Leveled Genre Study: Holocaust Literature

I’ve left school every day this past week with a pit in my stomach and tears in my eyes.

I’m teaching Holocaust literature.
It’s incredibly important for my students to learn, but it’s also incredibly difficult for me to teach.  What happened during the Holocaust is horrific on its own, but as someone with Eastern European and Jewish roots, it’s especially hard  for me to stomach.


Background knowledge.

I’m running a genre study around this work, but it looks a little different in my Honors class than it does in my CP classes.

But that’s what the workshop model is all about:  Our end goal is the same, but all students are able to take the path that works best for them.

To start, we watched one of John Green’s Crash Course clips and took quick notes on what was going on during WWII aside from the Holocaust.


Thanks to The History Channel, many of my students already have a bit of background knowledge on Hilter’s actions during WWII.  Because of this, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with long, drawn-out background documents.

Instead, I split a 12-page informational passage into 12 pieces and we ran a jigsaw.  Each student read and summarized a section, and then read that section aloud to the class.  While they were reading, the rest of us (me too!) took notes that would be reused on the summative later.

This note-taking was hard, and my students hated it because it was hard.  I insisted that instead of asking their classmates to repeat sentences, they had to ask specific questions of the author.  So instead of saying, “Wait.  What?”  they asked questions like, “You said that there were a certain number of Jews who escaped.  What was that number again?”

(I actually recorded one of my classes during the note-taking session because I was so impressed, but I promised I wouldn’t publish it!)

The Literature

discussion space

Our discussion space. 

In my Honors class, we’re running our  genre study  with novels.  My students chose between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and while we read and discuss, they’re pulling pithy quotes that they’ll reuse on their summative assessment later.  


Our discussions are tough, specifically with Night.  While Wiesel’s book is beautifully written, it’s also horrifically detailed, and we leave our discussion feeling sick and sad.

Originally, I had planned to use these same novels in a genre study in my CP classes too, but since we’ve spent so much (valuable!) time in writing workshop over the last few months, time has gotten away from us.

So in my CP classes, we’re sampling a variety of literature.   Our amazing librarian Pam Harland compiled some resources for us, and we started with this bank of diaries, letters, and memoirs from Yad Vashem.  Because giving my students choice is at the center of everything we do in my classroom, students chose whichever passages they wanted to work with.  They read, summarized, pulled quotes, and then shared their findings with the class.

Next week, my CP students will choose excerpts from either Night or Diary of a Young Girl to work with, and then, finally, they’ll work with poetry of their choice.

My Honors summative assessment is a little different than my CP assessment, but our end goal is the same.  At the end of this month, all of  my students will conduct research into current cases of genocide in the world.  They’ll compile their reading analysis and research together in an answer to our essential question in a summative performance assessment of their choice.

This is an incredibly difficult subject for me to teach, but teaching it though a genre study has been extremely valuable for my students.  Their ability to choose (and abandon) texts has helped them become emotionally invested in the texts, which is what we want when we teach Holocaust literature…so history doesn’t repeat itself.  


Genre Study: Our (first) final numbers.

Today was the due date for my students’ summative assessment and the end date of our genre study.  I detailed some preliminary numbers on the reading “due date,” and things have just gotten better.

First things first:
In order to judge whether or not my students read more in this workshop model than with a whole-class novel, I had to measure my data against something.

I taught this same group of students To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole-class novel two years ago, when they were freshmen, so I decided to (anonymously) poll them on how much of that book they actually, really, truly read.

I wasn’t surprised by the numbers below, but I was surprised that most of the students who admitted to fake-reading the book are currently in my Honors class.

tkam numbers

Isn’t this a bizarre looking pie chart?

At the end of our genre study:
When polling my students on their summative due date, 87% percent of them had read the entire novel.  by summative due date

That 1-24% is really getting me down, but it shouldn’t:  I had a few students who just refused to read and refused choose a different book.  They spent every period peacefully protesting our reading workshop…but they still read their choice book every single day.

Some in the 50-99% range admitted that they used SparkNotes over the weekend instead of *just finishing the book*.   That’s also disappointing.


What worked for my students?
When polling my students on what worked and what didn’t, they indicated what helped them the MOST in reading and finishing their novel.

what helped

Having time to read during class and a choice of texts was the most helpful to my students. It was surprising to me that having a reading schedule followed closely behind.

When asked what didn’t work, they said they wanted more time.
I agree.

hunterI won’t run another genre study for another few months, but as I prep for next time, I know that I need to add another week onto this unit.

I’m also planning to schedule small groups ahead of time on the reading schedule, because we often ran out of time for specific groups to chat.

My students want me to throw out the discussion points (because they hate doing them), but I’m keeping those to guide our small group discussions.  Because I’m the boss.

Genre Study: Assessment

IMG_3749This week, most of my students spent class working on the summative performance assessment that I created before we started this unit.

This assessment is designed only to measure their reading competency, so they have the choice to do whatever they want to do to show me what they know (except a poster, because I want them to think beyond the simplicity of a poster).

working 2Most of my students have chosen to write essays to demonstrate their reading competency, while some are demonstrating their knowledge through more hands-on projects or slideshows.

It feels strange to them that I’m not assessing them on their writing with this assessment.  I’m not sure if it’s related, but I’ve noticed them asking me many more questions about organizing and crafting their writing than when we’re doing a designated writing task.

working 4They’re using their discussion points and pithy quotes to help them build their essays and projects, which have been really helpful to remind them of plot points and character traits as they work.

This summative is due on Monday.
…which means that many are taking work home over the weekend.  Some students have chosen to to finish their summative assessments in a corny “summative party” I threw on Friday afternoon (with Halloween candy, obviously) to finish their work before the weekend.  Most of those students stayed until they finished.

