A few weeks ago, I shared an overview of my first experience teaching a term of only free choice reading with my six junior high reading classes: “9 ‘Whole’ Weeks of Free Choice Reading.” I was pleased that this post generated a lot of questions, questions that I expect Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle will answer and explore in their upcoming book. For now, however, I considered these questions as an invitation to me to make more visible how I set up and facilitated the nine weeks, so I share my thinking and routines here as one way of approaching reading choice in the classroom.
A 9-Week Calendar
Below is an image that offers the big-picture overview of the nine weeks. And below that I offer a more detailed plan for the first week of the term, where we set up the philosophy of our reading practice and routines.
Day 1, The Details of Our Lives
On day one, I facilitate an experience where details matter, so I teach the value of follow-up questions to elicit elaboration that helps us imagine an experience more closely. I use a strategy that is not new: The 5 Question Party. Students anonymously write responses to four questions (e.g., favorite food, an accident, a fear, a hobby) I create and one they create on a notecard. I collect the notecards and then redistribute them to classmates.
I put on some music (announcing I am not a DJ and don’t take requests). Students 1) find the owner of the card and 2) ask follow-up questions to elicit details about one of the questions, e.g., tell me about your favorite pizza experience; tell me about the time you broke your arm; tell me about why you are afraid of spiders; tell me about your first time playing a guitar (SL,1: build on other ideas, express ideas clearly, engage in collegial discussions, respond to others with relevant observations and ideas).
Students then retell these stories in small groups trying to illustrate the experience. It is fun, and we get to know one another because of these snapshot stories of our lives beyond the classroom.
Day 2, Getting to Know the Books
I try to make a connection between our snapshot stories and the stories within the pages of the books that surround us in our classroom. Authors, people, wrote those stories, and the ideas for those stories come from humanity — as mirrors, windows, doors, maps, and distortions. To understand all of humanity, we have books. And to experience all the stories, we will have to stretch into a variety of genres, subjects, cultures, time periods, and characters. So this day is about getting to know the books in the classroom library.
I use the book-pass strategy with a twist. Students arrive to find a plastic shoe bin with a variety of books. I announce that their reading goal for this quarter is to read a range of texts to acquire a habit of reading independently and closely about diverse cultures, different time periods, and to gain literary and cultural knowledge in addition to a familiarity with various text structures and elements (standard 10). This does not mean much to them at first, but it is the beginning of me asking: how is this book stretching you into new experiences; how is this book stretching you into different text structures.
In small groups, they remove the books from the basket and place the empty basket on the floor along side others; then, negotiate the genre, subjects, cultures, time period, and characters of each book. They verify their claims by looking up the book on Goodreads and then labeling the book with a sticky note. Finally, they sort the books into the baskets with other readers and give the baskets a label by genre, subject, character. During the process, students start their to-read list and check out their first book.
Because students will be reading a variety of books this quarter and because I am encouraging independence, students must be responsible for tracking their progress. I developed a form on Google forms to track the title, author, genre, subjects, and short responses and shared this with students so they could make a copy and then track their own progress. The form also teaches them to notice author, genre, subjects, and authors craft. After each reading experience, student make an entry in their form, which is also accessible on their phones if they’d like. I created my own and modeled how I used it for the first week and then at midterm to show how the form becomes a chart with the list of books, genres, responses. I wanted to use Goodreads for this, but not all my students have email addresses. Essentially, this form helps track their reading, but also creates a list that will help them reflect on their growth as readers at the end of the term in their portfolios.
Day 4, Authoring Stories, the Responsibility, Privilege and Craft of Representing Lives Lived
To explore author’s craft in our independent reading and to develop skills to analyze literature, students take their 5 Question Party experience to a partner experience in order to collaborate on writing biographical sketches to publish to our class. It is through these shared story experiences that I teach reading through the eyes of an author. The students become authors of their classmate’s memory, responsible for representing that story.
I began by sharing a story one student wrote about my first letter from a boy. I asked what they noticed about the story: how it begins, how the author showed my experience (dialogue, sensory language), and how the author interpreted the impact of this story on my life to emphasize a particular theme. Then, I led them through a brainstorm of memories they’d be willing to share (RL. 8.2-8.4, how setting impacts the central idea; how characters interact to reveal the theme; how dialogue moves the action forward, provokes a decision, reveals character; essential plot incidents that move the action forward, reveal character, provoke a decision). This brainstorm set up lessons for illuminating authorial choices in the weeks to come.
Day 5, Becoming the Author of Another’s Story
To begin independent reading and the exploration of author’s craft in our reading, students re-read the story Emily wrote about my first letter from a boy and made an entry in their track progress form. I needed to check to be sure every form was set up properly and that students knew how to use it. I model reader response and text evidence related to how the setting impacts the central idea (my home awaiting the letter); characters interacting (my mom does not want me to talk to boys).
I then asked students to notice how interested they were in something that was otherwise personal to me. We talked about being vulnerable and how some of our most vulnerable moments help us connect and relate to others. With this, I talked about how students might decide what to share with one another and asked them to commit to one or two ideas to tell in their biographical sketches. Then, I revealed the partners. The partnering is important because I want to create community and minimize cliques of students, so I do my best to partner boys and girls first who, based on my early perceptions of the class, may not know each other. Then, I modeled with a student how to introduce oneself to a new person and how an informal conversation about which memories student will share might work: “Hi, my name is Sarah. I am thinking about a couple ideas. Let me tell you, and then you say what you might be comfortable writing about for me.”
Week Two and Beyond, Setting Up the Routine
In the second week, students conducted the formal interview for the story. I made an interview guide. I began class by asking a student to interview me. I told the story of my first funeral or the story of my favorite hiding place — a different story to each of my classes. I try to show how questions in the interview guide can elicit details the author will need to write the story, but how follow-up questions and attending to the interviewee’s emotions is important (Gosh, that is interesting, but I am sorry for your loss.) Then, the interviews began; partner A interviewed partner B and then they switched. The interviewing process actually happens over a couple weeks as students craft and revise their partner’s story.
For the drafting process, I do a mini-writers workshop for a couple days to model a few ways that authors craft their story from the interview notes. I show how authors have to make decisions about how to begin to illustrate an event: setting, dialogue, action, character background leads. Students draft their story and meet with partners to share the leads and progress. After this point, the process varies for each student, so I move to small group instruction.
In the days that follow, I set up a fairly regular routine of a three-part classroom routine: 1) language lesson and 2) independent reading time so that I can do small group instruction and individual conferring. My teaching is really personalized because I don’t actually teach much whole class during the 9-week unit.
A few times a week, we do a language lesson to practice noticing words — denotation and connotation — in our reading. I chose words that can help us talk about characters — tenacious, audacious, harbo — so that we can use those words to analyze our characters, but I also just started using this activity to teach concepts quickly before independent reading time. Just this short passage from Tree Girl offers a lesson about character interaction.
For instruction, I grouped students into pink, yellow, and blue. I met with one group each day during independent reading to workshop biographical sketches and reflect on authorial choices — making connections to the books they are reading. I also did mini-lessons on how to use sticky notes to note author’s craft and parts that move us as readers. The class is 40 minutes, so I met with the group for about 10-15 minutes and then left them to practice while I conferred with the students reading independently (offering them new books, talking through their discoveries, checking on their sticky notes for author’s craft, asking questions).
Read Aloud Day, a Day of Coming Together
Monday through Thursday, the readers mostly worked independently with the exception of my small group work, so coming together on Fridays is really important for our classroom community. When the drafts of biographical sketches are “ready” to publish, students read their story to their partner for consent and then published the story on the blog. Once each group published with consent, we had a read-aloud day. To prepare the readers, on Thursdays, I met with each reader to practice, offer feedback, and then, on the day of their reading, they self-assessed their speaking by evaluating their volume, eye contact, expression, proficiency, and professionalism.
On Fridays, I set up some Christmas lights in the classroom and a music stand for an open-mic feel. The audience listened and made notes about author’s craft (sensory and figurative language, leads, dialogue, theme, and beautiful lines) to celebrate how stories reveal parts of our lives that would remain veiled until someone asked for them. This sharing not only created a community of shared literary experiences authored by our community, but it was also a time to emphasize and celebrate author’s craft, to experience together the power of an engaging lead, the way carefully written dialogue brings alive the people in our lives. This is the guide students used to make notes during the read aloud, which served as evidence of their learning for their portfolios, too.
After the performances, we gave and received compliments on how stories help us imagine the lives beyond our classroom. Joey said, looking at Sarah, “I’d like to celebrate Sarah for her sensory language. When she wrote, “rotting stench of a fish left in the garbage for days,” I cringed. And Sarah replied, “Thank you, Joey.” It is amazing how unfamiliar we all are with giving and receiving compliments.
In week eight, students began to organize a portfolio of their learning to prepare for final grade conferences/celebrations. In “ 9 Whole Weeks of Free Choice Reading, ” I offer examples of these final projects. They created a portfolio of their independent reading and completed a form with their grade reflection.
Reflecting on the Nine
There is no neat way of capturing the beautiful messiness and grappling that happens when we offer our students choice. With six classes and 170 readers to know and support, the number of books changing hands and the number of stories moving among the readers is nothing short of astounding. You can’t control it. You don’t want to. The point of this is for students to find the book that they need when they need it. The point of this is for readers to encounter a life they’ve never imagined or never thought mattered to them only to discover that they now can’t imagine not knowing such a way of being in the world exists. The point is to make time for discovery, for uncovering, for connecting, for simply being among a community of readers.