Mentor Text Monday! Or Wednesday! Or Friday!

We have a rotating schedule, and because of this, we only have 45 minute-long Monday classes.  This means that after we do our choice reading and quick writing, we only have 25 minutes left of class.  

That might sound stressful and hopeless for the workshop-minded teacher, but these short Mondays have been perfect for lessons around mentor texts, so this semester, I started Mentor Text Monday.  

I detest the word “mini-lesson” (like, isn’t a lesson just a lesson?) but maybe that’s just what this is.

When we worked with writing reviews,  I pulled a few reviews from Rolling Stone  and The A.V. Club and we went through them together as a class, with my copy on a document camera as I wrote all over the text, commenting on author choices and asking questions of the text (and my students).

When we wrote narratives, I used Chrissy Metz’s recent Glamour piece as a mentor text in a similar way.

But then later, after we’d had some practice together, students independently read a piece of testimony from OJ Simpson’s grand jury trial and revised it into a practice piece of writing before starting their own informative, eyewitness piece.


(Side note:  They knew nothing about OJ Simpson!  Here I was, thinking I was picking cool, hip, interesting texts and I had to explain the entire trial before we even started reading…)

Our writing/workshop/revision process usually takes a few weeks per task, so on those Mentor Text Mondays that fall mid-workshop, I’ve played examples of our task from last semester’s podcast.  That’s been pretty fun; it’s given them guidance and gotten them excited (well, most of them) for this semester’s podcast.

Some weeks, we’ll have a long weekend, or a strange schedule, and our Mentor Text Mondays become Mentor Text Wednesdays or Mentor Text Fridays.  On those days, we work with these texts during our 90 minute block and then move into our new writing task, but I do think it works best (for my students, anyway!) in a shorter period. This short period, without an immediate follow-up task, gives them time to process and reflect before applying our analysis to their own piece.

18194927_10100743059245557_6095883277522096389_nWe’ve also read 69 choice books in my writing class this semester…29 last month!
(Those are mentor texts, too.)

We made a cool podcast and it was hard.



A few of my senior boys, reading Last Stop on Market Street.

I was welcomed into my new writing course by the best damn group of students.
The bad thing about that?  Last week I had to say goodbye to them for the semester.

Our class was Introductory Writing, and was composed of students in grades 9-12.  At first, the idea of teaching writing to students who had either (1) just started high school, (2) were in their last year of high school, or (3) somewhere in the middle was completely and totally overwhelming.

But we jumped in.  The best thing about choices?  Everyone works with their own strengths and weaknesses and improves, regardless of their ability. These students were excited and motivated (most days, anyway) and willing to take risks in their writing.

For their final project, I knew that I wanted my students to create and market their writing in professional blogs and through a professional Twitter.

I also had the tremendously overwhelming idea that we’d create a podcast together, featuring our best works of the semester.  

I had absolutely no clue how to do this, but I listen to a lot of podcasts, so I figured that as long as we had recordings and background music, we’d pull it off, somehow.

It was hard.  I’d reserved the last two weeks of the semester for our devotion to recording, and I was glad I did.  On our first day, we ran out of working mics. Then, we discovered that most of the places on the Internet we’d wanted to use were blocked by our school filters. Then, my students suddenly became too nervous to talk in front of one another, which halted our recording progress.

In short, most things that could have gone wrong, did.


We pulled it off, somehow.
We used SoundCloud, voice memos, and all sorts of other strange means to record.  I used Reaper to produce the show, and my genius-musician husband provided the music.

My students named our production The Blank Page, which will become part of their legacy as students at our school, as we’ll keep adding episodes each semester.

Check out our first episode here and please SUBSCRIBE and rate us!  

TL;DR:  We made a cool podcast and it was hard.


Whole-Class Novel vs Genre Study: Data and Analysis

Well, I’ll start out by saying that although my data shows student progress, it’s not my fave data ever gathered.

On the first day of school, I gave all of my students a survey, asking them how much of their assigned reading they’d “faked” before this year.

In an anonymous survey, 93 students reported they had faked the following percentage of their assigned reading prior to this school year:

From here, I knew that we had some work to do.  We got started with choice reading through book passes, book talks, and conferencing.

In American Studies, our team has always taught The Great Gatsby as a whole-class novel in our first unit.  Although my teaching partners and I were a little worried about this, due to the difficulty of the text, we went forward.   If anything, I figured it would give me some data on how much students read in a whole-class novel.

We gave our students loads of background information, time to read in class, gave all students access to the audiobook, and had small and large class discussions.  In short, we gave our students everything we thought we could to help them complete the novel.

