Tag Archives: readers/writers workshop

My AP Scores are Down, Now What???

The comment on my post said: “I have been book talking, conferring, doing mini lessons, and incorporated the workshop approach, yet my AP Literature scores went down dramatically. Now what???”

My initial response sounded something very Donalyn Miller-like when she said to me a few years ago:  “It’s not all about the test, is it?” At the time, I thought it was, and her remark stung.

Now, I know better.

The letter below is how I responded to this very dedicated teacher who is doing her best to help her students be successful, not just on an exam, but in life. I can feel her earnest desires in first this comment and then in an email message. Chin up, my new friend, you are doing right by students because you are taking them beyond test prep and into adult learning. I applaud you.

I feel your pain. I thought my students would do much better than they did, but then again — I think that every year.
Right after exam scores were released, I got a message from my colleague:  “My AP Lit scores are the worst they have ever been.” Although she is a good teacher, and I trust her ability to educate teenagers, she is not a workshop teacher. She allows little choice, and students only do the kind of writing in her class that they will do on the AP exam. My advice to her:  Choice Reading.
Now, I hear from you, and you say your scores plummeted. You have been doing elements of workshop, and my advice is the same but more:  More choice reading.
While I guess my voice is emerging as ‘an expert’ — probably because I post and talk about this so much, I must tell you:  I cannot base my expertise with readers/writers workshop in advanced classes on qualifying exam scores. I can only base it on my research on reading and on the personal experiences I’ve had with moving my students as readers and writers and preparing them for the kinds of reading and writing they will have to do in college. My evidence is the growth of my students, and that cannot always be measure by an exam — it rarely can.
I am used to teaching at a high poverty school that embraces the College Board’s Open Enrollment with no prerequisites. Pretty much any student who says she wants to take an AP class can — and does. I agree that every child should have the opportunity to take advanced classes, but I also think we do them a disservice by allowing them to attend a class when they do not have either 1) the reading and writing skills to engage in the learning, or 2) they do not have the work ethic to push themselves into engaging in the learning. Skill and will sit on that scale so precariously.
I know you know this already:  the AP exam represents one day of the student learning journey for that whole year. Students might be hot or cold or sitting in a luke-warm bath on exam day. I know that the majority of my students enter that room and take that exam as confident writers because I’ve seen them move from sometimes a -1 to a 5, or even a 6, on the writing rubric. But I cannot get non-readers to read the complex texts they must in order to get at least 50% correct on the multiple choice part of that exam. Of course, I cannot be certain because the score report does not show the break down between the essays and the multiple choice, but I know in my gut (and from what I’ve seen on mock tests), that my students who do poorly on the exam do so because they bomb the reading portion.
That is the basis of where I am coming from when I share with you what I think. It’s hard not to compare my scores with my colleagues’, but I have to remember:  it’s the luck of the draw which students end up in which sections with which teacher. It is rarely a fair balance of students’ abilities prior to them ever walking in my door.
Please know that I trust you are a fine educator. If you were not, you would not be seeking help to improve. And I will be honest, you have more years experience teaching AP English than I do.
I am going into my sixth year teaching AP, but I can tell you, I had disengaged kids, and I never moved more than a few readers and writers in those first couple of years. I made the choices, and most of them faked their way through the classic texts I selected. I just re-read the journal article “Not Reading: the 800-pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” by William J. Broz, and I wonder why I allowed those students to pass my English class. Broz says, “Not reading should mean that those students fail the course because they have no assignments to turn in.” I get that now.
Like you, I am a fan of Penny Kittle. For the past two years I have gone to the University of New Hampshire and taken a graduate course that she’s taught. This year she had us study reading theory. It was hard. But I am even more confident that allowing students choice in what they read and what they write is more important that the scores on the AP exam. That thinking takes a little getting used to, especially if you are used to getting high scores. We have to remember that the change in students’ lives, primarily because of their use of technology, has changed their willingness to engage with a book, and often their willingness to even attempt deep thinking, homework, and the like. Mark Prensky and Alan November’s work supports this. Prensky even asserts that students brains may be wired differently. I think I might believe that.
If you have not read the essays of Louis Rosenblatt, especially one titled “The Acid Test for Literature Teaching,” it will reinforce why you’ve tried to model Penny’s pedagogy to begin with — because you ‘get it’. At the end of her essay Rosenblatt asks these questions (the acid test):
Does this practice or approach hinder or foster a sense that literature exists as a form of personally meaningful experience?
Is the pupil’s interaction with the literary work itself the center from which all else radiates?
Is the student being being helped to grow into a relationship of integrity to language and literature?
Is he building a lifetime habit of significant reading?
I say that if we can answer with an honest yes to these questions — how much do our exam scores really matter?
The pedagogy of a readers/writers workshop classroom is in constant motion, continually fluctuating, because we plan and teach and move around the needs of our students. It is hard work because it is differentiation at mach speed. In her class Penny reminded me of a several things that I need to do better. I went through my notebook and made this list. Maybe this will help you, too (in no specific order of importance):
