Posted on

750 and counting.

Seven hundred and fifty minutes represents five classes of core/honors ELA classes, multiplied by ten days, fifteen minutes each period. For every student, in two weeks’ time, each one has read 750 minutes.

And to my shock and awe, at no point did I give them some long lecture about how to read, what to do during reading time, what to think or how to behave. I didn’t co-construct an anchor chart or show them my PowerPoint called The Reading Zone based on Nancie Atwell’s work. 

My student teacher and I kept it simple: 

  1. Put out hundreds of books — (yes, this has cost me thousands of dollars): everything from graphic novels, Calvin and Hobbs, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, novels of all genres, resource/science books (I have a thing for resource books).
  2. Told them to pick a stack of two to three, so if one lost their interest they could go to another one.
  3. Give them time to read at the beginning of class, first fifteen, with a nod to the Book Whisperer and Ethical ELA.

What have we observed? They’re reading. They’re actually reading. Not fake reading, not complaining, but asking for more time, like they’re getting away with something–it dawned on me that this might be the only quiet time they get in their day. They don’t distract each other, they don’t talk, they’ve been asking to check out books from my classroom library, they’ve been stashing and hiding books to make sure they have the one they want when they come in the classroom, and been asking for more title options of genres they like. (Yes, S, I will find more romance for you!)

Now that’s not to say that mini-lessons, co-constructing ideas about approaching texts and media will not follow or be threaded throughout this year. They absolutely will be. That’s my job and passion. However, I’m adjusting and refining my own instructional approach with the skill-based focus from the district and coaches/admin. It’s hard to take a critical lens toward one’s practice sometimes, but the only way to move forward. I am seeking a balanced approach to skills/strategies, and may have to continue looking outside one PLC for creative and innovative approaches.

Case in point: I discovered during conferencing time with every student that the vast majority could not articulate why they were learning about claim, evidence, and reasoning–a skill that has been the focus of the first quarter. Though we as a staff have done CERs for years and created rubrics, etc. this year it’s the mandated focus with rubrics and scaffolds created outside of our PLC. And focusing on one skill isn’t inherently bad educational practice, and it’s understood it isn’t the only one, but it’s the only assessment that’s being discussed or analyzed. The scaffolds are formulaic and helpful. There is no question students need directions that are clear. So what went wrong?

Or maybe I’m asking the wrong question: what went right?

Did I have my learning targets and success criteria dutifully written on the board, and express those to students? Of course I did. Of course my student teacher did. Did we scaffold and break down? Yes, as best we could.

But teaching that skill in isolation away from purpose was a destructive approach, one I’ll not do again. If we decide as a PLC/staff to participate in a singular, monolithic skill to teach it is my intention to make sure students participate in the construction of their purpose first.

What goes right is showing them how they’re getting it–and on my part to be honest and transparent–to tell them, hey, I realize some of this slid past you: let’s look at it a different way.

I know getting the materials pre-designed created confusion for myself and others–we wanted to help create it, too, and engage in the process. So if we teachers are feeling this way, imagine how students must feel?

Bored, disengaged, and fatigued.

Enter Ken Robinson. This particular TEDTalk contains so many nuggets of wisdom, for all learners.

One estimate in America currently is that something like 10 percent of kids, getting on that way, are being diagnosed with various conditions under the broad title of attention deficit disorder. ADHD. I’m not saying there’s no such thing. I just don’t believe it’s an epidemic like this. If you sit kids down, hour after hour,doing low-grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget, you know?

And yes, we are focused on testing. They are the dominant culture of American schools.

The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. That’s it. And part of the problem is, I think, that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Now, testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. But they should not be the dominant culture of education.They should be diagnostic. They should help.

And yes, I am taking control and direction of my classroom. I’ve worked too hard, passionately, and productively, to craft a professional life that is best for students. I maintain a growth mindset, and seek wisdom at all levels–to me there is no such thing as rookie or veteran: every colleague has something to offer and share.

And the third is, they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command and control in education — That’s what happens in some systems. Central or state governments decide, they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.


There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end, education is about learning. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on. And people can spend an awful lot of time discussing education without ever discussing learning. The whole point of education is to get people to learn.


And until we understand and accept committees can only create so much before creative professionals want to add their own nuances we will lose the ability to move forward. Blueprints and frameworks are only as good as providing a foundation, not decorating the house.

And the third is, they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command and control in education — That’s what happens in some systems. Central or state governments decide, they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working.You have to put it back to the people.

