Notebook Connections

Every year I struggle with how to organize reading workshop. Even though I’ve been teaching for over 25 years and not new to workshop teaching, each new group of students makes me rethink the reading workshop. How do I help students set up their notebooks? How do I make sure students are using their notebooks in meaningful ways? How do I allow for lots of reading time? How do I structure my individual conferences with students? What do I teach? How do I assess students in a workshop format? I also rethink my focus lessons so that I can maximize my time with students. And, I particularly struggle with invitations vs. requirements. So, I read professional books, talk to other teachers and reflect on my practice. Recently I read Donallyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer which provides readers with an intimate look at this author’s well-though out reading workshop format. Now, I am diving into Notebook Connections by Aimee Buckner.

You may be familiar with Notebook Know-How, also by Aimee, and written a few years ago about how to develop and maintain a writer’s notebook in the writing workshop. My copy of Notebook Know-How is dog-eared and I predict the same fate for Notebook Connections.

But, I digress.

As I read Notebook Connections, I find myself reflecting on how to guide students to think deeply about what they read. Since most of my students are second language learners, I have been heavily focused on making sure that they understand what they’re reading, whether independently or during the read aloud time. However, I’m feeling like there needs to be more of a balance. I want my ESL students to find personal meaning in what they read rather than simply reading to answer questions. I want them to wonder and think aloud and in writing about a character. I want them to be concerned with themes in books they read and to find evidence for this in the text, not because it’s required by the current iteration of standards and benchmarks, but because it gets them to think deeper about author’s craft and their own lives.

Chapter 5 in Notebook Connections is titled, Beneath the Story: Discovering Hidden Layers. Although I’m not yet finished reading this chapter – I’m going slowly so that I can savour it – I have found several gems that I can take back to my classroom right away. For example, Aimee devotes two entire sections to “connotation” and “theme”. The purpose of teaching students about the author’s use of connotations is “to point out to students that authors may use words that make readers think one thing but really mean another. This helps keep readers engaged and surprises them as they figure out what the author is actually talking about in the text,” (p. 93, Notebook Connections). So, by making this idea explicit to students in their reading, Aimee then invites them to use this technique in their writing. Brilliant!

In this chapter Aimee also talks about theme. Usually, teachers teach theme by giving students a definition and directing them to figure out the theme. Often there is no scaffolding or guidance as students struggle to figure out just what this means and how theme is different from the author’s message, etc. Aimee’s solution, developed through reading other educators, thinking about herself as a reader, and reflecting on her own practice, have led her to a strategy that scaffolds student thinking and talking about theme. How does she do this? She has some one-word themes already picked out for the books she reads with students and then asks them to choose one theme and to think about this as they’re reading independently or listening to a read aloud. As all effective educators are wont to do, Aimee uses a gradual release of responsibility model so that students are supported in their learning.

One great feature of this book, just like in Notebook Know-How, is that right after Aimee discusses how she came to develop a particular strategy, she writes up the strategy for teachers to use as a quick reference guide. Each of these write ups has a short description of the purpose, the how and a writing connection for each strategy.

Since I’m not yet finished reading this book, I may write more about Notebook Connections at a later date. In the meantime, I am enjoying reading and thinking about how to help my students become more effective readers who get beyond checking for understanding and read to enrich their lives.

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