1. The pedagogy in a workshop classroom is 1/3 teacher talk and 2/3 student talk. Am I talking too much, or am I creating opportunities for students to think and debate and discover meaning with one another?
2. “Process is as important, or more important, than our product.” –the theory of Don Graves & Don Murray, UNH. How can I focus more on the process that students undergo to become writers than the writing itself? Do I talk with them as writers, or do I talk with them about their writing?
3. Have students think and analyze their process. “My process changes with genre.” Penny Kittle. If hers does, and mine does, then my students’ should. How do I help them understand why thinking about their process will lead to more accomplished writing?
4. One effective strategy when students say they “do not know”: Define yourself by what you are not. (This is a form of argument, taking on the counterargument from the get-go.)
5. “The hardest part of the writing process is figuring out what to say — when we give kids prompts we take away the hardest part.” Penny Kittle. How can I create a better balance of exposing students to AP essay prompts and free writing and quick writes that generates thinking for essays about topics students want to write about?
6. “Vocabulary from SAT word lists is a waste of time. The SAT draws from a bank of over 5, 000 words, even 25 words a week that you make kids memorize will never get them there.” PK. How can I help students create their own dictionaries, based on the ‘hard words’ they discover in their choice reading books? PK has her students find four a week.
7. Richard Allington’s research says that volume matters for struggling readers. He suggests that they should be reading at least 25 books a year. If that is true for struggling readers, how many books should college-bound students be reading?
8. Multi-tasking has been proven to be a myth. At least 10 minutes of silent reading time per day stills the silence, and a. helps students learn to focus, b. shows students that reading can become a habit.
9. Workshop classrooms are grounded in “Transactional Experience” theory. How do we invite students to have an aesthetic experience with a text?
10. “The success of our teaching is the willingness of kids to engage when we aren’t with them.” PK. How can I set up the learning expectations better so students know the end-goals more clearly? If colleges require 200-600 pages of independent reading a week, and most of my students will go to college, how can I help them engage in the practices that will help them do that now? [This year a group of students practically rebelled. They actually accused me of wasting their time because I refused to do test prep every day.]
11. “No amount of explicit skill instruction can replace the experiences of hearing, reading, learning, and living in a great number of stories.” Ariel Sacks. How can I helps students read like writers so they discover the explicit skills writers use on their own or in small groups? More talk.
12. “Independent reading should deepen thinking for writing.” PK This is where I fell short this year:  I didn’t have my students write about their reading. I didn’t make the learning connected enough. I need to have students write informal responses to their reading occasionally in their notebooks, and then they may choose one response to write into a more formal paper. What specific skills can I model as students write their formal responses? Remember Pk’s strategy with quotes across the board and how as students we made connections and then wrote about them. This was synthesis.
13. Mentor texts matter. What additional mentor texts can I have students study prior to major writing tasks? Need maybe 3-5 per genre– or more.
14. With each writing task, students must know the ‘end game.’ The end game is for them to demonstrate their learning. It’s about growth, so even the best writers must show growth, even those who come in my door as A-student readers and writers. How can I score more on process rather than product?
15. There are three types of conferences:  1. monitor the student’s reading life, 2. teach reading strategies, 3. challenge/increase complexity. I do #1 well. How can I improve the other two? If I can focus more on #3, I believe I can move readers into becoming the kind of thinkers they must be on the AP exam.
16. To analyze a text, we must read like writers. How can I teach over comprehension and get students to read as writers regularly? I must model what this means more clearly. This is where regular text studies with short passages matter.
17. “Students should talk regularly about their thinking both before and after writing. They will hear the thinking of others and this will help them extend their own.” PK.  How can I work more time for this talk into my daily lesson plans? Scripted questions?
18. “Model your writing. Let students see your struggles.” PK. I need to do this more. Idea from Penny:  project two run-on sentences from famous books on the board, i.e. The Goldfinch & ?. Ask:  These authors knew better. What was their intent in writing these run-on sentences? This will inspire thinking and talk, then students may write about their thinking. Better than writing “run-on” on their side of their papers.
19. Storyboards can be used to map a chapter, to read it rhetorically, not just for planning a narrative. How can I use storyboards to help students deconstruct a chapter? Then assessment is only looking for evidence of rhetorical reading (how &why).
20. “Put structures in their heads, so they read like writers.” PK. I just need to talk about this a lot more!
21. Ask:  “What have you learned about living from this book?” Leads students into reader’s response. This will tie into the human condition and the work as a whole that is needed for the AP exam.
22. Writing conferences. Writers control the conference; they say what they want help with. How can I get students to take ownership of this time to talk with me about their craft? “If you don’t leave a conference wanting to write more, there’s a problem with the feedback.” Don Murray
I hope you find these thoughts and questions helpful. Like you, I am always looking to improve. Every year I hope to open that webpage with exam scores and see all 3, 4, and 5’s. So far, those are a bit spotty, but I admit I am pretty proud of my 2’s. They’ve grown as readers and writers, and I’m okay with having some of my students just College Ready.

