November 14, 2019
Pages of a Book

Week #8: Running reading workshop

One thing I tried: We began unit 3 this week and students are reading a book they’ve chosen based on our unit’s theme from a list that we co-created. We take some time in class to read independently (10 minutes on 47-min bell days, 15-20 minutes on 70-min bell days), and this reading workshop model (student choice, many different books being read at the same time) has really rejuvenated how I think about junior American literature.

I used to labor over which books to read and why and felt that if I could only choose the right book that the unit would be good. And while I don’t doubt the power of a good book to transform its readers, I also don’t doubt the epidemic of fake reading that is engendered by continuously force-feeding the classics. When given some choice (and even some direction), students have room for ownership and they exhale a little. It becomes less about compliance and more about evaluating the book.

I think that teaching one book to all students is definitely efficient. It’s messy to let everyone go in their own direction. I was lucky enough to teach Best Sellers for about ten years and my experience there has helped me transition to a reading workshop approach in the last couple of years. Last year I only used one required novel for the year (The Great Gatsby) and the other units all had choice. This year I’m hoping to enable choice in each unit. What’s different this year is that students have chosen the topics and we’ve co-created the lists. Here are a few things that help me manage the chaos:

  • Student-defined goals/reading plans and schedules: Whether we do this in book clubs or independently, students set their own reading schedule. I give them an end date and 2-3 check-in dates that they build around. Now my conversations begin, “Where are you supposed to be for today?” instead of laboring through quizzes over ch.6 that half of the students read.
  • Weekly check-ins (with a range of formality): My check-ins try to capture students’ reactions to what they’re reading, any questions they’re encountering, and some application of the learning we’re doing. For example, we’ve been studying rhetoric and just got to rhetorical devices in week 8. So for check-in #1 of unit 3 students will identify a device their author used and articulate what it added to the passage it came from. They also made observations about which essential questions their books are dealing with so far.
  • Weekly learning skills: By reading different texts it frees the classroom to become more skill-based. Instead of worrying about covering everything (plot points, historical context, vocabulary) from Act II of The Crucible, my focus was able to be on the rhetorical appeals during week 5. This helps unify our discussions and makes the class about how to apply the skills to the text they’ve chosen.
  • Some anchor texts: I choose several short pieces that we all read. For unit 3 we started with a poem. I also typically find a related practice ACT passage and a Story of the Week that is more news-driven. These texts allow for some common conversation around our unit’s theme and essential questions. The shorter texts also balance our reading diet; we typically do more analysis and close reading with those pieces.
  • I read with them: Sometimes I conference with them or tell them I’ll be reading their essays, but whenever it’s humanly possible I read a book from the list during reading workshop time with them. It helps me connect with those reading the same book, it helps me inject relevant examples into our discussions, and it helps settle things down–when I sit down and read quietly they tend to follow. As Shawna pointed out so wonderfully in her most recent blog, the real heart of co-creation occurs when we’re learning alongside students and this is one small way to participate in the unit’s learning.

What I liked/didn’t like: So far students seem engaged in their books and they definitely care about the topic. I’ll get their first reading check-ins Monday so I’ll learn how on (or off) pace we are.

What’s next: Next week is crazy because of PSAT testing, a school-wide lip dub, and a teacher work day. But we’ll continue reading and begin a series of micro-writing challenges. Next unit I’m also hoping we can take the next steps toward co-creating some tasks.

Photo Credit: Patrick Tomasso
https://unsplash.com/@impatrickt

Nathan Coates

Nathan Coates is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Wm. Mason High School. This article is cross-posted with Mr. Coates' personal reflection blog. You can view his blog here. Twitter: @MHSCoates

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