Tag Archives: secondary readers writers workshop

New Q & A Posts Starting: If you’ve got questions about readers-writers workshop, we may have answers #3TTWorkshop

Yesterday I had a little chat with my five-year-old granddaughter who had just got in Elletrouble with her mom and dad for running away instead of coming when they called her. She’d had a scuffle with her little brother and didn’t want to stop playing long enough to get a talking to. (I can’t say I blame her. No one likes thinking they are in trouble.) After a dose of parental guidance and a tad of time, I knelt beside Elle and asked if we could talk. She melted me.

Elle reminds me of her mother — so full of spunk it could be dangerous. She’s fire and ice and double-dog-daring. She has the memory of a growing elephant, and she asks THE best questions. She’s fearless and inquisitive dolled up in loud and loving chaos.

As I knelt on the pavement in the park yesterday, looking into sparkling brown eyes, I couldn’t help but send a plea:  Please, God, do not let life and school and standardization hurt this highly-spirited mighty wisp of a darling intelligent diva.

I know I share concern with most parents and grandparents. And as teachers, we feel well-deep concern for many of the children we work with every day year after year.

Peanuts tired tomorrow cartoonIt can be emotionally exhausting.

That’s where I was a year ago:  Flat on my back exhausted. Overwhelmed. Overcome. There were several factors that added to my distress. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say this about one last straw:  I’ve become wary of some assistant principals, especially those assigned to evaluate English departments when they have zero literacy experience, — and they do not believe in edu research and data-informed practice. Boy, howdy.

Thus, my gap year, which went by faster than my Elle running from her mother.

Have I missed it? You’d have to define it.

I’ve missed working with teens every day. I have not missed some of their parents. I have not missed the effects of some of their trauma.

I’ve missed working with insightful and forward-thinking colleagues. I have not missed others’ same-old-same-old attitudes or platitudes.

I’ve missed helping writers write and readers read — more — and better. I have not missed trying to break the habits of inauthentic and limiting literacy instruction (only writing to prompts, taking fill-in-the-blank tests, worksheets . . .)

I’ve missed the joy of sharing daily book talks — books I’ve loved, books that gave me pause, books I hope to read, books I-couldn’t-get-into-but-maybe-you-can. I have not missed grades or justifying independent reading without them.

I’ve missed exploring and discussing current events, lyrics, art, poetry, and good books; diving into inquiry, writing from the heart — adolescents have keen insight and so much talent! I have not missed anything test-prep related (test-proctoring included).

I’ve missed my students and the relationships we build around becoming better humans. I have not missed the late work or grading policies that kept me perpetually behind.

I know there’s more — the good, the bad, and the ugly that goes into this profession of teaching. When I first entered the classroom, I had no clue. (I’d bet this is most of the population.)

So what now?

I wish I knew.

Only kidding. Kinda. I know I need to find a job (financially, I don’t know how we’ve made it this far.) I just hope I am better at self care.

I must be better at self care. I must be a better advocate of my practice. For myself and for my students.

So what does this all have to do with my granddaughter?

Elle is every child I’ve ever taught and every child I may ever teach. She’s a handful of opportunity — worth every pinch of sass and poke of attitude — and she needs teachers, especially literacy teachers who give her choice in what she reads and what she may want to write, who talk to her about her needs as reader and as writer, who care more about her as a tiny human than as a data point. Elle needs teachers who feed her inquiry and focus her energy. She needs teachers, equally curious and energetic, who have lives outside of teaching.

Oscar Wilde quote

For the past year, I’ve collected questions teachers have generated at the workshop trainings I’ve facilitated (a gift of part-time consulting work).  I try to answer these questions in the short time we have together, but now I’m thinking I can use these questions here at 3TT, too. I can remind myself of what I love about teaching readers and writers, and perhaps you, dear readers, may benefit, too.

So this is a charge to myself made public — Important since I’ve been awful about keeping my writing commitments and posting regularly, although in the past year I’ve — taught myself to watercolor, read 17 books that are not YA, planted a killer container garden, tried being a vegetarian, binge-watched too much on Netflix, cuddled grandbabies, had a book proposal accepted, and logged miles on my new bike —  Each week I’ll write a Q & A-type post that answers a question about teaching high school readers and writers in a workshop classroom. I used to feel I was pretty good at it.

