Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

A Pedagogy of Engagement

Several weeks ago, I saw that many of my teacher friends were sharing an article on Facebook.

The title?  “Your kids bored at school? Tell them to get over it.

Oh boy, I thought, and clicked on the link to see what it was that so many of my friends seemed to agree with.

This author’s argument is that student apathy is one of the biggest problems plaguing education; that teachers cannot be expected to “dazzle and awe” their students for fear of burnout; that students are now consumers and education is now a product, and that if students “aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they’re not buying.”

Hudgens–a high school teacher herself–thinks students shouldn’t be such choosy consumers, but should rather be self-motivated to find their own success at school.  “It’s a teacher’s job to make learning exciting,” she laments, but, “the world isn’t a video game…and doesn’t always offer fun and exciting paths…through life.”

While I agree with some of this author’s points, such as her goal for students to feel passion toward education and a motivation for life-long learning, I think her writing reflects a trend I’m seeing lately when it comes to the imprecision of language educators use when we talk about our goals for students.

969ceec4f3d8facdf86e9cd9a703dbf7There are a number of things Hudgens seems to conflate.  The first is that “this is hard” and “this is boring” are the same thing–and they’re clearly not.  When students are disengaged, either something is too hard, or too boring–not both. When they’re not in the zone of proximal development, students are not in a place for learning.

So whose job is it to get them there?

In my view, it is mine–a great principal once told me that “you are the only factor in the classroom you can control.”  This is true, and if you’ve ever been in front of 32 teenagers in 8th period, you know you can’t control much of anything in that scenario.

I believe fostering engagement is my job.  Once I can get kids hooked on a just-right book, or writing fluently in the zone of proximal development, and they catch the bug of feeling successful in their learning endeavors, engagement is self-sustaining.

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The second part of this author’s argument that I disagree with is her belief that students’ rejection of how education is “packaged” is due to their lack of self-motivation.  Research on Generation Edge shows that this just isn’t true–Gen Edgers reject standardized education and embrace progressive education because they find more value in the latter.  This means that one commenter on the article hit the nail on the head:

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I have to agree with this reader.  Students recognize, and reject, an old-school emphasis on sit and get.  In contrast, they embrace engagement when work is appropriately challenging and authentic.

My final issue with two ideas Hudgens seems to muddle is this one:

Unfortunately in a consumer-oriented educational system, words such as habit and discipline have all but gone by the wayside. We emphasize concepts like differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning and data-driven instruction over student responsibilities like organization, perseverance and hard work.

In no way would I ever believe that differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning, or data-driven instruction are not good practices for student learning.  Why are those placed on opposite ends of the spectrum from habit, discipline, organization, perseverance, and hard work?!  All of those things have a valuable place in our instruction.
Habit and discipline are concepts teachers should be teaching–I spend time with my students helping them to learn habits that will develop fluency in reading and writing, and once they feel empowered, they build their own habits of discipline and perseverance when they attempt to read challenging texts or write complex compositions of their choice, spurred by intrinsic motivation when they see what’s possible.
These are authentic habits of engaged students, not arbitrary habits of compliant kids pushing through things that are boring or meaningless like rote instruction often is.  The opposite of rote instruction is engaging, student-centered learningnot “fun” or “exciting” teaching whose purpose is to “dazzle and awe,” in the words of Hudgens.

To create self-motivated, lifelong learners, our goal must be engagement.  And a pedagogy of engagement is not the same thing as teaching that is “fun” or “exciting.”

The bottom line is:  when we design instruction with a pedagogy of engagement in mind, student self-motivation is the result.  Students do not need to “get over it” if they’re bored in school.  This is outmoded thinking.  Our learners have every right to reject the asymmetrical and arbitrary power imbalance of teachers over students, and demand high-quality instruction that is challenging, personal, and individualized.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.



Does Manga Belong in Your Classroom Library?

I had a hard time figuring Noelani out. She was a seemingly confident young woman who was pretty vocal about not liking to write. I think her actual words were: “I hate it.”

