The Value of Reading Conferences

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Notes from a reader’s conference

Feedback is a part of every great formative assessment. And a lot has been written about how to give effective and meaningful feedback.

But nothing has solidified the effectiveness of meaningful feedback for me more than the daily conversations I now have with my two-and-a-half-year-old. She is constantly refining her understanding of syntax and semantics, solidifying her understanding of the world around her, and building her self-esteem–all through the words that we exchange.

These kinds of conversations with readers–hearing their thinking and asking them to clarify what they mean–help them in the moment of their understanding. Nothing is a more powerful tool for student learning and growth.

Conference Starting Points

Everything I learned about reading workshops and conferences started with Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins. They are the workshop gurus that you should turn to for all of your burning questions. But even if you aren’t ready to jump into a workshop, you can still use conferences in your classroom.

The basic structure of a reading conference is:

  1. Gather data about the reader
  2. Compliment the reader
  3. Teach the reader something new
  4. Jot notes about the reader’s thinking and how you pushed him/her; plan your follow up

In a conference, you can use questions to get at the heart of a reader’s confusion or difficulty:

  • What questions do you have as you are reading?
  • What in the text makes you think that?
  • I noticed… I wonder…?
Response Journal 2

A response journal entry

Depending on the student, I might have them read part of their book aloud to me, and then ask them a question. I may also read their response journal over their shoulder, and then ask them a question about it, or ask a big question (What is the theme of your book?). From here, I can scaffold if they aren’t getting to this (What are some of the important moments of your book? What are some things that the characters are learning?). In a conference, I can also look back at an exit ticket and ask students to clarify what they meant by something they wrote.


In a good week, I could confer with five students a day. So I would usually allow myself two weeks to get to each student in a class. Sometimes I would have to make daily quick returns to those needy students until they got on track. So, three students a day, over the course of two weeks, is 30 students. This translates to 15 minutes of reading or independent practice that the other students are working on, while you make your rounds conferring with each student for three to five minutes.

While planning conferences, I would meet with students randomly. If there were a pattern, my students would become complacent. And I liked to keep them on their toes.

It’s important to note, too, that conferring has its own special way of keeping students on task. You are among the students. And your proximity to them makes them stay focused. You can move to different sides of the room between conferences, when you are taking notes, and therefore can quell whispers.

IMG_3664Another benefit: your notes are a cheat sheet. Doctors take notes, in order to help them remember what they talked about, what’s happening in your personal history, and why you are there. Teachers can do the same thing. I’ve used a clipboard with student names, and I’ve also used my iPad with Evernote and a page for each student. (A sample note is listed on the left.)

Even if you aren’t using a workshop model, you can incorporate conferring with readers. (But, no matter the grade level you teach, you should really consider workshops! You can learn more about workshops HERE or HERE or HERE or HERE and especially HERE.) You can do so while students are working on whole-class novel reading or working on questions or starting their homework.

The Benefits

Conferring really helped me to become an effective teacher. I was connecting with students on a personal level and felt like I knew each and every one of them like never before. Students were also held accountable for their reading and thinking, and started to take more ownership over their own learning. And by meeting with students individually and then talking to the class as a whole group about emergent patterns and provocative statements, I was able to help connect readers and create community.

Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

Book Review: Notice & Note

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51rafqDiIDL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Over the summer, I learned I would be teaching a class of struggling 6th grade readers. They would have me for regular ELA, but they would also travel together to a reading support class right after mine. I did not have experience teaching a class solely of struggling learners, so I reached out to a colleague on the west side of the state, Megan Perrault (@megankperreault), and asked her for recommendations about how I might approach this challenge.  

Megan is an amazing reading teacher, and she recommended Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst’s Notice & Note: Strategies of Close Reading. This book had been on my “to read” list and was quickly moved up in the queue based on Megan’s recommendation.

Notice & Note initially impressed me with the thoroughness with which Beers and Probst researched and tracked common elements within young adult novels. I also appreciated how they piloted and revised their work based on the experiences of real teachers in real classrooms.  

