Helping our Students Develop a Reader’s Identity through Reflection and Goal Setting

It’s the time of year when it’s important for students to reflect on their identities as readers. There is so much growth to celebrate – whether it be in disposition, habits, knowledge, fluency, or attitude.

Even though I see their growth, it’s important for our students to own it themselves, and to develop their own sense of identity instead of relying on my impression of who they are.

So we spent a little class time thinking and reflecting.

I asked them some questions to get them started. Who were we as readers when we started the year? How do we identify as readers now, and where do we want to be as readers at the end of the school year? What might that look like?

Now remember, I live in Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes.

We have lake and volcano views from our school. It’s stunning, and it’s part of our daily landscape. It’s what we know.


As we discussed what it means to have a reader’s identity, some of my seventh grade students struggled. They weren’t sure how to describe themselves, and they weren’t seeing their growth over the first half of the year.

Somehow (some moments in teaching defy description) we got to the idea of volcanoes. That we can all be a different type of volcano, and that it can describe who we are as readers.

We discussed four types of volcanoes: extinct, dormant, active, and exploding NOW. We soon decided to toss out the extinct volcano as a possibility, because there is no one in the class who never reads.

We described the three remaining possibilities, connecting reading identities to types of volcanoes:

  1. Dormant — Rarely reads, but lots of reading potential. Might remember what it was like to be active and erupt (in other words, be excited and enthusiastic about books and reading), but it might have been a long time ago…

  2. Active — Sometimes/often reads in spare time, enjoys reading, and has preferences about books, authors, genres, topics, forms, etc…

  3. Erupting NOW (we first used the word exploding, but switched to erupting because it’s more of a “volcano word”) — So excited about a topic, series, author, or genre… can’t get enough and won’t stop talking about it! We realized this category isn’t sustainable – we should actually move between the active and the erupting categories often.



This illustration helped student visualize who they are and where they want to be as readers. They started to reflect and set goals, and realizing that they have identities as readers, and that those identities can improve and evolve.

Some of the initial reflections looked like this:img_2716-2.jpg


I took our class ideas and created a simple reading volcano infographic that now hangs in our classroom library:

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img_2711 2

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty 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 have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.


Multiple Types of Assessment with a Whole-Class Text

I’m a firm believer in the power of student voice and student choice. When students are trusted and taught to make thoughtful, reasonable, and sometimes risky choices with their reading lives, something magical happens. They learn. They grow. 

But after a semester of embracing the concept and practices of individual student-led book choices in my grade nine classes, I decided to assign a whole-class text. It was time. My students were ready. 

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I assigned Of Mice and Men.

First of all, it’s a classic. Students are smarter for reading it. It feels like serious literature. It’s chock full of imagery, foreshadowing, symbolism, and injustice. Students feel emotion when they read it. 

Second of all, it’s manageable. It is 105 pages long. I gave my students eight days to read it. Books were handed out on a Sunday, and students needed to be finished reading by the following Monday. For some, that meant they could read it multiple times. A few finished it overnight and then got right back to their choice novels. Others planned to read fourteen pages per night so they could finish just in time. Even though they all read the same text, voice and choice were still built into the assignment. 

While reading the book, they regularly met in small groups, book club style. They discussed topics of their choice after making plans and committing to be accountable to one another. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce the Notice and Note fiction signposts, and many of their discussions were prompted with something they had noticed while reading.

This anchor chart was posted during the two-week narrative unit when we read Of Mice and Men.

Once my students were done reading and discussing, it was time for some assessment. In order to prepare for the book club discussions, students annotated their thinking, their questions, and generally marked the passages that resonated with them. IMG_6061

The day that they were supposed to have the book finished, I collected each copy of the book and did a quick annotations check.

It took about 90 minutes to go through all of them. Our ninth grade team had decided to give some basic guidelines to our students: annotations should be plentiful, at regular intervals, show a variety in type of thinking & approach, and add original content.

