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!

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.

Blurbs

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

Tweet…Tweet…Tweet!

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?