Category Archives: Shana

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.



Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys


Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

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.

Why I Returned to Hard-Copy Grading

tumblr_maccshmi241rvog5q.gifGrading, grading, grading.


As the kids say, I literally cannot even.

Where do I begin?

Grading, to me, is one of the necessary evils of education–along with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests.  I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have not found a way to avoid it.

When I left the high school classroom last May, one of the things I was happiest to let go was grading.  (That and those damned fire drills.)

But I didn’t expect to come to loathe grading even more when I began teaching college students.

There were a few reasons I disliked grading in my new job:  first, I found that, by dint of the course designs I inherited, that the only “grades” given were at the very end of the semester.  This meant that what little formative feedback was built into the course wasn’t seen as valuable–by the students nor the other instructors I was working with.  I sat in meetings where a colleague complained about “having to do all that reading and write all those comments for nothing” (“nothing” being no grade).  I thought to myself, wow, you’re missing the whole point of formative feedback.

Another thing I loathed was that most everything was electronic.  Any assignment due was expected to be turned in via email/eCampus/Google Drive two days prior to the class meeting, and the instructor was to give feedback and a grade before class began on Friday.  This meant that the only feedback about a student’s work was always only given by the instructor, and that students never saw one another’s work.

So, as the semester moved along, I began to make some changes to the course design:  more formative feedback, more frequent turn-in checkpoints for large assignments, lots of ungraded, low-stakes drafting of ideas in class.  We all hobbled to the end, adjusting assignments and expectations as we went.

But over the winter break, as I reflected and gathered the many post-its of ideas I’d stuck here and there, seeking to refine our syllabus and clarify our goals, I thought of one major change I could make that would solve a lot of my problems with the course.

Return to paper.

img_7291Good, old-fashioned, print-it-out-and-bring-it-to-class-and-turn-it-in assignment submission.

This practice has had a few key benefits for me so far this semester.  First, I am seeing much more clarity of thought in my students’ talk in class–I suspect because they’re treating their weekly one-pagers as first drafts of their thinking, and then re-reading them, as evidenced by their frequent typo corrections or asides to me in the margins.

Second, the issue of opacity between students’ assignment submissions is gone.  Each class meeting, I try to build in a time to share our writing, whether by trading papers, using our papers as an artifact to support some talk, or asking students to comment on one another’s work.  I ask students to read not just for content, to glean multiple perspectives, but also to read for structure, to see how other writers think through the issues we’re grappling with.  As a result, I’ve seen a great deal of growth in how students structure their writing, as well as a transformation in the confidence of their writing voices as they engage with (and often question) the ideas in the texts we read.

Third, we’ve been reading Visible Learners this semester, which encourages the practice of documentation for the purpose of reflection.  By having concrete documentation of our thinking in the form of hard-copy papers, as well as hard-copy documentation of responsive thinking in the form of my comments or their peers’ in the margins, it is much easier to trace patterns and progress in our thinking.

Fourth, I’ve found that removing laptops or tablets from the equation when students share work actually improves the quality of their conversation.  I’ve been reading widely about how detrimental our devices can be to our talk, so I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce our screen time in class.  Fewer devices lead to more robust dialogue, which leads to better thinking and writing and time together overall.

Finally, my students are now accustomed to receiving frequent formative feedback and have come to expect and welcome it.  Initially, the students were a little wary when they saw my scribbles, assuming they were all corrections, but then were delighted when they actually read the feedback a peer or I had left.  Now, they hunger for the moments when a friend hands them back their paper with a handwritten note, or I return assignments the next class.

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Switching to hard-copy grading has improved a great deal of my work with my students, and although I still haven’t come to love grading, I am enjoying it a lot more this semester.

Now to tackle that huge stack of one-pagers that’s been staring at me all morning…!

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.

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4 Ways Teachers Can Be Kinder–To Our Students, Ourselves, & One Another

Last week, my students finally hit the breaking point.

Maybe it was knowing that my stressed-out little preservice teachers had just one more week until spring break.  Maybe it was the fact that Betsy DeVos had just said or done something stunningly idiotic.  Maybe it was the fact that we were reading and thinking and writing and talking about yet another heavy topic.

