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Blending Reading & Writing Workshop: Inquiry Questions

Reading and writing workshop in middle and high school English: use an inquiry approach.

What do you wonder? What are you passionate about? What would you like to learn?

These questions are not ones found on tests. They are, however, the basis for inquiry-based learning where students are invited to be active, rather than passive learners. Inquiry allows students to explore and learn about a topic that can possibly ignite their wonder and desire to learn. They are also questions that can help you blend reading and writing workshop in your secondary classroom.


PLAN FOR THE END: 
At the end of the year, my students will complete a multi-genre project that will illustrate their exploration of an inquiry question. This will require that they read non-fiction, poetry and other texts, as well as their novels, looking for answers to the question they pose. It will also require that they experiment with various types of writing as they explore the idea. 

However, we won't start working on that until later in the semester. At this point, I just want them to find something that captures their attention or imagination.


Reading and writing workshop in middle and high school English: use an inquiry approach.
FIRST YOU MODEL: 
Before you ask your students to develop inquiry questions, you should model your own process. Here's how I do it: when were are reading our novels at the beginning of a semester, I record the things I wonder about as I read my book. I'll share this with my class and then model how I could use these "wonders" to create an inquiry question. I want them to focus on an area that they would like to explore, something they would like to learn more about. For example right now I'm reading The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn. It's set in France and spans the time between the first World War and immediately following the second. I could  share the following questions with my students based on the things I've wondered: How true are the facts of this story? How many women worked as spies/for the resistance? Did they make a difference? What are the towns in the story really like? Did they recover from the German occupation? After I share my questions with them, I ask them to brainstorm a list of their own.

Discuss Universal Themes

The students will often need guidance to see links between texts, so we spend a lot of time discussing the concept of universal themes. Students will meet in small groups to come up with common ground between the individual texts that they are reading. After group discussions, students will reflect in their notebooks about the ways that these themes are present in their own reading. It's a great critical thinking exercise because sometimes, the link is not obvious -- but is often there.


Reading and writing workshop in middle and high school English: use an inquiry approach.

This is an effective strategy for helping them find ideas to explore, especially if they are having trouble finding inspiration on their own.

Finding a Topic for Inquiry:
I let my students read and question for several weeks, but then I want them to choose a topic to explore. They spend time some time reflecting in their journals and discussing with their classmates as they explore ideas for their inquiry project. 

After they've had time for individual reflection and discussion with partners, they will share their ideas with the class, so those who are having trouble coming up with an idea might be inspired by the ideas of others.

Link to Full Class Texts
Because I want my students to complete a multi-genre project, I need to expose them to a variety of works. I choose engaging non-fiction texts and poems that work for my mini-lessons and connect to some of the themes my students have been discussing. I allow them to use any of these works for their final project and encourage them to find their own.

For example, imagine if your students had read any of the following, either on their own or as a class: The Merchant of Venice, Animal Farm , Night, 1984, The Poisonwood Bible, The Hate U Give, or All American BoysThey may be able to use a combination of any of them to do a project that explores why it seems to be part of human nature to want to wield power and/or control over another -- and what we can do to change that.

I hope that gives you some ideas for how you can use inquiry in conjunction with reading and writing workshop. If you'd like more ideas, and some freebies, please sign up for 5 Days of Workshop Freebies.




Teaching Literary Analysis: 5 things that really work!

Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work
Grading literary analysis essays has never been something I've looked forward to. Often, it's an exercise in frustration and a chance to feel like I've failed my students. But the last few days, I've been in the middle of grading final essays from my tenth graders, and I have to say I'm excited with what I'm reading (did I just use excited and grading in the same sentence??)


Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work
These students are in my Pre-IB class, and so I spend less time doing writing/reading workshop with them because they have to get "trained" for what comes next in IB. In short, we need to do a lot of literary analysis. This year, however,  I took a risk: I gave fewer long writing assignments and gave more short, formative ones. I also required students to pass in revised work after they read my feedback. I wrote a post about the process a few weeks ago - check it out here.

I knew that this final essay, on To Kill a Mockingbird, would inform me on whether or not my experiment was a success. We did not spend a lot of time in class on it, nor did I set up the usual supports that I had with previous assignments. That's because it's part of their final assessment, and their time to showcase what they've learned --without my guiding hand.


