Tag Archives: Professional Learning Community

Guest Post: Changing the Reading Culture in Our School One Book at a Time

Both Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have transformed my thinking as a high school literacy coach.  As a former elementary school teacher, I had always used reading/writing workshop, literature circles, and choice in my classroom.  When I transitioned to being a reading specialist/literacy coach in a high school, I really struggled with the whole class novel approach.  It didn’t work for me with the little ones and I saw more and more of my students struggle with it at the high school level.  Attending workshops offered by Gallagher and Kittle, along with reading everything they have written has given me the reassurance and the research that this approach CAN work in a high school.  Here is what has happened at my high school in just six months:


More and more teachers are trying it…

It all starts with one teacher and the support of a department chair.  Last spring after sharing what I learned at Penny Kittle’s Book Love workshop, one teacher decided to drop everything he has been doing in English and take on the “Book Love” approach.  He had so much success getting students to actually read books and improve their writing that two other teachers decided to jump in second term and teach English through choice and mentor texts.  The results were astounding. Word spread at lunch and in our PLCs – students were engaged and excited to come to English class.  Then at the beginning of term three, we had four more teachers jump in.  I am not sure if it was the “positive peer pressure” or hearing about students’ engagement, but little by little teachers have been asking about how to structure their classes in a way to make this work.


Teachers are reading more and talking about books…

At times during lunch teachers used to vent about the struggles they had motivating students to complete the reading from the previous evening, or how students bombed the reading check, but now the conversations are about books. We are talking about what we are reading, what our students are reading, what mentor texts we are using, and what changes we see in our classrooms.

Thanks to one teacher’s organization and determination, staff members are swapping rooms once a week and book-talking to students that they don’t teach.  The other day the principal’s secretary came in to our freshman class and book talked The DaVinci Code.  After she left, I saw that several students had added that book to their to-read list.

None of this would even be possible if our teachers weren’t willing to read new books.  Teachers are setting their own reading goals, keeping to-read lists, creating book trailers, etc.  For the past two years we have had “I am Reading” posters outside of our classroom doors, but this is the first year teachers are updating their posters more often and students are noticing the books.


Our library is busier than ever before…

We have a beautiful library that has a lot of books that just didn’t get checked out.  This year that has changed.  Last year from August until the end of February, only 4821 books were checked out and 63 books were placed on hold.  This year in the same time period 7333 books have been checked out and 137 books were placed on hold.  That is over 2500 more books being checked out and 74 more books being asked to be held.  Why the change?  Student choice!

Students now come to the library with a purpose.  They have a to-read list (some that are pages long) and if all the books they want are checked out, they can give us a good idea of what they want to read next.  As one of our English teachers told me, “They are thoughtful about what they are looking for if they go to the library.”  He doesn’t worry anymore about students going up to the library trying to “leave class” or “waste time.” Another teacher shared how his students “know their favorite authors and/or recognize titles that have been book-talked.”  They are talking to each other about books and recommending new titles to each other.  They are even checking out 2-3 books at a time.

Our library staff is also trying hard to find ways to get books in our students hands.  Our librarian has shared ARCs with classes and spends time in the classrooms promoting tons of books – the new ones and some of the oldies but goodies that haven’t been checked out in a while. The staff has started creating competitions each month to encourage students to read (Abe Lincoln Award voting, March Madness book bracket challenge, etc) new books.  The library is no longer just a place for students to come and get homework done.


Students are reading….

They really are reading and not just the “YA” books that naysayers worry about.  Prior to taking this approach, students came into classes either as students who read all the time (1-2), students who only read assigned books, students who fake read assigned books, and students who didn’t even try fake reading the assigned books.  As one teacher pointed out to me, “As soon as choice became an option, reading, for the vast majority of the students, became fun again!”  They began forming a reading habit that had been lost so long ago.

The issue is no longer trying to get students to read anything. They are reading more consistently than ever before.   Instead of dealing with them reading zero pages in a week, teachers are finding ways to increase student stamina from 50 to 150 pages in a week. That in itself is a huge success.  Students come to class early and start reading their books.  They can even be found reading as they walk down the halls. One boy almost knocked over an upperclassman in his attempt to finish the chapter of his book.  Once a week I co-teach in a freshman English class.  Of those twenty-one students, I think only two students have finished three books.  The rest have read an average of six books in nine weeks (snow days and all). Instead of worrying how to encourage our students to read common texts and pass the reading checks, the challenge is having enough books that interest all of our readers.