Whatever it was, as we discussed the futility of policy changes in education, one of them burst out, “it’s hopeless!  We’re just teachers!  There’s nothing we can do!”

Channeling my inner Pam Allyn, and directly quoting her, I exclaimed, “Yes there is!  Teaching IS social change!!!”

And by exclaimed I really mean shouted.

My students sat up a little straighter, possibly slightly afraid of me at this point.  But I was not deterred–I opened a google doc they could all access, put them in groups of three, and asked each group to come up with one actionable change that teachers could do in class tomorrow that would address some of the issues in our readings.

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Ten minutes later, they’d created a pretty nice list.

636143262607992163-535158864_be-kind-ribbon.jpegAs I re-read it this morning, I’m thinking about the patterns I see in these actionable changes.  The overarching one:  kindness.

Kindness requires thoughtfulness, which in the fast-paced world we live in can actually be quite difficult to enact.  I think that, if we can slow down for just a moment, we can enact social change in our classrooms by modeling, teaching, and living simple kindness.  Here are four ways to think about that.

Teach who matters, not what matters.

My fellow 3TTers and I had a pretty robust conversation the other day on Twitter about the merits of the “AP list” and limiting kids’ choice to it in AP classes.  After much wordsmithing and hashtaggery, our basic conclusion was that it doesn’t matter so much WHAT we teach as it matters WHO we teach, and how. (Because we’ll never agree on what matters, anyway!)

We teach readers, not books.  We teach writers, not five-paragraph essays.  We teach wordsmiths, not grammar.  When we frame our teaching like this, we remember why we got into teaching in the first place:  because we love kids and want the best for them…and what’s kinder than that?

img_7428Be kind to other teachers.  

I recently spoke with our NCTE student affiliate about why it’s beneficial to be connected to a larger teaching community on Twitter.  During our conversation, I loved watching the students’ faces as they saw the likes of Tom Newkirk, Penny Kittle, and Chris Lehman come alive on the screen.  These weren’t just mysterious high-tower authors who wrote the books they read–these were real people.

Their eyes were bright with wonder as they realized that they, too, could join that community of teacher-writers whose thoughts and opinions were valued, no matter how new or old one was to the profession.  And that’s compelling evidence that we need to build a kind teacher community–because it ushers practitioners into the world of research-based best practices and creates a safe space for trying new things.  Teachers can be mean.  We need to stop.  Cover a colleague’s classes.  Nurture them when they need to grow as practitioners.  Join them in their classroom.  Smile at them during staff meetings.  Try not to get frustrated, and apply the previous strategy–work with the person, not the teacher of Beowulf.

Allow yourself some freedom and autonomy as the teacher.

Standards are standards.  But as Louise Rosenblatt says, they’re just ink on a page until you bring meaning to them.  If we apply the transactional theory of reading to the Common Core, or any other set of standards, then they’re really not so bad.  When I read a standard like this…

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…I get excited.  But many teachers don’t.  As a high schooler, my teachers generally addressed this standard by assigning literary analysis papers.  It doesn’t have to be that way! imgres

For example, my fellow WV teachers Karla Hilliard and Jessica Salfia recently addressed this standard by having a #CrossChat on twitter after their students read Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover.

A twitter chat.  As an assessment.


But hey–if you can teach a rockin’ literary analysis, then by all means, do it.  The point is that we have more freedom and autonomy than we often allow ourselves–whether because we’re pressured to conform to a school culture, or offered a prescribed curriculum, or confined by a set of district-wide initiatives.  So be kind to yourself.  Stretch those boundaries however you’re comfortable and be yourself, teach to your strengths, and make your job fun.


None of us is perfect, not any day, not any week, not any school year.  We hear constantly about being reflective and reflexive practitioners, and we can be hard on ourselves when we reflect on our teaching or respond to our students’ confusion.  It’s when we do not forgive ourselves for those imperfections that we become resistant to change.

We can never grow if we aren’t comfortable discarding our old skin, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of doing that.  Forgive yourself if you, too, started your career by alienating kids with pop quizzes.  Forgive the kid who called you a rude name yesterday, because hopefully he was having a bad day and isn’t just a jerk.  Forgive the 9th grade teacher who slaughtered your students’ love of reading by giving 83 tests on TKAM.  Teach your students to forgive the crappy first drafts of their narratives.

