Tag Archives: #NCTE14 Readers Writers Workshop

Conferring: On the Lookout for Gifts

“I think parents should read this book — these kinds of books, too,” Monica said as we chatted about the book she just finished, Impulse by Ellen Hopkins. “They need to know what we go through and how we think about things. It would help so much.”

I listened as she shared her feelings. She needed me to hear her disappointment at the ending. The characters mattered to her, so I knew they needed to matter to me.

The relationship between student and teacher changed in that moment. We gave each other a gift in that brief conversation about a book.

When we consider our conferring moments with students, do we give enough gifts? Do we allow our students to?

Think about the origin of confer:  Latin conferre to bring together, from com- + ferre to carry.

At the end of that three-minute conference with Monica, I carried a bit of the burden she had on her heart, and she carried the knowledge that one more adult cares about what she thinks. A conversation about a book brought us together.

I love that.

At NCTE I asked a room of teachers what part of their workshop classroom they struggle with the most. They all said student conferences.

Finding the time, being consistent, knowing how to prod students into thinking, allowing students to do most of the talking —  these concerns all emerged as trouble spots that we’d like to overcome.

In a perfect classroom with perfect students it would be easy. What’s the big deal? Just talk to your students. Yeah, right.

I asked one colleague how she conducts her reading conferences. She replied quickly, “Oh, I don’t do those. I cannot talk to one kid without the other 35 talking.”

Yes, that can be a problem.

I don’t think we stop trying though.

One-on-one conversations with students create the heart of my workshop classroom. Our relationships grow and change as we gift one another with ideas and information. We learn and change together as individuals who are trying to make sense of our world. Regular conversations make this happen.

I’m reminded of a line I boxed in bold when reading Choice Words by Peter Johnston: “Talk is the central tool of their trade.” Their meaning teachers who create environments wherein through language they help students “make sense of learning, literacy, life, and themselves” (4).

Talk is central

That’s what I want as I create opportunities to confer with the students in my classroom. I want to help my students make sense of all it:  what happens in the classroom, what they read in books, what they’ll face in the future, and what they see in themselves. That’s a tall order, and the only way I know how to do it is to talk to more of my kids more often.

My burning question now circles on student conferences. How can I improve the precious moments of time I have with each of my students?

I am paying a lot more attention to the gifts we give as we converse with one another.

What about you? What are your ideas, concerns, questions about student conferences?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

#NCTE14 J.44 A Reader’s Workshop Starter Kit to Jumpstart the Process

Erika, Amy, Shana, and I are presenting at the NCTE conference today at 2:45pm! Penny Kittle is our Chair, so please join us to discuss the landscape of workshop. We are session J.44.

Think back to your first day of teaching on your first year of teaching. What were you feeling? Happy, nervous, excited, afraid?IMG_1776 Fear. Fear was the first thing I experienced when I stood in my classroom on the first day of school. That and enthusiasm, excitement, eagerness, and hope, but ultimately, I was afraid, knee shaking, stomach churning nervous as I stood in front of my new class. Fear comes with the unknown, which is why my nerves of being a new teacher were compounded by my entry into the workshop model. The concept of the workshop model is simple, yet it’s a structure that so few of us grew up with. In turn, as I transitioned my classroom, I found my nerves could be categorized into the fear of breaking tradition, the fear of parents, the fear of students not reading, and the fear of proving rigor. I was not alone though. Interns and teachers who were new to workshop model faced many of the same fears. In turn, I created a reader’s workshop starter kit to provide my colleagues with concrete documents that helped them establish the workshop model in their classroom. The starter kit includes the following documents:

  • Elements of a Reading Workshop by Penny Kittle
  • Reading Letter for parents
  • Calculating Reading Rates & Reading Rates Log Sheet
  • Weekly Reading Recording Sheet
  • Excel Sheet Weekly Reading Recording Sheet
  • Book Conference Log
  • Questions to Ask While Conferencing
  • Book Talk Outline
  • Resources for Helping Students to Find New Books

Whether you are a new teacher or simply new to the reader’s workshop, I hope this starter kit will make your journey a bit easier. Enjoy every step and savor even the smallest successes. If you have any questions or comments about starter kit, please feel free to contact me at Jackie.catcher@gmail.com.

Click Here to Download the Reader’s Workshop Starter Kit

#NCTE14 J.44 Nonnegotiables Across the Landscape of Workshop

Jackie, Erika, Amy and I are excited to present at NCTE in Washington, D.C. on Saturday at 2:45 pm. Penny Kittle is our Chair. We are session J.44. Join us!

“I am the sum of my mentors,” writes Meenoo Rami in Thrive.  As a student at Miami University in 2005, I had no idea how fortunate I was to have Tom Romano as one of my mentors.  As a leader in educational writing, a teacher with his thumb on the pulse of research, and the giant who first introduced me to NCTE, Romano has always been my single biggest mentor.

