A Snicker of Writing

Last week, I read Natalie Lloyd‘s blog post for the Nerdy Book Club titled, “There’s a Lion in My Closet.” Go read it if you haven’t yet (along with her debut novel, A Snicker of Magic). It’s a beautiful piece about the moments and memories we connect to certain books in our past and the lasting relevance those books have on our lives.

A few days ago, I had my sophomores use this blog post as a mentor text and create their own writings about their books and memories. It was cool as a teacher to travel with them back to elementary school or middle school. It was cool to see the instances where reading was special and important to them. It was fun, refreshing, and a great start to the week. They did such a nice job, and I wanted to share some of their responses:


A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

“The covers are ripped up and the pages yellowed and dog-eared . . . but this isn’t from a lack of respect. It’s a side effect of love.”

“The small triangular space between the sofa and where two walls meet is where I go to collect my childhood memories.”

“After all, if it had the power to take up space in my mind, it had earned the power to take up space on my shelf. Seven years later, every time I see the BFG on the shelf, I think about my third grade teacher and how she read it.”

“In elementary school, on cold winter mornings, I would wake up early to claim the best vent to sit on and read.”

“Inside of those pages are memories that can help you get through anything, good or bad. You just have to be willing to read, and remember.”

“For me, my memories are storied in the white bookshelf next to my window.”

“My favorite moment was when I paused to look up from my book, and stared out of the plane window, wondering if there really was a Great Perhaps out there.”

“I know now that reading is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m sitting in my unicorn-themed bedroom with my mom softly stroking my hair with one hand, the other holding the book. I turn the pages for her, giggling at the way the pitch of her voice changes as each person speaks. Each time we reread this story, we sit in the same exact corner of my bedroom, with a mug of steaming hot cocoa in my hand with 3 marshmallows, just the way I like it.”


Thanks for reading!


Currently Reading If Only by AJ Pine

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Consume Your Art

Performance poet and all-around awesome person Sierra DeMulder visited our school a few weeks ago as part of our annual Writers Week, a week-long celebration of writing. Sierra has become somewhat of a celebrity among our students and with good reason. Her poetry is something that everyone should be lucky enough to read and see performed. I was enthralled with her presentation, but I was equally struck by something Sierra said in her Q&A with the students. When asked for her suggestion on becoming a better writer and poet, Sierra responded with, “Consume your art.”


 Consume your art. These three words make sense not only for the future poets who were sitting in our auditorium but for those in any profession looking to improve. We want our doctors not only to have a thorough understanding of treatments and procedures but to immerse themselves in new medical research. We want our politicians not only to have a thorough understanding of history and policy but to immerse themselves in the community and advocate for their constituents on a daily basis.

And we, as English teachers, should not only have a thorough understanding of the content we pass along to students, but we should also 1.) work to immerse ourselves in all forms of literature, 2.) work to immerse ourselves in research (both discipline-specific and general education), and 3.) work to immerse ourselves in practice.

1. Immerse Ourselves in All Forms of Literature

I never know what might make its way into tomorrow’s lesson. I don’t know if, on a given day, I’m going to have the opportunity to pair up a student with the perfect book. Maybe I’ll read something that connects to what my students are learning in science. Or history. Perhaps a student will ask me for a recommendation for a novel in verse. A colleague could ask me for a book that ties to what she is doing in Of Mice and Men.

I would hate to let one of these moments pass me by and miss my chance to improve my teaching or my students’ learning. Yes, canonical literature is important and continually relevant for teachers and students in a middle school or high school classroom. But so is reading adult fiction, YA fiction. poetry, memoirs, picture books, news articles, blog posts, infographics, and a slew of other genres. We cannot limit ourselves to the curriculum because we don’t want to limit our students’ thinking to the curriculum. If our goal is to foster critical thinking and create lifelong readers, writers, and learners, we have to be the primary models for our students.

2. Immerse Ourselves in Research

There are many ways teachers can expose themselves to pedagogical research. Purchase books at the bookstore or check them out from the library, read blogs from noteworthy educators, become a member of a local or national organization, enroll in a summer writing workshop, subscribe to an educational publication, attend state and national conferences, tweet and Skype with professionals in the educational field, set an educational website as your homepage, etc. While this may not be action research, working to discover new ideas and perspectives enriches classroom content. No professional field remains stagnant, and we can’t afford to have our ideas stagnate either. To be at our best for our students, our colleagues, and our community, we must seek out these opportunities. The best teachers I know are constantly looking for ways to get better.