If we forgive, then we open the door for growth.  And that’s the kindest thing of all.

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.

Remembering Why We Become Teachers

Last week, when I met with my new crop of Spring semester students for the first time, I asked them to write one sentence that told me how they’d come to teaching.

Do you know what almost every single student wrote?

“Because I love working with kids.”

It was a reminder, for me:  these young, idealistic, preservice teachers, on the very cusps of their careers…were here because of LOVE.  For children, for learners.

We will spend the next three years with them working on their teaching craft, their pedagogy, their educational philosophy.  We will offer classes in professional inquiry, classroom management, instructional design, content area methods, technology integration, special education, and more.

But we do not offer a class on why most of these students become teachers:  a class on caring for kids.

We cannot offer such a class, because what would we put in the syllabus?  It’s very simple:  just remember to love and care for each of your students, day in and day out.

And that, for me, is the key.  To remember we care for kids.  To keep our students at the center of our classrooms.

I don’t believe anyone can be a good teacher if they merely love their students.  Good teachers must, in addition to caring for their students, have mastery of content, pedagogy, and methods.

67685151d15291cb47b599262f7625a8Whether or not our instructional practices show our care for our students is a good acid test for teaching reading and writing.  Does assigning a book and then creating fifteen “gotcha” pop quizzes make students feel competent and confident as readers?  No.  Not a good practice.  Nor are so many of the worksheets, textbook curricula, or 1990s-designed unit plans I’ve seen employed by some teachers.

But those are boring, you say.  Well, what about something more fun?  When teaching high school English, does assigning a reading project of tracing your hand and making it a turkey on which you list five books you’ve read make students feel competent and confident as readers?  No.  Not a good practice, either.

You’ll notice I’m measuring good teaching and good learning by student competence and confidence, and not by some other measure of “students are having fun,” or “students enjoy themselves.”

There are five core human drives that apply across all societies, all classes, all ethnicities, all ages, all genders.  One of them is the drive to learn.  All students want to learn, to satisfy curiosity, to demonstrate mastery–both to themselves and to others.  Offering them learning opportunities to achieve and demonstrate this mastery show our love and respect for students, not our supreme wisdom or sublime control or smart strategies as teachers.

I’ve been troubled, lately, by how much talk there is in education about “fun” in the classroom, about how “students wouldn’t need grit if we made learning more fun,” and so on.  When we make things too easy on our students (and too hard, or too meaningless), we aren’t showing our love and respect for our students.

Teaching and learning are difficult, complex things.  They can rarely be boiled down to an algorithm, a strategy, or a single method.  Carol Dweck, coiner of the phrase “growth mindset” (the foundational principle behind books I’ve loved like Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds and Choice Words), recently gave an interview in which she expressed heartfelt regret that her work was being turned into an easy and fun strategy for teaching.  This “false growth mindset” essentially says that all you have to do to foster learning is praise kids for effort, whether or not that effort was successful.

When we focus too much on praise, or effort, or one simple strategy that will solve everything!!, we run the risk of teaching the strategy rather than the student.  Amy recently shared with me a piece that it took me about four reads to unpack:  “On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing.”   This excellent blog post reminded me that when we do something like book clubs, if we spend too much time teaching students how to do book clubs, we aren’t spending enough time getting kids to actually do the work of literacy.

That’s not to say I don’t find value in book clubs, or the multigenre project, or any other lens through which kids might read or write.  There is great value in using a few core strategies, again and again, to help students make sense of what they’re trying to understand.  The key word is a few–so that students keep their focus on literacy, not the strategy or the project or the assignment.  Keep it simple:  quickwrites, book talks, constant revision, constant talk, and a high volume of diverse reading and writing.  Period.

When we keep our classrooms simple, doing more with less and simplifying our instruction to include mostly reading, writing, and talk about reading and writing, we are keeping our care for our students at the forefront of our work.

As we launch into 2017, let’s remember why we became teachers in the first place:  because we care about our students.  Keep that love for learning at the heart of your work, and growth, competence, and confidence will be your rewards.

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.


