In Praise of the Quick Write

Some of the most creative and thoughtful pieces of student writing I’ve seen have come from the ten-minute quick write I like to do at the beginning of class. I’ve had particular success with one in particular, so I thought I would share. The work you see below is all from students taking ENG 2P.

Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is a frequently read book in many of my classes, but it also has some great passages for quick writes. In her book “The Quickwrite Handbook,” Linda Rief recommends this passage from the novel:

“Mom, since you asked, I’ll tell you why I’m so angry”

Because Dad tried to dunk.

Because I want to win a championship.

Because I can’t win a championship if I’m sitting in this smelly hospital.

Because Dad told you he’d be here forever.

Because I thought forever was like Mars – far away.

Because it turns out forever is like the mall -right around the corner.

Because Jordan doesn’t talk basketball anymore.

Because Jordan cut my hair and didn’t care.

Because he’s always drinking Sweet Tea.

Because sometimes I get thirsty.

Because I don’t have anybody to talk to now.


Because my crossover should be better.

Because if it was better, then Dad wouldn’t have had the ball.

Because if Dad hadn’t had the ball, then he wouldn’t have tried to dunk.

Because if Dad hadn’t tried to dunk, then we wouldn’t be here.

Because I don’t want to be here.

Because the only thing that matters is swish.

Because our backboard is splintered.

We read it together and pointed out some of the “craft moves” the Alexander is making: repetition, listing, capital letters, italics, similes, etc.

Students are then challenged to imitate Alexander’s form, and I do the same thing in my journal while I project it with a document camera. Today was a unique experience because some students didn’t feel comfortable writing about emotions, so they wrote about other things like sports and school. It was wonderful to see them making the writing their own. Some of their writing was personal, but many of them agreed to share their work. This is what students at Sir John A. Macdonald and Sherwood produced in five minutes with no time for revision or planning:

This is some very thoughtful work created in a short amount of time. Students may come back to this and revise their work, or they may choose to use some of these craft moves in other pieces of writing. Either way, I think this is an excellent way to spend 10 minutes of every day.

As I find mentor texts that work, I’ll post them. Happy Writing!


Problem Based Reading

One of the perks of being a literacy coach is that people give me a lot of professional resources to read. I have a stack of 5 at home that I need to get through, but I’m pausing on this one book because it has me excited.

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton has changed the way I think about reading instruction. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher changed my writing instruction, but I still felt a little lost when it came to reading. Most of my frustration came from how students rely on me (or the internet) to interpret their reading for them. I wanted to get them thinking on their own,  revising their ideas,  and tracing patterns through their books, but for some reason, they always come back to me.

I stopped using question/answer sheets within a year or two of teaching because I hated them and my students hated them. I moved to QCharts and teaching students how to talk about books, but they still seemed to be dependent on me come analysis time.

Then I open up Vicki Vinton’s book. I felt like I was yelling “Yes!” for every page.

In the introduction, Vinton cites a study done by Education Trust which found that “‘many – if not most- assignments were over-scaffolded … [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them” (xvii).  Some of her advice contradicts how I was instructed to teach about reading. Remember “set the purpose” instruction for reading?  I was given a passage about a house, and I was told to read it like a thief and highlight important information. Then I was told to read it like a real estate agent and highlight important information. The goal of this model lesson was to help me see that readers pull out different ideas, so I, as the teacher,  would remember to set the purpose for reading, so students pull out the ideas I want them to pull out. This type of instruction will help students find the information that I want them to find, but will it help them understand a text when there is no one to direct their purpose? What if their purpose is simply to figure out what the text means?

Vinton observes that “Students are repeatedly asked to analyze particular aspects of a text – the development of a character, a text’s structure, an author’s choice of words – rather than to think more deeply about how those pieces all work together in complex and meaningful ways” (4). So the question, of course, is: How do we do this? Section Two of the book is dedicated to walking teachers through what problem-based reading instruction might look like in a classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was at Dundas Valley Secondary School in my friend and colleague Crystal Dumitru’s class. She is using Cherie Dimaline’s novel the Marrow Thieves with the students in her ENG 2P class. They were on the second chapter, so I asked Crystal if I could jump in and experiment a little, and, being the wonderfully accommodating human being that she is, she let me.

I decided to try the text know/wonder chart that Vinton outlines in her book. Before I get into what happened, I want to repeat Vinton’s caution: “It’s also important to note that the chart can outgrow its usefulness…, and that, as a scaffold, it should only be used as a temporary support” (95). The goal is always for the students to do the thinking on their own.

I started our know/wonder chart by selecting a passage from Marrow Thieves that revealed information about the story and characters, but that also left the reader with questions:

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, ‘Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!’ (3).