As I said, above, I'm thrilled with the final results. Maybe these guys are a special group, or maybe...just maybe...slowing down and concentrating on the process is the answer.


So, I thought I'd revisit and share the steps I took this year to get my kiddos to this point.


1. Focus on smaller elements of the process -- especially the areas that they find difficult.



Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work


I decided to devote more time to the components of literary analysis that my students find difficult. I knew, after years of frustration, where the weaknesses were, so I made a list and then created lessons and activities that targeted them:

  • a poorly constructed thesis
  • weak connections to the thesis throughout the essay
  • plot summary v analysis
  • underdeveloped ideas
  • poorly chosen textual evidence

My previous methods of instruction covered all of these things, but the results were telling me it wasn't enough. So I decided to slow things down to spend more class time on each of these areas of weakness, instead of charging ahead to yet another essay.


2. Combine explicit instruction with time to practice


Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work

Like I said above, I had tons of lessons in the vault for all of the items on my list. But it was time to chuck them out and start from scratch, so I could really zero in on the skills that were lacking.  I revamped my handouts, making them more detailed but also more student-friendly; then, I designed focused lessons that allowed the kids to practice each skill.  

We started with learning to understand the difference between factual and analytical statements and switched to finding the very best evidence to back up the assertions they learned to make (you can read about it in detail on this post). Only after I was sure they understood the process of how to do an analysis and how to write analytical statements did we move on to backing them up with evidence. 


3. Give short, focused assignments



Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work

I firmly believe that one barrier to student success in written analysis is that we overwhelm them with too many things to work on at once. Yes, by high school they should be able to juggle a number of balls at the same time, but if we see that they are having trouble, it's ok to set some of those balls down for a bit. 


We "set down" the need to complete a whole essay in favour of mastering the skills necessary to do so. I decided that it was u
seless to keep doing essays when they were doing them poorly. If they didn't understand the process the first time, doing one more was not going to make it better until we dealt with the individual issues. 

For several days I used the following bell ringer: 

  • Make a focused assertion about any aspect of the text. 
  • Back up the assertion with evidence
  • Include commentary that explains how the evidence proves the assertion.

After they had completed three of these bell ringers, I asked them to pass in their best for feedback. If they didn't do it right, they did it again. Because I was focusing on so few things, and the assignment was so short, it took me very little time to give them feedback -- and very few had to redo it anyway.

As we studied A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird, students did a number of activities that zeroed in on finding "the best" evidence to back up their assertions, rather than what was most easy or obvious. This work also focused students on pushing their points to fully develop their ideas. We spent way more time on this than I have in previous years, but it's made a difference, and they are providing me with much better textual evidence than they were at the beginning of the semester. You can read about this in more detail here and here.


4. Try a guided essay

Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work

This is another step that may cause some English teachers to roll their eyes. Yes, students should be able to write an essay on their own by tenth grade, but many of them can't do it very well. I was tired of seeing success in only a percentage of my kids; I wanted them all to "get" it.

We worked together to create a thesis about the theme of A Separate Peace, and then we went to the lab to write the essay. There, I guided them as they did their work, so there was no mystery over what they should be doing. I've written about the process in more detail here

When I planned this guided essay (and other in class activities), I did so knowing what their final essay would be: illustrate how Harper Lee uses characterization to develop one theme in the novel. Therefore, the guided essay had a similar thesis, and our class activities focused on finding good evidence to support our assertions about Lee's themes. That way, they could use the feedback they receive on that assignment, and the evidence they collected during class work, to do a better job of the Mockingbird essay. 


5. Offer Redos and Revisions

Teaching literary analysis: 5 things that really work

This, my friends, is the key. When I built in a feedback-revision cycle as an integral part of the learning process, I saw great strides in my students' writing.  It was another aspect of my experiment that required more time, but it was time so well spent. We put our focus on learning and improving, rather than racing to finish a certain number of assignments, and as I said above, my students were able to create better work than previous students before.

I know that the thought of redos is a daunting one -- I have been there, believe me -- but you can read about my evolution with this here.

So that's it. I have never ended a semester with my Pre-IB class so satisfied with what we have done together. And this is important because many of them will be in my room again in September, ready to begin the International Baccalaureate program. It's a wonderful thing knowing that they will be ready to hit the ground running. 