Keeping Workshop Values at the Heart of Our Teaching

I have written before about what awesome students I had this semester.  It was my first attempt at college teaching, and I was nervous about how to approach everything–my courses, my students, my grading.

I was so close to falling into the trap that I fell into when I first began teaching, and simply reverting to doing what I’d seen done.  The first week assignments were due, when a few kids’ were missing, I almost got mad, and gave them zeroes, and had a serious meeting with them.  You just can’t not turn in work in college!

But, instead of deducting points or getting mad…I asked myself:  what the heck would that achieve?  Do I want these students doing that to their future students?  What is the point!?

So, I just talked to them.  I tried to understand why their work wasn’t done, and I tried to help them understand why deadlines matter in our course.  I gave them the first second chance they’d gotten in college.  And when they turned in their work, I was so glad–it was amazingly high quality.

There were other ways I modified our course, too.  Although according to the course design, all of the students’ long-term assignments–writer’s notebooks, lesson plans, major projects–were slated to come in at the end of the semester, for one bombshell grade, I asked that they turn them in in chunks so I could give them frequent, ungraded feedback.  I didn’t want to wait 16 weeks to discover they’d been way off track the whole semester.  The students were grateful for some of the only formative feedback they’d received while in college.

I asked them to make their notebooks more authentic, their responses to our assigned books and articles more honest, and their research and data analysis more realistic.  I gave a lot of positive, specific feedback in return for their risk-taking, asked them lots of questions to keep them thinking, and in turn, I saw them begin to take more risks in their thinking and writing and teaching.  We built a community of teachers who questioned the status quo, and I could see their growth.


I’m so thankful that I kept my workshop values in place when I began teaching preservice teachers.

I asked for authenticity, honesty, and dialogue when we engaged in our study of books and articles and our students.  In return, I gave specific, frequent feedback, the opportunity for revision of thinking and writing, and time for students to talk with one another and with me.  Keeping these non-negotiables in place has helped me craft a classroom and a course that I’ve enjoyed teaching and that has allowed my students to grow (although I already have lots of ideas for improving the course next semester!).

We ended our course with a final class period of presentations of the students’ semester-long projects.  Students gave one another feedback, and I wrote beside them, writing in note cards as I’d seen Penny Kittle do in our summer course at UNH.

This note from a student in her writer’s notebook proves to me that all students, no matter their age–from kindergarteners to the 21-year-olds I teach–crave the time and attention and care and respect of their teachers.  We should keep that at the heart of our teaching, always.


I know, like many of you, that I’ll be using winter break to rethink and re-vision my teaching for 2017.  I hope that we’ll all create goals and routines that keep workshop values at the core of our teaching–values of risk-taking, time for talk, revision, reflection, authenticity, dialogue, honesty, and all else that encourages our students’ growth in the most important of ways.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!  How will you be spending your time away from school?  Please share in the comments.

How I Made the Move to Workshop: 10 Key Steps

Like many teachers, I established a very traditional classroom when I began my career.  I taught whole-class novels, gave multiple choice tests, and assigned long essays that I thought were full of academic rigor.

After struggling to engage kids, battling behavior issues, and watching kids grow to hate reading, I realized:  none of what I was doing was authentic, and much of it was not research based.

I didn’t even know why I was teaching the way that I was teaching.

Of course, in hindsight, I know I was doing what I’d seen modeled:  years of traditional schooling, a 4×4 model, and strict assessment modes.  It was all I’d experienced, and despite learning about more authentic workshop methods in my education program, I didn’t know how to put those in place because I’d never seen them.

But I decided I didn’t care that I had no idea what I was doing…I was tired of seeing kids unhappy, and being unhappy as a teacher myself.  So, slowly, I made the move to workshop.

I’ve been inspired lately by one of our readers, who comments under the handle ML.  “I’m so ready to try workshop,” ML wrote several weeks ago.  I suspect ML was feeling the same fatigue that I was while running a traditional classroom.

Then, ML wrote, “Ok, I’m in!” last Friday on Jessica’s post.  I can’t wait to hear how the move goes, and as I wondered, it got me thinking about my own journey to a workshop classroom.  Apparently, ’tis the season for this kind of large-scale reflective thinking, as I wrote a post about a year ago about what teachers need in order to feel sustained.

