Category Archives: Teaching Literature

Socratic Seminar: The Importance of Reflection

socratic seminar photo
Photo by jrobertsplhs

I have been using Socratic seminar as a method of assessment of student learning in my classes for some time, but last year I started asking my students to complete a simple reflection after the seminar and hand it in the next day. As a result, I really have a window into what my students are learning in the seminars.

In the past, I assigned the essential question for the seminar, but I have learned to give control over formulating the question to the students. My AP Lit students recently had a successful seminar discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. The question they designed was, “Was justice served in the end?” Justice (and its lack) are a major theme of the play. Students were able to pull in ideas about what happens when the natural order of things is upended and people are not compassionate for others. Every student was able to contribute thoughtfully to the seminar itself, but when I read their reflections, I understood exactly how much thinking and learning had taken place.

One question I ask on the reflection is “Explain how the Seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).”

It changed my opinion on what justice is. I sort of went in not having my own clear definition of what “justice” meant in King Lear, but I thought we’d all be thinking on the same track. The range of definitions, all of which influenced my own, surprised me. I never thought of justice being done to someone in that way, nor did I see justice as when a character finally realized his or her mistake. After the discussion, it influenced my own definition because I took into account that a when character realized their mistakes it was because enough harm had been done to others around them or to them themselves.

Changing views of the definition of justice were a theme in the reflections. In most cases, students said that another student’s comment had changed their minds, made them think about things in a different way, or influenced their thinking in other ways.

[Student 1] said something along the lines of … “justice didn’t care about individuals, it just wanted the natural order of things restored.” I never really thought of this in terms that the individuals didn’t matter.

Another student shifted gears based on a comment another student made.

Throughout the seminar, I mostly considered the sense of justice as individual characters. I thought about the evil characters and their tragic ends. However, [Student 2] pointed out that we should instead inspect the text as a whole and look at the entire book in order to see if justice was served or not. This actually changed the entire course of what I had in mind of the texts and the Socratic seminar. It changed my viewpoints as I started looking at the natural order and the essence of what role [the] god[s] played in the texts.

It always intrigues me when a single student’s comment shows up in the reflections of several peers, and in the case of this comment, the student, whom I have called Student 3 throughout this post, is one who has made excellent progress with each successive seminar. It is exciting to me that his comments were so influential in the thinking of his peers this time.

[Student 3] said that justice isn’t just about the punishment, but also includes a revelation. I thought that this was interesting, since I usually tend to think of justice as being a punishment to fit the crime.

I ask students to reflect on how they did and make goals for the next seminar, both for themselves as individuals and for the group. The student mentioned in the comment above, who influenced his peers with his definition of justice, wrote the following:

I thought I did really well on this seminar and achieved my goals I set for myself from the last one. Next time I think I should try to include more people in the discussion by asking questions to them. I think I should ask more clarifying questions to the group in order to dig deeper into the text, and to become more specific on certain topics.

Another student, an English language learner, who was able to contribute more comments in this seminar than he previously has done in other seminars, reflected that

[Student 3] had lots of great comments this time. The most impressing one was the one he spoke at the start of the conversation. He said the justice is served not only means the justice is served physically, such as bad people being punished by death or being killed. He talks about the deeper meaning of justice, bad people eventually acknowledge what they have done and try to remedy for their bad behaviors…

Before this Seminar … although I knew there were two ways which justice can serve on bad people, I couldn’t come up with all of them. However, after listening to what other people said, especially [Student 3] and [Student 4]’s words, I was inspired by their words and generated lots of innovative ideas during the seminar and eventually spoke a lot because I had so many ideas.

I could almost feel this last student’s excitement. His reflection was much longer than his previous ones, and I could tell the discussion had excited and invigorated him. He was inspired.

