This week: The Hate U Give, changing mindsets and emojis

I know I’m late to the game, but I recently began The Hate U Give  by Angie Thomas.  My inspiration for beginning this book actually came from one of my students, Demetria, who is quite the avid reader.  Already this year, she’s read The Skin I’m In, Dear Martin, Long Way Down and All-American Boys.  I thought it would be fun to read some of Thomas’s book so that I could ask Demetria questions about it during our independent reading time.  I got hooked into the book early on though, and now we are sort of reading it together (she comes into homeroom each morning and opens my bookmark to see how far I’ve read).  It’s a healthy competition, and it’s giving us a lot to discuss.download

Anyhow, at the start of the book, the main character, Starr, is in the car with her friend Khalil when they get pulled over by the police as Khalil is driving her home from a party.  The incident gets out of hand and the cop shoots Khalil three times in the back, and Starr watches her friend bleed to death on the street. The book centers around this act of violence, and the over-policing of African-Americans is one of the novel’s central themes.  Though the scene where Khalil is killed is only a few pages, it is full of sensory details that paint a vivid picture of this gruesome image.  So of course I had to read it aloud to all of my classes.

Anyone who has ever taught middle school knows that they are truly elementary school students in overgrown bodies.  In all four of my Language Arts classes, students protested, “Don’t stop! Keep reading!” when I got to the end of the excerpt.  Nearly 90% of my students are African-American and/or Latino, so many of them had experienced or knew family members and friends who had experienced negative interactions with law enforcement. Most of my students admitted to having “the talk” with a parent or grandparent previously about how they should speak to police officers if they are ever stopped and questioned. I confessed to my students that I had never had such a talk with my parents, and that just the week before I was pulled over for speeding and let off with just a warning, to which they hollered, “Because you’re white!”.

In addition to Demetria, three other students hustled to the library to check out this book.  It’s amazing how powerful our influence can be over students and what they read when we provide them with dramatic readings from engaging texts.  Book talks are such an easy yet effective way to hook students into a text. When I read the first chapter aloud from Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, I immediately had five students reading the book during our independent reading time.  The same thing happened when I read from How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon.

My heartwarming moments of the week

This week I had two separate interactions with students that made me feel overwhelmingly satisfied with my position in this world as a teacher.  The first occurred on Wednesday when Saul, a student who professed early on in the year to me how much he disliked school, stopped by my room in the morning on his way to homeroom to ask if he was going to get to read his book, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, at the beginning of class.  Recently, I shifted my classes’ independent reading schedule.  I used to reserve two to three days each week for the students to read from books of their own choosing in the work session, which would mean a 15 to 20 minute block of time.  However, that schedule was resulting in too many weeks where we only read independently for just two days, so I moved it to the first 10 minutes of every class, every day, and it’s been amazing.  I suppose some of the kids haven’t fully-grasped that this is how class is going to start each day since Saul seemed a bit unsure, but the fact that he is entering the building wanting to read something is an immeasurable leap from the beginning of the school year.

My other newly converted reader, Sanchez, read Long Way Down before the holiday break, and he sort of became obsessed with it, but in a good way.  He particularly enjoyed how the book was written in verse, so I tried giving him The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, but for whatever reason he wasn’t feeling it.  I offered him House Arrest by K.A. Holt, and he sunk his teeth into it.  He read it at the start of every class period this week, and on Friday he came up to me in homeroom to let me know that he read thirty-something pages at home the night before.  His confession stopped me in my tracks. This is a kid who repeatedly claimed to “hate reading” from the first day of school.  By the end of this upcoming week, he’ll have finished his second novel this year completely on his own. I’m not totally sure how these transformations occur, but they are marvelous to observe from where I’m standing.