So I’ve taken control of my classroom. I am hoping others in charge ask me what I’m doing, what’s been successful, and where I’ve had to tweak and adjust.

Conferring with a student on Friday, she seems intelligent and creative, but is clearly bored with school. We spoke for awhile about personal motivation, and finding what sparks us individually. I hope I can inspire her.

The point is that education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. It’s about people, people who either do want to learn or don’t want to learn. Every student who drops out of school has a reason for it which is rooted in their own biography.They may find it boring. They may find it irrelevant. They may find that it’s at odds with the life they’re living outside of school. There are trends, but the stories are always unique. I was at a meeting recently in Los Angeles of — they’re called alternative education programs. These are programs designed to get kids back into education. They have certain common features. They’re very personalized.They have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community and a broad and diverse curriculum, and often programs which involve students outside school as well as inside school.And they work. What’s interesting to me is, these are called “alternative education.”

Where am I going with this reading thing, anyway? What are the next steps? November is a funky month, that’s for sure. This next week we have student-led conferences (which is where I discovered 90% of my students had no clue as to why they were doing what they were doing, in spite of intentional purpose from not only me but the other content area teachers, too). We also have short days, Thanksgiving Break, and then we’re finishing up a unit I created about Honor. December will be my annual “drabble a day” writing. I was heartened when one of the most intelligent students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach sent me an email asking if I was doing that again and if I would start the writing club this year.

Have no doubt that our students, and ourselves, want choice and growth. They want forums and places to create and share. Their purpose for learning is more than a learning target and the message of intent and importance. The thing about ELA that’s different from other subject areas is sometimes it can’t be contained in a simple formula. That ambiguity is difficult to accept.

Oh, in terms of conferring: this is a ‘just in time’ idea:

Conferring with “If… Then… Then… Then…” in Mind

And assessment that’s important and valuable:

Posted on

Whisper and Shout

TL:DR –what I’m going to use from Miller’s The Book Whisperer.

Free choice. Free choice. Free choice.

I may need to take a little break from the Notice and Note Facebook group. Don’t misunderstand me–it’s a kind, forgiving, supportive, and collegial place. Teachers reaching out to one another for advice, sharing ideas and lessons; it’s wonderful and sweet.


…when they speak of Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer some teachers still speak the words “accountable” and “tracking.” I wonder if they read the same book I did. Many of Miller’s ideas I’ve done on my own, and it was validating to know much of her growth and process has mirrored my own. However, I am nowhere near getting students to read 40 books in a school year, but I’ll be darned if I’m not going to try.

But a few things seemed to be misconstrued by Miller, too: namely, novel units/studies and workshops.

With a workshop structure in place, my students were more engaged in reading and writing and more enthusiastic. Instead of teaching books, I taught comprehension strategies and literary elements that students could apply to a wide range of texts. I implemented the reader’s notebook, taken straight from Fountas and Pinnell’s model, in order to manage my students’ independent reading; set up reading requirements for my students based on genre as a path to choice; and assigned book talks to replace the dreaded book report. I photocopied mountains of reading strategy worksheets, lists of reading response prompts, and workshop management forms. I bought every picture book that my workshop mentors recommended.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 374-378). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Novel units were my bread and butter; now I’m going to take myself to task. Perhaps those novel units I crafted so beautifully, with artisan mastery, were for my own occupational therapy. We teachers do that sometimes, you know– give ourselves a goal in order to gain new understanding. To my credit and my mentor’s guidance. novel units were not based on single-title studies, but multiple books at various reading levels, interests, etc., based on enduring understandings and essential questions.

And as I read this passage about ‘mountains of reading response prompts,’ on Notice and Note someone shared a .pdf of this exact thing.

Where is the disconnect?

How do we go through teaching texts and determine what will be valuable in our practice, and what to disregard?

