NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:


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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.

#IMWAYR: Teaching Reading With YA Literature by Jennifer Buehler


It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

NCTE Reads

My summer PD plans got off to an early start on Sunday(we have three more weeks of school, here in New Jersey!) when  NCTE’s summer book club kicked off with its first discussion.  We are reading Jennifer Beuhler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives, which is a fascinating analysis of how we can teach YA lit in meaningful ways.  Buehler calls for  the “development of a YA pedagogy – one that places student motivation at the center of our teaching while upholding the goals of rigor and complexity” (pg. 8), and her book is a road map for how to get there.

We read chapters 1 and 2 for this week’s discussion, and here are some ideas I tagged:

In the real world, readers are always blending their personal response to a book with their analytic understanding of the text.  Readers also instinctively search for connections between books and real-world contexts…As teachers of YA Lit, we can foster complex reading experiences and promote autonomy if we devise classroom tasks that invite students to engage in these forms of blending and connecting.  We don’t have to create new tasks to achieve this goal. Instead, we can recast and reinvent what we already do. (pg.11)

This idea of recasting and reinventing is one that both interests and excites me.  I love working on teaching efficiency – i.e. taking a fresh look at my teaching practices through the lens of new thinking (especially thinking grounded in current research) and reshaping and refining what I do.  So, I cannot wait to read ahead for Jennifer’s guidance in this process of recasting and reinventing.

We must establish contexts for reading that challenge students to be purposeful and intentional in their choices.  One way to do this is to foreground meta-level questions about why we read.  When we invite students to read for the same reasons that real readers do…they become more capable and committed to reading.  Students can develop agency and autonomy as readers only if we give them room to shape the course of their reading. (pg.11)

Like other teachers, I come at establishing contexts for reading through mini lessons, modeling, and our classroom discussions about shared reading.  I focus on strategies with my sixth graders, but I would love to learn more about how to deepen those meta-level questions in ways they will find meaningful and habitual.

Complexity can be found in the text – in the overall quality of an author’s writing and thinking.  But complexity can also be found in what readers do with texts…This means that as we evaluate texts for their inherent measures of complexity, we also need to explore how and why texts become complex for readers.

Because YA lit can speak honestly and directly to teenagers, and because the issues the books explore lend themselves to discussion and debate, it’s easy to see why YA lit is ideally suited to the task of teaching teens how to find and make complexity.  (pg.29 & 30)

Some of my sixth graders still read quickly and for plot. In fact, I would say that this is the natural inclination of most of my sixth graders.  So, getting them to slow down and think deeply about a character’s journey through a story line deliberately plotted out by an author would, indeed, add complexity to their reading tasks, and a greater seriousness to the way they went about their reading.  Here, again, I have much to learn.

Buehler also makes distinctions between “complexity of style: (language, structure, stylistic elements)  and “complexity of substance” (character, setting, literary devices, topics and themes, how the book is put together), and walks us through the process of looking for these in two books – Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here, and A. S. King’s Ask The Passengers.  This was a fascinating exercise in close reading in its best sense; it allowed me insight into the goals Buehler believes we can achieve with our students:

When we teach students to make nuanced judgments about complexity, we help them better understand what different books can give them.  By providing them with a framework for thinking about complexity, we empower them as readers.  We equip them with tools that will serve them in their reading lives for the long run. (pg.49)

Our task this week was to take what we had gleaned from those first two chapters and contribute to the following:


Week 1: Make
This week we’re going to create a curated list of YA novels with rationales for why they are complex texts. These lists may prove useful if you choose to use any of these novels in your class and are asked to justify your selection. Please share the title, author, and a few sentences explaining why a YA text of your choosing should be considered complex. Don’t worry if someone else has already listed a title you were considering; either add to their rationale or write your own. Multiple perspectives will strengthen our understanding of any of these books. Consider the elements listed on p. 37 in crafting your rationale:
  • Complexity of Style—language, structure, other stylistic elements
  • Complexity of Substance—character, setting, literary devices, topics and themes, how the book is put together