If you have a question, related to ELAR and/or workshop, please leave it in the comments. I’ll try to spotlight yours.

Questions Answered

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit (gen ed, Pre-AP,  G/T, AP Lang) at two (Title I) high schools in N Texas. She’s passionate about self-improvement but knows perfectionism can kill the soul. She’s become vocal about teacher self care and refuses to even think about grading essays on the weekend. She loves her work as a literacy consultant, especially that moment when teachers want to read and write more — just like we hope for all our students. Follow Amy @amyrass


Getting on the Boat: a New Teacher’s Swim into Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 8.44.22 PM

If you are an educator, navigating workshop, please consider sharing your story. Email amyprasmussen@yahoo.com

The metaphor of the last school year at Klein Cain High School seemed to be, “We’re all in the same boat.” However, I did not feel that way. Though we were all experiencing opening a new school together, navigating through unplanned and unexpected events (think Harvey, sharing our high school with an elementary school that flooded, and snow days), we were not experiencing it in the same way. Last year, I had the alienated feeling that all the veteran teachers were indeed in same boat, but I was treading water next to the boat, sometimes practically drowning, choking on water, struggling to breathe. I think many first-year teachers, new school or not, would agree with me.

It was a trying year to say the least, but I had many life preservers thrown my way. The summer before my first year, I had the pleasure of attending a two day professional development session about reader’s-writer’s workshop that built on the philosophies I had seen and heard in my student teaching. I was very encouraged to see that my district valued such practices. This knowledge became the lifejacket I held on to many times.

Because of that PD session, I became a disciple of Penny Kittle’s. I bought her books, studied them and implemented her strategies (though I butchered many of them). From her books, I learned about the Book Love Grant; I put a reminder in my phone for January, applied and actually received one of the 60 $2,000 grants! The books I have had the honor of adding to my classroom have been my life-raft, holding me afloat and helping me make it to my colleagues’ boat.


Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

Even though I had these things to hold on to, I struggled to truly implement workshop until this year. Instead of last year’s survival mode, this year I feel like I am in the lifeboat that is just next to the one all my colleagues are on. I’m close, but just not quite there yet. I have had many experiences that have brought me closer.

This year, I have co-teach sections, so I have a greater amount of students with autism and other special needs. At first, I was worried about trying out workshop with these kids, but, luckily, my co-teacher Mallory encouraged me to teach like I would with any other class. I am so glad she led me to that decision because we have had some true gems arise. During one of our quick writes, we watched the poem “Lost Voices” and started our writing with the sentence stem “You tell me you know what it’s like to be…” One of our students finished that sentence with “autism” and wrote a beautiful quick write detailing the difficulties from his point of view.

I have also seen self-declared non-readers with their noses still stuck in a book as they slowly make their way back to their seats during a transition from reading time; they just don’t want to put their books down. We have conferred, figured out book preferences, written more than I thought possible at the beginning of the year and we are making our laps (as Kittle and Gallagher write about in my teaching bible- 180 Days) toward better writing.

Since I have decided to follow my instincts and implement workshop in my classes, I feel closer to being on that main boat with the rest of the teachers at my school. I’m not in survival mode anymore. I’m not just filling time instead of I’m making all my lessons very intentional. Like Lisa Dennis in this last post, I got to participate in Amy’s professional development this summer and it rejuvenated me and encouraged me to truly immerse my classroom in workshop. This blog has been the most constant life preserver in my reach this year and last. This community keeps me going strong, so thank you for encouraging me constantly to keep working toward being on the main boat.

Rebecca Riggs is a second year teacher at Klein Cain High School in Houston, TX. She prides herself in being a wife, dog mom and professional development fanatic. Rebecca is just now learning to call herself a writer. She is living her best life because she gets to live out her passion everyday- learning from students she loves. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaLRiggs

Defining Readers-Writers Workshop

“I need a visual of a ‘workshop.’ That word confuses me still.”