Our students ARE challenging themselves – reading more, picking nonfiction, moving up the reading ladder, and trying new genres based on what others have recommended to them. I had one boy in my homeroom start with Hatchet by Gary Paulsen in January and stretched and read Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden for book two.  It was definitely challenging for him, but he didn’t give up on it and was so proud when he finished it.  Other teachers are finding the same thing – students are willingly picking up books from Fitzgerald or Vonnegut, or Hemingway and are able to have real conversations about these books from their perspectives. Students are talking about books with each other AND coming up to teachers and discussing books with them. Because of the location of my office (the library), I tend to do book talks quite often when kids come upstairs and are looking for something new to read.  One of my favorite memories from this winter was a girl who had seen my Goodreads list and made her to-read list off of some of my favorites.  After she finished To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, she asked her teacher if she could come find me and talk with me about it.  She had loved it so much and wanted to thank me for introducing her to that book.These students aren’t afraid of looking smart or nerdy – they are proud.


The culture is changing…

Students are now immersed in books wherever they turn.  Between our March Madness Book Bracket challenge, I am Reading posters, Classroom Reading Trees, the Health class independent reading project, random teacher book-talks, etc. students are reading more than ever before.

Melissa Sethna @msethna23 is a high school literacy coach in Mundelein, IL. She has always had a passion for books, technology, and working with adults. In her free time, she loves to read.  She’s a strong believer in book choice and sharing her joy of literature with her family and students. She says, “I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without my reading heroes: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Donalyn Miller — who inspire me to take risks, and I try to encourage others to do the same.”

The Modern PLC

Sometimes things stay with you. In December I got this message:

I have been working with three teachers this fall who have transformed their classrooms (all ranging from freshman level to AP Lit and AP Lang) from the traditional class to a readers/writers workshop approach.  Your blog posts always show up in my email box at the exact right time when they are in need of inspiration to keep going and figure out what to do in their classes.  They realized very quickly how fast they were able to get through “old curriculum” when they dropped the class novel approach and were then scrambling to find new and exciting mentor texts, books to share, and additional writing ideas. Their students have read thousands of pages and enormous amounts of books which never happened in their classes before.  Students were writing them thank you letters for inspiring them to become true readers and writers.  Penny Kittle’s books got them started on this path, but your real life teacher posts have helped them validate what they are doing.  So… thank you and keep those posts coming.  They are making a difference in our classrooms.

I could write a book about the value in that feedback (Probably will). Feedback should make writers want to write more. That is exactly what Melissa Sethna’s kind words did for me and my friends here at TTT.

Her simple thanks also made us want to follow her work, support her even more, watch how she helps other teachers. We’ve become colleagues with a united purpose. We’ve become friends.

And that is the beauty of the modern PLC.

A literacy specialist in Mundelein, IL sends a thank you to a teacher/blogger in Lewisville, TX, which makes the teacher/blogger want to become a better teacher so she becomes a better writer so she writes more inspiring and instructional blog posts for other teachers and so on.

Teachers supporting one another as we do our best to do right by the children that we teach. As ELA teachers the best way we know how to do that is through balanced literacy practices in readers and writers workshop.

That’s the foundation for the Three Teachers Talk blog, which started as three friends committing to stay in touch by sharing our work through our writing. We are four teachers now — writing, sharing, and growing. And participating in a Professional Learning Community that’s been redefined, refocused, and restructured by connected educators around the globe who are just like us.

Thank you, readers, for being part of the best PLC on the planet.


Note: Melissa Sethna posts as a guest blogger here tomorrow. Her work inspires us.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Book Clubs to Move Readers is the topic of this week’s #APLangchat

I volunteered to host #APLangchat this week. My reason stemmed from these three things: 

1.  Some of the best PD I’ve experienced has come from Twitter chats.

2.  I am hit and miss when it comes to regularly engaging in chats. Being facilitator should make me show up.

3. Many of the questions left in the comments on my post a couple weeks ago, Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English, can be answered in a chat about book clubs; however, by no means do I have all the answers. I need help, too, so a discussion with my PLN is the best place to turn.

If you are available Wednesday evening at 7:00 CT, join in. You do not have to teach Advanced Placement to contribute. Every educator’s voice matters. You do have to remember to use the hashtag #APLangchat.