I asked students to either tell me something they know as a result of that passage or a question they have as a result of the passage.  You can see their thinking on the chart.  We filled three of them! Often students found that a statement of knowledge resulted in a new question. The arrows indicate when a question was in response to knowledge or sometimes when we were able to find an answer.

First of all, they were amazingly good at this task. I couldn’t keep up with all the statements and questions. Second, I love how when a student makes an error in reading, this process helps them self-correct.

For example, one student claimed that the Recruiters were hunters, but other students disagreed. They thought it was more than that. So we turned the student’s statement into a question: “Who are the recruiters?” After we read the next passage, students were able to answer this question with evidence from the text.

The teacher’s only role here is to write down the know and wonder sides and ask students to explain their thinking using the text. I tried my best (and was mostly successful) to avoid making interpretations for them. One student raised her hand and started with “Well, on this page it says that…” My job was then to name what she did as a reader to make it more concrete for other students. The next time I was in the room, that same student had graduated to using sticky notes in her book (without any prompting from me). Sticky notes! An English teacher’s dream.

The hardest part of this whole activity was not reacting to their amazing answers- I definitely failed at this. I was basically bouncing around the room exclaiming at everything they said because I was so excited that we were having such a rich discussion about a book. I was even excited when a student had that “misreading” of the recruiters because I was able to practice how to help the student think a little deeper using the text.

We did this know/wonder chart for the first four chapters, and then I asked them to continue on their own for the fifth chapter. I will be back in this class tomorrow to see what they’ve been thinking about the book. My next step for the middle of the book would be to help them use the know/wonder charts to identify patterns or symbols that repeatedly appear on the know/wonder charts. We would then turn these into pattern tracing charts- which I will write about once I try it.

I’m very grateful to my colleague, Carolyn Venema, for putting this book into my hands (and lending me Vinton’s other book). I feel like I finally have the tools to teach my students to do the work of interpretation rather than telling them what they should notice and think. This type of reading instruction takes a different kind of preparation. You have to read the text and think about where the author may leave unanswered questions so you can select passages to work through with your class, but it is well worth the time and effort. I can’t wait to try this again.

Grade Me!

I’ve always identified with Lisa Simpson in this scene.  When I was younger, my sense of self and self-esteem came from the grades I received in school. However, I do not remember a single lesson that I learned from an ‘A’.  In fact, I vividly remember a moment at the beginning of grade 11 when I failed an English diagnostic test.  The teacher showed me my mark reluctantly (probably because she realized two weeks into the course that my grades were clearly tied to my self-worth), but she also explained that what I wrote had no organization or structure. She said that one of my goals for the year should be to learn how to write an essay.  I pestered my parents to buy me a book about how to write an essay, and I asked some older students to give me their notes so I could see the requirements for grade 13.  My motivation was the grade, but the feedback is what helped me to learn.

Fast forward to my second-year university French class, a class that I enjoyed but found very challenging. After finals, I looked up my grade: B+. I dropped French. I told myself that it was out of fear of losing my scholarship (an exaggeration), but really it was about the tension between learning and achieving.  Learning wasn’t enough for me at that point, and as a consequence- I speak only one language.

I have to admit that this tension has found its way into my parenting and teaching. My husband, an elementary teacher, often reminds me that school is not a competition.  I know that in my head, but my instinct is to look to grades as an affirmation of my parenting skills.

In fact, I receive a lot of reports on my progress in my personal and professional life: my Fitbit, my blog stats, my teacher performance appraisal, my weekly Grammarly report (which I love by the way),  and my AQ course (I’m four weeks in and still no grade!). I have all this reporting on my life, but for the past year and a half, I’ve been free of thinking about final evaluations at school. I assess student work all the time, but my role usually consists of giving feedback and planning next steps with teachers. I’ve noticed that in this evaluation-free zone, my learning has accelerated quickly. I know that part of it is because I’ve been granted a lot of learning opportunities, but I think the more significant factor is that I don’t think about report cards; I think about teaching and learning. My curiosity about how the brain works and how students retain and retrieve information has to lead me to do more research and ask more questions than at any other point in my career.

So now I’m at the point where I see the value in practice over evaluation, feedback over a grade, but I’m nervous about how students and parents will respond.

Thank goodness for colleagues who can push your thinking. Yesterday, I spoke with a teacher who has become a valuable critical friend. I worked as a literacy coach in Toby VanHarten’s class last year where he started to implement writing portfolios in his ENG 2P course. I am supposed to be the “coach,” but most of the time he helps me think through my learning. This year he has fully implemented a writing portfolio program with his students where the emphasis is on feedback, not on an evaluation.

I had so many questions for him:

Is the amount of feedback you have to give time-consuming?

How do you keep track of it all?

