Balancing Reading and Writing Workshop in a 50 Minute Class Period

A few years back our high school was on a four by four block schedule.  Students had only four classes a day for 18 weeks.  Teachers had 90 minutes to balance reading and writing in the classroom.  When we moved to reading and writing workshop the transition seemed seamless.  We had the time to balance both, even if we only had the students for one semester during the year.

And then our school made the switch – the one that was in the best interest of all of our students, but tough on teachers.  We are now on an 8 period day and students are in our classes for 50 minutes all year long.  Instead of having 90 students a semester we have 150 students. Instead of having a 90 minute plan period plus a common department lunch, we now have a 50 minute plan, 50 minute lunch and have added a supervision to our load.  It hasn’t been an easy transition, but we have learned that you still can balance both reading and writing workshop in the classroom.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I was reminded of what Amy Rasmussen posted back in 2015, My Classes are Only 45 Minutes – How Do I Do Workshop?, and Shana Karnes’ post in 2016,  Making Workshop Work in 45 Minutes.  I reread those posts  and shared them over and over with my colleagues who were struggling with how to make reading/writing workshop work on our new schedule.  If others could do it, so could we!  Amy said it best, “As you begin to plan for your 50 minutes, think about this:  How can you ensure that all students read, write, listen, and speak in every class period?” We learned very quickly that time flies in a shortened class period and we need to be intentional about every minute, every day.

These are our non-negotiables in our reading and writing workshop:

Students read for 10 minutes every day in class.  The only way for them to build a reading habit outside of school is to give them time inside of school to enjoy their books.  This semester our 24 freshmen read a total of 25, 905 pages and 113 books in 18 weeks.  We couldn’t have had those numbers without choice and time in class to read.

Confer with students all the time.  Sometimes this looks like a formal conference, sometimes it is a quick check in while they are reading or as they come into class, sometimes it is a quick book talk or book tasting while others are reading, and sometimes the students come read aloud to us. **The only day we don’t confer with students is on the first day of the week.  We want students to read the full 10 minutes so they can set their weekly reading goal and mark it on their weekly reading log.

Be intentional in your lesson planning.  Every lesson we teach, we connect back to our standards and we look to build on those skills over the course of the semester. We don’t just use mentor texts because “we have done it in the past.” We think about our students and what will engage them in the learning.  Each mentor text and the expectation of what students should do with that text gets more difficult as the course progresses.

Don’t try a  lesson with students that you haven’t tried yourself.  This helped us learn early on if the mentor text was the right text for what we wanted students to do.  If we couldn’t do what we expected students to do, then we had to find a new mentor text.

Balance between reading and writing mini lessons.  With only 50 minutes, we no longer have the luxury of reading a long mentor text and then writing about it during our class.  So now we balance our time and take 3-4 days to teach, practice, and assess reading standards and then move to writing standards.  The writing process does take more time, so beware that if you aren’t intentional about incorporating specific reading mini lessons into your class, you will become a writing course. (We learned this the hard way.)

Pull excerpts from books to use as mentor texts.  These are great book talks without actually formally doing this in class.  This semester our students read chunks from…

    1. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. SchmidtScreen Shot 2019-12-23 at 5.06.26 PM
    2. Butter by Erin Jade Lange
    3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    4. Booked by Kwame Alexander
    5. How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon
    6. A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Give students time to work in class AND time to talk to one another while working in class.  Students need time to process the mini lessons we are teaching them, and apply them to their work.  Most of the time the processing requires them to talk through what they have learned. Our students sit in pods and are encouraged to share their work with one another.  They give each other feedback and discuss their questions together.

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 5.12.43 PM

We expect a lot from our students.  They work hard for those 50 minutes and it can be draining on us as teachers, but our students have responded to the structure and are growing as readers and writers.

How do you make workshop work in the time you have to teach English?  What are your non-negotiables that I may have missed?