Here’s my contribution:

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart.  I chose this as the first read aloud of the school year because I knew that my students would love everything about this story and that it would be the perfect way to launch our reading community. Joseph Johnson has just been orphaned when the book begins, and his beloved pony Sarah, all he has left of his own the world, has been stolen away.  Joseph sets out to find her, a journey that is filled with unexpected twists and turns and more heart ache.  He comes to realize, of course, that his search for Sarah is really a search to find love and meaning in the world after so much sorrow and loss.

Complexity of style:  Although the story is told in what seems to be a straightforward style with Joseph narrating the events in a chronological order, there are many flash backs for the reader to navigate through to piece together why Joseph is recalling this particular memory at this particular time.  Many of these flashbacks are in the form of things Joseph remembers his parents advising him, and the language of these quotes is formal, deeply figurative, and of a particular voice.

Complexity of substance: Joseph encounters a Chinese boy his age, who cannot speak a word of English.  He, too, is in search of someone – his father, lost somewhere among  the Gold Rush mines.  Ah-Kee  is subject to the racism of the times, which Joseph must both console him as well as defend him from. Other thematic issues such as courage in the face of loss, self sacrifice and keeping the faith when things seem without hope are also explored. The time frame and setting of the book (1890, in the mountains and cowboy towns of Washington State) are also important in understanding the text and making sense of the characters and events.

I’m looking forward to learning about new titles to add to my must read/must have in the library lists.




Slice of Life Tuesday: Where did October go?

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Where did October go? I asked myself this morning, as I tore it off my office calendar and came face to face with November.

What had happened to October? I wondered, as I put a great big red “X” through it on our classroom school calendar.

Then, the first of my students began walking into our classroom…two ballerinas, one robot, Minnie Mouse, and a pirate…yes, Halloween is here and October is definitely over.

The question remains…where did it go?

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We read Some Kind of Courage, and learned about being brave and staying true to the best in ourselves, the “best” we weren’t even sure we had.  And, somewhere in the listening, and turn and talking ,and note jotting, we became a community of readers.  Our read aloud gave us one story to gather around, experience, and learn through. We came to know  Joseph and Ah-kee, and our journey to learning about them was also a journey of learning about each other: what makes us laugh out loud, what moves us to tears, and what lies between.

At one point in the story, Joseph and Ah-kee trade mementos:

We looked at each other a minute, then we both put the other’s memory into our own pocket.  They were new memories, now, but they were tied up and bound to the old.  That’s how memories work, I suppose; you just go through life collecting them, never let go of the precious ones but leaving room in your heart for more.  Pg. 172

And that’s how great stories shared in readalouds work, too…we’re going through our school year together collecting them, loving them, and leaving room in our hearts for more.  So, there was a piece of October…

…which was also spent exploring our stories and writing our own personal narratives.  We dug into our writer’s notebooks and took some ideas for a spin all the way from a seed idea into drafting, revision, editing and publishing.  This anchor chart became our workshop reality, bit by bit, as we learned together that writing is purposeful, sometimes joyful, work:


And October ended with a Halloween themed writing celebration: kids in costume munching on sweet goodies, sharing stories.

We made room for silliness, too, it being Halloween and all.  When the last bell rang, Batman collected writing folders, Alice in Wonderland helped put things away, and a long-tailed, tutu sporting mouse assisted in sweeping away leftover crumbs.   Writing workshop involves many shared tasks.  So that was another piece of October.

Reading and writing, learning and sharing, doing the work of building community…that was our October.  It was a month, all in all,  well spent.