Are there any students who are refusing to write?

Are they responding to your feedback?

How are you getting them to write without grading everything?

Should students be able to predict their marks?

When do you actually grade things?

Aren’t you afraid that you will get slammed with marking at mid-term?

He patiently spent his entire prep (sorry Toby) answering my questions about how he tracks and organizes his students’ portfolio writing. Most of his answers revolved around the idea that when teachers value student learning and growth and live it through their practice by spending time on feedback and conferencing and less time on grading, students embrace the challenges set before them. For so long the evaluation part of my job has taken up so much space that the learning was sometimes secondary.  Students know this about school.  The system has taught them to obsess over their grades with little time for reflection on their learning. We have to model valuing education over evaluation in our daily language and classroom practice.

When I return to my classroom in  September,  I’ll be trying to let the Lisa Simpson in me go. For now, I’ll have to settle for helping other teachers through their reflections on evaluation, and learn from those teachers who are actively working to keep the learning front and center.

News Articles, Mentor Texts, and the OSSLT

As a literacy coach, I am often asked about how to prepare students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. In fact, at times (especially second semester) my job seems to be a flurry of last-minute preparations for students and teachers. When I work with teachers, we often talk about whether or not we are”teaching to the test.” I would like to say “no” because I believe that our instruction reflects our primary goal to generate confident readers and writers, but when I looked at my practice, I could not say this was true. My beliefs and my methods did not align.  This realization sent me on a reflection spiral where I re-evaluated my instruction and discovered some misconceptions about the OSSLT that were preventing me from preparing students adequately for the test and, more troublingly, distracting me from focusing on developing the skills of my student writers.

There is a difference in how I’ve taught the news report in the past to prepare students for the test versus how I would teach the news report if I wanted my students actually to write for a newspaper. There really shouldn’t be a difference, but there is.

My number one instructional strategy for teaching students how to write any genre is mentor texts. If you are going to write a personal narrative, you should read personal narratives and scour them for techniques to use in your writing. If I’m going to write a blog about teaching, I should read other teachers’ blogs. Mentor texts need to be used for news articles as well.  In the past, I’ve heard this strategy rejected(and rejected it myself!) because news articles today do not look like the ones that EQAO wants on the OSSLT.  However, I think this a misconception about the way the test is evaluated.

When planning instruction for the news article, teachers often talk about the lead where students should put the who, what, where, when. Some teachers tell their students to start with the word “yesterday,” others insist they start with the date.  Some school plans involve making sure their students include at least two quotations in their news articles. Others insist that the quotations should go in paragraph 4 and 5. But here is the thing – none of this is reflected in the rubric used to score this section.

The evaluation tool requires students’ work to have a clear and consistent focus on the event, supporting details, and logical organization.  A consequence of not using mentor texts is that we artificially control the news article form.  For many of our students, this type of instruction leads them to write mechanically, which means that we aren’t teaching them to use”thoughtfully chosen” supporting ideas with  an organization that demonstrates a “thoughtful progression of ideas.” It is difficult to organize your ideas thoughtfully when you know your quotation must come in paragraph 5! The rubric itself provides students with quite a lot of organizational freedom.

So what do we do instead? We teach the news article form in all of its complexity.

Instead of using the sample articles that we wrote or the ones we pulled off the OSSLT website, we should flood the classroom with examples of real news articles: reports about sports, the weather, crime, tragedy, and good news stories. There are a variety of conventions and mini-genres under the umbrella of the news article. If we want our students to become better writers, we need them to see that the basic structure of the news article stays the same while the vocabulary and content shift depending on the purpose of the article.

And don’t forget about the reader! Students should think deeply about the type of reader their article may interest. What will that reader want to know? Can we assume they already have some background knowledge? How can we meet the needs of that reader with the way we write?

In our efforts to prepare students for this standardized test, we have controlled the form and developed artificial formulas for writing. If all of this leaves you concerned about your next lesson, feel free to try out my eight-day news article plan  for this semester, and let me know how it goes. Let’s shift our focus from “passing the test” to nurturing thoughtful students who can handle the complexity that comes with the act of writing.

Mapping Memories and Storyboarding

Drawing is painful for me, so when a teacher asked me to try storyboarding, I tried to get out of it.  I suggested some alternatives, but she thought storyboarding would work so I told her I would research it and try it. I’m happy she asked. This lesson was the highlight of my week.

I avoid anything to do with drawing or art because it’s not how I think. These are the drawings that I used in front of students to explain our activities. 

So as you can see, there is a reason storyboarding isn’t my go-to writing strategy.

I started researching the idea on Penny Kittle’s website where she has an article called Storyboarding-to-Create-Flexible-Writers. I liked her version of storyboarding because I didn’t think our students were reading to storyboard complete ideas for narratives. Instead, this version helps students to find the stories that they might want to tell.

