Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

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I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A nonnegotiable in my classroom is that everyone is a writer. We work from day one of class to establish identities as writers: we create writer’s notebooks, we discuss writing routines, we practice writing every day.

But many of my students struggle to see themselves as writers because their definition of “a writer” is so narrow. They are beholden to culturally-entrenched images of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens–studious, quill-wielding, miserable, alcohol-fumed, slaves of the pen.

It takes some time to convince kids that despite the intrigue that persona presents, that it’s not true.

I recently encountered a strategy for defining authorship that I continue to return to for its simple brilliance. This school year, I’ve been visiting classrooms of practicing teachers, and one of my favorite places to visit is Gloria Kok’s classroom.

One of the first things that struck me upon entering her room was an entire wall devoted to writers. As I visited over multiple weeks, I realized that her students had created the five points of their working definition of what it means to be a writer. They had also brainstormed personal heroes who fit their definitions. The wall is covered with the likes of everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Oprah Winfrey to Langston Hughes to Tupac.

Frequently, Gloria asks students to use these points to frame their own writing reflections or goal statements. I’ve begun to do this myself, as I’ve visited her classroom so frequently–so much so that I’ve found myself seeking out definitions of what a writer is in my reading and work.

A favorite writing mentor of mine is Donald Murray, whose books I pick up anywhere I find them. I recently acquired Write to Learn, and one of my favorite and most personally relatable definitions of what it means to be a writer comes from his second chapter:

“Not knowing what I will write, or even if I can write, means I will not write what I have written before. I have begun a voyage of discovery. The initial satisfaction from writing is surprise: we say what we do not expect to say in a way we do not expect to say it.”

This approach to writing–that it is an inexpert art full of magic and whimsy, but helped along by the discipline of practice and study–is my personal favorite. The post-it notes papering my desk with quotes by Donald Murray attest to the similarities of our beliefs: these definitions help encourage, refocus, and discipline me on mornings when I do not want to sit down and write.

I encourage you to do the same thing with your students, writers, and even yourself: create a definition of what it means to be a writer. Put it down on paper, hang it on the walls, shout it from the rooftops–whatever works to teach yourself that your belief in yourself as a writer is what matters.

Shana Karnes is a writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her desk is covered with quotes about writing, pens, poems, abandoned coffee cups, and discarded crayons, stickers, and paint from her children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Integrating Sketchnotes into Annotations

When any unit is designed, I intentionally consider what important academic skills I can either teach students or reinforce to support critical thinking in preparation for academic endeavors after high school.  While the majority of my juniors and seniors are familiar with annotating, we still practice making our internal thinking and interactions with the text visible on paper no matter what we are reading.

An idea presented at NCTE last year was sketchnoting, which is the practice of creating visual annotations to develop meaning.  Students are encouraged to draw pictures and symbols or icons instead of writing their thinking in the margins, like a visual poem write around or visual 1 Pager.  While I am certainly no artist, just stick figures over here, sketching annotations adds a different dimension to meaning-making.

I love that sketchnotes provide an opportunity for more creative interactions with a text and provide an opportunity to use the right side of the brain.  Sketchnoting simply offers another mode for students to create meaning and retain information (You can watch a great overview from Verbal to Visual and utilize the free resources, too).

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As we dig into our first full class novel, students are assigned pages to annotate or sketchnote as we read, these pages then prompt our TQE (thoughts, questions, epiphanies) discussions.  I started out with a think aloud model for students with the first (rather dry) pages of The Great Gatsby.

While most students begin with traditional annotations, highlighting and marginalia, because that is what they’re more comfortable with, many slowly branch out into adding pictures or visual notations with more practice and after seeing their peer’s examples.  

Aside from having students intentionally interact with a text and build their annotation skills, the annotations and sketchnotes provide scaffolding for the final project, a visual 1 Pager or a “graffiti wall” that encourages students to display their learning visually.  I did this project two years ago with juniors who read –I may challenge this year’s crew to use fewer words.

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Visual notetaking can be a more compelling way to lure students into making meaning with a text or other content.  I am hoping more sketchnotes start popping up on the pages of students’ notebooks and other assignments, in my classroom or others.

 

Maggie Lopez is awaiting the snow and start of ski season in Salt Lake City, but wishing she was attending NCTE 2019 this month.  She is currently reading Into the Water. Follow her @meg_lopez0.

How to Listen So Kids Will Talk

Anytime I indulge myself with lots of light fiction, I gravitate toward some thoughtful nonfiction to help balance out my reading life. This month is no exception, and after finishing a few trilogies, I’ve been diving into How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & How to Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

This dense, 350-page book is packed full of wisdom aimed at parents, but I’m taking away lots of lessons as a teacher.