As I thought for months about what I wanted to share with teachers regarding the readers-writers workshop at NCTE, I was reminded of an assignment I’d done in Romano’s class–to find the “red thread” of my teaching…my nonnegotiables regarding our profession.  I dug for it in the depths of my hard drive.

Re-reading it, I laughed as I always do at my older writing, but then I smiled.  Many of my nonnegotiables remain unchanged: sustained silent reading.  Craft informed by research.  Authenticity.  Engagement is central.  Model, model, model.

Tom Romano obviously did a damn good job as a mentor.

IMG_5031Those simple principles–plus my genuine passion for reading, and writing, and the joy I believe they can bring everyone–inform my practice day in and day out.  They are supported by the research of Penny Kittle, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Newkirk, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Linda Rief, and more.  I am the sum of those mentors, and in this season of giving thanks, I’m so grateful that I am.  My students have found incredible success because I stand on the shoulders of those giants, and I can’t wait to share their stories at our session in Washington, D.C.

#NCTE14 J.44 The Landscape of Workshop in AP English

Shana, Jackie, Erika, and I will be presenting at NCTE in Washington, D.C. on Saturday at 2:45 pm. Penny Kittle is our Chair. We are session J.44. Please, come and join the conversation.

Readers and Writers Workshop was a mystery to me for a while, literally. I didn’t even know about it. I’m still puzzled that I made it through my teacher education program without learning about it.

My first three years of teaching, I pretty much taught the same way I was taught in high school. I chose the books we read. I chose the topics students wrote about. I was queen of my classroom, and I decreed that my preAP freshmen would read Dickens. They hated it. No, that’s not right. They hated trying to read it. So they didn’t. Gratefully, at least a few of my first-year students don’t hold it against me. We got together this summer for dinner, and Cara and Marcus relieved my growing guilt.

When I finally came to understand how Workshop could revamp my instruction, that guilt grew. I wasted so much time. I could have done so much more to help my students become readers and writers.

I am different now.

My goal as an educator is to foster the literacy skills in my students that will provide them with the confidence and the capability to contribute to our community and our world.

A week ago I sat in a department meeting and listened as the department manager explained the direction our district is moving in terms of English instruction:  Readers and Writers Workshop. Skills-based instruction. Exactly the instruction I believe in. Exactly the instruction I try to provide my students every day.

I sat there stumped when one veteran teacher began to fidget. His face turned red. His hands twitched on the desk. Finally, he spoke up when the conversation turned to assessments and the need for skills-based exams to match skills-based teaching, not exams based on the content in books read (or not read) in class.

“What’s the point then? We might as well not even call it an English class then,” he said, and several other heads nodded.


Because you are being asked to foster a love of reading in your students, allow them choice in reading materials, encourage them to write about their reading, model the life of a reader, and do something similar in the way of writing instruction, you think that is not an English class?

I remembered a conversation  I had with someone struggling with letting go of only reading classic novels with their students. I asked what her number one question was. She said, “Equity. Shouldn’t our students be reading the same timeless texts as so many students do in wealthier areas?”

Shouldn’t the equity be in the literacy skills our students possess more than the books they have read?

With the College Board and school districts and schools promoting more and more students take advantage of Open Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, in my experience, many of those students do not have the prerequisite skills to be successful in an advanced English class. Many of the students I have this year have not passed their state-mandated English I and English II test, and now they are expecting to be successful in a college-level course. I am all for differentiation, but it gets difficult when students are on so many levels, struggling to the exceptionally talented gifted student.

my classroom

Readers and Writers Workshop has helped solve a lot of my challenge. I teach the reader not the reading. I teach the writer not the writing. And every student is different.

So many students are hurting, and isn’t it part of our job as teachers of teens to help them learn about what it means to be human:  empathetic, kind, compassionate, intelligent, courageous? All the characteristics we learn from the best protagonists in the best literature. That is what I tell my students:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human in a world that would like us to forget. Books in hand make us slow down, quiet our minds, embrace moments of stillness — something we so badly need in this social-media, speed-of-light world.

Read this entry in a student’s notebook. She gave me permission to share. It’s raw and frightening.

We Chris notebookwere brainstorming topics for a narrative we’ll write soon. I asked students to think about their lives and write to the question

“What if ______?”

Can you even imagine?

Every day students face challenges, fears, and troubles that no child should have to face. I believe teachers can be healers. We can be healers when we value the student more than our content. When we embrace the individual and focus on her needs, academically and emotionally.

Three of my students cried as they told me of their worries before second period was over on Friday. I am honored that they trust me.

Community matters.

Conferences matter.

Mentor texts and Modeling matter.

Choice matters.

TIME matters.

All students, advanced or otherwise, need teachers who are willing to let them make choices that lead to profound learning, relieving their worry sure helps that happen.

Watch this clip of some of my students sharing what they like about our Readers and Writers Workshop instruction:

And here’s my slide presentation for NCTE. I will only talk about a tad of what I wrote on this post there. I hope that if you are in Washington, D.C. you will come to our session. And if you are not, join the conversation on Twitter beginning on Saturday at 2:45. #NCTE14

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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