But now I’m thinking about what teachers need to make the move to workshop, and how we might take these steps.  Here are the ones I took.

imgresThe first change I made was offering choice.  Keeping the anchor texts and assignments I’d been using in place, I began to offer some choice in assessments.  On essay tests, I gave several options for prompts.  For projects, I created many different possible products.

Next, I began to offer some choice in reading and writing.  I added Free-Write Friday to our daily notebook writing routines, and increased time to do independent reading in class from once per week to every day.  I slowly started to grow my classroom library, too.

Over the course of a year, I gradually stopped making so many of the choices in my classroom and started offering them to students instead.

In terms of reading, we read fewer books as a class, and when we did read a work together, students guided the discussion, and assessments became more authentic and choice-based.  I began to notice that students were much more successful with their reading when our fabulous librarian, Lara Walker, recommended specific titles to kids during our biweekly library visits.  So, I added booktalks to our routine; first weekly, then daily.

My reading life began to change when I started to give booktalks.  I realized that I was quickly running out of titles that I knew would hook kids, so I took a two-pronged approach to fixing that issue:  first, I began to read much more widely.  Second, I redoubled my efforts to grow my library so that it filled up with titles kids would actually read.

Autonomy in reading spread to other areas of my curriculum quickly.  Kids felt emboldened to offer opinions on whole-class texts, so we moved to a more dialogic mode of learning rather than a traditional autocratic one.  I stopped giving tests in the traditional sense, abandoning multiple-choice questions and regurgitation-type essays.  I wanted kids to have some wiggle room in their writing just as they had in their reading.

I knew how to teach a thesis statement or a critical lens, but I’d never had a class on how to teach kids to WRITE commentary or satire or poetry–only how to read them.  In studying those genres to figure out how to teach them, I realized that I was doing exactly what my students needed to do: read like writers.  They began to read not only sample written products like writers, but also the books they were enjoying as well.  Mentor texts came from everywhere, with my students beginning to shoulder more of the cognitive load of finding and analyzing pieces of writing.

Many of my colleagues turned up their noses at my approach, wondering how I knew if my students were reading and writing if I wasn’t reading the same book they were or giving a test or a paper over it.  I argued that teaching was both art and craft, and that I just knew my kids were succeeding:  I talked to them, didn’t I?  I watched them read, I heard them bemoan twist endings with friends, I read their revision-riddled notebooks.

I had mountains of data that weren’t tests.

As all of this happened, my students grew as readers and writers, and we grew closer as teacher and students.  I cultivated friendships with my kids and took on an identity not just as a teacher, but as an usher toward a love of reading and writing.

Love, some colleagues said.  Fun.  Phooey!

But, as the brilliant Pam Allyn said:  love leads to practice, which leads to fluency, which leads to stamina, which leads to mastery.  You can’t do a thing well if you don’t love it.


A good representation of my workshop classroom

My traditional classroom faded away.  Rows were replaced by table groups, textbooks were replaced by a huge classroom library, and mountains of essays to grade were replaced by a tower of teetering writer’s notebooks.

I made the move to workshop organically, almost on my own, but aided by the brilliance of classes from the National Writing Project, the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, and the work of many teacher-writers:  Penny Kittle, Tom Romano, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Tom Newkirk, and countless others.  They reaffirmed that the moves I was making were the ones that were best for kids.

In sum, here’s how I made the move to workshop:

  1. Offering choice, slowly at first.
  2. Increasing our use of the writer’s notebook as a space for ungraded, low-stakes writing.
  3. Making time for independent reading every day.
  4. Giving booktalks every day.
  5. Growing my classroom library and my own reading repertoire.
  6. Learning to read like writers and study mentor texts.
  7. Shifting the cognitive load of curricular choice from me to my students.
  8. Valuing talk as an assessment, instructional, and practice tool.
  9. Keeping records and compiling data that were valuable and authentic.
  10. Reading lots of blogs and books and journals and articles that helped me add research-based practices to my pedagogy.

I hope ML will keep commenting and let us know how the move to workshop is going.  In the meantime, can you share with us the story of your move to workshop?  Please tell us in the comments!


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