It’s a movement, you know — this instructional practice called Readers and Writers Workshop. More and more educators are catching the vision and clarifying their focus as English educators. (There’s also a lot of nay-sayers, which I think means they are afraid. Let’s be patient with them.)
I received an email that asked a question that I wish I would have had answered for me years ago when I made the leap into choice reading and the workshop pedagogy. It’s important, so I knew it needed to be a post on this blog:
English I teacher asked: I have a question for you about classroom routine. I felt I needed to ask someone who can answer with authority about this because there is significant resistance from teachers on my campus to the whole idea of workshop, especially from my department chair. For various reasons that I won’t bore you with, we need to do a “by the book” implementation. We will be under a lot of negative scrutiny no matter what we do, but things will go better if we are following some sort of precedent on certain details.
I’ve found specific information about block schedule and the frequency of in-class silent sustained reading, but I haven’t found anything for non-block schedules. We are non-block with 45 minute periods. I think I read on your blog that you used to use Workshop in a non-block schedule. When you did that, how often did you do the in-class reading?
I am glad you asked about non-block scheduling for workshop instruction. Yes, it is doable! I taught class periods of 50 minutes five times a week prior to moving to my current school. When I was first trying to figure it out, the best advice I got was from Penny Kittle. She told me: “You choose to do this, which means you choose not to do that.” Here’s how I interpreted that:
If I have 50 minutes with my students each day. Every minute matters, so I must be intentional in the choices I make.
I used to choose whole class novels and read at least part of the novels in class. I used to assign students guided questions to help their understanding of those novels. I used to give lists of vocabulary words and ask students to define, write sentences, create images. I used to give writing prompts and writing homework. I used to expect students to read and write outside of class without ever showing them the messiness, the thinking, the discovering of ideas and emotions and writer’s moves on the page. I used to make all the choices, and I expected my students to go along for the ride.
Some did. Many did not. It finally started to dig at me that many was so much greater than some.
I choose not to do any of those things now.
Now, my students and I choose to read books we find interesting, engaging, and important to our lives. We read, discuss, and write about how the ideas inside these books are windows to the world outside our own, and how they are mirrors into the joys, aches, and heartbreaks we see inside ourselves and within our families.
I wrote about 7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule a while ago. These moves are non-negotiable: read, confer, talk, write, revise, share, mini-lesson.
To make these workshop moves work, we must also include these tools as non-negiotables: writer’s notebooks, mentor texts, high interest books.
As you begin to plan for your 50 minutes, think about this: How can you ensure that all students read, write, listen, and speak in every class period? (These are best practices for English Language Learner’s, which in my experience means they are best practices for all students.)
You specifically asked about the frequency of in-class independent reading in a class period of 45 minutes.
Read every day. Every day. Every day.
If you want students to become voracious readers, time is the greatest gift you can give them. Students need to know that you trust reading as your ally. If you believe that through reading students will grow in fluency, stamina, vocabulary acquisition, comprehension… and empathy, which has been written about here Scientific American and here Psychology Today you must make it a priority. So how might this look in your classroom:
Read at the beginning of every class period — 10 minutes. You do not need a bell ringer or any other focusing task when students know that the expectation is to come in the room and get to reading. The first chapter in Steve Gardiner’s book Sustained Silent Reading offers some great information — and quotes Nancie Atwell on the importance of choice. Encourage and challenge students to read outside of school. Help them create goals, and them help them hold themselves accountable to reaching them.
Confer when students are reading. Make this a norm. Conferring moves readers workshop instruction forward. And students want and need us talking to them about their reading, about their thinking, and about their lives. One-on-one instruction happens here, and it is through this teacher move that belonging, identifying, coaching, challenging, and empowering happens.
When you create a classroom culture of reading, discipline begins to care for itself. It’s a matter of setting expectations and then being consistent with them. If I have a student who refuses to read, which happens at times, especially early in the year, I make sure she knows that she has that right, but she does not have the right to interfere with anyone else’s right to read. Sustained Silent Silence instead of Sustained Silent Reading gets boring after a while.
You’ve read, and you’ve conferred. Now, you make other choices about what to include in your instruction. These are ideas that work for my students:
Write about their reading. Now, I’m not advocating for dialectic journals or questions about plot and setting, but it is important that students become reflective about their reading. Find a balance here. We do not want reading to turn to work, and demanding that students write about their reading way too much may turn them off to reading. Think about the books you and I read. How often do we have to write an essay about a novel we read?
Penny Kittle taught me about topic or “big idea” notebooks, and I’ve had a lot of success with these. (That link is to Penny’s Book Love handout, which has other great ideas for students to write about their reading.)
Teach skills in mini-lessons. I decide on mini-lessons based on two things: 1) my standards, 2) student needs based on what I learn in conferences.
Say I need to teach them about using the appeals in an argument, I may teach a mini lesson on logical appeal one day. Then I will ask students to do some flash research and find evidence of this appeal in either their independent reading, a news article, or an online text. We’ll share our findings and do a lot of talking — Why’d the writer use that appeal? How does it contribute to the argument? etc. Then, students will know I need to see them use that appeal in their own writing. We write (and confer) for the rest of the class period. Or, we share our writing in our writers’ groups.
Or, say I’ve conferred with half the class about their reading. I’ve found that half of those students are having trouble finding books with enough higher-level vocabulary to add to their personal dictionaries. I know I need to teach a mini-lesson on text complexity and what it means to challenge ourselves as readers. I may choose a few books with similar topics or themes and show my students a reading ladder:
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper
Dopesick by Walter Dean Meyers
Homeboyz by Alan Sitomer
Tyrell by Coe Booth
The Absolute True Diary of a Part time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Letters to an Incarcerated Brother by Hill Harper
We’ll talk about why one book may be more complex than others. I might challenge students to read all of these titles and then tell me if I have the ladder right. (I may not, I haven’t read every one of these books, but I think I’m on the right track.) I’ll teach students about syntax and how that impacts text complexity as much, or more, than vocabulary. Then, I’ll challenge students to keep track of the complexity of the books they choose, not only by keeping their personal dictionaries up to date, but by adding codes to their reading lists. E – easy, C – comfortable, D – difficult. I show them my writer’s notebook and how this tracking helps me understand my reading habits.
Allow time to work. The greatest indicator that workshop works in my classroom is student engagement. When I allow students time to complete writing in class with me available to talk to and ask questions, they engage in the writing process more efficiently and effectively. I’ve let go of wanting a product, and now we enjoy the process of writing. We discover as we write. We revise because we know our writing improves as we revisit it. We share our writing because all voices in our classroom matter. The only way to accomplish these things is to build time to write right into the class schedule.
I wrote Choose to Become a Classroom of Writers a while ago. I still believe focusing on writing creates the smoothest transition to workshop instruction. Why? Because writers are readers first. Check out this post of 40 Inspiring Quotes about Reading from Writers. (Just a little proof.)
But that’s probably another post for another day.
Best blessings to you as you take off on this wonderful adventure with your students. Write any time: for support, for clarity, for whatever you might need. You’re blessing the lives of children. Our future –our society — needs educators like you.
Press forward (nay-saying department manager and all).
Dear reader, any advice you can offer our friend?
©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015