We don’t ask our students to annotate everything all of the time, but because they needed to be ready to have purposeful and deliberate discussions with each other, the annotations seemed like a good call. After checking over each student’s annotations, I handed back their results and let them know that if I had under-rated them, they could confer with me in order demonstrate thinking that I had missed. This assessment provided quick feedback, and didn’t require a ton of teacher time for grading. 

If students weren’t happy with their marks, they were given another opportunity for learning and for demonstrating proficiency. They were given the option to read and annotate another classic novel within two weeks. They were also instructed to schedule some conferring time with me to make sure they were on the right track. Continue reading “Multiple Types of Assessment with a Whole-Class Text”

3 Ways to Utilize Audio and Visual Recording with our Readers and Writers

There is much debate regarding the use of digital technology in the classroom. For teachers, cell phones and other technology are both frustrating helpful when it comes to student use. They have the potential to be distracting and disruptive, as we all know, but tech is useful when it comes to some classroom activities, such as keeping a next reads list, or looking up word gaps. I love the idea of using them for the powers of good, so recently, I tried asking my students to use their mobile phones just for the purpose of recording, and to try to ignore the notifications that might come across as they used them.

I’m always looking for new strategies to help the readers and writers in my classroom, and in the past few weeks I’ve tried a couple of different applications. Using cell phones and iPads is simple, and it meets one of the simple rules I am trying to follow when it comes to working with students: meet them where they are.

Recently, while my grade nine students were in the thick of drafting informational essays, I asked them to read their essays aloud, and listen to the flow, the choppiness, the parts that sound great, and the parts that “just don’t sound right.” While I’ve asked students to read their own work aloud before, this time I asked them to record themselves, and then after, to listen to their voices while reading, keeping a pencil in their hands, pausing the audio and editing and revising as they go.

My students were reluctant at first, but once they got over the initial awkwardness of listening to their own voices, they indicated that it was a simple and useful strategy for revision. It’s one that can be used in other classes, and doesn’t require any other tools or even other people for help.

Another strategy we employed using recording technology was focused on the use of video recording. Before my students had started writing informational essays, we studied informational texts, using the Nonfiction Notice and Note signposts, along with the Book Head Heart strategy found in the works of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.


When students learn reading strategies and skills, it’s important to be able to see just where they are in the learning process, but it takes time to thoroughly check in with each and every one of them. So with this unit, our ninth grade English teacher team decided that it would be great if students could demonstrate their learning through a think-aloud. Doing this in class would take a lot of one-on-one time, so we asked students to demonstrate their thinking and reading skills on their own, and to use the video recording capabilities on their iPads and cell phones.

A screen shot from a video-think-aloud

Because we, as teachers, had modeled the think-aloud strategy in our classes many times, students knew exactly what we meant, and were able to demonstrate their understanding of the strategies and skills necessary when reading magazine articles. They annotated, exposed their initial confusion, shared their process of finding understanding, and demonstrated a multi-draft reading of the articles they had chosen. It was a successful method of assessment, and I plan to utilize it again. Students had a chance to showcase their thinking and understanding, and it wasn’t a one-off opportunity. They had the chance to try multiple takes with their recordings, so the pressure was off and they could easily share their thinking. Continue reading “3 Ways to Utilize Audio and Visual Recording with our Readers and Writers”

The Power of Talk and Class Discussion

One of my professional goals this year is to provide my students with as many high quality opportunities to talk to each other as I can. To allow them to engage in deliberate, academic conversations. To show their thinking through discussion and purposeful talk.

I always feel like it’s a risk because I never know what they are going to say. It’s a matter of letting go of control, and trusting and teaching my students to speak thoughtfully.

Easier said than done (for me to let go of control – not for them to engage in thoughtful discussion), but I continue to try.

I first saw this new Burger King commercial when it lit up my twitter feed a few days ago. It’s gotten a lot of press and interest because its anti-bullying message resonates with kids and adults, and it’s impossible to argue that bullying is anything but bad.

I wanted to show the ad to my high school juniors because I thought the message is spot on. It’s a funny, heartwarming, and in moments, tense commercial with a clear, positive message. Plus, it compares high school juniors to Whopper juniors. That’s funny.

