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.

Getting started with choice reading.

book-passImplementing a successful choice reading program takes so much freaking work.
This year, since I’m teaching in a new school, it’s been even more work to get us started.

I’ve known quite a few teachers who give up on choice reading when they see that their students aren’t reading at home, or that they’re just abandoning books, over and over again.

We need to help our unmotivated readers find the books that they want to read.
They don’t know how.  That’s why they don’t read.   If every book you’d ever tried was too hard, or too boring, would you read for fun?  Me neither.

We need to read, too.
If you’re an English teacher who hasn’t read a book for pleasure since 1994, how the heck can you inform recommendations for students in 2016?  The first year that I implemented choice reading in my class, I read 85 books during the school year.  I read for ten minutes every night, and instead of killing time with my phone, I brought my choice book instead.  Because I read so much that year, and continue to read so much each year, I know exactly which books fit which students.

And guess what?  YA Lit is REALLY GOOD these days.


Our first book pass in American Studies.

Getting started.
I don’t know this community or students as well as I did in my last school, which makes matching students and books a lot harder.  I started us off with book talks and a book pass in my writing elective right away, but it took us a bit longer to get started in my co-taught American Studies class.

Despite waiting a few weeks to kick-off choice reading in that class, students had already started noticing and perusing my bookshelf, anxiously asking when we’d start reading their “private books.”

(Side note: Isn’t “private books” the cutest term for “choice books” you’ve ever heard?  They came up with it, and I’m going with it.) 


Our reading log.

We read for the first ten minutes of class.  I check in with them and monitor for understanding.  (Sometimes I model, but I usually don’t have time to!)


They do have a reading log, where they track their pages, but I don’t grade it.  It’s data for me to inform recommendations and conferences.

Some students have tested the waters and tried just not reading, but when they realize that I’m just going to keep suggesting book after book after book, and they see that I won’t give up…they keep trying new books.

Some students have already finished a book (or two!), and others have already abandoned a book or two.  But the best part?  They look forward to our reading time.  

After they finish a book, they don’t do a project.  They don’t write about their choice books.  We just celebrate their reading achievements with a high five and a link on a paper chain.

We read to get better at writing.  We read to get better at reading.  We read to build competency in reading the things we might not like, or that we might not understand the first time around.  We read to reread, to connect, and to learn new things.

We read to remember what it was like to love to read.


After just a week, we’d already read 13 books! 





Changes (and the first days of school!)

library moving

Moving my classroom library.

Change is good.  And scary.
I’m starting my school year completely out of my comfort zone, in a new school, with completely new (to me) students and staff.  I’m really, really going to miss my students at Sanborn, but I have faith that they’re in good hands.

I’ll return to sob at their graduation.

I’m teaching two different courses this year: Introductory Writing (9-12th grade) and a co-taught American Studies class.  My co-teacher and I have a lot in common in regards to teaching style and management, and it already feels like we’ve been teaching together forever.

Gathering Data
survey dataIn both courses, on our first day, I gave all of my new students a survey on their reading history (linked here).  From this, I gathered that 60% of my 93 students had “faked” 75-100% of their assigned reading before this year.

That’s absolutely not the fault of any of their teachers before me.  I fake-read in high school.  I’ve had students fake assigned texts too, and despite my best efforts, it’ll happen again.

Thanks to technology, it’s become much easier for students to “fake it,” and we’ve got to figure out how to motivate them to STOP IT.  Because we can’t measure reading competency if our students aren’t really reading.  We’ll get there.

Summer Reading and Writing Workshop
My American Studies students were assigned to read half of Jeff Bauman’s memoir Stronger as a summer read, and were asked to come into class with a journal entry this first week.

You know what that means, right?  Writing workshop.  

Workshop days are my favorite days, and a workshop day as the third day of school is what Teacher Dreams are Made Of.  My students eased into our workshop well, and provided their peers with quality feedback on the third day of school.  I cannot wait to bring the process into Introductory Writing.

Reading in Writing Class
I am incorporating choice reading in my Introductory Writing class.  Some of my students found that a little confusing, asking, “Wait.  This is writing?  Why are we reading?”

