The Power of Modeling: From Sticky Notes to Reader’s Notebooks

One of my pushes this year is pushing thinking using the reader’s notebook. While re-reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and her newer book 180 Days which she co-wrote with Kelly Gallagher, I found myself re-energized by the act of doing the work in front of kids in a real and organic way.

Our great reading teachers have been modeling active reading with stop and jots and think alouds within mentor texts pretty much on a daily basis, but when it comes to the reader’s notebook there is a disconnect. Kids want to be told what to write about and how it should be formatted. As workshop teachers, we know that everyone writing the same way about the same thing is not conducive to growing readers. They do not benefit by doing what the teacher wants; they need to have the choice and ownership to push themselves.

Revisiting Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s work made me wonder. What would it look like if we modeled moving from the stop and jot to the notebook? What would kids see if more than one teacher modeled using the same text? This was an experiment that I felt was important to take on, so I asked some of my people who I have worked with in the past to do this experiment with me. I thought I’d get a couple volunteers, but little did I know that all of my people would volunteer!

My first stop was with my former coaching colleague turned fifth grade teacher. I shared my idea during his prep one day, and he not only said yes, he suggested we start that day! We grabbed two of the same book from his classroom library, and when his fifth graders came back from special, we shared our plan.

To do this plan, we had to flip the workshop around and begin with independent reading followed by the minilesson. While the students read, we did not conference or pull small groups. We joined them in reading and jotting. After about 30 minutes of independent reading, they joined us on the carpet and we took 5 minutes to look over our jots and write a notebook entry.

The kids paid close attention while we grappled with our thinking and writing about our thinking.

Then we each explained how we went from our stop and jots to the notebook entries that were before them. They turned and talked about what they noticed about how we went about it and how we formatted our writing.

I continued my tour with Sarah Wolbransky, also a former literacy coach who went back to the classroom this year to teach fifth grade. We did the same experiment. Using a different book that we had not read from her classroom library.

From fifth grade, I hit the middle school and Bridget Sperduto’s seventh grade. The best part about middle school is we can do this for five periods, which is the equivalent of five class periods of reading and noting. The students were not only able to see what we each did using the same book, All American Boys, but also what we each did over the course of five class periods!

I continued in the middle school, but this time my seventh and eighth grade teachers, Theresa Simon and Danielle Armstrong, pulled their classes together, and the three of us got to work using Everything, Everything.

Seventh and eighth grade teacher, Justin Hopf decided to join one of Danielle’s classes and since we were already pretty far into Everything, Everything, we decided to pull another book from the classroom library.

From there I went back to the elementary school to experiment with Chris Jordan and his sixth graders. We used a book from his classroom library that neither of us had read.

Later that day, I joined Gina Miller, Kelly Kovach, and Natalie Hartman, a sixth grade team in another building. They pulled the entire sixth grade together to do the experiment with Out of My Mind which showed how four different teachers went about this work.

I ended my tour in eighth grade with my Wonder Twin, Diane Murray. Using Ghost, we modeled our thinking and writing about reading across the day.

What did I learn from this experiment?

  • I learned that notebook entries should not take more than a few minutes. We’ve seen that when given prompts and structures, students will take hours and sometimes days to push themselves to do the thinking work that should only be taking about 5% of the workshop time. The time spent was because students were often so focused on being right and formatting it correctly that they were losing time from the real work.
  • I learned that students need to see a lot more of modeling. I encourage teachers to keep their own reader’s notebooks and share images of their own work but also take the time to do the work right in front of them. Students will benefit from seeing you grapple with your own thinking and how to get it in the notebook.
  • I learned that students may start with imitating exactly what you do. Having the confidence to do it your own way takes a lot of time and practice. Keep modeling your process!
  • I learned that when kids don’t have enough experience and don’t know what to do, they default to writing a summary or nothing at all.
  • I learned that these notebook entries are the seeds that can be used for long writes that are not as frequently written.
  • I learned that reader’s notebooks show thinking over time and that thinking can change along the way.
  • I learned that together as a team we can do so much more to model with kids.
  • I learned that other people think differently than I do even when we may be reading the same book.

What did students learn?

A LOT! They watched us in the moment write about our thinking based on what we noticed, taking no more than 5 minutes to write our entry. They listened as we explained our process of stopping to jot, determining what to explore deeper in the notebook, and how we decided to organize it. They learned that it’s okay to take charge of their own thinking about reading, but most importantly, there is no one right answer or one right way to go about it.

I look back at my notebook compared to Lee’s. We both ended up looking closely at how the characters were acting, but we came to different conclusions. Kids need to see this!

Lee wonders if the poor behaviors are a result of living in poverty while I wonder if the leaders feel helpless and try to control the situation by punishing everyone instead of those who are really responsible.

I also look back at Diane and I who came to similar conclusions by noticing different patterns.

What’s next?

I encourage you to do this modeling in front of kids. I’m not going to lie. It’s slightly uncomfortable, but that’s what kids need to see. They need to see us struggle with making sense of what we notice while reading, so they are less overwhelmed when they are expected to do the same. They need to know it’s really hard work but so important. They need to see that we too have to really push ourselves. If you’re able to do this work with a colleague to show the different ways you both go about it after reading the same text, it’s pretty powerful. And if you would like to invite me in to do this work with you, you know how to find me!

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