simplicity-wins-again-and-again

Reading Workshop Minilessons from Three of the Masters

As I’ve mentioned before when discussing curriculum, it’s easy to get distracted by new ideas. Fortunately, there are expert educators with firm beliefs who can remind us of the important stuff. For today, those experts are reading workshop experts Kylene Beers, Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne (The Three Wise Women).

These literary all-stars posted a Facebook live video the other night in which they discussed the value of reading logs as compared to other ways of keeping kids accountable for their reading. Can you guess what they thought of reading logs?

reading workshop minilessons

Beers, Lesesne and Miller

Here are some highlights from their talk, with my commentary.  The big idea is this: students need to choose what they read, and they need to write and speak to each other about this reading. This doesn’t mean the whole class novel is out, but it means that the whole class novel can’t be the only type of reading that students do.

Now, on to the Three Wise Women… (all quotes are taken as accurately as possible from the video, bolding is mine)

Donalyn Miller:

“I did reading logs when I was a new teacher because everyone in my department was doing them. But what I realized that very first year that I taught was that I was chasing the same kids every Friday for their reading logs. And what I realized was that those kids I was chasing were the ones who didn’t have home support, so what was I really grading?

Donalyn makes a few essentials point here:

1. She brings up the idea that many new teachers take on the practices of the teachers in their department, even if their teacher preparation program or teaching philosophy differs. I credit my former colleague, Kristen Luettchau, with starting an independent reading program when we worked together. She motivated me to do the same during my first year of teaching, even though it wasn’t the norm at the time.

2. Donalyn mentions that the same kids missed the reading logs every week. This shows that the reading log often fails to motivate students or hold them accountable, but it is simply a punitive grading measure that does little to encourage reading. We need better assessment systems than this.

3. One might argue that home support is more relevant in the younger grades, when parent support is essential for students doing homework. But  the effects of home support on student success don’t disappear as children age, they just change. The child who doesn’t have anyone at home to sign her reading log during fourth grade may be the same child working a job or two after school in 10th grade.

Again, from DM:

“We really only have two ways of knowing what kids are thinking when they’re reading: what they tell us, and what they write down.”

There are only two ways mentioned here. Combine those two with the reading itself, and these three actions should compose the bulk of how students spend their time in our classes. Read a variety of texts, and then write and speak about the ideas and craft of those texts.  This immediately brings to mind Dave Stuart Jr.’s These Five Things, All Year Long. Three of the “things” are reading, writing, and speaking, purposefully and often.

It is easy to think that the more complex of a system we use, the more accountability measures we have, the more data we have, the better we can teach our students. But when it comes to instruction or assessment, simplicity wins, again and again.  Even when my students are reading for 10 minutes, I spend that time having two to three short conversations with students about their reading. In most cases, this is far more valuable than a reading quiz.

From Teri Lesesne:

“There’s that power of other kids recommending books to other kids. Rather than me always being the one talking about the books.”

I like to think that a great teacher makes herself less and less relevant, until her students eventually run the class on their own. A first step towards empowering students in a literacy class is to consistently model how to give book talks, and then expect students to give their own book talks to their classmates when they finish a book.

I’ve had the most success in getting students to consistently give book talks when we’ve had a few conversations about the book as they are reading. This way, their thoughts are pre-validated, and I drop a hint like, “Can you tell us about this part of the book when you finish?” Consistent student book talks help build a culture of readers in the classroom like few other instructional practices. (Just ask Gerilyn Lessing)

From Kylene Beers, quoting Penny Kittle

“She said, ‘We all worry about the summer reading slump…what about kids having a reading slump for nine months?’ When all they do is read four books for the year that the teacher has assigned, and they don’t really read those, they look at the Sparknotes or Wikipedia.”

This is a call for balanced curriculum. Is there value in teaching whole class novels? Yes, and I recommend Ariel Sacks’ Whole Novels for the Whole Class. But, it is too easy to fall into the 4X4 curriculum that Beers mentions above, which leaves students doing little to no real reading during the course of the school year. Yes, they may end up reading some short passages in class and echoing the themes discussed by other students. They won’t, though, spend the minutes and hours required to develop reading stamina that will carry them through college and adulthood as a reader.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Workshop Minilessons from Three of the Masters

  1. It’s interesting to me that one of the women in the video publicly chastised me at a YAL conference when I referred to myself as a “reluctant reader who became an English teacher.” I didn’t even get to ask my question-nor explain my love of etymology, grammar, and non-fiction-because she cut me off. It’s that kind of snobbery and shame that keeps reluctant readers hiding and insecure– and keeps teachers from reaching them.

    • gerard.dawson1@gmail.com

      I’m sorry to hear about your negative experience. If anything, it seems that your identity as a “reluctant reader who became an English teacher” would help you empathize with students who are in the same position where you once found yourself. Thanks for reading and sharing your experience.

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