If you'd like to check out the handouts and activities I reference in this process, here they are:

Teaching the Process of Literary Analysis
Teaching Students to Find Evidence in Text (part one)
Teaching Students to Find Evidence in Text (part two)



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Descriptive Writing - Strategies for Teaching

Teaching descriptive writing

I love teaching descriptive writing and I don't save it for creative assignments only. That is because the elements that make description so important in creative writing are the very ones that make for rich and engaging expository and persuasive pieces as well.

I want my students to be able to capture their readers' or listeners' attention with their words, and so I show them that accurate and vivid descriptions are the best way to engage any audience. By making it a daily practice to show, not tell, my students get into the habit of always considering their words and phrases.

Let's talk about the strategies I use to build that habit in my students:



1.  Illustrate descriptive writing in a variety of genres:

Showing, not telling, is a cornerstone of all writing and speaking in Room 213. From the very first class, my students start practicing description, regardless of what they are working on, even with class discussions and speaking assignments. Right from the beginning I want my students to begin playing with words, so I show them how other writers do so with mentor sentences and texts. Because I want them to know that description is a key part of all genres of writing, I show them news articles, editorials, letters, short stories and excerpts from novels to illustrate how authors choose their words and phrases to paint pictures in their readers' minds.


I always start with passages from the YA novels my students are reading. This allows me to not only illustrate the ways that writers show, rather than tell, but to also pique their interest in new titles they might like to check out. Here's one from Matthew Quick's Every Exquisite Thing: 

Then we talked a lot about our parents and how we didn't want to become them, but we had no other role models--or "maps," Alex kept saying. "My father is a terrible map, mostly because he doesn't ever lead me anywhere." And I thought about my parents being maps that led to places I didn't want to go-- and it made a shocking amount of sense, using the word maps to describe parents. If almost made you feel like you could fold Mom and Dad up and lock them away in the glove compartment of your car and just joyride for the rest of your life maybe.

We talk about the metaphor that Quick has chosen to describe parents. We discuss the effectiveness of that choice, and how it gives the reader a much better picture than just saying "our parents guide us." It's also interesting that the narrator reflects on the picture that Alex created for him with the carefully chosen word, map.

Then, I'll show my students examples of description in non-fiction and poetry too. For example, I have used Santiago Lyon's The Purpose of Photography in a Post-Truth Era to illustrate the effect of description on reader engagement. I show students two openings for the article. The first I wrote myself, and the second is Lyon's opening: 

There is a controversy over the number of people who attended Trump's inauguration, and people are questioning the validity of photographs that captured the crowd size at the ceremony.

Theatrics are an integral part of the American presidential inauguration. A well-located stage, many actors, a few scripted roles, costumes, crowds and waving flags all culminating in the oath of office. After the deed was done this time, artillery pieces fired and the new President spoke; cameras whirred and the audience roared.

Then we discuss the difference between the two and why the second is a far more interesting read, one that makes the reader want more.

We read the rest of Lyon's piece and I pause on sentences like this one, where he refers to the swollen and treacherous river of content now requires us to question the source of everything we see and read. We discuss why this is very effective metaphor to describe the onslaught of images and information we have to navigate today. 

There are many places to access great mentor texts, but my favourites are Time Opinion, The Atlantic, New York Times Op-Eds, and Mitch Albom's Sports Articles


2.  Target skills so kids can practice

I break the skills of descriptive writing into chunks and present mini-lessons paired with mentor texts. One day we might look at tired words and active verbs. Another we will look at sensory images. Each time I model the skill then give kids a chance to practice it themselves.

For example, if we are talking about verb choice, I will show them lots of examples, like the ones in Lyon's piece above: cameras whirred and the audience roared. I ask them how the verbs whirred and roared affect the meaning of the sentence. 


Then, they practice. I do this in a number of ways: I might give them mentor sentences to mimic, or I'll have them read over some of their journal entries to look for places where they can use more effective, active verbs.




Teaching descriptive writing

I also use learning stations to give students opportunities to practice these skills, beyond what they've done during our mini-lessons. The stations target components of descriptive writing like sensory imagery, figurative language and diction. Students get to experiment with their words in a low-stakes, highly engaging way.


3. Make description a daily event

Strategies for teaching descriptive writing from Room 213
As I've said already, I want my students to be descriptive, regardless of the genre. In order to foster this, descriptive writing is not just reserved for a certain unit or assignment; we make it a daily practice to show, rather than tell. 