3. Immerse Ourselves in Practice

I mean practice in several ways here.

Practice as in the art of being in front of a classroom. We need to be reflective of our practice. We need to be honest evaluators of ourselves and the way we communicate our ideas, beliefs, and content to students. We need to see our colleagues teach and learn from them. Within our department and within our school, we need to engage in meaningful conversation about how learning happens from one classroom to the next. And this need to be done not in a punitive fashion but rather in a way that celebrates successes and encourages teachers to implement new ideas.

Practice as in production. I would argue that being a good consumer also means being a producer. This means creating artifacts, whether it be writing blog posts, completing creative writing assignments along with our students, or reshaping a lesson plan with new tools. If we want our students to listen to us about writing and creation, we should be writing and creating.

Practice as in taking what we have done and trying to get better. I’m not quite sure the perfect lesson exists. What might have worked perfectly one year (or one period) is oftentimes not perfect the next time we try it because of the countless variables within the classroom. The best we can do is to make it better from year to year, period to period. Practice, practice, practice.

Sierra, thanks for (unknowingly) helping to make me a better teacher. I owe you one.

Consume your art.


Currently reading – Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and If Only by AJ Pine

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5 Reasons I Read Widely

untitledLast week, I sat down in the English office and began to scan through A.S. King’s Everybody Sees the Ants (which is a FANTASTIC book if you haven’t read it – honest, funny, heartbreaking, empowering). I was planning a book talk for later in the week and was looking for a good passage to read to my students. One of my coworkers asked if I was “fun reading,” and when I said that I was, seemed surprised that I would be sharing this book with my class as YA lit. “doesn’t hold the literary merit” of the full-class texts we teach.

While I agree it’s hard to compare anything to Shakespeare, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain, Morrison, and Cather, all books have merit, all genres have merit, and students need to see their teachers celebrating wide reading. If we limit our own exposure to books, we are limiting our students’ too.

When discussing writing this post with my critique partners (boy, am I lucky to have them), they had some excellent points about the benefits of reading widely:

– “It allows us to enter into ourselves in a way that television and film do not because we paint in the pieces that are not explicitly given. We engage with books in a way that we engage with nothing else. In so many ways, books become ours, don’t they? And they help define who we are and what we need at different points in our lives. And what about returning to a book over time and the ways that stories grow with us? Isn’t that awesome?!”

– “[It] makes all of us well-rounded, more open-minded people which we need in this crazy, mixed-up world. We all need to learn empathy and reading can help us learn that by putting us in the minds of characters and people we might not normally know or meet.”

What great thoughts here. I completely agree, and I’d like to add some of my own thoughts on reading widely:

I learn more about my students.

Every day in class, my students read independently for 10 minutes. They are allowed to read whatever text they want. During this time, I am either reading my own book 9780325042954_p0_v1_s600(currently Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane), or conferring with students about their reading. My guiding light in these conferences is Penny Kittle’s Book Love. I try to ask a variety of questions that address student comprehension, reading strategies, rhetorical devices, and their reading lives. While I don’t need to have read or have heard of the book my students are reading to talk about making predictions or inferring, it does help in understanding who they are as readers. If I have a student reading 11/22/63, it helps that I can find out what my student thinks about Jake and Sadie’s fateful relationship and how love can often supersede rational and practical decisions we have to make, for better or for worse. I can ask a student reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks about the morality of genetic research and the responsibility doctors have to their patients (and that humans have toward one another) and understand their explanation. I can converse with a student reading Impulse by Ellen Hopkins about how we deal with ourImpulse lowest points, the importance of emotional support, and rising from seemingly insurmountable depths. I can find out what they pick up on, what they overlook, and what’s important to them in their reading. Had I not read these books, my line of questioning would border on surface-level and superficial. Now, I can hope to engage in an authentic, meaningful conversation, listen, and contribute. By opening myself up to a multitude of books, I hope that I am opening myself up to as many students as possible and their individual needs.

This, in part, is why book clubs are so fun. The shared experience of reading and discussing not only helps me understand the text, but it helps me understand the people I’m discussing the text with. And I think that’s pretty neat.

I learn more about myself.