Memory Mapping

For the memory mapping activity, we had students draw the street where they live now, or somewhere else where they lived for a while. On the map, they labeled the landmarks for their memories. For example, in my map above, you can see where I hit another kid in the head with a rock (I wasn’t a violent kid just a very unobservant kid. I didn’t see him!).

I already had my map drawn to show students what I wanted them to do, so their teacher Emily, drew her map on the board to model the sketching process.

Emily is a former SJAM student, so students were interested to hear her memories of their neighbourhood.  It took a couple of minutes, but as she mapped out her ideas on the board, they started to generate memories too.  When she was finished, Emily estimated that she probably had about 30 different stories she could tell.

Almost every student was able to find a story from their memories that they wanted to share.

One student told me about her map of her neighbourhood in Chile where she lived for ten years after moving there from Syria. Her whole map revolved around her relationship with these three other girls in her apartment building.  She called them her “sisters.” She developed the idea more in the subsequent activity where I mistook her drawing of her friends for one of her family. Clearly, these girls were important to her. We talked about how she could turn her relationship with them into a piece of writing.

Other students’ maps revealed stories about skateboarding accidents, getting lost in cornfields, near-misses with cars, and in one case, the memory of a Syrian neighbourhood before the war. Previously many of these same students were reluctant to write during our quick write time, but as we circled the room and heard their stories, we noticed that every single student had done the activity.

Storyboarding Moments

We followed this activity by storyboarding moments. Their moments could either connect to the memory map or be something entirely new. I wasn’t a fan of my memory map, so I moved to storyboarding moments with my oldest son Jonah.  I was surprised, but I think I actually have a personal narrative that I might draft in front of students.

During the activity, I asked students to draw six different panels of moments that had a similar theme or thread to connect them. Below you can see the further development the Chile neighbourhood I mentioned above.

We were nearing the end of class, so we circled the room talking to students about the moments they selected and how they might write about one (or more of them).

The next stage of the activity would be to cut up the six panels and rearrange them to experiment with how different sequences might affect their writing. They would also have to think about panels they might have to add in order to link the moments together for their future readers.

I was particularly happy with the results of this lesson because I had tried a different generating activity earlier in the week that went spectacularly wrong. I may write about it in the future, but the embarrassment of that lesson is still a little raw. However, I feel redeemed today because I am confident that when these students start drafting their stories, all of them will have a place to start.  And sometimes that’s all we need. Just a way to conquer that blank page.

Reading, Writing, and Creating Routines: Expecting More out of 75 minutes

For those who have been reading, you know that I’ve been reading a lot of work by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Their most recent book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents is a great place to start with for those who haven’t explored their work. A colleague brought me a (signed!) copy from a conference she went to this summer, and I instantly lost it to my husband who is a grade 6/7 teacher.  I read and follow their work because it is practical, sustainable, and reproducible.

I experimented with their class timing strategies in Emily Lackie’s class while teaching descriptive place writing. This wonderful teacher (who is a bundle of positivity energy) actually allowed me to teach her ENG 2P class during the second week of school. The timing strategies used by Gallagher and Kittle worked wonders in the first class, but I struggled with it in the second class. I think I made a key mistake in my lesson, which I’ve outlined below for those of you also experimenting with this teaching method.

Lesson Outline and Notes:

Book Talk

The 2-3 minute book talk in Emily’s class was easy because she already had an independent reading program established, and because my wonderful principal last year bought sets of high-interest books for classroom libraries (Thanks Geeta!). I book talked Dear Martin, They Both Die at the End, Sold, Ghost Boys and Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.  Normally I wouldn’t book talk all these at once, but it was their first time meeting me, so I wanted to them to know: I like books, and I want them to like books too.

Independent Reading

Thanks to the preplanning of their teacher and the new books, this 10 minutes was an easy sell in the first-period class. The last period class was a bit more of a challenge. I was met with sighs and groans and exclamations of “I hate reading!” My response of “You just haven’t found the right book yet” was met with rolled eyes. The temptation when met with this type of attitude towards reading is to let them read anything that is readily available in the classroom, but this only starts the “fake reading” cycle.  Teachers and librarians need to have an infinite amount of grit and patience as they try to “sell” books to students. I refuse to let students just grab whatever is available because I want them to be intentional about their reading choices. I’m not going to lie. This is difficult. Really difficult. Like, I sweated through my shirt difficult.

Quick Write

The philosophy behind the quick write is the same as the thinking behind independent reading. Practice. Students need opportunities to practice both reading and writing without being assessed. They may return to pieces from their quick writes for future assessments or evaluations, but only if they want to further develop a piece.