I started class with an excerpt by Eric Luper from an NPR book review of the book Dear Bully by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones. I first read aloud the excerpt which describes a fifth grade boy who is blindfolded with his hoodie by some “cool kids,” and then tied to a fence inside some tennis courts. He first allows the hazing ritual because he wants to become a part of the in group, but soon realizes that he has signed up for more than he wants.Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 6.43.39 PM

The narrator had remembered what it was like when he was recently the targeted victim of this group, and keeps reminding his audience that he is glad that it’s not himself who is the target anymore.

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There was a noticeable silence and inhale of breath in my classroom when I was reading the tense moment towards the end, when we don’t know if our narrator is going to rescue the helpless victim or not.

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This short piece set the tone for viewing the Burger King commercial. We watched it together and students responded predictably and appropriately. They laughed when the man in the kitchen “bullied” the Whopper Jr by smashing it, and then at the confused customer responses.

They were tense when the bigger boy poured soda on the smaller boy’s tray, and there was a small sigh of relief when the nice lady in the booth intervened and tried to make the bullied boy feel better about himself.

In the end, my students thought it was a nice commercial with a thoughtful message, and many of them felt they could relate to it.

I asked them to respond using the Book Head Heart framework we’ve employed a few times, the one that is found in Disrupting Thinking.

There were some thoughtful table discussions, and then some thoughtful whole class discussion. This framework is one of the best discussion starters I have ever used in my classroom. Many of my students focused on the heart portion of the framework, which totally makes sense. There is a lot of emotion in the ad.

When I asked them to think about the three modes of persuasion/rhetoric: logo, pathos, and ethos, they increased their level of thoughtful discourse, and participated in some deliberate talk.

As I circulated the room, I heard some conversations about the comparison that was being made in the commercial. There was some confusion, and while students generally liked the message of the ad, they had some questions about its method. Some rumblings about burgers not being the same as people.

But then class was coming to a close, and the clock prevented us from furthering our discussions.

However, it got me thinking about the ad. At first, I had accepted it at face value – I had appreciated the message, and wanted to talk to my students about methods of advertising, along with providing a quick and relevant reminder of the definitions and application of logos, pathos, and ethos.

But this power of classroom talk, the value of student voice, empowered my students to ask questions that I hadn’t considered.

It led me to teaching points during our next class that I didn’t anticipate when I first introduced the two texts. We talked about logical fallacies, and specifically, false analogies.

My students were able to push back on this well-received commercial, and apply academic vocabulary to their thoughts.

Some of them said that while they think the intended message of the commercial is anti-bullying, the ultimate goal of Burger King is to sell burgers. But that the goal of the commercial is to raise awareness and spread the idea that bullying is bad, that bystanders can intervene. They were torn.

What they could agree on is that the commercial made a faulty analogy. The people who stood up for the Whopper were actually standing up for themselves. They had purchased a specific product, and that product was faulty. They weren’t concerned about the well-being of the burger; instead, they were standing up for themselves. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just not the same thing.

Because of the workshop model, because talk is valued, because student voice is such an integral part of this framework, students led us to an entirely different conclusion than I had planned or anticipated. It was better, and it was deeper thinking.

No, a person isn’t analogous to a burger, even when the label “junior” is attached. But we all decided that the anti-bullying message is valuable, and we were all relieved when the woman with the glasses and the man in the red shirt intervened and made the victim feel validated.

We recognized the power in advertising. And I recognized the power of productive talk.

Follow Julie on Twitter @SwinehartJulie

A Simple Method for Teaching Voice and Characterization

A few weeks ago, at the end of class, one of my students asked a question about her book – about the way it sounds when she reads it. She was reading Girls Like Us by Gail Giles and was wondering about dialect used by two characters named Quincy and Biddy.

The novel is about two girls who have just graduated from a high school special education program. They are very different in personality, but end up rooming together in their first apartment. They help each other through some tough times, and ultimately discover that they are more similar than they realized. My students who have read it love it, and it has been shared among my ninth grade girls quite a bit.

Quincy’s opening line is “Most folk call me Quincy. I ain’t pretty but I got me a pretty name. My whole name be Sequencia.”

