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!

Giving Feedback that Students Can Use

My last few posts have been about conferencing with students, so I thought I would follow them with how learning to categorize my feedback helped me increase the effectiveness of my feedback and my conferences.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to attend  Ministry-HWDSB collaborative sessions called Closing the Gap. These sessions were led by Jenni Donohoo and Brian Weishar (I recommend following them both on twitter). The sessions focused on supporting students as they write to develop a main idea with supporting details. The workshops were essential for my learning around teacher collaboration (more about this in a future post), and for rethinking how I give students feedback.

During one session, Brian shared a transcript of a conversation that he had with one of his students. You can see the sample student work and the transcript here. What I noticed from looking at the transcript was that Brian asked questions and limited the amount of advice he gave. The student did most of the taking and the thinking.

This was not true of my conferences. Usually, I would talk, and the student would just nod. I advised at a lightning pace and then moved on to the next student. I was in too much of a rush to let the student think about their own work.

I’ve started to change the way I talk to students during conferences. A couple of weeks ago, I was conferencing with students about their news articles. Each student had a checklist of success criteria in front of them, and they were assessing their work. Under the success criteria, it listed writing in short paragraphs as one of the characteristics of the news article form. As I circulated the class, I could see that a student had checked off the box that he had short paragraphs, but when I looked at his work, it was all in one paragraph. In the past I’ve just said, “You need to divide this into paragraphs,” but this time I said “I can see you checked off the box for writing in short paragraphs. Can you show me where your different paragraphs start?” At which point, the student pointed to all of their different sentences.

At that moment, I realized how unhelpful my advice had been for previous students. This student had a knowledge gap, and he wasn’t the only one. I’ve asked multiple students that question in the last few weeks, and I’ve found that this misconception that a sentence is a paragraph is quite widespread. But the good news is- I can teach this! I can fill in this knowledge gap for this student, and he will be able to apply this new knowledge to his writing in other areas.

I wish I could go back to all of my previous students, and start asking them about their work, rather than telling them what to do. My suggestion to divide work into paragraphs contained an assumption about the student’s knowledge. Some would argue that I should be able to assume that a grade ten student knows what a paragraph is, but my assumption was at odds with the evidence that I had in front of me. Just because I believe a student should know something, doesn’t mean that they do.

Jenni and Brian also taught me about Hattie and Temperley’s categories for feedback.  I’ve listed some resources for this at the end of my post, but essentially the idea is to divide your feedback into three categories: task, process, and self-regulation.  Thinking about feedback in this way has allowed me to focus my feedback for students so that they do the thinking that matters for where they are in their learning.

When to use Task, Process, and Self-Regulation Feedback


The example that I used above of the student who thought sentences were paragraphs is an example of a student who needs task feedback. Now that I’ve realized that he doesn’t know what a paragraph is, my instruction with him needs to help him build an understanding of what a paragraph is and why he would use one. When I’m teaching reading strategies, I would also be sure to talk to this student about the purpose of paragraphs in the texts we read. I can teach the task of paragraphing in two ways: through writing and through reading like a writer.


Process feedback should be given to students who have a degree of proficiency. For example, today I worked with a student who was writing to his parents to convince them to let him stay out past 10 o’clock. After using a success criteria checklist, he noticed that all of his paragraphs sounded the same at the beginning. I asked him how he could revise his work to vary his wording, and we had a conversation about the types of transition words that he might use to replace the phrase he kept repeating. When it is time for process feedback, I would also suggest that students use the RADaR strategy that Kelly Gallagher highlights in his book, Write Like This: Replace, Add, Delete and Reorder. The RADaR system gives students a method for their editing, and it also gives them language to use as they talk about their revision process.


Self-Regulation feedback is for the student that has shown proficiency. This week I’ve been working students who are polishing an essay, while also preparing for an on-demand essay that will happen later in the week. There was a student who wrote, revised, and polished her essay quickly. Instead of saying  “Great job. Keep up the good work” like I used to, I asked her how she was going to approach writing the on-demand essay. This lead to a conversation about the difference between on-demand and polished writing and which strategies she could use for both types of writing.

I’ve found the category of self-regulation feedback helps me to encourage growth in the writers who, quite honestly, would not receive a lot of individual teaching because they have met the expectations of the task. However, if I can teach them to think about how their writing skills can be transferred to other forms, their learning can continue rather than stop because of their success on this one task.

Thinking in these categories forced me to consider what each student needed at that moment in their writing process. Framing the feedback as a question also allowed me to uncover misconceptions and knowledge gaps that I could then address on the spot or in a future lesson. I have a purpose and focus when I sit down to write feedback or conference now, which makes the process much more meaningful for students and me.