This is not the first time I’ve been part way through facilitating professional development and a participant has made a similar request. There’s a lot for me to learn here.

Before we can begin really sharing the excitement and benefits of a readers-writers workshop model of instruction, we must get on the same page as to what we mean by Workshop. I’ll try to do that here.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of workshop and zero in on #2.

workshop definition

Based on this definition, let’s consider this essential question:

How do we create open spaces where the children we teach can grow as readers and writers?

To me “open spaces” equates to “workshop.” Open spaces means teachers let go of control, remove themselves from center stage as the holders of the knowledge, and invite students into a space of curiosity and discovery. It’s a space where students thrive in a community of trust and sharing, where they talk about their identities and experiences as readers and writers, where they play with language and take risks as they explore what it means to develop their comprehension and analysis skills — and their craft as writers.

Opening spaces requires planning. It is not willy-nilly choice in books or topics, or stations without specific guidelines and instructions, or seats moved from rows into small groups without modeling the thinking that makes it possible to “engage in intensive discussion and activity” around our content. Teachers must model what this looks like. And we must trust that our students will engage and learn in this model.

They will — if we let them.

Readers-writers workshop is a method of instruction that often requires a paradigm shift, a shift from the teacher making all the choices and telling students what to learn within a text, to students making choices, and through practice and application of skills-based lessons, learning as they read and write.

I’ll return to some definitions found online to help clarify:

“The Reading Workshop is a teaching method in which the goal is to teach students strategies for reading and comprehension. The workshop model allows teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of all their students.”

For our readers, we open the space for students to choose the books they read. By doing so, we meet students where they are in terms of their interests and abilities. The teacher becomes a coach, teaching skills specific to the needs of each learner. This requires time. We must reserve time for students to read when they are with us in class, and we must confer with students about what they are reading — and how they are reading it. This is reading instruction in a workshop model. We teach the reader, not the book. Readers must predict, visualize, infer, comprehend, analyze, and evaluate. These are all skills we model and teach in readers’ workshop.

What about writer’s workshop?

“As in a professional writer’s workshop, each student in the class is a working author. The teacher is a writing professional and peer coach, guiding authors as they explore their craft. … Teachers write with their students and share their own work as well.”

To teach our writers, we must be writers ourselves. We must model the moves writers make as they use language to craft meaning. We must validate our writers and help them recognize what professional writers do to think of ideas, organize those ideas, and convey those ideas in a way comprehensible to readers. In a workshop classroom, we use mentor texts:  sentences, paragraphs, passages, essays, poems, stories to teach writing skills that students apply to their own writing. We teach the writer, not the writing.


So, what do I mean when I say “workshop”? I mean students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open the spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.

Questions about your move to a workshop model of instruction? Please ask in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!



Light Bulb Moments: Igniting Students Interest in Their Own Learning

What is it you love about teaching? I have a few favorites.

More than anything I love to see the light bulb moments. You know what I mean — you see them, too. The thinking becomes almost visible like a thought bubble above a student’s head, then the thought spins a cartwheel, lands on both feet, and ignites some insightful murmur.

“Ohhh, I get it,” sighs the student.

I long for these moments.

I get them with my students, sure, but lately it’s teachers who have warmed my heart as they’ve come to embrace the philosophies of readers-writers workshop.

In December, I facilitated a workshop training in a district in my home state of TX. A little while later, I exchanged some messages with Candice Thibodeaux, an English department manager and English III teacher in Clear Creek ISD who attended that training. I asked if I could share her comments (although I am late in doing so) because I think they may speak to many of our readers who are new to implementing the moves of workshop in their classrooms.

Candice:  I wanted to say once again that it was a pleasure to meet you. I think why it was so easy to hear your message is because there was no doubt you understood where we were because you are in the same trenches we are each day. I was already convinced that I wanted to move my department to the workshop method, but you cleared up some fuzzies and gave me a lot of confidence. I feel like I am in the infancy stages of implementing it, but you have me so excited. I am worried I may not implement my thematic idea well, but I am going to jump in and take note of what works and what doesn’t. I feel it has the possibility to ignite the students interest in their own learning.