Melissa Sethna is enjoying every minute of the 50 minutes a day she gets to spend with high school freshmen. When she isn’t teaching, planning or grading, Melissa can be found planning professional development for staff and reading YA books.  Her favorite YA book this month was Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg and her favorite professional books were White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and If You Can’t Manage Them, You Can’t Teach Them by Kim Campbell.





Playing with Parts of Speech by: Tosh McGaughy

This past week, I began reading Martin Brandt’s new book about grammar, Between the Commas. His ideas about the “pillars of sentence instruction” made me think about meaningful and effective instruction for the building blocks of sentences, the parts of speech, and how I taught them to students.

I thought about all the different ways that I tried to teach these functions to my students through sentence composing (thank you, Killgallon), sentence sense (thank you, Charlene Tess), and my own student-sample mentor text work. Mere labeling and defining was never successful with my students, and I disliked spending much of my precious workshop time direct-teaching parts of speech. But, I also couldn’t get my students to grow as writers if we did not have a common language to discuss how their words were forming meaning and then how they could make craft choices with the selection and position of their words in sentences. 

As a seventh grade teacher, I knew that anything effective with thirteen-year-olds had to be repeated… often. For the fundamentals, they needed to revisit and reapply those concepts at least six times during the year to actually “get” them. Robert Marzano’s ideas about vocabulary acquisition pushed me to think about the role of “play” in the recursive vocabulary work I needed my students to do. After lots of trial and error, I came upon two ideas that easily wove into our Readers/Writers Workshop classroom and gave us opportunities to make connections to the terms we needed to use as writers and to reflect and revise our understandings of the terms throughout the year. 

Idea #1: Parts of Speech Personality Test

My social media savvy teens loved taking online personality tests, so I started the year with one of my own. The students were given eight different descriptors and they read them, discussed with friends, and then chose the descriptor that they most closely identified with. They had to write a super short rationale for why they felt the descriptor described them. I kept the labels a secret until the big reveal, when I would have each of the 8 descriptor categories come to the front of the room for a group photo and the part of speech that matched their descriptor. They would pose as a group with a large poster of the part of speech, and I would make the photos into posters for the walls.

The funny thing that happened in every class was how the students began calling each other by the categories. “Man, you are being such a verb. Take a walk and settle down.” Or, “Sarah is the best to have in a group because she is such a conjunction. She always helps everyone bring their ideas together.” Basically, they began to apply the functions of the parts of speech to actual people, and those connections and discussions helped solidify their understandings of the terms enough for us to be able to dive deeper into sentence work during our writing conferences, without having to do a bunch of “circle-the-noun-and-underline-the-verb” work in their papers. 

At different points in the year, students got to revisit the descriptors and decide if they had changed at all. (If you know middle schoolers, they are an ever-changing group of humans, so the changes and the rationales for the changes were some rather enlightening short writing pieces.) Also, when I needed a quick grouping, I could also ask them to “get with someone who is a different part of speech” or “get together with someone who is the same part of speech”. It enabled us to discuss the parts of speech during the workshop in a way that was rooted in function, but that also gave us an organic way to keep the terms on the tips of our tongues. (And, it eventually became like a “sorting hat” when new students arrived. The class would eagerly await for the newbie to choose a descriptor and then that group would welcome their newest member. Yes, the interjections were always the loudest.)

Idea #2: Parts of Speech Physical Metaphors

Once a six-weeks, writing groups would have a quick warm-up creating metaphors for the parts of speech. Every group would be given an identical set of objects. (In the beginning, I gave exactly 8 objects per group, but to make it more challenging, I would do 10 objects by the end of the year so they had more choices and could add parts of speech they had learned recently.) The groups would have a parts of speech reference (one-pager with the definitions and examples) and a stack of different student-focused grammar and style guides that they would then use as they created their metaphors from the provided objects. As they agreed on a metaphor, one group member would write out the group’s reason that the part of speech was that object. All groups would share out, and the class would agree on the “best” metaphors. By the end of the year, students would begin to bring in their own “sets” of random objects for us to use for this activity, and they enjoyed bringing very weird things to spark discussions as they discussed the best metaphors. 

