Category Archives: Readers Workshop

Using Technology to Extend Reader’s Advisory

While I do teach one class of Senior English and one class of AP Capstone Seminar, the majority of my job is actually as the Teacher Librarian in our Senior School (Grades 6-12). As a Teacher Librarian, I spend a lot of time focusing on Reader’s Advisory as students stop by the library looking for a book to read.

Reader’s Advisory can take some time and is often about asking the right questions. While some students come to the library with a clear picture of what they want to read, more often than not, students have a vague notion of what they are looking for or have no idea at all. Sometimes when students enter the library they have a clear goal in mind, but more often I come across students mindlessly wandering the shelves because they want a book (or have been told they have to get a book), but really have no clue what they are looking for. These students may be in a reading rut and nothing is inspiring them. When I encounter these students, I always start with questions such as: what is the last thing you read that you really enjoyed? What did you like about that book? What didn’t you like about the book? Sometimes the questioning period is short and I have just the right book for the student, but sometimes the process can take much longer with every suggestion I give being turned down. While my role in Reader’s Advisory can be an important one, often the best advisors when it comes to helping students find their next great read is not me, rather it is their peers. While it is important that we as teachers and librarians are reading the books our students are reading and while it is important that we are able to recommend books to students, it is also equally as important that we are creating a culture of reading in our libraries and in our classrooms where our students are sharing the books they love with their peers and where they are engaging in Reader’s Advisory by recommending books to each other.

To read some more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a culture.

While some of the best Reader’s Advisory between students happens in the casual conversations in the library or in the classroom or in the excited moments when a student just has to share this amazing book he or she has been reading, technology can also help us extend our reading culture beyond the walls of the classroom and the school itself. At our school, we have been using technology in an exciting way to help extend the conversations around books beyond the school walls.

Over the past few years, our English department has been using Biblionasium and Goodreads to broaden our reading community and to help our students engage in discussions about reading and to connect to Reader’s Advisory moments in larger communities.

biblinasiumgood

Some of our Grade 6 and 7 students using Biblionasium to write reviews and recommendations about their favourite books.

 

With our Grades 6 and 7 students, we have introduced Biblionasium. Biblionasium is a free social book sharing platform for younger students (there is a paid version, but the only real added feature to this version is that it allows you to link your Biblionasium class with your library catalogue). It allows teachers to create online reading communities. At our school, our Grade 6 and 7 students all belong to our online Biblionasium community that has been set up by their English teachers and by myself. On Biblionasium, students can log the books they have read by placing them on their own virtual bookshelves, can write reviews of these books, can place books on the group’s virtual book shelf to allow other students to see them, and they can also recommend books to other students. As well, the teachers in the group can send book recommendations to the whole class or to specific students. Because it is a program designed for elementary students, Biblionasium confines students to the class that was set up by the teachers and students can not interact with other users on the site. This allows students to engage with their classmates in their Biblionasium group, but does not open them up to a larger community of strangers.

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Page 1 of many (we have had this group going since 2014!) of our Grades 8-12 Goodreads reading group Recommended Reads bookshelf.