Me:  Your ideas for the thematic units are fantastic, and I think you will be so pleased with the responses you get from your students. And once your teachers see the kind of engagement and work your students produce, they will be more apt to want to join in the thinking and planning for workshop. Remember to be patient with yourself. There are just a few things that really matter: choice, time to read and time to write, lots of talk around books and writing, talking to kids one on one about all of it. I know we focus on the standards a lot in Texas, but really, good reading and writing requires skills that are reciprocal — and practice is what matters most.

Candice:  Thanks so much for the response! I am so anxious to get back to school because I


Ready for student talk. Candice’s new classroom set up invites collaboration.

did a whole lot over the break that will be so much fun to put into action. I changed my room so we can do group work easier. I cataloged all of my classroom library so students can check out online. I bought more books (which hubby was thrilled about and a little blown away as he helped me catalog almost 1,000 books, lol) and I created a quick PD for my teachers tomorrow based on my time with you and the reading I have done. I am very excited to see if I can light a fire with my teachers. My department is on board but for the most part is still very unsure what it all looks like.

Candice:  The themes I picked [for my units] are war, race relations, technology, self image, and a catch all of society issues (depression, teen pregnancy, drug use, crime, violence). I expect to get a lot of discussion, reading, and writing out of all that; plus, students will do their own video PSA and print ad. I am very excited and have written letters to parents reminding them about free choice reading and telling them about thematic units, and encouraging them to discuss what their child is reading/writing/thinking. So we shall see….

Oh, yes, you shall see! You’ll see more reading, more writing, more engagement, and tons of learning — for students and for you as their teacher.
That’s another thing I love about teaching:  I learn with my students. We share our thinking as readers and writers in my workshop classroom. I am not the sage on the stage, nor the keeper of the knowledge. We all are. We are all discovering the world through the texts we read, and writing about our world through the texts we write.
Last week Jessica wrote Readers-Writers Workshop: But, Does It Work? and Lisa wrote Looking to the Future: Students as Changemakers. Both address the needs of the students who sit in our classrooms every single day.
Candice is like them, and her light bulb moments moved me at that workshop training back in December. She is like many other teachers who know her students need more. And I cannot wait to hear how her thematic units go as she shares her love of all things literacy with her students. (Hey, Candice, are you ready to write that guest post yet?)

photo by Jayden Yoon

If you have ideas for articles, poems, videos, or more Candice might be able to pair with other texts in her units, please add your ideas in the comments. (Oh, there’s an idea for some pretty cool collaborative text sets. I’m gonna have to think about that.)


Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.


An Honest Reflection: No Ugly Crying Required

I just finished an ugly cry. You know, the kind where you sob until your eyes close so tightly that you wonder if you might hurt yourself? The delicious, exhausting, purge of a cry that leaves you breathless and wholly satisfied at the same time? In my humble opinion, it’s the type of weep-fest that only great writing can deliver, and I am delighted to report that I just slobbered my way through another story’s end that left me wanting to pick up the book and start right over again. On the recommendation of colleague, I picked up A Monster Calls on Friday afternoon during last period and finished it by Sunday afternoon.

Though I could go on for pages about how amazing this book is, and how excited I am to 8621462book talk this story tomorrow, and how transformative I think this text could be for some of my kids, it’s what led me to this text that I find really important right now. As a result,  approximately eight minutes after finishing that book, seven minutes after shoving a copy of it into my husband’s hands and insisting he “Read this. Read this immediately” (thankfully we’ve been married long enough that he can recognize a literary induced meltdown and not fear for his own safety), five minutes after texting half my department to tell them of my ugly-cry recommendation, and three minutes after blowing my nose one more time and pulling myself together enough to see the screen clearly, here I am. Counting the minutes until school starts, so I can tell students about this text. It’s the best feeling and it’s fueled by what I have deemed A Workshop Whirlwind.

A Workshop Whirlwind. And that’s not just cutesy alliteration either. It’s representative of an urgent and necessary flurry in my teaching career. And I, for one, could not be more excited. You see, it was this past week that Workshop came to knock on the door of the Franklin High School English Department in a real and meaningful way. And this is the story of how we’ve started down a path that I believe will change our practice and lead our students to see themselves as both readers and writers in a way we would not have thought possible.

