes home to Nikki’s apartment and finds a strange man there.  It turns out Nikki has a brother.  A brother who can tell something is different about Nikki.  But more importantly, he tells Em that their (Steven and Nikki) mother is missing.  As Em begins to use her celebrity to investigate Nikki’s mother’s disappearance, more and more information about Stark starts coming to light.  Couple this with the fact that only Christopher can help them and he seems to have turned into an evil super villain and you have the makings of an edge-of-your-seat thriller.  

I was very surprised at how  much mystery and intrigue there was.  But I loved it!  Em continues to be a smart, strong heroine struggling to figure out who she is, like most teenagers.  Unlike most teenagers, her brain is one person and her body is another.  The twists and turns in the story kept me turning the pages and the cliffhanger at the end has me impatiently awaiting the third book the series, Runaway.  



*One of my former students, who read the ARC of Airhead in my class last year came back to visit me recently.  She told me she had just purchased Being Nikki  and, “It was amazing!  Better than the first one!”.  If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.  🙂

Busy as a Bee

It’s been a crazy last 36 hours and the insanity continues for the rest of this week.  I am loving the constant NCTE updates from those attending and can not wait to go to Philly for the convention next year!  Right now I am exhausted but just want to share some news I have gathered from the blogosphere today:


Franki shares the news of a new Georgia Heard poetry book!  I need this yesterday!  Georgia Heard is one of my mentor writers and I can not wait to get my hands on this one. 

-Love Meg Cabot?  Well, for the next 30 days you can read The Princess Diaries online!

Hot Books in March

I apologize…I am a few days late with this month’s installment of Hot Books in my classroom. For my new readers, a quick explanation: Every month I publish a list of the 5-6 books that are currently the most popular reads in my 6th grade classroom. To see previous lists, please click on the Hot Books tag under keywords.

Allie Finkle’s Rules For Girls: Moving Day by Meg Cabot: I haven’t even had a chance to read this novel, Meg Cabot’s first foray into middle grade fiction. I received an ARC at ALA Midwinter and passed it on to one of my pickiest girls. She finished the book in one night and came in the next morning raving about it! She told me I needed to read it, but first she had a list of classmates to pass it on to. It’s been making it’s way around my classroom ever since and Cabot has been winning fans left and right. The same student also read my ARC of Airhead by Meg Cabot and passed it on to another friend (thankfully, I had time to read and review it first!

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: I have loved “Wednesday Wars” since I first read and reviewed it back in December. I tried to handsell it to my students but rarely succeeded (historical fiction is always a hard sell to middle schoolers, I think). I finally succeeded when I used “The Wednesday Wars” as part of my historical fiction literature circles this past month. The lit circle who read “The Wednesday Wars” absolutely loved it and they have been recommending to their classmates. During conferences, one of their moms told me “I can’t believe my son. He sits down on the couch at night, pulls on a blanket, and opens that Wednesday book. All on his own! It’s amazing!” That some boy just finished it and told me it’s one of his favorite books of all time!

Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan: Our latest read-aloud is a huge hit. It’s the first time I have read a non-fiction novel aloud and my students are loving it. Marley is easy to relate to and my students are laughing and sharing their own stories throughout our shared reading time. Puppies and puppy stories are always fun and my students are relating to the Grogan family and Marley. Be careful, though…there are a few versions of Marley’s story. Marley: A Dog Like No Other is the middle grade version of the novel. Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog is the adult best-seller and deals with the Grogan family’s attempts to conceive, too. Just a caveat emptor. 🙂

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Another choice in our recent literature circles, this was not a popular choice on the first day.  To be honest, I blame the cover.  It doesn’t exactly scream “read me!” to middle schoolers.  However, at the first meeting, the originally unhappy literature circle group was singing the praises of Curtis.  They thought the novel was funny and touching, but “not too touching!” they told me.  Heaven forbid it was too sensitive. 🙂  Both boys and girls alike enjoyed the novel and they learned a lot about life in the south and the Sixteenth St. church burning in 1963.  Now if only the publishers would give it a better cover…..