I think this is the reason we all read, right? I wrestle with so many unanswered questions on a daily basis, and reading helps me, if not find all the answers, feel more comfortable not knowing them. I read to find out who I am as a teacher (Write Like This, The Book Whisperer). I read to find out who I am as a father (Far From the Tree, Extra Yarn). I read to find out who I am as a writer (Bird by Bird). I read to find out who I am as a person (Every Day, Quiet). I, like my students, am multidimensional and multifaceted, and I need numerous texts to work through my own understanding of my identity.

I learn more.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher in possession of a good book must be in want of knowledge. Do I know everything? No (even though sometimes I try to convince my students that I do). I would like to know more than I do now. That’s why I read Team of Rivals, so I can find out how an underdog candidate became arguably the greatest 61xk7zg4GqL__SL1000_president in our nation’s history, and place that in a meaningful context for my students. It’s why I read On Writing, to find out how to craft the written word, the do’s and don’ts, and try to pass that along. I read Shel Silverstein and Sierra DeMulder to understand language. I read Mary Karr to understand struggle. I read Dave Cullen’s Columbine to understand Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, journalism and the media. I read David Sedaris to understand humor and social critique. I read Anne Lamott to understand faith and family. I read Jhumpa Lahiri and Christopher Hitchens and Mo Willems and John Green and Malcolm Gladwell and Katherine Applegate and (__insert your favorite author here__). And the more I read, the more I understand that there is more to learn. Great teachers, I think, work to be great learners.

I’m hopefully helping my students become better readers and writers.

Students, oftentimes, are able to latch on to a genre that they really like, but they may not know where to search when they finish the book they are on. We work on creating to-read lists (one of the main things that separates readers from non-readers), but even still, sometimes my students are stuck. When s/he finishes The Hunger Games trilogy, I want to direct him/her to the Divergent series or Legend. Finished The Notebook? How about Perfect Chemistry? Liked The Fault in Our Stars? Try The Sky is Everywhere. You just 200px-The_Fault_in_Our_Starsfinished The Shining? Maybe you would like Scowler (or King’s sequel Doctor Sleep, due out this month). I want the ability to help my students build their own to-read lists, so eventually, they won’t need me.

I try to help my students create Reading Ladders – a path on which they can travel from an easy text to ones of increasing complexity. For example, sports. I can take a baseball fan from YA (High Heat) to adult fiction (Calico Joe) to adult non-fiction (Luckiest Man), and I know what each of these books has to offer to a reader. I can take them from a YA mystery (Jellicoe Road) to adult mystery (Ordinary Grace, The Sense of an Ending). Along with building their to-read lists, I hope to turn them into more confident readers by gradually introducing them to appropriately challenging stories.

I also think reading widely can create better writers. When studying voice or metaphor or sentence structure in class, it helps if I can bring in several different mentor texts from powerofhabitvarious authors and genres. If all I ever pull are excerpts from the same genre, I am not acknowledging the vastness of literature, the diversity of my students, or the changes in myself as a teacher and a reader. I want to be able to use passages from The Son, or One for the Murphys, or Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I want to provide my students with a flood of models of excellent writing, both classic (Wuthering Heights) and current (The Round House), fiction (This is How You Lose Her) and non-fiction (The Power of Habit), kid lit (Press Here), YA, (Counting by 7s), and adult (The Kite Runner).

Let’s face it – it IS fun!

Letting our students “fun read” is one of the greatest gifts we can give them, and something I want to share. If our students see us reading for fun, and we can talk with them about how fun it is, and they decide to also read for fun, we’ve created the foundation for lifelong readers and thinkers. This is invaluable.

Please let me know how you read widely! What texts are inspiring you right now? What should I add to my to-read list? Your feedback is always welcome and appreciated!


Current English department book club selection – Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt


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Independent Reading Conferences

I recently finished up a stint teaching a three-week summer school class titled Sophomore Reading Academy. This class is for students whose reading score on the EXPLORE test (the freshman version of the ACT) was low enough to be recommended for remediation. At our pre-summer-school meeting, I was told that there were “no magic bullets to get kids to like reading” and was handed a twenty-page packet of reading strategy worksheets. No, this was definitely not the magic bullet.

Outside of that, teachers (especially teachers from the district) are given relative freedom to approach the class how they see fit. BONUS! I always take this opportunity to experiment with some ideas and methods that I’m thinking of implementing the following fall. This summer, after reading and seeing Penny Kittle speak on her new text Book Love, I decided to conduct independent reading book conference with my students.

