The Three Legged Stool of the Workshop: Preparing for Intentional Instruction by Clearing Up Some Common Misunderstandings

Before we move into the nuts and bolts of intentional instruction, it’s important to put to rest some of the common misunderstandings we have that affect our success and that of the students. These misunderstandings can prevent us from truly helping kids grow as readers and writers.

This is a common misunderstanding and as stated in the last post, The Three Legged Stool of the Workshop: Structure, is one of the reasons why the minilesson goes beyond the 7-12 minutes which takes time away from the independent work and small group instruction.

Remember the minilesson is the weakest tool in the shed. It is meant to expose students to the rigor of the work, but for many of your students, they have more foundational work that you need to address during the small group and conferring. By focusing on the mastery of the skills and strategies taught in the minilesson, you will no doubt be frustrated and your students will be too.

The best advice I was ever given by a staff developer at TCRWP is when it comes to the minilesson, get in and get out and if anyone left the miniliesson already mastering the skill, then they came to the minilesson already having that skill mastered! No one should be leaving the meeting area having mastered anything so get in and get out!

When students leave the minilesson they are not necessarily working on the strategy taught in the minilesson. Some students may not have the foundational work in place to be able to use such a rigorous strategy. They may not even be reading a book that lends itself to that work.

If students are in fourth grade, for example, and getting exposed to how characters are complicated, but the preassessment indicates that they are not even able to infer one or more less obvious trait, then they do not have the foundation in place to do the work they observed you do in the minilesson.

Additionally, if they are reading below grade level, the book they are reading is not necessarily going to have characters that are complicated.

We spent a lot of time in professional development on minilessons, and the sessions we read in our Units of Study books are so long that it can make us feel like this is where we need to put all of our time and energy. Again, this is the weakest tool in the shed, so why spend so much time and energy on it? Remember, get in and get out! The most important lesson will be the work you do in small group and conferring. This is where you will meet students where they are and develop a solid foundation.

You can reteach until you’re blue in the face and maybe some kids will grow; however, you will do more by being intentional with your time, meeting kids where they are, and supporting them as they develop the foundational work that needs to be in place to do the really hard on grade level work.

If a fourth grader, for example, is not able to notice one or more less obvious traits, the first thing I’m going to do is teach him to look at what characters do, say, and think and ask, “What does this show me about this character?” On a different day I am going to teach him to pay attention to how a character faces a problem and solves it and ask, “What does this show me about the character?” and these will be the strategies this student is using during the independent practice while reading his book.

As a district we are making a lot of gains in reading when we look at running record and NWEA MAP testing. We have so many more kids reading on or above grade level, and so we think that they can then do the really hard thinking work too. Again, this is why preassessments are so important. They show you where each student is in terms of thinking skills, and while they may be proficient or advanced readers according to running records, they may be below basic in terms of the thinking about reading.

Take a look at the data from this eighth grade class. According to running records, 74% of students in this class are reading on or above what is expected for September. Two data points from the preassessment; however, show that thinking about reading in terms of skills like inferring about character and analyzing theme is more in tune with what is expected in second and third grade. Proficient and advanced readers are reading on grade level, but they need explicit instruction in thinking about reading that goes back to where they are performing now and building the foundation from there.

Using data and the learning progressions to determine needs and how to best meet those needs is a huge part of the work I am doing now with many teachers. I will continue to share this work with you as we grow and learn together. If we can let go of these misconceptions and focus our time and energy where we are going to truly grow kids, we will be on the road to not only seeing kids who are reading on or above grade level, but forming a solid foundation for kids who are thinking on or above grade level too! This work takes all of us, and I’m excited for what the data shows in a few short years as we focus the time we do have on intentional instruction.

The Three Legged Stool of the Workshop: Structure

For several years we have been working hard to roll out and refine the Structure of the workshop model, but Structure is only one leg of the workshop stool. I am currently doing a lot of work with teachers around the other two legs of the stool and will be sharing more about this work throughout the year as we grow our practice as workshop teachers.

For those who are new or need a refresher, the Structure of the workshop model is the first we learn and the first we roll out because without this leg firmly in place, adding the other two legs can get tricky.

The Structure of the workshop is pretty consistent and allows students to know what to expect so they can be independent and successful.

Minilesson (7-12 minutes)

It is imperative that the minilesson is kept tight. Many teachers fall into the trap of making sure students have mastered the skill/strategy taught in the minilesson. However, the skill/strategy taught in the minilesson is meant to expose students to the rigor. It is known as the weakest tool in the shed, so by spending too much time on the minilesson you will be at risk of losing students through frustration, minimizing independent practice, and taking time from small group and conferring, which are your strongest tools…so keep it tight!

If you feel you are spending too much time on the minilesson, talk to your kids about it. Let them know that you are working to keep to the 7-12 minute lesson because it’s so important that they get to the real work in their independent reading books and have time for small groups and conferring. Set a timer and reflect on the parts that are eating up your time.