Here’s the plan for a finger-flying, Twitter frenzy of idea sharing on Wednesday:

Topic:  Book Clubs to Move Readers in AP English

To spark some thinking, consider these texts:

Not Reading: The 800 Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” by William Boz, English Journal (2011)

Boys and Reading” video interview with male students by Penny Kittle (2013)

Why Book Clubs Matter” English Language Teaching, University of Michigan Press

From a Classroom to a Community of Readers: The Power of Book Clubs” by Jessica Cuthbertson, Center for Teaching Quality Blog (2013)

Book Clubs: NYC Department of Education” Unit of Study

To ponder and prepare, consider these questions:

Warm Up:  What are your habits as a reader? What do you read? When do you read? Who do you talk with about the books you read? #APLangchat

Q1 MC on the exam =hard, esp for non-readers. Besides close reading activities in class, how do we move kids into complex texts? #APLangchat

Q2 Many teachers have moved to balanced literacy w/choice reading as core. How might book clubs engage this pedagogy in AP? #APLangchat

Q3 Logistically, what do book clubs look like in a class of 35? #APLangchat

Q4 What book club book choices lead to the most reading, insightful discussions, best growth in student readers? #APLangchat

Q5 What does assessment look like during and after book clubs? individual and/or collaborative assessments? #APLangchat

Q6 What else do you need to know to feel comfortable facilitating book clubs with your students? #APLangchat

7 Ways I Read for Resolutions

I’m pretty sure I started making New Year’s Resolutions in about 1976, the year I got my first notebook for Christmas. I was 12. I’m pretty sure that every list of resolutions since then had “lose weight,” and “keep closet organized” penned on the page. Thanks to my daughter and her contagious 5K-junkie attitude, in 2014 I lost a lot of the weight I’d been lugging around the past several years, but I’ve given up on the closet. (That’s what doors are for.)

This year? I hesitated even thinking about my goals. I simply did not know where to start.

With the hope of getting ideas, I turned to my Personal Learning Network, some I know personally and some online.

1. I read my online-friend Elizabeth Ellington’s “Top 10 Reading Goals of 2015” and got a tiny inkling of ideas and a little overwhelmed. Elizabeth is a sharp educator and a brilliant and prolific blogger. I learn from her often.

2.  I read this post, which I saw Sir Ken Robinson tweeted. It begins like this: “This New Year’s day I will not be trying to moderate Sancerre consumption, cut back on Nicorette gum, exercise more or aim to finish my next book by Easter. I have decided to postpone all resolutions until February 19th which according to the Chinese calendar is the ‘ Year of the Sheep.’”

“Year of the Sheep?! Hmm. More time to think of good resolutions,” I say to myself.

3. I read my colleague Erika Bogdany’s post “Cliche No More,” and it takes me to my knees. Erika writes:

“. . .every morning with the heat blasting . . . there’s an essence that is viscerally undeniable.  I walk into a space, a quiet and waiting space, that invites risk, mistakes, setbacks, and quite frankly – the undeniable ugly.  Yet, there is no judgement, discerning undertone, nor slight anticipation that today there will be no progress.

Why would I want to leave all of that in 2014?!”

The last few weeks before the break were hard. My failure rate was out the roof, and after contacting parents via email and a translator, and meeting with an assistant principal for an hour and a half, and forcing myself to leave a stack of 120+ essays on my desk at the demands of my worried husband, I began to question everything I’d accomplished in the fall. All that choice reading. All that critical writing practice. All the relationships with my students. All of it.

I’ve grown because of my challenges. My students have grown as readers and writers. Why would I leave all of that in 2014?

For some reason God wants me teaching in high poverty schools. (This article helped a few things make more sense: “What if Finland’s Great Teachers Taught in U.S. Schools“)

4.  I read at Electric Lit, one of my favorite new sites: “Writers and Editors on Their Literary Resolutions.” Read it. You’ll see why it made me feel better.

5. I read Seth’s blog: “Used to Be.” And these words resonated:

“Used to be,” is not necessarily a mark of failure or even obsolescence. It’s more often a sign of bravery and progress.

If you were brave enough to leap, who would you choose to ‘used to be’?”

I repeat to myself, “Who would you choose to ‘used to be’?”

