What Do You Want to Know- Question #8

From Abby:

Sarah, this might be a silly question, but it’s something I’ve always wondered about: what do teachers do on inservice days? Do you have staff training? Meetings? Planning/organization time? Or something completely different?

Ooh!  This is an easy one.  And one I always wondered about when I was a student.

In-service days aren’t very exciting.  They usually consist of either meetings or professional development.  In the past, my district has brought in speakers for different departments.  We also sometimes meet for department meetings.  This past year, most of my in-service days have been devoted to the restructuring that my district is going through.  Like I said, nothing very exciting.  And the teachers are always very jealous of the students who either get to go home after a half-day or not even come to school at all when we all have to be there.

What Do You Want to Know- Question #7

From Jessica Wright:

Thank you…thank you in advance. I have few questions:
1. Do your students maintain daily journaling for both reading and writing? How do you keep up with that?
2. What do your reading mini-lessons focus on and do you have any professional books that guide you?
3. Do you conduct small group instruction in reading workshop (i.e. guided reading)?


I’ll take these one at a time.  🙂

Do your students maintain daily journaling for both reading and writing? How do you keep up with that?

My students do not journal.  Instead, they have a writer’s notebook, where they write a few times each week.  I do not check these, other than spot-checking that the homework is done when assigned.  Once a marking period, my students use a rubric to assess their notebooks.  Honestly, they are their own toughest critics!  It works out well and forces them to think about the work they do.  I love it!  I designed postcards for the students to use to assess their work and it’s simple and easy.  I then collect the postcards and record the grade.  While they assess, I walk around and look over their shoulder to make sure I agree with their assessment. I haven’t had a single issue yet.

My students do not journal in reading.  Instead, I require monthly letter-essays.  Here is my post explaining how letter-essays work.

2. What do your reading mini-lessons focus on and do you have any professional books that guide you?

My mini-lessons are strategy-based.  I base the lessons on what my students need.  I use a ton of professional books, but these are my absolute favorites:


Do you conduct small group instruction in reading workshop (i.e. guided reading)?
I do not use guided reading in my workshop, but I do meet with small groups as I see the need.  I will pull students that I see need extra time or practice with me.  I also use a lot of book clubs and literature circles.

What Do You Want to Know- Question #6

From Sara:

Will you have your students develop a summer reading plan?


In short, yes!  But I assume you want the long explanation.  Below is what I wrote last June:

I have spent the last few days working on my summer reading and writing packets.  Because my students enter middle school next year, I will not see them when September rolls around.  This makes it difficult to hold them accountable for summer work, as they know they won’t be seeing me that first day of school!  I really have to rely on intrinsic motivation.  And maybe some bribing. ;)

Last year I made a summer reading packet, which was for parents and students.  It had 2 pages about summer reading and the positive effects it has on student learning and retention.  Then I listed 3 pages of books for all types of readers, divided by grade level (3-5, 7-8, 9+).  I am planning to hand out the same packet this year, but it needs some revising.  My students this year have become voracious readers, to begin with.  The packet will be adjusted for their needs.  Also, they love reading new books, and sharing their opinions on them.  I am adding a lot of new books to my booklist, along with a page of links to sites that might interest them.  The links will be a nice mix of blogs, publisher’s websites, and places like GoodReads.

I have never given summer writing work before, but I was inspired by this post over atTwoWritingTeachers.  I am using Stacey’s packet as a template and adjusting it for my soon-to-be 7th graders.  It will be an interesting experiment to see if I get a response to the reading/writing work packet.


How did it go?  I received about 25 emails throughout the summer; students telling me about their reading and writing.  In August, I received 4 completed packets!  That’s about 10% of my students, a great percentage considering my students move to a new school after leaving me. This year, I am hoping to get back even more completed packets.  I’m working on the activity packet for this summer as we speak, so I will be sure to share it when I am done.

Along with the packet I also hand out a separate packet for parents and students to share.  This is a packet about reading and reading aloud.  It explains and/or reminds parents about the the value of reading, sharing books, and allowing students to choose their own novels.  I also include a very, very, very long list of recommended reads.  I cull these from my own reviews, SLJ, Horn Book, other bloggers, and various other sources.  I want my students to feel like they can still fall back on my booktalks and recommendations even when I am not there!  So far, it has worked great.  I’m also updating that list as we speak and I will share it when it’s done.

Hopefully this helps!

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.

What Do You Want to Know- Question #1

I’m so excited that my last post received so many comments!  I will be answering everyone’s questions over the next few days.

The first question is from Mary:

I teach 4th grade in a self-contained GATE class. I also teach Language Arts through a workshop format and I struggle to find enough time in the day to meet with each student at least once a week. How do you address this issue in your classroom? Right now, I meet with groups of students on a rotating basis and check their notebooks and chat about their books, but I’d love to hear other ideas!

I have to be honest here- conferencing is the weakest part of my workshop.  Right now, I teach two classes for 2 hrs each, but I have to cover reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary in that time.  I combine as much as I can, but I still feel crunched for time.  (Don’t remind me that next year I will have 4 classes for 1 hr each!)  But I do conference with my students as much as possible.  I talk with my students about their reading constantly.  Some of these conversations are informal- on the lunch line, at the end of the day, during homeroom are just some examples.  But I do document anything I learn during these conversations.   A conference is a conference, right?

The best decision I ever made was to use letter-essays in my reading workshop.  About 3 months into the year, I teach a writing unit of study on literary essays.  Upon completing the unit, my students are assigned letter-essays.  Once a month, they write me a friendly letter about the novel they are reading or have just completed.  The letter-essays force them to think metacognitively about their reading and their book selection.  I have about 50 students this year, with about 10 letter essays due each week.  My morning class is due on Tuesdays and my afternoon class is due on Thursdays.  This allows me time to write back to each student without becoming overwhelmed.   I learn so much about their reading and thinking through these letters that it is well-worth the time I spend on them.  It does take a lot of training at the beginning, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And the letter-essays are graded on a 4-point rubric.  This way, I have an assessment for my grade book, too.  

Before learning how to write letter-essays, my students fill out a brief reading log reflection after independent reading in class.  I do this in the beginning of the year while they are building their stamina and I am getting to know them as readers.  Plus, I can tie the mini-lesson into the reflection, which my administration prefers.  This way I have tangible evidence of learning during independent reading.  Once my students move to letter-essays, they can work on those during independent reading time- some of them use post-its, some write in the margins, some take notes.  It’s all a part of fostering their independence before moving to middle school.

As for writing workshop, I meet with students about once per week, unless they request to see me more.  My conferences are usually brief and I don’t always teach a skill/concept during this time.  But I do discuss their writing, how they are feeling about their writing piece, and any major revisions/edits I might see.  To be honest, I spend  a lot of my conference time helping kids through writer’s block and anxiety.  My students haven’t had a lot of workshop experience and by 6th grade they tend to hate writing.  I spend a good portion of the year building their confidence by complimenting what they are doing well in their writing.  So far, it’s working great for me!  Most of my students this year have improved by leaps and bounds.  It almost makes me wish I could loop with my kids to 7th grade.  Almost. 😉

I hope that answers your question, Mary!  I apologize for not being a better conferencer in my workshop!