Common Time Eaters!

  1. One common time eater is not having a routine. If students are not joining you in the meeting area with the correct materials in a quick way, that is something to teach and practice for sure!
  2. The biggest time eater is calling on students. By cold calling on students, teachers don’t necessarily know what they are going to say or if it’s going to move the lesson in the right direction. And of course kids don’t always get right to the point so again more time wasted. If you find yourself asking a question and then looking for hands, STOP and tell kids to turn and talk. Give about 20-30 seconds, always interrupting their conversation and share what you heard from students, even if someone didn’t necessarily say it. Trust me, they won’t ask!

Independent Time (the majority of the time)

This is when students are reading within a band of “just right” to practice reading and thinking about what they’re reading. They may try to use the strategies taught in the minilessons; however, more often they are practicing strategies you have taught in conferring and small group based on what they need. More about what they need will be addressed in the second leg of the workshop stool – Intentional Instruction.

Common Time Eaters!

  1. One common time eater is not having a plan. Before students leave the meeting area, have them turn and talk about the work they are doing in their book.
  2. Another time eater is the routine. There should be a routine for quickly and quietly getting to their independent spots with all of the materials they need. Again if students don’t know where to go or what to take with them, this is something to teach and practice.
  3. A lack of stamina and engagement can eat time as well. How can you get to the work of conferring and teaching small groups if you are too busy redirecting students? Often times students who are not in a band of “just right” are off task and not engaged. If they think they are in a “just right” book, have them read a page out loud to you. Pay attention to miscues and ask them to describe what they see in that part. If they struggle to describe what is happening accurately, they are not in a “just right” book. More times than not, it’s the struggle that is getting in the way. If books are “just right” but stamina is an issue, you can use mid-workshop interrupts as a quick break. Each day space the interrupts a little further.

Share Time (5-10 min)

Students need time to write about their reading. Many teachers are doing a 4-5 minute timed Fast and Furious Write based on 1-2 of their stop and jots (what they noticed while reading.

Additionally, students need time to discuss what they are noticing in their books, any patterns they are seeing, and new understandings they are coming to about character, main idea, theme, effect on reader, etc.

Common Time Eaters!

  1. This time is often neglected because we run out of time, but again this tool is stronger than the minilesson! This is where the students are practicing analysis skills (to practice analysis they need to talk a lot) and hearing about books that they too might want to read next. That’s why we need to be diligent in keeping our minilessons tight.
  2. One common time eater is reading without a plan. Students don’t know what to write about if they are not using strategies to not only read but think about what they are reading. If you notice students who are not taking the time while reading to stop and jot, this is something that could be turned into a small group lesson. More about this will be shared during the second leg of the workshop stool – Intentional Instruction.

The first month of school is often used to make sure the structure is tight. Routines are learned, students are in books that are “just right” and teachers are determining student needs in order to begin putting into place the second leg – Intentional Instruction.

Moving forward, I will spend time to share out some of the work we are doing with Intentional Instruction; however, if you need any support with any of the aspects of Structure, let me know. I am here to support you!

Pressing Pause to Fold in What Students Need

I recently had the pleasure of working with two fourth grade teachers who were working so very hard. The problem was they were working too hard. I know we all can relate to trying to balance this giant plate full of everything we need to accomplish while trying so hard not to drop it on top of our head, but in this case, for the kids’ sake and their own, they needed to put the plate down and walk away for a minute.

I want you all to know that it’s okay to push the pause button and deal with the issues that get in the way of moving kids forward. Now, I’m not saying you stop following IEPs or attending parent conferences or to abandon the workshop model, but it is okay to hit pause in the curriculum when something isn’t working. In the case of these two classes, we had a combination of needs that we determined through data collection.

  1. A number of students were struggling with routines.
  2. A larger number of students were struggling with the rigor and pace of the first unit.

In order for any workshop to run smoothly, there are routines that need to be in place. These routines need to be taught, consistent, and practiced so that less workshop time is wasted. We need those minilessons to truly be mini because students need the time to independently practice the work. Even as an eighth grade teacher, I would take the time in the first weeks of school to practice the routines in engaging ways, but I want this post to really focus on the second need.

The fourth graders were struggling with the rigor and pace of the unit. The first thing we did was look at the pre-assessment for the unit. When looking at their written responses compared to their running record and NWEA-MAP data, we saw some conflicting results. They were not necessarily struggling readers, but the data did show they were struggling thinkers.

Part of our job as workshop teachers is to get our kids to read and read and read. But just reading is not enough. We also need to teach strategies for thinking about our reading that can be transferred to any text.

The written responses from the pre-assessment were showing more summarizing and not thinking deeper about things like character and theme.

We decided to use the reading progressions, starting with inferring about character, and look at what is expected from each grade level. Since students were only summarizing events and not thinking about character, I looked from each progression and noticed three teaching points within the skill of inferring about characters that could be used to develop their thinking while reading that students need as a foundation before they can do the work of fourth grade readers.