One thing I plan on doing is changing the entry task:

Take a look at a common classroom warm-up lesson: students are asked to look for grammatical and punctuation errors in a scripted sentence. Correcting the sentence may take five minutes. Discussing their corrections with students and providing feedback might take another ten minutes. Considering how little of this direct grammar instruction actually transfers to students’ writing (Alsup & Bush, 2003; Thomas & Tchudi, 1999; and Weaver, 1996), these fifteen minutes would be better spent reading, an activity that has been shown to improve students’ writing and grammar (Elley, 1991, cited in Krashen, 2004). With instructional time at a premium in every classroom, we cannot afford to waste any of it. Research has confirmed that independent reading is the better use of our time. Students in my class enter my classroom each day, get out their books, and start reading. Not only are students quiet and working (the implicit goal of all warm-up activities), but they are engaged in a productive endeavor that improves their reading performance. The amount of time I save by not having to plan and grade ineffective warm-up drills is icing on the cake. My intention is not to disparage the activities that you may use as class openers; some of them may have instructional value, but I challenge you to find anything that has more impact on reading achievement than independent reading. We teachers have more than enough anecdotal evidence that the students who read the most are the best spellers, writers, and thinkers. No exercise gives more instructional bang for the buck than reading. The added bonus for us teachers? I have found that independent reading is also among the easiest instructional practices to plan, model, and implement.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 816-829). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

The other thing is share reader’s notebook. I buy each of them a composition notebook, and will continue to model its use:

• Create your own reader’s notebook: At the start of each year, when my students are trimming and gluing their own reader’s notebooks, I make a new one for myself. I record all of the books I have read or abandoned for an entire year in one notebook, just like I ask my students to do. Each notebook serves as a record of what I have read over the years, and I use my reading lists to order books for the class library or make recommendations to my students and friends. Reflect on what you are reading: I am not suggesting that you write summaries of every book you read or your personal responses to them, but you can, if you would like to. Think about what you are reading, and observe what you like about the book or what you don’t like about it. What makes it challenging or fun to read? What sticks with you about the book when you are done?

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 1716-1722). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Rethinking the whole-class novel. I am making no apologies for trying to jigsaw The Hobbit. But we currently have many single-title books, and now I have to consider how to use the titles in a meanginful way, or if at all.

• Laboring over a novel reduces comprehension. Breaking books into chapter-sized bites makes it harder for students to fall into a story. Few readers outside of school engage in such a piecemeal manner of reading. • Not enough time is spent reading. Many novel units are stuffed with what Lucy Calkins calls “literature-based arts and crafts,” extensions and fun activities that are meant to engage students but suck up time in which students could be reading or writing. • Whole-class novels ignore students’ interest in what they like to read. Reading becomes an exercise in what the teacher expects you to get out of the book they chose for you, a surefire way to kill internal motivation to read. • Whole-class novels devalue prior reading experience. What about the students who have already read the book? Admittedly, this may be a small number of readers, but I have sixth graders who have already read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders— two books that I know are taught in upper grades. Are they going to be expected to read them again? Advanced readers deserve the opportunity to continue their growth as readers, too. Yes, students benefit from the deep analysis of literature that a thorough look at one book provides, but there needs to be a balance between picking a book apart to examine its insides and experiencing the totality of what a book offers. There are other paths to teaching critical analysis and reading skills than belaboring one book for weeks. Let’s not lose sight of our greater goal: inspiring students to read over the long haul. Alternative: Rethinking the Whole-Class Novel My first suggestion on the topic of whole-class novels would be to evaluate whether you are truly required to read certain texts with your students or whether this is just a tradition. When your department has invested budget money and time in a closetful of whole-class novel sets, it is hard to break away from the entrenched attitude that reading the same book across the grade level is the best instruction for students.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 1804-1822). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Speaking to that, I’ll continue my use of short stories, etc. to teach.

Use short stories, excerpts, or poems to teach literary elements or reading skills, and ask students to apply their understanding to their independent books. Using an instructional sequence of modeling, shared practice, and independent practice, what I model and practice with students always ends with application of a skill or evaluation of a concept, using their self-selected books.

Miller, Donalyn (2010-01-12). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Kindle Locations 1876-1879). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Now — if you still need a way to have students show and share their books, Miller offers plenty of alternatives to book reports or talks. I’ve done these myself, and heartened by her claims will refine my Reading Road Trip student blog for next year. The students are still too interested in “how many points is this worth?” That’s a conversation for another time.

One last thing: I am in a grown-up book club. No one read my book recommendation, So You’ve Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson. One woman did end up reading my other recommendation, The Psychopath Test, but this crowd is just not into the same things I am. It’s getting kind of rough. They love romances and sagas, like The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I jokingly said our book club could be renamed to the Not Read Book Club. They tend to like bestsellers, self-helpy kind of books. But I do like the company, and we always have good talks. Finding out why people don’t read a book is sometimes more revealing than why they do.

P.S. If you’re looking for thematic books for units of study, resources abound. For example, if you want students to read about Scientists’ Struggles, click here for titles.