9780325042954_p0_v1_s600Now during the course of the regular school year, my students had ten minutes every day to independently read. They would read quietly, I would read quietly, and after ten minutes we would move on to the business of the day. I have found this to be enormously successful and plan to have this be a staple of my classroom moving forward.

Back to summer. Most days, we would spend about 45 minutes of the four-and-a-half hour school day in the computer lab where students would research, summarize, and reflect on current events. While we were in the lab, I took this time to pull students aside for 3-5 minute reading conferences. I found this time to be gratifying and worthwhile, and here are a few of the reasons why:

1. I could tell the students were reading.
With independent reading, cynics are often worried about student accountability. “How do you know they are actually reading?” “Aren’t their eyes just skimming over the page?” While I have never held this mindset, conferences are a great way to check in with students. It’s difficult to fake your way through a 5-minute conversation. Even when I hadn’t read the book the student chose, I was able to get a good gauge of the student’s interaction with his/her book and if s/he was reading or not (All 18 students were reading!!).

2. I could ask individualized, probing questions about reading.
This is the good stuff, the real meat and potatoes of teaching English and reading. By conferencing individually with students, I could differentiate my discussions and help each student with what s/he needs (Penny Kittle talks about ways to monitor a reading life, ways to discuss strategies, and ways to increase complexity and challenge. I tried to model my questions after hers. Seriously, go read Book Love). Maybe it was talking about the tropes of a genre and figuring out how this book is different from others like it in style, tone, plot, etc. Maybe it was talking about what to do when struggling to comprehend and what strategies (predicting, summarizing, connecting, visualizing, etc.) to implement when we get stuck. Many readers do this inherently, but it’s not bad to point these out. Maybe it was talking about pushing ourselves as readers and beginning to climb the reading ladder. During summer school, I found this very satisfying. Instead of giving students a worksheet (or 20-page reading packet), I was able to probe, ask questions, find out where students are having difficulty (or having success), and base my conversations on what s/he needed. And because the conversation was geared toward that student specifically, s/he usually had an engaged response. I was genuinely interested in the reading experience of my students, and they were interested in sharing that reading experience with me.

3. I was able to make kids feel like readers.
One of the main things I struggle with when giving written feedback to students is positive comments. It’s something that I’m consciously working on year to year. However, with conferences, these positive comments come much more naturally to me. It’s easy to see a kid do something great with his/her IR book and compliment him/her for this. One student in my class, who claimed she doesn’t really read that much outside of school, picked up Veronica Roth’s Insurgent after reading Divergent and liking it (already, the mark of a “reader”). Without much prompting at all, she started talking about how the characterization of Tris and Four evolved from the first book, what themes she saw developing, how those themes played themselves out in the real world,  and predictions for how the story was going to end. HOLY COW. This girl was a reader, and I wanted to let her know. I started with, “You just did all the things good readers do.” I pointed out the characterization, the theme development, and everything else she just did. I was thoroughly impressed, and I hope that came across in my language and demeanor. Oftentimes, students don’t think of themselves as readers because they don’t read as much as their peers or their teachers, but we can make all kids feel confident about reading, whatever level they are at. We can meet them where they are, accentuate the positives, and encourage them to keep going!

4. Sometimes the conversations veered away from reading.
This was never something that I planned but oftentimes led to necessary and fulfilling dialogue. The most memorable example was from a student who was reading A Child Called It, a nonfiction story about a boy who overcame horrific child abuse suffered at the hands of his mother. The conversation we engaged in began with the difficult emotions of the story and how people deal with complicated obstacles put in front of them. What the student began talking about after that was how she often feels uncomfortable in class because of outside encounters with other students. We talked about conflict resolution, her role in the classroom, how literature acts as an “imaginative rehearsal” for real-life situations, and how to move forward. This conversation went on for about 10 or 15 minutes. While this all stemmed from her independent reading book, most of it was not about that text. It went way beyond. And I’m okay with that.

5. Conversations are assessment.

In our ever-growing testing culture, I understand that the above sentence probably sounds like gibberish to many administrators, but it is possible to track learning without assigning a number or a percentage to it. I would hope that the dozen conversations over the course of the year could tell me a bit about the reading lives of my students. And by conferring individually and addressing unique student needs, ideas, and chosen texts, this is more valuable to me as a classroom teacher than a number.