Two questions the authors pose in their chapter on praise have stayed with me:

  • What is the relationship between how children think of themselves and their willingness to accept challenges or risk failure?
  • What is the relationship between how children think of themselves and the kinds of goals they set for themselves?

As a literacy teacher, I connect students’ willingness to take risks, challenge themselves, and set worthwhile goals with their ability to grow as readers and writers. Students who have autonomy will often engage with the reading and writing we do in our classroom, but without an intrinsic desire to grow, they may stagnate.

Faber and Mazlish’s response to this is connected to the kind of praise we offer children, which helps define their self-concepts. The authors give us a simple directive: when children come to adults with something to which they desire a response, don’t evaluate; describe what you see or feel–then students will praise themselves.

This feels highly applicable to conferring moments that we have with students. I can attest to its effectiveness; after reading Peter Johnston’s work, I shifted the way I responded to students away from fixed to dynamic praise–focused on growth. I made a second shift when I noticed that the reading conferences I had with students about books I had not read were more fruitful than ones where I wanted to gush about the book–both habits helped me, essentially, to talk less, and listen more.

But the precision of our language is important. “From our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are,” write Faber and Mazlish. We must be thoughtful and careful with how we speak to our students. “It’s a lot easier to say ‘Wonderful’ about something, than to really look at it, and experience it, and then describe it in detail,” they continue (182). This feels highly pertinent when we think about responding to student work.

My takeaway from this book–a book I recommend for all teachers who want to thoughtfully evaluate their own habits of language–is that the less we speak, the more kids will talk. The more precise and helpful our talk is, the more kids will listen. That will lead them, circuitously, back to the two questions I am still thinking about–how we can get kids to take risks and challenge themselves with their goal-setting. The answer, for me, is building their self-esteem as readers and writers, so they’ll take it upon themselves to grow.

This work isn’t easy. It is slow, thoughtful, deep work–but that’s what makes teaching so wonderful. As we finish out this wintry week, may we internalize this lesson: the heart of our jobs as teachers is to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. Enjoy every word.

Shana Karnes fills her days working with teachers, students, and her own small children in Madison, Wisconsin. She enjoys talking with all three groups about reading, writing, and learning. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Shifting our Middle School Reading List to Include Authentic Voices

British Columbia, where I teach, has recently gone through a large shift in educational philosophy and has introduced an entirely new curriculum. The introduction of this new curriculum has required us to reflect on our current curriculum in our Grades 6-12 classes and make changes to reflect the changes required by the province. As well, this has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on our current reading lists and to refresh some of the novels we have our students read.

One of the first areas we focused on was our literature circle unit in our Grade 6 English classes. The unit was one that connected with the Social Studies curriculum our Grade 6 students were also studying and focused on immigration and migration stories. While we still liked the theme of this unit, it became quickly apparent that we needed to refresh our literature circle novels. While each of the novels we used to teach in the unit focused on immigration or migration stories from different parts of the world, not a single novel was written by an authentic voice. Instead, they were all written by caucasian and North American authors. While there are many amazing caucasian and North American authors we want to share with our students, in a unit about the immigrant experience it seemed a little strange that we had no immigrant voices. Many of our students are first generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from many different places in the world and we wanted our students to hear stories from immigrant voices or voices from the cultures being presented in the novels.

This started us on a quest to find new books for this unit. Below are the results of our English team reading as many novels we could find that would suit our criteria and the books we decided to replace our old reading list with:

Inside Out and Back Again: By Thanhha Lai: This beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Hà and her family. Hà has only known life in Saigon and the streets of her neighbourhood. When the Vietnam war starts, however, she and her family are forced to flee Saigon and end up in Alabama where she and her family experience the culture shock of living in a world completely foreign to the one they fled from.

Escape from Aleppo: By N.H. Sendai: This novel is set in the very current events happening in Syria. After the events of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, 12 year old Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria. This harrowing and heartbreaking novel tells of what it is like to leave everything you know behind to make the dangerous trek to the unknown as Nadia and her family make their way through their war torn country to seek refuge in Turkey.

The Night Diary: By: Veera Hiranandani: In this novel we are transported to 1947 India where India has just won independence from British rule and the British held Indian territory has been divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Our 12 year old protagonist Nisha is half Muslim and half Hindu and finds that she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore as the Hindu part of her extended family is moved to India and the Muslim part of her family is moved to Pakistan. Nisha and her family are originally resettled in Pakistan, but her father decides it is too dangerous for them to stay there. The story follows their family as they make the dangerous trek to attempt to leave what is now Pakistan to find a safer place to live.