Using emojis to make inferences and cite details

While I absolutely love reading through my students’ journal entries, I do occasionally feel guilty about having them write a journal response before we read, and then having them write responses to a reading prompt after we read.  Maybe I’m becoming a softy.  Anyhow, recently I’ve started having them draw emoji(s) at the end of class that represent their thoughts and downloadfeelings regarding something that they read, either from our class novel or their own books.  Then, they have to go around the room and explain their emoji(s) to at least two other students.  This activity has been a big hit so far because (A) it’s fun to draw emojis, (B) 7th graders love any opportunity to get out of their seats and talk with their peers, and (C) I think the kids appreciate the break from the writing.

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This week in my classes: journal writing, role-playing and finishing books

Journal writing

Since returning to school in the new year, my classes have been doing more journal writing than we were doing during the first half of the year.  Both the books that my students are reading – The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake and After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick – pair up well with engaging writing prompts for 13-year-olds.  I’ve been reading through all of my kids’ journals the past few weekends, and though this task is time-consuming, I’m finding that I thoroughly enjoy reading their entries for the window it provides me with into their lives.  Their journal entries offer me conversation starters that I can use with students in the halls between classes, and they are helping me deepen my relationships with them.

Last week, the kids responded to the following prompt:

“Think about a difficult conversation that you’ve had in the past.  What was it about and how did you feel afterwards?”

I was shocked to learn how many of my students have lost parents and other loved ones. Some have seen parents and relatives go to jail. Others have been or still are facing bullying on a regular basis.

Several of the students that wrote that they had experienced some of those issues above can be a challenge in the classroom in regards to behavior, but at least now I might have an idea as to why that’s the case.  I have somewhere that I can start from in regards to helping those kids figure out how they fit into our classroom dynamic.

Hot spot activity

I stole another activity off Twitter that I tried this week that’s called “hot spot“. Here is how it worked: after reading aloud to the class from a novel for roughly 10 minutes, I stopped and chose a student to “become” one of the characters from our book.  That student had to get into the mindset of that character and view the world as only he or she would.  Then, other students could raise their hands to ask that person questions from what we have read so far. What an amazing way to examine character motivation!  The questions that the kids asked were brilliant, and nearly all of them pertained to some specific event from the text. It was a completely student-led discussion over our class novel; I just sat back and observed as my students peppered the student doing the role-playing with questions.  I would highly recommend this activity to anyone looking to spice up classroom book discussions.

Friday is for finishing books

Several more students finished books on Friday that they had been reading in my class for the past several weeks now.  Another girl completed Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on Friday, and like every student that I teach that has read that book, she was upset by the lack of closure at the end and definitely thinks that Reynolds has to write a sequel.

A boy in one of my advanced classes just wrapped up The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  This is the second book he’s read to completion on his own in my class this year (his first book was Bull by David Elliott).  This year is the first year that I’ve had an advanced Language Arts class, and I’ve definitely noticed that those students appreciate the time in class for independent reading as much as my other Language Arts classes. Unfortunately, I fear that some teachers assume that just because students are advanced that they are automatically devouring books at home in their free time, but that is not the case.  These kids enjoy video games and social media just as much as the next 13-year-old. They too need some structured time set aside in school each day where they can read for pleasure without any of the distractions that modern technology offers teens today.

Jason Reynolds interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show”

This clip should be required viewing for middle and high school English Language Arts students and teachers everywhere.

The first 10 minutes of class

I realize how cliché this statement sounds, but I’m trying to write more this year about my classroom experiences.  I know that writing more will improve my writing, which is an obvious plus.  And I’m an English Language Arts teacher, so I should be practicing what I preach and writing on a semi-regular basis.  But more importantly, I don’t want to forget all the wonderful things that go on inside my classroom daily, and this seems like a decent way of preventing that from happening.  So without further adieu, here are my highlights thus far from 2018:

The first 10 minutes

I’m a firm believer that students need time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I’ve been implementing this approach to literacy for over 3 years now, basically from the moment I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  For the past two years (and half of this year), I’ve always blocked out several work sessions a week to allow the students 15 to 20 minutes of unobstructed time to read a self-selected book.  The problem that I’ve wrestled with for some time, though, is that there is never enough time to do all the things that I need to do with the kids.  They can’t just read their own books; we have to have mentor texts that we can use together so that the students can work in small groups to practice all the skills that go along with being a good reader (making inferences, learning new vocabulary, recognizing and understanding point of view, explaining how setting affects both the characters and the plot, conflict, etc., etc., etc.).  If I give them two to three days a week to read their own books, then that only leaves a couple of days to work on all those aforementioned skills. Oh, and I have to teach them how to write the following genres: narrative, explanatory and argumentative.  There just isn’t enough time. I always feel like I’m taking away from something else, and that makes me feel guilty as hell as their teacher.

This week, though, I stumbled upon a podcast called Teach Me, Teacher that offered me a solution to my aforementioned problem: read at the beginning of class.  In the first episode that I listened to, the host, Jacob Chastain, interviewed THE Donalyn Miller, and he divulged to her that he has his kids reading from their self-selected texts for the first 15 minutes of every class.  Chastain claimed that using this opening portion of the class actually helped him to reduce wasted time in his lessons because his students were on task as soon as they walked into the room. His class periods are slightly longer than mine, so I couldn’t reconcile using 15 minutes, but this week I started off all my classes with 10 minutes of independent reading time followed by a “Status of the Class” update and a short reading response in their journals.  Then we moved into whatever skill I wanted to cover that day using either a newspaper article or our class novel.

I’ve only been implementing this strategy for a week, but so far I am loving it.  The kids know that as soon as they come into the room they are to find the book that they are reading and get to their seat so that when I walk in they are ready to begin.  Historically, I had what we call a “Brain Crank” or “Warm Up” question on the board that the kids are supposed to answer when they come into my room.  Typically, this could be a quote from a book we are reading or something else that requires them to make an inference.  The problem, however, is that I teach 7th graders, and they get very little time to socialize throughout the day other than the two minutes when they are in the hall transitioning to their next class.  So when my students enter my room, they are not all going to be 100% committed to sitting down and starting my warm up question.  Inevitably, several students will not have even remembered to grab their composition notebooks on the way into class. Several more might have managed to get their notebooks, but by the time I enter the room they are still resting closed on their desks.  And generally anywhere from 3 to 10 kids are in need of a pencil, hence, the name of this blog.  By the time all of those issues get resolved, we’re a couple minutes into the lesson and my students are just now attempting to tackle the question.  Four to five minutes later, we go over their responses. All and all, this task can take anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes.

However, the process of getting a book and starting to read limits most of those roadblocks I mentioned above.  Plus, while the kids are reading, I can knock out all the little house-cleaning tasks that teachers have to go through before class can really begin: take attendance, hand out pencils, pass out handouts or articles, etc.  This also gives me a chance to jot down what titles everyone is reading and notice who’s sticking with a book and who’s giving up on what they read the day before (which means I know who I need to talk to ASAP).  I can already tell I am not wasting as much time as I was before when I had the warm up question routine.  My lessons are tighter and the kids are reading more on a daily basis.  Also, they are reading from multiple texts in one lesson period, which helps them to recognize the similarities and differences in content and style that exist across books.  One other perk of this new strategy is that having the students begin a class by reading independently is a great way to chill everybody out, and it sets everything up for a productive lesson.

Mini book club

I have about eight students now spread out amongst my five classes that have read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on their own.  Each of them was frustrated with the ending.  They didn’t understand why the author didn’t provide them with a clear-cut solution that neatly wrapped the story up at the end.  As I alluded to above, middle school students do not have a lot of unstructured time, and nor do the teachers for that matter.  If I were a high school teacher, I wouldn’t have to eat lunch with my students, and I could host small groups to discuss the books that we were reading or that we had recently finished.  Alas, this is not the case for me, but I wanted to get these students together so that they could vent about the book in the same place.  So I snagged them one by one on Friday and brought them into my homeroom and let them go at it, which was awesome!  They all expressed their frustrations with the book’s conclusion, and then looked to me to provide them with some sort of comfort or solution to this transgression by Mr. Reynolds, to which I just shrugged my shoulders (which led to more arguing).  I want these little organic book discussions to happen more amongst my students who have read the same book, and I’m going to make a goal for 2018 to figure out how to make this happen on a more frequent basis.

Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament

Someone that I follow on Twitter last year posted that they hold “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournaments in class to give their students a quick mental break, and I wish I could remember who that person was because I would gladly send them a gift card to their favorite restaurant.  This year, I’ve held regular tournaments in my class, and I have found them utterly delightful.  First off, they take no longer than 3 minutes to complete, assuming you don’t go best 2 out of 3 (even with twenty-something kids in the room).  Second, they get the kids out of their seats for a few minutes, which is always a bonus.  Lastly, they are a refreshing break from the content and they are absolutely hilarious.  I’ve yet to host a tournament that didn’t involve at least one kid that couldn’t seem to grasp that it’s “One, two, three – shoot!”, and after several failed attempts the entire class is usually in stitches.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings!

 

 

Reflecting with 7th graders

 

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the the word reflect as “to think quietly and calmly”.  I’d go a step further and add that reflecting also involves some analysis of the topic: what went well? What didn’t? How could we improve?  Reflection is the process of taking a critical look at the things that we do and deciding if what we are doing is working or not.

As teachers, reflection is key to determining how successful we are at reaching our students both as learners and as people.  Are the students grasping concepts? Are they inspired to push topics further on their own? Are we presenting the material to them in an engaging manner? Are we building meaningful relationships with the kids in our room?  These are questions that I cycle through on a daily basis: during lessons, after lessons, between lessons, in the car, while running, while hiking, while sleeping.  Reflection is a sign that we are invested in learning how to get better at the things that we endeavor in.

As we approach the impending winter break, I wanted my students to engage in some reflective writing.  In English classes, we regularly reflect on books, essays and current events, but we rarely ask the students to reflect on themselves and the lives they are living.  On Friday, I had each of my Language Arts classes begin class with 5 minutes of reflective writing on the following topic:

“Think about the year 2017: what did you do or accomplish that you are most proud of? What could you have done better? What did you want to accomplish, but couldn’t? Finally, what is something that you want to achieve in 2018?”

In an attempt to show solidarity and take part in the activity as well, I told each of my classes that I summited three 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) last year while hiking in Colorado, and my goal this year was to do five or more.  Most of my students have never been hiking in the wilderness, so my response of course led into a longer-than-intended discussion about steepness, elevation and the time it takes to summit a mountain.  Also, a lot of kids wanted an explanation as to why anyone would WANT to hike a 14er.

Eventually I got them back on track and writing about the aforementioned topic, and I allowed students the opportunity to share their reflections. The overwhelming majority of the responses were things like:

“I made A/B Honor Roll.”

“I made better grades this year.”

“I improved my behavior.”

“I want to make all A’s next year.”

“I want to get in less trouble.”

Other than a few kids who mentioned goals related to sports, almost all of my students focused their reflections around issues concerning school.  I was a little surprised.  I suppose I had forgotten that a 12 or 13 year-old’s world is still relatively small.  The main focus of their lives at this point is school.  Because of their age, many of them haven’t yet developed outside interests like traveling, running, hiking, biking, sewing, cooking, dancing, yoga-ing and all the other things that we (adults) aspire to do during our free time.

