Your “old” strategies still have a place in readers workshop.

A girl in my class chose Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper as her first book of the school year. She finished it in November, love love loved the book, and couldn’t wait to pick up another one by the same author. She had momentum and pride, and was truly excited for her new read. She jumped right in to her new book.

By the time we got to our next official class conference, she had lost some steam. It takes a couple of weeks to get to all of the students in my classes, so she was about a fifth of the way into her book when we conferred. She was frustrated, unsure, and was even considering dropping the book if she couldn’t figure out the details.

Being new at readers workshop, I wasn’t immediately sure why she was feeling frustrated, so I asked her. She explained that she kept confusing the characters, and she couldn’t figure out which one was who while she was reading.


I could help with this. I may not be a veteran readers workshop teacher, but this is my eighteenth year of teaching English. I told her to make a list. To annotate. To use stickies. Just write something down.

I reminded her of when we read The Crucible as a class (that’s the one whole class text we have tackled so far this year). I had quizzed the students after the first act of the play, and mostly made sure they knew who the characters were. They made lists and maybe even memorized the characters’ names. All of those names that start with P are easy to confuse – Putnam, Proctor, Parris, and of course the confusion of calling all of the women “Goody” doesn’t help. The students need structure and boundaries when they start reading that play.

I then reminded her that I didn’t give any “quizzes” after the first act, because I knew that with a solid foundation, the class would understand the rest of the play much more easily, and avoid a lot of frustration. She agreed. She had enjoyed reading The Crucible, and had found meaning in what she thought was going to be a difficult text.

I asked her if annotating, listing, or using sticky notes to keep track of the characters was a strategy she was willing to try again, only this time with her book, and she would get to choose how she wanted to do it. She agreed to try.

At the beginning of our next session, she bopped into my classroom, eager smile on her face with this to say: “Miss, I wrote down all of the characters, and now I understand everything!”character-list-lara-2

It was a simple strategy, but because she knew that she had used it before and it worked, she was willing to try it again.

She believed in the strategy and found success, which led her to believe in herself.

I know that all of their comprehension issues aren’t this easy to solve.

I’m still struggling with my readers who are at least reading more than they did last year, but I know aren’t reading enough.

I’m still trying to sort out how many whole-class texts to read with them, how long those texts should be, and when we should read them.

I don’t have a lot of answers.

But, I did learn that even with something new like reader’s workshop, I can reach into my “old” bag of tricks.

And my students are reading more than ever, understanding what they read, and instead of cutting corners, making meaning for themselves.


The Value of the Reread

During goal setting this semester, one of the categories students might have randomly been assigned (more on that in a later post) was along the lines of reading a favorite book again, or reading someone else’s favorite book.

re-read a book cards.jpg

There were a few different ways to phrase the idea, but essentially these categories were about reflecting on oneself as a past reader and/or discussing favorite books with friends. This is an impossible category to book talk, so it’s time to get creative.

I shared a clip from a Friends episode: Rachel and Joey swap favorite books, so Joey agrees to read Little Women and Rachel agrees to read The Shining. (Show just from about 00:39 to 1:50.) This clip simply introduces the idea that students who have wildly different reading preferences can still share and discuss books, and then broaden their reading comfort zones.

After watching this short clip, I asked my class – these were 10th graders – to think about any favorite books that popped up, whether they had reread the books or not. Did any titles immediately come to mind?

I then shared a more serious, yet short article from

You, Too, Will Love Big Brother: A Life Of Reading And Rereading ‘1984’

It’s a short and sweet article about reading and rereading a book from childhood to adulthood, and how the meaning and connection to the text has changed and evolved. It’s also a recommendation of a great book.

So now my students are contemplating titles that have impacted them in one way or another. Most likely, they will reread for the first time with this assignment. They will recommend favorites to each other and eventually swap books.

I’ll share chapter two of Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, the one that discusses his relationship with Gone with the Wind. He describes his mother’s passion for it, and the first lines of this chapter describe how she needs to replace her own well-loved copies.

I’ve used excerpts from My Reading Life as mentor text before, so the students are familiar with Conroy’s voice, and will hopefully be able to summon up a book, short story, or poem that they can finally agree has helped to shape them into who they are, and what they are becoming.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Book Talks Make a Difference

Yes, students want choice. They don’t want to read our favorite books – they want to discover their own favorites. But many high schoolers are out of practice and don’t know how to choose a book. That’s where the book talk comes in.

The teacher has to lead the way. Even if you are unsure about this whole workshop approach. Even if you haven’t read any young adult fiction lately. You can read the back of the book out loud. Or you can read the first few lines of the first chapter. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And you might find a book you want to read, too!

Start every class with a book talk and silent reading. Flip the order around from day to day if you want to, but start with these two things. Students should know that they need their independent reading books and their next reads lists. At the end of each book talk, remind students to add the title(s) to their lists if any of the books seem interesting to them.

I can share part of my workshop story here. At the beginning of the school year, I didn’t even know what Readers Workshop was. But I agreed to try it out.

I (naively? hesitantly?) started giving all of the book talks, but eventually the students wanted to join in.

That’s when the momentum really picked up. 

 And, they got to choose their own due dates. They love that. 

Here’s how it worked: with a google spreadsheet, students signed up for a weekly due date that was sometime during the semester. During the week of their book talk, they would arrive to school on a Sunday morning, and in theory, were prepared to present the book talk first thing, or any other day that I might call on them during the week. About five students signed up for each week, so I would have anywhere between one and three students book-talking in any given class. 

Here’s an example of the spread sheet the students had access to. If they changed their minds or presented on a different book, it was okay. But, as with all things, the teacher gets to set the boundaries in which the students have choice. Continue reading “Book Talks Make a Difference”

Talk to Students about what YOU are Reading, too.

Last week I posted this outside my classroom door, and I also made one for each of the other teachers in the English department:

It’s a small and easy step towards engaging students in conversations about books, reading, and all of our reading lives.

I got the idea from my dear sweet husband who was in Bahrain last weekend for some NESA professional develois-reading-sign-from-bahrainpment. He saw these around the school and knew I would love the idea. Continue reading “Talk to Students about what YOU are Reading, too.”