More about Readers/Writers Workshop

(See my post yesterday for the backstory of all this, if you missed it, and you’re interested.)

More on my exchange with Holly who is dedicated to moving readers and writers in her new workshop classroom. I am so impressed with her questions and reflection on her practice!

Her: I am slightly fearful but I’m trying to put “the test” out if my mind and work on creating readers and writers. Then the test will take care of its self. I hope!

Me (My heart singing because she gets it! It is not about a test; it never should be.): The first  year I jumped ship and swam my way in Workshop was scary. I didn’t do much that year except get kids writing more. That was the autumn after I did my Invitational Summer Institute with North Star of TX Writing Project. I know I didn’t hurt my students, but I didn’t help them become better readers and writers, although they did do a lot of writing. I’ve learned more about balance since then.

Her: My classroom library is in pretty good shape, but I could always use more. I’ll take advantage of for part of my overall plan that I need help with. 

Me:  Your library looks lovely; however, how do students know which books to choose?

One idea I got from a friend:   if you will label the shelves, organize by topic or theme, turn some of the titles out — then students will treat your shelves like a library.  Also, I just got new “favorite YA books” from some of my classmates at UNH. I will [post] that list in another message.

Her: This is my work in progress…. Begin with 15 minutes of SSR. 2-4 Book talk or students share an interesting part of what they are reading to encourage others. . . .

Me:  15 minutes is a good idea; however, it is a LONG time for students who are not readers — yet. I am sure you know that already. I learned from my experiences that I cannot push too hard too fast, until everyone is matched with a book.

Her:  I also want to incorporate reading logs to have a functional use to teach literary terms and have students be responsible for adding 5 words a week to their own vocabulary journal.

Me:  Reading logs? What do you mean by that exactly? The research by Krashen, Allington, and others shows that readers who are able to read without a lot of demands will read more and move faster than those who have to document their reading all the time. Holding regular reading conferences with students and asking them about what they are reading about is formative assessment without them feeling bogged down about having to justify their reading in logs.

Do students need to write about what they are reading? Yes, sometimes. But we do not want to kill the love of just reading. (Thank God I do not have to log my reading life.)

Yes! to students creating their own vocabulary journal. I call them Personal Dictionaries. Same idea. Penny Kittle has kids find four words a week (she requires 2 hours of reading homework per week, based on each student’s individual reading rate). I am changing to this model.

Her:  Then I want to read aloud a chapter from an engaging YA novel or a piece of poetry everyday. (I’m struggling to think of novels to use. The ones that I have success with are being used in reading.) 

Me:  Besides the research-based benefits of reading aloud to students at all levels, WHY do you want to devote time to this? If you can answer that question, you will be able to find what to read.

Have you thought of doing craft studies with poems and short passages? Every book I read I watch for passages that strike me with their beauty. Every time, these passages are loaded with some kind of literary or rhetorical devices I can use for mini-lessons. Sometimes students and I read these passages together and discover how the author crafted the meaning. Sometimes we write written responses to the meaning/ or what strikes us as meaningful to the passage. Sometimes students model the passage.

Her:  Mechanically inclined lesson on Mondays and Tuesdays (We have an A/B day) mini lesson 10-20

Me:  I know students often lack grammar instruction, but is there a way to include these lessons within your writing workshop time so they do not look like grammar lessons, and they look like “Here’s-what-good-writers-do lessons?” If students see them this way, they are more apt to apply the skills they learn into their own writing. We have to be purposeful in helping them make those connections. Again, I know you know that.

Her:  Wednesday and Thursday direct instruction or modeling writing 10-20 [and] Workshop writing time 

Writing Genres 
1. Narrative 3 weeks 
2. Expository 6 weeks 
3. Persuasive and editorial 9 
4. Test taking 3 weeks before [state exam]
5. Last 6 weeks multi-genre project 
My goal is to incorporate  students sharing 1 published piece every 3 weeks in a read around and other real audiences with persuasive and editorials. 

Me:  Sharing published pieces is AWESOME. Once students feel successful as writers, they will write more — and better.  Love your genres list.

Her:  I don’t know if this will work or not. What I feel like I need help with the most is logistics and how do I incorporate curriculum reading? 

[Isn’t this always the BIG QUESTION?]

Me:  Why do you need to? Does the district require that you read specific texts? I thought not. If the answer is yes, then (I got this from my friend Tim who does workshop in IB classes) you focus on readers/writers workshop first, and then you do the “required” reading.

Here’s what I’d do:  select passages from the required texts in which you can model specific skills. Read and study those passages together as a class. Watch a few film clips and discuss those for content and scripts, etc — that kind of learning. Then challenge students to read the rest of the text as their SSR book.  If your principal has already given you permission to veer away from the standard curriculum, take it. He’s essentially already said you do not “have” to do any required texts. Hurrah!

And here’s the most important part of anything I’ve said to my friend Holly thus far:

You’ve got more thinking in these messages you’ve sent me than many educators I know who have been teaching for years. Seriously!

Note to all:  If you have not read the article “Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” by William J. Broz, well, you should. It might be just the thing to give those of us like Holly, who want so badly to do right by our students, the strength to keep powering on toward moving readers and writers in our workshop classrooms.

Holly and I are meeting in person to talk shop next week. I’m sure another post will follow.


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4 thoughts on “More about Readers/Writers Workshop

  1. Katie B-T July 13, 2014 at 10:09 am Reply

    Why do test skills have to be exclusive of what we do in workshop? As I move into my year, I definitely plan to do that direct teaching of the AP-style essays, readings, and analysis. While I know that kids need choice, by virtue of taking an AP class, my kids are telling me they’re willing to be challenged, which means pulling out texts that they wouldn’t normally choose and requiring them to read them to learn skills. They had choice when they chose to take AP! Consider this: if we don’t teach kids how to read difficult, pre-20th century texts, they are missing out on hundreds of years of culture. To write well and analyze deeply, they need that knowledge. As Amy mentioned here, we need to find the balance of choice with skills and center ourselves on developing the skills for good readers and writers. Sometimes we can do that with what they choose and sometimes we need a teacher-chosen text.


    • amyrasmussen July 13, 2014 at 8:20 pm Reply

      Yes, Lisa, I absolutely agree. We must teach specific skills, and some of those skills are definitely attached to reading pre-20th century texts. I direct teach on a regular basis — mixed into my workshop classroom. I just try to choose short texts when I am the one making the choice. Prior prompts are great resources. I try to keep my sage-on-the-stage moments to a minimum. Most often when I give my students the time, either in a whole class discussion or small groups, they can read the complex (often old) texts and teach one another. They figure it out and notice and discuss everything I’d hope they would. Kylene Beers has said, “The smartest person in the room is the room,” and Penny Kittle says, “Writing floats on a sea of talk.” I try to remember that — my students need to be the ones doing the talking — before, during, and after I want them doing the writing. Thanks for the comment!


  2. steelmsl July 13, 2014 at 6:42 am Reply

    I have been book talking, conferring, doing mini lessons, and incorporated the workshop approach, yet my AP Literature scores went down dramatically. Now what???


    • amyrasmussen July 13, 2014 at 8:25 pm Reply

      It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I know you already know this: there are so many factors that go into how students will perform on one exam on any given day. I have lots to say in response to your comment, (and I got your email, too.) I just got back in town today, so give me a day or two to respond. I appreciate you asking.


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