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.

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!