For example, if readers do not have the skills developed to make character theories (third grade), they will struggle with determining what drives a character to make particular decisions (fourth grade).

From what I noticed in the progressions, I was able to create three strategy lessons, each strategy providing a foundation for the next.

Three strategy lessons based off of the learning progressions to push thinking about character

When developing strategy lessons, you can find some tips and actual strategies in the Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo, or you can walk yourself through what you do as a reader to meet the goal.

Once I had three strategy lessons to help support readers as they practice developing their thinking about character, I grabbed a book that I could use to model each strategy. I set the minilesson up just like any of the lessons in the units of study so the routine continues to be consistent and predictable.

Basic Outline of a Reading Workshop Session
Session 1 of 3

After reflecting on this lesson, we determined that students would benefit from a tool that listed a variety of character traits to help build vocabulary. I often gave students a binder ring and we would add tools as needed. In my class the notebook, independent reading book, post-its, and toolkit were in their reading folder, but many elementary and middle teachers also use gallon size storage bags.

The next day I introduced the tool and a new strategy to push our thinking.

After this lesson, we used the independent time to move around and check on the traits they noticed yesterday while reading. Readers who didn’t have any post-its from the day before, did the work right then and there through some guided practice. They read a page or so of their independent reading book aloud to us, and we listened in for what the character was doing, saying, and thinking and prompting them through the strategy.

Those who had post-its we checked to be sure they were noting about traits and not feelings and providing any tips that might help.

At the end of this session, I took three minutes as students joined me back in the meeting area to show them how I took a post-it note or two and wrote long to explain my thinking. We set the timer for 3-4 minutes and students wrote fast and furious about a sticky or two they chose before sharing their thinking with their turn and talk partner.

I highly recommend this work for a number of reasons, but most importantly it provides daily practice which builds engagement and stamina. A short burst of writing each day also allows students the opportunity to determine for themselves what is important to explore, giving them the choice and ownership that they need to develop their thinking about reading without relying on being told what to think about. This foundation is essential for students to have developed long before entering upper grades.

This type of writing is not meant to take more than a few minutes with time to share with partners; however, by doing short bursts each day, students will gain confidence and also have a record of their thinking over the course of a book to go back and choose something to really explore in longer and more formal writing such as text dependent or literary analysis.

On the third day we added one more strategy lesson that had students using the work they were already doing from the two days prior and creating theories about character.

During the active engagement, one partnership came up with a theory about Ruben that blew us away!

“Ruben is the kind of kid who takes responsibility for his actions.”

fourth grade partnership

During the independent work time, we continued to conference with students to see the kind of work they were doing and offer any additional tips or strategies to support them. Again we walked through a strategy right then and there with their independent reading book with anyone who was struggling.

Time to Push Play!

Now that students were exposed to three foundation strategies to work with, the teachers were ready to press play again on the unit. The minilessons in the unit are rigorous and provide exposure, but not all of the students may be ready to implement the strategies from the unit anchor chart until they have a more solid foundation to build on.

Normally we teach these foundational strategies in small group, but since the data showed this foundation was lacking for the majority of the students, we folded in this three session If…Then…type of mini unit. Not every fourth grade classroom across the district has the same needs, but by using your data, determining needs, and paying close attention to the learning progressions, you may need to fold in some different If…Then…units and mini units at various points throughout the year in order to best support the students who are sitting in front of you.

Moving forward, the students will not only use the anchor chart for the unit to guide their thinking about their independent reading but also have the option of using any strategies taught in the If…Then… mini unit or from small group and conferring lessons.

While meeting with the fourth grade teachers after pressing play, the teachers were happy to report that the engagement and confidence in their fourth graders was evident. I could feel their sigh of relief and renewed excitement in their work.

Because this type of scaffolding work is so dependent on the students who are currently in front of you, I am happy to meet with any teams that feel like their students are struggling with the pace and rigor of the units at any point in the year. Together we can support student needs!

At the Corner of Active Engagement and Analysis

While visiting classrooms, I’ve seen time and time again the effective use of my all time favorite teaching tool, turn and talk. The beauty of this tool is that it can be used in any classroom at any time and provides an opportunity for 100% student engagement.

Students, like grown ups, have a need to talk. By channeling student talk into instruction, that need is being met and students are less likely to lose engagement as they are when students are instead being cold-called on to speak. We all know we can leave it to the same three hands to do all the work for us.

Time is often saved using this effective tool because the teacher can listen in and know exactly who to call on to share with everyone or can even share some possible responses based on what he or she heard while eavesdropping.

My rule of thumb…every time you ask a question and find yourself scanning for someone to answer, STOP! This is the perfect time to instead say, “Turn and talk with your shoulder partner,” then listen in.