With our Grades 8-12 students, we have moved from Biblionasium to Goodreads, another free platform. While many teachers use Goodreads for their own reading, they may not realize that is also allows you to create groups that you can use in your classes. It is this feature we use with our students. We have created a private group for our Grades 8-12 students and for teachers at our school. Much like the Biblionasium group, this group is a place for our students to place the books they have read on their shelves, to share books on the group shelves, to recommend books to each other and to write reviews. The group itself if private, which means only our students and teachers can access it and our shared bookshelves. Unlike Biblionasium, however, the reviews that the students write on Goodreads are visible to the larger Goodreads community. While this may not be ideal for younger students, for our older students it has extended their Reader’s Advisory community in many profound ways. When they write book reviews for the Goodreads community, they are contributing to a larger global discussion about books and when they are looking for book recommendations, they can tap into the reviews and suggestions of a huge community of passionate readers. This not only gives them the experience of writing for a real audience, and access to many amazing mentor texts for book reviews written by other people in the Goodreads community, it also gives them membership into a vast group of people who love to talk about books. This year one of my Grade 11 students discovered that Emma Watson, her favourite actress, is extremely active on Goodreads and, in fact, runs her own feminist book club through the site. My student quickly joined this club and was soon reading her way through Emma’s reading list and engaging in amazing online conversations with other members of Emma Watson’s book club. She was soon bringing these conversations into the classroom and quickly had a whole crew of students – male and female- avidly reading Emma Watson’s recommended books and debating them every chance they could get. I tell you, there is nothing as exciting as walking into a classroom full of students planning their Alias Grace Netflix binge watching session because they just finished reading the book with Emma Watson’s bookclub and they need to watch the Netflix series to see if it did it the book justice in order to join in on the conversation going on in the Goodreads group on this very topic.

Using technology to extend the classroom reading community can have some challenges and does require a certain amount of work with students in regards to interacting with others in the digital environment. The use of technology through reading community sites like Biblionasium and Goodreads can be a powerful way to have students extend their reading community, explore new books and recommended reads, and share their recommendations and critiques with a larger community.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen BC, Canada. She is also addicted to Goodreads and spends decidedly too much time stalking people’s virtual bookshelves in search of her next great read. She is always looking to expand her Goodreads family, so feel free to add her as a friend. Besides on Goodreads, you can follow her thoughts on Twitter at @psmcmartin.

 

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It’s better with Verse! Short and sweet book clubs encourage readers to try new format.

Student voice and student choice have been the priority this school year as we try to foster healthy, robust reading lives in our students. They have been introduced to many titles through plenty of book talks and book recommendations, so they know there are a ton of choices out there for them, but this level of choice also means we haven’t had too many shared texts.

This spring I thought it might be fun to squeeze in some shared texts and build up our reading community with deliberate talk about books. I wanted us to be able to finish in just a couple of weeks, so we are engaging in book clubs with books written in verse.

In keeping with the priorities of student voice and student choice, I provided many titles for students to choose from as they entered into this short unit. These are all books that we have multiple copies of and can be found in our classroom libraries.

Before spring break my students were given a little time to get to know a book they hadn’t seen before, and then share that book with a partner. It took just a couple of minutes for each exchange, and then both partners switched books and started again. After a few rounds of sharing books, I allowed students to flip through the remaining titles that had seemed interesting but they hadn’t had the chance to hear about yet.

 

 

They had handouts for note-taking during this activity, and when we were done, they put the notes in their readers/writers notebooks so they would have easy access after the break.

book club notes - verse

When we returned from spring break, students reviewed their notes and listed their top five choices. I assigned and handed out the books, putting between two and four students in each group.

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These are the titles students chose from.

The assignment was pretty straight-forward.Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 3.37.17 PM

Students were directed to annotate for the fiction and/or nonfiction signposts found in Notice and Note and in Reading Nonfiction, (depending on their titles) the Book Head Heart framework and questions found in Disrupting Thinking, and some poetry vocabulary (listed below).

 

 

After they started reading, but before they were too many pages in, a few students had questions about how to annotate a book written in verse. They had annotated other texts before, but for some reason this type of text had some obstacles. IMG_7697 2

I decided to do a quick, fun example of annotating a narrative poem with a simple children’s poem by Shel Silverstein. Cloony the Clown has many of the fiction signposts, poetic devices, and we talked about the Book Head Heart framework. Finding the signposts and annotating together was fun. It took less than fifteen minutes to share the example in class, and my students seemed much more comfortable with annotating their book club books when we were done with the activity.

Students then used their annotations to spark discussion, and regularly use them during the week to practice their sustained conversation.

They will be assessed next week in the form of a video-discussion, where they will meet in their book groups. Using iPads, they will record their thoughtful discussions, referring to annotations, making connections with the text, and sustaining academic conversation for around twenty minutes.