Both of these activities were quick ways for my students to have conversations about terms that I needed them to understand on a deep level. Making them discussion points rather than paper-based “progress checks” succeeded in adding them to my students’ academic vocabulary in an open-ended and formative way. And, for the record, I am very much an adverb.

  • Sentence Composing for Middle School by Donald Killgallon, 1997.
  • Between the Commas by Martin Brandt, Heinemann, 2020.
  • Simple Steps to Sentence Sense by Charlene Tess, Kindle version, 2019.
  • Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools by Robert Marzano, ASCD, 2004.

Finding A Better Recommendation Letter Approach by Mark Nepper

To Whom It May Concern:

It gives me great pleasure to recommend Ethan for admission to your institution. Ethan enrolled in three of my classes through his high school career. He is a student who has achieved academic success and possesses great potential. He has inspired me and students in class with his work ethic, his writing ability and his thoughtful commentary. You will be pleased to admit him to your upcoming class.

Blah, Blah, Blah. That induces as much boredom reading it as it did writing it. But my college recommendation letters often read like that. What am I doing? I find myself wondering about the entire recommendation letter process.

By the time I let the computer cool down, I will have written 40+ recommendation letters this application season. Interestingly, it occurs that these letters actually represent a form of summative assessment. Though the students tend not to see them as such, these really afford the teacher the opportunity to give summative assessments of their students that are not in any way connected to points, grades and all the other elements of assessment.

I typically don’t share the letter with students. However, if I truly do value it as a summative assessment, then it seems I should share it with them. I should use it to provide teachable insights with the students and let them know this is how I see them not only as a students, but also as people. The comments and observations in the letters represent their strengths.

In the Greater Madison Writing Project we promote the C3WP (College Career Community Writers Program) protocols of argument writing to our project members. One of the elements that always stands out focuses on strengths in the students’ writing. So often in assessment we look at what doesn’t appear, or weaknesses. We get locked in to the deficit framework, sometimes to the neglect of the good. The National Writing Project rubric, though, suggests instead that teachers approach assessment from a point of strengths as opposed to weaknesses. We can learn and grow as much and likely more from emphasis on what we do well than a laser focus on what we have done less well.

When I write a letter of recommendation, I try to present insights into the ability of the student and important qualities of character. With thoughtful contemplation, this recommendation letter could become a clearer snapshot of the student’s abilities and work in my class than numbers on a page.

As I get excited about the possibilities of writing a letter not just for my students, but a letter to my students, I stop cold. I often have wondered about the actual, true importance of the letter in the student’s application.. And does it really matter? Many of my colleagues have come to believe it doesn’t. They put as little actual effort into the letter as possible. They believe admissions officers likely glance at the letter in search of red flags. So then I wonder if writing this kind of letter enhances admission chances. It may not. It will definitely take more time to write. If I choose to write a true reflection of the total student, I would want it to be more than just a writing exercise.

I like so much better the idea of writing a letter to my student, rather than a letter to some anonymous admissions officer, who is skimming through lines of type, eyes bleary, keeping a close count on their daily numbers of applications read and scored.

So Dear Ethan, or Dear Nana, Dear Shamyon, Dear Naia, Dear Eva, Dear Hannah, Dear Edwin, Dear All: This is my assessment of you. Let me tell you first of all, what a privilege it has been to teach you in this class and what a bright future you have ahead of you. Though I may not have taken the time to share these thoughts with you in class, I want you to know I always appreciated you and all that you did. Not only are you a thoughtful student, you are a fine and wonderful person. You should always know and believe that about yourself.

I would have loved to receive a letter like that from a teacher.

All right. I’m committed to the idea.