Assessing the reading survey to plan for a new year

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In the waning days of the last school year, my sixth graders completed reading surveys – a series of questions (via Google Forms) designed to help me figure a few things out: did my students feel as though they had made progress as readers over the course of the year? what had helped them along in this progress? what got in the way of their reading lives?  Summer, thus far, has been devoted to planning ahead by reading stacks of new YA and PD books.  Now, as I revise and tweak my curriculum plans for the new school year, it is finally time to unpack those surveys and allow my students to help me revise and tweak. Here’s what I asked, and (more importantly) here’s how my kids responded.

What changed in the way you chose what to read this year?

Most of my kids felt that they had had a greater choice in what they read, and that the large classroom library had presented more genre experimentation and discovery.  Many said that they were more flexible in their approach to choosing books to read, and were willing to take genre risks.  Book Clubs were always mentioned as gateways to previously shunned genres, and pleasant discoveries about the merits of those genres.

What changed was that I didn’t use to like to read, but after this year I started to pick out more books to read of every different genre. Some of the books I liked and some I didn’t but I still read them because maybe if I read a little more of the book I would like it.  

Name two ways in which you have grown as a reader this year.


All my kids wrote about choosing books with greater thought and care, and that they felt they could stretch themselves to think deeper about the books they were reading.  Book stacks, book talks, book clubs and conversations about books helped them, too.  It seems as though the culture of book love, which we work so hard to establish and carry through the school year, paid off big time.

I have grown by finding more books that I enjoy. I think that by doing book talks I feel more open to asking people about food books they have read.

Many of my kids wrote about becoming more thoughtful about their reading, as well, a big shift from their fast-paced-plot-driven reading at the beginning of the year. Stopping to think and jotting notes, something they have such an aversion to doing at the beginning of the year, started to make sense to them!

I have learned to stop and think about what is really happening in the story, and I learned how to respond better to the book and make connections.

I’ve grown as a reader this year both by developing my reading comprehension skills, but by also being a more thoughtful, and concentrated reader.

Name two ways in which you set and met reading goals this year. What helped you in this process?

Having goals and reading plans was mentioned by almost every student.  Most of them had begun the year with a hit or miss approach to finding books to read, which (more often than not) led to abandoning those books.  My students wrote about being more intentional in their choices, and of the importance of setting personal reading goals for themselves.

One way I set and met my reading goals was that I made a list of books that I wanted to read. Whenever I was done with a book or series, I knew what book that I wanted to read next! What helped me in this process was that I made a list in my reading journal and in my mini what board at my house so that I can be prepared! Another way I set and met my reading goals is by getting recommendations from friends and teachers (Mrs. Smith). Mrs. Smith would get a book stack for me and I would choose which books I like so that I can read it! I learned to make bookstacks for myself, too.

One of my goals were to pick up a better stamina. So when we did the book clubs I found I could read for a lot longer then before. Book clubs forced me to read a certain amount of pages in a certain amount of time which made me push myself to read faster and more frequently.

I’ve made sure that I was starting a new goal once I finished a previous one. I kept a list of goals in my agenda and it helped.

What changed in your reading habits this year? Be specific and give examples.

My students’ responses told me that they had learned to set up reading routines so that they could be sure to carve time from their many after school activities in order to read.  They had become much more open to discovering new genres and authors, and to learn how to use their Reading Journals strategically.

I was before very restricted to only reading realistic fiction. But from reading The War “That Saved My Life” it made me realize how wonderful these other genres are too. So now I am not afraid or mad when I have to read a different genre.

I began to jot down some notes while I was reading at home, simply because I find that it helps me organize my thinking. For example, last year, I would just read a book and understand it pretty well. Now, I take notes and understand so much more about the characters, the setting, and the plot.