I am Not Assigning Books

Our Compass Shifts 2-1I love @professornana, the Goddess of YA Literature, and I learn a lot from reading her posts. This one got me thinking, and I opened and read every link she embedded in it.

This whole exile thing is crazy. Like Teri suggests, go take this little lexile quiz yourself. Then read the article she references, Teachers are Supposed to Assign Harder Books, but They Aren’t Doing it Yet. You’ll see what I mean.


The article got me (and not in a good way) at the title with the word “assign.”

My students are reading more than they ever have before because I am talking books, and suggesting books, and showing off books more than I ever have before.

I am not assigning them.

Choice works. Allowing students to read what they want, high or low lexile, works.

Do I sometimes steer students into genres, or most recently into Prize winners? Do I meet with kids and challenge them into more difficult books? Yes, but I’ve learned to always include some element of choice.

The past several days I’ve spent conferring with students during the first 10 minutes of class. Ten minutes that we devote to independent reading. I’ve met with 2/3 of my 145 students so far. Every student but two has read more this year than they did last. Most have exceeded the goal they set during our first reading conferences at the beginning of the year.

That kind of data speaks louder than any kind of lexile level. (I need to just say that my auto-correct changes lexile to exile every single time. Do you think that’s telling?)

Recently, a colleague visited my classroom. He watched my students engage with literature while I sat at a back table and listened. Later he asked how I conduct my readers/writers workshops. I told him “You saw it.”

My task is to get students reading and to teach them to talk about a texts:  books, stories, articles, passages, poems. Once I do that, students can do most everything else when it comes to reading on their own.

There’s freedom here. Freedom for me and freedom for them.

Funny how my students learn more from each other than they do from me anyway. I wonder why it took me so long to realize that.

I’m reminded of a post Donalyn Miller wrote almost a year ago, and I echo her title:

Let My People Read.


P.S. Are you thinking about Summer Reading yet? It’s about to be a hot topic on my campus. To allow kids to choose or not to choose, that is the question.

P.S.S. I have to figure out how to allow student choice in AP Literature, which I am most likely teaching next year. Every experienced AP Lit teacher I’ve talked to “assigns” specific books. Still trying to think through this. Any suggestions?

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Panic by Lauren Oliver

ReelReading2Many of my female students love her Delirium series, and I am happy to say that maybe even some of my guys will take on Panic, Lauren Oliver’s newest title.

The topic is FEAR.

I haven’t read very far, but I have read enough to know I like this narrative voice. I especially like that I can share it with my students by using this video where Lauren Oliver reads them the first chapter.

Cannot get any cooler than that.

You Should Read the Book ______________________

Our Compass Shifts 2-1Like a lot of other people I know, I like books lists.