Our journey with workshop is a unique one. We are going to be moving to this new delivery method as a whole group in one glorious leap. Thankfully, by a bit of divine intervention, we have had the support of the lovely and overwhelmingly talented ladies at Three Teachers Talk. It was TTT that gave us a place to land and see that workshop is not only possible at the high school level, but it can make a world of difference for our kids. And it was a little over a year ago, with the knowledge that my department was being asked to drastically change our day to day practice, that I pored through post after post on this blog searching for guidance. How to plan, how to assess, how to hold kids accountable, and how to organize, but most importantly…how to inspire our students. How to help them see that reading and writing could be so much more than an assignment. That our study of English could be a study of what it means to be. What it means to feel.

Now, change is rarely easy. In fact it sometimes leads to a brand of ugly-crying that is reserved for just these circumstances, where you feel the happy ship you’ve been sailing on has hit something substantial and the band has already started playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Everyone find a lifeboat! We’re never going to make it out of here alive! I liked this boat a lot better before you put this big hole in the side.” And that, my friends, is what change does to a person. What change can do to an English department. Like the seven stages of grief, change too has its stages, and I’ve both felt these stages and watched my department try to stay afloat as this major shift comes our way. See, we aren’t individual contractors, coming at this move to workshop only out of our own desire to do so. This is a district level move that has led to the following:

Shock They want us to do what? I can’t even. I just…can’t.
Denial This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
Anger Nope. Just nope. You people are crazy. We should just set  the place on fire, while we’re at it.
Bargaining I can still teach __________ right? I’ll do this workshop thing, but only if I can still    teach ________.
Depression Whatever. It’s fine. More change. Not like we aren’t used to it. What does it matter, anyway? What does any of it matter? I’ll be in my room, reading __________ (please see stage above).
Testing Well, I guess I could give them time to read at the start of class. That makes sense to me. I love books too, so, natural move.
Acceptance I too am a reader and writer. I can do this.

And now, I am happy to report an eighth and amazing stage to this move – genuine enthusiasm.

In the last week, since Amy and Shana came to lead our department in two incredible days of professional development, I have felt a surge of excitement at everything I want to do in my own classroom and I’ve seen my entire department rally around this initiative in a way I would not have thought possible. In the last week, the halls of Franklin High School have echoed with book talks, students are curled up in corners with texts, and  teachers are chatting about trying out new strategies and putting together mini lessons. In the last week, the Wisconsin  “Bleak Mid-Winter February” has been anything but.

The teachers I am privileged to work with have been doing phenomenal work for years, since long before I joined their team. Their skill and passion, which has long fueled their sincere desire to help students learn, makes this an incredible place to work. And so, while my team would collectively injure me if I announced that everyone feels totally relaxed and ready to hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah, I can confidently say that our journey has begun. We are poised and now also excited, to continue learning with and inspiring our students in new ways.

No ugly crying required.

Lisa Dennis is the English Department Manager at Franklin High School in Franklin, WI. Her energetic leadership and insight leads her department into the wonderful world of workshop instruction. TTT appreciates Lisa’s candor and drive to do right by her colleagues — and all their students. We thank God for teachers like Lisa!

#3TTWorkshop: Asking Good Questions When Making the Move into Workshop


Book talks about NF like Columbine by Dave Cullen and talking about the writer’s research process capture many readers

Shana and I recently conducted a two-day professional development workshop in Franklin, WI — such inspiring teachers in Franklin!

Franklin administrators asked that we help their teachers move into a workshop pedagogy, which is, of course, a favorite topic at Three Teachers Talk. We shared the background of workshop, which stems from the work of Don Murray and Don Graves, and from the work of our mentor Penny Kittle, whose ears had to be ringing and ringing since we said her name a million times throughout those two days.

Franklin teachers caught the vision and the value of letting loose the reins and opening their hearts to choice reading and writing. They just needed to experience it themselves from the seats of their students.

The discussion covers five of the pressing questions teachers asked during our pd.

They:  Where are some great places where I can get resources for books and materials for my classroom library?