When it was suggested that we define the word justice, I never thought of different meanings behind it. I mean I realized that everyone had their own opinion, but didn’t realize it would be from a totally different definition and meaning that would change the way to interpret the play and it’s [sic] characters. [Student 3] said that the way he interpreted justice was justice was served if people learned from their mistakes. I never thought of justice as learning from their mistakes. Although I believe justice is that they get caught, pay for it (karma), and go on with life, I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but it is an interesting point of view. It changes everything, when interpreting the book from [Student 3]’s definition of justice and makes both books seem like less justice was served.

What an incredible insight. How much they learned about the notion of justice in these two books through talking with each other. By the way, I think it’s important to note that I said nothing. I don’t even look at the students when they are talking because otherwise, they look to me and talk to me. A student acknowledged the difficulty of planning a seminar and running it without my interference:

I think we have been doing a great job with structure. This time we started pretty weak jumping everywhere, but after the first few comments, I sorted things out and we found a structure that worked for this seminar. Actually, structuring a seminar without restricting it too much is not easy. I think it should be our task prior to the seminar to imagine how it could be structured based on the question.

Another student acknowledged a difficulty the class is still wrestling with:

I still think we have side arguments and sometimes we went off topic. It will be better if we can all try to answer the main points of the questions. Besides, some people always just talk too much and did not let others to say anything, so I think we should acknowledge this problem so that quiet people can speak more.

As the teacher, I can see that she is right in her criticism, though the group has made progress in this regard. I know they have more progress to make. So do they.

I believe that this was our best discussion yet, in terms of everyone contributing, but I still believe that as a class we have room to grow.

But they also know they are getting there.

I feel like as a group we made a lot of progress compared to the last seminar. We were able to include everyone in the conversation and for the most part organize its structure or at least set a framework for the topics being discussed. Because we were more organized this time around, the material we discussed was much easier to understand.

If I hadn’t asked the students to reflect, I wouldn’t know any of these takeaways. I also think actively setting goals keeps those goals at the forefront during the next seminar. The students in some cases mentioned the goals they made last time and their progress toward reaching them. Last year, a student of mine noted that another student had tried to speak, and he thought that she had been interrupted and shut down. He said he wanted to make sure she had opportunities to speak next time. I suggested on his reflection that he might try sitting next to her for the next seminar to facilitate helping her, and not only did he move his seat for the next seminar, but he sat next to her for the remainder of the year.

I did not create the reflection form that I use. I borrowed it from the Greece Central School District (see Socratic Seminar Reflection, and be sure to check out their rubrics, too). I have found their resources helpful ever since Jay McTighe introduced their rubrics for me about ten years ago.

Another tool I use in my seminars is an iPad app called Equity Maps. Full disclosure, I am acquainted with the developer. He facilitated Critical Friends training in which I participated at my school, and he showed us this app at that time before it was released. Though my class has more boys than girls, according to the gender distribution in all three seminars my students have done, the girls are speaking more. I can also tell for how long and how many times a student spoke. I can record the conversation and take pictures. I can also make notes as the students talk. I use the notes feature to mark instances of good use of textual evidence, asking questions, building on comments, and making particularly insightful comments. The app has a few limitations, but it works quite well for keeping track of the discussion.

The best thing about Socratic seminar is that it completely student-centered. They create the focus question (I step in if they need help), they run and contribute to the discussion, and they reflect on the learning and progress they have made. Students love it. I think they genuinely look forward to seminars, and they take them very seriously as the wonderful learning opportunities they are.

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Re-Reading

books travel photo

For some reason, Emily Dickinson’s line, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” is running through my mind after re-reading Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. My AP Lit students read and studied Mrs. Dalloway before spring break, and I asked them to read Cunningham’s book over the break. Since it had been quite some time since I read it, a re-read was in order for me, too. I remember it didn’t quite land for me when I first read it. I recognized it was well written, but I couldn’t have foreseen I’d read it again. Because I really love the idea of intertextuality, and also because I borrowed my AP book list largely from a friend and colleague, I decided I’d do Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours together.

