Month: January 2014

The Nonfiction Reading Experience: Balancing Stance with Reader Response

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heart of nonfiction

“When we read nonfiction we read with a blend of the two stances:  we can learn information from reading nonfiction but we can also pay attention to our personal response as well as our aesthetic experience” (Heard, 2013).

In Finding the Heart of Nonfiction, Georgia Heard draws upon Louise Rosenblatt’s, The Reader, the Text, the Poem:  The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work to demonstrate the value of supporting students’ nonfiction reading experiences.  Even when we approach an informational text, we have an aesthetic response as readers.  We think about the facts, data, information, stories, etc that move us, connect with us, confuse or enrage us, through a personal and emotional lense as we grapple with the information, internalizing author’s message and purpose.

As I thought more about how to continue to support our English I Pre-AP students’ individual journeys with their nonfiction titles, I knew that in to elicit the type of reflective and purposeful written response we hoped to achieve in the nonfiction book review, we needed to tap into that personal reader response during the course of students’ reading.

After examining and deconstructing real-world book reviews, I sent the students back to their classrooms with five reader response prompts for their teacher to integrate, one each week over the next five weeks.  The teacher did not set a certain schedule or number of pages students were expected to accomplish on a pre-determined timetable, but rather, she chose to invite their experiences back into the classroom through written reader response.  My goal in crafting these response times was to literally help nudge students along the continuum of reading stances from aesthetic (personal/ emotional)to efferent (informational/ analytic).

Nonfiction Reader Response Prompts

Response #1-Tap-in to Prior Knowledge

Before I started reading _____________, I thought/ wondered/ experienced/ understood……

 Now I think……

Response #2-Thinking More Deeply

Lift one line* out of the book that “sticks with you” for any reason at all.

  • Write that line down at the top of your paper.

  • Write in response to that line.

  • What does it make you think of?

  • What questions does it raise?

Response #3–Taking Note of Genre

response #3

Response #4–Considering Purpose

  • What does the author do that makes the book believable (or not)? 
  • What does the author do that makes him or herself a credible source (or not)?
  • Is there anything the author could do to improve credibility?

Response #5–Synthesizing

What moments, stories, examples, etc. are the most memorable for you? Why?

How would you sum up—in one to two sentences—the message of this book?

Why should someone read this book?  Who in particular should read this book?

My intention for these prompts was to not only help students think reflectively about their reading experience as they engaged in both stances, but also to support their understanding of nonfiction structures, features, and purposes.

Keeping the end in mind, I also anticipated that those students who really put effort into these entries would in essence have a draft of their book review before we even talked about sitting down to draft.
*A quick note about giving students prompts to respond to their independent reading books–I feel like this is a fine-line to walk in the classroom.  On one hand, reader response prompts provide students–especially “non-readers”– with thinking models for their reading experiences.  Prompts allow you to hone-in on a specific skill, term, strategy, or text feature with all students when they are not reading a collective text.  On the other hand,  I believe that students should freely and openly respond to the texts that they read.  In general, I often posed a prompt for students with the caveat that they could respond however they needed to that day.
Where do you stand on teacher-directed reading responses?  How do you walk the fine-line between scaffolded support and spontaneous transaction?

Reel Reads for Real Readers: How to Love by Katie Cotungo

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64664-reelreading2I can be such a girl.  I gravitate to first-love-lost-tales like a moth to a flame.  I’d like to think that I’ve advanced in the stages of a lifelong reader, but whenever one of these young adult novels like Gayle Forman’s Just One Day or  Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty surfaces on my radar, I’m right back at reading for autobiographical experiences and little 17-year-old me has her heart broken and repaired over and over again.

What I love about Katie Cotugno’s How to Love is how the author grapples with the reality of first loves.  Recently, I came across a video on Pinterest where Laurie Halse Anderson is talking about her newest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory.  She discusses her approach of writing an adolescent love story, as not necessarily one of romantic love, but familial love and seperation, finding an adopted family in a group of friends, and then finally that first romance.  How to Love captures the dynamic interrelationship between all of these spheres:  family, friends, and romance.

