How to give students better feedback without working nights and weekends

Teachers make feedback too hard. I’m convinced it can be easier. Over this four-part post, I’ll outline a process in-progress for easier feedback.

Step 1: Set clear objective for each class | Step 2: Use daily self-assessments | Step 3 Teach students how to give each other feedback (two methods that actually work) | Step 4: Find your *imperfect* system for teacher feedback

To get this process right, we have to know what feedback is and what it is not.  This concept confused me when I first thought about it.

To put it in simplest terms: we say we’re giving feedback, but we’re giving advice and judgementGrant Wiggins taught me this.

Advice is when we tell students what to do. We do this too much.  Students can figure it out on their own. We need to tell them when they’re on the right track.
Judgement is when we tell students their work is “good” or “bad.”  We don’t give a measuring stick, but instead, a label.
Imagine a doctor who says, “You’re somewhat healthy, kinda chubby, but failing fast in a few areas. I’d say you’re at 62%. Try more next time.”
This is terrible! Doctors give feedback based on standards. “You’re weight is in the slightly above-average range. Your vision is 20/60 but 20/20 with your lenses. You’re showing symptoms of chronic allergies.” 
Then, she gets into the advice. Keep up your prescribed diet we discussed. This should help with weight control and your allergies.”
Teachers can give feedback like doctors. Specific, based on standards, and with the patients (the students) there in the room.
As it stands from my experience students need…

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Writing and the Energy to Teach

This was post was inspired by a session at NerdCampNJ on teacher bloggers.  At the end of the session, the session attendees agreed to write about a shared topic: the teacher as writer.  Several of us have contributed blogs to a Google Doc in order to get the ball rolling. Go check out two of the other teacher blogs, written by Ms. Monica Crudele and Mr. Jeff Krapels. Also, go to the comments to post a link to your blog or tell us about your obstacles as a teacher-writer.

Sometimes people ask me how I have the energy to write a weekly post while teaching full time. Without trying it, people assume that it takes more time and energy to write and teach than it does to teach.

Those people are right about the time–I can’t make more of that. But, they are wrong about the energy.

Writing about teaching is one of the biggest sources of energy that I get from my profession. It’s right up there, second only to the energy from kids engaged in learning. So, writing gives me the energy to teach and teaching gives me the energy to write.

It goes some like this:

  1. Something in my teaching seems worthy of sharing or reflecting on. I’m focusing in on one strategy or system, for example, or I’ve read a new book and am implementing its ideas.
  2. I begin to write about it.
  3. As I write about it, I figure it out. For example:  With balancing whole class and independent reading, for example, I realized that I believed in short whole-class texts. For full-length works, the Whole Novels approach is my go-to (here’s why we should read novels). Additionally, I should work on creating a culture of readers while doing both. I believed both of these, but writing about them solidified my thoughts.
  4. Now, with that writing done, those ideas come back into the classroom, more refined.
  5. Going forward, at points I notice that there’s nothing to write about. This also helps me to manage my energy. It means that:
    1. I’m not focused on learning something new
    2. I’m not teaching in a way that energizes me (either because of the content or the pedagogy)
    3. There’s a problem that I’m not addressing (a certain class or student not doing so well, for example)
  6. This is another source of writing material, another place to figure things out on the page. These issues led me to teach for a year without grading. It also led to me reflecting on why my students ignored the reading homework.
  7. The cycle continues: write about teaching, notice the struggles, and figure out those struggles through writing. Repeat.

So, for me, it’s not a matter of finding the time and energy to both teach and write. The two are actually one.

Do you write about your teaching, either for yourself or the public? Post your blog link below. Or, post about what’s holding you back.

Tool for shame or path to growth? How teachers can do “cold calling” right

First: Students with medical accommodations must be respected.  If these accommodations include specifics about speaking, then ideas in this post may not apply. 

Second: Those situations aside, it’s healthy for students to feel on-the-spot. Healthy discomfort leads to growth. This post explores how to push students to participate even if they’re shy in September.

Third: let’s define the term. Cold calling is when a teacher asks students to participate, hand up or not. This is powerful, but it has a bad image. Fear, anxiety, embarrassment. This connotation comes from practices, discussed below, that teachers use. These practices work against us.

