Category Archives: reading workshop

Student Engagement in Writing and Reading Workshop

This is the second in a series of blog posts about different strategies I use to help my students take ownership of their learning. The first post was about class meetingsToday’s post is about giving kids opportunities to determine their own writing and reading plans every Friday afternoon. (Coming soon is the third post in this series about allowing kids to extend an afternoon of planning into an entire day!)

This year our school implemented the Lucy Calkins’ units of writing. Next year we will be doing the reading units. Although I have been doing reading and writing workshop for a long time, this is the first year where I felt my students had less choice, rather than more choice, in their writing. And, choice is one of the untouchables of a workshop approach to teaching anything, as well as an important element towards getting kids to take ownership of their learning. 

Of course, it’s not that my students had no choice at all, but their choices were certainly much more limited than in previous years. In fact, I noticed that my students would groan when it was time for writing workshop. Although, I have encountered students who didn’t like to write, I have never experienced such a resounding rejection of writing workshop as this school year. 

So, I decided to do something about it. 

I told my students that on Fridays they would be able to choose their writing and reading projects. This change had little impact on reading since kids have choice and control over their independent reading and most of them are usually focused on what they’re reading. Not true for writing. So, no matter what the current writing unit was at the time, the kids could choose to write outside of that unit on Fridays. 

What happened from that moment on confirmed the importance of continuing to give kids a say in their learning. 

When Friday rolled around the kids invariably chose to write first! And, that is still the case several months later. After witnessing this phenomenon a few times, I asked the kids why they were selecting to write first when in the past, every time I announced it was writing workshop time there would be a collective groan? Of course, their response was that now they had a choice in what they could work on and they loved that. During this choice time, I was still able to confer with students one-on-one about what they were interested in writing or reading

Some readers of this blog may be thinking: “Yes, they were happy because now they could choose what to write about. All kids are happy when they can choose.” OK. And, what is wrong with that? Aren’t adults happy when we can choose our projects or the focus of our work? Aren’t we more likely to learn when we can determine the topic(s) of our professional learning? Why is that wrong? 

One pair of students worked on a story together that is almost finished. They even solicited submissions from the class for an illustrator for their book. They are now working on inserting the pictures in the right places in their story. Their ultimate goal is to make several print copies of their book. And, in fact, all of the children wrote stories and shared them with their classmates.

From that moment on, Friday afternoon choice time was sacred in our class. Students learned how to manage their time, when to work alone and when to work with a classmate, and what project they wanted to spend their time on. 

This experiment was so successful that I decided to extend into a full day of planning. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

If you have given up more ownership of writing and reading to students, I would love to hear what you have done. Share it here! 






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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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A Beginning List on the Don’t and Do’s of Reading Workshop

As I visit classrooms during the Reading Workshop time, I witness practices that are counterproductive to supporting students’ reading habits. I made up the following two lists to sort this out in my head and to use when I work with teachers.

What NOT to do during Reading Workshop:

  • interrupt independent reading to talk to students about an assignment.
  • sit at your desk to catch up on paperwork or to answer emails.
  • give kids 10 minutes of independent reading one day and 45 minutes on another day. Make it consistent so students can plan for their reading.
  • abruptly stop kids’ reading without a warning. Instead, allow them to find a logical stopping place before transitioning into a new activity.
  • treat independent reading as a choice among many. Independent reading should be something everybody does on a daily basis.
  • always tie reading to a “project” and a grade.
  • use the independent reading time to go to the library. This should be reserved for another time.
What TO DO during Reading Workshop:
  • give kids a regular independent reading time they can count on.
  • confer with as many kids as possible without rushing through each conference: take your time. Remember that each conference is an opportunity to converse with and teach each student.
  • demonstrate your own enthusiasm for reading by talking about books and sharing your reading life with students.
  • declutter the Reading Workshop so the structure is clear, simple, and predictable.
  • make independent reading the bulk of the Reading Workshop.
  • get to know your students so that you can suggest books for them to read. 

Do you agree with my lists? Do you have anything to add or take away? Leave a comment below.

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Character Traits

About a year ago, maybe more, I read The Complete Four by Pam Allyn.  See it here http://amzn.to/zpRRWl  I appreciated the concept of integrating reading and writing lessons so that what you do in reading workshop directly impacts what you do in writing workshop.  Here’s what the authors say about “the complete year”:  “Organized around the Complete 4 components (Process, Genre, Strategy and Conventions) and four unit stages (Immersion, Identification, Guided Practice, and Commitment), each book in the Complete Year series features a year’s worth of integrated reading and writing curriculum.  Because we honor your professional decision-making, you will find the Complete Year provides a flexible framework, easily adapted to your state standards and to the needs and goals of your community, your students, and your teaching style.”  I particularly like the last sentence of the above description of the “complete year”, and that is why I’ve put the quote in italics and bold, as well as underlined it for the sake of emphasis.

     Although this is not a new idea, subsequent grade level books fleshed this out even more and I went ahead and purchased the grade 2 book, The Complete Year in Reading and Writing by Patty Vitale-Reily and Pam Allyn which I am just getting into right now.    You can view the grade 2 book here http://amzn.to/yIxNjX  I didn’t start at the beginning of the calendar year (the book is divided by seasons – early fall, late fall, winter, and spring) but I went smack to the middle of the book to the section entitled The Second Grader as Researcher, which includes lessons on recognizing strong characters in reading and applying these understandings in writing. 

     Yesterday I started reading workshop by talking about different ways that an author lets us know what his or her character is like – telling us, through the character’s actions, or by what the character says.  Then I read Jessica by Kevin Henkes and we briefly discussed the main character, who is not named Jessica by the way, and what we could say about what she’s like from her actions.  The discussion was not easy but the children were engaged and there were hints of potential gems in some of their comments.  To be fair, we didn’t have enough time for a full disclosure type of conversation; we’ll get back to that today. 

     The biggest stumbling block, however, was when we started listing “character traits”.  I have found that although it seems like children should know about character traits, they don’t.  (Of course, should is the absolutely wrong word to use here but I won’t edit it out for the moment as it exemplifies my thinking in this particular process.  I recognized that I rarely talk about this when we discuss books during read alouds.  That’s a change I am going to make immediately.)  Nevertheless, I plunged ahead and we created a list of character traits after I explained that a trait is more about what a character is like inside, rather than on the outside (in their heart and mind).  This wasn’t an easy process.  Some children used words like sad, happy, nice, good, and bad until I said that we needed to think of other words besides nice, good, and bad.  (Sad and happy are for another character traits discussion.)  After a few words had been on the list they started coming up with opposites which will allow for further discussion.  When we started our discussion of the main character of Kevin Henkes’s book, a few children suggested that we could use our list to talk about what the character is like. 

     Our final list included the following words:  honesty; dishonesty; responsible; irresponsible; smart, etc.  I can’t wait to get back to this discussion later today.  I will write more on this as it develops.  My big question to readers is:  how do you teach character traits in an early childhood classroom?  What are some books with strong characters for doing this?  What do you do prior to identifying the traits of a particular character?  Why do this in the first place anyway?  How do you get children as young as 6 or 7 to think about characters in a more robust way?  I look forward to reading your comments.

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Filed under character traits, Pam Allyn, reading workshop, The Complete Four