The premise of Notice & Note is this: the majority of YA novels have six common elements, which Beers and Probst call “signposts.” If students can notice and think about why these signposts are showing up, they are doing the work of close reading and are understanding the text better. Each signpost has one question that readers can ask themselves, to help them think deeply about why that particular signpost is showing up. This really helps to focus students’ thinking.  

The Signposts

In a nutshell, the signposts are as follows:

  • Contrasts & Contradictions—When the character does something out of character
  • Words of the Wiser—When an older, wiser character gives serious advice
  • Again & Again—Something that keeps showing up
  • Aha Moment—When the character suddenly realizes something
  • Memory Moment—When the story is interrupted to tell the reader a memory
  • Tough Questions—When the character asks himself/herself really difficult questions

I was originally planning to only introduce the signposts to my 6th grade class, but once I saw the power they held, I also began using them with my 8th grade readers. Both grade levels are engaged with the signposts and are thinking deeply about the texts they are reading. Maybe the best testament to the power of noticing the signposts is when students get that look of discovery on their face and call me over because they have noticed a signpost on their own.

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

After I had read Notice & Note, Megan and I were at professional development together, and she mentioned the Notice & Note Facebook group. Now, if you know me, you know I’m all about Twitter when it comes to anything related to teaching.

But this Facebook community is amazing! The group has a very active 8,600+ members, and I navigate the page often. As someone who is teaching the signposts for the first time, the resources on this page have been invaluable. Members have shared tons of files and their experiences with the signposts. And for each signpost, I have found either a picture book or video clip to help introduce the concept. These have been a big hit with students and have helped them understand the concepts prior to working with them in their novels.

Just this past fall, Beers and Probst published Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. Stay tuned for a review!

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.  She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things.  She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine Library Media Connection.

Standards-Based Grading (Part 2)

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_180805136In writing about standards-based grading, I’ve described how grades should reflect learning, and assessments should be connected to standards. Rick Wormeli, an expert on the subject, also reveals that in order to coach a student to achieve academic standards, we must use descriptive feedback.

Descriptive feedback tells students what they accomplished toward a particular standard, and what else they need to accomplish to meet the standard. This feedback should be given consistently to all students, and it holds the role of formative assessment (tasks completed on the path to mastery) in education.

Continuing my work with the Galileo Leadership Consortium, I met another expert on the subject. Dr. Ellen Vorenkamp, from Wayne County RESA, helps me use formative assessment in my classroom. Formative assessment, I’ve learned, should be aligned with data. And it should always be planned and used timely and purposefully.

Vorenkamp offers five pillars of formative assessment. These pillars help me to assess what  methods I am already using, and what methods I need to add in my classroom. They are:

  • Pillar I:  Clear Learning Targets
  • Pillar II:  Effective Questioning
  • Pillar III:  Descriptive, Actionable Feedback
  • Pillar IV: Students as Self-Assessors
  • Pillar V:  Students as Peer-Assessors

How This Looks in My Classroom

In my classroom we write claim (thesis) statements for argumentative and informative writing. I will focus here on argumentative writing.  

For 8th grade, the academic standard is, “Introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.”

Pillar I, the learning target, is: Students will write a claim statement that includes the main topic of the argument, a summary of evidence, and an opposing side.  

Students are introduced to this task with a learning chart and examples from me and amy 3past students. They then write a claim statement and turn it in. This is a great spot for formative assessment. I read the students’ statements, and I offer them the stages of development toward this learning target, as well as student samples of each level. And from earlier work in establishing a growth mindset in my classroom, students understand that they can update their work to show more mastery of that standard.  