Used with care, cold calling can:

  1. Build confidence: as I said, it can help to get shy kids talking
  2. Maintain accountability: through the year, students learn that everyone speaks
  3. Assess learning: the responses are a random set of student thoughts (not just outgoing kids)
  4. Improve conversations: the class hears all voices 

If your students are anything like mine, some are shy but full of ideas. Others work slowly. Others get distracted. This is a lot to consider.

There are two situations when teachers often cold call. Both of these situations make class discussions worse.

First, calling on students when they’re not paying attention. This is a way to assert dominance through embarrassment. The goal is to have students learn from this bad feeling and remain focused in the future.

That doesn’t happen. Cold calling as punishment breeds resentment. Plus, other students laugh. Now, the student further disrupts class for revenge. This erodes the classroom community.

Second, the initiate-respond-evaluate (I-R-E) discussion. You know the technique: Teacher asks the question, one kid answers, teacher says “wrong” or “right”…next question. This is brutal for everyone.  If the question has one right answer, students can read it or hear it from the teacher.

To recap, cold calling does more harm than good when it is a gotcha technique. And, it is a waste of time if there is only one answer. But, with care, cold calling (1) builds confidence, (2) keeps students accountable, (3) assesses learning, and (4) improves conversations.

At this point, you may be concerned about how shy students will react to cold calling. If they don’t have an answer to your question, they’ll feel embarrassed. If they feel that their answer is not good enough, likewise. You may worry about letting kids “off the hook” if they don’t want to speak. You don’t want to force kids. These are reasonable concerns.

To address those, make one change: Don’t use cold calling as a one-and-done event. Instead, use it as the last step in a process.  The process of asking good questions, giving time to think, and eventually hearing all student voices.

The foundation is asking good questions

The description of a good question is probably up for debate. It might be better to describe the bad questions. Everyone has been asked one of those. If you’ve sat through a class, a meeting, or a sermon, you’ve heard a bad question from a  speaker. Some examples:

  1. A fact-based recall question with one right answer
  2. A yes or no question with one right answer
  3. A question about the reading, when the teacher knows that students ignored the reading homework
  4. When you ramble on, adding lots of extra, ya know, descriptive phrases and modifiers, and what you actually mean, might be a good question, but you have to circle back around and make sure you clarify your point, and then at the end you say, so what I’m getting at here is, when your question is too long

My recipe for a good question contains three ingredients: short, open-ended, interesting. You might say, what about Bloom’s Taxonomy? What about that PD session I sat through?

You’re probably right that I’m oversimplifying this. But those three terms are my parameters for good questions.  I also use the questions from the three-part lesson that works with any text.  My overall point here is that no number of great discussion techniques will help if the question asked is a bad one.

Now that the foundation is built with good questions, we can get students thinking, and cold call to hear what they have to say.

Move + cold call

This one is so simple. I love it, though. It goes like this:

Ask all students to move to show that they’ve made a choice. After everyone picks, students talk about their choice. This can be in pairs or small groups. The last step is the cold call. The teacher selects students at random. These students share their choice. Additionally, students share the ideas behind a classmate’s choice.

Here’s an example you might here in my class:

From a scale of 1-5, 1 is low and 5 is high, how strong is Leonard Pitts Jr.’s argument in this piece? Put up 1-5 fingers. Remember, index finger for number 1. (This covers outstanding grudges.) Find at least one quote to prove your choice.

Please turn and talk with the people at your table. Tell them why you picked that number. Give an example from the editorial to support your choice. In three minute’s I’m going to ask three people at random to report on your conversation.

Students have two steps for preparing here. They make a choice and show me when they are ready by holding up a number of fingers. Then, they do an intellectual rehearsal in small groups before I cold call.

You can also have students move to sides or corners of the room. One side is agree and one side is disagree, for example.

An alternate version of this is the Take a Stand strategy.

Confer + cold call.

Listen in or speak with students during a turn and talk session. When their idea is valuable for the whole class to hear, ask them if they’ll share it:

That’s a great point, Kaitlynn. Do you mind sharing that with everyone in a moment?

If she says yes, then I’m meeting one of those objectives of cold calling discussed at the top of the post.

If Kaitlynn says she would not like to share, then I might say:

Ok, understandable. Do you mind if I explain the idea to your classmates?

So, Kaitlynn’s idea is still validated in front of the class. Hopefully that nudges her more towards saying “yes” to sharing during a future discussion and then participating on her own volition.