In my class, we use our independent reading books as mentors to help us become better writers, so I needed a bridge, someway to help Lani want to write. For most of my students, the books they choose create that bridge. I wasn’t so sure about the books Lani chose week after week after week.


I used to hate the idea of students reading manga. But throughout the school year, Lani kept returning to this genre. When we chatted about the books she was reading, Lani showed a lot more interest and a lot more enthusiasm when she talked about this genre than when she talked about any other. And she was able to discuss not just pretty complicated plot moves, but the rhetorical moves of the authors she loved, confidently proving my bias toward manga wrong.

For part of our midterm exam, students wrote top ten lists based on some of their favorite books. Here’s Lani’s:

Top 10 Mangas with Interesting Plots by Noelani Cevis

Deadman Wonderland Vol.2 by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou

In the first volume, the mangaka tells the reader about the earthquake that destroyed half of Tokyo and introduced the main character, Ganta, who is a middle school student and also survivor of the earthquake that took place 10 years earlier. One seemingly normal day, a man in crimson, grinning madly, called the ‘Red Man’ slaughters Ganta’s classmates and imbeds a red shard in his chest instead of killing him. A bit later Ganta is sentenced to death and is sent to a private prison called Deadman Wonderland. Personally, to me the plot is interesting and hooked me right away so I would like to continue reading this series.Alice in country

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar’s Game Vol.3 by Quin Rose and Mamenosuke Fujimaru

Continuing Alice Liddell’s story after getting out of the Country of Hearts, we find Alice stuck in the Country of Joker now! In this Country there’s something a bit weird going on, and Alice has to get to the bottom of it. In the first volume, she met up with old friends and was told about a festival that is happening soon in the country. In the second volume, she meets the Jokers and the point of view switches to tell you a bit of what’s happening on their side of the story. It’s a fun, easy to read, adventure manga that unlike Deadman Wonderland, has a happier feel to it but also is mysterious enough to keep the reader intrigued.

No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular! (A.K.A. WataMote) by Nico Tanigawa

Tomoko Kuroki is a fifteen-year-old girl who thought she would get popular once she entered high school because she played a lot of otome-games. Little did she know that in reality she would be a unsociable loner: the exact opposite of what she thought she would be. The manga follows her through high school as she works on her social skills and tries to become popular. Honestly, I have a connection to this girl because I feel like we’re similar to each other. I wanted to see how high school goes for her compared to how it is going for me.

Sumomomo Momomo: The Strongest Bride on Earth Vol.2  by Shinobu Ohtaka

Koshi Inuzuka, a high school student and son of the Dog clan, and Momoko Kuzuryu, daughter of the Dragon clan and high school student, have been betrothed by Momoko’s father to produce a strong child. However, Koshi doesn’t like Momoko like she likes him. In fact, they just met! But instead of giving up after being turned down by Koshi, she continues to pursue him while protecting him from assassins coming to kill him to keep him from marrying Momoko. It’s a hilarious martial arts love story that I have only just gotten into but will definitely continue reading.

Noragami by Anoragamidachitoka

Yato is supposedly the God of War and Calamity, however he is dirt poor and not very popular at all and will do any odd job from babysitting to evil slaying for just 5 yen. His goal for the future is to become very popular and rich and in the process of trying to reach that goal meets a girl named Hiyori Iki who just so happens to be the only human that can see him. To reach his goal of being rich and famous he goes on adventures and gets caught up in trouble with his new friend Hiyori. Lately, gifs of this anime have been all over Tumblr and they highlight this manga in funny and interesting ways.

Blood Lad Vol.5 by Yuuki Kodama

Staz is a vampire who refuses to attack humans like those before him and instead stays inside watching anime and reading manga. One day a girl named Fuyumi accidentally ends up in the Demon World and meets Staz, but their meeting is soon cut short by a demon fight happening close by. To save his allies, Staz jumps into the fight, but while he isn’t paying attention, Fuyumi is eaten by a carnivorous plant and turned into a ghost. Afterwards Staz pledges to find a way to bring her back to life. I began watching the anime of this before I read the manga but I soon stopped watching the manga and instead started the manga it was really good and funny and interesting so I would like to continue reading this series.

