Reading Workshop: Genre Study

You can’t be competent in reading if you’re not actually reading.
Many teachers claim students are successful in English class when they can correctly answer comprehension questions or when they can write a literary analysis essay.

SparknotesOpinionBut…students can pass traditional exam-style assessments with SparkNotes and films and never crack open a book.   They can listen to classroom lectures and class discussions, pass the exam or essay, and never crack open a book.

(Trust me, I did it myself in high school, except I went to the library and read the CliffsNotes.  I remember writing the world’s most fabricated essay on The Red Badge of Courage and staring in disbelief at the red A on the final page when it was returned to me.  I loved reading, I just didn’t love when people forced me to read.)

In my mind, I just can’t claim that my students are competent in reading if they’re not really reading.  I do assign novels in addition to our choice reading, and I do assess them on these novels.  I just go about it in a different way.

What is a reading workshop, anyway?
Here’s the important different between literature circles and a reading workshop:
I meet with the groups to guide them through the texts.   my notes

I hated doing literature circles in class before; it felt like I was just walking around and policing students instead of actually teaching them.

How we started:
To start, my students did a book pass with the four novels I set aside for this unit.  After this, they read reviews on Goodreads and before class was over, they decided which one they wanted to work with.

I am obsessed with using Goodreads in class. Most of my students have the app on their phones, too.

I am obsessed with using Goodreads in class. Most of my students have the app on their phones, too.

I created reading schedules for all of the books, both to keep them on track and for me keep my sanity as I read five books at the same time.

One of our reading schedules. I'm trying to wean myself away from computers.

One of our reading schedules. I’m trying to wean myself away from computers.

I require my students to write discussion points for each assigned section of the text.  Discussion points can really be anything:  A clarifying question, a text connection, a detail they found funny, nice, or strange.

Some students switched their books after the first day.  Some switched the second.  Some are still switching, four days in.

Daily Schedule:
During a reading workshop, our day looks like this:
(5 minutes) Book talk
(10 minutes) Choice read
(10 minutes) Quickwrite
(35 minutes) Reading workshop

During the reading workshop time, I meet with the different book groups, one at a time, in the back of the room.  I share my discussion points, and together, we talk about the book.

I create a makeshift table in the back of the room for our small-group discussions.

I create a makeshift table in the back of the room for our small-group discussions.

Students are allowed to join the group on the first day, even if they’re behind in their discussion points, but after that:  the discussion points are their ticket into the group discussion.

Students earn a summative grade towards their communications competency for their discussion participation, so they all want to be there.  I want them all to be there, but they have to bring something to the group.

I write a template for their discussion points on the back of their reading calendars. They hate doing these, but they are really helpful to our discussions.

I write a template for their discussion points on the back of their reading calendars. They hate doing these, but they are really helpful to our discussions.

(And they call each other out on it:  Yesterday one of my students said to a group member as he was settling down, “Hey, you can’t be here if you’re not bringing something to us!  We’re not into freeloaders.”)

While I’m meeting with one group, the other students are working with their books:  reading and writing discussion points, or pulling out and responding to quotes in their journals.  This gives my students an opportunity to prep for our discussions, but also gives them a chance to catch up if they’re behind.

I let them listen to the audiobooks on YouTube if they’d rather listen instead of physically read, and I tell them I trust in them.  So far, when I spy over their shoulder, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

What happens when they don’t read?
I require my students to continue to read their choice book during the first ten minutes of class, even if they’re behind in their assigned reading.  This helps me define the difference between “entertaining” literacy and “work” literacy.  Although they might like the books they’re assigned to read, we read those for a different reason than we read our choice books.

The front of the class while I meet in the back. I know, I'm blessed with small classes and lots of space.

The front of the class while I meet in the back. I know, I’m blessed with small classes and lots of space.

So:  because it’s “work” reading, and because my students don’t always do their homework, it’s inevitable that some (sometimes, most) students come unprepared for class.  Even though they picked the books they wanted to read.   It can be very, very frustrating.