However, some people will ask (and have already asked) how to hold students accountable in the gradebook for this assessment. During the summer, I gave students an all-or-nothing grade for the conference. If they were active, engaged participants in the conference, they received full credit. If they were not (which didn’t happen with any of my 18 students), they didn’t receive credit. This was not an excessive amount of points that would sway their semester grade one way or another, but I did want to acknowledge their work and effort with some sort of credit. With that said, I could possibly see moving forward with this as an ungraded assessment, and I don’t think student involvement would drop at all. In fact, my summer school students didn’t know that they were even receiving credit for the conferences.

6. It takes time.

This is the one major drawback that I see. With my IR system last year, I was able to model good reading for the students (which I think it extremely important), and on top of that, I had a lot of fun with my own reading! There was a sense of camaraderie we had as a class when we could all pull out our books and just go. However, in order to make IR conferences plausible for the school year (50-minute periods), I think I’m going to have to give up at least some of my own independent reading time in class. Those 10 minutes at the beginning of class are probably going to turn into 2-3 conferences. Here are my concerns about this:

– If I have my conferences in the classroom with the rest of the students reading, the conversations will become distracting. My classroom is not very big nor conducive to having a quiet conversation when everyone else is silent. I think it’s important that students learn to (or continue to) read without distractions, and I would hate to interrupt that reading time.

– If I leave the classroom to have the conferences, I would be afraid some students wouldn’t stay on task. Also, I don’t like the idea of exiting the room every time the class is reading. It makes it seems as if I am not a part of the reading experience.

What might work for me is trying to conference every other day with students (location to be determined). This would allow me to be a part of the independent reading while still checking in with students. If I conference with them every other day, I would probably talk with each student once a month (9-10 times a year). However, I might be able to find other time throughout the year to add more conference time (any lab time, after quizzes, etc.).

I would love to hear feedback on how independent reading conferences have worked for you in your classes. What successes have you found? What struggles have you faced? Comments and questions are always welcome. Thanks for reading!


Currently reading And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

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Why Independent Reading?

“The question can no longer be ‘How can we make time for independent reading?’ The question must be ‘How can we not?'” – Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass)

Two years ago, I started doing something that made me extremely nervous.

I intentionally forfeited 10 minutes of my 50-minute class, every day, to let my students read silently, independently, at their own pace, without direct instruction. They could read anything they wanted, as long as it was a book (this was done with my honors classes as well as my lower-level classes). The obvious question is, “Why would I, the teacher, the person in the room with ALL the answers, risk letting kids read on their own?” They can learn much more from me and the canonical literature approved by my district than they can from a book of their choice, right? Aren’t they going to blow off the time and use the ten minutes to stare at the same page for a semester? How will I make up the class time? I thought it a risky endeavor at best. A catastrophe at worst. I was way off.

Rewind. I first started thinking about in-class IR after reading Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide as part of our English department summer read in 2009. Readicide not only makes a convincing argument for independent reading IN class, but it also offers resources for teachers to use for student accountability (my students blog). I highly recommend this book (SIDE NOTE – I’m also hoping to go see Penny Kittle this April talk about her new book, Book Love, in which she discusses “creating a balance of independent reading, text study, and novel study,” a similar philosophy to Kelly Gallagher).

Before I fully implemented this into my class, I had to think about what my ultimate goal was (and is) as an English teacher: to develop lifelong readers, writers, and learners. In order to do this, I have to allow kids the freedom to explore texts that are not a part of the curriculum. I have to allow their curiosity to guide them to new readings. I have to trust them to choose texts that challenge them and entertain them. I have to afford them the same choices that I enjoy as a reader (and that you enjoy as well). If students never enjoy reading in school, or never read in school at all, how could I justify that to myself? I began the experiment.

The first ten to eleven minutes of every class period begins with independent reading. I write “IR until ____” on the board behind me, and we go. They read. I read. It’s silent. At the end of those ten minutes, we put our independent reading books away and dive into Edith Wharton, JD Salinger, Loung Ung, or Shakespeare. These authors and their works are undeniably important. The students should be exposed to these works and shown how to approach them, dissect them, and question them. Including independent reading in a classroom is not about a takeover and substitution of the core curriculum, it’s about a balance of teacher direction and student inquiry and discovery. I would not be the reader I am today without my sophomore English teacher exposing me to Holden Caulfield or my junior English teacher showing me John Proctor and Huck Finn. With that said, I wouldn’t be the reader I am today without my students exposing me to Hazel Grace, Beatrice Prior, or Hannah Baker.