Horimiya Vol.8 By HERO and Daisuke Hagiwara

Horimya follows the lives of a boy named Miyamura and a girl named Hori and their experiences during high school. It’s a cute story filled with romance, laughs, tears, and everything in between. I read a lot of dark type mangas so having a few cute, easy going ones like this are refreshing and fun to read.

Oresama Teacher Vol.11 by Izumi Tsubaki

Mafuyu, a former gang leader, is a high school girl determined to live a normal life after being caught by the police and transferred to a new school. However, it turns out that the reason she became a delinquent is also a student at this new school and the new school is full of delinquents! Will Mafuyu be able to live a life as a normal high school girl like she wanted? I still don’t know the answer, even though I’m reading this right now, because the manga is so crazy it’s hard to really tell what’s going on sometimes. It’s a fun manga to read though and ilabyrinth of magics full of laughs.

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic Vol.19 by Shinobu Ohtaka

Magi is told through the eyes of a magi named Aladdin who was secluded his whole life and originally didn’t even know what he was. When he finally is let out to see the world he meets a boy named Alibaba, and they meet a girl named Morgiana. The manga follows each of them through their adventures together and apart. It’s a very action packed manga with not a lot of romance, but that’s alright because there are lots of cute or funny moments in it still, which is a nice change of pace from what I usually read.

Inuyasha Vol.31 by Rumiko Takahashi

Inuyasha is about a half-demon named Inuyasha who was trapped by his dying lover during the Sengoku period and a 15-year-old girl named Kagome who is pulled into an enshrined well, which happens to lead back to the Sengoku period from the present time. It follows their adventures through the Sengoku period trying to find the woman who trapped Inuyasha and all the pieces of the shattered Shikon Jewel. This manga has the perfect mix of action and romance that will have you excited one moment and angry the next. It’s very interesting and fun and addictive.

Lani left me a better reader and writer than she was when she entered my class. She read many other genres besides manga, and even admitted “Those were pretty good books.” She is now a senior, eager to graduate in a short nine weeks.

About her reading life, Lani says, “Although I don’t read much these days, I love reading. It’s a fun hobby, and it’s a good way to get away from things when I need a break from everyday life.”  Outside of school she is interested in anime, video games, Japanese and Korean language/culture, music, interior design, travel, and skin care. At school she is involved with AVID and orchestra. Lani describes herself as anxious, insecure, and soft.

I see her as a young woman ready to conquer her goals and attack adventures, similar to the heroes in these books she’s read.

What are your thoughts about manga? Do you include these books in your classroom library? Please leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She leads professional development on advancing readers and writers through a workshop pedagogy anywhere the call takes her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass


The Savior Complex

The Savior Complex

The lesson was going great. Discussions were facilitating deep thinking, work was getting done, kids were talking about their reading without my prompting.  Then I saw him: Head down, possible drool pool hiding beneath the pillow he constructed out of his arms.  As I went to gently shake him awake, I thought, Shoot–how did I miss that?  I had been furiously conferencing with other students and must have been turned the other way.  Almost simultaneously, I heard a student–who generally favors the hyperbolic statement–say, It is so freezing in here.  I HATE THIS CLASS.  

And then it started to go.

Matthew Quick’s character, Bartholomew Neal, would call it the angry man in his stomach.

Oskar Schell would claim he was getting heavy boots again, and might pinch himself for his shortcomings.

Julia Cameron dismisses it as the Inner Critic.

The Bible would call them lies spun by the enemy.

Either way, the moment I hear a negative comment, see a student who has slipped through the cracks for five minutes, or stare at all the red in my grade book for hopeful graduating seniors, I can’t seem to quiet that voice–whatever you choose to call IT–no matter how many times I attempt to smother or extinguish the flame.

