Finally, it’s starting to feel like spring in Texas complete with thunderstorms, 80 degree afternoons, and plenty of sunshine. In addition to pesky spring allergies, however, spring brings with it another pest–standardized testing.
Many of us gear up these final few weeks between Spring Break and “the Test” with test-taking strategies and test plans for our students. “Real” instruction halts…for weeks…with what benefit to our students? One friend posted last night on Facebook that she was sick from the fact that her 3rd grader was experiencing testing anxiety at home over a practice STAAR test. (Sigh).
Many studies have shown that traditional “test prep” leading up to the day of the actual test is actually detrimental to student performance as authentic, engaging, relevant literacy experiences are set aside to practice crossing out multiple-choice options, filling margins with notes, and learning how to use a highlighter “just the right way.” Student anxiety rises, which leads to lower performance. We’ve created a very unhappy, Pavlovian drooling dog. Rather than conditioning students through engaging, rewarding, personal, and powerful literacy experiences to build their confidence and solidify their identities as readers and writers, we’re delivering electro-shock therapy every time they go to read or write in order to get ready for the test.
Thank goodness for teachers who see that the greatest marker of students success is not a snapshot of a quantitative score in a completely unauthentic setting, but rather the greatest marker of success is seeing each student develop and grow in his or her own reading and writing identity. And when the latter is accomplished, the former follows.
One practice that is often first on the chopping block this time of year is independent reading or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). As you may have already figured out, I am an independent reading champion–especially in the secondary grades. I often hear comments from teachers and administrators such as, “We don’t have time to let students ‘just read.’ We have to prepare them for the test!”
Well, we know from countless studies, teacher and student experience, and good ole’ common sense, that when students “just read” a book of their choice for the sheer joy of reading, they are actually:
1) building reading fluency and stamina
2) developing vocabulary skills and being exposed to thousands of new vocabulary words for their lexicon
3) developing their identity and confidence as a reader
4) becoming better writers
6) practicing close reading (and even analysis!) with texts that are on their appropriate reading level
7) building background knowledge
….the list goes on and on….what I see in this list are the exact goals that I have for my students in the days leading up to the test.
What does it look like in practice?
Rebecca is a first-year English I teacher, who has discovered that a thriving independent reading experience is at the heart of her students’ literacy experience in her classroom. She held fast to her practice, even daring to up the number of minutes spent a week reading books of their choice in her classroom rather than bringing in practice test items drilling test-taking strategies.
When she asked me for ideas for her students to respond to their books and celebrate their reading experiences the Friday before Spring Break, I introduced her to a response strategy from Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know-How called “lift a line.” In the back of my mind, I knew that Rebecca had been working with her students on creating thoughtful open-ended responses to texts, and I wanted to build upon those skills while providing them an opportunity to celebrate as a community of readers .
After 10 years of experience working with teachers and students on the TAKS short answer question and now the STAAR open-ended response item, I understand that the #1 obstacle students face in scoring higher is the thoughtfulness of their response. Many of them are taught (drilled) the structure of the response through any number of mnemonic devices and acronyms. While many hours are spent in class memorizing these strategies, not much time (if any) is spent on building text-based response skills, which these testing items are designed to measure.
Here’s the difference.
Let’s look at this formula to start:
1+ 3 = 7
Is this a formula? Yes. It has all of the parts of a formula, right? Numbers, computation symbols, solution, etc.
But what’s missing? Reasoning…this formula is not rational. I would argue that this student understands the basic parts of a formula, but the student is missing the mathematical skills to use the formula efficiently to demonstrate his understanding of basic arithmetic.
We do not teach young mathematicians to add and subtract by drilling in their minds the parts of the formula and writing a correct formula FIRST. We teach them mathematical concepts by having them experience and manipulate concrete situations involving these concepts.
That’s what happens when students are taught to respond to a text by working through a formula or rigid strategy, rather than developing authentic responses to the text first, then crafting an effective written expression of their response.
The ability to form text-based inferences is not a strategy; it is a habit of mind. Therefore, it takes lots of modeling, scaffolding, practice, and extensions with increasingly more and more complicated texts.
Buckner’s “Lift a Line” allows students to practice beginning with a line from a text that speaks to them for whatever reason and then responding to it in their own way.
At the end of the independent reading time, Rebecca invited her students to choose a line from their books that stands out at them for any reason at all. Write the line at the top of the page and then spend 5-7 minutes writing about their thoughts, questions, connections, wonderings, confusions, etc. Anything that comes to mind.