While visiting one particular fourth grade class, I was blown away by the amount of time students were actively engaged in the lesson. In fact, in close to 17 minutes, students had so much opportunity that the teacher only talked for a total of 6 minutes!

But this teacher took it to a whole new level when she provided a book club discussion within the lesson too. Sara Hearn discovered in a writing unit, prior to this year, that when students had the time to discuss a text in a book talk fashion that their writing of analysis grew exponentially. She has embedded this method into her minilessons at times to provide students with the opportunities to dig deeper by talking it out in a whole group. This is very similar to the spider web discussions we have been experimenting with in the middle school, also to push thinking and provide additional opportunities for analysis.

The thing is…and we all know this…ANALYSIS IS HARD! If we leave all analysis to writing, it’s even harder. The more opportunities students have to share after independent reading with their turn and talk partner, push their thinking during minilessons with their turn and talk partner, and participate in whole and small group book discussions, the more they can develop their analytical skills. If they can think it, they can say it, and if they can say it, they can write it, but they need time and opportunity to talk a whole lot.

Check out how Sara uses the tools of turn and talk and book discussion within a 17 minute period. While some parts may be difficult to hear, notice the level of engagement throughout the lesson as well as how the discussion is student-led.

Even though not every student had the chance to speak in the whole class discussion, Sara did provide an additional opportunity afterwards for a turn and talk with a shoulder partner.

To see how advanced this type of analysis work can get, check out how Diane Murray, who in four short years will have many of these fourth graders, uses student talk. With one open-ended prompt, these students led their own discussion that included characterization, changes in character, how parts affect the whole, symbolism, and theme without any additional prompting.

Student-led discussion and turn and talk are essential components of developing analytical thinking skills. We know that we can teach students to write TDAs until we are blue in the face, but if we are not taking the time to provide opportunities to discuss and develop their analytical thinking, the work will no doubt fall flat.

If you would like to experiment with this work with your students, you know where to find me!

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!

What’s the Deal with All These Sticky Notes?

While visiting classrooms and chatting with teachers and students, I’ve noticed some common themes.

  1. Kids want to be told what specifically to stop and jot about.
  2. Teachers are frustrated with minimal stop and jots and surface thinking on notebook pages.
  3. There are all these sticky notes, but now what to we do with them?

If you need a quick background on the purpose and benefits of the sticky note, read “The Life Cycle of a Post It: Management, Functionality, and Benefits of Capturing our Ideas on Post Its” from the Heinemann Blog.

As I listened to teachers and students, I decided to do some experimenting myself. I am a firm believer that students learn best when they have access to real modeling, so I pulled out a new notebook, chose a book from the classroom library, and got to work doing what I would expect from kids.

Much like reading to discover strategies that I use to keep myself focused, engaged, and thinking about my reading, taking the time to actively read with stickies in hand helped me see different strategies that I could use to model with students.

How do you know what to write on the sticky?

Short answer…whatever stands out to you! Stop and jots are not meant for everyone in the room to notice the same thing. Students do not need to be told, “Everyone should stop and jot about___,” nor do they need a worksheet, but a scaffold might include the close reading menu of possible lenses for reading and your current anchor charts for the unit of study. Remember, the close reading menu is just an extension of the anchor charts from the reading units. Students in the younger grades or students who struggle can even start with using SIR and note what is surprising, important, or repeated.

So what goes in the notebook then?

The notebook is not a place to rewrite what was noticed on the stickies. It is, however, a place to think deeply about something you may have noticed. After reading for about 20-25 minutes I stopped and jotted on a sticky 13 times in those 29 pages. So now what? I found myself looking back and noticed a pattern. I noticed that in those pages I wrote “unimpressed” multiple times. When I thought back, I realized that the main character and his mother both had multiple instances of acting unimpressed. As a reader, I know that when I see something come up again and again, it’s something to stop and think deeply about. Why would the author do that? What do I think it means? Why do I think it’s important?

I took three of my 13 stickies and started to explore through writing my thinking around that.

By doing the work myself, I notice that what stands out to me and what I need to think deeper about cannot be directed by a teacher or a worksheet.

I notice that over time (I’m now on page 110) I stop and jot most when:

  1. I see repetition (the way a character acts, responds to something, or even a word that’s repeated.)
  2. I see a character give advice.
  3. I notice a character acting differently than I would expect in a situation.
  4. I notice an issue the character is facing.

But Diane, who is reading the same book and noting, stops and jots most when:

  1. She sees a pattern in the moments of choice of a character.
  2. She notices the way a character struggles internally compared to externally.
  3. She sees how the setting might be driving a character’s choices.
Diane’s Notes

Is this one more thing to add to the massive plate?

No! It all goes together. Think back to the TDA training.

First, students stop and jot what they notice while independently reading. This may produce a lot of thinking, and that’s okay.

Next, students look back for BIG IDEAS they might notice through a pattern. When looking back on my stickies throughout pages 65-76, I noticed that there were a few that made me think about the issue of belonging.