6. I read my poet-friend Dawn Potter’s “New Year’s Letter,” and felt the burn of my own candle. Dawn reminded me of my love for words. She sent me back to The Frost Place and the hope I had last summer.

Tweet this: I can do this. I can set goals for the new year. I can push through the closet and other things that annoy and exhaust me. I can be better. Do better.

7. I read a message from my friend Whitney Kelley. She asked if I followed Poets & Writers and got their daily prompts. I do now.

Today’s poetry prompt:

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 5.57.16 PM

I pulled out a new notebook that Whitney gave me for my birthday in December. I uncapped a new pen. And I wrote.

I don’t even care that it’s not very good. Just like this new year — It is a beginning.

I’d hope for world peace but

inner peace matters more to me right now

My daughter left this morning

She’s driving to her new life 2,000 miles from mine

I want her to go

Until I don’t —  I can be selfish like that.

I hope for greater love and

out-of-my-way kindness that he needs

That I need

I hope for burning lights and blurring lines and bold declarations

Be me. Be you. Be decisive and strong.

Let’s live a little and live a lot

Seek for understanding and

Understand for seeking


I’ll meet you at the airport with the camera

Finding A Teaching Family Outside of School

“It’s funny how my closest friends live states away,” Amy said to me as we crossed the convention center’s atrium during NCTE. I agreed; our group of four, Amy, Shana, Erika, and I, might live in different parts of the US, but we share a unique bond, one that has carried me through both the highs and lows of teaching.

Teaching is an anomaly: for being such a social career, it is also quite isolating. I learned this my first Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 9.37.08 AMyear when I went from sharing a classroom during my yearlong internship to suddenly being by myself at the end of the hall. I found that while my colleagues and I would sit down for lunch everyday, we struggled to find common times to chat about our work or pedagogy outside of professional development days or staff meetings. Despite being within the same building, we’d oftentimes take to the Internet to discuss our plans and work with one another. Over the summer I would receive messages from Jenn about a fantastic new book we could incorporate into our academic English curriculum or recently I received a Pinterest pin from Kristina pointing out a fun way to teach sentence diversification.

Social media has changed the face of my professional learning network. While many of my teacher-friends are at my school, my core group doesn’t just involve those within my state anymore. I have discussed pedagogy with teachers in Canada, talked shop with friends in Washington D.C., and connected with educators across the country. Teaching is no longer the isolated occupation it once was. Over the past two years, these discussions have had a profound effect on my development as a teacher. Many teachers have helped to shape the workshop model within my classroom by being honest about their successes and struggles. My PLN has given me a place to geek out over reading, writing, and discussing literature. And ultimately, this passion online translates into my enthusiasm within the classroom.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I cannot be more thankful to my online peers as well as to Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 9.33.43 AMthose teachers who I have met at conventions and in classes. I am grateful for the relationships I have garnered via social media and e-mail. No teacher should feel alone in this occupation—there are countless resources to uplift and inspire even the most isolated. After all, teaching is an occupation composed of charismatic, committed, and loving individuals who not only see the best in their students but also search for the best in each other.

I Might Be Ready. Thanks, PLN!

I got the idea from Jennifer Fountain @jennann516 to post the covers of the books I’ve read on the door of my Fountain book doorclassroom. See how awesome hers looks?

I’ll go to my classroom this week with a new color ink cartridge and start printing book covers. It might be expensive–my printer’s kind of a wimp, but I think the more we talk about books, display books, show off books, the more likely we are to get kids to read books.

So far this summer I’ve read nine books. I have a week to finish one more to reach my summer reading goal. It’s a good start on my book-lover’s door.

I have three teaching books I’m reading, too.  I have to read them slowly and mark the pages, so I can remember the things that made me want to read them in the first place. I will let my students know I read these books, and I’ll let them know I’m writing one. We will be readers and writers learning together. Every day.

Shana classroom libraryLast spring when school was letting out, with a little help from some National Honor Society students, I finally got around to sorting and categorizing my bookshelves. I have close to 2,000 books. My daughter made me cute labels that I’ll laminate and put on my shelves this week. My friend Shana Karnes @litreader finished her library in her brand new classroom, and she’s my inspiration. My walls aren’t quite so cheery, but I hope to make my bookshelves look as inviting. Who wouldn’t want to browse here?