The stages of development in my rubric, along with descriptive criteria, are:

  • 1 (working to meet standard)
    • unknown topic or argument
    • written in question form
    • includes extraneous or unrelated information
    • argument is not logical
  • 2 (mostly meeting standard)
    • straightforward – includes topic and evidence but no opposing side OR
    • represents both sides equally
  • 3 (meeting standard)
    • includes topic, evidence, opposing side – needs some word clarity
    • includes more details than is necessary for a claim
    • creative structure (evidence first)
    • multiple pieces of evidence listed for supporting side
  • 4 (exceeding standard)
    • includes topic, evidence, opposing side – clear
    • includes multiple pieces of evidence for both sides
    • argument is clear

Here, I have taken my instruction and student practice through Pillar I: assigning a clear learning target, Pillar II: effective questioning by clarifying the difference between levels of achievement, and Pillar III: descriptive, actionable feedback by telling students what they have accomplished and what they still need to accomplish.

The Use of Exemplars

A shift I made is to make these levels clear to students with student examples of each level of achievement. With this shift, I can take on Pillar IV: students as assessors, as they assess their work compared to the achievement levels and exemplars I have shared.

With this learning target, I still need to add in a Pillar V: students as peer reviewers. So I now give students my own work. Here, students are asked to apply the rubric to my example, and to give me a step to improve my work. Students indicate my score by holding up their fingers. Quickly, then, students discuss with a partner their reason for this score, and a next step for my work.

By practicing the work of peer assessment in this way, students can gain comfort with the practice. Later, students can move comfortably into the roles of self- and peer-assessors, with clear targets for achievement, because they know that these formative assessments are not a judgement, but rather a process to guide their learning.

All of these steps are just a small shift in my classroom. Yet they allow better achievement of academic standards. What small shift will you make to address all five pillars of formative assessment?

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Collaboration with Design Thinking

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

At the start of December, I attended a workshop at the Detroit Port Authority Lofts, which, it turns out, is an event space, not a place where ships check in. I’ve lived in southeast Michigan my entire life, and spent many, many hours in the city. But I didn’t know this place was there. I thought, The city of Detroit is like teachers: there’s so much good stuff happening, but no one knows about it, or the ones who do know treat the information like it’s secret.

Teachers are terrible networkers. We don’t collaborate very well, and we tend to keep ideas to ourselves, especially the really effective ones. It’s not all our fault, though, and it doesn’t have to stay like this. But we do have to make more of an effort to reach one another, to build relationships—professional and personal.

Professional development can help. Take the event I attended in Detroit, which was cohosted by the Henry Ford Learning Institute and Teacher2Teacher. The event introduced teachers to the principles of Design Thinking. We ate and talked and were lead through what is called a “rapid cycle design challenge.” That’s a short activity that introduces the elements of Design Thinking in an interactive way. Participants use Design Thinking principles (Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype/Feedback, Reflect) to redesign something for their partners. We talked to one another, worked together, and learned how Design Thinking works.

Considering the Audience

Design Thinking is a set of moves developed at the Design School at Stanford to solve problems and to design products. At first blush, it sounds like it would be limited to an academic setting. But as I’ve worked with it over the past few years and seen it in action, I’ve discovered how well it fits with other effective teaching practices, like feedback, formative assessment, and audience-driven writing.


Members of the Avondale English department talking to students about the logos they designed in Mrs. Schupbach’s Geometry class.

One of my colleagues, Dawn Schupbach, a math and science teacher, came away from the professional-development session with some great ideas. She took what she learned at this event back to her classroom, where she turned her Honors Algebra 2 students loose on a challenge: to use Design Thinking and conics to redesign logos for the different departments in Avondale High School.

In the past she’d had the students design logos for businesses. But one of her takeaways from the professional development was the importance of audience, empathy, and feedback. It’s important to know that those are key moves that my colleagues in ELA have been working with over the past few years. 

With the idea that everything needs to be designed with a user—in ELA we say audience—she sent her students out to find what the members of the departments (the users/audience) thought about their respective disciplines—not what they wanted in a logo, or what they thought about themselves as a department. This is called Empathy in Design Thinking, and it’s vital. How can you design or write for someone you don’t understand?

