Book Talks When the Teacher is Out

An inevitable reality of teaching is that sometimes the teacher has to be absent. It’s part of life, so I refuse to feel guilty about it.


When I can plan ahead for my absences, I ensure that students are working on something which puts learning at the forefront, rather than having a “let’s take advantage of this poor substitute teacher” situation. That eases the guilt a bit.

Next month, I will attend the Adolescent Literacy Summit and I’m super-excited to learn from some amazing presenters. However, I’ll be missing three days of classes, and I want my students to be doing something worth-while and that helps them move forward with the development of their reading lives.

I’ve planned countless lessons over the years, so I’m not worried about the “lesson” part of the classes that I’ll be missing.

But this book talk habit is a new one.

It’s harder to plan for when I’m not there.

And book talks are an essential part of readers workshop. Kids need to get excited about new books every day!

That’s the situation I’m facing, and I’m exploring some solutions. Continue reading “Book Talks When the Teacher is Out”


Lessons Worth Repeating: Using “old” mentor texts for new learning

I love American Literature. Transcendentalism is essential to eleventh grade English curriculum.

When I was in the eleventh grade and I read Huck Finn say “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” my life was changed. It really was.

I am always moved by Atticus Finch when he tells Scout that the “one thing that doesn’t abide my majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

I have to ask my students, yes, every year, if they think John Proctor is a transcendentalist, and of course to support their assertions with analysis and evidence.

But this fall I had a major shift in my thinking and teaching.

Common core doesn’t mention transcendentalism.

It does require that students can read informational text. Phew.

I believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous transcendentalist essay falls into the category of “seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.9).

Here’s how today went. I kind of liked it.

After the book talks and independent reading, we moved into the mini-lesson part of the schedule. I introduced the idea of transcendentalism in our last session, so today I put the word aphorism on the white board. I asked if anyone knew it or had seen it before. No one had.

I cheered at their silence, and they looked at me quizzically.

I reassured them that they were going to learn something new today! That’s worth cheering about! A new, amazing word, that they already love, they just didn’t know it yet! Yes, I told them they were going to love this word. Aphorism.

(This is when you have to quickly move around the room a lot and talk louder. Or conversely, sloooow down and talk quietly. Be different. Make them pay attention.) Continue reading “Lessons Worth Repeating: Using “old” mentor texts for new learning”

Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice

“I’d like to talk to you about some books.”

That’s how I start nearly every class period. My students are ready with their own independent reading books, and their phones are usually on their desks, which is what I want. They’ve got their next reads list in the notes app, and they are ready to add some new titles to the lists. They just need some inspiration!

I’ve tried a few different ways to introduce students to books, and there are all sorts of strategies that work. I’ll describe the one I’m currently using; students are enjoying it, and I am getting titles in front of them en masse.

I’ve explained in previous posts that my students set some second semester goals by drawing randomly themed cards out of a bag. The themes offer challenge and choice, and generally serve to expand their comfort zones.

I’ve started drawing cards out of the bag, too, and those cards are now shaping my themed book talks.img_7298

Today’s book talk theme was nutrition. Included in our grouping: a multicultural cookbook, some nonfiction about the Irish potato famine (also counts for the immigration card), Eating Animals by Jonathan Safron Foer, the Neil Flambe series, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a quirky graphic novel titled Chew by John Layman, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. By the end of the day my students had added more titles: Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson to name a couple. Continue reading “Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice”

Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud

I try to confer with students every day and every class period. I try to confer with each student at least every two weeks. These are challenging, measurable, and attainable goals. But I rarely meet them. Life gets in the way, and official conferences don’t happen as much as I’d like. So when we have conferences, I really try to make them count. I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated, though.

In chapter six of Book Love, Penny Kittle describes three different purposes for conferencing with students:  Monitor a Reading Life, Teach a Reading Strategy, and Increase Complexity and Challenge. 

I’ve gotten comfortable with the first category, Monitor a Reading Life, which is essentially a check-in. I absolutely do this type of conferencing in class, but I also do it informally all day, every day. It’s the “What are you reading?” when I see a student in the hallway. Kittle’s go-to question is now my go-to, and it has power while still being casual and comfortable. It’s a great way to help make up for the lag time I’m experiencing with students between more official, sit-down conferences. I also ask questions such as:

  • “How is Angela’s Ashes working for you?”
  • “How many pages did you read last night?”
  • “What’s on your next reads list?”
  • “Do you have enough to read over the weekend?”

There’s a lot of power in these unscripted, impromptu hallway conversations. I can tell right away if a student is excited to read a book, whether I should consider counseling a student to drop a book, and most importantly, if a student is regularly reading enough.