Finally, students take that pattern or one BIG IDEA and explore this thinking deeper in the notebook. This is meant to push thinking about reading and practice skills like inference and analysis. But most importantly, it is mean to be student-driven.

Students need to be in the driver’s seat as much as possible. They choose their independent reading book, they choose their reading spot, they choose what to notice and what to explore deeper.

The more students are in the driver’s seat, the less they rely on what the teacher wants and what is the “right answer” or “right way”.

This process continues on a regular basis throughout the reading workshop. Each day students return to their reading, noticing, identifying patterns, and thinking deeper about BIG IDEAS. It’s also known as the life cycle of the sticky note.

One thing to consider. Writing about reading is only a small percentage of reading time. Some students will try to spend days on end in the same entry. This type of writing is about showing thinking more than formal writing.

Students need to know it’s about being FAST AND FURIOUS. All of my entries are no more than 5 minutes! This may need to be modeled!

How do I grade notebooks?

Notebooks are a playground for thinking and not meant to be grades each day; however, it is possible to have students choose one entry a week to self evaluate and turn in for a grade, but ideally a conference around their notebook would work better because students could leave with a strategy to try if they are struggling with any aspect of the life cycle of the sticky note.

Moving Forward!

Sometimes we get so focused on making sure everyone is doing the work that we get a little tunnel vision, requiring specific notebook pages that look a certain way. We focus on format and lose sight of the deep thinking. In my next post, I plan to show you the work of multiple teachers modeling the life cycle of a sticky note using the same book to highlight how even when reading the same book, we can notice, think, and explore a BIG IDEA differently, and it’s okay!

I leave you with my thinking across six independent reading sessions

Reading Logs that Work!

If you ask any reading teacher why they use a reading log, the answer in almost every case is to hold students accountable. Over the years my opinion of reading logs has changed drastically.

When my own children entered elementary school and needed to read independently and log their reading, I hated the reading log. It was in a notebook or binder packed in their schoolbag. The problem? My kids always read before going to bed, so the log was not readily available to complete each night without everyone getting out of bed, unpacking schoolbags and repacking to go back to bed. I figured this was why my students were not filling in their logs. So I solved the problem and recreated the log so it was a bookmark.

Did this solve the problem? Well, it did for my kids who had the same routine each day, but not my students. They still were not filling in their logs. Then my children grew older and became more and more involved in sports and other activities. That’s when I realized reading 20-30 minutes every night was not always possible when my fourth grader was not getting home from soccer practice until almost 9pm a couple nights a week and still had to shower and do homework. Then I decided as long as everyone was averaging three hours a week of at home reading, we were good.

No matter what I did those logs told me one thing…LIES. They are nothing but lies. How many pages did you read? Lies. How many minutes did you read? Lies. What page did you start and end on? Lies.

I stopped focusing on the log (otherwise known as the web of lies) and started focusing on the readers. I started with having kids make lists of what they want to read in their reader’s notebook. Something they could continuously return to and add new books as we have book tastings, book talks, and just casually share with our reading partners and friends while crossing off the books as they read.

Through sharing my own reading, this idea then morphed into a new kind of reading log and students began to create similar pages in their notebook with keys to identify what different marks meant. My key shows:

  1. Fully highlighted books are completed
  2. Halfway highlighted books are abandoned
  3. A dot next to a book is the book I want to read next (my book on deck…because readers have a plan!)
  4. A line next to a book is the book I am currently reading.

I found that when I started logging this way, I was able to have real conversations with kids and get a quick glance during a conference. I could see quickly how much and how widely a student was reading. I could see how often books were being abandoned and if that was the case, I could share some strategy lessons with my frequent abandoners about choosing just right books and improving reading engagement.

The reading log certainly has a place in the reading workshop. It is used to help teachers determine needs and determine next steps for kids. It is a snapshot that teachers can use as a tool. What I’ve learned in my own experience is the reading log is not going to hold kids accountable or prove they are reading. More than likely it may even create an environment where compliance is seen as more valuable than reading because the web of lies is okay as long as it is complete.

I know what you’re thinking…so how do I know kids are reading? How do I hold them accountable for reading? My go to answers? Make reading real and not a chore we have to do. Make reading real and not busywork. Always make reading real. Real readers don’t write down how many minutes each night they read. Real readers share their reading, talk about their reading, and even post about their reading. So find ways to make reading real.

Web of lies at its finest

The funny thing about the webs of lies that students turned in was that most of them were reading. They just weren’t filling in the log. And I knew they were reading because I watched them read and conferred with them about their reading.

I’m not saying to abandon all logs. I am saying to ask yourself if you are creating real reading experiences and a tool to talk about reading or are you pushing busywork that is more about compliance than reading? And the best part is you will not have to pay anyone on Teachers Pay Teachers or make any photocopying. Now that’s money and time saved!

The Classroom Library: What Are Your Marketing Tools?