IT says: You’re the worst teacher on the planet.

What makes you think you can change the world, or even one class period, one student?

They say you’re doing a great job, but what does anyone really know?  Don’t they just see what you present to them?

And worst of all, God didn’t place you here, He probably just forgot for awhile, and this is where you ended up.

Amateur.  Inadequate.  Soft.  Never Enough.

Forget the fact that I know all these thoughts are false.  They plague my mind daily, hourly, sometimes even by the minute.  So what is it that allows me to take the few negatives as failures, even when juxtaposed with many more positives?

In response to one of my messages one day, my friend and trusted mentor, Amy, called it The Savior Complex.  We want to save all the students–ALL OF THEM.  And by save, I mean engage, facilitate growth in life and learning, help them to feel loved and valued, encourage their ambitions and challenge them each and every day.

Seems doable.  (Not that I set lofty goals or anything.)

It’s my goal in these last few weeks to focus on the positive and deal with the negative.  I don’t want one to replace the other.  I don’t want to only see the positive, because that would take away the growth.  I just want to give each one its due in contributing to what I speak to myself each day.

Just like I tell my students:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t dream of saying to someone else.

How do you deal with that Angry Man in your stomach or the Inner Critic?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S. (Can 11 weeks qualify as “a few?”)

Note: This post was originally published on Jessica Jordana.

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

Assigned Reading often Fails where Choice Reading Soars

Sometimes things just hit me wrong. A joke that’s more cutting than cute. A meeting where complaining is the conversation. A book that gets ruined in the rain. A comment on social media that shows we are ignorant or arrogant or just right out rude.

I get asked often about whole class novels. If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I am not a fan, not a fan in the traditional teacher-makes-all-the-choices-and-all-students-read-the-same-book-at-the-same-speed kind of fan. I do think there’s a place for a shared novel experience. I also think there’s a place for a lot more conversation about the pros and cons of it.

If you read the posts in the NCTE Connected Community Teaching and Learning Forum, perhaps you saw this one Whole Class Novel Studies, which began with this request for help:


This teacher shares a legitimate concern. I would imagine that most of us who reflect upon our practice and want to do what’s best for students have at some point shared this struggle.

Those of us who read Penny Kittle’s Book Love (or perhaps we came to similar conclusions on our own) understand that every room of readers means many readers reading at a variety of reading rates. And we know it’s not just because students aren’t interested, are too busy, seem apathetic. It just makes sense:  students will be at “different places in their books” because students are all different.

We keep trying to make them all the same.

In response to this teacher’s query, four very helpful teachers shared what works for them. There are some good ideas here. Then, this response, which made my head nod:


Followed by this one, which…well, you’ll see:


Did a professional just dis another professional? Did a curriculum designer and educator on a public ELA forum just dis Dick Allington, one of the lead researchers on reading acquisition and best practices in literacy instruction?

This is just wrong. Wrong on many levels.

Now, I know that Mr. Allington was being sly in his comment here. He wanted to furrow some foreheads and force some frowns. I’m sure. And it worked to instigate some important discussion, which many of us would like to see more often.

One person commented from the perspective of a parent:

“When my son received the summer reading list to prepare for his first year in high school, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club topped the list. Being the rule follower I am, I forced that copious and joyful reader to trudge through that text. He didn’t read a thing in English class for the next four years. A brilliant reader and thinker, totally disenfranchised. As Allington said, he didn’t read the text.

“…the abusive pedagogy of the whole class novel described here is oppressive and culturally irresponsible. Sure, there are strategies that teachers can employ that mediate the boredom and disengagement. There are methods that utilize a whole class novel as a shared or mentor text and as a model for instruction or springboard for discourse. And there are a few teachers that can engage the readers throughout a methodical plodding through a classic text. But the question remains: what exactly is taught with the whole class novel? Are you teaching the novel itself? The habits of mind to diffuse any text? Or the student? When do they do their own thinking, independent practice, with influential and engaging texts?”