My students empathized with Septimus Warren Smith, and they really wanted to talk about him in our discussions, though they also marveled at Virginia Woolf’s writing and tried to connect to Mrs. Dalloway as a character, too. I think they did good work. I will be curious to see how they appreciated The Hours after having read Mrs. Dalloway first, because my first reading of The Hours was years before my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, and I believe I appreciated The Hours more after understanding how it is in dialogue with Mrs. Dalloway.

What I have really been thinking about today, however, is re-reading. I often tell students that we bring everything we are, everything we’ve read, and everything we’ve done to each book. When we re-read with a gap of time, we often find we respond differently to a book the second time because we are not the same people we were the first time we’ve read, we’ve read more books, and we’ve lived more. In the case of The Hours, my response was entirely different. I connected deeply to the characters in a way I couldn’t when I first read the book 13 years ago.

I remember having the same reaction to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. I read it as a teenager and despised Holden. Who cares about some ungrateful, annoying preppie teenager roaming New York? How horrified I was when a high school friend once told me he thought all teenage boys were Holden Caulfield. Years later, I saw Holden entirely differently, but it took becoming a mother and a teacher for me to empathize with Holden. Now I love that book and count it among my favorites.

While I know that there is a popular movement in English teaching today to throw out the whole-class novel study, I do still see value in it. I know for a fact that some of the books I am asking my students to read won’t land for them, not yet. I have told them so. And yet there is still value in reading and thinking about these books, letting them rattle around in our brains, and returning to them (if we want to) years later when perhaps we are ready for them to land. At the same time, I do think students need to learn what they like to read in order to become readers, and we should offer opportunities for students to choose what they read as well. The tricky part is not ruin a book so that students have no desire ever to return to it again. Of course, I never really know if students do return to books unless they make a point of telling me, and often they are living their lives, reading other books, and doing other things, so I never know for sure if they pick up a book we studied together, look at it again with their more experienced eyes, and connect to a book in a way they didn’t when they were in my class. But they do at least have the book, somewhere in their minds, and later, perhaps the book might just take them lands away.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Distillation

In my classes this week I tried out two ways of distilling the text. The first is what’s known as a Literary 3X3, which is a technique I hadn’t heard of until a few weeks ago. The Literary 3X3 asks students to write three sentences of three words each that capture the essence of a text. There are rules. Students should try to use abstract nouns, no proper nouns, no “to be” verbs, no articles, no repeated words, no pronouns, no cliches.

We wrote one about Septimus Warren Smith’s story in Mrs. Dalloway.

Septimus Warren Smith 3X3

Isn’t it great? They wrote the second line first, then the last line. I suggested they back up and write about what came before the other two lines and write a first line. They were so happy with their first line they clapped after they were finished.

One student said, “It’s like a poem!” Another added, “Yeah, like a haiku, but… not.” Man, my students make me laugh.

Another way we distilled a text this week was an adaptation of a Text Rendering Protocol.  We had read Margaret Atwood’s poem “Half-Hanged Mary” after finishing The Crucible. Students shared the line that they felt captured something essential about the poem. Then I asked each student to give me one word from the poem that captured something essential. As they shared, I typed their responses into Wordle. Here is what my D period American Lit came up with:

Half-Hanged MaryThe students said “Woah!” I asked, “What do you think? Does this capture what the poem is about?” They agreed that it did.

Here is what my F period American Lit class (smaller group) came up with:

Half-Hanged Mary

What I love about these activities is that it’s actually quite hard to reduce a text down to three sentences or down to a single word, and yet, the results were great.

As my D period students were filing out the door, one of them asked me about the Wordle: “Did you PLAN that?”

I loved that question. I had to admit truthfully that they could have said different words, but that yes, the idea is that these sorts of activities will yield results like this. Still, I love it that he has an idea I’m totally messing with their minds.