After every writing prompt we take a few minutes to reflect and revise, focusing on the skill I'm targeting that day. I instruct students to re-read their words and highlight or underline places that need more detail or description. I might ask them to find one passage that would be enhanced with a sensory image, a more accurate word, or some figurative language. Some days, we take the time for them to actually add these things, but more often than not, they will just highlight and make notes in their margins. We don't always have the time to finish the revision; however, I believe that those few minutes reflecting and note taking builds that habit for the kids, so they begin to naturally look for ways to be more descriptive, without me telling them to be.  

With major assessments, even speaking ones, students consider how they can use description to enhance their work: can they draw the reader or listener in with a descriptive opening? Can you enhance one of your points with some sensory imagery? Will figurative language help the reader see your point more clearly? These questions are built into all of our revision activities, like peer checklists or revision stations, but by the time we get to that stage of the writing process, the kids already know that I want them to show, not tell.

I hope I've given you some useful ideas that you can use in your classroom. If you are interested in any of the resources mentioned in this article, you can check them out here.


Short Mentor Texts

Writing Lessons: Word Choice
Descriptive Writing Learning Stations
Writing Prompts For Building Skills & Stamina


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Teaching a Novel or Play with Excerpts: Please don't!


It's a trend that I find, quite frankly, disturbing: teaching a longer text by focusing on excerpts and not expecting kids to read the whole thing.

There appears to be two reasons for this: we don't have time and kids won't read it anyway. I know that these statements have a great deal of validity, but I'm here to make a plea for why we English teachers should fight this idea -- and then I'll have some suggestions to help you do that.


Time is always an issue.

I know that full well. I've been teaching with one eye on the clock and the other on the calendar my whole career. However, a wonderful thing happened part way through my career when our district switched to an outcomes-based curriculum. We teach skills and not texts, and therefore can map out our year focusing on lessons that teach kids how to think, learn and communicate. Once I released myself from the chains of having to do a certain number of short stories, poems and novels, the time issue lessened (let's be honest; it'll never completely go away). 

Now I know that not everyone has the freedom I have in my classroom, but I believe there are ways that we can carve out time for what's important. More on that to come.


The kids won't read the whole text, so why bother?

I get it. I know that struggle is real. But, there are a number of problems with giving into this idea, the first of which is that the tail is wagging the dog. It's kind of like when you're a parent and you know it's easier to pick up the dirty socks or take out the garbage than nagging your kid to do it. It's easier to just give in to their very normal teenage attitude. But, if we do, we keep picking up the socks, taking out the garbage...and teaching excerpts rather than novels. More importantly, our kids don't learn a sense of responsibility, a work ethic or a love of reading.

I'll leave the work ethic thing for another post, because I'm writing today to implore you to fight this excerpt trend and try instead to foster the love of reading in your kids. I know that our fast-paced, social-media driven, sound-bite society has changed us all, even English teachers. Attention spans have shortened and many forces compete for our focus. But that doesn't mean that reading has lost its importance or meaning. And if we don't do our part to show students that, what does it matter if they can write a topic sentence or use a semi-colon properly? They won't likely analyze a poem or parse a sentence ten years after they leave us, but hopefully they'll want to read a book.


 Let's get real.

Ok, I know that you love to read and you get what I'm saying. But you live in reality, not between the pages of a book. You have a ticking clock in your ear and a bunch of teenagers in front of you who don't want to read, especially at home. You just can't take the time to read the whole novel in class, so what's wrong with focusing on the highlights, giving them Atticus' wise words and Macbeth's soliloquies, then catching the rest in the movie?

While this might seem like a great alternative, I just don't see how a student can really understand the nuances of a text by jumping through the highlights. Some teachers at my school have started doing this with Shakespeare. They don't want to give him up completely, but they don't want to deal with dragging the kids through it. My own kids have been in those classes and they don't get why I love Macbeth so much. They did not get to understand the character and plot development because they focused on a few soliloquies that did not have the important background information propping them up. They watched a movie with characters speaking a language they didn't understand. Yes, they got the soliloquies, because they'd gone over them in class, but the rest was just gobbledygook to them. What's the point? Is it just to inoculate them with Shakespeare?  Give them a quick shot and say it's done? My students read the whole thing, but we make it relevant. They don't all love it, but many of them actually enjoy it, and all of them get the satisfaction of making it all the way through.


