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

What Do You Want to Know- Question #5

Today’s question is from Natalee.

Scheduling is an issue for me- our classes are only 45 minutes long and I have a hard time getting in everything I need and want to do.

One area that I failed at with implementing workshops this year (my first year doing workshops) is conferencing. I’d love some tips on conferencing.

 

Right now, scheduling is not an issue for me, because I see two classes for two hours each.  But next year I foresee scheduling being a problem- I will see four classes for 55 minutes each.  I can’t even imagine how I am going to include everything that I do now.  I see each part of my reading and writing workshop as essential, so it’s going to be tough.

So far, I have sketched out a very basic schedule.  I’m sure this will change 100 times between now and September.  And probably 20 times after that!  But here’s what I am thinking so far….

55 minutes total:

10-15 Minutes:  Independent Reading

25-35 Minutes:  Mini-lesson and Independent practice (in reading, this could be combined with independent reading for some lessons)

10-15 Minutes:  Read Aloud

At this point in time I am thinking of doing a 3 day cycle- 3 days of reading mini-lessons and then 3 days of writing lessons.  Grammar would be incorporated into writing, which I already do.  Vocabulary would be incorporated into reading.

I already foresee this being insane!  I know I am going to have to work very hard at keeping my mini-lessons condensed to actual mini-lessons.  No more going off-topic!  And no more rambling.  I know I am going to have to work very hard at making my workshop work next year.  But I am prepared for that.

As far as conferencing, I already admitted that this is my weak point. A lot of my conferences are informal, off-the-cuff meetings with students.  However, I still keep track  of their reading and writing after these conversations.  I just don’t worry about conferencing as much as I should.  That’s one of my goals for this summer- read more about conferencing and figure out how to make it an integral part of my workshop.  Right now, my letter-essays do serve the same purpose as more formal conferences once a month, with my informal conversations taking place the rest of the month.

 

What Do You Want to Know- Question #3

Today’s question is from Deanna…..

 I have a few questions. Would you share with us your curriculum map? Also, I have heard of teachers who combine their reading and writing workshop conferences together, just meeting once but discussing both reading and writing. Have you ever done that? What do you recommend? One last one…how long do your students silent read each day?

 

I’ll take these one at a time. :)

My curriculum map changes every year.  This is my fourth year teaching, so I am still experimenting with what works best.  And next year I will changing from 2 classes at 2 hours each to 4 classes at 1 hr each.  This means my curriculum map will change again!  But in reading, I begin the year with my own modified version of the Fountas and Pinnell first 20 days of reading. I also use the first month to set the tone in reading workshop, as my students have not experienced it before. Then, I read Tuck Everlasting near the beginning of each year. I use this unit to teach my students how to annotate a reading (inspired by Monica Edinger!).  And around April/May, we read The Devil’s Arithmetic as part of our Holocaust unit. Holocaust education is part of our district’s mission, so it is taught at every grade level.  Oh, and I teach literary essays (using Calkins’ Units of Study) as a reading unit, usually around December.

Other than that, I teach a lot of mini-lessons, based on the needs of my students. Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading and Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement have been lifesavers for me.  I base my mini-lessons on our read-alouds, which change from year to year.  Right now, we are studying Greek mythology while reading The Lightning Thief as a read-aloud. This also ties in to the social studies curriculum.

In writing, I am also still experimenting.  This year I taught the following units of study:

  • writer’s notebooks
  • personal narrative
  • friendly letters
  • persuasive business letters
  • personal essay
  • research papers
  • poetry
  • multigenre research papers

 

For the second question, I already talked a bit about my conferencing routines here.  I do not combine reading and writing conferences, because many of my reading conferences are informal!

As for silent reading; it’s the building block of my reading workshop!  At the beginning of the year, I spend a lot of time building up my students’ stamina. We begin with as little as 5 minutes of independent reading time each day, adding a few more minutes in each consecutive class.  By the middle of the year, I devote an average of 10-20 minutes each day to independent reading.  Some days, we read even more!  Plus, I train my students to pick up a book any time they have a free second.  Their novels travel with them from class to class, so they frequently read when they finish in-class assignments.  Some of them even read on line in the hallway!  But I do not skip silent reading unless it is absolutely necessary.  If I don’t make time for independent reading, why should my students?

I also model during silent reading, by reading myself.   I often spend some of the time helping students choose books or conferencing, but I make sure my students see me reading a few times each week, too.  It’s a great example to set, showing them how reading is such an integral part of my life.  Plus, the books I read are always picked up as soon as I add them to the bookshelf, because my students trust my opinion.  Plus, they spend a few days staring at the cover while watching me read and react, so they are usually dying to read the same book!  Once they finish a book we have both read, we have fantastic conversations.

I am still working on a schedule for next year, when my classes will be 55 minutes long.  No matter what, I will make time to read silently.  And to read aloud.  It’s just going to be a tight squeeze with the time crunch.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,589 other followers