Some Thoughts about Voice and Choice in High School Readers Workshop

I remember when my school district was all about the Love and Logic model. It was the autumn of 1999, and it was my very first year of teaching.

We teachers were encouraged to offer “natural consequences” and to allow students an opinion when it came to disciplinary measures and classroom management. We were taught to offer choices to students, but choices that we adults could live with.

Love and Logic helped me get through my first year of teaching, no question about it.

I can’t help but connect the ideas behind the behavioral issues to those with readers workshop.

I offer choices to my students every day. I am transparent about it. For instance, I recently gave an assignment regarding their Week Without Walls travel. They were assigned, about six weeks or so before their travels, to read one text about where they were headed. The idea was that they would learn something new and have a more enriched experience while they were in a new country.

I explained to each of my classes that because I value choice so much, it didn’t matter to me what they read. Cookbooks, novels, travel blogs, poems, folk tales, memoirs, and most anything else were all on the table.

Because my students are expected to read at least two hours a week, these choices were absolutely okay with me. I knew that even if they weren’t reading something related to their travels, they would be reading.

Students ended up reading a variety of texts, genres, and forms, and we were all fairly satisfied with how it went.

The thing is, the choices I offered were choices I could live with, but more importantly, choices my students could live with.

I would have preferred that my students read longer texts like a memoir or novel about their destinations, but I had to be realistic about their individual reading lives.

Some students were entrenched in series and didn’t want to take the time to read a longer text between their preferred books.

Some students had healthy next read lists and didn’t want to prioritize something new over what they were looking forward to reading next.

Many students had valid reasons for not wanting to read a longer text, but were more than willing to read something shorter. This still allowed students to learn something new, and to create background knowledge about where they were traveling to, which was the point of the assignment.

policy preferenceSo as I reflected on it, I realized that my preference should not automatically turn into classroom policy. I should not only allow voice and choice when it comes to what they read, but in many other aspects of my courses.

Students can and should be able to choose what length and types of texts they read, knowing that the ultimate goal is having a healthy reading life.

They should also be offered agency to choose some due dates and deadlines, to help decide on core texts, and to give input about when major assessments will happen.

If I, as the person of authority in my classroom, forget or choose not to offer the choice, but instead decree certain due dates or assignments, my students should also have the autonomy and skill to disagree with me, and to articulate their preferences.

The person in authority will almost always have an opinion, but it shouldn’t be treated with absolute reverence. Students should be able to push back on teacher preferences which have morphed into policy, especially when the policies don’t make sense.

That’s the thing about choice. If I am the only one who gets to decide when they have choices, it feels less authentic, and less like the students are in charge of their own learning.

 

My preferences cannot automatically be considered classroom policy. With dissenting voices comes better decisions. I know that’s true in my adult world, but I need to remember it in my classroom world as well.

So I will remember the Love and Logic strategies I learned as a brand new teacher, and continue to offer voice and choice to my students.

But I will also do my best to empower my students to remind me that they deserve voice and choice even when it’s not offered to them. That sometimes, it’s theirs to take, and with the right skills and strategies, they can shape a teacher’s preferences and policies, take charge of their own learning, and maybe teach the teacher a thing or two.

 

Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie

ruBRICKS Part II – A Follow-Up

Blogging, writing, talking, being part of the conversation about what it means to be an educator in 2017, it’s all easier to do than to actually live it and breathe it and teach it. We can talk about theory, we can read our guiding texts, we can attend professional development conferences around the world, participate in twitter chats, and we can all talk the talk.

Walking the talk is the hardest part.

Theory doesn’t always meet practice. But we try. I try.
I recently wrote about the idea of rubrics

– that they should serve more as a foundation than a weight or a wall pinning students in. That they should allow for creativity rather than limiting imagination.

One way that I have tried to allow for student voice and creativity is with the most important thing I can help my students learn.

The topic is the habits of a healthy reading life.

If my students learn to read literary nonfiction, classic novels, and short stories, it will be fantastic. But it’s fantastic only if they actually choose to read these texts on their own. Most importantly, they need to have a habit of reading, to discover the reader within themselves.

This winter I realized that I wasn’t sure that my students knew what the endgame was. So we talked about it. We talked about what it looks like to have a healthy reading life, and we brainstormed the attributes of a healthy reading life.

I did my best to organize their ideas into categories and indicators that made sense. I used our school’s student profile to help with the organization. The six categories are Respect and Integrity, Global Awareness, Reflective Thinking, Critical Thinking, Creators and Innovators, and Communicators and Collaborators.

From that, I created a rubric.

I think the process for this rubric can be re-created with other standards and goals, and can be simplified to a simple yes/no checklist, or a one point rubric for student self-reflection.

healthyreadinglifeprofile-page-001

healthyreadinglifeprofile-page-002

I know, I know… There are still problems with the document. But I think the point is that the ideas in it originally were theirs. The ideas belonged to the grade nine students.