Quick write + cold call

After giving students time to process their thoughts with a 1-2 minute quick write, I’m comfortable with asking a few students to share a single line of their writing.

I’d most likely tell students the whole process when giving them the quick write instructions:

In a moment we’ll do a 90 second quick write. Remember that this is a first draft for everyone. After we finish writing, I’ll ask three people to read or paraphrase their writing.

There’s no “gotcha” here because students can read ideas they already have on their paper.

For a shy student who resists, I may suggest that a classmate reads their writing or I read it.  Then, I’ll still ask them to add any details we missed or clarify something. This, again, encourages the student to eventually participate without this prompting.

Notice that some writing lends itself to this type of sharing more than other kinds. I use my best judgement here when asking students to share personal writing as opposed to argumentative, for example.

Turn and talk + cold call with options

These are beginning to sound like clips from a football playbook. This is my most used and favorite cold call technique because it leads to organic discussion. (Organic discussion: when students continue the discussion with little/no facilitation.) Here’s how this would sound:

I want you to talk to the people at your table for two minutes about the way the character in your independent reading book relates to or differs from Holden Caulfield. Afterwards, I’ll ask three people to report back.


Ok,…Alex, Sarah, and Shreya. Share what you said or what you heard a classmate say.

This is my favorite because students can share the things they found most interesting in their conversation. Shreya says:

Well, I heard Andrew explain that Holden seems kind of stuck because he doesn’t do anything about his pain but the character in Andrew’s book is starting to act out in school because of it.

Then I follow up and ask Andrew to fill us in on the details.

Then, the process continues with Alex and Sarah commenting, too.

Because students can choose to share the ideas of their classmates, those classmates are more likely to enter the conversation. If the student needs to clarify or expand upon what the original speaker said, all the better.

So, in summary:

  1. “Gotcha” cold call
  2. I-R-E cold call
  3. Move then cold call
  4. Confer + cold call
  5. Quick write + cold call
  6. Turn and talk + cold call with options

These techniques gives students an intellectual rehearsal before they speak in front of the class.  Instead of shaming or boring students, we can lead students towards speaking with confidence.

Do you cold call on students? Why or why not?

Here are some comments from Twitter (all made from public profiles to my public profile) to get us started:


Better Read Alouds [Video]

Read alouds happen in my class nearly everyday. I teach sophomores, some of whom have twelfth grade or college reading levels. Still, read alouds, almost every day.

Why? Well, language is meant to be heard. Fluent reading comes from hearing fluent readers. Clear writing comes from hearing clear writers. 

In that way, the read aloud is a high value literacy experience. Plus, it engages kids, while requiring very few supplies or special circumstances. As literacy teachers, the read aloud is there for us, every day, a tool we can use in our class. But, it takes work.

Two steps towards improving read alouds: Practice the skill of reading aloud well to students. Create the circumstances that cause the read aloud to help us meet instructional goals. Here are some reminders to myself, followed by a video of me reading aloud to my students.

How to make the most of read alouds


We have to know the section of the text that we want to read. Don’t open the book to the chapter that your class is reading and read “for a little while.” I’ve done that, and I drag it on too long. Even if it’s a great book, I select clear start and end point.

As you’ll see in my example below, identifying a “scene” is one option. The opening or closing of a chapter is another option. Or, a conversation between two characters. Students won’t know that more follows if you use your voice to make it feel final.

The read aloud should be the perfect length. Yes, that’s all I’ll say about that. A read aloud that is too short doesn’t have time to build momentum and get students sucked into the narrative. A read aloud that is too long has students wondering when the teacher will end, and unless the story and the reader are truly compelling, it is hard to hold students’ interest. That may just be my experience. I know that some books when read aloud can keep students attention for a long time.


Are you reading aloud because you want students to read the book independently? Because you want students to learn specific information? Because you want to model a specific type of reading (reading a play, perhaps). Or because the excerpt will lead the class into a learning activity–more reading, writing, or scaffolded reading questions. That’s what I show in the example below.


This is a vague word that, in this case, means we should try our best when reading aloud. Change voices for different parts, characters, narrators, emotions, etc. It doesn’t have to be drastic. But it’s interesting if it is. My teacher Dr. Meixner was great at doing read alouds, and she was teaching 21 and 22-year-old students. I remember hearing her read aloud from Tangerine by Edward Bloor in our reading methods class. Similarly, my teacher Mr. Mahoney had a class that included many exhausted student teachers, yet he still captivated the class with his read alouds. So the passion that we put into read alouds matters a lot. It sticks in the memories of our students.

