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!”
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.