What I’ve heard and seen so far has been encouraging. Students are sharing, referring to lines and stanzas, and feel accomplished that they have read a complete text in such a short amount of time. Some of them are on their second or third-draft reading, which I think is a great strategy and habit to reinforce. They are truly getting to know their books, and in the process learning about story, poetry, and close reading.

 

 

 

Some students were able to read their book club book in an hour or two, and then get right back to their other choice reading. Others are encouraged by the progress they are quickly making in a full-length book because it often takes them longer than a few days to read most of a book. That’s one of the many great things about books written in verse – it doesn’t take a long time to read them, but they are rich with language, story, character, and they hold student interest. With the variety of types and titles, there really is something for everyone.

 

 

 

I borrowed an idea from this amazing post from Buffy J Hamilton regarding connecting text to the world around us. Next week, as one of the finishing activities in this short unit, students will each bring in a current event article which somehow relates to their books, and use these articles to launch new conversations about their books, connecting the text to themselves and to the world around us.

I’m pleased with the way these books clubs are progressing. My students don’t seem to feel intimidated by the length or weight of the books, and they tend to agree that the books are relevant and thought-provoking. While some of them have enjoyed books written in verse before their book clubs, for others this is one of their first experiences with a book written in verse. So for some students, this unit validates and supports their reading experience, and for others, it opens a door to a new form.

I encourage others to try some “unconventional” types of text for book clubs. Graphic novels, short stories, and poetry collections are all ideas I’m kicking around for future book club units, and I’m wondering how other teachers have incorporated different types of texts in their classes, and encouraged new conversation. Please leave your ideas and experiences in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Formative Assessment Works!!!

For those of you who haven’t taught Seniors, trust me on this:  Formative assessment during the second semester is challenging.

If you’ve taught seniors, then you might understand where I’m coming from:  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they aren’t grasping a concept, or they are just too tired of school to have the energy to engage.

I hurts my heart to even consider that my precious learners are worried about bigger issues than Comparative Literary Analysis essays or finding examples of bias in their self-selected texts.  Prom looms five days away and graduation seven weeks after that.  They work, they compete in extra curriculars, they deal with the adults and peers in their lives.  I forget, sometimes, that their plates are filled with important thoughts.  I remind myself I’m not doing their stress levels any favors by point out that we still have important work to do before June 2nd.

Last Monday we reviewed an excerpt from Niel Schusterman’s Thunderhead as a mentor text for practicing literary analysis through all the lenses that should be crystal clear to these literate learners.  I needed to assess their understanding and thinking so that I could make decisions about the instruction leading up to the summative assessment.  That’s the point of formative assessment; to “form” a plan for instruction.

I read the short selection with them, and asked them if they would, please, mark their thinking on this first lap through the text.  They should, as they’ve done many times before, underline or highlight what they noticed about the words the author chose through the lenses of diction, bias, author’s purpose…literally anything they noticed within the realm of literary analysis. It’s the last nine weeks of their public education career. They should be able to look at a text through a variety of lenses.

Some of them made some marks on the page while others wrote notes next to highlighted lines or words.  Others, though, marked nothing.  [Alarms wiggle and stir in my head. Something’s not right.]

I asked them to share within their groups what they noticed.  Muted whispers of ethos, tone, and metaphor struggled out of some groups, but again, most said very little.  Very few connections were being made. For them and for me, the picture was as clear as mud. This, by itself, is important formative assessment. This wasn’t working. [Def Con 55- Full tilt klaxons at maximum volume!]

Yet, I refuse to blame them.  I fully believe that it is solely on me, the teacher, to facilitate engagement with the text.  Somehow I need to do a better job inviting them to take all those useful tools out of their tool belts and dissect this very meaningful text.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

I bear a striking resemblance to Tom Brady.  Photo by Keith Allison

In football parlance, I needed to call an audible in the middle of the game. What I had hoped they would do; they won’t or can’t.  It’s time for me to jump in and scaffold this concept to a place where they can see the connections they can make and I can assess their thinking.  I’m not going to put them in a position to fail on the summative assessment if I know they aren’t ready for it.

