Fitting It All In: The Think-Aloud Book Talk Combo

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.

book talk lists

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.

1421 mapCharacter 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.)



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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.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 6.17.12 PMAnother 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


Reading Partnerships instead of Book Clubs – Using CommonLit in the Classroom

I tend to get a bit reflective toward the end of the school year. Somehow, even with the fast pace of trying to fit everything in, my mind starts to think about what I wish I would have made time to do with my students. This year, the answer is that I wish we had read more short stories together.

They read a ton of novels for independent reading, read classics and books in verse for book clubs, and we read a lot of poetry together as a class. They read several nonfiction essays, magazine articles, and books, but we did not have a big focus on short stories.

I decided to fill this gap and use CommonLit – a website with a great selection of texts with all different themes, grade levels, and genres.

I assigned a classic ninth grade short story: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. I printed and made copies for my ninth grade students, told them to annotate as they read, and gave them a week to read it outside of class, bring it back, and be ready for discussion.

One of my students came in a few days later holding her annotated story and said, “Miss! This is amazing! I need more of these!”

I couldn’t have paid her to say something more timely and appropriate. I was already thinking about assigning more short stories, and she convinced me.

However, the problem with assigning more short stories was that I had found myself teaching the story rather than the reading skills and habits. I wanted to tell my students about Zaroff’s ideas about what it means to be civilized, and that they should pay attention when Whitney and Rainsford are talking about hunting when they are on the yacht. But upon reflection, I knew that it wasn’t the right way to go. I wanted my students to realized those things because they had the skills to read any story, not because I had told them what to ask or what to think.

I asked myself how I could assign classic short stories and resist teaching those stories at the same time.

One of my students answered by asking me a question. She said she liked The Most Dangerous Game, but was hoping she would have more choice in the next short story assignment. That was the breakthrough question for me. I realized I could offer choice and expect that my students would read and analyze classic short stories.

Short Story Partnerships

Because they had already found success with book clubs, this was a pretty natural thing to do, and CommonLit makes it easy.

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Texts are organized by genre, grade level, lexile, and theme. Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 4.30.57 PM

CommonLit will connect to Google Classroom, which means students can log in with their school gmail accounts. It also means that I can choose which grade level texts I want specific students to read – for a couple of my students, I went one text level band below, and assigned them a selection of stories that would be a bit more accessible to them, but still be challenging and that would provide ample opportunities for thoughtful conversation.

Their assignment was the same except for the short story options. I gave them the following options:

Thank You, Ma’am
The Monkey’s Paw
The Veldt
All Summer in a Day
The Treasure of Lemon Brown
Lamb to the Slaughter
Hearts and Hands
The Gift of the Magi

My students were told to choose four of nine texts. This meant that many of them read all of the stories before they decided to “really read” the four chosen ones (oh my happy heart!) and their choices were thoughtful and deliberate.

They were more excited to read the ones they had chosen with their partners and have returned to class talking to each other about the stories with a greater level of enthusiasm, than when I have simply assigned the same story to every student to read on the same day.

I also gave a large chunk of time for the assignment so they could budget their class time and homework time over a couple of weeks, plan to meet with their partners, and make the assignment authentic and thoughtful rather than rushed.

I think about how I used to teach any of these stories. The Most Dangerous Game, or The Necklace for example could take up to a week as I would guide them through each word, each sentence, and explain the meaning as we went along. Because my students have been given a wide range of choice over the last year or so, they have become independent readers, and can not only access these classic short stories, but appreciate and enjoy them while they are at it.

I’ve loved watching their independence blossom this spring as they tackle harder and harder texts. These are texts they often have very little background information on, but they are learning to find it themselves, use context clues, and talk to each other in their reading communities.

CommonLit has been a helpful tool as I have watched their progression.
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It functions in many ways as an online textbook, but doesn’t feel cumbersome like a  textbook can. There is a brief bio/intro with most texts, the lines are marked, and there are footnotes for difficult vocabulary. There are questions to answer as students read, and more thoughtful questions at the end of each selection.