This is what my recommendation letters will look like:

To Whom It May Concern:

Dear Ethan,

While your friends socialized loudly before school, you leaned against a locker, studying a textbook on robotics. We don’t offer courses in Robotics, but you want to learn as much as possible to become a more effective leader of your robotics team. That is so you. You commit. Wholly. Completely. You stand out as one of those students who possesses this insatiable intellectual curiosity. You strive to constantly learn and grow, and what you want to learn crosses all spectrums of knowledge. You just want to know as much as possible. You have said you only get one opportunity to live your life. You might as well get as much out of it as you can. Everybody should adopt your philosophy on living. Interestingly, I wouldn’t classify you as a bookworm or a drudge, though. You possess a vast friend base. You thrive in social interactions with friends or teammates, whether they are swimming teammates or members of the robotics team. You draw people to you. Your laughter lights up a room. Your future looks so bright. It’s time for you to go out into the world and get after it.


Mark Nepper

Mark Nepper teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and works with high schoolers as well as practicing teachers. While he has been teaching for over 30 years, he is not quite ready to retire.

How To Break Up With Your Phone

I have told every student I know about How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. I’ve also told my friends, family, and actual strangers in the grocery store. Today, I want to tell you about this book.

Price, a health and science journalist, began writing this book only after she felt compelled to break up with her own phone (she writes about this moment with poignancy here).

As I write this, twenty teens are in front of me in a study hall. Of them, ten are studying or working on projects for another class. Three are gossiping. The other seven have their heads bent, phones in hand, screens scrolling. When I ask students what they do on their phones, they tell me–Instagram, YouTube, games. Passive apps that require no interaction and which don’t provide much “content” for absorption.

When pressed further, one student told me she was a little shocked to realize she’d never thought about what it was she actually did on her phone–it was just a reflex.

Too many of us do the same thing. I worry about the impacts of this habit on our society in terms of interpersonal interaction (read Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle or The Shallows by Nicholas Carr if you’re as fascinated with this topic as I am), but I also worry about it as a teacher of readers and writers.

A passage from Price’s chapter on attention span gets to the heart of digital vs. print reading:

If you’ve noticed that reading a book or printed newspaper doesn’t feel the same as reading the same material on your phone or computer, you’re not crazy. It’s not the same.

When we read a book or the paper, most of the distractions we encounter are external… This leaves our brains with plenty of available bandwidth to think about and absorb what we’re reading. …

But when we read on a phone or computer, links and ads are everywhere. …when mental fatigue causes us to give in to our brains’ natural preference for distraction…we reinforce the same mental circuits that made it hard to sustain our focus to begin with. We get better at not staying focused.

How to Break Up With Your Phone, pp. 56-58

The implications of this are massive. As more and more English departments shift to online textbooks, and as more and more of our students have a phone in their pocket, it becomes much more difficult to sustain attention to anything, let alone the habit of deep reading. A generation of distracted, solitary young people is being born before my eyes.

I fully look forward to a generation of young people who chooses to reject the addictive lure of mindless technology use–which, perhaps, I can help speed along by throwing this book at every teen I see–but until then, I’ll keep sharing what I’ve learned from this book with everyone I know in an effort to get them to break up with their phones.

Shana Karnes is working on breaking up with her own phone by making more frequent trips to her local library in Madison, Wisconsin. Reading print books before bed and in spare moments leaves her feeling more relaxed and intellectually productive at the end of a busy day filled with teens and her two small children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Importance of Story: Our NaNoWriMo Conclusion by Sarah Krajewski

On November 30th, the last day of National Novel Writing Month, I decided to sit down and reflect on how it went. As a teacher participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time, I was disappointed that I didn’t meet my word count goal. I didn’t even come close! And during NCTE 2019, I didn’t write everyday like I hoped to. At the same time, I was proud of how much I did write. I had never written a story of that length before. I never spent so much time planning a story out, and falling in love with my characters, scenes, and their purpose. Most of all, I learned so much about story writing and just being a writer. Yes, I am a writer.

A slides from A.S. King’s NCTE 2019 presentation called “Emotion at the Center: Narrative, Vulnerability, and Community in the English Classroom.”