Today, in one class, almost nobody came prepared with discussion points.  I met with the students who did prepare, and they earned summative points.

I was really annoyed, but I kept that inside. Instead of lecturing the rest of my students, I checked in with them as they worked independently.  I asked them if they had questions, and if I could help.  Some did have questions and talking quickly seemed to help.  Some told me they were just being lazy.  I can’t take that personally.  So it goes.

Before, I would have muddled through a lesson on a whole-class novel that almost nobody read, becoming more and more frustrated.

In our workshop space, my students have the choice, conversation, and the support that they need to instead of just using SparkNotes to fake it all.  So even on these frustrating days, I’m still confident that my students read more in this model than they ever had before.


The Value of Writer’s Notebooks

Nine years ago, when I decided to jump head-first into education, I had visions of my new imaginary students.  These students would voluntarily record all of their thoughts and feelings in composition notebooks, and I would be like Michelle Pfieffer in Dangerous Minds, giving my students a voice and letting them soar to new heights with their newfound empowered voices.

Then I started teaching real students.  Unlike my imaginary students, these students did NOT want to write in notebooks.  They didn’t see the benefit in writing.  It was boring and it was work.  We kept notebooks in class, but my students weren’t thoughtful in their writing.  They’d write a sentence, then stare at the wall until time was up.

Halfway through last year, I read Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, anpromptsd I started experimenting with journaling alongside my students while they responded to my prompts.  I gave them a prompt, and then I sat in a desk with my notebook and wrote.  The very first day I did this with my freshmen last year, they wrote FOR 30 MINUTES without stopping.  Until the bell.  It was an actual dream come true.

I used to be a total jerk. 
Before I sat next to my students and wrote next to them, I’d force them to keep moving their pencils until time was up.

I’d say thingsjournaling like, “Think while you write!  Write the same word over and over again until you think of your next idea! Don’t stop your pencil from moving on the page!”

I didn’t realize what a jerk I was until I sat and wrote with my students.  When I actually did what I was asking them to do, I realized how much I naturally pause, stare, and think before writing my next thoughts on the page.  As I did this, I noticed my students doing the same thing as they were writing.

They weren’t off-task, they were thinking.  Just like me.

Now, I tell them to pause and stare as much as they want.  If they don’t get where they want to go with their piece during our writing time, they can just continue during our next class.

If they go off prompt, that’s okay too.  I do the same thing.  I just want them to write.


We’ve been spending ten minutes in writing journals after choice-read time. I write with them when I’m not being a weirdo photographer.

Fitting this into our daily agenda.
After last year’s successes, I’ve decided to incorporate quickwriting into our class agenda every day.  This is completely new for me in class this year.

I teach in a funny schedule.  We have a six day rotation, with two of my classes meeting for 80 minutes every other day, and the others meeting four times per rotation for 60 minutes.

For the last two years, I’ve started all of my classes with 10 minutes of choice reading.  As I work to adopt a full-press readers/writers workshop model, I’ve started to incorporate 10 minutes of quickwriting after our reading time It might seem tedious, but my thought is: the more they write, they better they’ll get.

I also know that more I read and comment in their notebooks, the more they’ll write, but I have a hard time figuring out how to respond to 100 notebooks on a regular basis.  This year, I’m giving myself a schedule of reading certain classes on alternating weeks and sticking to it.

Finding the time to read and comment on student notebooks in a timely manner has been my biggest struggle.

Finding the time to read and comment on student notebooks in a timely manner has been my biggest struggle.

Don’t have time?  Make it.
Know this:  my goal with quickwriting is to help my students become better writers, but…journaling is therapy, too.

I’m always going to respect my students’ privacy when writing about our class (and their pieces) here.  With that, I can say: I was in literal tears after reading some pieces this afternoon.  These kids need quickwriting for reasons beyond a formal competency-based education.  These students need a voice, and they need me to listen.

Do I have time for this?  These students are worth (more than) ten minutes of our class time.