Teaching Across Disciplines

Math students—let me say that again, math students—came to English and science and foreign language teachers, in order to talk about design. Look at all the cross curricular connections being made, all of the opportunities for teachers to talk to students about their disciplines. I know it sounds like a joke. “A math student walks into an ELA classroom to talk about design . . . .” But it’s really a model for what we ought be trying to build into our curricula. I want to teach writing and reading in ways that make students better at math and science and art. And I want my students to take what they learned from Mrs. Schupbach’s Geometry class into my writing class.

In the end, her students took the feedback back to their math classroom and combined it with what theyIMG_2324 were learning about conics. With that, they created logos for us to vote on. Most of my department picked the logo shown on the right. It reflected our desire to have a design that opened a conversation, by provoking a person to ask about the logo. The shapes are meant to represent aspects of our discipline and practice. We didn’t want books or pens or apples. Too cliché.

Everything that’s great about the project—collaboration, Design Thinking, cross-disciplinary work—these things happened because a good teacher had the chance (and the drive—she attended the workshop on her own time) to learn from other teachers. She not only took what she’d learned about Design Thinking back to her class. She took the way she learned it—collaboratively, interactively, cross disciplinarily—and created a rich experience for her students and, I’d argue, the whole school. That’s what happens when you put teachers together and give them time and space to learn.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Standards-Based Grading (Part 1)

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_297479735For the next two years, I will be part of the Galileo Leadership Consortium, which works to advance teacher leadership. In this role, I am asked to learn that I can do better for the profession.

Sometimes all we have to realize is that we only have to know that we can do better. And one of the things that the consortium believes we can do better is grading. We believe that grading doesn’t have to be punitive, and that it can actually relay information about what a child has learned. To help you understand and implement these beliefs, I will share the information I have learned from experts, and how I have used that learning in my 8th grade Language Arts classroom.

Wormeli’s Views of Grading

The first expert I encountered was Rick Wormeli. He is best known for his research on 21st-century teaching practices. Five minutes into a day with him, though, and you realize that he has used all of the research that he presents.

From Wormeli, I learned three things:

  • Teachers are ethically responsible for the grades which they report.

This means that grades that are padded—with scores for neatness, following directions, turning work in on time—are grades that do not represent the amount of learning the student has achieved.

  • Grades should accurately report the amount of mastery that a student has on the standards of that subject.

This means that an A in Language Arts represents that the student has achieved an A level of mastery in the reading and writing of narrative, argument, and information. An A level of mastery is typically coined by the terms “Exceeding Mastery.”

  • Assessments should be connected to standards.

This means that all activities that we ask of students should be related to the learning they should be achieving. So, every assessment should be connected to a standard, so the student’s grade can reflect the achievement of that standard.

What This Looks Like in My Classroom

So, what does standards-based grading mean in literacy instruction, and what does this look like in my classroom?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have some experiences that I will share.

Shift 1: I connect daily lessons to standards, and present these connections to students.amy 1

At the beginning of each lesson, I name my teaching point. Students and I refer to our Self-Evaluation Standards page (you can click on the thumbnail image to the right). On this page, we underline key words and compare how our work achieved that standard. As you can see, the columns represent achievement levels. Students can mark a date and a level they think they achieved. From here, students can see their growth towards achieving each standard.

Shift 2: For every standard that I teach to kids, I create a rubric of achievement.amy 2

I share the rubrics with kids along with exemplars (thumbnail on the right) of each achievement level. Students can see where their work aligns with that of their peers and the way work should look. The rubric and examples help kids to work to meet the standards.

Shift 3: I insist that students walk away each day having learned something.

In order to quantify this, I have started giving quick and varied formative assessments. For one amy 3concept, it may be a post-it of key terms, with verbal descriptive feedback. For another concept, it may be written descriptive feedback about how to move forward in achieving a standard (an example is on the right). For any assessment, students may re-try the work, in order to show more learning. This helps kids learn and apply the material, but it also shows them that they are active learners, and learners who are successful.