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A Sound of Thunder Questions
from “A Sound of Thunder”

What I really like about the questions on CommonLit is the discussion questions at the end of each selection. Students don’t need to write an essay or a formal short answer; instead they prepare for discourse, for literary discussion.

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We’ve had great success with book clubs (and now story clubs) this year. I’ve loved the conversations I’ve overheard, the more “official” discussions the groups have had, and the individual conferences I’ve had with students. The classroom “talk” has been steadily increasing in quality and stamina, and our summative video discussions should be knock-out.

I’ve been so impressed with what giving students choice and voice can do. It feels intuitive after a few months of teaching like this, and not only have students developed strong independent reading lives, but now they are also able to tackle difficult, classic, canonized texts with confidence.


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 agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

It’s better with Verse! Short and sweet book clubs encourage readers to try new format.

Student voice and student choice have been the priority this school year as we try to foster healthy, robust reading lives in our students. They have been introduced to many titles through plenty of book talks and book recommendations, so they know there are a ton of choices out there for them, but this level of choice also means we haven’t had too many shared texts.

This spring I thought it might be fun to squeeze in some shared texts and build up our reading community with deliberate talk about books. I wanted us to be able to finish in just a couple of weeks, so we are engaging in book clubs with books written in verse.

In keeping with the priorities of student voice and student choice, I provided many titles for students to choose from as they entered into this short unit. These are all books that we have multiple copies of and can be found in our classroom libraries.

Before spring break my students were given a little time to get to know a book they hadn’t seen before, and then share that book with a partner. It took just a couple of minutes for each exchange, and then both partners switched books and started again. After a few rounds of sharing books, I allowed students to flip through the remaining titles that had seemed interesting but they hadn’t had the chance to hear about yet.

They had handouts for note-taking during this activity, and when we were done, they put the notes in their readers/writers notebooks so they would have easy access after the break.

book club notes - verse

When we returned from spring break, students reviewed their notes and listed their top five choices. I assigned and handed out the books, putting between two and four students in each group.

These are the titles students chose from.

The assignment was pretty straight-forward.Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 3.37.17 PM

Students were directed to annotate for the fiction and/or nonfiction signposts found in Notice and Note and in Reading Nonfiction, (depending on their titles) the Book Head Heart framework and questions found in Disrupting Thinking, and some poetry vocabulary (listed below).

After they started reading, but before they were too many pages in, a few students had questions about how to annotate a book written in verse. They had annotated other texts before, but for some reason this type of text had some obstacles. IMG_7697 2

I decided to do a quick, fun example of annotating a narrative poem with a simple children’s poem by Shel Silverstein. Cloony the Clown has many of the fiction signposts, poetic devices, and we talked about the Book Head Heart framework. Finding the signposts and annotating together was fun. It took less than fifteen minutes to share the example in class, and my students seemed much more comfortable with annotating their book club books when we were done with the activity.

Students then used their annotations to spark discussion, and regularly use them during the week to practice their sustained conversation.

They will be assessed next week in the form of a video-discussion, where they will meet in their book groups. Using iPads, they will record their thoughtful discussions, referring to annotations, making connections with the text, and sustaining academic conversation for around twenty minutes.

What I’ve heard and seen so far has been encouraging. Students are sharing, referring to lines and stanzas, and feel accomplished that they have read a complete text in such a short amount of time. Some of them are on their second or third-draft reading, which I think is a great strategy and habit to reinforce. They are truly getting to know their books, and in the process learning about story, poetry, and close reading.

Some students were able to read their book club book in an hour or two, and then get right back to their other choice reading. Others are encouraged by the progress they are quickly making in a full-length book because it often takes them longer than a few days to read most of a book. That’s one of the many great things about books written in verse – it doesn’t take a long time to read them, but they are rich with language, story, character, and they hold student interest. With the variety of types and titles, there really is something for everyone.