I’ve also gotten comfortable conferencing with the third category, Increase Complexity and Challenge. After I’ve monitored the reading life of a student (the time required varies from student to student; trust your teacher instincts), I can easily judge whether or not a student is challenging herself.

For example, when I noticed that one of my students was only reading books that contained essays or short stories, but not text of any significant length, I talked to her about choosing a short novel so that she can increase her stamina and stick with one longer narrative. When I noticed that one of my eleventh-grade boys was only reading Percy Jackson, through a series of conversations I encouraged him to read something different; he reluctantly chose A Thousand Splendid Suns, and has since moved on to enjoy an expanded comfort zone.

For the whole-class text complexity challenge, students drew categories of text out of a bag and then committed to at least trying to read some of these new categories during semester two. Some cards are speciimg_7294fic- like Biography A-J. Others are more general, like Long Title or Setting in Asia. Students had fun with that activity and there was really good energy about the challenge. I pictured the bag of challenge cards here on the right.

The category of conference that really intimidates me is Teach a Reading Strategy. My inner dialogue is all “You aren’t a reading teacher! You teach literature! Reading teachers teach the little kids! Your students are almost adults!” All semester I doubted myself and my ability to teach  mini-lessons that I could just conjure out of thin air. At least that’s what it felt like.

The flexibility that is required when conferencing with students is vast and unpredictable. As teachers, we often pivot when asked questions during class, we allow students to explore different ideas and topics, then we bring them back to the topics we think they are supposed to learn. That’s hard enough when dealing with one whole-class discussion. How was I supposed to do that with each and every individual student in each of my classes? How was I going to prepare for unpredictable, off-the-cuff mini-lessons? Continue reading “Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud”

Celebrate and reflect, then use that momentum to set exciting goals

Asking students to set goals without context just begs for fluffy, surface responses that students have no interest in looking at or thinking about ever again. But we all want to see our students setting concrete, challenging, and attainable goals. Setting the context makes all the difference; students will set great goals when given a solid set-up.

I tried something new at the end of this semester. I won’t know for sure if it works until June, but I can tell you that the energy I’m sensing from my students now is encouraging.

Let me explain. I was specifically inspired by chapters three and eight of Penny Kittle’s Book Love.

At the end of first semester, I asked my students to list out all of the books that they had read since the first day of school. I told them to include the books they had dropped, and write down how many pages they had read in the dropped books, then add that number to the total pages from the books they had finished. It was a nice moment when they realized how many pages they had each read during the semester. It’s worth celebrating – they need to acknowledge their accomplishments! As part of that celebration, we made a class poster with all of the titles of the books, and students’ individual page numbers. Then, we totaled the class page numbers and posted it all publicly.

After that we had a class discussion about what makes a book hard to read? We brainstormed together, discussed different qualifications, and ended up with a good list.
Next, I asked them to rank their books. They didn’t realize it, but they were creating their own personal book ladders. Then, they posted the list on their online readers notebooks (more on that in a later post).

I grabbed a screenshot from one of my students. I like how this student reflected on each book – it wasn’t something I required the studentsscreen-shot-2017-02-03-at-3-57-52-pm to do for this post, but he wanted to share some thinking. I really like what is said about Carrie – Stephen King is known for having somewhat weak endings, and this student picked up on it, even though it is the fist book by King he has read. Good on him.

I asked them to reflect on how they’ve grown as readers over the course of the semester. I’ll share some of those responses in a later post, but they were overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.

The next step was to do the ten-minute timed read that is described in chapter three of Book Love. Here’s what I instructed them to do: Continue reading “Celebrate and reflect, then use that momentum to set exciting goals”

My classroom library is the best part of my room.

When I started the school year I didn’t have a classroom library. I had a shelf full of old textbooks collecting dust in the back corner of my room. It was full of books I had never touched – you know, the leftovers from teachers past… when I was new to my school, I wasn’t sure what to do with the clutter, and eventually those old books became just part of my classroom landscape. Students wouldn’t have considered picking up a single book on that bookshelf. Dreary.

But everything changed in October! Our school hosted the wonderful Stevi Quate as a consultant for writer’s workshop, and one of her topics to discuss with us was our classroom environment.

Eek. That was a brutal realization. Not a single anchor chart, or even student-created poster was on those walls. It was time for a change.

I boxed up the musty dusty disgusting books that were on that shelf and kicked them to the curb (okay, I think they were donated somewhere), and started filling up the shelves.

Here’s a photo of what it first looked like. (Notice I even have some student-created posters behind the shelf covering up the old pre-printed ones! Progress!) The bottom shelves still had teacher editions to old textbooks that weren’t in use anymore… but it was a start.


I went home and raided my children’s bookshelves, as well as my own, and slowly started to fill in the classroom library. Continue reading “My classroom library is the best part of my room.”

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.