In a whole class mode, I read over the text, mark what I notice and verbalize my analysis.

Now I ask them to talk about what they notice.  There it is…an increase in discussion, an inflation in dialogue. The alarm volume turns down a notch, but it doesn’t turn off.

I wrap the class period up with an invitation to write about what moves the author is making and as they do I confer with a few students who seem completely flabbergasted.  The bell tolls, signaling an end to their literary torture session.

 

Thus was the source of my salvation:

book

I only saunter.

Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:

  1. Give them choice- I was allowing no choice in the subject of their analysis.  I know better than to restrict their reading and writing experiences and I let my, and their, end of the year exhaustion affect my decision making.
  2. Show them, not tell them, what you want to assess.  I wasn’t showing them examples of literary analysis and again, I know better.  I was expecting, wrongly, that Senior English students would confidently engage in literary analysis and move forward with their thinking in a way that shows me they can write a response in essay form.

After school, I tore up my lessons plans for the next four days and re-wrote them to reflect what I SHOULD do to support my students in this exploration.

On page 5 of their amazing new book Marchetti and O’Dell introduce a mentor text written by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic.  His recurring series “By Heart” is a collection of responses from a diverse group of thinkers and writers and is an amazing resource.  A simple Google search returned a link to this series of essays. I scanned the list of the titles and discovered an article from September titled, “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.”   In it, Celeste Ng describes her feelings of the children’s book and how it “informs” her writing.

Perfecto!!!

This checked so many of the boxes of what I was looking for in a mentor text.  And…I get to read a children’s book to “big” kids.  I know enough about my students to know they will love this.

Also, I used Marchetti and O’Dell’s five part descriptions of literary analysis on pages 11 and 12 to create a glue-in anchor chart for their readers’/writers’ notebooks that helped to clarify what exactly we should look for when reading and writing literary analysis.

Confidence restored! Disaster averted… kind of.

We Ng’s reflection and discussed how this was a perfect example of literary analysis.  They asked questions, we laughed about Goodnight Moon.  I saw their confidence grow and I knew we were back on track and ready to move toward our essay.

Thursday, we started the drafts and I hope to see many of them tomorrow.

Being responsive and intentional is a crucial part of the workshop pedagogy.  I can’t stress enough how this one piece can make our break my teaching.  My lesson planning skills have finally reached the point where I plan for and anticipate opportunities to change up what we are doing to match what the students need. This was an opportunity for which I hadn’t planned, but we made the adjustment and made it work.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes.

Let me know in the comments below when you’ve had to make big changes on the fly to support your students’ learning. I know I can’t be the only one.

Charles Moore is neck deep in Children of Blood and Bone.  He’s spending the day taking his daughter to school and then having lunch with her.  It might be the best day of his life.  His summer TBR list is growing uncontrollably; feel free to add to it in the comments.

Five Ways Your Classroom Library will Sell Itself (Without taking up valuable class time!)

Classroom libraries are essential in the workshop model, as kids who have access to books will naturally read more books. I’m beyond thrilled that my school has invested so much into our classroom libraries. Now that the books are here, it’s time to get the students to read them!

classroom library fall 17

This is what my classroom library looked like in the fall of 2017.

 

Book talks are an essential way for teachers and students to discover new treasures hidden in classroom libraries, but they aren’t the only way.

Speed dating, student led book talks, and book tastings are all excellent methods for students to learn about books and develop healthy next reads lists, but they all take time.

Below are five ways to “book talk” without using valuable class time:

  1. These are quick, easy to photocopy book recommendations written by students. I keep a stack of them on a shelf with the books, and as students return books they read and loved, they can choose to fill in the recommendation form. I’m sure there are more beautiful recommendation forms out there, but this is what we have, and it works.