Plus, this makes it fun. Even when I’m a tired teacher, it’s energizing to do a read aloud and surprise myself with my animation, Students respond to this.


The post-read aloud task should send students back into the text to find something that they noticed. After hearing the words read aloud, students will have an appreciation for the language that they might not get from silent reading. A simple question like “What sentence stands out to you?” works well.

Perhaps the last piece to improving our read alouds, as with any skill, is feedback. In this case, feedback comes in the form of self-reflection (and any comments on this blog post). And let’s be clear, I’m not immune to that unique feeling that comes from watching and listening to myself (Fear? Nausea?). But, I know that it’s essential for getting better. Again, at any area of life.

[Video: Part 1]

[Video: Part 2]

Reflection and notes:

[Side note: the lesson students are working on here is inspired by the 10 Beautiful Sentences project by Matt Morone. Click here to read about it.]

0:15 – 0:20 I tell the class that we will read a passage from The Catcher in the Rye where we gain insight into the meaning of the title. Andrew raises his hand.


“I don’t know…I just raised my hand,” he says. Kids are great.

0:30 – 2:00 First, I ramble a bit about the title. Then, I introduce the purpose of our reading, reminding students of their current project. This is finding and identifying powerful sentences in their reading.  I tell students that there is a powerful sentence that I’ve identified in the following excerpt. Next, I provide some context about the scene. 

2:20 – 2:24 “Just look for any sentences that stands out to you as powerful.” This was the task that I set for students. It was too vague. Better would have been to tell students to leave their finger on one sentence that they notice, or even make a light pencil mark next to one sentence. “Look” is too vague of a verb.

2:30 – 3:05 I’m doing my best to differentiate between the two voices, Phoebe and Holden. I do a decent Phoebe, making my voice higher and showing her frustration. Holden sounds too similar, though. Needs more apathy.

*This video was record with my cell phone and a Swivl. At the 3 minute mark, I got a call from an unrecognized number and had to block the call and press record again. Did I mention this was happening in a real classroom on a typical school day?*

Part 2:

0:00 – 0:55 The passage continues, a bit fast. Overall, I’m trying to convey the reflection that Holden is experiencing in this scene.  

0:56 – 1:30 I give a the follow-up task to students:

“Point to a sentence that sticks out to you and explain to the person next to you why you chose that sentence. Literally point to one sentence, read it to the person next to you, and tell them why you picked the sentence. Person closest to the back of the room can share first.”

Here is some redemption for those vague directions in part 1. This is a simple, manageable task that gets kids talking about the language of the passage. That was the purpose of this read aloud.

We finished by hearing three examples from students around the room. They identified the sentence that I had in mind as well as a few others.

So, with intention and practice, the read aloud is another tool we can use to build student literacy skills. Done well, it also helps to build a culture of readers.

What is your favorite text to read aloud? Tell us in the comments.

To be good writers, students need good taste

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?” – Ira Glass

The writing teacher should make him or herself more and more obsolete as time goes on. We are not shady chiropractors. We don’t want repeat clients. We want the students to learn the content and skills they need to succeed without us.

When it comes to teaching writing, we can encourage independence by teaching students to develop good taste for writing. Then they will know when, where, how, and why to revise.

When I write my blog posts, I rarely have someone read them over. And, you might say, it shows, because I often publish the post, re-read it and notice a few errors. Then I correct them. But I also go through a revision process on my own between drafting and publishing.

We can teach students to revise and edit their work without us. We can’t force them. We can teach them.

How do we do this?

We teach students to have taste for good writing. Then, students notice the difference between good writing and their first draft. We tell them to fix the first draft so it looks more like the good writing.

How do we teach students to develop taste in good writing?

We show them what good writing looks like.  We can do this through a variety of writing lessons.

Lesson 1: Analyze a writer’s style by comparing two texts

I stumbled on this lesson by accident about four years ago.

In the morning class, students read one piece by Leonard Pitts. They annotated with the purpose of identifying his voice. There were crickets when it came time to discuss.

In the afternoon class, students read two pieces by Leonard Pitts. This time, they looked for the elements of his voice that they saw in both pieces. Eureka! The students saw fragments, parallel structure, anecdotes, counterclaims, and lots more.