Shona, you won my heart. My four sons were very similar to yours. All avid readers but not when it came to reading for school.

Yetta wrote this comment:

“Richard Allington is raising a very important curricular issue.  Why should readers only read books chosen by other folks? Self selection of books is a concept that needs to be part of every class concerned with reading development including fiction and non fiction.

Book clubs, reading discussion groups, etc. are organized by many teachers to involve and support students with self selection of reading materials.”

Followed by Yvonne:  “Self-selection works. I was/am always surprised by what students choose to read. Students  amaze me.”


Leslie and Yoly with their favorite reads of the fall

Me, too. And students will read more when they have choice. When we couple volume with instructional practices that teach students what readers do when they get stumped or confused or even bored, using mini-lessons and shorter whole class texts, we help students learn how to navigate and improve their own reading lives.

Shona continues, quoting from the work of Louise Rosenblatt, a researcher who has shaped much of my work:

“A history of the teaching of English (Applebee, 1974, 1996) reports in all periods dissatisfaction at the lack of success in achieving the humanistic goals of literature teaching that school profess and the failure to understand that the traditional approach conflicts with these aims. Literature is treated as primarily a body of knowledge about literary works rather than as a series of experiences. To produce readers capable of critically evoking literary works for themselves and deriving the pleasures and insights claimed for literary study evidently requires different methods and a different educational climate from the from the traditional teacher-dominated explication of literary texts” (p. 71).”

Think about this for a second:  What does Rosenblatt mean by a “series of experiences”? Ones the teacher carefully crafts through engaging and interesting novel studies, or experiences each student knows how to create for him or herself

Reading in English classes cannot be about the books. Reading in English classes must be about the readers. 

I know what some may say. I’ve heard it a lot:  “But I loved English is high school. I read every book. I wrote every paper on every book. I enjoyed the discussion around those books. That’s why I wanted to become a teacher.”

Yes, I know. Me, too. And you know what (and this is embarrassing to admit):  It wasn’t until I was a teacher myself, dragging sophomores through To Kill A Mockingbird in 1st through 3rd period and juniors through The Scarlet Letter in 6th and 7th when I had this epiphany:  “There are some students who are so different than I was when I was in school. They don’t read. They don’t do their homework.”

How naive. How sad that I was so unprepared for the readers I would face in my classroom.

In Lisa’s post last week, among other things, these few sentences rang true for me, too: “Students bought any books they needed for independent reading, and I happily progressed with assigning reading, providing study guides, giving content quizzes, lather, rinse, repeat. This is what I knew. This is what I had experienced myself. This is how I was taught to teach.”

Assigning reading

Providing study guides

Giving content quizzes

For the first three years of my career, this is how I taught, too. I thought I was supposed to teach great literature — and then test on it — instead of helping students become readers who engage with great literature.

I believe we can do both. I believe when we keep the student — his abilities and needs, her interests and desires — as the pilot of our pedagogy, we can do both.

the quiet table reads

My quiet table — readers all.

I know you can click on that link at the top of this post and read the thread on the NCTE forum about whole class novels. I hope you do. In case you don’t, I’ll quote a bit of what Dr. Paul Thomas wrote:

“Teaching ELA/English involves a unique (compared to other disciplines, although somewhat shares by math) tension between our obligations to teaching disciplinary content (knowledge such as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a part of American literature) and also literacy skills . . .

“And thus many high school teachers become trapped in teaching, for example, The Scarlet Letter to make students experts on that specific novel and/or the work of Hawthorne, all as part of gaining so-called cultural knowledge of American literature.

“In that pursuit, often the process negatively impacts students’ eagerness, joy in reading and writing because, as Yetta and others have noted, assigned reading often fails where choice reading soars.

I appreciate Dr. Thomas delineating disciplinary content and literacy skills in such a way. Perhaps this distinction is at the core of the tension between what often seems like two sides of our field: #teamstudentchoice and #teamteachercontrol.