My student thought that maybe Quincy should be a little more grammatically correct, or speak properly, or something… she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

The question took us to a lesson about dialect, which ultimately led us to a discussion about voice.

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 5.18.26 AMI made copies of both characters’ first lines: both Biddy and Quincy have unique dialects, outlooks, and voices. I asked my students to annotate the excerpts, looking for examples of dialect and voice.


I have to admit that when I sat with them to annotate the Biddy section, I couldn’t help but get out my teacher pen and teacher attitude. I didn’t annotate; I edited.

I then read my corrections aloud. Imagine:

” My name is Biddy.

Some people call me other names.

Granny calls me Retard.

Quincy calls me White Trash sometimes and Fool most of the time…

I can’t read or write…

There are many things I cannot do.”

Imagine if Quincy had started with “Most people call me Quincy. I’m not considered conventionally pretty, but my name is pretty. My full name is Sequencia.” It does not have the same sound or impact. No question.

When I read Biddy’s “corrected” version aloud my students weren’t impressed. One even said something like “I don’t mean to offend you, but your version wasn’t as good.”

Exactly. That’s exactly what I wanted them to get at. That the dialect and the imperfections are an important part of what give a character voice and individuality.

Over the next few days, I went on to give them more examples. I started with a familiar one: img_3908.jpg

In chapter six of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hagrid introduces the hippogriff to Harry. Imagine if he had said instead,

Now class, the first thing you should know about hippogriffs is that they are proud creatures. They are easily offended, so refrain from insulting them. It could prove to be very dangerous.

After the easy, familiar text, I shared the first page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with these grade nine students. IMG_3914

Imagine if Huck Finn had started with:

“You don’t know who I am unless you have already read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain.”

Then think about the first book of the Harry Potter series. The famous scene when Harry learns that he’s a wizard.

IMG_3912Imagine if my teacher pen had corrected Hagrid into saying something like

“Of course you’re a wizard, Harry. Once you’ve had a decent education, you’ll be an excellent one. With heritage and genes like yours, what else could you possibly dream to be?”

Trust me, after hearing the “corrections,” students understood the power of dialect, and how it impacts voice and characterization. I really didn’t need to say much more.

I asked my students to include dialogue and dialect in the narratives they were writing, and to be purposeful. They were able to apply what they had learned, and to find their own voice.

Follow Julie on Twitter @SwinehartJulie

The Classic – Contemporary Literature Mash-Up, and Taking Risks

My ninth grade students have all of the voice and choice that they need when it comes to choosing their independent reading books. Our focus has been on narrative reading and writing as we have launched the school year, so as you can guess, finding narratives that students want to read is pretty easy. The choices are really wide-open.

The choices that students don’t have as much voice in are the mentor texts. Those short, whole-class texts that we all read together, and that we use for so many different purposes.

Our curriculum suggests that we read James Thurber’s classic short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty , originally published in 1939 in The New Yorker, during this launching unit. It’s a great story, and once the students understand that Walter Mitty isn’t actually an airplane pilot or a surgeon, they can relate to him and his daydreams. We’ve all been there, daydreaming about being somewhere other than our current reality.

We read the story in class; I did a think-aloud with the first section, reading the dialogue with different voices and inflection. For example, I stopped and talked to my students about how the punctuation clues me in to shifts in setting, and how the use of “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” brings me right into the scene. I can hear the noise of the airplane, and can see how the sound intensifies in the story through the use of italics.

I asked my students to read and annotate – always read with a pencil in your hand! – using the Book Head Heart framework we have practiced several times. While some of my students “got it” right away, I didn’t feel the engagement in the room that I was hoping to feel. They weren’t relating to Walter Mitty like I was hoping they would.

A about the same time I was teaching Walter Mitty, our department received our new classroom libraries (more on that later! So exciting!) and I picked up our new copy of Kwame Alexander’s Booked, a book I had looked forward to reading since I had read Crossover for the Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club. As soon as I brought it home, my ten-year-old son spotted it and then read it in one sitting, hooked because it has a soccer ball on the cover, and of course because the story is engaging and powerful. It is an absolutely beautiful book, and it reaches kids.