This lesson encourages good taste because students observe the moves good writers use over and over. Even if students can’t write like the pros yet, they can notice when their writing does some of these things.

Lesson 2: Socrative Writing Pedagogy

This one is by Jen Roberts. Again, it is simple and powerful. It helps students develop their taste in writing. Here’s how it works:

Teacher preparation: set a goal. It should relate to one aspect of students’ writing that you’d like to see improved.

  1. Students have a finished a draft, or at least a finished part of a writing piece.
  2. Students re-read their writing with the goal in mind (e.g. emulate the voice of Holden Caufield).
  3. Students select a part of their writing that best meets the goal. They copy and paste their writing into a short answer question on Socrative.
  4. After all students have submitted, press “start vote.” *This feature lets students anonymously view all of their classmates’ responses* Students  vote on the three best pieces by their peers.  Sometimes students vote on the ones that are funny instead of actually good. Watch out for that.
  5. Take a moment to copy and paste the three best student pieces onto some blank slides. This takes a few minutes. You may want to ask students to turn and discuss their votes with a partner.
  6. Display the three slides, each containing one of the best examples of student writing. Lead the class through discussing the postiive qualities of each of these examples.
  7. Send students back into their writing to revise with the best examples in mind.

Lesson 3: Circle the “betterness”

At NCTE Boston, Kelly Gallagher spoke with Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani. The topic was encouraging student revision.  Kelly began his part by leading the audience through this lesson:

[Side note: I’ll never forget the writing piece that Mr. Gallagher shared. It was a personal narrative he wrote about the death of his father. That was a meta-lesson in teacher vulnerability for me. Read his narrative here.]

  1. Select one of your best student papers and one of your average student papers. Use papers from last year. Or, use papers from another class. Or write two examples of your own.
  2. Ask students to read both papers.
  3. Have students circle the “betterness” in the best paper.
  4. Turn and talk, then discuss the traits as a whole class.
  5. Ask students to revise their writing, borrowing from that “betterness.”

You might say that this is copying. Everyone copies other people when they are learning. You have to have good taste before you can develop your own style. And part of the process of developing good taste is to copy the style of others. I’m doing it right now.

Developing good taste–that’s not an ending. It’s a beginning. It’s like you are wondering around lost and  finally recognize the neighborhood. You’re not at the destination yet, so there’s still work to do. But you know the direction that you need to travel.

This post was inspired by this video featuring Ira Glass.

Better PD (for introverts, too)

You’re up early on a Saturday. No teacher clothes, today, though. Jeans, baby!

The night before, your spouse said, “you’ve got that teacher camp thing tomorrow, right?”  

You’re a dedicated teacher, doing out-of-school PD. And whether it’s the weekend or a district-given school day, your time is valuable. So is mine. So I’m writing this post at 5:43 AM on the Monday morning after attending nErDcampNJ 2017 because Better PD involves a strategy. 


Matt Morone and yours truly discussing assessment in the high school ELA classroom at nErDcampNJ 2017 in Chatham, NJ.

[The headline says “for introverts.” I’m not sure about my personality assignment, but crowds exhaust me.  Not anxiety, but need-a-nap. These tips are for those who feel the same.]

What follows are reminders and realizations with some preferences too.

Prepare, preview, and plan. Review the session list, research the topics, Google the speakers, and plan out your day. This avoids time wasted.

Go for depth over breadth. This is a personal preference. I like to choose 1-2 topics of interest or urgency for my teaching and focus my time around those topics. This makes it more likely that I’ll find something useful to use in my classroom after the session.

After my first NCTE in Boston 2013, I got excited by seven different topics and came home with a stack of professional books from the Heinemann tent. Trying it all in the classroom was fun and exciting, but it also was unfocused and distracting. Now, I’d prefer to go deep on a few things that are useful right now.

Introduce yourself first.  Often, there are teachers at an event who I may recognize from the Internet but have never met in person. This is weird. Acknowledging this weirdness and still introducing myself with a handshake melts the weirdness. There are built-in conversation starters to use: what sessions are you attending? Where do you teach? How did you find out about today?  Many people are uncomfortable around large crowds, especially when alone. Introducing yourself to someone could make their day.

Sit somewhere random during breaks. The peak of social anxiety for a large PD event can be breakfast, lunch, or happy hour. Again, this is where introducing yourself to someone can improve the day. Further, begin a conversation with one person, then bring in a third person.  You might say, Hey, person X, this is person Y, I’m Jerry. We were talking about…

Speaking of breaks, take them. Even during a morning event, my brain absorbs more if I take a 20-30 minute break every 90 minutes or so. This gets me thinking about the strain of a typical school day for students. No wonder some students struggle to concentrate. Sitting is exhausting.

Bonus: go outside. I wrote the notes that became this post on the front bench of Chatham High School. Our students would benefit from a designated in-between-class break area outside, too. Weather permitting.

Do a brain dump as soon as possible.  We exchange so much information during PD. We lose most of it. Sit with a notebook, even in your car. Do a quick write and list the words, phrases, and ideas that you remember from sessions. Then, do the same about whole day. Here are my notes after nErDcampNJ:


I write in hieroglyphics for added security.

If you are a teacher-writer, this is more valuable. I wrote a draft of this post in 15 minutes because of my notes.

Use Twitter intentionally. This is difficult. At times, the super-dopamine-highway of Twitter gets me during a conference. So much engagement! Now, I like to listen, take notes, and go on Twitter later to reflect or share a picture. Again, this is a preference. Do what you like to do.

Try to plan follow-up actions. Matt Morone and I hosted a session on Innovative Approaches in the High School ELA Classroom.  Now, we will host #CELChat on June 7. This is a great way to take the discussion at this weekend’s nErDcampNJ and continue it. Plan to meet up with another educator again. Use an idea from a session and email the presenter about it. Read someone’s book and Tweet them about it. It’s good to follow-up.

Read this far? Next, go to the comments. Tell us your routine, hack, or strategy for making the most of PD.

How to use “text sets” to balance students’ reading lives

A range of readings, selected with purpose, can help to provide students with the literacy experience they need.


  1. Fake reading is a problem, and
  2. Students need independent and shared texts, but
  3. Novels are not the easy answer, then…

How do we organize our literacy instruction?

Working backwards from the goals of volume, range, and complexity for students’ reading, this post describes the mental model that has shaped my planning over the past few months.

I’ll call it the text sets approach.

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How to design a no opt-out reading assessment

The assessment, the test, is one of the quintessential aspects of American schooling. The experience of testing reminds me of these quotes:

“Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
“High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.”

Both of these come from Alexis Wiggins, daughter of the late, great Grant Wiggins, and high school learning coach.  She shared these two observations in a post she wrote after shadowing two students during a typical school day.

In her post, she says that her realizations were not a critique of any teachers but of our shared system of schooling. It is a system in which many students watch teachers or classmates do all the work. They may informally opt-out of their education yet still pass through their classes.

The literature classroom may be suspect number one in this discussion.

Do we allow students to intellectually “opt-out” during activities, discussions, or assessments of reading? Can students earn good grades even if they have not read? This is the culture of fake reading.

To address this problem, we can focus on the book, the reading, and the reader.  In this post, I’ll share a case from my sophomore honors English class as an example of an instance where I’ve tried to design an assessment that encourages opting into deeper reading instead of trying to avoid it.

The book for the unit was Lord of the Flies, selected because I thought all of the students could read it with little scaffolding, its content related to a curricular unit on geography and season in literature, and it begs some interesting questions about human nature.

The reading was based on Ariel Sacks’s Whole Novels approach. This means that:

  1. I introduced the novel, gave students a suggested reading schedule, and set a deadline for finishing the book.
  2. Students made responses throughout the book in the form of asking and proposing answers to their own questions. The topic of these questions was open-ended; they asked questions about topics of interest or connections to our work in class.
  3. We held off on discussing the book formally until students had read all of it. Which means that…
  4. During class, instead of stopping to dissect each chapter, we read supplemental nonfiction and poetry, and students did mini-projects to address literary elements from the book. One example was the character map, pictured below.

A character map created by four of my sophomore English students.

The readers had mixed reactions to the book but became more engaged for the final assessment. This was a mock trial in which William Golding was tried for libel against humanity. This activity that has been written about by other educators, including Jim Burke.

The assessment allowed students to practice these academic and social skills:

  • Collaborating with team members to solve a problem
  • Speaking like an expert in front of peers
  • Writing authentically

How this prevented “opt-out”

Students took roles as lawyers, the author, characters, or Enlightenment philosophers.  They prepared to ask or answer questions during the trial, so they had to anticipate the important moments in the book that lawyers might discuss.

