Getting Smart with the Whole-Class Novel: 5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts

This post is part of the 3 Truths & a Leap series: I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues. If your students struggle with reading the whole-class novel, read on.

Truth: The whole-class novel means a whole-class level.

Truth: Students have different ability levels- from reading to thinking to writing to speaking to typing to social comfort to…

Truth: When we are given tasks that far exceed our abilities, we shut down.  Yet we thrive when we are given the chance to learn at levels just above our abilities.

The Leap: When we read one text with all students, we need to personalize learning (if we expect all of our students to learn).

5 Do’s for Whole-Class Novels

  1. Offer different ways students can read the novel: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out and value the method that works best for them: listen as the teacher reads, share reading with another adult (a volunteer or parent), a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually.
  2. Encourage students to read at a pace that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. Our goal is that students understand the author’s meaning and intent and internalize both to the extent that they draw on the experience of reading the novel later in their lives. Help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
  3. Allow students to use the materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. Students can record thinking in a variety of ways. In my classes, some kids use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
  4. Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need. One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.
  5. Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. Switch the focus to their thinking because then differentiation is natural, and we can gather data on what they can do with and glean from a text. Thinking-based questions sound like this: Our main character has changed a lot since the start of the novel. Explain at least two ways you have noticed that she’s different, and give evidence from the text to support your ideas. Students will notice different ways the character changed, and if they provide evidence from the text, they’re right. If students provide reasoning and evidence that don’t coincide, they’ve shown us what they need in their next mini-lessons.

5 Don’ts

  1. Don’t expect every student to read it the same way. When we ask all kids to follow along as we read aloud, listen to a recording of the text, or follow as classmates read, we stifle their ability, desire, or thinking. 
  2. Do not expect all students to read the same pages within the same time frame. When we require kids to stick to a certain number of pages per night, we need to accept that some students are not going to read and others will get bored with the book if they can’t read ahead. whole-class novels
  3. Do not ask students to show their understanding in the same exact way.  Teach students to figure out which methods they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. If we assign one way for students to show their thinking, we can bet that we’re meeting the needs of about 1/3 of our students. The others will be bored because our method was either too difficult or too easy.
  4. Do not stick to the same standards for all students. If we assume all students need instruction at grade level standards (for plot, characterization, symbolism, or etc…) we’re going to meet the needs of the middle. Only the middle. Some students might need to analyze plot at the grade level you teach, but others will need to analyze at levels above or below that.
  5. Do not offer “end of chapter” or “did you really read this” type questions. Our students know this game, and they will beat us every time by finding the simple answers and “proving” they read the assigned pages.

Reading a shared text can and should be life-changing for all of us. It certainly has been for me, beginning in seventh grade when I read And Then There Were None alongside my English teacher and continuing to now as I read in book clubs in my neighborhood or with colleagues. But guess what? Even though we decide on the pages to read, not everyone reads them, not everyone attends each meeting, and not everyone reads with the same level of understanding. That’s life, and that’s okay. Yet during our meetings, not everyone is comfortable differentiating based on our needs.

If this crazy, forced mixture of readers makes adults feel uncomfortable to discuss ideas about a text, imagine how it makes kids feel. Let’s take a cue from our own reading habits, and design shared reading so that it meets everyone’s needs.

If you’re interested in reflecting on your own reading life in the effort to engage students in theirs, read This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Ways to Grow Readers (out of System & Self-proclaimed Non-readers)

When I began a new position as our school’s literacy specialist in August, I knew my first step was to hook kids with a love of books. How else would I get students who are reading 2-6 years below their grade level up to their current grade level within one school year? I teach 34 reading intervention students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Right now, at the end of first semester, all students have shown growth on our district assessment and 18 of 34 are reading at their current grade level. I have one more semester to get the other 16 students there, and I will. (Why do I say that? Because part of the definition of “teacher” is someone who believes in growth and equity. How will I do it? I’ll share that in a later post, but I have additions to the plan that I list here, because we cannot expect different results from doing the same things, right?)