I “listened” in on a Twitter conversation about getting rid of the teacher’s desk to make more room in the classroom. I think that was Ms. Fountain and Mini Rench @mindi_r who bounced around the ideas, and inspired me to move some furniture. I couldn’t quite boot my desk, but I did turn it around, and I moved a table, so my personal real estate shrunk four feet. I can now wander the room, weaving between my round student tables much easier, and if I want to stop and teach the whole group, I can do it from three distinct places: front, back, and right side. The left side is loaded with bookshelves, and I just got asked if I wanted a rocking chair that will have to go there. Yeah, maybe. (I’ll take pictures soon.)

This year, besides my personal goal to do better at conferring with students and holding them Kitras Glassaccountable for their writers’ notebooks, I aim to be at peace. This is hard for me; I hang onto stress like that kitten and the frayed rope. Thanks to Erika Bogdany @erikabogdany, I now have a Zen garden on the shelf by my desk. “It will work!” she promised me. At the urging of Emily Kim @booknerdkim I also have a Woodstock Tranquility Table Chime. But my Kitras Tree of Enchantment globe is my favorite. I saw it in a shop in Maine in July and knew it would help me keep my center.

My PLN (personal learning network) on Twitter is my best source of learning. Sometimes I join chats: #engchat, #rwworkshop, #titletalk are favorites. Most often I just read what people share–and it’s an amazing thing. I’ve favorited tweets all summer and now categorized them into folders in Drive. I’ve got mentor texts for narrative, informational, and persuasive writing. I’ve got infographics, Youtube videos, and TED talks to use as quick writes and/or discussion starters. And more. All first shared on Twitter by educators like me who want to do the best by their students.

I might be ready for the new school year, and it’s a big thanks to my personal learning coaches for helping me get there. This week is inservice, and I’m actually looking forward to it:  new principal and three out of four new assistant principals, 31 new staff at my large high school this fall–at the very least it has to be interesting.

I’ll slyly keep my Twitter feed open, and maybe I’ll score one or two more ideas before students show up in a week.

I’d love to know the best ideas you’ve learned this summer. Care to share?



Speed Dating in AP English

It’s getting close to AP exam time, and it’s also a time when my students are worn out. They come to class with glazed looks, and the bags under their eyes are often bigger than the sagging of their pants. I try to put on the neon hat and shock them into waking up and staying with me for another month, so any new strategy that tweets my way, I am willing to try.

Flashback to why this strategy matters:

One of the questions on the AP English Language and Composition exam requires students to respond to a prompt and compose an argument in which they use evidence from their own knowledge and experiences to build their credibility and prove their assertion. I tell my kids: You need a big knowledge cloud that you can pluck from during the test. What do you know about _________? Because the more you build your credibility and show that you are thinking on paper, the better argument you will write.

To help build that knowledge cloud, I have to push knowledge, specifically knowledge of a student’s world. If students read or listened to the news, this would be easy—but, most don’t.

My burning question? How do I create a topic dump with current events?

First, I came up with the idea to give students a topic, i.e., freedom, conformity, sustainability. As homework they have to research the topic enough so they can bring a news article to class that reflects that topic in some way. We got this far, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to have my students do with the articles once they found them. Then, I listened in to @dontworryteach, @dlaufenberg, and @mssandersths discussing “speed dating” on Twitter, and I took their ideas and made them my own. Thanks PLN!

Speed Talking with Current Events

Inner Circle faces outward. Each student has read and knows his/ her news article.

Outer Circle faces inward, across from a person in the inner circle.

The students in the inner circle explain their news article to the person facing them. What happened? Why does this matter? How does it relate to the topic of the week? They speak for 2-3 minutes—only about the news article—while the outer circle person listens.

When time is called, the outer circle students think of topics that might be in the prompts given on the AP exam, and they try to figure out how they might use that news article to support an argument that relates to that topic. They speak for 1-2 minutes.

When time is called, students on the outer circle move one seat to the right.

Repeat the process of talking, listening, talking, listening.

Switch places from inner to outer circle about midway into the class period, and repeat the process.

Students repeat their news article several times, which will help them remember it. And, all students are flooded with ideas that they may find helpful in building their arguments for the AP English Language exam.


I asked my students at the end of class today to rate this strategy on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being “It’s horrible. Never make us do this again.” And 10 being “Please let us learn like this more often.” The average rating was a nine. I’ll take that.

Variations: reviews of concepts, terms, pretty much anything you want students to talk about and remember.

I’d love to hear your ideas.

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