Even if students had not fully engaged in their first draft reading of the book, they were compelled to revisit important parts of the text during their preparation.  Literacy teachers know that re-reading is a valuable strategy for a difficult text, so seeing this re-reading suggested to me that this assessment had value.

The results, teacher perspective

On the day of the trial, students were palpably nervous and excited.  We arranged the room to resemble a court, students read opening statements, and then the lawyers began calling witnesses to the stand.

As students answered unfamiliar questions, asked by their peers, about the novel, it became very clear to me which students had read the book and which hadn’t.

One of my main gripes with the focus on literary analysis in the high school ELA classrooms is that students are masters of completing the assignments without reading. For this assignment, though, students’ reading and comprehension of the text were both much more clear to me.

It’s harder to pretend that you’ve read a book when you are questioning every character about their motivations, asking a philosopher about his perspective on the plot, or acting as one of those aforementioned roles and interpreting the events of the novel.

The results, student perspective

I asked students to share the strengths and weaknesses of this assessment and to compare it to a typical project or test. Here is a selection of their responses:

One of the strengths in this type of assessment is that it allows a student to fully demonstrate their understanding of a book even if they lack knowing some parts.
we were not forced to stare at a paper for 55 minutes or a screen for 1 to 2 hours so it created a memorable experience where everyone was given an equal chance to speak and present their case and ideas. The strengths of a mock trial is that it is a different way of learning that is interactive which enhances an overall learning experience.
I feel like I prepared a lot more for the debate and was a lot more enthusiastic about the trial than I would be about a normal test or quiz.
For tests, many people memorize information but during the mock trial you had to understand the information to do well.
I feel that writing a paper on this topic would have been more effective because this would give each student a chance to share their ideas that they felt strongly about, but did not have a chance to express them when being asked questions right on the spot.
I feel that I learned more through the trial than if I would have written or paper or taken a test because the trial was not about merely restating what happened the book and analyzing its meaning, but rather about getting a full, deep understanding of the novel, and how there could be different interpretations of the text.

So, some students rightfully argued that they did not have as much of an open-ended opportunity to share their thinking about the text as they might have had if we wrote a paper on the novel. Other students suggested that the quality of the discussion of the book led to deeper learning than might have occurred otherwise.

The Takeaways

It was both a whole class reading of a novel and a whole class project, which doesn’t happen too often. Part of the benefits of a whole class text is the classroom community that it can help to build, and this project helped to further emphasize the community aspect of teaching the novel. It might be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate this kind of whole class project if the students had not all read the same novel.

With that said, next time I’d like to integrate a choice reading aspect to this unit. Students could’ve researched and read articles that demonstrate both the good and bad of human nature. That could’ve been an ongoing task throughout the unit for non-fiction independent reading. This would provide more of a balanced literacy experience for the students.

In the closing of her article, Alexis Wiggins says the following:

“I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder.”

This experience reminds me that I should design student-centered assessments. Many students are working hard, so let’s have them work hard on things that matter.

Forget everything except the Book, the Reading, and the Readers

My recent writing and professional reading is focused on one system: making required reading, and specifically novels, work for students and teachers.

This is an extension of Hacking Literacy, which included a system for creating the right environment for readers.  That book is the where and the why of a literacy classroom: It offers steps to create a place where a culture of readers can grow and arguments on why such a place is important.

Sticking with the 5Ws theme, the last few posts are focused on the what and the how of reading instruction. I’m trying to answer these questions:

  • What should we provide students to read so that they are challenged with volume, range, and complexity?
  • How do we provide students a balanced, them-centered literacy experienced while meeting the other mandates of our jobs?

This second bullet hints at a reality that must be acknowledged: Many teachers are compelled to teach specific texts to their students. These may be whole novels, short stories, nonfiction books, essays, poems, or plays.

One of the most common types of required reading at the secondary level is the whole class novel.  Unfortunately, teaching a whole class novel without intention is also one of the less effective things that literacy educators do.

We might benefit from a system for how to select, plan, and assess students’ whole class reading.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call this system The Book, The Reading, and The Readers.