Spring break starts.
Exhausted teacher relaxes.
June watches nearby.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #24: Idea Slam!

idea photo
Photo by Celestine Chua

February is a rough month for teaching. It’s cold and bleak outside (in many places, anyway). Everyone seems to be a bit lethargic and tired. Many schools have started having breaks in February. My children’s school system, for instance, has a week-long winter break in February. Dylan was so excited to go back to school Monday that he woke up at 3:00 A. M. I realize he’s different that way, though.

I decided it was time to have a really fun department meeting that (I hoped) everyone would look forward to, so we are having an idea slam. The goal is for each of us to bring one (or more) ideas/tips/tricks/etc. we use in the classroom to share with the others. I think we will not only learn a lot from each other but also have fun.

I’m still trying to decide which ideas I will bring to the group. I have several in mind. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have another idea slam, though, and we have a dedicated shared folder in Google Drive that we will use to share electronic copies of anything we have. I can also scan anything that is only available in hard copy and put it in the folder later.

Some ideas I’m considering sharing*:

  • Literary 3×3. This is an idea I learned about when I was looking online for ideas to teach Mrs. Dalloway.
  • The Cartoon “Did You Read?” Quiz from the Making Curriculum Pop Ning.
  • Literary analysis bookmarks (an idea stolen from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy). (Page 1, Page 2—example is from Song of Solomon, but could be adapted for any book)
  • One of the literary analysis tools from AP Literature training this summer (besides TPCASTT, as my department knows that one pretty well).
  • Thesis statement Mad Libs (another idea from AP Literature training).

If you have a really stellar idea, I invite you to share in the comments. We can make this post our very own idea slam if you all want to play.

*If I know where the idea came from, I attempted to give credit. In many cases, I don’t know where the idea came from, so I have shared where I learned about it at least.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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What Harper Lee Means to Me

to kill a mockingbird photo
Photo by Bruna Ferrara;

I wonder if I would be an English teacher if not for To Kill a Mockingbird. I first encountered the film when I was in 6th grade, and my teachers showed it to us as part of a reward—I forget exactly for what. Two years later, I found a paperback copy of the book in my English teacher’s classroom. She used to have one of those spinning book racks like you see sometimes in the library or in some bookstores. I took the book off the rack and probably read the blurbs on the cover. I don’t remember. I do remember opening it up to the first page and reading

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

The passage grabbed me. I turned to see Mrs. Hoy standing next to me, excited look on her face, rocking back and forth on her heels as usual. “Do you want to borrow that book?” She asked me this question a bit too eagerly, and it made me suspicious, so I put the book back and said, “No.”

Actually, I am not totally sure that I put the book on Mrs. Hoy’s rack together with the film I had seen two years before.

Three years later, I was in Mrs. Keener’s American literature class. I was a junior. In all of high school, I can’t recall having liked anything I read for English class up to that point. I don’t actually remember reading anything in English class in tenth grade at all. I remember sitting at my desk doing grammar exercises out of Warriner’s while my teacher sat at hers. It was a miserable class. Until I landed in Mrs. Keener’s class, I hated English class for the most part. I hadn’t really had a good English teacher since middle school. I loved to read, and I loved to write. Something is wrong when a student who loves to read and write can’t enjoy English.

Mrs. Keener assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it might have been the first novel I read in her class. I had moved to Georgia in February, and the class was in the middle of a research paper. I needed to come up with a topic quickly, and I think we read To Kill a Mockingbird after finishing the research paper, but I admit I don’t recall for certain. We were assigned a number of pages to read each night. I remember reading ahead. I remember being well ahead of where I was required to be. Mrs. Keener opened all our classes with journaling and allowed us to read silently in class. For me, these were the best times of the day. I loved her class, and I loved her. In some ways, I think that it started, really, with that book. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird.

And so, when I entered college, after having entertained the idea of being a French teacher (I always knew I wanted to teach, but what I wanted to teach took me longer to figure out), I wanted to be like Mrs. Keener. I wanted to teach English. The first novel I taught my students in my first year of teaching was To Kill a Mockingbird. The school had no novel sets at all, and when I asked my department chair, she said I could order them. I taught the book many times since.