These are only a few of the novels currently making a splash in my 6th grade class.  I have promised my classes that after spring break I will have many more books for them.  I will actually have a chance to read and review so I can bring them in a handful of ARCS and other books I have in my to-be-read pile.  I’m sure next month’s list will include many of those new titles.

Airhead by Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot’s newest series will debut in June 2008. The first title in the series is Airhead and I just finished reading the ARC.

It’s difficult to summarize the novel without giving away the elements of surprise in the plot. The story follows Emerson Watts, self-proclaimed outsider at Tribeca Alternative High School. A brainy tomboy, Em’s best friend is the video game loving Christopher. When Em and Christopher are forced to chaperone her younger sister’s day at a mega-story grand opening, tragedy strikes. After a horrible, tragic injury, Em wakes up in the hospital a full month after being hurt. As she begins to emerge from her coma, she comes to the realization that her worst nightmares have come true. Through a sci-fi-type surgery she has become Nikki- the seventeen-year old supermodel who has taken the world by storm.

The story started off a little slow, but picked up in the middle. I really enjoyed this book! Em is a character who is easy to relate to- she is very much like I was in high school. I also enjoyed the secondary character of Lulu. As the story moved forward she became less like a caricature of a society heiress and more like a sweet, fun-loving girl who just happens to have all the money in the world. The story was humorous and thought-provoking, which is not an easy combination to work with as a writer. However, Cabot makes it work! I am already dying for the sequel, because I want to know what happens next! The story isn’t left as a cliffhanger but it does leave you wanting more.

I would consider pairing this with The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson. Both novels offer a glimpse at teenage girls struggling to figure out who they really are. They also have that slight sci-fi edge to them, adding more mystery and intrique to the story. I think the struggle to define “who they are” is something many teenage girls will relate to, so I plan to recommend Airhead to a few of my students when we get back from spring break.

When Lightning Strikes (1-800-Where-R-You) by Meg Cabot

Before this weekend, I had never read a Meg Cabot book. Sure, I have seen “The Princess Diaries” movie(s). I had heard Meg’s name bandied about for the last few years. For some reason, I had never taken the time to read one of her books. However, during my last trip to the bookstore I stumbled on her 1-800-Where-R-You series, which really caught my interest. I have always been fascinated by missing persons cases (the forums over at Websleuths are some of my favorite reading), and it seemed like 1-800-Where-R-You would be right up my alley.

When Lightning Strikes (1-800-Where-R-You) is the story of  Jess Mastriani, a misunderstood teen who has “anger issues”, according to her guidance counselor.  When Jess ends up walking home from her daily gig in detention on afternoon, she is struck by lightning.  She seems fine and feels fine, and assures her best friend, Ruth, that all is well.  However, her life is changed forever when she wakes up the next morning.  As she gets out of bed, she realizes that she knows where Olivia and Sean are.  Granted, she has no idea who Olivia and Sean are so she ignores her dream.

Then, as Jess pours milk into her cereal she stares into the faces of Sean and Olivia.  On her milk carton.  Sean and Olivia are missing children and Jess somehow knows where they are.  When she lets the authorities know (through the toll-free hotline 1-800-Where-R-You), she learns that not everyone who is missing wants to be found.  And that you can’t stay anonymous when you are the only person with the answers everyone wants.

The remainder of the book follows Jess as she struggles to come to grips with her new ability.  When the federal government steps in she is backed into a corner- does she protect her family, those who are missing, or her country?  Plus, how can she do all this and still get the local bad boy to see her as girlfriend material?

I enjoyed this book and plan to read the rest of the series.  My only disasppointment is that  I am hesitant to put  it into my classroom library.  Jess is a typical high schooler, so her thoughts are littered with four-letter words. This fits her voice and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  However, that makes me hesitant to put it into a 6th grade classroom library.