After the unit, 75 students reported out the following in an anonymous survey:


Disappointing.  Despite our intervention, supports, and accommodations, less than 25% of our students read all of The Great Gatsby. When asked why, responses ranged from, “It was boring,” “It was too hard,” or “It wasn’t interesting to me.”

For our next unit on the 1930s, we pulled four books for a genre study: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Bud, Not Buddy, and To Kill A Mockingbird.

I book talked all of the titles, then gave students a few minutes to look through the texts before making their choice of novel.  They received reading schedules and discussion point handouts, and over the next three weeks, we ran a reading workshop.  They were all given access to the audiobook and the choice to switch books if they became overwhelmed.

Students had time to read in class every day, and once a week, for a 90 minute period, I met with small groups.  Students had to have their reading and discussion points to join the conversation.  If their work was not complete, or their group wasn’t meeting, they continued independent work in the classroom.

At the end of the unit, 81 students reported out the following in an anonymous survey:


So, yeah.  This was disappointing.

Although this data shows a tremendous amount of progress, it also shows that only 55% of students read the entirety of their chosen novel.  This is sad, tragic, and drastically different than the data I gathered last year.

Why the disparity?
As I sit and think and cry and analyze this data, I can identify a few differences between this year and last year.

The biggest difference is that this year, we have less time to devote to reading workshop.  Although students had time to read in class every day throughout this unit, they had less in-class time to read than my previous class.

These are not excuses; they’re problems that need to be solved, and I’m ready and willing to solve them. 

Finally, I gathered data on how many choice books my students have read this year.  This data was not disappointing.

In an anonymous survey, 81 students estimated how many choice books they’ve read so far this year:choice-books-read-during-first-semester

We’re still reading.  
We’re still making progress.  It’s slow, but we’re getting there.
That’s worth celebrating. 



The importance of reading conferences (and November celebrations!)

Each link of the blue chain represents a choice novel finished in November.
We read 120 books in American Studies and 14 books in Intro Writing last month!
That’s 362 so far this year! 

It’s not magic.  It’s hard work.

Our choice reading time is non-negotiable.  
We read for ten minutes at the start of class every day, no.matter.what.  

“Not having a book” is unacceptable.  
Reading something you hate is also unacceptable.  Reading a magazine or “something on my phone” is also unacceptable.  (Kindles, WattPad, or other eBooks are cool, though.)  I’m relentless with book recommendations.  I’ll pull piles and piles and piles of books, until my student(s) find the book that doesn’t make them miserable.

…and I try to conference with a handful of students almost every day.
My goal with conferencing is to make sure that (1) my student actually comprehends what they’re reading and (2) that my student actually likes what they’re reading.

If I find out that their book “isn’t making pictures” or that they’re just tolerating the book, that’s my cue to pile up a new stack of recommendations on their desk.


A small recommendation pile for one of my boys.

This year, in our American Studies classes of 40+ students, reading conferences have become much more valuable.  In a class that large, even with two teachers, it been tough trying to get to know our students on an individual level.  Because of this, I’ve made conferencing a priority.


Every day, I try to visit at least four students and ask them three simple questions:

What are you reading?  

What’s it about?
What’s going on right now?

They are not graded on their answers.
Usually, the answers to those questions come easily, and we talk for a minute or so. I take a few notes on a chart I keep in a binder, and I move along to the next student. Sometimes, we have more personal conversations, and I get to know my students so much better.  I love it.

story-of-a-girlOther times, like last week, I talk with a student who is on page 107 of her book.  She cannot tell me a single thing about it.  She can’t tell me what it’s about, or whether the main character is a male of female.  She can’t tell me anything that has happened.  At all.

And my heart breaks.  
I felt so guilty.  How could I have let  her slip through the cracks?  How did she get so far without me noticing?  WHY AM I SUCH A HORRIBLE PERSON?

But really, she’s a great student who has had a tough year, and her lack of comprehension probably has nothing to do with her actual skills in reading.  I can’t blame myself for not noticing her struggle sooner.  Because at least I noticed.

She might just need a “break-book,” which is what we call books that don’t take a lot of sustained effort to enjoy.  So I pulled some short novels, some graphic novels, and a few verse novels for her to check out.

She ended up selecting a verse novel as her new choice book.
Verse novels are great when your mind is swimming; you can reread poems and find your place again easily when your mind drifts.  She’s had to restart the novel a few times, but I’m really proud of her for sticking with it, despite her struggles.

TL;DR:  Choice reading takes work.  Conferencing is good.  


The mobile teacher and her classroom library.


At my new school, we don’t have our own classrooms.
We know that providing students with a classroom library is essential to building their literacy skills.  Having easy access to high-interest books is the number one thing that has helped me promote choice reading.  So when I first found out that I wouldn’t have my “own” classroom, I worried about how I’d be able to provide classroom library access to all of my students.