2. Mini-whiteboards are easily changed-out, and both students and teachers can quickly feature new and different titles. It takes moments, and the written “grab” can be copied from the inside flap or the back of the book.

  1. themed book display

3. Themed book displays are easy to curate.  All that’s necessary are a few display stands and either some mini-white boards or some heavy paper that can be switched out. I rotate my display about once a week, and sometimes my students ask me to “do a theme” with the display. I try to oblige. This one focused on humor, but anything is possible. I’ve currently got a music theme going, and it’s fun to find themed collections based on other random ideas – animals, travel, even the color of the covers. Imagination is the only limitation with this one.

 

4. We reinvented the old-school card catalogue by filling an organizing bin with book recommendations. The categories in the bin match the ones on the library shelves, and students add their recommendations as they are motivated to do so, but only after reading the books, and if they liked the title. I gave them some basic guidelines for making the cards:Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 5.29.43 PM

It takes students about five minutes to make a card, and they can even browse the “card catalog” at their desks.

 

5. The last method utilizes these frames from IKEA. They are double-sided, so on one side is a copy of the book cover, and on the other is the student recommendation.

I provided minimal guidelines for making the inserts to the frames:

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We are displaying them on our classroom conferring tables, on our book shelves, and in our school’s learning commons.

The common denominator with all of these ideas is that they are easily displayed, often student-created, and require minimal class time for students to create and use. They also get kids talking about books that they love, about their next reads lists, and about their reading lives. It’s win-win-win!

The gradual removal of scaffolding (like book talks) and the journey to independent reading lives are a couple of the major goals of workshop. Helping students build a community of readers means that they will depend on each other’s recommendations rather than those of their teachers’, and that helps us all reach the common goal of student independence. When students are encouraged to talk to each other about the books they read without the interference of the teacher, then true independence is closer than ever.

How do you encourage your students to build a reading community? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

A Book for Women, Young and Old and In-between

I am always on the look out for books that will hook my readers and mentor texts that will inspire my writers.

But when I saw the title The Radical Element, 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other

My Radical Granddaughters

It’s never too early to give girls hope.

Dauntless Girls, I thought of my own three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters. (Well, not so much the debutantes, but definitely the daredevils and the dauntless.)

We need books where our girls see themselves –where they feel empowered to take on the world. In a brochure I got from @Candlewick, it states:

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting.

So today, I write to celebrate the book birthday of The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood.

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Jessica writes:

. . . Merriam-Webster’s definitions of radical include “very different from the usual or traditional” and “excellent, cool.” I like to think our heroines in these twelve short stories are both. Our radical girls are first- and second- generation immigrants. They are Mormon and Jewish, queer and questioning, wheelchair users and neurodivergent, Iranian- American and Latina and Black and biracial. They are funny and awkward and jealous and brave. They are spies and scholars and sitcom writers, printers’ apprentices and poker players, rockers and high-wire walkers. They are mundane and they are magical.

. . .

It has been my privilege to work with these eleven tremendously talented authors, some of whom are exploring pieces of their identities in fiction for the first time. I hope that in some small way The Radical Element can help forge greater empathy and a spirit of curiosity and inclusiveness. That, in reading about our radical girls, readers might begin to question why voices like these are so often missing from traditional history. They have always existed. Why have they been erased? How can we help boost these voices today?

I have only read a few of these stories so far, but they are a wonderful blend of adventure and courage.

Here’s what three of the 12 authors have to say about their stories:

From Dhonielle Clayton, “When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough”:

1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

 I wanted to write the untold stories of hidden black communities like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m very fascinated with black communities that, against all odds and in the face of white terrorism, succeeded and built their own prosperous havens. Also, World War II America is glamorized in popular white American culture, however, we learn little about what non-white people were doing during this time period. 

 In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

I didn’t find as much as I wanted because historians focused on white communities and the war effort, leaving communities of color nearly erased. I had to rely on living family members that experienced this time period and a few primary sources detailing what life was like for black nurses in the 1940s. 