Every day in my classroom looks a little different. And I am using different strategies to reach all of my learners. But in doing so, I know what standard that students have achieved and what standard they are working on. We also have a great community that wants to work and grow and show their best work. And all this came from three small shifts.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

The SAT Essay: Embracing My Fear

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_217407295I don’t know about you, but when I got my first look at a sample SAT essay prompt, my eyes just about bugged out of my head.

It was last year, and I was trying to wrap my head around the changes that were in store for our kids with the switch from ACT to SAT. If you’re not already familiar, take a look at the information and samples on the College Board website. The essay question on the redesigned SAT, which all Michigan juniors will be required to take this spring, asks students to first read a high-level text that presents an argument. The topic of the text, the College Board explains, will “express subtle views on complex topics.” Then, students must write an analysis of the rhetorical strategies that the author uses to express those subtle views.

At first, I wanted to argue, “But I know how to prepare the kids for the ACT!” Even if students walked into my room with zero knowledge of persuasive writing, I could coach them with enough practice, checklists, and do’s and don’ts to help them reach proficiency. We were machines when it came to preparing for the ACT essay!

But the SAT essay doesn’t assess a genre of writing; it assesses students’ reading comprehension, analysis, and writing. No matter how much I wanted to prepare students for this essay, I couldn’t give them crash-courses—in how to understand a complex text, or how to analyze an author’s purpose. I felt like I would somehow be failing my students.

The Upside of the Essay

The more I worried about it, the more I came to the realization that changed my perspective: This isn’t a bad thing. Why was I clinging to prepping students for a test? I don’t know anyone who went into education in order to teach to a test; I certainly didn’t. The redesigned SAT essay measures the very skills we’ve been teaching as we have shifted to the Common Core State Standards. I realized that I needed take heart in the fact that this new test would assess the skills I am already teaching within my regular units of study.

Still, I worried that the students and the teachers in my district wouldn’t be ready for such a change. I initially felt uncomfortable moving away from teaching as if my students were essay-writing machines, and, I realized, surely there were other teachers who felt the same way. So, I dug into the research and my own practices to determine what I could do to support them.

shutterstock_160526231I kept coming back to the portion of the essay that asks students for analysis. At first, I wondered if we could put together a toolbox of the most common ways of building an argument, or a list of a few “magic” rhetorical devices students could expect to encounter. But the more I read and explored, the more I came back to the answer that no, there would be no magic lists or silver bullets for this test. What the analysis portion essentially boils down to is: Can students understand what an author’s purpose is, and analyze the moves the author made to achieve that purpose? This isn’t a test prep strategy; it’s just what good readers and writers can do!

What made me even happier as I came to this realization is that this is exactly what we are scaffolding in our AARI reading intervention classes. In AARI, or the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, we regularly read to determine the author’s purpose, then analyze how the author supported that purpose by how he or she organized his or her evidence.

Clearly this is a great start. But it’s not enough. It needs to happen in every class at every level, with a variety of texts.

Taking the Lessons to Other Classrooms

To start supporting our teachers in this endeavor, I went back to the work of favorites like Katie Wood Ray, Kelly Gallagher, and Jeff Anderson, who advocate the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.” In this instructional method, teachers lead students to not only read for comprehension, but to also analyze how the texts are written, so that they can essentially imitate the craft in their own writing. The result is more focused, purposeful reading, and authentic writing.

This is not a new idea, especially for many elementary teachers who have lived within reading and writing workshops for years. But it can be transformative for many secondary teachers who are still adjusting to our new standards and units.

And though there may not be any magic lists or silver bullets for this essay, this instructional method just may be the closest thing.

MKortlandt2 Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

An Up-All-Night Fantasy Thriller

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

Red QueenI had a friend in college whose favorite Christmas tradition was to stay up reading all night on Christmas Eve. He had accidentally created this experience for himself in middle school when he received Jurassic Park as an early gift, and he had been so absorbed that he read until dawn. He spent each year after that trying to replicate the experience, searching for the most gripping, intense book to read while waiting for Santa.

