Several years ago, I began to hear about reading classrooms that were student driven , the teacher no longer teaching for 45 minutes from the front of the classroom. Mini-lessons, reading workshop, anchor charts, and mentor texts became the buzzwords in secondary classrooms for my district. But I had no interest in exploring a new type of instruction as I was teaching the way I learned, and I had loved school. Besides, my students liked me and my classroom was always one where students felt appreciated and respected. Yet, if I was honest with myself, I struggled with the knowledge that I taught books students disliked, many gifted students became bored, and I was forced to push some students at a pace that was in fairness, beyond their capabilites. What was the answer?
Then four years ago, I attended a summer in-service on reading workshop as an alternative to the traditional secondary reading classroom.The in-service instructor, a former reading teacher herself, taught us the method from Columbia University's Teachers College, i.e. Lucy Calkins. After experiencing a summer at Teachers College, our trainer had left her classroom to train other teachers on implementing reading workshop because what she had learned was so powerful. I was intrigued; what she presented struck a chord deep inside of me.
I took three things away from that first in-service: the importance of students choice in their reading selections, students needed to engage in conversation about what they were reading, and the importance of a reader's note book. I decided I wanted to try it.
August arrived and school started. I lengthened my 10 minutes of silent reading to 20 minutes, allowed free choice for what the students chose to read, and the students decorated their reader's note books (composition books on the school supply list) with cool scrapbooking paper. We divided the note book into sections with colorful tabs, and I told the students they needed to bring them to class every day. The problem was I really didn't know what to have the students do in their note books besides glue in notes I handed out or to copy what I put on the board. It basically was a scrapbook of notes. Eventually, the note book was discarded, leaving me feeling extremely guilty becuase I knew it had been a complete waste of time.
I also began the year talking individually to the students about what they were reading, or conferencing with them, but my inability to keep track of the individual discussions with the students overwhelmed me. My in-service teacher had made it seem so easy. She just drew a grid and wrote down the person's name with one word about the conference. In practice, however, the single word summarizing of my conferences did not help me remember the discussion. I tried using a spiral, providing a page for each student, but my messy handwriting and the length of time spent writing kept this method from working for me. So, by Christmas I gave up conferencing instead grading papers and working on my computer while they read.
I attended several more trainings on reading workshop and really tried to implement the ideas the best I could. I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and felt good about including free reading time and student choice in their books. But I had not let go of the traditional whole class novel or my general instruction over the novel. I was the expert, right? That's why I was the teacher; they were supposed to learn from me.
Last summer, at yet another in-service on reading workshop, I was introduced to the Confer app which is a "searchable note taking app" created to help teachers track conferences on their iPhones or iPads. This app changed my life. I was instantly able to enter and organize data as well as access prior data. It was mobile and fast. My conferencing took off, and I believed the final piece was in place--I had mastered it! I was officially a workshop teacher.
Well into the second semester of last year our instructional coach mentioned in a meeting that really no one in my grade level was fully implementing reading workshop. I was shocked--what did she mean? I had worked so hard to implement this kind of classroom instruction, and I still wasn't doing it? I immediately approached her for her help. I really wanted to use reading workshop, and if I wasn't doing everything I was supposed to, I needed to know what was missing.
My upcoming unit was a whole class novel that I taught every year, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L' Engle. This classic novel is rich in figurative language and literary elements. My traditional approach in teaching the novel included vocabulary from the novel, annotating, chapter comprehension questions, class discussions, quizzes, and tests.
One of the first things our instructional coach suggested was to put my classroom desks in groups instead of rows. Then she had me shelve my two binders full of vocabulary, questions, quizzes, and tests about the novel. The students were now going to read, discuss, and write. Mentor texts would be read and mini-lessons taught. The goal was for students to see an objective in a mentor text that I taught through a mini-lesson. After a short guided practice with a partner, they would begin to look for that objective in their own independent reading. I was doubtful it would work, but I was willing to try.
As in years past many students hated A Wrinkle in Time. But I had always operated under the belief that it was a classic--they needed to read it. It was good for them to read something they didn't like. Our instructional coach suggested I let the students who didn't like the book abandon it for something of their choice. Okay. I allowed them to choose any novel. And what transpired was powerful. Allowing them to choose, no longer forcing them to read a book they disliked, gave them ownership in their learning. They were interested to see if what I taught in the mini-lesson was present in their book.
Watching my instructional coach model mini-lessons, I learned to be more concise and thoughtful in what I said because I only had 10 minutes to teach the objective. For example, following this method, I carefully selected a short mentor text to read which beautifully illustrated characterization. I wrote parts of the text on chart paper making what is called an anchor chart as I taught them the meaning of characterization. Then the students practiced identifying characterization with a partner in a different short text I provided for no more than 3-4 minutes. Finally, I asked them to look for examples of characterization in their novel as they read that day, marking them with sticky notes. I ended the lesson by letting them know I would ask to see what they had marked so we could discuss it when we conferenced. After several days of students collecting examples of characterization in their novels, I taught another mini-lesson showing them how to transfer their sticky notes to their reader's note books. My next mini-lesson taught how to compile their notes on characterization into a short write (rough draft of a character sketch). I taught another mini-lesson on paranthetical documentation so that they could incorporate this critical piece into their writing which is expected in high school and college. And to my amazement it worked! They could do it! They did do it! Addtionally, one-on-one instruction and conversation allowed me to tailor my follow-up teaching to each individual student--true differentiation was occuring. And by allowing them to choose their own novel, I was allowing for further differentiation as students chose books appropriate to their reading level.
This year, I will not teach a whole class novel, and I will be implementing full reading workshop from day one. My students will listen to mentor texts, choose what they read independently, talk about what they read, and write about what they read. I can't wait for this academic year! If you are travelling the road I was and would like to share your challenges and or successes, I would love to hear from you. Reading workshop has changed my life as a teacher, and I am ready for it to change my students' reading lives as well. Let the workshop begin!
Afterword: I will also be implenting full writing workshop this year after attending workshops by Penny Kittle and my district. What a different this year will be!