Hanging right outside my classroom door, this sign helps me to be public about my reading life.

After I got the book back from my son, I keyed in to the scene when our main character, Nick Hall, has a daydream sequence. Let me set the scene… he’s in his boring English class, and his mind starts to wander… he’s about to score the “winning kick of [his] Barcelona debut” when his English teacher interrupts the daydream and prevents him from winning the imaginary game.

This sounds suspiciously similar to when Walter Mitty is about to save the imaginary crew of his imaginary plane from dying in an imaginary hurricane, and his wife tells him “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” and jolts him back to the reality of driving to town. I realized that Walter Mitty and Nick Hall have some things in common, and that maybe Nick Hall is more relatable to my ninth grade students. An excerpt from Booked could help my students access Walter Mitty.

I also realized that we hadn’t talked about the use of verse for telling a narrative story. It seemed like the perfect time to introduce Nick Hall to my students and to show them that there are multiple ways to write a narrative.

So the following day I asked my students to narrate a story from Walter Mitty’s point of view, but write it as though they are Kwame Alexander writing about Nick Hall. To mash up a classic story with a contemporary one. This was a great exercise in character study, in word choice, in voice. It was a way for my students to be creative while exploring and playing with these characters. There were beautiful “lightbulb” moments in those thirty minutes of class, and students started to understand who Walter Mitty is, and what his motivations are. They discovered who Walter Mitty is because they could understand Nick Hall. Like Nick, they have all been bored in class before, and they all know soccer. It clicked with them.

I used my R/W notebook as a model for mimicking the Thurber-Alexander mashup.

Before class, I worked on my own Booked-Walter Mitty mash-up.

I copied the first part of our excerpt from Booked:

Mrs. Hardwick’s Honors English class

is one boring

required read

after another.

Here’s what I wrote in that same style:

Mrs. Mitty’s Weekly Trips to Town

are one boring

stupid stop

after another.

I shared my own writing with my students, letting them know that it was far from perfect, but I was having fun playing with words and form.

I showed them that later in my writing I used the word slow deliberately in my mash-up – I tried to play with Alexander’s use of font choices as I was writing from Walter Mitty’s point of view. I wrote s  l  o  w  in my own notebook, stretching out the letters, trying to slow the pace of the reader, looking for effect, similar to when Nick Hall’s friend whispers to him in tiny, italicized font, and we know it’s a quiet voice. I capitalized all of the letters in HITS in my own writing, trying to copy the effect of SLAMS from the Nick Hall excerpt.

Then I let them loose to do the same. To have fun with words, to play in their readers-writers notebooks, and to start to understand the characters and forms better.

Our class had some great discussion; we talked about author’s purpose, which translated to their own purpose in writing. We talked about the effect on the reader, and how authors’ choices are deliberate, but that it takes time to write exactly what we mean.

We played with words, with language, with character, and we deepened our understanding of all of them.

As I informally debriefed this lesson with our school’s teacher-librarian/high school literacy coach @jtlevitt (I’m often at her desk, pondering something that happened in class and asking her for her thoughts on how to sharpen my workshop skills), she directed me to chapter six in Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. Kittle writes:

How do I choose mentor texts? I look for the best writing in the genre we’re studying while we’re studying it. That way I find fresh work I can read with students for the first time discovering a writer’s craft. Most model texts used again and again become dull for me, so I’m always seeking the surprise of new ideas.

My friend and literacy coach showed me that I also was finding the freshest, best writing in the genre we are studying: narrative. That new ideas are powerful, and not only keep students engaged, but excite the teacher as well.

I look forward to finding more pieces of literature that I can use to help my students’ understanding of story, of words, of form. I like this mash-up of literature, and the mimicking and discovery that comes with it.

Update: I’m adding an exemplar piece from one of my students. She and I are both very proud.

Follow Julie on Twitter: @SwinehartJulie

Teaching “Book – Head – Heart” using Current Events

I’m a coward.