I have learned to “bookmark” specific parts of the book so I can go back to refer while in a conference.
When we read The War That Saved My Life, it made me think more deeply about the book, and made me connect the book to real life situations.
What surprised you about your year of reading in sixth grade?
Reading is thinking, I believe this to be fundamental and so we spent a lot of time thinking with each other and jotting down our ideas over our year of reading workshop. I was glad that  this kind of reading/thinking  showed up as one thing that was most surprising to my kiddos.
I was surprised that we would take notes and talk about books so much. In 5th grade all you had to do is read the book, but now in 6th grade we had to actually understand the book and it’s characters and plot.
I was surprised at how much better I understood the books that I was reading.
What surprised me was the kind of thinking we had to do. For example, the note and wonder. Another thing is what we did for ‘Kiki and Jacques,’ where we drew what we thought.
I didn’t realize how lost you could get in books, especially as you get older.
What do you know about yourself as a reader now that you didn’t know when you began sixth grade?
The answers to this one covered the gamut, but the one thing each response had in common was that my kids felt a strong sense of empowerment and that reading could be both fun (for sixth graders, that is all important) as well as a meaningful experience.
I have a large reading capacity and can read more in one day than I ever thought. I also learned that books can change our whole entire perception of things.
I realized that I can start to express how I feel about the book and really get deeper into it. For example, I was able to imagine myself being in the character’s shoes and understand how much stress or how nervous this character is.
I now know that my reading level is actually higher than my other teachers told me. I also realize that reading is more FUN than last year, NO MORE POINTLESS POST-ITS! They legitimately sucked the fun out of reading books for myself. It was never FOR myself, actually. The post-its, and all of it, was for the teacher. It’s more fun this year!
That if I make the right choice of what to read, I can.
Tell me how talking about reading helped you as a reader.
Sixth graders love to talk, and need no excuse to be ready, willing, and able to launch into impassioned conversations about everything.  The challenge is being able to harness this “talking energy” productively, and I will admit that this is hard to do.  We are, very often, a very noisy sixth grade class.  I was happy to learn that my kids took away what I’d hoped they would – that book talk allows us to share, grow, and clarify ideas.
Talking about reading in class helped me understand and learn the character’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and information. It helped me take notes down and learn about the story-line of the book.
Talking about my readings helped me remember all that I learned and this helped me let out my thoughts and hear other peoples thoughts of the same book.
It gave me new perspectives on the pieces and how they are made and what goes into them.
It made me want to read more and more
Tell me how writing about reading helped you as a reader.
We use our reading journals to keep track of our thinking, to sketch out ideas and notes, to lift lines and write long, and in a variety of other ways which I have written about in this post for Two Writing Teachers.  It is always a struggle for me when it comes to assigning reading responses, because I am conscious of the fact that this work will take time, and that my kids need more time to just read.
At the end of last year, I found a student’s reading journal in the lost and found.  Thinking it belonged to one of my kids, I fished it out and began leafing through it.  I quickly discovered that it was the perfect example of how teachers can waste and devalue our student’s reading and writing time with assignments and rubrics like this:
and empty responses to our students like this:
But, there is great value in thoughtfully assigned written responses which are thoughtfully responded to.  Such assignments are conversations with our students about the books they are reading and the meaning they find within these stories.  I don’t know that I have figured out the right balance in my written reading response assignments, but I was glad to read that these helped my kids organize their thinking, and to dig deep.
When I wrote about a book, it helped me to figure out all my thoughts and organize my thinking.
This helped me learn and take more out of the book by really digging deep into the context of the book.
Writing made me think more deeply.
What are some things you wish we had done in reading workshop this year? Why?
The answers here all led in one direction and were unequivocal: more time to read!
I wished that we had more reading time during class. When I come home from school I have some long activities like cello, guitar, and piano lessons that I don’t have any time to read. So I wish next year for fifth graders, they will have more time to read.
I wish that we had more time to just read. I believe this because we are supposed to read a lot during our younger lives, but with so many after-school activities, it becomes hard to block out times to do a big chunk of reading for many of us.
Parsing through these surveys (we did one for writing, as well) gives me a chance to rethink and evaluate our reading workshop practices – clearly, some aspects of our reading workshop need to be tweaked and restructured.  My biggest take away and priority? Carving out more time for my sixth graders to simply read!