By giving them independent reading every day, the routine is established. No inconsistencies, no questions. Just reading. Yes, I do lose 10 minutes of curricular instruction every day, but that makes the forty minutes I do have with my students all the more valuable. There is no wasted time. No squandered minutes at the end of the period. Whatever we are not able to cover in class, the students get for homework. By doing this, all homework that I assign is necessary, not busy work. If we get through everything in the forty minutes, great. If not, the students have time to complete it at home. How many units have I had to cut out because of independent reading? None.

I’m now two years in, and I have a pretty good idea as to where I stand with regards to IR in class. However, I think the most persuasive voice is not mine but the voices of my students. Here is what some of my students have to say about their independent reading time when asked at the semester:

  • “I have read four books so far, which is four more than last year.” – Tom

At the beginning of the year, this student would not have considered himself a reader, and you probably wouldn’t have either based on the fact that he read no books last year. However, because of the time given in class, he has read an average of a book a month (and he’s on his fifth now). This is not only a fantastic accomplishment but an encouraging step on the path to becoming a reader. I’m extremely proud of him.

  • “Freshman year I read around five books throughout the whole year, and this year (just first semester) I’ve read about ten or more. I haven’t really liked reading that much until this year.” – Patrick

That last sentence says it all. Oftentimes we as teachers forget why we became English teachers in the first place – because we understand the transformative power of “story.” We love getting lost and finding ourselves again. We find truths and honesty that can only be discovered in literature. Students need to be able to find their own truths. It can’t always be taught.

  • “I’m not the type of person to just start reading in my free time. Reading was never my thing. But I just have to find something that interests me, like sports. I read two books I liked this semester.” – Javier
  • “I finally figured out what types of books I enjoy reading.” – Juhi
  • “Toward the end of the semester, I found myself reading two independent reading books at a time, something I have not done since 5th grade.” – Manthra
  • “I really loved independent reading. I was a nice break in the middle of the school day where I could just sit and enjoy my book.” – Rhea
  • “I really love independent reading because if it weren’t for the 10-15 minutes that we get, I probably wouldn’t read at all during the week. It makes me start a book, and once I start, I can’t stop. I read about 1-3 books a week.” – Grace

I find that for many students, they are more willing to pick up a book and read at home when they have started their reading in class. This is true not only for Grace but for many students like her. While they will not all read several books a week, they will read more than if not given this time in class.

  • “I love the independent reading time because now I can read books that actually interest me and I have time to read them even while reading another book assigned for class. I love reading when I can read whatever I want at my own pace.” – Sarah

There are a lot of things that strike me here. There’s a lot to be said for reading a book that “actually interests” you and at your “own pace.” This is what real readers do. We are able to balance our required, work reading with our enjoyable independent reading. Again, if this is what we desire for ourselves, why not for students?

Is there a guarantee that this motivation will sustain over their entire lives? No. Will my one class transform each and every student into a voracious reader? No, though I wish I had this power. The most I can do is to give them the opportunity to become readers with this independent reading time. To talk to them about their reading experiences and share mine with them as well.

This is a brief (although it doesn’t seem like it!) exploration as to how and why independent reading works for me and my classes. However, I think this could work in many classes, elementary, middle grade, and high school. For more information about independent reading and student reading habits, check out these two great posts by my colleague, Gary and this one from my colleague, Amy. I’m lucky to work with such inspirational teachers.

I’ll end with another quote from The Book Whisperer. “It is said that we make time for what we value, and if we value reading, we must make time for it.”

Thanks for reading! Please let me know your thoughts on independent reading in class. I’m anxious to learn from you!


Currently reading Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon

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Commenting on Student Writing Using the Voice Memo App

Grading papers is the most daunting and time-consuming task for any teacher, but for English teachers, it is particularly burdensome. This is not to say that it’s without reward: seeing the culminating ideas and constructs of a student’s month-long journey with a given text is definitely one of those great teacher moments. But after 120-150, my eyes become blurry, my hand becomes shaky, and my brain turns a bit mushy. I struggle to give the best feedback to help the student improve while trying to manage my time to keep myself sane. There is only so much I can write to a student in 10-15 minutes.