I promised some solutions.

I know my ranting still hasn't changed your reality, so I'll stop and get to my suggestions. I was about to write solutions and changed it because we can never totally solve this problem. There will never be enough time and some students will never read the texts. However, these ideas just might help you improve the situation.

I think we need to ask ourselves: What does "teaching" a novel actually mean?  Traditionally, we gave students chapter questions that ensured they "got" every little piece of the author's message and technique. Think of yourself: if you had to stop reading after every chapter or two to answer a bunch of questions, would you still enjoy the experience? The answer is obvious: doing so would not enhance your enjoyment of the book and it won't entice kids to read either.

So what's the solution? We need to spend planning time zeroing in on the most important parts of the text. We don't need to pick all of the meat off the bone for the kids to get what they need from the novel or play. Decide on the highlights, those things you would use as excerpts, for example, and create some lessons or activities around those. I've actually written a post already about the strategies I use to get my kids to read, so you can check that out here.

The strategies I wrote about in that post also deal with the time issue. When we focus on skills, rather than all of the content, and avoid questions on every chapter, we can get through the novel more quickly. Nothing can kill the joy of reading quicker than spending weeks and weeks on one text. This does require reading for homework, but it's an expectation I have and enforce as much as I can. I always give the text to the kids a week or more before we start discussing it, while I'm finishing something else, and build in some time for reading in class. When we are discussing the text, students who come without the reading done and notes taken can't participate in the small group discussions until they finish. It takes a few days of enforcing this, but most start doing their homework.




Use independent reading as much as you can!


My best tip to instil a love of reading books, though, is to get away from just doing full class novels and use independent reading or readers' workshop. I start every semester with two months of workshop and then end with at least one full class study, usually a play and a novel. My hope is by that time, after reading for enjoyment and stamina, the kids will be more likely to read the whole text. You can read more about how I do that in my classroom here and here.

So...what if you tired these things and only 1/2 of your students actually read the whole text? Well, that's fifty percent more than would have read it if you only taught excerpts! We have to pick our battles, folks, but this is one that is well worth fighting.

I know this is a controversial subject, but I love a good debate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments :)

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Redos: an essential part of the learning process


Years ago, I would have shuddered at the thought of asking my students to redo an assignment, envisioning myself chained to my desk for hours, buried under paper. However, several things made me change my mind about this:

1. I was giving feedback and then moving on without giving students a chance to use it, hoping that they would remember what I told them the next time we did something similar-- which could happen weeks later. Only my most conscientious students would look back at the old rubric, while the rest just kept making the same mistakes. Most performance based activities are built around a feedback-practice model. The track athlete, the basketball player and the swimmer get feedback from their coach and then get to try their skills again before the big game. The singer and actor do the same. But my students often got feedback and the grade at the same time. Even when I'd given them lots of help as they worked on an assignment, the best feedback came just as we were ready to move on to something new. That just didn't feel right anymore.

2. At the beginning of every semester, I preached the importance of embracing failure. But I was just giving lip service to its importance in the learning process. I realized that if I was telling my students it's ok to make mistakes as long as they learn from them, then I should give them a chance to do just that.


I knew something needed to change, but I am also a realist who really does not enjoy the time I spend grading assignments. How could I allow redos without chaining myself to my desk?

In my regular academic classes, I started using writer's and reader's workshop, which is built around the feedback-revision model. However, I didn't have that luxury with my International Baccalaureate classes because of the standardized nature of the program. I needed to find another way to work on the feedback-revision cycle with them.

After a few semesters of trial and error, I've come up with a system that has lead to great improvements in my students' writing. Now, the students redo many of their assignments. It's mandatory for all of them, not just the ones who did not attain a certain mark. This is because I want all of them to work to improve their skills. This does two things: it leads to better writing, and it puts the focus on the learning process, rather than just the grade. 

The best part is that I've managed to do this without increasing my grading load. Read on to see how:



1. I started to give smaller assignments that targeted specific skills. For example, I wanted them to write focused analysis that started with an assertion, and was followed by effective textual evidence and commentary. I did not worry about their own word choice or mechanics, because I wanted them to focus on the process of analysis. They passed in a paragraph, and I gave them feedback using a checklist, and underlined or highlighted problem areas on their paragraph. Each paragraph was redone and passed in for a summative mark.