My friend Kelly posted a list on Facebook last week, challenging her closest friends to join her in a read-a-thon. I thought the list looked dull, the majority of the titles classics I had to read in middle and high school. I’d read 49 books on that list of 100, and the author had asserted “most people haven’t even read 6.” I was a lit major in college. I get it.

And I like to read. Most of my students do not.

I watch for interesting book lists because I am always adding titles to my classroom library. I watch for books that my students will read–like the books on this post: 21 YA Novels that Pack a Serious Genre Punch or this one:  15 YA Novels to Watch Out for This Spring.

See, these lists are more like temptation for bibliophiles like me than “These are the best books ever and you should read them” lists, which do little for the book addict in me. Huge difference.

I have a growing contention with anything “you must read.”  (Okay, not anything. I do require my students to read short works that we study for craft, and analyze and discuss together.) Too many students have told me it’s the force feeding of “boring” books that has made them hate reading.

I know that some might contend that it’s the way those books were taught, not the books themselves that turned kids off to reading. I get it. And I’m guilty of it, too. It’s not like I have never taught a whole class novel, but I doubt I ever will again.

I have a few colleagues who agree with me and many more teacher friends from across the nation who are more interested in developing readers than teaching books; my #UNHLit13 peeps Shana, Erika, Emily, and Penny for sure. Heather, too. She saw Kelly’s Facebook post, and I knew her ire was up when she commented: “I still have to ask. What makes these books more of a must read than any other book out there on the market?”

The topic must have lingered because she blogged about it here: Recommended Reading–Reading Lists. Heather’s question is a good one:

Who gets to decide what the BEST or the TOP or the MUST READ books are for

any given category of interest?

I recently read Janet Potter’s 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To and saved it to use as a mentor text at the end of the year when my students do their final personal reading evaluation. Potter asserts “What [book lists] miss is that one of the greatest rewards of a reading life is discovery,” and she produces a lovely list of ways we can decide which books we choose to read. That is what I want.

I want students to choose to read. 

“You should read the book that your favorite band references in their lyrics.

You should read the book you find in your grandparents’ house that’s inscribed “To Ray, all my love, Christmas 1949.

You should read the book whose main character has your first name.

You should read the book that you find on the library’s free cart whose cover makes you laugh.”

I am with Janet Potter.


You should read the book you choose to.

I hope that I can provide enough opportunity, enough time, enough titles that my students will have some kind of positive experience with books. I hope they will notice when people are reading, and they’ll peek at the cover and be curious enough to search out the title.

That’s what readers do.

We notice books. We notice others reading.


Dear Readers, how about we write our own list. Complete the sentence in the comments.

You should read the book ________________________________________.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Oh, man. I love and hate this book. You have to read it. Then we need to talk about it. It’s that kind of story, a hauntingly beautiful coming of age story.

Here’s the book trailer:

And a NY Times review


I would love to hear what titles are keeping you up lately. Please share.

A Text Study with Paired Passages that will haunt your heart

This wasn’t my typical spring break. This year I spent most every waking hour either snuggling a tiny new grand baby or chasing her 17 month old sister. Grandmother heaven. Especially since my daughter and my only grandchildren live 1300 miles away from my home in Texas.

I spent my late evenings reading a handful of books from my towering TBR pile. Two have left scars on my heart. And as I look at my beautiful and innocent granddaughters, I pray: “Please protect these babies.”

The girls in these books were not so blessed. Both suffered abuse and heartache. I know it’s fiction. I get that it’s not real. But the haunting images so artfully crafted by these authors have shaped my thinking in ways that I’d never considered. My compassion swells for those trapped in darkness and fear.

And I hope I can serve as rescuer to anyone who needs a person to trust. I know many students come to school hurting, hungry, hopeless. If only we can offer solace and provide peace, comfort, safety. If only we can help them fight their way to light and love, and help them be the actors in their own inspiring stories instead of always being acted upon–

My students will want to read these books, so I will chat about them and share these passages.  They are rich enough for text study and I’m sure will inspire some insightful conversation.

from My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt p122

Skills Focus:  tone, symbolism, hyperbole, metaphor

The worst thing was

Serena ending up being stolen

by someone else’s story–

just a character in his story,

and the ending she wanted to have

got him instead,

just a part of his stupid story . . .

that was the worst thing of all.