To get the maximum use out of quick write time, I’ve started to use really short mentor texts to model an idea or a craft move. Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook has been a lifesaver this semester. For Emily’s class we were looking at descriptive place writing, so we based our quick write on the poem “Cities” by Catherine P.  We discussed the point of view and descriptive phrases in the poem and then students were offered  choices for their writing:

  1.  Write down anything this poem brings to mind for you.
  2. Borrow any phrase or line, letting the line lead your thinking as you write.
  3. Instead of the city, describe the country or some other location that holds significance for you.
  4. Describe the city or any other place that lets the reader know how much you like or dislike the place from the way you describe it. (Rief 98)

As students wrote, I turned on my document camera and wrote too. I happened to be inspired to write about my son’s bedroom (I recently found uneaten toast in his bed when I went to wash his sheets, so I had a lot of writing material). Writing in front of the students is key here, but I will leave that for another post.


This is where I think my lesson went sideways. A “mini-lesson” should be mini right? Max 20 minutes. Mine went on for 50. In the past I wouldn’t have considered this a problem; I taught right to the bell! However, what happened was that I deprived students of the chance to actually try the craft moves I was showing them while the techniques were still fresh in their minds. Next time, I would split up the three mentor passages I used over a series of days so that students could have more time to practice. I might even use one to spark a quick write for the next day. So keeping that in mind, this is how I taught description in my 50 minute “mini-lesson.”

The 50 minutes that should have been 20 minutes

We watched the first 3 minutes of the opening scene for the movie I Am Legend.

After we watch the scene a few times (I paused it on a few key moments and had them both look and listen), I ask them “How would you write this opening scene?” Of course, this is a complex question to throw at students the first time they are experimenting with descriptive place writing so we answered the question together.

First, I had them describe the atmosphere of the setting, and they gave me words like “lonely, desolate, creepy, apocalyptic.” Then we talked about the words we would use to describe the city: “decrepit, abandoned, overgrown, eerie, haunted.”  This gave us the opportunity to talk about how important word choice can be. The word “empty” tells us some information, but “abandoned” tells us so much more.

I could have stopped here and had students experiment with writing an opening like this scene, but I pressed on – this time using a passage from JK. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where everything was because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armour could walk.

I used this passage to show them how the author uses lists in order to help the reader understand how overwhelmed Harry felt when he first walked into Hogwarts.  We again discussed word choice, especially the word “rickety”- what a great word!

Once again, I could have (SHOULD have) stopped here and let them experiment, but I split them into groups and gave each group a different passage and asked them to highlight and underline the descriptive sections in the passages. They were able to point out the new things in the paragraphs that they discovered. The passage from the Hunger Games, for example, used a sentence fragment, so we talked about why the author used it. The passage from Coraline used the word “stunted” and students wanted a clearer idea about what that meant.

Overall, it went well. We talked about word choice, using lists for effect, similies, imagery, and sentence structure. But it was too much. I forgot to let them practice, and I doubt if all this information will transfer over to the next class.  They would have been better served if I allowed them to write a draft and then showed them subsequent craft moves that they could edit into their work.


When your lesson goes long, you miss the sharing of beautiful words. Normally during the last 3 minutes, I would share something I’d written or have students share a line or two from their own writing. I need to stick to my mini-lesson so this sharing can be done.

So there is one of my experiments with the Read, Write, Study, Create, Share model. I’m really going to work on the timing and implementation of my “mini-lessons”. 20 minutes max next time! Feel free to comment with your own experiences or suggestions.

How Reading Will Change in My Classroom

I still have one whole school year before I will be in my classroom again, but I think about what will be different every day. This post is a list of promises to myself and my students about how reading will work in my classroom.

1.   My students will read. A lot.

2.    I will read. A lot. My new found love of audiobooks should make this easier. It makes the commute to work and household chores much more interesting!

3.   What I read will be diverse and representative of the students in my community. By community, I mean something more extensive than just the school. After all, the students who have been the center of the narratives we so often teach and the students who have been marginalized by those narratives, both need books and stories for different reasons. I will read for them to help them discover representations of themselves in literature, and to help them discover other voices that have been absent or silenced in their world. And I will also love those stories because that matters too. For more about representation in literature read Nic Stone’s “A Word for the Reluctant”and Benjamin Doxtdator’sBeyond Champions and Pirates”.  Side promise: Buy all of Nic Stone’s books. Students will love them.

4.   I will continue to question and experiment with which texts I will teach as whole class texts. As an English department, if we are going to mandate eight novels (out of hopefully 100s they read on their own), do those eight selections represent a range of voices and stories? Whose voice is missing? How might this text be problematic? Follow @triciaebarvia and #DisruptTexts for more guidance on this.