As I walked back into school on December 2nd, I expected to hear a lot of students sharing they were thankful November was over, but I also had hope that many had the same experience I did. Sure enough, the vast majority of my seniors loved their stories, and many of them now want to continue writing into December. Others shared they were so proud that they made time to write outside of class. (I was not hearing that in the beginning of November!) So, what changed?

My notes from a NCTE 2019 presentation by Kylene Beers, Lester Laminack, Ernest Morrell, and Gholdy Muhammed called “The Joy and Power of Story: Why Raising and Teaching Readers, Storytellers, and Writers Will Change the World.”

My students started seeing themselves as writers. Most of them did not need (or want) my reminders to write. By the end of the month, I was receiving messages from them sharing how proud they were when they wrote. Writing had become a habit, and for many of them, therapeutic. Students fell in love with their characters and stories, and shared them with family and peers. I couldn’t be more proud.

Comments from my seniors as they reflected on their NaNoWriMo experience:

” I have learned to space out my time, and not cram everything together. Taking my time with things will allow the end result to be much more developed and thought out.” – Shymaa

“I am most proud of my progress within the second half of the NaNoWriMo month because I genuinely wanted to write and that is a big step for me.” – Kathleen

“I kind of see the similarities in how I do dialogue to how Jason Reynolds does his dialogue which shows improvement from the last time I tried to write a story…I feel like there’s a lot to pick up from how someone moves, looks, stands or the actions they do in real life and in a novel.” – Torien

“…I can say I am very proud of what I’ve wrote and how much I wrote. I never would have though of myself wanting to write a story of my own but it was something I did enjoy.” – Kiara

“I have plans for the story, to get more done with it. In the end it was just the want, the want is the important part of writing. I learned as a writer if I put my mind to it I can get it done.” – Anonymous

“…maybe there’s a kid who’s going through some stuff, and doesn’t have anywhere to turn to, to vent or talk. Then they go through NaNoWriMo and find the perfect place where they can take all these emotions and put them into something to make them feel  better. It’s definitely a fun and new experience, and I’m glad I got to experience it.” – Kylie

“I’m proud of the relationship that I’ve developed with the two main characters I have…this whole unit made me feel more confident in my writing even though it was a big challenge for me.” – Marisa

“…through this process, I have discovered that I genuinely enjoy writing. It’s a fantastic way to unwind at the end of the day, or to get something off my mind if I need to.” – Ashton

“I learned that when I put time and dedication into writing, I can really write something special.” – Hassan

After looking over their rationales, revisions, and reflections–and wiping away many tears–I know NaNoWriMo will be a staple in my classroom for years to come. My students and I entered nervous and self-conscious about our story-writing abilities, and we came out writers. Now that’s a win in my book.

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

Workshop-izing Our Writing Instruction

“We didn’t have to spoon feed them!” The teacher beamed as we read the student writing hanging in the hallway.

Two months ago, the experience had been a little different. It was time for informational writing and students researched spiders. With class input, teachers wrote the spider report on chart paper. When it was time for students to write, 95% of them copied the report the teacher had written.

We realized that this kind of writing wasn’t honoring the students and all they know how to do.

Where we started

In my role as a literacy coach, I support teachers in lots of ways. This year one district is in the first year of implementing a writing workshop curriculum (after piloting and lots of teacher input, they decided on the Collaborative Classroom Being a Writer).

Some teachers, though, feel like this new curriculum takes away a chance to do “fun” writing that they enjoyed in the past. So we face the question of how to support students in transferring the rich skills they’re learning in workshop to other tasks. In other words, how could we take the things they’d done in the past and workshop-ize them?

We started by naming what students could do as writers, and then thinking about the implications:

Screen Shot 2019-12-09 at 7.52.01 PM



Teachers tried again with another informational writing unit. We began by showing students an image as a provocation:

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We used the See/Think/Wonder protocol to get the conversation going, a strategy I first learned from Tanny McGregor. First, we asked students to list the things they see in the image. After discussion, we then asked them to talk about what they think is happening in this image. This step encourages students to make inferences. After discussing our predictions, we then explained the origin of the image (this one is a photograph of monarchs migrating).