Modeling this step when first introducing this strategy is paramount so that students see and hear how you as a reader respond in different ways to things that you read.
After writing in their notebooks about their line, Rebecca invited students to think about what they wrote and then illustrate the line on a piece of paper so that we can see some of their thoughts visually on a page.
By beginning with students’ reflective responses as readers, Rebecca scaffolded their reading experience to move them to a deeper level of interpretation. In order to respond to the line and then illustrate it, students had to think analytically to draw new meaning.
What did this accomplish for students in the weeks before they take their STAAR test?
1) students celebrated their reading experiences as a community, which builds their identity and confidence as readers
2) students drafted, revised, and published a creative, thoughtful response to a text
3) response skills were reiterated and extended in an authentic setting
4) they had a positive literacy experience where they were engaged and HAVING FUN!
This was a success in Rebecca’s mind because she had been carefully scaffolding and integrating powerful reading and writing practices in her classroom all year, not just in the days leading up to the test.
From here, students have a terrific foundation build on authentic response to create a full-fledged open-ended response-style paragraph complete with their own inference for a topic sentence that they formed from their line (textual support) and a conclusion or connection they drew. Niiiiiiiice!
Still not feeling ready to “drink the cool-aid” so-to-speak when it comes to independent reading?
You might visit my series on independent reading in high school. Leave me your thoughts, questions, and experiences!
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“She sank to her knees and lifted her head. She had become so accustomed to the rippling blue tides closing her in, pressing down on her, but this sky was open . . . this night was infinite.
She felt like she might fall upward forever, drifting into space. Floating across the stars. Sable had spoken of embers scattered across the roof of the universe. It was a good description.”
I find myself getting out of bed a little more quickly, leaving my house sooner, and taking the longer route to work in the mornings to get in just a few more minutes with my good friends Perry, Aria, and their merry band of misfits. I picked up Veronica Rossi’s first installment in the trilogy, Under the Never Sky, a little late in the game about a month ago. I have a tendency to hold off on a trilogy when I know that the last installment is releasing soon–I loathe the wait in between installments.
With a little less than an hour to go until the end of the series, I’m feeling that pang of nostalgia already, knowing that I’ll soon be saying farewell to the ether-torn world and those who are perpetually seeking “the still blue” and all the freedom to love and live that it promises.
There’s this terrific conversation happening in my Facebook feed inspired by Amy’s recent post on threeteacherstalk.com 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?
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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.
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?
I’m taking this class, Literature for Children and Youth, as part of my school library certification coursework (I know, right! Like, I get to read amazing picture, chapter, and young adult books for class…and get a grade!). Every week we are assigned to choose anywhere from two to fifteen titles from an extensive list based on genre, award, topic, etc. One week we were assigned to read four Newbery Award winners. Another week was historical fiction, etc; then, we are supposed to blog about them. Tough life, huh!
|(part of) my TBR stash hanging out with some faves|
But here’s the thing…I’m getting ready to wrap up on this class. This week is our final week of assigned reading (the topic, by the way, is banned and challenged books). As I’m going back through my blog posts one last time and publishing them, my eyes keep wandering over to my TBR (to be read) stack on the book shelf that my excellent friend and reading mentor, Donalyn Miller, bequeathed to me last spring as she was packing up her classroom library in preparation of her move from 6th to 4th grade. Here’s a small sample of the greatness that awaits me:
- I am Arthur by Phillip Reeve
- The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
- Want to Go Private by Sarah Darer Littman
- Happy Face by Stephen Emond
- Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me by Kristen Chandler
- White Cat by Holly Black
- This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
- Witchlanders by Lena Coakley
- Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Classical and Current: The Hybrid High School Reading Community
As a high school English teacher, my initial attempts at creating a thriving reading community were inspired by the type of reading community that I was most familiar with–the literature class. There seems to be a shared experience among literature majors across universities and colleges; the community is based on the study of a canonical text, reading assigned chapters, coming to the lecture to be “filled with knowledge” regarding the Meaning of the text from the expert (aka professor), and then qualifying, defending, or denying that meaning through critical analysis. For a literature student, there is nothing more exciting that to deconstruct a work, applying a critical lens, and then writing or talking about it in relation to Truth and Life.
For a high school student, there is nothing more tortuous than to come to class and have your (very naive) English teacher lecture to you for 45 minutes a day about what the boring book written by some dead white guy “means.” And this is where my journey to creating the conditions for a thriving reading community began.