Us:  The good news for Franklin teachers is the buy-in from their insightful administrators who have reserved funds to begin building classroom libraries. Not all teachers who catch the vision for choice independent reading, and the need for engaging, well-curated classroom libraries, are so fortunate. We weren’t. But finding resources and is certainly possible. Shana wrote this great post awhile back about grants she’s been awarded and the many businesses that give funds to buy books. Amy’s had great success with Donor’s Choose, one of the options Shana mentions. Three grant projects funded there so far! Lewisville Education Foundation has also been a great resource for Amy’s students and the books they love. Be sure you check out the grants offered through your own EF.

Other resources besides books are important, too. We spent time watching and responding to spoken word poetry with our new friends, modeling quickwrites, and studying the craft moves of these poets. Some of our favorite spoken word poets are Shane Koyczan, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, Marshall Jones, and Amy’s new favorite Harry Baker. Search online, and you’ll find YouTube videos and posts with the texts.

Engaging non-fiction articles are an essential in workshop instruction. Mentor texts, craft studies, and pairings with literature all make for authentic engagement with thought-provoking non-fiction. Find interesting articles at NewsELA, Izzit.org, Essay5W, and The Learning Network at the NY TImes. And, of course, the excellent mentors curated by our friends at Moving Writers.

They:  How can I design units that foster inquiry-based outcomes for my students?

Us:  We lead teachers in a gallery walk activity where they explored ideas of what authenticity, modeling, dialogue, inquiry, and other workshop essentials look like from both a teacher and the students’ points of view. It was interesting for us to see the many iterations of inquiry these teachers listed and how closely they overlapped with authenticity. Yes, they should.

However, getting students curious about learning does not always happen instinctively — especially when they come to us hardened by years of sit ‘n git classroom instruction. We must provoke inquiry, pique imaginations, inspire curiosity.  Of course, the move to choice opens doors to many of these needs. Providing, introducing, and talking about highly engaging literature helps. But so does allowing students to decide how they want to read it and what they want to do with it to show they are learning from reading it.

Teachers have to let go of control. We have to trust that students want to learn. We have to stop doing all the hard thinking for them. What if we let them find the mentor texts that best suit their needs as writers? What if we give them chances to determine themes they want to study, and then let them take those themes into other genres and ideas?

Let’s invite students into authentic and on-going research, so we move far far away from the one-unit-one-major-research-paper. Shana’s multi-genre project and my students’ engaging in our multi-modal feature article unit are good examples of how we apply this thinking in our own classrooms.

They:  I write every day for my job, but I have never written a “persuasive essay” for my job. How do I design authentic instruction that mirrors what my students might have to write in the future?

Us:  Read like a writer. Look for mentors everywhere. And know your kids. 

We know, if the answer was really that easy, everyone would do it. Although we do believe every teacher could. One way we’ve found to incorporate authentic instruction is to conduct regular craft studies of a variety of texts. We read a lot, and we look for texts in which we can discuss with our students topics like structure, literary and rhetorical devices, tone, etc. We call this reading like writers.

Shana and I agree, we first learned the value of reading like writers from Katie Wood Ray in her book Wondrous Words. Here’s a great Pinterest board to get you started. Shana and I will post the craft studies we find and use with our students more often. You’ll find several we previously posted when you search the “craft study” category.

They:  How do we hold students truly accountable?

Us:  In a word, conferring. We must talk to our students often and with purpose. 

sticky conferences

Modeling Silent Reading Conferences

Amy remembers when she first started moving students into self-selected texts how her conferences revolved around the books students read. Eventually, she realized that if she wanted to truly move readers, she needed to talk more to the student — as a reader — than about the book she was reading. This is an important shift in mindset and practice.

If we only encourage students to talk about the plot, summarizing this or that, maybe describing the characters, we miss out on valuable opportunities to help the reader stretch and grow in the skills she needs to mature as an independent reader. Identity matters.

Teachers foster a love of reading not by focusing on the books but by focusing on the reader of those books and helping those students identify themselves as readers. If you need ideas on conferring, Amy and Jackie discussed conferring in this #3TTWorkshop post, Amy wrote about conferring in a crowded classroom here, and Shana wrote about a what to read conference here.