I told them that better readers make better writers.
Those students spent this past week browsing through choice books in a book pass, doing Quick-Writes in their journals (Thank God I saved the prompts from last year), and beginning their choice books.

By our third class, two students had read half of the books they’d chosen THE PREVIOUS DAY, and one senior proudly proclaimed that he, “ACTUALLY READ FOR PLEASURE LAST NIGHT!”

book pass

Book passin’

So far, in these first four days, I’ve had conversations with students about great books, had conversations about boring books, and also had motivating (for me) conversations about avoiding books.

As unfamiliar and scary as it is to jump into a new school, I’m also feeling proud, hopeful, and optimistic.  My new colleagues have been kind and welcoming, and my new students have already made progress.

It’s going to be a great year.





twitterfeedcopyMan, social media is great.
On Saturday morning, while sipping on my morning coffee and scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw that many of my Heroes of Teaching were using the hashtag #ILA16. I was curious, and after a quick Google search, I found that the International Literacy Association’s annual conference was taking place in Boston at that very second.

I put down my coffee, hopped on a bus to Boston, and by 1:30, I was registered (Thanks, Olivia!) and ready to learn.





Donalyn Miller and John Schumacher’s featured session

The ILA hosted many of my faves this weekend: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Donalyn Miller. But the best thing about conventions like this? You get to meet new heroes, like Debbie Diller, who quickly became one of my faves during her featured Saturday afternoon session. (Did you know that classroom clutter is responsible for many problems in misbehavior and inattentiveness? I didn’t ! )


Donalyn Miller and John Schumacher were the featured speakers early Sunday morning, presenting on the role of the reading ambassador in schools. Miller admitted that, “It can be challenging to be the voice of independent reading in your schools,” which is something that I struggled a lot with last year.

She also made that point that, “Students should be spending more time reading, writing, and talking about reading and writing than reading and then building crafts.” So true. Many times as educators, we think about the cool and crafty end product, losing sight of actual literacy goals: teaching students how to read and write. Crafts are fun, and I love giving students freedom to build during our performance assessments, but we have to remember that our job isn’t to teach them art; our job is to teach them literacy.  


My heroes in education:  Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher

By far, though, the highlight of my ILA experience was seeing Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s session on “Reimagining Reading.” Penny Kittle actually teaches at my former high school (sadly, I graduated before she arrived!), and I’ve heard first-hand from community members and my younger siblings how she has reshaped literacy in our small New Hampshire community. I’ve written a lot about how Gallagher informed my writing instruction this year, and Kittle has inspired so much of what we do in relation to choice reading.


Both Gallagher and Kittle are supporters of giving students choice in their English classes, informing us that they aim to “give experiences every day that call students back into reading: the joy and ride of a book.” Over this last year, they joined their classes together, bi-coastally, with one “big picture” goal: to increase engagement/volume, increase complexity, and to help students develop an allegiance to authors and genres. This project will turn into their next book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Look, I love the National Council of Teachers of English, and their convention is filled with great professional development, but the exhibit hall can be a total a nightmare to navigate. It’s not the fault of NCTE or the exhibitors…they are great!  It’s the greedy attending non educators who make it difficult, pushing their way into booths to snag any and all available ARCs, loudly declaring that they’ll be selling them on Amazon later (which, by the way, is illegal). There wasn’t anything like that at ILA.

upstairsThe exhibit hall at ILA was so much more relaxed than at other conferences I’ve been to. There were ARCs available, but everyone took their time checking them out and making sure they’d be a good fit for their student population.  I didn’t see anyone pushing through the crowd to grab any and all ARCs, and I didn’t see any rolling suitcases, which was refreshing.  I was able to chat with the people at Booksource, who make my favorite classroom library organizational app, and chat with representatives from my favorite YA publishers: Penguin, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster, who also had author signings throughout the day.  I even got to watch a presentation in the exhibit hall by the author of the Pete the Cat books!

(…and I got to meet and chat with Kelly Gallagher at the Stenhouse booth!)

In all, ILA was such an unexpected treat of a weekend.
They’ll be in Orlando next summer.  So grateful and thankful to ILA for welcoming me into this conference at the very last minute!