While it’s an intimidating double-sided checklist in its entirety, it is easy to split into the six sections, which means we can examine just one section of a student’s reading life at a time. At that point it becomes smaller and quite manageable, and it’s not a brick wall of text.

I can print just one section at a time, and use it as an exit ticket or as a prompt for a reflective quick write. It doesn’t weigh students down when they simply examine only two or three indicators about their habits of reading.

The document still needs to be refined, and maybe all of the Common Core standards I’ve attached to the indicators aren’t exactly right; it’s still a draft, a work in progress. But this rubric, one that could be revised to a simple yes/no checklist, has been the catalyst for some seriously authentic and relevant conferences with my students.

Because I used their criteria and ideas, it’s not a brick wall, and it doesn’t confine my students between narrow rails. Instead, it’s a conversation starter, a tool for goal-setting while conferring, and it’s something that shows my students what to strive for.

It shows them what this readers workshop is all about: healthy reading lives.

I think the takeaway here is that teaching is always a work in progress, as is learning. Setting goals is important for students and for teachers. Creating authentic scoring guides continues to be one of my goals. This year I created one about the topic that I think is the most important of all – the healthy habits of reading. Next year we will tackle the habits of being a writer.

I will keep talking the talk – that means I am learning and reflecting on my practice. I will also keep trying to walk the talk, which I think has to include student input, because student voice is so essential to readers workshop, and is of course essential to building the habits of healthy reading lives of students.

We can’t weigh them down with our “help” – our rubrics and scoring guides should serve as foundations for growth, which is what I think this one does.
Nothing’s perfect, and we teachers have to be okay with that. We will continue to read, learn, discuss, and to walk the talk. Walking it and living it is a work in progress, and our students are better because we keep trying.


Originally published as a guest post on blog Three Teachers Talk 
Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie

When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS

When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS

My fourteen-year-old son surprises me with some of the things that come out of his mouth. I won’t repeat them all here (you’re welcome), because sometimes I’m astounded in a way that makes me laugh, but doesn’t necessarily make me think.

But the other day, he did make me think.

We were at the kitchen table. I was reading my students’ online readers notebooks while he was working on homework. Responsibly, he checked the rubric that accompanied the assignment he was working on, but by doing so, he seemed to get more frustrated instead of finding clarity.

I looked over at him, eyebrows raised in silent question. His response was, “This rubric is more of a brick than a help!” and he went on to explain that it felt like he was weighed down by the rubric rather than feeling like it provided guidance.

I immediately understood his comparison. Rubrics as bricks, hobbling students, confining them to strict definitions and requirements, weighing them down instead of allowing them to soar. Continue reading “When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS”

Cultivate Your Garden

I love the advice given by Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy: Find your Marigold.  She writes that new teachers should find “positive, supportive, energetic teachers” and stick close to them, ask them for help, advice, and support. I couldn’t agree more.

I only recently discovered this particular post, and it resonated. Loudly.

As a veteran teacher, though, the advice to new teachers to find their marigold still applies. Everyone needs a marigold.

I immediately knew who my marigold was when I read that post. It’s the teacher-librarian I’ve been friends with since the day we met. She’s the one whose family my family has shared the last two Christmases with, she’s the one who pushes my thinking when she disagrees with me about some educational theory or practice, and she’s the person I can go to when I need to smile.

I told her right away that she’s my marigold.

She’s also the person who first asked me, oh-so-casually, “Have you thought about trying the readers workshop model this year?”

Jess (@jtlevitt) has been my go-to coworker and friend as we have explored readers workshop in my high school English classes this year. She’s encouraged, pushed, nudged, and challenged at the right times, in the right ways, and has helped our students discover their own personal, healthy reading lives this year.

I couldn’t have, and wouldn’t have tried or found success with this model without her.

Everyone needs this person in their lives.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the same luck and friendship and help from the universe that I have had. Some people work in small schools, or feel isolated, so there are other places we can explore to find encouragement and help.

Three categories, in addition to the marigold you will (hopefully) find in your workplace are: expert/consultant, guiding text, and blog. I think it will vary from person to person, but some combination of these categories will probably serve. Continue reading “Cultivate Your Garden”

Do’s and Don’ts of Implementing Readers Workshop (Part 2)

Since I wrote my first post regarding Do’s and Don’ts for Readers Workshop, I have felt a positive response from my small online community. I have more ideas to share, so keep reading if you want some additional beginner’s workshop advice.

Do confer with students on a regular basis. I know in my previous post I wrote that student choice is the foundation of workshop, and I do mean it. But conferring is, too. If you can meet with about four students each day, and keep the conference time to three to four minutes, then in about fifteen minutes you’ll get the job done. The rest of the students should be reading or working quietly, and might even overhear what you are working on during the conference time. That’s totally okay.

Keep a record of who you confer with, how often, and a quick note of what you discussed. I simply use a spiral notebook, which I think is a great way to start with note taking. I might try something new next year – maybe some sort of pre-made form or checklist to make it even more streamlined and easy, but honestly, the spiral notebook system is fine.