Nowadays, it has sort of moved down into the middle school, and I think it is probably fine for middle schoolers. Many of my current students read it in middle school and remember it fondly. When we were talking today about Harper Lee’s death, I shared with them how much I disliked English class until Mrs. Keener and this book. In so many ways, I have Mrs. Keener to thank for the fact that I am an English teacher. We have remained friends since I graduated, and she was my own department chair for a while. I owe her a real debt of gratitude because she has always advocated for me and supported me. I know I owe many of my teaching jobs to her recommendation. She was the one who finally put that book in my hand and made me love English class, and I always think of her whenever I read or teach anything she taught me in high school. I wonder sometimes if I don’t also owe Harper Lee a debt of gratitude  because as much as I wanted to be Mrs. Keener, I also wanted to put books like that in the hands of my students, and maybe they could feel the way I felt when I read it. Watching kids fall in love with a book is one of the best things about my job. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t be who I am right now.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee, and thank you.

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Slice of Life #23: He Said

reading photo
Photo by katerha

This week’s Slice of Life is in the form of a poem.

At the beginning of the year, he said,
I never read for fun
unless it is a sports article
or something on Twitter.
A lot of times the books we have to read
are very boring and it’s like
torture to read it for me,
but if the school or a teacher assigns
an interesting book
(they never do)
then I don’t mind reading.

The first book he chose
Wasn’t grabbing him, and I told him
to pick a new one.
He said, I can do that?
He picked Into the Wild
and it was good.

Today he was reading a
Derek Jeter biography before
class even started.
He didn’t put it down, even
while I was giving a book talk.
He said,
maybe not out loud
(but loud enough),
I like reading
now that I have figured out what
I like to read.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Independent Reading Check-up

My Growing Shelves
My Growing Shelves

I promised I’d post updates about how the independent reading experiment is going. My students have been selecting their own books, whatever they want to read, and completing a weekly reading log that essentially consists of the following:

  1. Did you read for two hours this week? (If no, explain.)
  2. How many pages did you read this week?
  3. What is your current reading goal?
  4. Did you meet your reading goal?
  5. What book are you currently reading?
  6. What page are you currently on?
  7. Did you finish any books this week (if yes, there is an additional update form to complete)?
  8. Is there anything you want to tell me/ask me in regards to your reading this week?

As long as students read for two hours, I am not too fussed that they are meeting the goals. The goals are more for them than for me—the goal helps them figure out how much to read. Many of my students are still experimenting here, and by and large, I think they are being honest. They are telling me if they didn’t meet their goals and why and often the issue is that they overestimated how much they could read in two hours and need to “recalibrate” their reading speed.

Once they finish a book, they complete a form that allows them to share a quick review (basically a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs in the middle) and also allows me to spot check how many books they’re reading. Reading a big stack is not the goal. Reading period is the goal. Still, here are some stats.

I have 25 students across two sections of American Studies in Literature. One of my students left at the end of the semester, and she had read one book, so perhaps it would be fairer to count 26 students. One student has read six books since early December. Good for her! By and large, the students are enjoying the books (lots of thumbs up ratings). My students have read a total of 39 books. Of the 26 students, 22 have completed at least one book, nine have read two or more books, and three have read three or more books.

In the space where I allow students to share a comment or question about reading, one student has been recommending the completed Sherlock Holmes to me (though he also says I have probably read it already, and he is right—I have). If you haven’t seen one of those collections, they are pretty fat books, and he’s been hauling it to school each day to read. I like it that the students are not afraid of big books or hard books. One of my ELL students is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Another student who was somewhat withdrawn has begun to come out of her shell a bit. She’s read two books. Independent reading has been a way for her to explore her passion for basketball in an academic setting.