The Only Road: By: Alexandra Diaz: This novel is the first in a series. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is killed by the Alphas gang in the small town in Guatemala his family has called home for centuries, he knows it is no longer safe. The gang violence that surrounds him every day is so extreme and Jamie is worried he will be the next victim, so he flees with his other cousin Ángela to try and make their way to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This novel follows the dangerous journey they make largely on foot to get from Guatemala to the United States.

With these novel choices we are hoping to revitalize our Grade 6 literature circles and to provide our students with authentic voices sharing important stories of the risks people will take for the safety of their families.

Pam McMartin is English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is thankfully enjoying her midterm break from school this week and has been working on repainting her bathroom and catching up on her reading (not at the same time) before heading back into the madness of end of the term teaching and marking. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Is NaNoWriMo In Full Effect? by Sarah Krajewski

Last month, I shared the preparation my seniors and I were doing to get ready for National Novel Writing Month. My goal was to help them creating writing routines to increase the volume of writing that they do. Now, we almost halfway through the month of November, but I’m just not seeing much of an increase in volume yet.

We Should Have Planned More

I thought we were ready for NaNoWriMo, but in actuality we were just ready for those first few lines. How am I discovering this? Through my own writing for NaNoWriMo. When I began writing, I thought I had a great idea, but after a page or two, I got stuck. The little basic planning page we did wasn’t enough to guide my thinking. I needed more of a structure for my story, so that meant my students probably did too. It was time to make some changes.

Some additions I added above my NaNoWriMo draft.

I started by noting what has been helpful to me during the writing process. We teachers really won’t know what our students are going through unless we are writing ourselves. The yellow “Reminders” box to the left was on every student’s draft page, but the blue “Characters” box wasn’t. I realized that I needed a place to write my characters so I could remember who is who. Sure enough, when I showed it to my students, a lot of them did the same thing. I also found that in order to get “unstuck,” I had to plan out my ideas more so each scene had a purpose, and I needed my students to see this too.

Some single-scene planning, so each one has a purpose.

Enter YA novelist J. Elle, whose first book, Wings of Ebony, comes out in 2021. She loves sharing writing tips with up-and-coming writers, and she was kind enough to make a video with some writing tips for my students. Yes, I could have shared some of these tips, but it means so much more when a published author shares them. Even before J. Elle suggested it to my students, they were taking notes! Her ideas made so much sense to them, so many reluctant writers had their creative juices flowing again after this video. This worked out so well that I am already looking to bring in another local author.

Other Road Blocks

Besides planning, some students just didn’t see themselves as creative writers. One senior’s comment summed up many of their feelings quite well when she said, “Mrs. K, can you just give us another essay to write?” That was proof that they needed the NaNoWriMo experience more than ever. They were so used to those five-paragraph-test-prep essays that they didn’t know how to write anything else. They were scared, and as I shared with them, so was I. This was my first time writing a story of this length too, so I knew my students needed see all my struggles to know they were not alone. I shared when I got stuck, and when I saw a need to rearrange scenes. I shared a picture I added to help me imagine my setting, and a scene I hated so much that I deleted it. I showed my real struggles, hoping my students would see me as a writer just like them.

Inspired by Pernille Ripp’s “Reading Action Plan”

As we ventured into NaNoWriMo, I also discovered that some students didn’t write outside of class. After conferring with them, I found out that many students just didn’t have a computer or device to write at home. We discussed how this writing time could happen during school hours (besides just in class). We began creating our own writing action plans that worked for us. For me, all of my writing was at home, since I spent in-class time conferring. My students found writing time during their Homerooms, after school, and in study halls. I even encouraged them to write during their mentor time with freshmen, since the 9th graders would benefit from seeing their mentors as writers. For those students that still struggled to find time with a device, I encouraged them to hand write.

Next Step: Keeping Up with Communication

For the rest of the month, I will only see students four more times. I know it’s only November 13th, but that’s because I have two workshops, one being NCTE and ALAN. We also have parent teacher conferences. Yes, I’m not going to be in the classroom much, so I need a way to show my students that they can still communicate with me. We use the Remind app, so I send daily writing reminders to them. I also encourage them to use the “private comment” function in Google Classroom, since their stories are all there. Students will also have “accountability writing partners” (thanks to Debbie Myers for the idea). They will have someone who will try to push them to write, and thus hold them accountable for reaching their goals. My hope is that, with these communication tools in place, more writing will occur.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

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