Another important thing to remember about accountability:  We can ask students to write about their independent reading. Shana and I both ask students to evaluate their reading lives — several times a year. We consider these summative assessments, and students provide thoughtful commentary on how they struggle, grow, and succeed as readers. Amy quotes many of her students’ evaluations here. They are honest and insightful.


Speed dating with books increases student talk about books, which increases students reading good books

When we ask students to write about their reading, it must be a task they see as worthwhile — and one we see as a support to our ultimate goal:  developing life-long readers. Too often, we read about teachers who punitively assign tasks to “catch their students not reading.” If this is you, please stop.

They:  How do I create engagement not compliance due to grades?

Us:  Choice. Choice leads to engagement. Engagement leads to autonomy. Autonomy leads to independence. Independence is engagement.

Trust the process, and see for yourself.


7 Reasons to Stop Asking about AP Test Scores

The question took me by surprise.

I’d just spent an hour or so sharing how I facilitate readers and writers workshop in my AP English Language classroom. I’d shared a video that showed my students testifying to how much they like having a choice in the books they read and why they feel like they will learn through choice reading this year. I’d shared a mini-lesson on how I teach skills using the books students choose to read, even when they are reading 30 different texts. I’d answered a variety of questions asked by pre-service teachers in Dr. Leavell-Carter’s master’s class at the University of North Texas and started to pack my things.

“What about your AP scores, did they go up?” one young woman asked, “I mean, I just think that would be a double benefit,” she said with a smile.

They say there are no bad questions, but I’ll go to the mat arguing that this is one we really need to stop asking.

I answered as honest as I could: “No. . .well, yes, when I began facilitating writer’s workshop, my scores increased double digits, but I don’t put much stock in AP scores, any standardized test scores, really, there are so many variables, you know; the students and their abilities differ from year to year, and since I’ve only taught in Title I schools where open enrollment is an invitation for all students to take AP classes with no prerequisites or even any preparation for the rigorous coursework, it’s difficult to prepare all students all the time at the same level of learning…”

Then I kicked myself all the way home. Why was I trying to justify my test scores? I’ve written about this before. I have much better proof that workshop works than any kind of testing data:

  1. Many of my students read more during the nine months they spend in my class than they do in

    from Joseph’s reading self-evaluation

    all of the 10 years of school they’ve had prior to coming to me.

  2. Almost all of my students read more books the year they spend with me than they read the year before.
  3. Many students read their first book cover to cover their junior year in my AP English class.
  4. Most students move into complex reading on their own because choice not only gets students reading; it gets them reading critically.
  5. Students tell me every year, “Thank you for allowing me to love reading again.”
  6. My readers learn to see themselves, and to see beyond themselves, by participating in book clubs with peers in non-threatening conversations about literature.
  7. My writers take ownership of their writing and compose beautifully and skillfully crafted texts.

There is no test that measures what my student come to appreciate as readers or what they come to realize as writers.

Sure, I want my students who choose to take the AP exam to do well, but I do not believe it shows what they come to understand about language. (And after scoring essays in Kansas City in June, I believe that even less.) Sure, I’ll keep encouraging my students to take the exam, but I believe most of them will benefit from taking freshman comp in college — even if they read and write well enough to score a 5. At least one English professor agrees with me:

“AP-credits are not always an accurate gauge of student learning. High AP scores in chemistry, for example, may indicate that students understand the basic concepts, but that doesn’t mean they know what to do at a laboratory bench.” (Bobby Fong, college dean and English professor).

I say what’s true for chemistry is also true for English. That doesn’t mean they know what to do when writing an essay for graduate school or a blog post for their employer or reading a report for their business or a decree in a divorce settlement.

Let’s focus on the skills our students need to be successful in the lives that lay before them.

For me, readers and writers workshop helps me do that.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Five Steps to Fostering Balanced Literacy in Your American Lit Class

How does your district handle classes that are very content specific? For example, I teach Honors/Pre-AP American Literature. This is a sophomore (with accelerated freshmen course) that has a pretty traditional literary movement focus, which includes several of the classics (The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried). And while I feel I have made great strides over the years in terms of student driven lessons, focus on discussion and annotation, skill vs. content based assessment, the one area I continue to struggle with as I look to workshop is how to facilitate the choice. 