 How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

The one thing I trust is that black communities have been and will always be resourceful. Accustomed to being under siege, we have developed a system of support. I think I would’ve fared just fine. 

From Sara Farizan, “Take Me with U”:

1984: Boston, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

I’ve always been fascinated with the 1980’s. Even with all its faults, it is the period in time that stands out for me most in the 20th century. The music, the entertainment, the politics, the fear and suffering from the AIDS virus, the clothes, and the international events that people forget about like the Iran/Iraq war.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

It was hard to look back on footage from news broadcasts about the Iran/Iraq war. I felt embarrassed that it seemed this abstract thing for me when really my grandparents came to live with my family in the States during the year of 1987 to be on the safe side. I was very young, and didn’t think about why they had a year-long visit, but looking back, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for them. Fun not so heavy fact: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Purple Rain came out in the summer of ’84. And so did I!

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

I think I would know all the pop culture references and my hair is already big and beautiful so that would work out great. My Pac-Man and Tetris game is strong, so I’d impress everyone at the arcade. However, I’m not down with shoulder pads and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to come out of the closet back then.

From Mackenzi Lee, “You’re a Stranger Here”

1844: Nauvoo, Illinois

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

My story is set in the 1840s in Illinois and is about the Mormon exodus to Utah. I was raised Mormon, and these stories of the early days of the Church and the persecution they suffered were very common place. It took me a while to realize that, outside of my community, no one else knew these stories that were such a part of my cultural identity. I wanted to write about Mormons because its such a part of my history, and my identity, but also because, when I was a kid, there were no stories about Mormons. There are still no stories about Mormons–it’s a religious minority that has been largely left out in our current conversations about diversifying our narratives.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

Ack I wish I had a good answer here! But honestly not really–I already knew so much of what I wrote about because I’d gone to a Mormon church throughout my youth.

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

Badly! The Mormons went through so much for their faith, and as someone who has had a lot of grief as a result of the religion of her youth, I don’t know if I could have handled having a faith crisis AND being forced from my home multiple times because of that faith. Also cholera and heat stroke and all that handcart pulling nonsense is just. too. much. I didn’t survive the Oregon Trail computer game–no way I’d survive an actual trek.

Radical_Element_social_media_quotes_4

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches readers and writers at a large suburban high school in North TX. She loves to read and share all things books with her students. In regards to this post, Amy says, “It’s Spring Break for me, and I’ve been idle. Kinda. Three of my grandkids arrived at the spur of the moment, so I’ll use that as an excuse for posting late today.” Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

 

Why Workshop? Because Kids Deserve It!

When I first watched the Rita Pierson TED Talk titled Every Kid Needs a Champion, I found myself shouting, “Yes! This lady gets it!”  Our job is to help kids feel connected at school- to ensure that kids feel safe and taken care of while also giving them the best educational experience possible.  This TED Talk catapulted me into thinking- How Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 10.40.19 AMcan we do things even better? How can we reach more kids?  How can we ensure that every student feels connected to their school and their teacher? Don’t misunderstand me- I work with the best teachers around, who love kids and are passionate about the work they are doing in their classrooms.  However, we can always do more and get better, right?

I am a high school administrator, that is lucky enough to work with the English department.  We serve almost 3,000 students on a daily basis. It’s my job to ensure that every kid has a champion, someone they trust and feel has their best interest at heart.  It’s also my job to ensure that we are providing the best educational experience possible for our students because our students deserve that. James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”  That’s where the workshop model comes in. The workshop model provides us with the opportunity to give students choice in what they read and an authentic environment to write about things that hold value to them. It provides an avenue for our teachers to get to know students on a deeper, more personal level because students are ingrained in work that matters to them.  Teachers are able to work one-on-one with students through reading and writing conferences. Teachers are able to have in depth conversations over current events through philosophical chairs and classroom debates. Students talk about what they’re reading on a daily basis. Students improve their writing because they have great mentor texts and a teacher who is writing with them and modeling writing for them.  In short, we know our kids better because we have implemented the workshop model.  We are also able to teach all the skills we need to through choice reading and providing authentic writing opportunities for our students.