I tend to shy away from controversial issues in my classroom. I like to stick to the standards, stick to the canon, stick to what’s safe.

That means I don’t talk enough about current events with my students. It takes us all out of our comfort zones, and like many people, I like to stay in mine.

I realize it’s not the best way. Students need a safe place where they can learn to explore issues, even to get into the habit of paying attention to the news, and to discover and strengthen their own ideas and beliefs. While it’s not my place to tell them what to feel or value, I can help them to discover it within themselves.

So today I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I pushed myself in order to allow my students to explore who they are as individuals, using current events and the Book Head Heart framework as the tools.

I think it’s important to realize that students need a framework when discussing current issues. My students are polite, care about each other, and generally want to be knowledgable and feel smart about things. While that is a great start, I think they need a bit more guidance, especially with tough issues, which is where the Book Head Heart framework from Disrupting Thinking comes in.

Today I introduced that framework using Kwame Alexander’s powerful piece, Take a Knee.

I had already made an anchor chart for the wall, and then put the same information on the white board. It’s straight out of Disrupting Thinking.

BHH Anchor Chart
Small Book Head Heart Anchor Chart…It’s not artistic, it’s not beautiful, and many people could do it better…
BHH Whiteboard
White Board Notes – BHH

I instructed my students to take notes so that they could refer to the framework later when they were involved in their own independent reading. I explained that it’s the rare occasion when I will ask them to all write the same thing at the same time, but this was one of those times when I thought it was important enough to do.

I also included the information on Google Classroom, so it is now easily available in their own notes, online, and on my classroom wall.

While they took notes, I tried to explain different aspects of the BHH framework.

I talked about the fact that the Book category can mean any text, including video, infographics, short stories, poetry, etc.

By the time we were done with the discussion, they had added one more question to the Book questions: What is the story? It definitely connects to the question What is the story about, but when they were answering the second question after watching Alexander’s piece, they had to define what the story was before they could decide who was telling it.

We worked through the rest of the ideas in the Book Head Heart questions before watching the video.

My students had a lot of questions about the piece. I teach in an international school, so a few of my students needed background knowledge about what is customary and traditional during the national anthem. Some didn’t know what it means to take a knee. Some of them didn’t recognize the faces and names listed in the video. Questions like Who was Trayvon? and What is Ferguson? were cautiously asked. I had to remind myself that in 2014, many of my students were eleven years old. In 2012 they were nine. To them, some current events stem from ancient history.

What they did recognize was the power of the poetry.


We talked, shared ideas, provided some background knowledge and context for one another, and offered opinions in a safe place before watching it a second time. That time, in addition to the content, I asked them to pay attention to the pacing, the repetition, and when the repetition pauses or stops. I asked my students to think about how those moves impact them while they experienced the piece for the second time.

After the second viewing, I invited students to watch again and again as needed, but this time using their own devices and earbuds. They were impacted and interested enough to continue engaging with the text, and they started to answer the B-H-H questions both in small group discussions and on paper.

I loved listening to their talk, and later, reading their responses.

We gave each other permission to not have a comprehensive answer for the question in the Head category about how their thinking had been changed, challenged, or confirmed. Many of them didn’t have opinions about what it means to take a knee, but they could comment and discuss how they felt about the power of poetry and it’s ability to inspire and move an audience.

One student said that while she hadn’t been paying attention enough to the news to have an opinion, this powerful piece made her feel something deep in her heart. Comments about how one person can give other people confidence to stand up for their beliefs were quietly posed, and many students agreed that no matter what their opinion is on taking a knee, it’s important to be able to talk about it and try to understand the other side.

So there it is — the Book Head Heart framework helped to organize my students’ thoughts about a current event, about a controversial topic. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t comprehensive. But it was a start. They learned a little bit about what’s going on in the world, and they learned about themselves. I learned more about who they are and how they think.

Together, we proved that the quote I hang on my wall from Disrupting Thinking is true:

Ultimate goal of reading quote

We won’t always know how we will get better, or what we will get better at. It depends on the text and our purpose for reading it, but if we are thoughtful, we will undoubtedly be better.

Follow Julie on Twitter.