What We Have in Common: Listening for Truths Among Dissidence

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photo (2)There’s this terrific conversation happening in my Facebook feed inspired by Amy’s recent post on on free-choice reading in the AP classroom.  Friends of mine who are teachers themselves, parents of students in HS English classes, and former students are sharing their thoughts and wishes for their ideal English experience in secondary classrooms.  Who says there’s nothing good on Facebook anymore?

Here’s what they all have in common: no matter where they fall in the spectrum of whether or not free-choice reading belongs in the AP classroom, developing a love for reading and identifying yourself as a reader is an integral part of being a happy, successful, compassionate human being.

Slowly, thanks in large part to Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide and Penny Kittle’s Book Love free-choice or independent reading is starting to take root in many secondary English Language Arts classes.  But, the conversation seems to stall-out when when we get to the AP and Pre-AP classes.  How do you convince traditionally trained teachers, most of whom were at the top of their Literature classes in high school and college, that they don’t have to tell their students what to read every time, all the time?  How do you convince them to let go of Billy Budd to allow their students 30-45 minutes a week to read and talk about books of their own choice?

Even among my National Writing Project colleagues who I consider to be revolutionaries in English instruction, there is much dissidence between those who teach AP.  And, it’s interesting listening to them politely talk around the subject.  As an outsider, I can see that they clearly aren’t hearing what the other is saying when it comes to what one they believe about free-choice reading.  Apart from one another, they reveal to me the following misconceptions:

Jill: Andy doesn’t provide her students with the collective experience of reading and sharing a complex text.  As advanced readers, this is one of the benefits of being in an AP classroom–the phenomenon that happens as a group of humans grapple with Literature together to make sense of their world and understanding themselves.

Andy:  Jill doesn’t let her students read their own books in class and still practices the whole-class novel approach.  Even advanced students need to continue to develop their skills through texts that they choose for themselves.  I can still teach them AP strategies and skills in conjunction with free-choice reading.

Guess what Andy and Jill, you are both right! Here’s what you may not be seeing in one another’s practices that I know to be true:

Both of you:

  • Talk to your students about what you are reading everyday.  You share what surprises, excites, frustrates, and challenges you as readers.  Your students then flock to your well-stocked classroom libraries or school libraries to read the books you recommend–whether during or outside your class time.

  • Invite students to examine challenging and diverse text.  Whether your students read the entire text or excerpts, they are ALL experiencing the wonderfully critical world of Literature!

  • Consider your students needs as life-long readers and AP students when designing your instruction and selecting texts.  You both keep your eye on the evolving world of College Board AP test writers who are bringing in more and more diverse and contemporary texts for students to grapple with in the exam.  When you choose a whole-class text it is deliberate and in direct response to your students needs and experiences.

  • Celebrate your students experiences as readers through innovative and engaging reader response and discussion.  Whether it’s a shared reading experience or self-selected reading, students learn the value and importance of developing personal responses to texts in order to think critically about the text and their world.

  • Continue to learn, grow, and expand your knowledge as teachers of literature and facilitators of thriving reading and writing communities.

Perhaps the divide isn’t nearly as wide as we perceive it to be.  The question remains, how do we get more secondary ELA teachers on board with re-imagining our adolescent students’ experiences in English?

See also:

5 Myths About Independent Reading

Writing as Readers–The Nonfiction Book Review

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The Traditional Book Report Vs. Book Review


After a very successful day with students introducing them to nonfiction titles the stage was set.

Students were on their way to making their nonfiction book selections following the book speed-dating activity that I facilitated in the library.

The next question was, how can students demonstrate their experience and reactions to the book for their teacher and their classmates in a way that is both authentic and academic? The teacher who was collaborating with me on this adventure had been using a reading log as the primary tool for students to track and report their reading goals.

She was dissatisfied with the reading log as an assessment for a number of reasons:

1)  It was easy to fake.

2)  Not all books were created equal–in length.  One 200 page book might be much more complex than a 400 page book.  How were tracking page numbers an accurate reflection of the student’s reading experience?

3)  The log did little to capture those magical moments that happen between a reader and the text.  In fact, it did nothing.

4) The reading log didn’t feel “on-grade level” for the English I pre-AP teacher who strives to ensure that her assessments contained an appropriate amount of rigor.

To these I added a few of my own qualms after having used the reading log religiously for six years with my own classes:

1)  The log imposed an artificial reading goal on students–a number of pages to be read.