I don’t think one needs an excuse or holiday to stay up too late reading, but I appreciated his sense of ceremony. He was a fan of fantasy and if we were still in touch, I’d recommend the thrilling YA novel that I just finished, Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard.

The Plot

Mare Barrow has hated the Silvers her entire life. As a Red, she is bound for a life of servitude, poverty, and eventual conscription into the Army to fight a war waged by the Silvers. The Silvers have all of the power and money, and hold onto it using their rare special abilities—powers that allow them to manipulate the elements in addition to the Reds.

When Mare’s best friend, Kilorn, is conscripted earlier than expected, Mare is determined to find a solution to his problem. But her attempts to solve one problem lead to an even greater one—Mare, though her blood flows Red, is discovered in a very public forum to have an ability of her own. Suddenly, she is swept into the world of the Silvers, betrothed to marry the youngest Prince, and forced to live out her days among those she hates the most. So Mare chooses the only path that she feels she can reconcile herself to—join the Red rebellion group, the Scarlet Guard, and wage a revolution from within the palace.

Why It’ll Keep You Up Past Your Bedtime

Red Queen sucked me in right from the beginning. This is a plot-driven, action-packed novel with all of the substance needed to elevate it to “must-read” status. I have a weakness for stories where the balance of power is precarious and on the brink of upheaval. The intensity of such a situation is immediately gripping, which makes Mare’s world the perfect setting for a sleepless night. Not to mention the tension among her new “family” of Silvers and “friends” in the Scarlet Guard, which constantly keeps readers guessing about where alliances really lie.  

If that’s not enough, the wavering romantic interest from prince to prince will keep your heart beating with speculation. Oh, and have I mentioned that the ending is epic? Epic! You may not be able to sleep even after you finish because you’re still reeling from the shock of how all of the moving pieces come together at the conclusion.

But don’t take this recommendation on my word alone—Red Queen was the Goodreads winner in the category of Best Book from a Debut Author, garnering 46,698 votes! And if you find yourself whipping through it in the course of an evening, fear not. The sequel, Glass Sword, is expected for release on February 9. Schedule yourself another sleepless night for Valentine’s Day or mid-winter break!

Book Details:
Reading Levels: AR 5.2, Lexile HL740L
ISBN: 9780062310637
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: February 10, 2015

pic of me Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.


Life Lesson: Practice What You Teach

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_275161592As 2015 came to a close and winter break was upon us, I had some time to reflect upon my teaching practice, as I planned for my next units of study. I remembered how, at the beginning of the year, we received from our Literacy Specialist an immersion packet. The packet suggested several teacher-written pieces, which would go along with the units from Atlas.

The assignment was overwhelming to say the least. Several colleagues remarked that there was no way they were going to do that much writing, on top of everything else that had to be done.

But once we dug into the units with our students, we remembered quickly the importance of writing for—and with—our learners.

When students see me engaging in the writing I am asking them to do, they immediately view it as authentic. I always choose my stories carefully to avoid students’ copying my subject matter (a lesson learned in previous years). And I never do just one draft and call it good.

I have found that if I allow them to see my struggles and imperfections, they are more open to our revising and editing sessions with their work. I will intentionally write stories that I know need revision, allowing my students to see that even adult writing needs work. I write for them and use my pieces to write with them. We even do shared pieces based on shared experiences. Once, for instance, we brought a microwave into the classroom and popped popcorn so that we could all write a descriptive paragraph together. That was a lesson they never forgot!

The Conversation with Editing

Probably the best lesson for me with editing and revision has come through the writing of this blog.shutterstock_266285486 After I submit my pieces, our editor does his thing, which means inevitable changes to sentence structure, word choice, and sometimes even titles. I have to admit, it can be hard to take at times. This made me realize that I need to be more gentle in my approach with my students; more conversation needs to happen as I go through their pieces. It also made me realize how shared writing, revising and editing can help my students achieve better results.