I threw up again,

maybe with a chunk of heart,

and Call came in and I said,

do you see any bits of heart in there?

He said, you’re losing it,

said, this could all be over in a minute

if you take your candy,

and I forgot to answer because I was thinking,

he can’t have her anymore,

I’m writing a new end to her story,

I’m taking Serena’s story back.

Question:  Explain how the author uses the word story in this poem?

 from Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman p40

Skills Focus:  tone, details, euphemism, diction


The metal flash of a pair of wire strippers, the unexpected shine on a Phillips head, these things cause the same fear in me, the same gut-tightening, ass-puckering panic as the midnight gleam of a switchblade. Chain locks have the same effect. And lightbulbs. You can find all of these at your local hardware store.

Sometimes Carol goes with Tony to Guido’s Pizza and leaves me at Ace. Tony is her boyfriend and he says having a six-year-old around all the time cramps their style, but I don’t like him anyway, be cue when I’m with them he either hogs the Close Encounters game or he hogs Carola and I never get a chance at either one.

Ace smells like orate hand cleaner and WD-40, and I pretend not to hear the adult talk that passes across the counter between the men of the town about certain women of the town as they pay the Hardware Man for their wood screws and drill bits. I also pretend like I never have to go potty. Because I don’t need help, but the Hardware Man will want to help me anyway. And when he helps me, the lights go out.

Question:  Explain how the author creates a tone of dread.

Paired passages question:  Explain how the passages are similar.

Finding Success in Hell

Guest Post by Jackie Catcher

flames“Ms. Catcher, do you have Inferno?”

Inferno?” I asked.  I looked up at Sean*, a skinny freshman with small gages in his ears and a bleached blonde buzz cut.  His punk skater image matched the rebellious reputation of the book he had recently finished: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This was the first time he had come to me with a book request for his independent reading.

“Yeah, you know that book about hell.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle—when Sean came into my classroom he associated books with being in hell, now he wanted a book on hell.

“Um, yeah, let me find it.  Dante’s Inferno?” I repeated again.  I tried to mask my surprise but could hear my voice crack with the title.

“Yeah, that one,” he said straight-faced.  The image of my tired college English professor popped into my head; the threadbare sports jacket he wore as he droned on about Inferno; I remember feeling like he single-handedly had pulled me through all nine circles of hell.

Sean owned the video game adaptation of the book, which had sparked his interest.  I handed him a copy, warning, “This is a hard read.  Even if you get through part of it, that will be impressive!  I read this in college.”  I felt the need to somehow soothe his frustrations even before he started.

“Ok.” He brushed off my warnings.

Every day I watched Sean crack open Inferno and slowly make his way through the convoluted English translation.  And every day I expected Sean to walk into my classroom and abandon the book.  But he didn’t.

“How much does he really understand though?” asked another teacher after I brought up Sean’s accomplishments.  She made a good point.  Not only was Sean in my academic class, the lowest level in my tracked high school, he had also scored partially proficient in reading on the New Hampshire state standardized tests over the past two years.  Even if Sean didn’t understand the book in its entirety, I believe he gained just as much as any freshman English major dissecting the poem.

Sean might not have delved into the intricacies of the epic poem, but he took away a sense of confidence and pride that can only accompany struggle.  Many students lack the reading stamina Sean exhibited, an essential skill for success in post-secondary schooling.  Students can be quick to abandon books, and I have found that it isn’t until students become more developed, advanced readers that they understand the value of pushing beyond the first ten or even one hundred pages of a book to get to the “good stuff.”  Despite Sean’s distaste for reading prior to this year, his hunger for a challenge paired with the independent reading initiative allowed Sean to build his stamina and prove himself as a reader.  As Sean said, “I kept telling myself it’s just a book.  You can keep reading.”  Reading Inferno stemmed from his curiosity and transformed into an undertaking of pride.

Sean’s experience with Inferno didn’t include deep literary analysis and his takeaway would most likely make my stuffy college professor cringe, but I’d argue that Sean learned the lesson Dante intended: perseverance and hard work lead to significant achievements.


*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student

 Jacqueline Catcher is a first year teacher at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire. She teaches Academic and College Preparatory Freshman English and an upper level elective writing course using the workshop model.  She can be reached at jcatcher@sau16.org.

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