Slice of Life Tuesday:Learning from Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle & the music teacher up the street

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Up the street and around the corner from our house, the dog walking route I take three times a day and every day with my Sophie, lives a music teacher.  There is also a stone wall, a tree and a fire hydrant – prime attractions for any dog alive – in front of this house, so we pause here very often.

In the early mornings, we hear piano scales: precise, disciplined, efficient: the music teacher getting ready for the day.  In the afternoons, we hear student efforts: sometimes fumbling and stumbling, sometimes less so: the music teacher getting through the day. But at night, we hear wave after wave of gorgeously played sonatas, etudes, and the like: the music teacher enjoying her craft for herself.

On some nights,  when the curtains have not been drawn, I can look into the big picture window and see the pleasure she takes in her craft – she is deeply engrossed, often smiling at some combination of notes that sound just the way she wants.  I wish the students I see trudging up her driveway in the afternoon, clutching their song books with grim I-need-to-get-through-this determination could see this side of their music teacher: the side that loves and lives music.  It might change their perspective of music as a chore into music as a gift.

Early this morning, as Sophie and I enjoyed a little Chopin on our walk by the piano teacher’s house, my thoughts turned to two podcasts from The Teacher Learning Sessions I had been listening to and mulling over – a wise and fabulous conversation between Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher:

I love Penny’s podcasts for their learning and wisdom, of course, but also for the love of reading and writing that shines through in each of the conversations she shares: these are educators who live and breathe literacy, just as deeply as my neighbor up the street lives and breathes music.  That kind of commitment and joy empowers and inspires us both as teachers and practitioners of the craft, that’s the kind of commitment and joy in the reading and writing process that we want to foster in our kids, too – it moves them beyond just learning with us for the year and shows them that literacy is a worthy habit to grow all their lives.

Kelly Gallagher closed with these thoughts, which have been rattling around in my brain this Slice of Life morning:

I don’t care how good the reading and writing standards are if kids don’t read and write a whole lot more than they are currently reading and writing. It’s just not going to happen…because a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep is not going to serve my kids…If they’re not reading and writing, I don’t care that I can check off that I covered the standards this year in my classroom…I think we need a mind shift that, yes, we know that we are going to teach certain “stuff”, but what we’re really teaching are readers and writers and THEY are the curriculum.  We’re looking at their needs and we’re looking at where they are, and that is where we start in trying to figure out how to create a classroom that’s conducive to making them readers and writers.  I don’t start the year thinking ‘what’s my test question going to be for To Kill A Mockingbird?’, I start the year by thinking ‘are these kids reading and writing enough?’ and if the answer is ‘no’, then what am I going to do about it?

I love this.  It gets right to the heart of our teaching practices…we need to focus on living and teaching to the reading writing life, so that our kids can see that it is a worthwhile and life long practice.  Reading and writing is not a chore, after all, it is a gift.

Digilit Sunday: Focusing on function

digilit sunday

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  Today, Margaret asks us to reflect on the word “function“.

The other day, on her must-follow blog, Caroline Starr Rose shared her thoughtful  interview with the writer Julie Berry.  I read this with particular interest because we are smack in the middle of our historical fiction genre study at the moment, and (even though we’ve “done” this genre every year for the past four years) I am also smack in the middle of tweaking this unit and trying to infuse it with a greater sense of relevance and urgency. Perhaps this need for relevance springs directly from the quote with which we opened our genre study…

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
Robert Penn Warren

…or perhaps it is the result of the current presidential election, when most of the candidates seem to be sorely lacking in any grasp of history.   This part of the interview really resonated with me, since it connected so deeply with my central hope in teaching this unit:

Why is historical fiction  important?