Imagine walking into a book store and the books are just sitting on the shelf much like the image on the left (below). Not very appealing. Not drawing you in. I don’t know about you, but even when I’m walking through the local Barnes and Noble to get into the mall, I get sucked into displays and other eye catching arrangements of books that I didn’t even know I needed to read!

Imagine if we set up our classroom libraries like the image on the right (above). Drawing kids in. Showing them what they didn’t even know they needed to reed. What if we talked to kids in ways that got them excited about books. Just recently I was visiting a classroom library with the school nurse who wanted to take on the Mirror Challenge and check out a book. As we were looking, I was picking up books and talking about them to the kids around me. One of those books was Danielle Vega’s The Merciless. “This book…oh my god…it’s like mean girls meets horror…I’ve never read anything like it. And it’s a series!” It was snatched out of my hand and checked out before I even finished!

We draw in readers by marketing. And preadolescent and adolescent kids really need convincing, so we need some strong marketing tools! Here are a few that have made all the difference.

Know your library!

When reading teachers are reading what’s in their library, they become amazing resources because they can recommend and connect with kids so much faster. When teachers have asked me how I can easily conference with kids about books, my only response is because I read what they do. I have a pretty firm grasp on if you like this book or author then you’ll like this book or author too. If you are a middle schooler who refuses to read or reads at a lower level but do not want to read “baby books” I know some pretty edgy books that are mature, peak interest quick, and are less complex in readability. I can finish a book, create a one liner description, and it’s out of my hands immediately. I can read a book like Thirteen Reasons Why and be honest that I just didn’t understand why these reasons led to her decision. I told my kids, “I don’t know if it’s because I’m in my forties and just so far removed from being a teenager, but I don’t think these were reasons that were enough. But maybe I’m comparing them to real grown up problems that you don’t know about yet. I’m curious what you guys think.” And before I know it I have several kids reading it and we are discussing along the way what we think of these reasons. I don’t write all of this to brag and pat myself on the back. I’ve admitted here that I have not always been able to do this. But I can now because I read, I read as much as I expect my students to read, and the benefits are immediate and powerful.

Share Your Reading!

I’ve always kept my own reading log that was visible and updated regularly. My students kept a similar log. To the right was my log last year that I kept in one classroom for students to see my reading and then I would leave the books as I finished for them to borrow. As I visited the class and talked to kids about their reading, I shared mine and even added books they were reading that interested me.

This is a true reading log that grows throughout the year and doesn’t tell lies of how many minutes I read each night. And guess what? Even I abandon the occasional book!

This year some of the reading teachers have decided to try something similar.

Teachers, secretaries, administrators, instructional assistants, social workers, coaches, and nurses who have taken on the Mirror Challenge at both middle schools have been sharing their reading outside their doors too. What a great way to talk about common interests, books, and reading for different purposes! The school nurse at Snyder and the K-8 Social Emotional Learning Instructional Coach bonded at lunch over a similar interest they realized through sharing their current read! We are modeling that reading is not just something we have to do for school.

While visiting one classroom recently I noticed another way reading is shared. Mrs. Sperduto at Shafer is using What I’m Reading to display in her room. As she finishes a book, she adds to the string of “Must Reads”. Each print out has a QR code that takes readers to the Goodreads page for that book to read more about it.


Mrs. Simon at Snyder is very well known for her amazing library displays and catchy blurbs. When she isn’t talking about books, she lets the blurbs do it for her.

Reader Recommendations and Hashtags

Mrs. Simon also has students write quick notes about the books they recommend as they finish then display the note with the book for students when they are browsing for new reads.

Mrs. Murray at Shafer is having students share their reading with a picture of the book and a recommendation. This is one version of using the hashtag in the classroom. Teachers are starting to use the hashtags on Twitter to share reading and encourage students to join in. That way students can search a hashtag and get lots of ideas of what to read next.

The student in the image on the left, wrote a note about the book on the book’s cover to share with others.

Bulletin board become in class Twitter feed


Speed Dating, Book Tastings, and Good Ol’ Fashion Turn and Talk

Many teachers spread the books across the room in centers and have students walk around and visit the centers they are interested in to look the books over, talk to others about what they’ve already read and authors they recognize. As they move around the room they make a list of the books that interest them and decide on the one they’d like to start first.

Another way is to create book tastings by spreading books out on the table and having students read each book for about three minutes and then deciding which one they would like to take and continue.

Nothing beats a chance to turn and talk with peers about what they’re currently reading on a pretty regular basis. I used to do quick “circle groups” where students were separated into groups of 4-5 and had to stand in a circle to discuss what they were reading (yes, we even did minliessons on how to stand in a circle and have this discussion for it to really work well). A timer was set and students talked and when time was up they had a chance to do add anything that sounded interesting to their list of “interested in reading” in the reader’s notebook.

What’s the Point?

