One of the questions I often hear about the workshop model (and truth: that I have often had myself) is how do I fit it all in?
We are “supposed to do” quick writes, independent reading, notebook work, small group discussion, whole-class discussion, think-alouds, read-alouds, writing along with students, conferring, anchor charts, building writing stamina . . . the list goes on.
Oh, and we need to do that while mastering assessment literacy, fostering positive relationships with students, offering timely and relevant feedback, developing units beginning with the end in mind, finding time to do our personal reading and writing, participating in our PLNs, developing collegiality with our coworkers, and staying current with our own professional development and practices.
It’s overwhelming to look at the list of “musts” and think that teachers are expected to do it all. The good part is that we don’t have to do it all every day. However, there are two things I find non-negotiable on a daily basis.
One of the non-negotiables is time in class for independent reading.
We do this every class period after the book talk. It’s predictable to my students that I will say “If either of these books sound like something you’d like to read, put them on your next reads list.” And then they start their silent reading.
The above exchange between teacher and students implies that we always have book talks, and that is in fact the case. But I find that book talks take more time than I want to take when I do them justice . . . three to five minutes can go by fast. I tried to speed them up, but I felt less engagement from my students, and fewer books were being checked out. So then I decided that instead of speeding it up, I’d try to incorporate some other “musts” into the book talk time, thereby getting “more bang for my buck” when I spend important class time.
I decided to try doing a cold read-aloud/think aloud as a book talk, sharing my thinking, questions, connections, and wonderings as I read the inside flap, discussed the cover, and read the first paragraph or so aloud.
I started with statements like, “I picked up this book because the cover caught my eye, and I don’t know anything about this book.” Or, “I am wondering about this book because I know it’s written by an award-winning author, and I’d like to know more.” Then I would deconstruct the cover, noting any awards and/or endorsements it might mention on the front or back cover, along with graphics, pictures, and blurbs.
Then I opened to the title page, checked the publication date, talked about the implications of the time during which it was published, mentioned any dedications, forwards, prologues, and prefaces.
Character lists, timelines, family trees, and maps are also useful to talk to students about, and I would share my thinking as I went through these pages. (This is where the document camera is handy – projecting a larger image of some of these pages is quite helpful.)
I read the first few paragraphs of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brian recently. I was able to explain to my students that while I know the author, I am not familiar with this particular text. I talked about what I know about the National Book Award since it is mentioned on the cover. I essentially just talked about what I can learn from the title, author, and cover before I even open the book.
My students liked the vulnerability I showed because I honestly didn’t know everything I should know about the book. But the exercise helped them to understand that they don’t need to know everything when picking out books, and that it’s okay to ask questions, be unsure, and to take risks.
Another title I picked up was In the Long Run by Jim Axelrod. No one had picked it from the shelf all year, and it still sat there as a brand new book. I asked students what the cover could tell us, and we started to guess that it could be about marathons, cross-country running, or anything else. They didn’t realize that Axelrod is a journalist, but as we read the back cover together, we learned a lot. I had a student take it and read it that day.
Developing lesson plans has to be prioritized because the reality is that the kids will show up every day. When we prioritize book talks, we usually think we need to get ready for them, to prepare for them in advance. I assert that it’s not necessarily true each time we share books with our students.
It’s why I think the cold read-aloud/book talk combo is useful. Students have a window into the thinking of a “master reader” as we choose books and talk about them authentically.
***My one caution is that as teachers, we have to know a little bit about the book we are reading from (being careful not to learn too much in advance in order to stay authentic). But I will admit I recently had a small embarrassing mishap when reading the first few paragraphs of So Anyway . . . by John Cleese. Be forewarned.
Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the world to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.
Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie