We read 777 choice books this year.  Each link = one book!


This student had never read a book before entering my classroom. This year he read four.

This has been the best year ever.
By moving my class into a workshop model, my students have read more than ever. They’ve liked and understood what they’ve read.

They’ve not only written more than ever, but they’ve actually enjoyed what they’ve written, and their writing was the best I’ve ever seen.

We have a curriculum, but they’ve been given choices all year.  When presented with a literature unit, they’ve picked the book.  When presented with a writing assignment, they’ve picked their topic.

As I continue in this model, I’m contemplating changing the structure of our year with the first semester focused on our writing workshop, continuing to use poetry and smaller texts as models.

I’d like our second semester focused on literature in the form of genre studies.  I’ll still weave writing throughout the semester, but I’d like to see my students build more stamina in their choice reading before tackling some of the harder, assigned texts.


choicesI taught a few stories from J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories in these final weeks of school, and I’d love to use that book as a mentor text during that first semester.  Despite what my students call its “old-fashioned talking,” those short stories are complex and perfect for analysis practice.

Next year, I’d also like to have my students build blogs at the beginning of the year.  During this last month, my students were encouraged to publish their work to earn “Exemplary” grades (one student even took to Twitter for publication!), but we definitely needed a lesson on how to build and market a blog earlier.  If we had done this at the beginning of the year, it would have sunk in…but in these final weeks, it didn’t.

chartThat said, this has been the most rewarding year of my teaching career. 
When given permission to really take my class full-press into a reader/writer workshop, I was prepared for a lot of work.

It was a lot of work.

This isn’t easy. Building a culture of competent readers and writers takes very, very hard work.  

On top of planning and grading, you have to conference with students every day.
You have to read a book a week to inform recommendations.
You have to write your own essays and bring them to workshop.
In a genre study, you have to read four books at a time, write discussion points, and guide groups of students through the text. 

You have to truly, genuinely know every single student that sits in your room.

And it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. 


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.  

Analysis: Text isn’t just the printed word.

rubric reviewThese writing workshops have been dreams come true.

Our whole-class writing and editing model has produced the best writing I’ve ever seen from students.  I don’t dread grading anymore.  I’ve genuinely loved reading their pieces, because with choice, comes different topics and a true author’s voice.

Most of the writing that we’ve done up to this point has been fairly enjoyable to my students.  We’ve moved beyond the five-paragraph essay.  They’ve been able to have their own voices, opinions and experiences (even in research-based tasks).

So when they saw that our next stop was analytical writing, they groaned.  Loudly.

They’re not looking forward to analysis.
I understand why:  they’ve practiced it a lot in response to difficult literary and informational text throughout their school careers.  It’s hard for them, and they view critical analysis as totally boring.

This week, we talked about how when you watch the same movie again, you notice new things.  And when you listen to the same song again, you hear new things.  That’s why we need to reread text to increase our understanding.

When I told them that analyzing text wasn’t always boring, they rolled their eyes, inwardly and outwardly.  So I showed them a painting of weird naked people.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

I love Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”   It’s one of my faves from my art history courses in college because of its complexity, total weirdness, and opportunities for multiple interpretations.

Too often, when my students read text, they rush through their assignment looking for the correct answer. But analysis isn’t about the right answer.  It’s about close-reading.  Rereading.  Contemplation.

They’re used to text being only the printed word.  But text isn’t just the printed word.

first viewWe examined Bosch’s painting three times and took notes during each examination, only commenting on what we saw and keeping our interpretations to ourselves.

We maintained total quiet during our first five-minute study.  It was very difficult for them, since there’s a LOT that they wanted to talk about when they saw this painting.  They wrote down quick notes on what they saw.  I covered the painting, and we shared out.

Then, I zoomed in on the lower-left.  Again, we quietly studied the painting and wrote down what we saw, sharing out afterwards.  This time, I left the painting up and let my students point out the strange things they saw.

We quietly studied once more, this time looking at the lower-right side of the painting.  We talked through what we saw one last time, and finally, they had to decide what the heck this painting was about.

This is always the hardest part.
My students are always terrified to come up with the “wrong” answer in their analytical writing, and no matter how many times I assure them that analysis is all about their own thoughts and their own supporting evidence from the text, they‘re always scared to take a risk and make an educated guess.  

analysis paragraph

Since we’d already shared out what we saw, most students weren’t afraid to share their interpretations of the text.  (But first, I made them hide their erasers from themselves.  They always self-doubt after they hear the first share!)

One student thought the artist was showing the progression of drug-use:  first things are normal, then they’re crazy, and then you die.  (Whoa.) I’ve never thought of that interpretation, and I loved it.

varied analysis

Some thought the painting was a warning of times to come.  Others leaned more towards a more religious analysis of this painting:  the first panel shows the beginning of life, then everyone sins their brains out and we all end up in Hell.

I never told them what I learned about the meaning of the painting in my art history courses .  

Despite the fact that almost all of my students’ analytical pieces of writing strayed from what many historians feel is the meaning of Bosch’s painting, their answers were correct because they supported them with evidence from the text.



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.