I love Amy Rasmussen’s blog post, So You Don’t Think Workshop Works?  5 Reasons You are Wrong, because she makes key points about why the workshop model can and does work in classrooms everywhere.  I found that as we made the shift away from a more traditional classroom structure to the workshop model, we encountered some people that questioned its effectiveness and its validity.  Some questioned how it would impact our state testing scores (they’ve gone up and we are closing the gaps for our students), some questioned whether students would actually be reading and learning the required TEKS in our classes (they definitely do and on an even deeper level than before), some questioned whether or not you could teach a PreAP or AP class through the workshop model (I see it happen on a daily basis).  It’s important to know your why and your purpose. When you know and believe that the workshop model is what is best for students, because of the positive impact it has for them both academically and relationally, it’s easy to defend.

As the workshop model has become more pervasive, and people notice the positive results happening within our department and in our district, we have received lots of requests for campus visits (which we love!), and I get asked quite often about how and why we made the shift to the workshop model in our department.  I thought I’d share my top tips for implementing and sustaining the workshop model in hopes that it helps you carry on the great work.

  1. Teammates.  You need a team of people who “get it” and believe that building student relationships is the key to success in education.  You need a team that understands workshop and why it’s essential in the English classroom, or at least a team that is willing to learn.  Hiring and retaining the best teachers around will help make your workshop thrive.  If you have an administrator, or teachers, that don’t understand the value, send them the Three Teachers Talk blog!  Point them towards professional authors such as Kyleen Beers, Penny Kittle, Jeff Anderson, Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, etc.  Have them attend conferences so that they are able to immerse themselves in the work.  Take them on learning walks so they can see it in action, or utilize technology to view workshop from afar.  It has been my experience that you have to see it in action to truly understand the work.  You need to talk to students to understand the impact it is having on their educational experience.
  2. Professional Learning Communities.  Whether you have a team of 6, 3 or 1, PLCs play an essential role in getting the workshop up and running and then also sustaining the workshop model.  Teachers need to collaborate with others. We need to talk about the work we are doing, how our students are doing, what engages them, and even what frustrates them.  We have to learn from each other.  At my school, we team within our school, our district, and even with teachers in other districts.  Additionally, I love blogs and Twitter and consider them a vital part of my learning community. I strongly encourage you to connect with as many people as you can while you are navigating the wonderful world of workshop.
  3. Conferring. Andrea Coachman, a Three Teachers Talk guest blogger and also the English Content Coordinator in my district, wrote a post about Accountability Through Conversation which details our district’s journey of implementing the workshop through one of the most Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 5.47.07 PMimportant aspects- talking with our students.  This area was a big learning curve for us.  The tendency is to think that having a teacher table or holding daily student conferences is an elementary concept, but in reality it’s what’s best for students at all levels.  The teachers I work with would say that conferencing with students has been a game changer.  They know their students strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing better than before, and they are able to target specific skills that each student needs.
  4. Money. Every school allots a certain amount of budget money to each department.  It really doesn’t matter if it’s a lot or a little, but you need to commit to spending your budget money on professional development for teachers and also books!  Teachers must have the training they need to run the workshop. It’s always a good idea to send them to professional development where they can learn from the experts. My teachers always come back and share with the department, so we all benefit from their learning.   If money is an issue, apply for grants and scholarships to help teachers attend professional development. There are also a plethora of professional books written to help teachers with workshop- check out 10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers.  Another important component of the workshop is having classroom libraries; they are a key component because our students must have a selection of books to choose from.  We have been lucky that our Media Resource Specialist has purchased many of our classroom libraries.  However, our teachers are also great about adding to their own libraries as well.
  5. GRIT.  Angela Duckworth wrote Grit which examines why some people fail and others succeed.  She defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.  It takes a lot of work to get the workshop up and running because the teacher is creating mini lessons based on their students needs, helping students find choice books, modeling writing with mentor texts, and conferencing with students.  We are in year 3 of implementation and are still learning and adjusting each day.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  

Workshop works and it’s worth it.  At 7:30 AM this morning, I was on hall duty, and a group of students came walking by, and said, “I love starting my day with English class.  It’s so fun- we read, we write, and we talk about it all. My teacher is the best! It’s the best way to start the day.”