The words of Jennifer Serravallo ring true for me. Over the years I have found that a huge part of getting kids to read and read a lot is a huge undertaking. Our job is not just to teach but to sell reading to our kids. And the time spent to know our books, market our libraries, and create interest is time well spent.

As I continue to visit schools and classrooms this year, I will be on the lookout for the great things I know many of you already do to sell those books! One of the fun parts of my job is sharing what our great teachers do because we are so busy in our own room with our own kids that we don’t always get to see the great ideas we could incorporate too!

The Mirror Challenge…Who’s In?

Let me start with a quick flashback and confession. When I came back to teaching after having my kids, I was slightly out of touch. I had kids that ranged from two to seven and I was busy. My reading was limited to what I had to read for continuing education classes, self-help books like how to help my child with ADHD, and children’s bedtime stories. So when my students were asking if I liked Hunger Games or Twilight, two big series at the time, I was at a loss. I noticed that everything kids asked me about, I had the same response, “I haven’t read that yet.” And I’m going to be honest with you, I was not going to read it because I was too busy. And that’s what I hear so often from so many teachers, “I just don’t have time to read.” And I get it.

What I noticed was my students were reading less and less as I was less and less in touch. And let’s be real…why would kids read when even their reading teacher isn’t reading? The older kids get, and especially in grades sixth through eighth, the more they despise the do–as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do-approach. So if the adults around them are not reading, why should they? It’s clearly not important, right?

Fast forward a few years and my oldest, a very strong reader, was starting fourth grade. He was also starting to read books that were on my middle school classroom library shelves. I wanted to be able to talk about books with him, so we started reading one series after the other at the same time. It started with Among the Hidden, then The Hunger Games (our favorite) before moving on to Divergent and then The Fifth Wave. But while my son and I read each series and talked about them, I noticed that I was having more and more conversations with kids at school about these same books and we were all excited about it. I was having trouble keeping those books on the shelves and started adding more and more because my students were reading more and more, and before I knew it, I was reading their recommendations too.

Without even realizing it at first, I had so many readers who were devouring books, and it was because I was reading. No incentive nor connection to grade motivated students to read more than having a teacher who was a reader, and I think there are several reasons why.

  • By just reading I had a common ground to talk to kids. If I was reading something like The Cellar I would talk about how much this book hooked me because it was similar to an episode I might see on the television show Criminal Minds, which is a series I love. It was a dark, twisted, fast-paced psychological thriller. Kids were then starting to talk to me about the type of television show or movie that was similar to their books, so when I came across kids who didn’t read because let’s face it, they just had not found the right book yet, I could ask, “So what types of movies and television shows do you watch?” and go from there.
  • By just reading I was experiencing the same struggles as kids. You think grown ups are busy? Kids are busy too! They have school, after school activities, family obligations, distractions, and disruptions in the home too. I started paying attention to those struggles and simply talking to kids about it. I would tell them for example, “Last night I was so sucked into scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, and I just didn’t feel like reading my book. I tried anyway, but I’d read a page and then turn on my phone to scroll again, and I was just not getting my reading in. I noticed this is happening to me a lot…I’m just procrastinating. So I set my timer for 20 minutes and told myself I am not allowed to touch my phone until the timer goes off and I read. It worked. I think when I notice I’m procrastinating and wasting time on social media, I need to remind myself to set a timer and keep increasing the time to get back to my reading goals.” You know what I found out? Kids respect that. They respect the honesty about real struggles because it’s not always easy to read, but I would share my struggles and become a model for coming up with strategies for those struggles. Kids think reading just comes easy to some. It doesn’t. We all face struggles and have to use strategies to overcome them. Pay attention to the struggles and talk about them!
  • By just reading I became a mirror for what I expect. We can’t tell kids how important it is to read and then not read ourselves. Yes, there are a ton of benefits that our kids need academically including the development of vocabulary, background knowledge, inferring and analysis skills, but they also need the development of empathy that we we get from reading about characters who live different lives with different struggles that we may not experience ourselves but others in our community may. And guess what? Grown ups need that too! But so long as kids see that reading is a chore they have to do and the grown ups can say they are too busy or they don’t like it, then we will never be able to get more than a small population to be readers.

Forgive me while I stand on my soapbox a bit longer.

So where am I going with this? Well, I am proposing, as educators, we become the mirror. Not just reading teachers…all of us. We put our excuses away and we read. We know that consistent, independent reading is a HUGE factor in academic success. But to make real change, we need to start with ourselves and let it grow from there.

I’ve been thinking of some starting ideas. What if every teacher advertised what they are reading. Let the kids call you out when you are spending too long with that same book! Actually sometimes when I just don’t feel like it, I remember that I share my reading with kids. They know what I am reading, and I can’t stay stuck in a book too long. That alone gets my butt moving. So what does that look like?

What if we all posted our current reads. I’m currently reading two books. One I listen to in the car on Audible while I drive my kids here, there, and everywhere. And the other I read most nights (I’m not perfect) before I go to bed.