Dr. Thomas goes on to caution against “demonizing” those who choose one approach over the other, and this is where, I’ll be honest, I might be a bit like Screwtape, except in a good way.

My writers and I hold fast to our tag line:  Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop. We write this blog to encourage others to take a chance on choice, to share student reflections and accomplishments, to promote current books and diverse authors, to show how choice works, and research matters. And sometimes it’s hard to not speak up and speak out a whole lot more.

This semester I have this amazing student teacher. (Anyone in north TX hiring?) He’s brilliant, proactive, a natural. He “gets” our students, and they love him. Throughout the fall semester, Joseph observed my classroom. After “hello” the first thing Joseph said to me was “I have never been in an English class like this. I was so bored with English is high school.” Joseph has stepped right into a workshop pedagogy and embraced its benefits, as a student and as a teacher.

But I share Joseph with a teacher down the hall. He joins her each afternoon and mostly watches as she assigns reading, provides study guides, and gives content quizzes. Heavy boots walk back to my classroom every single day.

And this makes crazy.

We can do so much more. We owe our students so much more.


Maybe we can help each other out:  How do you have critical conversations about choice and workshop and the wonders of books with your colleagues? Please share in the comments.


For more from Dr. Thomas see his post “We Teach English” Revisited. For more on the research around student learning and choice, see Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, LaBrant, and this post on Donalyn Miller’s blog.


Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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Getting Feedback From Your Toughest Critics

Remember what it’s like to be a student, constantly wondering if your teacher likes you, worrying about your next assignment and your next grade?


Me too.


I give out periodic “teacher progress reports” to my students to coincide with the progress reports I have to fill out for them.


These “progress reports” are an opportunity to hear raw student voices enter the way I think about our work together and the way I plan future lessons and future units.   Unlike your principal, students spend dozens of hours with you and aren’t trained to hand you a compliment sandwich.


Here’s some of what I learned by going through student responses:


Students really, really, really like independent reading time.   It’s clear from student feedback that independent reading is an important routine to their days.  Some wrote about how they look forward to coming in from lunch to a silent classroom for some reading.  Others wrote about how they enjoyed the time to do something they enjoyed.  Many students asked me for more independent reading time.  Aside from giving out candy (most popular suggestion #1) and going outside to play for class sometimes (most popular suggestion #2), more reading topped the list.  Some students even ask me if we’ll ever spend a whole period reading.


They love to write when they know what I am — and am not — grading for. One of the beauties of setting up strong workshop routines is that there’s always a good sub plan in the wings.  If I am going to be out of class for a period or two, I assign a “free choice” writing assignment.  Students are responsible for handing in a writing piece on a topic or genre of their choosing, and they are graded only on their attention to the grammar and mechanics concepts that we’ve reviewed in class.  By making the assessment so literal, students play with form, content, and message: I collect memoirs, mob stories, text message conversations (with graphics!), screenplays, journal entries,  epic fantasies, and more.


Students love “ghost grades” on major assessments.  I give students the option of a “ghost grade” on a draft for a major project.  That grade serves as a) a minimum final grade, and b) a benchmark for future improvement with concrete feedback on what needs fixing.  Students enjoy making changes and watching that lower “ghost grade” improve in the final draft.  This ghost grade helps make some of their writing progress visible as far as the literal gradebook is concerned.


Do you do elicit feedback from your students?  If so, what have you learned from that feedback?


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She will probably never give out candy, but she will, on occasion, give out emoji stickers, which students pretend not to care about.  (But they do.)  Find her on twitter at @HMX_MSE

Reframing Independent Reading: We Can Start By Not Grading It

imgres-1.jpgAll week, I’ve been thinking about Pernille Ripp’s exasperated plea, “Can we please stop grading independent reading?”  (I imagine that she initially had an exclamation point at the end of that post, like, COME ON, people, but then deleted it to be nice.)