It did not take me very long to realize that my carefully crafted reading guides, lecture notes, and essay tests were not helping me in my goals to facilitate a love of reading for my adolescent readers. While I pondered, explored, and experimented with ways to help my students construct meaning from their reading experiences with works such as Lord of the Flies and Oedipus Rex, my administration recognized a certain fervor and energy within me and bestowed upon me a very special assignment: the English repeat class. My second year of teaching I was “selected” to take the freshmen English I class that consisted of students who had failed the course the first time.
“It didn’t work for them the first time, Audrey, so do something different with them.” Different. What did I know that was different? Luckily, that summer, a friend introduced me to a “new” author, Walter Dean Myers and this book about a teenage boy on trial for murder. Since 95% of my students were boys and 75% of them were hispanic or black, I said, “hey, this is different” and managed to collect enough copies of Monster to spread around my classroom. After the first day, I realized that I had found the difference that makes the difference–young adult books that engage students with stories about protagonists who they can relate to.
My little class of repeaters eventually became my first taste of what a reading community can look like in a high school English class. Students were sharing books, talking about what they liked and didn’t like, writing in response to what they read, and making meaning through Literature study. Since then, I’ve heard many stories about how YA literature was first introduced to high school remedial or reluctant reader classes because they “can’t handle” real literature. At the time, I might have nodded in agreement. Today, however, I’ve come to realize that YA literature IS real literature and that with an appropriate balance and reader-response based practices, ALL adolescents not only can handle the canon, but can come to see it as a part of their reading lives and communities.
As my confidence in what I was doing with YA literature grew, I began to integrate the same practices into my on-level English classrooms. I brought YA books such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak into my classroom to book talk and share and even took my classes to the library to check out books. Simply showing my students books did not ignite a love for reading, however. I decided that because reading was not a regular habit for my students–many reported having never finished a book for pleasure on their own– or they were just too busy to read on their own, I borrowed a practice from my experience as an elementary student: DEAR (Drop Everything and Read). I started incorporating DEAR into the first five minutes of every class as my “bell-warmer” but realized almost immediately, that five minutes was not enough time to engage in a book.
Before I could consider extending independent reading time every class period, I had to consider what I was ready to let go of. What practices was I clinging to out of familiarity or peer pressure that I knew weren’t really contributing to my students’ growth as readers and writers? I return to this question regularly to make room for the community to continue to thrive. First on the chopping block were ten assigned vocabulary words that we would define on Monday, write sentences with on Wednesday, and quiz on Friday. I upped our DEAR time to 15 minutes each day with a five minute reader response time and the shift in our values as a community was immediate.
A typical class period would begin with a book talk, trailer, or read aloud to introduce a new title to my class. We, ALL, would read for 15 minutes. Yes, I read with them. I did not take attendance, answer my emails, or grade papers. I settled myself in my director’s chair, set my timer (because I would often stop watching the time, losing myself in my book), and read with my students. At the end of the time, we all wrote in response to our reading. Some days I included a mini-lesson or think aloud about my book, but most days was open for students to respond as they needed. After DEAR, we would go on to our literature study or writing lesson.
Students were sharing books, asking for recommendations, borrowing from my collection or visiting the school and public library. But when DEAR was over, our community seemed to take a back seat to the Literature we had to “cover.” I began to wonder, “how can I help my students find the connections and “intertextuality” between the books they love to read and the traditional texts we study?
Isn’t it amazing how the stars all seem to align at the same time? Images, culture, events, and your own burning questions start to take shape and have momentum. At the same time I wondered how to create bridges between my students’ reading experiences with YA and traditional titles, the Prius started to become popular. Everywhere I would see ads, hear commercials on the radio and T.V. The Prius seemed to populate streets and highways overnight. A hybrid vehicle: the best of the traditional model with the efficiency and innovation of the contemporary world.
As the Prius gained in popularity, “hybridism” seemed to be infiltrating mainstream life. One day while perusing my grocery store’s apple collection I came across the “grapple.” The grapple is a grape-apple! How ingenious (and yummy).
And then I realized, my classroom is a grapple; a hybrid high school English classroom integrates the contemporary stories, texts, and reading experiences with constructive literature study, allowing for a reading community to take root, grow, and explore life’s big questions.
I’ve thought a lot about the “how-to” part of creating these communities. There are three real practices or “simple rules” that are non-negotiable for a healthy high school reading community. For each of the following practices, I’ve included tools, resources, and samples that I have created with and for my students.