Then, I got lucky. I came across a Jim Burke video where he responds to student writing using solely the Voice Memo app on his iPhone. No writing. Here’s the video:

I decided to try this with my sophomore classes (both regular level and honors) for their most recent papers (literary criticism on The Catcher in the Rye and My Antonia, respectively). The question I was trying to answer was simple: Could I give more comprehensive and meaningful verbal feedback, compared to written, in equal or less time?

The answer that I came to was a resounding “YES.” While I still found myself taking about 10 minutes per writing assignment, the feedback I was giving was more detailed and ultimately helpful for my students. How do I know? I asked them. Here are some of the responses they had to the question, “I would rather have my paper graded (with Voice Memo/ in writing) because . . . ”

  • “Voice Memo because it was more concise and efficient than writing. I took notes and comprehended your advice better!”
  • “Voice Memo because there was a lot more info that I could use to improve my paper for next time.”
  • “Voice Memo because it is personal to the writer.”
  • “Voice Memo because I understood what I did wrong and how to fix it.”
This is what the Voice Memo app looks like when in use.

This is what the Voice Memo app looks like when in use.

Here’s what I discovered about the process: I found myself focusing more on the content and ideas and less on the mechanics (marking down where commas should be, writing “frag.” in the margins, etc.). With these literary criticism papers, establishing an argument and sustaining it throughout their piece was extremely important, so I found myself better able to explain the “how” and “why” more fully and fluently when speaking to them. Instead of just writing “link back to thesis” at the end of a give paragraph, I was able to explain why that link is important for the reader, and how s/he can do that while connecting to the example given. It took about the same amount of time, and I was not only able to give my critique, but I was able to explain why I thought that critique was relevant. I could elaborate on organization, quoting examples from primary and secondary sources, how to grow an argument, etc. We all know how valuable a 5-minute conference is, and this is as close to that as I’ve been while at home in sweatpants.

However, for those of us who love grammar with a burning desire, and love finding grammar mistakes in student writing (I know you’re out there), we can still do that. The great part is, though, that instead of simply writing “comma splice” in the margin, I can explain what a comma splice is to that student and ways to avoid it. Each student can get a mini-grammar lesson within the feedback. And it only takes a minute.

The students also, besides hearing the depth of comment, get to hear my tone, my inflection, and my personal address to them. This is important not only with the critique of writing but the praise of it as well (Subconsciously maybe, I found myself giving more praise as opposed to being so focused on finding small mechanical errors in their writing). When a student can open his/her email and hear, “Sarah, the way that you integrated this quote into your first paragraph was amazing. This shows sophistication and a control of the language. And, it works so well within the context of the paragraph. It really helps advance your argument. Nice job here. Impressive,” that means something. It’s hard to put into words, but that type of recognition, personal and direct, can be more meaningful than a check-plus next to a paragraph or a “Great job!” at the top of the page. This is not to say that we don’t give meaningful written feedback. I know we all do. But we can give even more feedback verbally.

There were some drawbacks to this, however. Although my students preferred this method of feedback 2:1 (about 120 students were polled), there were a few who wanted written feedback, and here were their reasons:

  • “I need physical, written-down comments in front of me while I’m re-typing it.”
  • “Written feedback makes it easier to refer back to when I’m doing revisions, rather than having to sit through the whole recording to reach that specific part that needs changing.”
  • “I’d rather have my paper graded in writing because pausing and rewinding it was oober bothersome. :)”

These are all valid comments and speak to the differences in student learning. My question is, do these students just want the quickest way to finish their revision, or do they want the best way? Do they like that I put the comma in for them because it is less work? Are they frustrated with the process, the feedback, both? It’s hard to pinpoint the issue given that this is a first-time sample, but these comments do have me brainstorming for the next round of writing.

The major downside from the teaching side of it is finding a quiet space to record. You can’t grade in your office at school (I teach in an office of 30 people), and if you have any activity at home (I have an 18-month-old daughter), it’s hard to eliminate all the noise in the house.

I’m planning on using this for a creative writing assignment that I just collected, and I’m excited to see how my students react to this and how my feedback changes from expository to creative.

I’d love to hear your comments if you’ve tried this method of giving feedback or are thinking about trying it. What successes and pitfalls did you find? How did your students react? Thanks for reading!