2. I planned my assessments so that the smaller assignments lead into the bigger assessments I wanted to do. They did many quick-writes to practice the assertion-evidence-commentary pattern I wanted them to follow. They passed in journals and paragraphs that included literary analysis. I gave them feedback using the same checklists and rubrics I would use for the essay we were building toward.  When it was time to write the essay, they were very familiar with my expectations and had had several opportunities to practice and improve those skills.

3. After giving feedback on longer assignments, I knew I couldn't manage the time to have them redo the whole thing. Instead, I asked them to choose an area on the rubric that was their weakest and use the feedback to improve that. So, one student might choose to work on their organization, while another is working on idea development or word choice. When they redid the assignment, they highlighted their changes (we do this with Google Docs, but they could do the same on a paper assignment as well). Students were also required to include a comment that explained what they revised and why. I collect the original rubrics, locate the changes, and decide whether or not they have improved their work. It takes very little time (comparatively) because I only have to read what they have changed.




4. Many times, I follow this process in a conference. Students complete the same process and they explain their changes to me in person. The conference is far more effective process, as I can provide even more feedback to the student, who can respond and revise on the spot, if necessary.

5. I have also made reflection and revision a daily event in my classroom. I build in time for revision, so students get into the habit of thinking about the skills they need to work on. With every quick-write or prompt, I ask them to look for places where they can add more detail or improve their word choice. This goes a long way in helping them to become reflective students, as they get into the habit of improving their work. You can find more strategies for daily reflection and revision here.

I'm still tweaking, but I can honestly say that my students are now regularly using my feedback to improve their work, and I feel like the grading process is far less painful. That's because the focused feedback I give on the smaller assignments is leading to better written essays. Reading them is now far less painful because the students are actually learning, rather than just getting a grade and moving on.

If you have questions or concerns about this process, please leave them in the comments!

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Creative Assignments for Reading & Writing Workshop

Creative Assignments for Secondary English Students

I love the fact that my students can choose from a rich array of novels when it's time to read. Reader's and writer's workshop has been such a game changer in my classroom because the kids are so much more engaged in reading and writing than they ever were before.  

Young adult fiction has come so far these last years, and students can explore complex characterization and themes. My favourite trend in YA lit, though, is the way that authors are experimenting with narrative technique. 

This experimentation inspired me to create some writing assignments that link to the books that the kids are reading. Nicola Yoon's Everything Everything, for example, develops her main character through the various things she shares with the reader, like short blurbs, definitions, sales receipts, pages from her diary when she was ten, sketches and texts – scraps and pieces of things that give a glimpse of what matters to her. 


Creative writing assignments for middle and high school students

I thought that was a fascinating way to develop character, so I created an assignment for my kids to mimic Yoon's technique. I've also made one for Jandy Nelson's The Sky Is Everywhere. With this assignment, students write poetry to explore an issue, idea or character; however, they have to choose unusual mediums to write these poems on, like coffee cups or scraps of tests. These mediums, together with the poems, work to create meaning.

Students do not have to read the novels in order to do the assignment. I have the books in my classroom, but the handout also has links to Amazon, so they can "look inside" the novels and get a feel for the technique. The added bonus is that this process may inspire them to read the book, if they haven't already. It's a wonderful way to meld reading and writing workshop, or just a fun writing assignment if you aren't in workshop mode.

I'm having so much fun making these that I plan to add more to my new product. Currently, I'm working on ones for Tell Me Three Things, Solo and Salt to the Sea, and I'll add those to the file as soon as they are done. Then, I'll just have to read more books! If you have suggestions for titles with interesting techniques, let me know in the comments and I'll add them to my list.


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Keeping Kids Accountable with Independent Reading



Accountability and Independent Reading


We give our students quite a gift when we allow them to choose which books they will read. However, independent reading and readers' workshop can be difficult for a teacher to manage. Many believe it's easier to keep kids accountable when they do a full class novel because everyone is - quite literally - on the same page. However, there are several strategies you can use to build in accountability when your students are choosing their own novels. Read on to find out what I do with my students:


1. Decide on the Skills You Want to Target


Strategies for keeping students accountable with independent reading or reader's workshop
Instead of thinking about the chapters and specific elements of a particular novel, zero in on the skills you want your independent readers to acquire. Then, make a plan for when and how you will focus on these skills. My biggest focus at the beginning of a semester is building reading stamina in my students. We attack that right from the beginning by choosing good books and setting goals for each week. 