2)  It did nothing to foster and inspire a reading community.

3)  I hated assigning grades to quantitative reading goals that I had imposed upon students.

It was decided; the reading log would be set aside for the purpose of our nonfiction experiment (*190 English I students collectively cheer, “hoorah!”).

When I brought up the idea of writing reviews, I could tell that the teacher had some hesitation.  I sensed that, in her experience,  reviews and reports brought back a certain amount of reading sentimentality. Sure, it was nice to hear how students felt about a book–if they liked it and so on– but like many of us my colleague was not interested in reading her students’ summaries of the books they had read.  How could a simple book review adequately demonstrate their experience as readers?

How do we balance reader response and analytic writing?

We went to the standards to see if we could find a student expectation that captured the level of thinking as readers and writers we wanted to see in students.  Sure enough, there it was:

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills

15 (C)  write an interpretative response to an expository or a literary text (e.g., essay or review) that:

(i)  extends beyond a summary and literal analysis;

(ii)  addresses the writing skills for an analytical essay and provides evidence from the text using embedded quotations; and

(iii)  analyzes the aesthetic effects of an author’s use of stylistic or rhetorical devices

As a consummate consumer of reviews from blogs, websites, and journals, I’ve read wonderful reviews from passionate readers that balance authentic reading response and critical analysis.

Students came back to the library so that we could read and deconstruct these real-world reviews in order to craft them ourselves.

How do readers share with one another?


After a brief discussion on the difference between a book report and book review, we began by simply reading nonfiction book reviews posted on websites like Goodreads and Amazon.  To engage them in the task of deconstructing a book review, I posed a very simple question to students:  What sticks with you?

When we use mentor texts for writing, we begin by inviting students to identify the patterns in the text.  As we identified something new in the review, I color-coded details.  With my guidance, students created an anchor chart that identified four key concepts that they needed to understand about writing nonfiction reviews.

nonfiction anchor chart

Our (not so pretty) anchor chart uses the mentor texts we analyzed and four key concepts to remember that coordinated with our color-coding.  Not only did students have a visual reminder in their classroom of the writing task they were preparing for, but the teacher had a ready-made rubric to assess students’ writing.

Students would now go forth and read their books…but wait, what was going to happen between the this eye-opening day in the library and when they came back to write the reviews?

How could we intentionally scaffold and support students’ responses and reactions to their selected books in order to prepare them to write reflectively and critically?

Reel Reads for Real Readers: YAK Fest ’14 presents Andrew Smith

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64664-reelreading2Throughout the month of January, I’ll be sharing book trailers highlighting the fantastic line-up of authors that will be at this year’s YAK Fest (Young Adult Keller Book Festival) on January 25th at Keller Central High School in Keller, TX.  This will be our third YAK Fest thanks to a generous donation from the Hudson Foundation, which allows us to bring together YA authors and readers for free to attendees!

Visit our Facebook page or website for more info on the event and follow us on Twitter @YAK_Fest #yak14!

I’m thrilled to meet every author coming to YAK, but when I saw that Andrew Smith was in the line-up I literally squealed and ran to see which of his books were on the shelf so I could find readers for them asap!

Andrew Smith’s Marbury Lens and its sequel Passenger are quite the hot commodity thanks in part to an adrenaline-packed, thrilling book trailer.

Make sure you order extra copies for your classroom or library–they’ll be needed after you share this trailer!


This year, Smith has received a lot of acclaim for Winger from reviewers, librarians, and YA fanatics.

Smart, wickedly funny…In a magnificently frenetic first-person narration that includes clever short comics, charts and diagrams…Smith deftly builds characters—readers will suddenly realize they’ve effortlessly fallen in love with them—and he laces meaning and poignantly real dialogue into uproariously funny scatological and hormonally charged humor, somehow creating a balance between the two that seems to intensify both extremes. Bawdily comic but ultimately devastating, this is unforgettable.”

(Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

Thanks to a terrific librarian-friend,  his next novel, Grasshopper Jungle, arrived today for me to read before I see him in a few weeks!  (*Fangirl squeak of excitement*)

Come meet Andrew Smith on January 25th at YAK Fest ’14!