5.  I will not dispense my knowledge and insight about a book like a “gift” that I am bestowing on my students. Instead, I will coach them to discover their ideas by showing them how I make discoveries about the text and then give them time and space (with guidance and encouragement) to feel the thrill of discovery themselves.

6.    I will use a whole class novel, book clubs, and independent reading. We can do all of this and must to do it, I think, for our students to encounter a range of reading experiences. What do I do when I find a text difficult? How can I have a conversation about this book? How can I choose a book that I will like? Read @teachkate’s book A Novel Approach for more guidance on this topic.

7.   I will not teach the essay form and analysis at the same time. Students need to be able to analyze first before they can tackle this complicated form. If students are introduced to both simultaneously, the writing and the thinking suffer.  I think this promise means there will be another post about my writing promises.

8.   I will find a way for students to meaningfully reflect on and track their reading as a part of their learning. So often when I ask for their tracking and reflection, it is purely for me because I need to assess their progress, but there has to be a way to do this better. I think it’s my next research project.

9.   As an English department head I will spend as much money as I can on books, and then I will find more money! I will write grant applications, appeal to my community, spend a lot of time in used bookstores, and beg my principal for just a little more funding. I know this won’t always work, but it definitely won’t work if I accept the status quo.

10.   As an English department head, I will spend money not only on whole class texts but also on helping my teachers build their classroom libraries. Let’s buy the independent reading books our students want. I may only be able to make small contributions, but I think my budget spending needs to reflect the reading experiences I want our students to have: reading as a class, reading as a group, and independent reading.

So that’s my list. I’m sure I will think of more as the year begins. Feel free to comment with your own additions. Promises to keep.

Tell Me More and the Value in A Bad Idea

If you participate in the iThink training from the Rotman School of Business, you will learn interesting and practical strategies such as the causal model, pro-pro chart, and the ladder of inference. The sessions are also a stellar example of how to run professional development for teachers- thoughtful, engaging, fun. I use all the strategies from the iThink training in my classroom, but recently two activities have taken a more prominent role in my practice.

Tell Me More…

The first activity is one that has had a significant influence on the way I talk in my classroom. During the training, it was just a “getting to know you activity,” but it helped me be intentional about the way I speak to my students.

In the “tell me more” activity, participants take out three objects they have with them- a picture in your wallet, your favourite pen, the cookie you snuck in your bag and didn’t have time to eat, etc.

In pairs, person A asks person B to “tell them more” about one of the objects. Person B tells person A a short narrative about the object. Here is where the real value comes in: Person B must listen and pick something that their partner said, and ask them again to “tell them more” about an aspect of their narrative. They are NOT allowed to say anything else.

This is an intense exercise in listening. You are not allowed to interject with your connections or stories. You are not allowed to guide the speaker into giving you specific details. The focus is on listening to the speaking and getting to know them by asking for “more.”

Students end up telling stories that can be very personal. A keychain sparks the story of a grandmother’s legacy. A rainbow button reveals the story of an inspiring grade 7 teacher. A water bottle provides the revelation that a student is struggling with balancing sport and school. It is a really beautiful way to begin a course. It is also a beautiful way to talk to students.

“Tell me more about…” allows students to take control of the direction of our conversation:

“Tell me more about why you chose this introduction strategy.”

“Tell me more about why you chose this passage to support your ideas.”

“Tell me more about the challenges you’re facing with this writing assignment.”

This phrase forces me to listen before I dispense feedback and help. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that feedback is an art. You have to know when to give it, how much to give, and how to say in a way that will be heard. This simple phrase lets the student explain their thinking which in turn guides my next step.

The Value in a Bad Idea

If your students are struggling to generate ideas, this activity can be a lifesaver. In it, students answer the question – What is the worst idea for a birthday party? Students may be reluctant to tell you the “best” idea, but they respond when you ask them for the “worst.” After you generate a massive list as a class, small groups of students pick one idea and flip it. They must now sell it to the class as the best idea they’ve ever heard. They have to fall in love with the idea.

Not only does this activity build confidence for idea generation, but it is also an exercise in perspective. How might someone who is different then me see this idea? During Wednesday’s class, we were coming up with the worst ideas for schools. A student selected “no sports teams” as the idea that she would flip into a good idea. She took the perspective of a “fierce” mother with a child who was unable to participate in sports. What an exercise in flexible thinking.

My Rotman training was two years ago, but these activities keep coming back and helping me discover more about my students’ thinking.

Rethinking our Core Texts (Yes, I mean Shakespeare)

I don’t think we should be using Shakespeare as a core text for all four years of high school.