Currently reading Calico Joe by John Grisham

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Developing a Reading Habit in Class

I just finished reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. What Duhigg asserts is that if we are aware of our habits, and we have belief in ourselves, we have the power to change them or create new ones. He tells Gladwell-esque stories about how radio listeners get hooked on a new song (how a song becomes “sticky” and prevents people from changing the station when it comes on), how people began using toothpaste on a regular basis (did you know that the foaming aspect of toothpaste is more placebo than anything else?), and how Rosa Parks became a figurehead for the Civil Rights movement (there were several others before her who were also arrested in a bus protest).  This is a really interesting read that challenged me to think about my daily routines and why I have formed my current daily habits.

Duhigg argues that the way habits are formed and retained is because of the Habit Loop. Here’s what it looks like:

So how does this apply to reading? One of my goals for my students this year is to make reading a habit. I can’t control how my students read or approach reading outside of class, but it’s my hope that if I help establish this Habit Loop in class, it will carry over to their outside-of-school reading.

The Cue: The first step in the Loop is that I allow my students to have 10 minutes of independent reading, in class, every day. I’m definitely not the first person to do this (nor the first person in my department to do this), but after a few years, I’ve found that it works. So, for my students, their cue is the bell to begin class. Every day, they know that they have the first 10 minutes to themselves to read ANYTHING they want to read (Sidenote: Once, I tried to take away independent reading to give them enough time to finish a quiz, and there was almost a violent uprising. I’m never going to try doing that again). I always write “IR until ______” on the board as a way to get the class focused as well. Once they see me write this, it’s their cue to pull out their book, if they haven’t done so already, and begin reading.

Another cue for them to begin reading is everyone else in the room. When 30 people (myself included) pick up a book and begin to read, that’s a pretty strong cue to do so as well.

The Habit: Read. Read. Read. After a few weeks in class, this habit has become automatic. Yes, I may have to quiet down a class after they arrive from a sugar-filled lunch escapade, but once they get going, they go. Because they get to choose whatever they want to read, this habit is relatively easy to form.

The Reward: According to Duhigg, this is probably the most difficult part of the Habit Loop to nail down. Oftentimes, the reward is not what you may think. For example, if the habit you want to eliminate is snacking at work, you have to find the reward. It may not be satisfying hunger like you think, but rather the 10 minute break to socialize with coworkers. If that’s the case, you create a new habit that fulfills the same reward. For students, there are a few possible rewards for independent reading in class, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic – 1) The understanding that you are both entertained and learning. For the most avid of readers, this is more than enough. To encourage kids to become more avid readers, let’s give them time to read. Although they may not start the year with this intrinsic reward, it is likely to develop over the course of the year. 2) Developing a sense of community. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.

Extrinsic – 1) A grade. In some classes, I give credit for bringing an independent reading book each day and reading for the allotted time. In all classes, students are required to post an independent reading blog once a quarter about their reading experience. These blogs are scored and put in the gradebook. If you would like to see some student blogs, over 2,000 in a little over a year, check out www.fremdeng.ning.com 2) Someone seeing and commenting on your blog. Receiving compliments on writing and encouragement from peers is stronger incentive than a grade for many students. The fact that some students have received feedback from teachers from other schools, students from other schools, and professional writers is extra rewarding.

So, if we are able to establish this Habit Loop in a singular class, how can we get it to permeate throughout the entire school, district, or community? As Duhigg states, that depends on weak-tie acquaintances. Weak-tie acquaintances are often more influential than strong-tie ones (your closest friends) because “weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong” (224). In other words, we are exposed to situations and ideas we would not usually explore with our best friends. Our friends often have the same set of ideals as us, the same experiences as us, and most times, read the same types of books as us. The way to multiply reading experiences is to expose students to people whose experiences are different from theirs. Again, this is where blogging comes in handy. When students see over 1,000 classmates writing about reading, liking reading, and encouraging other students to like reading too, it makes reading not only acceptable but expected. When parents and community members can see these posts too, even better.

Duhigg ends his argument with the idea of “belief.” A person cannot change unless there is the belief that s/he can change. This is the same with reading. Students will not become readers unless they see themselves as readers. We as teachers need to do everything in our power to convince each student that s/he is a reader. Take advantage of opportunities to engage students in both formal and informal discussion of reading and reading experiences.

How do you encourage a reading habit in your classes? What cues and rewards work for you? I would love to hear your ideas!


Currently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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