Other Resources

The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley

Promoting Metacognitive Awareness by Jenni Donohoo

Teaching Students to Use Feedback

When I first started teaching, it would take me forty minutes to mark a 4-page essay. Ten minutes a page. Twelve years later I’ve cut that time in half to twenty minutes. Marking takes a lot of time, and I’ve often felt like it wasn’t a valuable use of my time. Students received their work, looked at their marks and either shoved the papers into their binders (ignoring my comments) or headed over to my desk to ask about their grade (again ignoring my comments).  My students were not gaining anything valuable from the process, and I was draining myself of the time and energy that I needed to put into my daily teaching.

I think there is a better way. Assessing work and giving feedback will always be a time-consuming task, so I’m not saying that I’ve found the solution to the stack of papers sitting on your desk.  However, I’ve found what I learned helped me to increase the impact of the precious time  I spend looking at student work by prioritizing writing workshop conferences. I will add a post about the timing of these conferences and how they can fit into the flow of your semester, but for now, I want to offer what I’ve learned about making conferences work in my classroom.

Tip #1: Conference in small groups when possible

Even after a cursory glance at student work, I can usually spot similar issues that students are having. I’ve had small groups of students who struggle with supporting details and other groups that just seem to love run-on sentences. Instead of spending my evening editing and commenting on their papers, I spend my time sorting their work into piles so that I can hold small conferences the next day. Each group receives a mini-lesson as the rest of the class works on their writing. This type of conferencing is precise and targeted. It is feedback that they can immediately put into practice.

Tip#2: Use conferences even if you haven’t had time to read the student’s work before you talk to them.

You may not have time to look at student work outside of class everytime you want to give feedback. This does not have to be an obstacle to using conferences.

Penny Kittle, author of Write Beside Them, suggests having students read their work out loud during a conference so you can hear how they intended the reader to engage with the piece. This allows the teacher to talk to the student about the discrepancy between how the student wants it to sound, and how it actually sounds based on the writing conventions the student has used. Sometimes if I read the student’s work first and make a list of revisions, it leads me to tell the student what to do, rather than show them what they have done and help them decide where to go next. When students are working on longer pieces of writing, I ask them to identify an area of struggle so that we can focus on that and then they can apply our discussion to the rest of their work.

Brian Weishar, a ministry consultant and classroom teacher, taught me that the purpose of a conference is really for the teacher to ask students questions about their work. I needed to stop doing their thinking for them. Yesterday, I was working with a student who was struggling to organize her ideas. I could see that many of her ideas fell into similar categories. My pre-Brian-self wanted to tell her which ideas to group together. Instead, I asked her which ideas she thought could be consolidated. I then ground my teeth for five minutes resisting the urge to give her the answer while she looked at her work, but then she did it. Two important things happened. She learned something about grouping ideas, and I was able to observe her ability to sort and organize ideas (Overall Writing Expectation #1!).

Tip #3 Students will value feedback when they see that you expect them to respond to the feedback, and after they see the results of responding.

When students ignore teacher comments on their work, some teachers assume that it means that students do not value their feedback. Quite often students receive this feedback at the same time they receive a grade. The grade becomes a distraction to further learning. Whenever I want students to respond to feedback, I only give suggestions. There are no grades, no levels, no checkmarks- just questions for consideration and recommendations for next steps.

When I finally evaluate a finished product, I use a one-point rubric with suggestions for improvement built into the rubric. At this point, students should be well aware of the issues in their writing so they will understand the feedback checked off on the rubric.  I’ve included a downloadable copy of a one-point rubric that I use for my students’ article of the week blog posts. Constructing the rubric can take some time, but it saves time when you are in the evaluation phase of a writing project.

I also require students to track the feedback they’ve received, and they continuously write down their goals and next steps for their writing. My teaching partner Pam and I  even turned this idea into an exam for our students in our ENG 3U courses. You can take a look at the exam, and I may address it further in a future post. A word of caution here: Students need to be taught how to reflect deeply. If this exam is given without a lot of reflection throughout the year, you will receive answers with limited depth.

Tip#4 You will think that you don’t have time to conference, but you do. 

We don’t have time not to conference.

If students are writing, the teacher can be conferencing. Conferences do not have to be lengthy. Either use the method of grouping students with like issues together or give each student five minutes during a writing workshop. You will not get to every student every day, but over time you will be able to have conversations that move students forward.  Last year I was conferencing with a student, and she said, “Miss I feel like I’m learning something.” I laughed and said, “I actually feel like I’m teaching you something.” Not only did my students’ work improve, but I got to know my students and their skills more deeply than ever before.

Tip #5 Establish a classroom routine for conference periods

I’m going to write an additional short post about this, but the routine is important. Before starting conferences, start with a 10-15 minute mini-lesson using a mentor text, your own writing, or a student’s writing. I’ve been surprised by how many students are willing to have the class look at their writing. Starting with reading and talking as writers will encourage students to be productive in the limited time you have.

If you use conferencing in your classroom, feel free to leave additional tips below.

Happy Friday!