A colleague suggested I call this post-Shakespeare is Dead, and He Should Stay that Way, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it (even though it is more creative than my post title!). I already have teachers who send me articles and TED talks about why Shakespeare is important, so I wasn’t brave enough to use his clever title. Plus I don’t believe Shakespeare needs to be removed entirely. One whole class play during high school may be appropriate, and sonnets and famous soliloquies could always be texts for study. I want to rethink the 4-6 week unit on a Shakespearean play that happens every year.

It is important to note that I do not hate Shakespeare. I studied the Bard a lot during my undergraduate and graduate studies (by choice!). So I get it. Shakespeare’s work is fascinating, heartbreaking, hilarious, and entertaining. My reading life is made richer by his art. But that doesn’t mean he should be the only playwright we study during high school. Using the same author for four years sends an unintentional message about the value of storytellers to our students. In addition,  in many cases, the challenging nature of the reading masks the lack of critical thinking that often accompanies a Shakespeare unit.

Reading Teacher Rather than Literature Teacher

I am willing to admit that I became a teacher for the wrong reasons. I wanted a job where I could talk about books all day because I loved reading so much. I thought I was going to be introducing my students to the wonder of literature, and the first few years were a bit rough as  I learned that my students didn’t come to their reading with the same passion as I did. Fortunately, those same students gave me a different reason to teach- them. Instead of “bestowing” my knowledge of great literature on them, I have the privilege of discovering texts with my students. As a result, I consider myself a reformed book snob. I have also become a teacher of reading and writing, rather than a teacher of literature.

If we estimate conservatively, the average student probably spends 16-20 weeks studying Shakespeare throughout high school. That is more time than many of our students spend reading on their own. However, the creation of an independent reader is much more important than any individual Shakespearean play. I can spend these weeks taking my students through a play because… it’s Shakespeare, or I can spend those four weeks nurturing the reading and writing lives of my students by helping them find the books they love and the authors to whom they can build their own allegiances.

Units of study should be designed around reading and writing skills, not around a text itself.  The skills must come first. Reading Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is not enough. So if skills are at the center of my teaching why would I use the same author to teach these skills every year?

The Danger of a Single Story- or Single Author

Years ago someone showed me Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk The Danger of a Single Story.

Her talk forced me to re-evaluate the texts I select for my students. Many teachers I talk to agree that our students should see themselves reflected in the literature they read, BUT we still keep teaching Shakespeare every year. That is my problem: the BUT.  Yes, students should read diverse types of literature, BUT not as a class; as a class, we read Shakespeare. Intentional or not our text selection tells students what types of stories are “worthy” of being read and conversely which stories are not worth intense classroom study.

Obviously, we won’t be able to cover the myriad of stories and voices that exist in literature, but I think we can at least attempt to introduce students to these voices. If you’re anything like me, you probably select one core class novel and one play. For most of my career, that play has been by Shakespeare. Which means half of the core texts I have selected for my students were by one author. One storyteller. One voice. I can no longer do this.

On Rigour and Shakespeare

When I ask teachers why they are using Shakespeare, they tell me that it is to prepare them because students will have to read it in grade 12 .  Teaching Shakespeare to prepare a student for Shakespeare mistakes teaching the play for teaching a skill. This does not prepare a student for studying Shakespeare. Reading stamina does.Resiliency does. Critical thinking does.

What happens when we give our students Shakespeare without building their stamina, resiliency and critical thinking? At best they rely on us to interpret the text; at worst- they cheat.

Of course, cheating is wrong, but I’ve started to reflect on what I can do to change my students’  dependency on “expert” interpretations of Shakespeare. Why don’t I have a plagiarism problem when I ask students to write about Richard Wagemese’s Indian Horse, Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner or, more recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give? Maybe it’s because students feel like there is still thinking to do with these texts. I’ve only had the opportunity to read these texts a couple of times, so I  cannot come up with ten essay topics to distribute to my studentsbut I can certainly guide students as they make observations and find patterns as they formulate their own claims about a text.

Yes, teaching students to analyze a text through tracing patterns and designing their own claims takes time. Building readers who will sustain their reading outside of the four walls of my classroom, and beyond their high school experience takes a lot of time.

But I think I may have just freed up a couple of weeks.

Court Tested Plays as Alternatives to Shakespeare (the list is still evolving)

Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway

Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

A Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

Highly Recommended Professional Reading

Beyond Literary Analysis: Teaching Students to Write with Passion and Authority about Any Text     by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Let them Read: Nurturing the Reading Lives of Our Students

I would say that there was a 5-6 year period during my teaching career where my students only read (or fake read) one novel a semester. We read a lot of other things: poems, articles, short stories, etc. However, I didn’t emphasize independent reading as much as I should have. I let other things distract me, but the truth remains. The only way to get better at reading is to read.