I’m not sure how many people would ever decide to study the past, preserve it for future generations, and distill what it has to teach us, if they didn’t learn to care about it, somewhere along the line. I think historical fiction, especially the highest quality historical fiction for young readers, helps link young minds to the past through the caring they come to feel for real and fictitious characters, now dead. The hallmark of good fiction is how it tells the truth and enables empathy. By pointing that understanding and caring toward the past, we help young people – not just the future historians, but future thinkers of every kind – see themselves as heirs of a tremendous legacy and the forebears of a hopeful future. In other words, as a part of, but not the center of, humanity.

I guess it is fair to say that what I am grappling with in this unit are these questions: what is its primary function in my broader plan for our sixth grade year of study? how will it function to help my kids see how historical fiction “tells the truth and enables empathy”? how can our thinking work function in a way that encourages discussion and leads us to a better understanding of the past and how it connects to issues in our present?

In the past iterations of this unit, we took copious notes and wrote many responses.  This time, I wanted to experiment with writing less and focusing on discussions and finding pathways of connection more.  We used the lens of “what I know/what I wonder” from Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s seminal book, What  Readers Really Do to chart our thinking:

know wponder

The know/wonder chart was the perfect means by which to get my kids to think deeply about the historical events in our readaloud (The War That Saved My Life,by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley), how they impacted the more personal worlds of the main characters, and the ways in which we, the readers,  could connect to the past.   The know/wonder anchor allowed us to do the important work of gathering meaning across the span of the text, to note our “first draft” ideas and then to revise our thinking as we continued to read.  The aim was to arrive at this kind of thinking through reading:

…where a reader begins to read beyond the literal story and into some of the deeper layers an author might be exploring throughout a text…readers do this thinking: Their minds journey back and forth across pages, connecting and accumulating details that begin to come together to reveal patterns.  These patterns “show” what are often called issues, ideas, or themes that might be woven throughout the text.”  (What Readers Really Do; pg. 108).


So, we read, we drafted our thinking across the book:

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and tried to dig deep into  connections between the world at large and the world of the characters:

And, finally, to talk about whether this particular story about history had led us to: “a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity“.  

I think that by using our reading journals to write less but think more (i.e. our know/wonder charts) we found some answers to the questions I had had about the function of reading journals in our historical fiction unit of study.  Now…onto historical fiction book clubs, and the thinking work there!

Thinking, reading, and responding…but, no arts and crafts.


Great books deserve thoughtful readers.

Last Sunday, Donalyn Miller wrote a thought-provoking post about our students’ reading lives, and what we (their reading teachers) could do/should do/should not do to ensure that our kids build rich reading lives.  I liked the post so much that I reblogged it, just to make sure that it was on hand to read and ask myself this question posed by Donalyn:

What are children really learning from us about reading?

I gather that this post earned Donalyn both “amens!” as well as some pretty harsh criticism – the latter so out of line that Donalyn was forced to screen comments before posting them.  Reading some of these, I was taken aback – why this level of incivility? Clearly, the post had touched a raw nerve.  Thinking it over, I realized that my own immediate response to the post was twofold:

  • on the one hand, I remembered the arts and crafts projects that my own children had been assigned during their school years, and the many trips to the store to purchase glitter, posterboard, etc. so that these “reading assignments” could be completed (and transportation for them could be arranged on rainy can’t- walk- to- school- days). My low point as a parent came during my youngest’s senior year, when she spent  more time making projects about her assigned reading than she did on her reading itself. Absurd.
  • on the other hand, I have also assigned projects about reading.  My sixth graders do love to “get creative”, and we have strayed into artsy responses to reading.  So, I read Donalyn’s post with no small measure of guilt … and resolved to do better.

I think that part of the issue here, for teachers in particular, is that we create these projects as a way to assess whether our students have indeed read the assigned book or their independent reading.  The assignment, therefore, is proof of their reading; it is something we can use a rubric to evaluate and then assign a grade for.  What these lovely, glitter-edged and visually beautiful projects rarely show, however, is their thinking about reading: how our students came to understand the text, how they navigated through the author’s craft in order to form their own conceptions of the characters, their actions, and the larger themes being explored.  That, really, is  the focus of the work we do in reading workshop.  But, what does this work look like and sound like? How can it be assessed? How can we create authentic reading assignments which capture this thinking work?