Luckily, I spend half of my teaching day in the same classroom, the giant American Studies room, which also homes my giant classroom library.

These books are all organized by genre or category, helping students navigate on their own if I’m not immediately available to help.


Our classroom library, before/after a book pass.


Classroom library on wheels.
My writing class meets in a different room, which is only a few doors down from the American Studies room, but it’s far enough away that the classroom library doesn’t feel like our classroom library.  Since many of my students don’t take American Studies, they’re a little nervous about walking into the room and interrupting a class to browse our books.

My school is very supportive of choice reading and helped me problem solve, purchasing a mobile bookshelf that I use to cart my book-talked books, new books, and most popular books with me into the writing lab.  Books are organized by category and genre on the cart too, and this moves back in the American Studies classroom with me in the afternoon.

But even though I have our most popular and talked about books on the mobile cart, I still find myself leaving the room to pull more recommendations from the larger, classroom library.  (Thankfully I have a paraprofessional in that class who can hold down the silent reading fort for the few minutes it takes!)

Being a “teacher on a cart” has made the implementation of a successful choice reading program a bit more challenging, but I’m navigating!  By  next year, I’ll be a champ.


My bookmobile.



Choosing a new book from a pile of instant recommendations

Why can’t students just use the school library?
The school library and the classroom library work together.  One is not better than the other…it’s just more access to books!

My students still use the school library to check out books!  Our librarian is awesome and really helpful.  But…most of the kids who go down to the learning commons to check out books already have an idea of what they want.

My classroom (or mobile) library is a place where I easily pull out ten books that I know a student will like.  I can support them through their struggle to find the right book.  Even though I’m still getting to know my students, I’m getting to know exactly what they want to read, and being able to instantly pile ten books on their desk that I think they’ll love couldn’t happen without my classroom library.

Hopefully, in a few months, those struggling readers will build confidence and author-interest to navigate our learning commons on their own.

Last summer, many teachers told me that it would be impossible to incorporate choice reading because they didn’t have a place to hold a classroom library.  It’s not impossible.  It’s difficult and takes creative thinking to provide immediate access to books, but it’s possible.  

Differentiation within the whole-class novel.


Gatsby, UDL style.

We’re in the middle of our whole-class novel study of The Great Gatsby in my team-taught American Studies class.  It’s been rough.  Many of my students are struggling, and many aren’t reading at home.

Over the last few years, I’ve brought UDL into our novel studies, whether it’s a genre study or whole-class text.  All students can access the audiobook if they choose, and we try to give them time to read at the end of every class.  Because of this, I was hoping that we wouldn’t struggle too much, but it’s not working out that way.

I want all of my students to experience success with difficult texts, but they have to actually read them to experience that success.

We’ve been talking about women’s rights and suffrage this week alongside Gatsby, and traditionally at my new school, students have read “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Story of an Hour” alongside this unit.

Both are excellent stories, but I wanted to bring a chauvinist male perspective into the mix.  I also wanted a short story that was easy to read, but difficult to decode.  So we scrapped “The Story of an Hour” and went with Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

(I love Hemingway, really, but he was a jerk.)



My students chose which story they wanted to work with, not me.  They were also able to switch if they weren’t comfortable with their choice, whether it was due to difficulty or disinterest.

We spent the last twenty minutes of class actively reading the texts, marking them up with thoughts, observations, and questions.  This gave them time to read, but it also gave them the freedom to switch if they were uncomfortable.

Many, if not most, students switched from their first choice, regardless of which story they chose.

A great thing about team-teaching is the ability to divide students out so we can focus with a smaller group.  (We have 42 students in each block!) Despite allowing for student choice and ability to switch/abandon, we ended up with an almost-even split in both classes.

On Thursday, I worked with students who had chosen “Hills Like White Elephants” while my co-teacher worked with the others, and on Friday, we flip-flopped.

Previously, I might have met with a group in the back of the room while the rest worked with their assigned novel, or read their choice book.  That way still would work, but it was nice to really, truly focus on one group and not worry about the other.

We moved from a discussion about the stories into our Gatsby discussion, talking about connections between the texts in regards to characters and writing style.  Afterwards, students had about twenty minutes to read their assigned novel.

I’m looking forward to our first genre study next month, but I’m not giving up on this book yet!  




September celebrations!



We read 59 books in American Studies last month,
and we only started choice reading two weeks ago!


The 18 of us in my writing class read 14 books last month! 

Last week was a tough week for me.
We’re starting our first novel study in American Studies.  It’s hard, and many students who haven’t read a book since elementary school have already given up.

But this is worth celebrating.
And I won’t give up on them.