Later, I will focus on different elements of fiction, like the methods that authors employ to develop characters, or the ways that they use point of view and perspective. We will delve into word choice and theme. All of the things I would cover with a full class novel are covered with reader's workshop -- but I need to start with a plan.

2. Teach students to be active readers


Teach your students to be active readers

Whether they are reading the same book or different ones, teach students how to be active readers. Do this by modelling your own reading and by focusing on one skill at a time. Talk to them about how you choose a book, and show them your thinking as you read. And, if you want them to track character or theme, give them mini-lessons on how to do so.  Then build in activities that can help them learn how to do this. If you'd like some help with this, you can check out my Activities for Independent ReadingIt offers a variety of activities that you can use to help your students become active readers who can effectively analyze their texts. These activities will teach them the habits of active reading and will guide them to have meaningful discussions about literature. 

Once you have given your students these tools, and you have provided them with opportunities to practice their active reading skills, you can begin to assess them.

3. Use reader's notebooks to record thinking and learning

Reader's notebooks, journals, logs, whatever you want to call them, are essential for managing independent reading. Students can use them to record their reading goals, the books they've read, their thinking as they read, and skill building exercises you might assign. One of my favourite ways to engage kids who are reading different novels is with writing prompts that can be applied to any text - especially ones that the kids will find interesting. I have a whole series of prompts that ask students to reflect on -- or connect to -- some aspect of their reading, such as character, theme, point of view, conflict, or setting. Some prompts ask them to make a creative connection. I use them as bell ringers or I print them off and use them as a basis for small group discussions about books.

I also use learning stations to get my students to focus on specific elements of their reading. At each station, students are asked to reflect on, and write about, character and thematic development, author's craft, great quotes, etc. All of this writing goes into their readers' notebooks. I will read some of the entries, but not all of them. I do assign some grades, but I treat the notebook primarily as a place to build skills and to capture thinking about text, rather than something that needs to be assessed.

The students will also use the information in their notebooks for conferences with me, as well as with their peers during small group discussions. If they don't have the work in the notebook, they have nothing to work with. In a way, this makes them much more accountable than traditional chapter questions with a full class novel. They are reading their own books and are responsible for the notebook entries, something they can't just copy off someone else.


4. Use group discussions to target skills and create interest


Strategies for keeping students accountable with independent reading or reader's workshop
Group discussions are perfect for keeping kids accountable while reading -- and they are where a lot of the magic happens. There's nothing better than hearing your students sink into a deep discussion about a theme and how it relates to their lives. The key to success in this is providing them with some focus and direction for their discussions. 

Give them a topic that can relate to any novel and ask them to discuss it in terms of their text: how does your book speak to the concept of loneliness? Or, if you want them to focus on skills: How does your author use dialogue to develop character? I usually have them do a quick-write in their notebooks first, and then move them into groups. (If you'd like a little help with small group discussions, you can check out my Placemats for Talking About Text and my Reading Task Cards.)

The added bonus to these chats is that they can introduce students to other texts they might like to read. Quite often, after small group discussion, I will hear students asking each other if they can borrow the book when they are finished.


Accountability and Independent Reading

Conferencing with students is a cornerstone of the reading workshop. But even if you aren't doing a full workshop, you can use this strategy to keep your students accountable. The beauty of a conference is that you can quickly and easily assess the student without taking home a paper to read and grade. 

I give my students bookmarks that they can use to track the elements I want them to notice when they read, and I use prepared guides to keep myself and them focused when we conference. Sometimes these conferences are sit-down ones that take several minutes with each student, but often they are quickie-conferences, where I walk around the classroom with my clipboard, asking questions like: can you show me a place where your author is showing rather than telling? If the student can, I mark off that skill on my checklist.

If you'd like more information on how and why you should use this strategy, you can read about it on this post.

I hope that I've given you some strategies that you can use when you do independent reading in your classroom. If you have questions, never hesitate to reach out through email. You can also join my closed Facebook group, Strategies for Teaching Secondary English.

All of the products and activities I mentioned in the post can be found by checking out my Reader's Workshop Bundle. Most of them are in the bundle, and the others are mentioned in the product description. 



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