Still, I am one of those people she is exasperated with.  Or I was while in the high school classroom, dedicatedly printing log sheets and grading reading every week for three years, using a complicated system of reading rates and conferences to give a number grade that reflected reading growth and sustained progress.

One year, I abandoned this system in the third quarter, just to see what would happen–would kids stop reading if I removed the accountability of a weekly reading grade?

Yes, yes they would–and they did.  So I re-instituted weekly grades, which, combined with a quarterly assessment, combined to 20% of my students’ total grade.  I was happy that this much of my course grade was dedicated to independent reading, but I didn’t realize that the grades I was mandating weren’t really creating independent readers at all.  (In hindsight, I should have begun the year without reading grades and created an authentic community of readers who weren’t motivated by reading logs.)

imgres.jpgAfter I read Pernille’s post, while thinking about this idea (read: beating myself up for slaughtering kids’ love of reading), I pulled out one of the most memorable texts I read while in college–Janice Pilgreen’s The SSR Handbook.  In the foreword, Stephen Krashen writes:

Free voluntary reading means reading what you want to read, with no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter, and not having to finish the book if you don’t want to.  Sustained silent reading provides children with an opportunity to do free voluntary reading in school.  Is this a good idea?  Yes.

Pilgreen lists eight components of a successful SSR practice:

  1. Access – to many reading materials (books, newspaper, magazines, comics)
  2. Appeal – the materials are interesting and appropriate for the students
  3. Conducive Environment – the space in which students may read is comfortable and welcoming
  4. Encouragement – teachers and peers encourage students to read through discussions, modeling, and more
  5. Staff Training – teachers should have practical approaches in place for helping kids become readers
  6. Non-Accountability – no records, no monitoring, no “task-oriented” attitudes toward reading
  7. Follow-Up Activities – thoughtful, creative, interactive ways in which students discuss their reading lives authentically
  8. Distributed Time to Read – a volume of time that consistently occurs during which students read freely in school

When I think now about these eight simple factors, I see them clearly through the lens of workshop teaching.  To me, the components translated to my real-world readers workshop classroom look like this:

  • a classroom library brimming with high-interest books;
  • a reader-friendly community built not only into a welcoming physical space, but one in which daily reading, talk, conferring, and encouragement happen;
  • a teacher-leader who is the best reader in the room, who can model fluent reading and recommend a wide volume of books to students;
  • a lack of graded formative assessment and an emphasis on summative assessments for learning, not of learning.

This means no reading levels, no required number of books per year, no structured programs in place, no minimum number of minutes of reading done per week.  This means relinquishing control.  This means a lot of modeling, conferring, and progress monitoring to encourage student growth and lifelong learning.

This means thinking about independent reading as truly independent–independent of grades and of accountability.  This means reframing independent reading in school as an authentic, student-centered activity in which the readers take the lead and teachers merely help provide coaching and guidance.

If these ideologies are in place, teachers will know if kids aren’t reading (by simple observation and conferring).  We can adjust our instructional practices from there, without the damaging effects of punitive grades.  We can still give a grade for summative student self-assessments of independent reading growth (student-led is the key, here) to satisfy those mandatory gradebook updates, but if students are to become real readers we, as teachers, cannot be the ones holding them accountable for their progress.

There are many other kinds of reading that happen in language arts classrooms in addition to independent reading:  whole-class study of texts; small-group book clubs; close reading studies of poetry, articles, essays; explorations of mentor texts; analyses and syntheses of plays and novels and writing of all sorts.  This is where the work of learning to become a better reader can come in (which can be very enjoyable!), which lends itself to skills-based reading assessments.

In contrast, independent reading and all its many joys and struggles and spaces for success and failure are not, as Pernille says, “gradeable skills but instead a child practicing habits to figure out how to get better at reading.”  If we want to nurture this practice, we cannot keep grading it–and that’s the first step to reframing our thinking about independent reading.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.