  1. The Book: There must be a compelling reason for students to read this specific book. Maybe you or your students have hand-picked this book. Maybe you are a first-year teacher who must keep her job, you are surrounded by veterans, and you have a curriculum mandate to teach a book. 
  2. The Reading: The reading process should mirror an adult’s reading of a novel as closely as possible. It has been argued by many literacy educators with more experience than me that dissecting every moment of a whole class novel will turn students off from reading and will likely not make them better readers, either. (See here and here.)
  3. The Readers: The assessment should not destroy the reading process for student readers but should extend it in a meaningful and exciting way. This third option is the subject of next week’s post.

It’s most likely the case that all three of these components cannot be optimized at all times, and it might be exhausting to try to achieve that.  However, if we strive towards care with The Book, The Reading, and The Readers, then we may succeed in selecting the right texts for our class and teaching them in a way that moves students forward.

How do you design whole class reading experiences?

My students ignored the reading homework. What should I do?

A reflection and how-to on asking students to read at home.

Just to clarify: this is not a hypothetical post. Not a thought experiment. This is about the other day in room 141, and yours truly walking around the room, slowly realizing that the lesson planned was nearly impossible because the students had not done the reading.

In that moment, what is there to do? Or more importantly, why did it happen in the first place?

I question whether assigning curricular texts for homework is valuable in the first place. Without a doubt, students need to read home if they are going to improve enough to meet those goals of volume, range, and complexity. But on the other hand, telling students to read a specific novel or story is a more delicate process. Students might fake read.  Students might cheat. Or students might not do it. This third option was most popular on this particular day.

What are the details? Let’s dive in…

The Assignment

I assigned students “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. As a first-draft reading task, I asked them to imagine that each page of the story was a chapter that they had to create a title for in a few words. The task was simple so that it didn’t bog students down from the main focus: the reading.  But when I circled around the room, fewer than half of the students had titles on the top of their pages. Some of those students appeared to have hastily scribbled words at the beginning of class.

The follow-up task planned for the day, intended as a short warm-up, asked students to compare the titles of their pages, select the most accurate titles for each page, and use the words/phrases of their titles to write a short retelling of the story. Then, the plan was, we would share these retellings, come to a consensus on the main ideas of the story, and move on to a guided reading of a few key scenes.  

Because of the low number of students who completed the reading, we never got past this retelling.

I assigned a focused tasks, and the students had three days to complete it (I’ll get back to that).  

So where did I go wrong?

Looking back, there were a few problems with my reading assignment…

The Roadblocks

Of course, the errors in our decision making are easier to spot in hindsight, but they are still a valuable discussion point. Teacher reflection is valuable. This is what I now realize may have contributed to my students lack of reading at home:

  1. The previous class period was a Friday and the the last period of the day. Teacher-student communication is strained during this time.
  2. The class traveled to the library for this period, in order to browse independent reading books and select one for later reading.
  3. I did very little framing or introduction of the story, aside from distributing the copies and explaining the assignment to students before we went to the library.
  4. I gave it to students to read over a three day weekend. Reading assignments, especially, are less likely to be completed over an extended break or weekend, my bias personal experience tells me.

There wee a few options for how to respond once I realized that very few students read. I believe I could either (A) press on with my lesson as planned, (B) read the story aloud or (C) both A and B. Yes, I opted for C. So, the students who did read moved on to creating their retellings of the story, while those who did not read spent the remaining time reading the story.  This was not the best case scenario, but I think it was a reasonable response to the situation.

How you can learn from my mistake

Here are a few questions to ask for when students didn’t read…or better yet…a few questions to ask before assigning reading:

  • Has this text been properly framed and introduced to the students? Does it feel “random”?
  • Do students have the knowledge and skills to read this text independently?
  • Do students have the stamina to read this text independently?
  • Have I created a reasonable, meaningful task for students to do with this reading?
  • Do students know how this text fits into our lesson, unit of study, and general year-long focus?
  • Is there any other logistical thing (tech access, a big school event, a long weekend) that might make it more or less likely that students will do the reading?

Now, it’s unreasonable for most teachers to stop and reflect on these questions in some kind of formal way.  But this list deserves some merit, even just to skim this once, and internalize some of these for the next time a situation like mine comes up.

It may be that you have a more hardline stance on required reading, and you would have pressed on with your lesson as planned. On the contrary, you may be against all required reading, and therefore much of this post is meaningless to you. Either way, I’d love to know: what do you think I should have done differently?

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