Looking back on my first semester as a literacy specialist and my 13 years as a language arts teacher, this is what works for my students:

What works?

  1. Read aloud. Read to your entire class, to small groups, and to individual students. As soon as you notice a student’s disinterest in reading, read aloud. You can do this during conferences or ask for volunteers from the community. Emily Bushwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” When we have school-aged students who aren’t readers yet, we need to recreate that experience for them. No kidding, even my 14 year-olds love being read to.
  2. Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom library that promotes student
    img_0090-1
    Part of our classroom library- in this section, informational books are organized by topic.

    choice in reading. Students who don’t love reading yet need quick access to a wide variety of high-interest books and they need your help finding the needle in the haystack.

  3. Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
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    Our meeting place- for lessons, discussions, and reading. We have lots of other nooks and crannies perfect for curling up with a book. My intention was to mimic the places all readers love to read.

    room, bookstore or cafe. Think of the places you learned to love books and recreate them for your students. I wrote about this idea in “This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

  4. Let students know their reading levels and teach them why levels matter. This might seem a bit dramatic, but it is heartbreaking to hear my reading intervention students say that they had never known why they were in intervention classes, that they hadn’t been told their reading levels, and that they’d been told that the district and state assessments aren’t really important, so they shouldn’t worry about them. If you work with children, you know that this translates to “reading well doesn’t really matter and these tests are a waste of time.” Students should know their levels and know how and why to raise them. Point blank- people who cannot read don’t like to read. People who cannot read are taken advantage of. It is our responsibility to change this.
  5. DO NOT make students read books within their current reading levels. Reader leveling is a tool to monitor progress, and it serves its purpose well when kids know how to use it. Teach students how to find books that are a good fit and teach them what to do when they really want to read a book that feels hard for them. We cannot expect students to adopt a growth mindset if we don’t have one ourselves, and we cannot change non-readers to readers without the mindset that allows for change and growth. *Picture this: Say you have a New Year’s resolution to exercise more. So, you sign up for a 5K. You see that this race, a race that seems out of your league but sounds like a ton of fun, will motivate you to begin walking each day! You know that you’ll eventually begin running a bit, and next you’ll be able to run the entire 3.2 miles! Now picture this: Your personal trainer tells you not to attempt it. She says that no matter what she tries to teach you, you cannot even get close to that level of fitness. How do you feel about that?
  6. Target instruction based on student needs, and give kiddos tons of time to read. Use assessments, reading conferences, student reflections, discussions with your students’ content area teachers, and their own books in instruction. Keep in close contact with your students’ other teachers and let students know that all of you are in on the same goal: making them readers. Teach students to monitor their progress and to become part of deciding what they need in instruction. When we use their own books to do this, they’re more likely to practice these strategies on their own. This doesn’t mean we should stop using shared excerpts and articles, but it does mean students who cannot read yet, need instruction in their chosen novels.
  7. Teach students what readers do. I encourage all teachers to study PEBC’s Thinking Strategies. Teach these strategies directly, then model them, and gradually release students while giving feedback as they practice them. The thinking strategies are life-changing for non-readers. Once these kiddos learn the thinking moves proficient readers use, they feel such relief! These are strategies that all good readers use, but our struggling readers don’t realize they should.
  8. Share your reading life. Show students the books you’re reading, share your thinking and your struggles with them, and do the assignments you ask kids to do (If  you don’t want to try an assignment, then assign more interesting work- work real readers do.) I bring my current novel to and from school, even if I don’t plan to read it. I put it on our coffee table where we meet, and I refer to it on the fly and use it when I’m modeling a strategy. At this point in the year, kids ask me about what I’m reading all of the time. Kids who wouldn’t have given a second thought to care six months ago! I also share the professional books I use (I wouldn’t be surprised if some students know the authors of Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by name!) Students need to see that we are teaching skills and strategies that are based on research and that we are always learning new things ourselves.
  9. Visit your students’ other classes to help bridge what students are learning about reading in your class to other contents. This has been most helpful to my eighth graders, and
    d13aaf80-770c-455a-8b9d-f9a25c5ed849
    Student replicas of  parts of the brain (an idea from the book The Growth Mindset Coach)

    after visiting their classes they asked if they could start staying after school to get help with homework from their content classes. It’s been helpful to teach them how to use the thinking strategies in math, science, and social studies.