What if we shared great reads with kids in person or even through Twitter?

Imagine being able to just type in a hashtag like #Snyderowlsread or #Shafersharksread and getting book recommendations. This is something kids can do too!

I challenge all of us to take the challenge and become the mirror. I know from experience that the more we read, advertise, and share, the more we hook students. So imagine if this was bigger than just a few teachers. Imagine what could happen if as a staff we all took the challenge.

It all starts with us. We are teachers. We teach, we inspire, we motivate, we encourage, and we are so much more effective when we are the models for what we expect.

So, I will step down off my soapbox, but I have one question…

Who’s with me?

Growing from Reflective Practice

In mid-December, Heidi and I met with our mentor, Carol, who introduced the continuum of self-reflection. Upon reviewing the different stages, we began a conversation about meeting teachers where they are on the continuum and how even teachers who fall under the refinement stage can still grow and continue to build on their skill set. Through that conversation, I decided that I wanted to focus on increasing student engagement.

Heidi and Carol visited the class where I noticed the most students that were disengaged. It was noted that students were struggling with something as simple as the turn and talk strategy as well as transitioning from the active engagement part of the lesson to the independent practice. At that point, students were seated with book club partners, but they were not necessarily comfortable talking with them. This led to a lesson where I revisited how to have a powerful turn and talk discussion and students had the opportunity to practice that strategy. Heidi suggested having students turn and talk to explain the directions before independent practice to help with that transition. After the lesson, we spoke about what Heidi and Carol observed. Students showed some improvement, but we knew there were more strategies I could implement that could be more successful.

We were just closing out our unit on nonfiction book clubs and starting historical fiction book clubs. At our regional meeting, Heidi participated in a session called “Maker ELA” where students represent their ideas using different items in a brown bag, such as, playdoh, paper clips, and popsicle sticks. Heidi was eager to try it out and came up with an idea of having students represent the struggles and issues faced by people during the time periods that our historical fiction books covered. Students were introduced to each time period by viewing videos of that era and from there they created their visual representations. To say this project was a success would be an understatement. Students who are normally reluctant to participate were actively engaged and having fun with it.

Heidi and I had learned a discussion strategy called a “spider web” discussion at a PIIC meeting last year that we had used when presenting at our local and regional meetings. Additionally, I had used this strategy last year in my reading class and my students loved it. We planned our first spider web discussion where students discussed the adversity the characters faced in their books and how they responded. At the end of the discussion, we asked students what they thought went well and what could be improved on. Their suggestions were thoughtful and were used to create the norms for the next spider web discussion.

Before we began the next spider web discussion, we revisited the discussion expectations and suggestions given by students. One of those suggestions was to make the discussion topic debatable. Students responded to a short write that had them choose the statement that they agreed with and support it with evidence from their historical fiction book. Although, more students participated and seemed more engaged, there were students who were off topic and disruptive. My mentor, Carol, developed a key to track students’ involvement in the discussion and also mentioned that our next discussion should be arranged as a fish bowl to give students an opportunity to track the discussion. These ideas drove our planning for the next spider web discussion.

The classroom was organized so that there was a small circle of desks with WITTMYST written across the top as a reminder that students should always support their response with evidence from the text. Before students participated in the next spider web discussion, they responded to a short write prompt and shared their response with their turn and talk partner. Students reading about the holocaust were selected to be in the fishbowl while the students on the outside were tracking the conversation. I revisited the expectations and norms created by students and the conversation among the students began. It was evident that the strategies put in place had an impact on the success of the discussion.

After reviewing the data collected, we noticed that the discussions in every class showed growth, some more significant than others. There was an increase in evidence provided to support opinions, more students participated, and students took more risks in an effort to connect their ideas from their books to their own lives. However, there is still growth to be made, and I will use the data to plan another spider web discussion.

Reflective teaching has been a game changer for me and how I approach planning and instruction. The feedback from students regarding the discussions and highly engaging lessons we implemented was enlightening. I realized how important it is to ask my students for feedback, reflect on my own teaching and effectiveness, and plan accordingly. We started this year with the Reading Units of Study and while the texts and strategies suggested were highly engaging, I was finding it was easy to get stuck in a monotonous cycle of what my students were describing as boring. Because it was the first year of implementation, I was afraid to deviate from the lessons, but once I knew how my fears were impacting student engagement, I quickly accepted support and felt more comfortable bringing in effective engagement strategies that do work well in a workshop classroom but are not necessarily shared in the narrative of the Units of Study.

From my initial meeting with Heidi and Carol, I presented the idea of increasing engagement as an opportunity for growth. Throughout the entire planning process and implementation, we had conversations about ideas, what was working, and what could be modified. The outcome revealed that reflection is the key to growth and transformation. In order to continue growing as an educator and provide lessons that are powerful and engaging, I will maintain the habit of constant reflection to drive planning and instruction.