Three practices that foster high school reading communities:
1) Let your students get to know you as a reader– read in front of them, to them, for them, and with them. Seek out and join a reading community–either in person or online.
2) Support their exposure to young adult literature with book talks, trailers, and lists that draw a thematic connection to literature.
3) Invite them to explore difficult themes, contexts, and situations in young adult literature alongside classical literature with peers through literature circles. Bring in contemporary authors as writing exemplars and mentor texts to engage students in young adult and adult literature while empowering them as young writers.
Myth #3–Students won’t read in class if I give them time.
- Book Talks–Talk about what you are reading. What do you say to your friends when you are excited about a book you can’t pull yourself away from? You don’t spill the entire plot, right? Rather, you give them just enough so they want to snatch it up as soon as you are finished. This is the perfect opportunity to model what real readers do as they share their reading experiences. Also, it’s an opportune time to sneak in a mini-lesson (very mini) about previewing and predicting texts. Book talks work especially well at the beginning of SSR. I’m very purposeful with my booktalks. Sometimes, it’s a book I’ve chosen for a reluctant or stalled reader, knowing he or she will be the first ask for it. And other times the book might have a thematic link to our shared reading; my more sophisticated readers understand the magic that can occur when you begin to read for themes across genres and across books. If you’re still unsure what to say, read the cover. Publishers usually do a pretty good job o inviting readers to try the book on.
- Read-Aloud–I fight hard to preserve my read aloud time. This is also a good practice to begin SSR with. During read aloud, you are reading and the students are listening. That’s it. Period. I begin read aloud by reminding my students of the purpose–listen to enjoy. Read alouds can be editorials or articles, cartoons, excerpts from novels, picture books, or entire novels. One of my favorite read aloud experiences was with a little book called Same Kind of Different As Me. Written by two Fort Worthers, this precious story describes the unlikely relationship between an entrepreneur, his terminally ill wife, and a homeless felon and how they learned that it’s not the differences that matter, but the sameness. Choose texts that are pleasing to hear, good strong story arcs or structure, and challenge the reader just enough to help build an understanding of structure and vocabulary. At the end of a read aloud, don’t start in with twenty questions over plot, character, support, or theme. Invite students to respond however they need to with a simple, “what sticks with you?”
- Excerpts– I love to be sneaky and bring in an especially enticing YA excerpt to pair with traditional literature. Some of my favorites include Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak paired with The Scarlet Letter, Gordan Korman’s Jake, Reinvented with The Great Gatsby, Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio with Romeo and Juliet, just to name a few. The excerpts are used not only to draw connections between texts, but also as vehicles for many litearcy skills. I find that examining the isolation and social-outasts from the perspective of a 15-year old freshmen is a little more approachable than through Hester Prynne. Inevitably, some reader will ask to check out the entire book once we spend part of a day exploring a snippet. Excerpts also make for terrific mentor texts during writer’s workshop as well.
- Conferences– I’ve already discussed the power of talking to your readers about what you read. Talking to them about what and how they read is as equally important. I’m not talking about asking them to provide you with a five sentence summary, analyze the intrinsic motivation of the character, or expound on the symbollic or thematic elements. The kind of transformative talk that makes readers grows organically from a student’s reading experience, how he or she relates to the text. Conferences, one-on-one or small group discussions with readers, allow this transaction to come to the surface. Tangled and alliterate readers may not have recent experience with a text that invited them to make their own meaning. Their experiences stem from teacher-selected reading tasks and purposes. Again, I like to start with a simple question, “What sticks with you?” From there, with some probing and modeling, I allow the conference to take its natural shape. Not only can I judge whether or not a book is a good match for a reader, but I can facilitate a deeper reading experience and recommend subsequent titles.
Any new practice takes time to adapt. Most of your average 17-year olds have very vague recollections of choosing a book AND being given time in class to read it. Some have no memory of such a practice as they were probably never given that freedom. Sad, I know. And so it’s going to take some time. In the fall we are warming up, building those reading muscles, forming good habits as readers, exploring our own reading interests and styles. Sometime before Christmas my new readers might finish the first book they have ever read by themselves that they chose. Between New Year’s and Spring Break everyone is exploring their reading identities. And in the spring, we all sit back and marvel at the transformation. Just remember, for some of your readers, one or two books is a success.
Still unsure or need more convincing? Check out some of these resources:
Teri Lesesne’s Making the Match
Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide
Penny Kittle’s Book Love (coming fall 2012)
Janet Allen’s Yellow Brick Roads
How are you able to facilitate a reading community that reads together?