I’m just wrapping up my eighteenth year of teaching English Language Arts.
For the first seventeen, I taught in a pretty predictable, traditional manner: assign a book, a reading schedule, give quizzes, poster projects, assign essays, administer exams, and show the movie.
This year was so different.
In September, I started the workshop model in my two grade eleven classes.
By October, I was so convinced that it is the right way to teach students to read, write, talk, and think, that I implemented it in all of my classes.
I became enthusiastic, almost to the point of fanaticism, with readers workshop. It works! I read about it, tweet about it, started blogging about it, and can’t stop talking and thinking about it.
I attended the Adolescent Literacy Conference in Bangkok last month. I heard Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk, Kylene Beers, and Bob Probst talk about literacy and the workshop model, and I was even more convinced that what we are doing at our school, that what I am doing in my classroom, is the right thing to do, perhaps the best thing to do for kids right now.
So, as someone who is still relatively fresh to the practices of readers workshop, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in a simple list of do’s and don’ts.
Do offer choice to your students. It’s the foundation of the workshop model. Students will read more, read better, and read deeper when they have the feeling of agency and choice in their reading lives. I really feel that it’s non-negotiable.
Give students control over their own reading lives – they are at the age when they should be making more, rather than fewer, independent decisions. This is a pretty safe way to offer trial and error, risk, failure, and success as options for teenagers.
Don’t let them make all of the decisions. If the standards suggest that students should be reading American dramas, then require it. Just offer choice within those rails. Offer students choice with their deadlines, or with their assessment options. Let one group choose between A Raisin in the Sun and Fences, and another choose between The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. Just offer choice to the students, and make sure you can live with the options you present.
Do a book talk every day. I like to group titles into themes, often including all types of levels, forms, and genres in the mix. Including novels written in verse, graphic novels, middle school level books, nonfiction, and contemporary classics ensures that there is most likely a title for everyone in the grouping (see how I incorporate choice, even in the book talks).
The theme pictured above, “secrets” was so popular that I had to do a “round two” because so many in the first group had been immediately checked out by students, and my later classes would not have had enough books presented to them in that grouping. What a great problem to have.
However you decide to do your book talks, it’s essential that your students see you talking about books, excited about books, and pushing them to read titles that they didn’t know existed. A nice side benefit to this practice is that you will become more familiar with your school library’s collection, and in turn you’ll be able to match students to books with more confidence.
Don’t forget to ask others to participate in the book talks. The first time my students were presented with a book talk was when our school’s teacher-librarian presented about 30 titles to each of my classes. She is the expert on our book collection, and she’s got an enthusiasm for books that kids love. You’ve got someone in your building who has the same enthusiasm and willingness to share, so go ahead and ask.
Since that first mega-book talk, I’ve had other “guest book talkers” join my classes. For example, my husband, who teaches algebra, talked about his favorite read-aloud from when he taught grade five. While Danny, the Champion of the World, isn’t necessarily a “high school” book, a couple of students have picked it up and read it over a weekend, as a fun, light read that they may have missed in elementary school.
A ninth-grade boy picked it up and read it as the first book he’s read from cover to cover since he can’t remember when.
Other teachers have come in to talk about favorite books, or books they think will reach our high school audience, too. Kids love to see other adults who are willing to share about their reading lives.
During first semester, each student signed up to give a book talk. The students loved listening to one another and sharing out about their current and recent reads.
The essential message here is that you don’t have to take the book talks on all by yourself. Enlist the help of other adults and students, and you’ll have more book talk options than you have time.
Do ask students to be accountable for their reading. They’re kids, and they are trying to develop new good habits. They need a teacher who holds them accountable for their reading just like with any other assignment. But, the accountability should be paired with encouragement rather than disappointment when a student inevitably misses the target. Just encourage them to try again, make a plan, and follow through. It will happen.
Encouragement comes when students (and teachers) notice that they are reading more now than they were at this same time last year, or than they thought they could read when they started in September.
Accountability is real when students feel that they can be honest about how much time they spend reading, and which titles they are reading. That takes a no-risk situation, which is created by the teacher. Once the students feel risk in admitting what they didn’t do, honesty and real accountability are compromised.
Don’t rely only on reading logs. The accountability can come in many forms – conversations, observations, quick writes, class discussions, to name a few.
Think about what you do as a reader. Do you write down the page number you started with and then finished on with each reading session? Doubtful. But you might keep a list on goodreads, keep a list of books you want to read next, or participate in a book club. You might annotate as you read, or write in a notebook or blog about the books you read. Allow students to be accountable with authentic, real life habits, rather than things that feel like inauthentic school assignments.
There’s so much more to readers workshop, and I could (and often do) go on and on about it. I’ll post a part two at some point, adding to this list. But for now, think about how you might be able to switch to the workshop model in the fall, or pilot a four-week unit this spring. You will probably find that you love it, that kids love it, and that it works. And it’s simpler to do than you think.