I do not give zeros for missing work.  Ever.  
Students who do not have a final product for class on Monday will instead complete an alternative assessment during class, which will essentially be the same assessment, but without the choice of their final product.  (Spoiler alert:  It’s a handwritten essay.)

quote pullingI try to design alternative assessments that ensure student success and accurately measure what they know…not to shame students for not completing their work.

While it’s frustrating that some students didn’t/don’t/will never meet deadlines, I have to remember the purpose of assessment:  to find out what they know, and to find out what I need to do to get them there.

I have to remember that many of my students don’t have the support at home that they do in my classroom.

If I know that they’re only reading the book during our class time, I also need to give them time during class to demonstrate what they know about what they’re reading.

(I know some of you want to see my final numbers.  I’ll post those on Tuesday.)

Genre study: The due date.

I’m sitting on some pretty staggering data this afternoon.

After three weeks of running a reading workshop, my students were scheduled to be finished with their assigned novels by today.

I polled them during class (and those who claimed to be done had to prove it), and this is where my students were in their novels:


I am absolutely flabbergasted.  I knew that things were coming together, but I did not expect data like this.

I feel like a champion.

What about the students who haven’t finished yet?
While the students who met the deadline work on their performance assessments next week, the students who weren’t finished with their assigned novels will read until they finish.

taryn almost done

As if I’m going to tell this student, who is almost done with The Catcher in the Rye, “Sorry, you missed your due date. Too bad. You need to stop reading now.”

(Because as annoying as it can be that they’re still not done, they’re STILL READING and our goal is for reading competency and success, remember?)

When they finish, they’ll show me their discussion points and sit with me to recover discussion credit.  After we talk, I’ll give them their performance assessment.

If they haven’t shown me their discussion points by the assessment due date, they’ll receive an alternative assessment during class to tell me what they know at that moment in time, with an opportunity to revise if necessary.

I’m so pumped up.

Reading Workshop: What’s going on this week?

In my previous post, I detailed what a genre study looks like in my classroom.

So what’s going on this week?

This student forgot his discussion points at home, but still wanted to join the group. So he called his dad and had his dad post a picture of his points on Facebook, and then brought that Facebook post into our group.

This student forgot his discussion points at home, but still wanted to join the group. So he called his dad and had his dad post a picture of his points on Facebook, and then brought that Facebook post into our group.

We’ve had a great week of rich, small-group discussions.  A group of boys reading This Boy’s Life in my third period class have championed through their discussions and drive-by sold the book as a choice read to their eavesdropping classmates.

While my students are reading and writing discussion points for this unit, they’re also pulling pithy quotes from the novels that they can connect to in some way.  By next week, they should have ten quotes and corresponding analysis compiled in their journals.  They’ll reuse those on their summative assessment.

One student, currently reading The Bell Jar, has been obsessively pulling out quotations beyond her required ten.  She just can’t stop.  The book speaks to her.

I’m trying to be more flexible with how students are accessing the texts.

This student chose to listen to the audiobook of The Catcher in the Rye via YouTube and write his discussion points as he listens along.

This student chose to listen to the audiobook of The Catcher in the Rye via YouTube and write his discussion points as he listens along.

I have students accessing their assigned reading in all kinds of ways this year.

Most are reading silently.  Some are listening and reading along with the recording. Some are just plugged into the audiobook.

Are they still “reading” when they listen to the audiobook?

Not traditionally, but they may be “reading” more than they would be if they didn’t have access to the audiobook, right?

(That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.)

I’ve also been rescuing students.

kyleThis week, I continued to check in with students who haven’t been joining our discussions.

I asked, “So, what’s going on in your book right now?”

Just about everyone could tell me, but a few told me that the book wasn’t making pictures, and they didn’t get it. But, they said, they were trying.

I switched both of those students out and into new books that also have an audiobook option.  They’ll be a little behind next week when most students are finishing, but that’s okay.

I’ve been keeping stats and recording data.
I met with one of my administrators earlier this week and he asked me if I was tracking student progress beyond our discussion points.

I jotted down page numbers at the end of class today and yesterday.

I jotted down page numbers at the end of class today and yesterday.

“No,” I said.  “Should I?”

He told me that I didn’t have to, but that it could prove to be valuable data.

I thought about it, and on our last day of class this week, I asked for an honest recording of where my students were in their books.

And now I have proof that they’re reading.
When I checked in, most students (yes, most) were a little behind, but not by much.

At first, it was mega-disheartening to see that most of my students weren’t where I wanted them to be, but, really, what does this data tell me?

First, it tells me that even though they’re not where I’d like them to be, they’re actually reading these books.  That’s awesome.

Secondly, and most importantly, this data informs my instruction for our next genre study.  Although my students are making progress, they’re moving more slowly than I thought they’d go.

For our next unit, I know that I should cut their assigned reading in half:  Instead of two chapters a day, I’ll give them one.  Instead of twenty pages a day, I’ll assign ten.

I’ve also had a few peaceful (and not so peaceful) protests.
emilyI’ve had intense resistance from three students who are actively refusing to pick up their chosen text. It’s not that they can’t read it:  they’re refusing to read it.

I remind them that they chose their assigned text themselves, and that if they need help, I’m here.

I remind them if they want to switch, they still can.

I remind them that when they’re ready to try, I’m here.

As frustrating as this can be:  these three refusing students translate to 3% of my students, which means that 97% of my students are making progress in their assigned books.

97% of my students are reading their assigned novels, even if they’re moving slowly.  

What’s more:  even though these three students are refusing to read their assigned texts for our genre study, they’re still reading their free choice books at the beginning of class.  Even within their peaceful protest, these students are still reading.

We’ll get there together.

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 actually.read.the.books 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.