  10. Teach students to adopt a growth mindset, set goals, be assertive, confront inequity, persevere, and believe in their worth. We teachers know that we teach more than content and standards. Students and I begin each week with a motivational lesson that I see students need. Some examples are growth mindset, reflection, perseverance, equity, and positive thinking. If you’re interested, you can read some of these lessons under the category Friday Reflections in the main menu.

When I met my students in August, I let them know that my goal was for all 34 of them read at grade level by the end of the year. I shared how we would do it, I shared their current reading levels, and against all odds, I managed to create a safe place for kids to struggle, be honest about their hurdles, and cheer each other on.

Keep Moving Forward

For a minute, I felt really good about 18 of 34 students reading at grade level this point in the year, but that vanished quickly. We owe learners more. Within the 16 who need to keep moving toward grade level, ten students are on the right track, but we aren’t even close to easy street yet and six students need something different or more or… I will figure it out. Next year, I will do better quicker because I’ll have this year to reflect on.

In the spirit of full disclosure and the importance of reflection, I’ll share one of my biggest and most embarrassing mistakes from this semester.

One BIG Mistake

I have a sixth-grade student who seemed to become less shy as the year wore on: eventually, she’d asked to come in during my morning planning time to read alone and with me, to get help with writing and she’d started talking more in class. She’d been telling me for months that she’d been reading at night with her mother and sister, and I could sense that she really was. When we took our district MAPS assessment at the beginning of the school year, she’d dropped 13 points from her 5th Grade score in the Spring. When we took MAPS again in December, she’d regained the 13 and added three additional points. I had been thinking that she would grow more than that because she’d been working in class and at home, I’d noticed her sharing her thoughts more often and she’d begun to explain to other students how to figure out reading struggles.

This child is identified by our English Language Acquisition Department, so when she and I saw this test result I asked her whether she comprehends better in Spanish or English. Without missing a beat, she nodded yes. Then I asked if she ever reads in Spanish, and again with out missing a beat, she said, “Yes, every night.”

EVERY NIGHT? Why hadn’t I thought to ask that before now? I would have asked her to come in and read one-on-one in English long before she’d decided to do it on her own! Here is a child who had put in the effort and had grown more confident as the year led on. I mistook that confidence as a result of increased comprehension ability, and part of it clearly was, but I see now that a bigger reason she became more outspoken is that she was speaking English more often now because she was back in school where English is the primary language.

Huge mistake on my part, and its not one I’ll make again. It’s embarrassing because it reveals my English-speaking egocentrism. It didn’t even occur to me that she’d be reading in Spanish at home even though I knew her family spoke Spanish at home. I LOVE that she is reading Spanish at home! Being able to speak AND read in another language has so many benefits- personally, socially, in her education and eventually her professional life!

Needless to say, I’ll ask her to come read with me during non-teaching times, and I’ll figure out how we can maintain her English during the summer. I’m learning a lot this year, and there will come a day when my all of my students do grow 6-7 grade levels in one semester. Don’t believe me? Keep in touch. I love a challenge.

Differentiate Reading Instruction in Any Content

Differentiation Starts and Ends with Students… actuallythey’re in the middle too!

Differentiation means personalized learning with the content, the process of learning it, or the product students create to show they understand it. Discussed here are ways to differentiate content and process because it has been my experience that many teachers already differentiate in terms of product. And content and process are meatier- they help students own the knowledge and skills needed in order to create the product!