Letting Go in the Name of Book Love

letting go

I am a super fan of Pro/Con lists, although the true reflection of these lists never seem to govern my life as much as the making of them does.  Let me explain.

I can always think of a million reasons not to do something, but if I’ve already decided I want to do it, the Pros generally outweigh the Cons because of just that–weight.  Sometimes the reasons TO do something are fewer, but are so weighty that they can’t be ignored.

Workshop was that for me.

pro con

This is a real picture of my real notebook.  Please don’t judge the fact that I give myself pep talks within my P/C Lists.


Here are a few Cons of workshop from my list at the beginning of this year:

  • I’ll be on my own, pretty much.
  • I’m young, and everyone will think I’m just trying to rock the boat.
  • Once I get those books, likely via my own dwindling bank account, how will I keep track of the books?  I already go broke on borrowed pencils–and those cost…well… can anyone break a penny?
  • What if I haven’t read enough to recommend enough?

Sure, all of these were true then, and are still true now.  However, I think the weight of the Pros on this list were hard to ignore:

  • I could truly build something that would become a lifelong skill that carries students through the rest of their lives as learners.
  • Great readers have the potential to be great writers.  You can’t do what you’ve never seen (at least not well).
  • Reading in builds empathy.  Reading far and wide builds empathy far and wide.

To be honest, the biggest fear on that list of Cons was the idea of losing books.  We teachers, just as Lisa pointed out yesterday, are notorious for going broke for the cause.

I started workshop anyway.  As soon as I met 3rd Period this year, Terri-Rose quickly became the actualization of my worst nightmare.  On the first day when we checked out books, she insisted on taking three home to peruse because she couldn’t make a decision.  My first endeavor into workshop, I wasn’t quite sure if that was a thing.  I gritted my teeth and slowly expelled a perfectionistic breath, attempting to inhale a free spirit (something which usually doesn’t hover near me much less inhabit my own body).  She held three of my shiny new bestsellers bought with my own money after the small grant I obtained already ran out.  I told her she could do that as long as she signed them out and brought two of them back to me the next time.  I glanced over my shoulder to my then-meager amount of books after the first checkout.  Who knew 300 books could go so quickly?  I might never see them again.  

But, you know what, I did.  Most of them.  Terri-Rose still hasn’t learned to make a decision.  Whenever she finishes one book, she takes two more.  She’ll get halfway through one, and then give it back to me.

I’ll ask, “You didn’t like this one?”

She’ll say, “I do, but I want someone else to be able to read it while I finish this other one.” We developed a system with her book marks.  She likes to use candy wrappers (always pristine) to mark her place, so she’ll hand me the candy wrapper, and I’ll put a sticky note on it with the book title and page number to hand back to her when she’s ready for that book again.  It’s a nice system.

The other day, she came into class raving about a book.  It’s a normal occurrence.  She’s never quiet about something she loves–a quality I’m hoping to channel more in the future.  She wanted to barrel her way through Everything, Everything because the movie is slated to release in May.

Then came the request.

“Mrs. Paxson, I have this pen pal in Weatherford and we’ve started talking about books.  I told her about Everything, Everything, and the movie coming out and now she really wants to read it.  Would it be okay if I mailed it to her to read and then she mails it back before school is over?  I can even ask her to write a review for it before she sends it back!”

The exhale and inhale was quicker this time, mostly because I was leaping for joy inside at the desire to share the Book Love.  I agreed to the terms of her proposal, and I can’t wait to get the book back with a long distance review.

All of those Cons, like I said before, still stand true.  I’ve lost some books this year–probably five or six.  But the weight of the Pros have grown heavier with success and small triumphs–more than I ever thought they might.

As I think of Terri-Rose, unable to make a decision, reading books halfway through and two at a time, always sharing with friends before she’s even close to done, I’m reminded of my own reading life.  It’s a real one, not one for a grade or to check a box.

Then I think: Holy crap–it works.

What moments have surprised you with sharing #BookLove and watching it grow?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.



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