I borrowed an idea from this amazing post from Buffy J Hamilton regarding connecting text to the world around us. Next week, as one of the finishing activities in this short unit, students will each bring in a current event article which somehow relates to their books, and use these articles to launch new conversations about their books, connecting the text to themselves and to the world around us.

I’m pleased with the way these books clubs are progressing. My students don’t seem to feel intimidated by the length or weight of the books, and they tend to agree that the books are relevant and thought-provoking. While some of them have enjoyed books written in verse before their book clubs, for others this is one of their first experiences with a book written in verse. So for some students, this unit validates and supports their reading experience, and for others, it opens a door to a new form.

One student created this character chart from David Levithan’s The Realm of Possibility as she was reading. She did it not because it was required, but because she likes the book and wants to make sense of it.

I encourage others to try some “unconventional” types of text for book clubs. Graphic novels, short stories, and poetry collections are all ideas I’m kicking around for future book club units, and I’m wondering how other teachers have incorporated different types of texts in their classes, and encouraged new conversation. Please leave your ideas and experiences in the comments below!

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 agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Prepping for Summer Reading: Encouraging a Reading Community

In order to plan our spring break reading and practice independence for our summer reading, we brought 42 freshmen into our Learning Commons for some book talk/book speed dating.

It’s an activity that can be reproduced with any number of students and with minimal planning time. It also is an activity that elicits positive feedback from students and most importantly, gets kids reading.

We brought our students together because we prioritize regular book talks, student talk, and communities of readers.

To ensure that students were ready to engage in the activity, we provided time and structure for planning the mini-conversations about books.

speed dating books prep
On this side of their papers, students prepared for their one-minute book talks.

Students were instructed to choose a favorite book from the school year so far, bring the physical copy of the book to class that day, and be prepared to talk about it for about a minute. They were also instructed to write down questions they could ask others in case the person who was doing the “selling” of the book ran out of things to say.

The other side of their half-sheet handouts had a place for note-taking during the actual speed-dating activity.

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Students created next-reads lists during the activity.

Before we brought all of our students together, our wonderful teacher-librarian and I met to plan the activity, and she volunteered to lead it.

The students were lined up at two long tables, paired with the person across from them, so there were two tables with kids lined up on either side of both tables. (She re-created this activity later with one smaller table of sixteen students, and it worked well with that number, too.)

Mrs. Levitt gave the students a couple of minutes of instructions, and the other two teachers and I watched as the magic unfolded.

Each student was given one minute to “sell” their book, and then listened and asked questions during the second minute, when their current partner was trying to “sell” the other book. They were reminded to add to their next reads lists if the books were interesting to them, and then one side of the table stood up and moved to the left in order to find new partners. The activity moved quickly.

The student feedback after the activity was positive and enthusiastic. They liked hearing about books from each other, and felt enthused about setting some spring break reading goals. Mrs. Levitt had them make make a “reading promise” on padlet so that they would have some public accountability when they returned from spring break.

After the public promise on padlet, students set individual goals, responding to the following questions, expanding when necessary.

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Students came back from break saying things like “Miss! I read five books!” and “Miss! You have to read this book! It’s sooo good!”

I don’t think they would have the same enthusiasm if we had continued with our usual book talks and generic reading assignments. The fact that they talked to and listened to one another in a fast-paced, structured setting meant that they could later have more authentic, longer conversations about the books they had found interesting during the class activity. Students discovered new titles and authors, and developed community with one another that revolves around reading books.

They could see that all of their teachers, our teacher-librarian, and their classmates value reading, and are interested in each other’s thoughts and ideas about what makes a great read.

It was a positive experience for all of us, and it helped to set the stage for summer reading. The thing about summer reading is that it doesn’t have the built-in accountability that the school year does. It requires either self-discipline or intrinsic motivation, so the practice and encouragement over the break helped to develop “muscle memory” in that students read books even when they weren’t accountable for it the very next day. They read books that they wouldn’t normally have read, and they were able to continue talking about those new reads when they returned from the break, which also helps to build community and develop readers.