Start with Strengths and Struggles

In order to differentiate, we need to know our students really well. We need to sit with them as they’re working and ask them to think aloud. We need to eavesdrop as they work with others and make quick conferences and formative assessments part of daily instruction. As we observe students, we should make note of their strengths and struggles, and ask them to articulate what they understand and what confuses them- we want them to be aware of their thinking and learning processes.

Plan Differently for Different Places

Differentiated learning is personalized learning. We use the information we’ve gleaned from conferences and formative assessments to figure out what students need as we plan lessons, and we’re ready to offer students what they need, on the spot, within a lesson too.

ind-anchor-charts
Individual anchor charts let students take the information from our walls out the door and with them when they leave. Either take photos of your charts for easy access or write a chart for a student during a conference. (Students can obviously write charts for themselves too, depending on your purpose.)

Does that mean 25 different lesson plans for each class? Not exactly because any teaching strategy that produces results is perfect for differentiation, and as you learn to navigate student needs lesson by lesson and within lessons, it will become easy to pull from what you know works best.

There isn’t a magic list of strategies, although I’ve attempted to list options below. My advice is to make your own list of effective strategies and methods. It will help to have it as you plan for what students need.

Not a Magic List, but I’ll Give it My Best Shot

  1. If students are reading a common text or novel, offer different ways students can read it: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out which way helps them understand best.
  2. If students are reading a common text or novel, encourage them to read it at a rate that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. If we are differentiating, we aren’t telling kids they need to stick to a certain number of pages per night. If we do that, then we need to accept that some students are not going to read. Instead we should help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
  3. Offer texts on a common topic but at different levels, lengths, and genres.
  4. Offer a variety of ways students can organize their thinking and the content as they read: graphic organizers, thinking stems, annotations, or a text partially annotated by the teacher.
  5. Teach students to figure out which materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. In my reading intervention classes, students record their ideas in a variety ways: Some use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
  6. Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need (Some examples: One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.)
  7. Collaborate with your students’ language arts teacher. Group students based on the skills they are learning in their language arts class, and teach them to discuss those skills and support each other as they read a text in your class.
  8. Teach students to choose texts and novels based on their interests and purposes for reading. Support them when they choose a challenging text. My students and I discuss their reading levels because, in my heart of hearts, I believe it is their right to know their own data, and we use this information to plan for and track growth. If I made students read within a certain level, I’d be ignoring my purpose for differentiation, which is to teach students to understand and monitor their own learning and growth.
  9. Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. (One example: What confuses you about today’s topic? If nothing seems confusing, what would you like to learn more about regarding this topic?)

TIPS for Successful Differentiation

  1. As you reflect on which strategies are most effective, begin organizing anchor charts, graphic organizers, sentence starters and other tools so that they’re easily available
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    Mini anchor charts are used for conferences and small group lessons. These are easily accessible when students show the need for something different than the class mini lessons.

    for conferences and small group lessons.

  2. When you are working one-on-one with a student, quickly create a personal anchor chart as a visual the student can keep with them. It’s a quick way to reinforce what you conferred about and allows the student to refer back as often as needed, even when they’re not in your classroom.
  3. Use a large artist’s pad to hold a mini anchor chart collection. Use these for small group lessons. Keep the pad easily available for students to refer to after lessons.
  4. Two excellent books for teachers who are just getting started in differentiation in reading and writing come from Jennifer Serravallo: The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book (due to be released 2/2017). Serravallo offers anchor charts, prompts, tips, and multiple approaches for teaching reading and writing skills in any content.

When we know our students’ thought patterns, learning behaviors, and levels of understanding, we can teach based on student need lesson to lesson and even moment to moment within lessons. This gives all students access to course content which they’ll need if they’re doing to learn it, use it, and make it their own.

If this seems like too much, we need to give something else up. Live feedback beats the rerun (written a few days ago, graded awhile-back worksheet) EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

 

Teachers, share the ways you differentiate reading. What tips and ideas can we add to our Magic Lists?    …not that there is such a thing  😉