This post is Part II of my response to those questions I received via email. See Part I here: Choose to Become a Classroom of Writers

I’ve thought about your query about your “content specific” American literature class a lot, and I keep getting stuck on one question:  Does the class have to revolve around full-length American novels?

I ask this for a couple of reasons. First, in my experience, many 11th grade teachers, in Texas at least, think that they have to teach English III as a survey of American literature; however, the  curriculum standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS) do not mandate that. Yes, there is a standard that requires students read American literature, plus another that says American drama, but there are 11 other reading standards (plus Fig.19, which is a whole other story) and at least that many writing standards.

All of these standards are classified as either readiness (they will be tested on state exams) or supporting (they may be tested). The standards mandating American literature are supporting — meaning perhaps that they might not carry as much weight as readiness. Yet many teachers design their whole year’s worth of reading around one American novel or play after another, at times ignoring all the other reading standards that state that students should read a variety of other texts — fiction and non-fiction. Seems to me that if we do a mash up of all the reading standards we’d come up with one overarching goal:  Create readers. All adults should take note

How can we create readers if students are not reading? More and more research proves this is so.

Many of the junior level teachers here teach the American literature survey because that is the way it has traditionally been done — prior to the changes in the standards, almost 10 years ago, and our new state tests, three. Most have not learned how to do anything differently — like facilitating readers and writers workshop.

So, I wonder about the standards that drive your class. Are they like the TX ones that require some American lit, or is the class designed by your campus and/or district to be one focused on a survey of American Lit?

If it’s the first, give yourself permission to let some of those whole class novels go. You can step right into allowing more student choice. You can select short texts to read together, conduct book clubs where students still get choice but with your parameters. Imagine the possibilities for short stories and passages where you can teach the same skills you focus on when you teach those full-length novels.

If it’s the second, I wonder what you can do to change the course design. Would your administration be atticus finchokay with you taking a more balanced literacy approach and only reading some of those whole-class texts? You will have more time for writing, and you’ll have a better chance of moving students as readers because odds are you’ve got many students who are not reading those books. We’ve all been there.

If you haven’t read the English Journal article Not Reading: The 800 Lb Mockingbird in the Classroom, it is a fantastic piece that reiterates the problems of students faking their way through their reading.

Another great article is this one by Tim Pruzinsky, an IB teacher at an international school in Thailand. IB mandates specific texts, but Tim still manages to get all of his students reading novels of their choice.

Here are some ideas that might help as you continue to transition your instruction. The moves you’ve already made are probably much harder than these:

Five Steps to Creating Balanced Literacy in your American Literature Class (in no particular order):

1. Intentionally decide which of your current novels are nonnegotiable. Which book do the majority of your students read? Which book adds the most to your reading community in terms of discussions that build relationships? Which book are you able to teach the most skills that students can apply to their own independent reading? Keep that novel (or a couple of novels) as your whole class texts.

2. Decide to read fewer whole class novels and increase your reading of shorter whole class texts. How can you teach some of the skills you normally do with novels with short stories, poems, and a variety of non-fiction pieces?

3. Decide what type of writing will benefit your students most. Choose mentor texts that relate thematically to the novel/s you let go. You can still have the rich discussions surrounding a text and teach annotation skills without mandating another whole class reading assignments.

4. Select a short stack of books and facilitate Book Clubs. Students choose a book from the list to read and discuss with their peers in small groups. Visit each group and briefly join the discussion to hold students accountable for their group time. You might conduct Book Clubs 2-4 times a year to allow for choice with parameters and to ensure that all students reach for books that meet your ideal of complexity.

5. Decide to promote reading in your classroom and take no excuses from students. Talk about books and reading daily. Devote 10-15 minutes of self-selected reading time at the beginning of every class period. Confer with students about their reading regularly. Read a lot, so you are able to match students with books that they will want to read.


Anyone have other ideas to help make the move to more balanced literacy? Please leave a comment.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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