I have been mixing up my book talks with a selection of YA fiction, adult fiction, and nonfiction. Books that are popular in my class (in that more than one student has read or expressed an interest in reading them): Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, and Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Understanding that reading conferences have value, I have opted not to really do any during our reading time. I do check in with students and help them find books and ask them about the books, but not during that ten minutes. During that time, I’ve been reading with them. I think they actually like that.

This week, my Sherlock Holmes fan wrote in his reading log:

This is not about my reading. This is going to be about what you read and share with us. The form we filled out a few weeks back I forgot to mention a few things. I appreciate what you do in class every day. When you share books and papers with us and read them out loud I can feel that you really do care. I also admire you for sharing these pieces with us because I see they are special to you. You get very excited reading the work and this make me focus and want to learn more about it. Its teachers like you that make coming to school more enjoyable so thank you for all your hard work.

It does not get better than that. So far, I’m calling the independent reading a win, and the only thing I am unhappy about is how long it took me to figure out how to do it in my classes.

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Teaching with This American Life

This American Life
Image via WVTF

For the past two years that I have been teaching American Literature, I have integrated This American Life into my students’ learning. I have previously used episodes, particularly “Act V,” which tells the story of Prison Performing Arts and Shakespeare in prison. It remains my favorite episode of This American Life to this day.

The essential questions I use in this course are as follows:

  • What is an American?
  • What is the American dream and how has it influenced America?
  • How does American literature reflect America and Americans? What makes it uniquely “American”?
  • What makes an effective writer?

There is a storytelling component as well; the culminating assignment is a digital story. Perhaps not everyone would immediately think of This American Life as American literature, but it is. It is one of the finest collections of stories by and about Americans.

I ask my students to select an episode, any episode, and listen to it.  We do this assignment once a month. This American Life is an hour long, and many of my students are English language learners; I am aware that asking them to listen to more than one episode a month would be difficult for many of my students, both in terms of time and in terms of challenge. After they listen, they can select one of the following prompts and write:

  • Why do you think the producers of This American Life have chosen to follow a particular theme at the point in time when the episode aired? What might have been happening contextually (at the time the show was produced) that gave rise to the selection of that particular topic? Furthermore, were such subjects relevant in the past? If so, how?
  • How has the particular production value (tone, music, interview editing, etc.) contributed to the success or failure of the show? Specifically, what aspects of the sound design affected the way a listener might respond?
  • Connect the episode to something we have learned about and/or discussed in class. Thoroughly explain the connection. In what ways is the episode similar to what we’ve learned? What made you think of topic? Did you seek the episode because you thought there might be a connection to class?

If students want to write on something else, they need to clear it with me first. The first prompt asks students to consider what is going on in the country and world around them. The second asks students to think about these aspects of production, which will help them when it comes time to create their digital stories. The third asks them to connect the episode to what we are learning in class.

I always enjoy reading the students’ writing about This American Life. At first, many students are not sure they will like this assignment, but at the end of last year, several students reported liking it very much. One student remarked in his writing that he thought all his classmates should listen to an episode he had chosen, even if they didn’t do it for credit. That particular student was not the most engaged or hardest working student, either, so I think he genuinely meant it. A comment like that is how I knew I was doing the right thing. Often last year, students would come into class the day a This American Life assignment was due talking animatedly about the episode they had listened to.

I think my students derive many benefits from listening to the stories. On one level, they get a feel for pacing of stories and how ordinary stories can grab us (as well as a sense that all of us have stories). On another level, I think they make many connections and enhance their understanding of America and America’s stories in a way that would be hard to do otherwise. It’s also another mode of reading, and listening is a valuable skill for students to practice.