So as I sat in my very quiet classroom planning our launch for our next unit, I decided I would try writing the assignments that I give students, lesson by lesson. I’ll find what fits, what doesn’t, and what I need to move around. I’ll analyze my points of frustration and do my best to anticipate what will be stumbling points for my students. Will it be perfect? No, of course not. But I’m sure I’ll learn a few things along the way that will make it better than if I taught it without trying it.

When it comes to writing, I’m not sure that practice ever makes perfect. But it certainly makes me a better teacher.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

A New Year’s Reading Party

Notes from the Classroom

dress upHaving a son in elementary school has really been eye opening. My first grader seems to always be partying for something at his school: Spirit Days, Game Days, Thursdays. And you know what? That kid loves school.

Sometimes at the high school level we focus so much on content, I think, that we squeeze all the fun out of school. Don’t get me wrong—my students work really hard. So hard, in fact, that I’ve likened them to
water buffalos in the past. But they’re still kids, and they like to have fun. Learning can and should be fun sometimes.

So, as we were nearing the end of the semester, I decided we needed to have a reading party. It would have a New Year’s Eve theme. We could set Reading Resolutions for the new year.

It started as a gimmicky way to make a reading day a little more special. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had the potential to be a powerful day for my students’ lives as readers.

I enlisted the help of our school librarian, and our party plan started to take shape. Twenty minutes of independent reading at the beginning of the hour—more than the 10 minutes of independent reading we do every day. At the 20-minute mark, we’d drop the ball (a YouTube video of the Times Square Ball Drop), and then the party would start. We’d have three stations for about 10 minutes each.

Station One: Your TBR (to-be-read) List

listOur librarian led the students in a discussion about books they want to read. Between the books they already wanted to read and some suggestions from our librarian, each class was able to generate a huge TBR list.

→Why is this a key activity for readers? Reading guru Donalyn Miller explains best in her book Reading in the Wild:Improving students’ ability to choose their own books begins with lots of positive reading experiences and frequent opportunities to preview, share and discuss books. Making this list as a group, with the help of our librarian, was a reminder to my students that they can and should get recommendations from their peers. AND there is a pretty useful adult right in our building—the librarian!—who can help them track those books down.

Station Two: Snacks and Visitors

Kids ate and talked with visiting teachers about their favorite books. This required a little planning. Prior to the party, I asked the students whom I should invite. Some teachers couldn’t make it, but they sent lists of book recommendations, which we posted on the wall. Our superintendent even sent a video recommendation!

→Why is this a key activity for readers? Students need to see adult readers in their lives. Some of my science-y kids, for instance, were interested to hear a popular Physics teacher talk about reading Unwind, by Neal Shusterman. In their heads, he curls up with Physics textbooks every night. But seeing their non-English teacher as a reading role model is key. These kinds of experiences help students commit to lifelong reading.

Station Three: Reading Resolutions

On small whiteboards, students wrote resolutions for the new year of reading. Then they dressed up with silly props for a picture. Most resolutions fell into three categories:

  • Quantity: Many students made goals to increase their reading outside school. I encouraged them to make that commitment specific, and I’ll follow up with those kids to help them hold themselves accountable.
  • Purpose: Some made resolutions about reading more for fun. I’ll be encouraging those students to ask for recommendations and to try lots of different genres.
  • ​​Quality: Some made resolutions to expand the type of reading they do. I’ll work with those students to find a new favorite genre.

whiteboardsThis last station was key for the students. Research proves that clear goals lead to higher achievement and increased motivation.

But clear goals are key for me, too. Now I have pretty clear marching orders for our second semester. I know which kids need which kinds of nudges (or shoves!) from me. I will print the pictures of students holding their resolutions, and I’ll post them in the classroom along with their TBR lists, in order to serve as inspiration all spring.

Not all my kids made resolutions or had their pictures taken. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for them, that short list of students is now a high priority for me. I know who my most resistant readers are, and I know who needs the most encouragement from me.

The day was incredibly beneficial. We took time to read. We celebrated good books. We continued building a supportive, engaged reading community.

But, we also had a lot of fun. That’s important, too.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.