Then we moved to the Wonder step. Here we ask students to capture all the questions they have about this topic. From there, we might go in a few directions:

  • give students a set amount of time to find as many answers to as many questions (the shorter the better — we want students to see how much they can learn in a short time).
  • provide students with a shared text and ask them to annotate the text every time they find answers to their questions.
  • ask students to trade questions with a classmate and find the answers.

Once students built their schema around the topic, we stopped and talked about what they could do next as writers. We showed them several ways that writers write about information:

Students noticed that writers can use pictures and labels, or write a story, or even have a fact-based informational paragraph. And if writers did that, then they can too. Now students were ready to write. And they soared.

They wrote stories and poems and fact-based writing. One student wrote an opinion. Another wrote a story with characters. The best part was that we saw them transferring skills from other writing units to this one.


This writer shows evidence of craft through repetition and using capitals to show emotion.


What does this have to do with secondary students?

You may have noticed by now that the writers I’ve been talking about are first graders. Why would I be sharing what first grade teachers are doing on a blog that’s meant for secondary teachers? Because, as I’ve written about before, I think secondary teachers have much to learn from what students are doing in elementary school.

Can our middle and high school students do this too? I’d argue that yes, those writers can make these same kinds of moves. What would happen if instead of giving our older writers graphic organizers and fill-in-the-blank essay templates, we instead give them a chance to write in ways that stretch them?

Let’s workshop-ize the writing that’s happening in all our classrooms. Let’s make space for all the writers to soar.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. You can follow her on Twitter @WordNerd

Dinner Table Book Talks

“Never underestimate the power of a great book in the hands of a teacher who knows how to use it.”

This quote from Seven L. Layne in Igniting a Passion for Reading is one in which I often quote. I believe books have power and we, as teachers, have a great responsibility to transfer reading energy by what we do with them. But many times, our students hold that power too.

Many teachers give book talks in their classrooms, which are a fun way to get kids reading and buzzing about books. I have found that when teachers create a short presentation about a book they have read, students are more apt to pick that book up and read it themselves.

I like to eventually give students the opportunity to give book talks to their peers, but before I hand this responsibility off to them, preparation and teaching need to be done.

In the book, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, she talks about a time she and her husband sat around the dining room table with some friends and “gossiped by candlelight” about a book.  She compares her dining room table to a literate environment where people around it talk about literacy.  She states “We don’t need assignments, lesson plans, lists, teacher’s manual, or handbooks.  We need only another literate person.”

After reading this, I began to wonder how I could bring that dining room table environment to my own classroom? How could I use the low-risk environment of sitting around a dinner table to encourage my kids to have these discussions about books?

Enter dinner table book talks.

plate 6

Students are given a paper plate (non-coated works best). Some years I have given them no instructions but to think about a book they have loved this year and create a prop to help them talk about the book. Other times, I have given them specific requirements such as title, author, passage, summary, or a blurb. No matter what the directions were, they have enjoyed being creative with their plates.

I tell them they will be doing book talks, but I do not tell them what this will entail. The room is set up like tables with tablecloths and some type of centerpiece. They take their plates and find a seat at a table. Each student uses their plate to help them give their first talk. After some time has passed, they get up and mingle, find a new table, and give another talk. We continue to mingle until they have given 3-4 talks.

These first book talks are unpolished and imperfect, but they get the conversations going in a low-risk environment of sitting around the dinner table with their friends. This space becomes a place where they can share the books they have read without the anxiety of talking in front of the whole class.

This activity is the perfect way to add a little “art” to English language arts, boost student confidence, and hand over the power to students while placing book talks at the head of the table!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana and gave this perfect-for-a-sub assignment while she attended NCTE in Baltimore.

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