 

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Slice of Life #19: “The Best Book I Ever Read”

Previous visitors might remember that I am implementing independent reading. Students have shared their reading progress for their first full week of independent reading. Almost all of them met their reading goals. A few observations:

  • Most of the students are enjoying their books. One boy declared in class today that Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is the “best book [he’s] ever read.” He’s been recommending it to others. Another said of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, “This is a really intense and fun book to read, the pictures in the book combine [with] the writing really well and make it even more interesting.”
  • One student said he wasn’t enjoying his book, and I emailed him to let him know it’s okay to abandon it and move on. I think he just needed to know it was okay.
  • One girl finished a project we’ve been working on and read for the entire 75-minute period today. And she told me at the beginning of the year that she didn’t like reading and didn’t read for fun.
  • Some of them need to recalibrate their goals. I had them use Penny Kittle’s method of counting how many pages they can read in ten minutes, then multiplying that figure by six and then doubling it to determine how much they can read in two hours. Some of them didn’t factor in needing to look up words (I have many English language learners in my classes) in their time.
  • One student emailed me to let me know her page count was proving unrealistic, so she recalibrated on her own. I like the fact that my students are doing this kind of thinking: adjusting their own goals and taking ownership over their reading.
  • One student finished John Lewis’s graphic memoir March: Book One. He picked up March: Book II and checked out Winger for over the break.

My student who is reading The Crossover is an interesting student. He’s one of those real charmers, a leader in the classroom. The other students tend to look to him. He’s easily the most outgoing student in the class, so when he says a book is the best book he’s ever read, the others are going to add it to their list. He said he is close to finishing his book and will need another “to read over the break.” And I said, “Yes, of course, because I want you all to keep reading over the break.” He joked that he would cuddle up with the book and a nice cup of tea. I told him he was describing my idea of a party.

So far, the independent reading is quite a success. I am pleased to see the students reading so much. I’ve had a good time reading along with them (I haven’t done any reading conferences yet because at this time, I haven’t identified a need).

The students are already establishing the routine of reading at the beginning of class. I forgot to set the timer and remind them to read today in one class, and they started without me!

As I’ve promised before, I’ll keep posting updates about how independent reading is working. It’s off to a strong start.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Independent Reading Step 1: Selecting Books

My Class Book Speed Dating
Photo by Jenn Hanson

 On Thursday, I took my students to our library, and our Director of Library Services, Jenn Hanson, booktalked several titles. Next, students took 30 seconds to select a book from the clear plastic bins at each table (or grabbed one of the books she booktalked). Students read the books for four minutes, then gave the books a rating (whatever rating scale they wanted to use), and put the book back. Jenn called it “book speed dating,” and I think the students really liked it. We did four rounds, and typically, students had a book in mind that they wanted to read after that.

Students checked out books and we calibrated their reading speed. I asked them to read at a comfortable pace for 10 minutes. After that we multiplied how many pages they could read in 10 minutes by 6 to get the number of pages per hour, then doubled that number for the pages that could be read in 2 hours. I want them to read 2 hours per week at a comfortable pace.

In class the next day, there were some questions about pages. What if some books had poems and you could read them faster? Yes, that happens, so you need to recalibrate for the new book when you get it.

My Class Book Speed Dating
Photo by Jenn Hanson

I participated too, and I was able to find several books to put on my own reading list. I had asked students to turn to the last page of their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks to make a list, and every student had several titles written down.

I didn’t notice any overt resistance. Everyone, even my students who describe themselves as non-readers, found a book. In class the next day, all but one of the students remembered to bring their books (and I happened to have had a copy of his book to lend him for class).

I booktalked Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the next day (only in one class because the other doesn’t meet again until Monday, at which time I’ll share the Alexie book with that class). I told students if it sounded interesting to put it on their list, and I notice that several students wrote the title down in their notebooks.

I also asked students to find one sentence that they really liked for some reason in their independent read and copy it down in their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook then write one or two sentences about why they liked it. We all shared our sentences. I suggested that if someone’s sentence sounded interesting, students might want to write the title of the book it came from down as well.

The independent reading is off to an encouraging start. The students all chose great books, and Jenn was wonderful at engaging the students in selecting their books.

Updated 12/5/15 to add a link to Jenn’s post about our library visit on her blog.

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