I see now that the lack of independent reading in my classes was really as a result of my low expectations. I believed my students were too tired, too busy, too stressed, too involved with their technology, too disengaged to read on their own. I try to be honest on this blog because I think exposing my misconceptions will help others reflect on their own, so I’ll share the worst of my faulty thinking. I believed that many of my students were too weak to read independently, and I didn’t think that I could get them interested in a book. For someone who loves books with a passion, I didn’t have enough faith in their power to engage.

Teachers do have the power to turn students into readers. I’ve seen it happen before my eyes- with students I doubted, with students who struggle to read, with students who told me that they “hate reading.” We can do it, but it is a lot of hard work and persistence.

Below you will find the strategies and techniques to encourage and develop the reading life of your students. I have curated this list from books, articles, and the teachers who invite me into their classrooms. I know this list is not exhaustive, so feel free to add your strategies in the comments. The number one resource I recommend for learning more about how to encourage/expect/demand that students read is Penny Kittle’s Book Love. This book brought about a dramatic shift in my practice and teaching philosophy. You will notice that I reference Kittle a lot throughout the recommendations below.

Don’t Make Students Write Every Time they Read.

I know this isn’t really a strategy, but it is the number one piece of advice I’ve come across when talking to teachers of successful independent reading programs. Think about your own reading life. How much would you read if you had to record every connection you made while reading, or if you had to stop after every 20 minutes of reading and write a summary? I guarantee that I would abandon my reading and watch Netflix instead. This is not to say that students shouldn’t write about their independent reading, but writing should not be the sole purpose of reading.

Book Talks

Many readers select their reading based on the recommendations of others. Personally, I’m an avid Goodreads user, and I take contests like Canada Reads very seriously (and sometimes a little too personally). Emerging readers have not developed these strategies to find books. They’ve often had the experience where their teacher takes them to the library and tells them to pick a book. They wander until their time is up at which point they snatch the book closest to them and then pretend to read for the next two weeks until they return to the library to start the cycle all over again.In a book talk the presenter (teacher/student/community member) gives a 2 min talk in which they explain the basic premise of the book and do one of the following:

  • Read a Passage.
  • Set the context for the book.
  • Talk about the main character.
  • End your talk by sharing your impression of the book as a whole.

Rules of Book Talk:

  • No Spoilers.
  • Only talk about books you’ve read.
  • Only talk about books you love.
  • Do it every day! Or at least routinely

Reading Lists
Students need to set goals for their reading, and reflect on the variety of books in their reading lives. Reading trackers are not reading journals. They are simply a place for students to set goals and later share those goals with their teacher during a reading conference. Try these reading trackers created by Stephanie Rotkas: Student Reading, Classroom Reading.

Students should also keep two different lists in their notebooks. They should keep a list of books they’ve read so that they can reflect on them at different points in the semester. They should also keep a “read next” list, so they never have to wander the library for 30-minutes library again! (Unless of course, they are wandering to add to their “read next” list!)

Reading Conferences

I try to have reading conferences with 3-4 students a week. Check out Penny Kittle ’s list of questions that you could ask readers at different stages. The list also includes a transcript of a reading conference with a student. 

Student Recommendations Shelf
Keep a shelf in your room reserved for student recommendations. Students will listen to their peers. Penny Kittle has students actually write recommendations for the book inside the front pages of the book itself!

During Independent Reading, Students Read What They Like
I had a student ask me if they could read a Manga novel the other day and I hesitated. Does Manga “count”?  It does.  It is where the student is at right now. Once he has enjoyed a couple of those, I may introduce him to some graphic novels that will expose him to the different genres within the graphic novel form. Think of a reading life as a roller coaster full of dips and heights. Students may try something complex and then return to something with less complexity. Our reading lives are not a permanent hike up a mountain where we increasingly read more complicated books until we conquer a “worthy” piece of literature.

Book Series

When trying to connect a reader to a book, consider recommending a series of books. Students become fans of a series are more likely to sustain their reading.Check out Goodreads list of YA Series here.

Teacher Reading

Encourage your colleagues to share what they are reading outside their classroom doors.Consider displaying three books at all times in your classroom: the book you just read, the book you are currently reading, and the book you will read next. Start a faculty book club and announce those meetings for the whole school to hear. Students need to see all the adults in their lives reading.

Reading Reflections

At a couple of points during the semester, stop and have your students reflect on their reading.First, have them rank the books they have read in order of complexity. Have them explain their thinking behind the ranking of their reading.Second, have them reflect on their growth as readers through an analysis of their reading. Take a look at Kittle’s analysis of her reading as an example.

Spine Poetry

Make poetry with books! This gives the library wander a purpose, and you never know what they will discover. You can find the process for spine poetry here.

Happy Reading!