This past summer, two of my constant companions in my own attempt to find some answers to these questions have been these books:

readers front and center what readers do

Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse have done amazing work in researching how we read, how we grapple with different types of texts, and how we can help our kids with “the process of meaning making.”  If we want to foster and encourage a love of reading in our classrooms, if we want our kids to become engrossed in the books they read and leave each filled with the wonder of some new discovery about themselves or the world they live in, this type of meaning-making work is essential.  Better yet, this type of work rarely involves investment in poster boards, cereal boxes, or glitter.

This type of work took on a greater sense of urgency in this new school year after I  read through my students’ reading surveys.  The bulk of my students, it seemed, lacked a strong sense of reading identity – they read because they were assigned reading, or because they were participating in a let’s- see- how- much- we- can- read this year book contest.  Very few wrote about loving to read, and many wrote that they regularly abandoned books because “they were really confusing.”  Reading conferences have revealed that although my kids can name strategies like “inferring” and “predicting”, they tend to (as Vinton and Barnhouse write about in What Readers Really Do) view these strategies “as ends in and of themselves…in identification or isolated strategy practice” (p.44).   

So, our first read aloud of the year has taken on even deeper significance – we are reading Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost not just as a community building experience, but also “to introduce the foundational thinking work of reading” (p. 69), and my task is one of “designing instruction that specifically builds a bridge between what is visible in texts and what is invisible” (p.69).

The work that Barnhouse and Vinton walk us through is thoughtful and complex, and I am only beginning to understand how to put it all into practice in my classes and avoid falling into the trap that Dorothy writes about in Readers Front and Center:

The bigger problem is one of instruction. I fell into the trap of thinking that teaching consists of teaching the text.  It’s a common trap and related to the idea of teaching as correcting.  How do we know the student is “getting it” if we haven’t read the book?  This assumes, of course, that there is an “it” to get and an “it” to teach.  This assumes that our job is to teach the “it” rather than the process of thinking that goes into constructing an understanding of an “it”. (p.22)

We’re following two thinking tracks in Room 202.  In one, we read and think about what we know from the text and what that makes us wonder about the story, or the characters (This is based on what I’ve learned from What Readers Really Do):

photo (13)

This is from my reading journal – I’m keeping one this year to document our thinking as a class – and these are our class notes.

And, we are also keeping track of how we are “noticing and naming” – the work Dorothy Barnhouse describes and expands upon in Readers Front and Center:

Noticing and naming how texts work – and doing so alongside students – builds their understanding that texts are problems to be solved and allows them to see how practicing something – in this case reading – helps them build an understanding of how that thing works – in this case books.

What can we take from our work with Absolutely Almost and use to deepen our experiences with the next book we read? How can our rich conversations about Absolutely Almost lead to equally meaningful conversations and responses all year long?  Dorothy Barnhouse makes this type of thinking visible through Book/Brain charts, which she explains this way:

“…the Book/Brain chart is a tool…meant to concretize the notice and name work you’ve done … teaching side by side with students…(it is) a tool that helps you and your students be aware of some of the invisible work of reading.” (p.66-67)

We’ve just begun this work with Absolutely Almost :

photo (14)


My hope is that these notes will help us learn more about what readers really do (to borrow that wonderful title!), which will help us respond in a much more meaningful way than through a diorama or a mandala (my daughter made two of these in her senior year) or a mobile.  I haven’t yet figured out how to:

  • assess this thinking work with a grade
  • clarify it with a SWBAT in my plan book
  • create some sort of culminating activity

but, I have a feeling that it will be a worthwhile beginning to our year of reading together.