 

The Battle of the Canon

I recently found myself entrenched on a familiar battlefield. After making what I thought was an innocuous statement about needing more texts that my AP Literature students would enjoy reading that would also represent “literary merit,” and noting some contemporary texts that would meet these criteria, another teacher began to lecture me on the necessity of requiring students to read canonical British literature.

Her unyielding tirade provided some insight into what it must feel like to be a student in that class – in which choice is something the teacher makes, books are taught (not students), and the teacher is the sole purveyor of knowledge.

Before I continue, let me say that I truly believe that this teacher truly believes that she is doing what is best for her students. Her primary argument, in fact, was that we are doing our students a disservice if we do not expect them to read “hard texts.”

To her, rigor means old. She explained that if students are not struggling to decode classic books such as Beowulf or Cantebury Tales, they are not being challenged enough. She said that any book they read that’s not canon is a waste of their time.

But herein lies the rub: many students from different English classes eat lunch in my classroom, and I listen to their honest conversations about school. I watch as they use Sparknotes to fill out question packets on classic texts. When the focus is on a specific book, and the assessments are designed to elicit responses about the plot, students do not have much incentive to read the book. Thus, they find answers they need online and wait for the teacher to tell them what they should have learned from the text.

While I held back from sharing such observations, I did agree that students benefit from reading challenging texts. MRIs have recorded all of the brilliant ways the brain lights up with activity when reading the works of Shakespeare! However, I offered the suggestion that students need not read full novels as a whole class to receive this benefit. I often pull excerpts from classic texts to analyze in class so that the focus is on the writing craft and on ourselves as readers. We explore passages in depth to build reader confidence, look for literary devices and discuss their functions, and connect to theme. I provide them with incentive to read other than “because it’s tradition,” and – more importantly – I encourage them to find their own reasons for connecting to texts.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 9.10.07 PMAmy Rasmussen and I have engaged in numerous conversations about the magic that happens when students choose the books they read for our AP English classes. Sure, students will often choose a contemporary text if given the chance because it’s easier for them to read and it seems more relevant to them. What’s wrong with that? Books like The Kite Runner and Never Let Me Go have been referenced by the College Board on the AP Literature and Composition exam®, so why do some teachers still cling to the classics as if nothing written after the turn of the 20th century has merit?

My students regularly start with more contemporary books like The Help or The Road and then choose, for various reasons, to explore books from the canon. Often, they have built confidence due to the work we do together in class with shorter texts and from their own choice reading, and they feel comfortable taking on a challenge. Sometimes, they decide that they want to read books they’ve always heard about. I currently have students who have chosen to read Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, and Les Miserables on their own. When we have book talks and the students begin speaking with excitement about the books they’re reading, you better believe that others will want to read these books, too. I’ve seen it happen for several years in a row; students read more canonical texts due to choice than they ever would if the books were strictly assigned.

Many of us speak and write about the benefits of a workshop classroom, and the idea of choice in reading has been explored by leaders in education such as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. So why are some teachers so afraid to let go of their perceived control? What do they think will happen if a student walks out of high school without reading Beowulf? I would rather see my students leave my classroom having read several books they chose to read than having faked their way through a list of classics, and based on the honest feedback I get from my students, they prefer it this way, too.

I left the battle of the canon feeling that we had reached a stalemate. Until I can convince nonbelievers of the benefits of choice in the AP classroom, I will continue to provide a safe space for any students to come in and talk about books, even as some Sparknote and Google their way through the classics.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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