How do you plan to encourage and practice for summer reading? I’d love to hear about it in your comments.

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 agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Five Ways to Publicly Celebrate Student Reading

Once our students start reading, start setting personalized goals, and start to develop healthy reading lives, it’s important to acknowledge their progress. Big, culminating classroom celebrations are a fun way to do it, but there are also ways to celebrate that don’t take a ton of precious class time, and can mark the smaller moments worth celebrating along the way.

1. Penny Kittle encourages the book stack. Students gather the books they’ve read over the last semester, quarter, or other period of time that they’ve been reading. They stack the books up, which gives a visual representation of what they’ve accomplished with their reading. My ninth grade students recently did the book stack, and their smiles and pride were inspiring.

2. While some students loved the book stacks, I had a couple of students who had done much of their reading on e-readers, so the book stack wasn’t such a great option for them. Our solution was the digital collage. Students gathered images of their book covers and collected them on a document, creating a digital quilt or collage. They then printed them on our color printer, and we made a patchwork mural in the hall with them.


This visual representation celebrates not only what individual students have been reading, but also serves as a hallway meeting place and inspiration for conversation about books. It’s a great way to build a reading community. Continue reading “Five Ways to Publicly Celebrate Student Reading”

Book Clubs with a Twist

I’ve always loved teaching eleventh grade students. They are fun and funny, curious about the world, and on the verge of adulthood. This is often the year of first cars, first girlfriends and boyfriends, and first after-school jobs. When I used to teach in the States, it was the year when they could finally go off-campus for lunch, the year for college visitations, and the year when they started to really get serious about their futures, saying goodbye to childhood and hello to the grown-up world.

I also see it as a key developmental year, when many students really start to read grown-up literature, as they are starting to have the life experience and background knowledge that is needed for so many books.

Eleventh grade used to be all about American literature. The focus was more on content than skills, and as we continue to teach with the common core state standards, it’s easier to get away from the traditional canon as we embrace student choice.

My students are reading all sorts of titles and authors and genres, which means that the priority has been shifted. Students may be doing more reading than fake-reading (and because of this they may actually be actually reading more American literature than they did in my previous years of teaching). However, we aren’t organizing our units according to topics like romanticism and transcendentalists. We organize by skill, by the type of reading or writing they will be doing in the unit.

However, it’s been a little strange to teach eleventh grade English without the heavy focus on American literature, so one of the ways we are trying to reincorporate content is through book clubs.

A few months ago my students participated in nonfiction book clubs, and last week they asked me if we could do it again, but with fiction. With classics! Who am I to say no to such a request?

So my eleventh grade teaching partner and I gathered titles from our department’s book room and classroom libraries, and came up with some book club options. We had two self-imposed guidelines (not requirements…we are always flexible): books should be written by American authors and have at least a significant portion of the plot taking place in the US, and that there should be a film to go with the book.

American lit book clubs
These are the titles we could come up with in just a few days.

We book talked the titles and gave our students a few days to research and digest the different options, and then had them mark their top five choices. This allowed us as teachers a lot freedom and flexibility when making the groups, while also allowing us to honor student choice. I ended up with students in my class reading the following titles:

I kept my book clubs in groups of two or three students, so that everyone has to participate, and no one can sit back and let others do the thinking for them.

To the students who didn’t get their first choice pick, I reminded them that simply because they aren’t reading it for this book club doesn’t mean they can’t read it later in the year.

Next is the twist! Students had to be willing to watch the film that goes with the book. We teachers know that students will watch the film. It’s just the nature of teaching high school. While that used to be a problem for me in previous years, I’ve started to relish the idea of students watching the film, and sometimes I surprise myself by telling them to watch it first!

Continue reading “Book Clubs with a Twist”

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”