Simply put your students’ names at the top of every other page so you have plenty of space to write throughout the year, realizing that you will staple in pages, use post-its, and sometimes even forget to take notes about the occasional conference.

It’s okay.

The conferring is what matters. It’s about the talk. About the exchange, and the relationship you will build with your students. You’ll get to know your students quicker at the beginning of the year, and by the end, you’ll have a more authentic, individual relationship with each of your students because of the conferring. It’s rewarding and they will do better because of it.

Often, students look forward to conferring, and want to share their thoughts with you about what they are reading. Other students will try to avoid it, and that’s why it’s important to keep track of who you confer with so you can even out the time you spend with your students. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to spend the exact same amount of time with each student – some kids need more than others  – but be deliberate about how you make those decisions. Continue reading “Do’s and Don’ts of Implementing Readers Workshop (Part 2)”

Three Do’s and Don’ts of Implementing Readers Workshop

 

I’m just wrapping up my eighteenth year of teaching English Language Arts.

For the first seventeen, I taught in a pretty predictable, traditional manner: assign a book, a reading schedule, give quizzes, poster projects, assign essays, administer exams, and show the movie.

This year was so different.

In September, I started the workshop model in my two grade eleven classes.

By October, I was so convinced that it is the right way to teach students to read, write, talk, and think, that I implemented it in all of my classes.

I became enthusiastic, almost to the point of fanaticism, with readers workshop. It works! I read about it, tweet about it, started blogging about it, and can’t stop talking and thinking about it.

I attended the Adolescent Literacy Conference in Bangkok last month. I heard Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk, Kylene Beers, and Bob Probst talk about literacy and the workshop model, and I was even more convinced that what we are doing at our school, that what I am doing in my classroom, is the right thing to do, perhaps the best thing to do for kids right now.

So, as someone who is still relatively fresh to the practices of readers workshop, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in a simple list of do’s and don’ts.

Do offer choice to your students. It’s the foundation of the workshop model. Students will read more, read better, and read deeper when they have the feeling of agency and choice in their reading lives. I really feel that it’s non-negotiable.

Give students control over their own reading lives – they are at the age when they should be making more, rather than fewer, independent decisions. This is a pretty safe way to offer trial and error, risk, failure, and success as options for teenagers.

Don’t let them make all of the decisions. If the standards suggest that students should be reading American dramas, then require it. Just offer choice within those rails. Offer students choice with their deadlines, or with their assessment options. Let one group choose between A Raisin in the Sun and Fences, and another choose between The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. Just offer choice to the students, and make sure you can live with the options you present.

Do a book talk every day. I like to group titles into themes, often including all types of levels, forms, and genres in the mix. Including novels written in verse, graphic novels, middle school level books, nonfiction, and contemporary classics ensures that there is most likely a title for everyone in the grouping (see how I incorporate choice, even in the book talks).

The theme pictured above, “secrets” was so popular that I had to do a “round two” because so many in the first group had been immediately checked out by students, and my later classes would not have had enough books presented to them in that grouping. What a great problem to have.

However you decide to do your book talks, it’s essential that your students see you talking about books, excited about books, and pushing them to read titles that they didn’t know existed. A nice side benefit to this practice is that you will become more familiar with your school library’s collection, and in turn you’ll be able to match students to books with more confidence. Continue reading “Three Do’s and Don’ts of Implementing Readers Workshop”

Design Thinking and Choice in Summer Reading

Summer reading assignments are a hotly debated topic this time of year, especially when it’s tough to reconcile the workshop model’s foundation of student challenge and choice with something like a required reading program. What’s a teacher to do?

It’s a given that students need to read over the summer. When teachers and students have built a culture of reading over the course of a school year, it is essential to capture that momentum and carry it onwards in order to avoid the dreaded summer slide, but it’s also equally important to balance student choice.

Our school implemented PLCs this year, so we have “late-start-Wednesdays” during which small groups of teachers meet and plan around goals we set in the fall. My PLC focus is around student reading goals, and yesterday we posed a question to each other about how we could celebrate the progress our students have made over the course of the school year.

Individually, they are better readers than they were in September.

As a group, they have helped to foster a school culture of reading that is more robust than it was in the fall.

Some examples: our school library’s circulation numbers have dramatically increased over the school year, and students are regularly overheard “book talking” favorite titles or asking about each other’s next reads lists.

This change is worth acknowledging and celebrating, no doubt.

As a PLC, we also have a concern that once they are out the door in June, some of them will forget what it’s like to enjoy a healthy reading life, so we want to make a plan for that.

What we want to avoid is something like the summer reading programs from when we were kids, the well-intentioned ones that we remember our local libraries promoting. Remember the t-shirts and sticker charts? The programs that encouraged extrinsic rewards rather than finding focus in the intrinsic motivation that arrives when students discover favorite titles, authors, and genres?

I think those old-fashioned reading programs are the result of too many adults trying to figure out what kids like. Yes, kids like puppets and lollipops and popcorn. But those extrinsic rewards won’t turn kids into life-long readers.

Continue reading “Design Thinking and Choice in Summer Reading”