As they grow older, my students will hopefully find time to explore hobbies and interests that will help make them more well-rounded people.  But right now, at this moment, school is their main squeeze.  And I have to remember that.  Teachers have to remember that.  For these kids – whether we like it or not – we play a significant part in their lives.  They are awake for 12 to 14 hours a day (hopefully not too much more than that), and we get to see them for 8 more hours of that time frame.  While I have a number of outside interests and personal goals aligned with them that I want to achieve, I have to remember that my students aren’t there yet. They have dreams and goals and aspirations, and they depend on my colleagues and I to help them reach them.

I realize it’s cliche, but this week reminded me of just how important teachers are to their students.  I know as teachers we all have crowded classrooms packed full of students, but we must not forget that they have only one of us.

As I look forward to 2018, my students’ reflections have led me to reflect, and I now have another resolution to add to my list for the upcoming year: be mindful every day of the role you play in the lives of all of your students.

 

 

 

 

A teacher’s reflection on Hurricane Irma

This week in Athens, Georgia was not normal by any measure of standards.  At about 2:30pm on Monday afternoon, Hurricane Irma arrived and wreaked havoc upon the city’s trees and power lines.  Fortunately, my home remained untouched from falling limbs; others were not so lucky.  I did however lose power at about 5pm on Monday, and I did not get it back until nearly 8pm Thursday evening, the same day that we returned to school after three days off due to widespread power outages.

One’s entertainment options become quite limited once electricity is removed from the equation: no television, no wifi, no Netflix.  Especially if that person – in this case me – possesses a cell phone plan that comes with a modest amount of LTE data before exorbitant fees are applied.  For nearly three days, the only choice afforded to me in my home in regards to amusement was reading.

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for the first time.  Somehow, I wasn’t assigned this text in high school, though in a way I feel blessed in this regard because I don’t think the 17-year-old version of myself would have appreciated this novel nearly as much as the 38-year-old person that I am today did.  Suddenly, the trials of being inconvenienced with using a headlamp to eat breakfast and keeping a cooler stocked with ice to prevent food spoilage paled in comparison with the plight of Janie Crawford in her lifelong quest to find true love.

Once I finished Hurston’s novel, I moved on to something lighter, a book called Blood Salt Water by Alex Morrow.  It’s a crime novel set in Scotland with the story being told through the eyes of a low-level gangster and the police officer that is trying to solve a homicide in which said gangster was involved.  I haven’t finished this book yet, probably due to the fact that my power came back on when I was still in the middle of it.  Instead of reading Thursday night, I spent my time watching Narcos and scanning through my Twitter feed for engaging lesson plan activities.

We live in an incredibly distracting world.  Televisions, computers, tablets and phones can make it nearly impossible to focus on just one task at a time.  I cannot imagine being a student in this era with so many potential diversions at our fingertips: social media, texting, email, games, etc.  When I was the same age that my students are today, I had a television and a Nintendo, both of which my parents could shut down with unbelievable ease.  If I was told to go to my room and read a book or do my homework, the only thing to do in my room was read or do homework.  I didn’t have a laptop or iPhone that I could use to watch just about anything my little heart desired.  Even today, I find myself at times struggling to read for extended period of times without unlocking my phone at least once. How difficult must this be for someone who is just 12 or 13 years old?

As I reflect on my experience from the past week in which reading was my primary activity throughout the day, I feel even more validated as a Language Arts teacher that carves out instruction time each week so that my students have a chance to just read.  The school year is young, and I’m still coaching my students through the process of independent reading from self-selected texts, but they are starting to get it.  The kids are exploring genres and learning that they do possess the reading stamina to get lost in a book for 15 to 20 minutes.  Through their written responses I can see that they are beginning to engage with the various characters and plot lines within their novels.

My students need time to learn to enjoy reading on a personal level, and after this week, I see that more than ever.  They need a chance to read without all the diversions that come along with today’s smartphones.  In addition to technological distractions, many of my students care for younger siblings from the time the bus drops them off at home to when they go to bed.  Most of them do not have access to rich and engaging texts in the house, and a lot of my students are not witnessing adults in their home model reading as something one does for pleasure.

As teachers, it’s our job to give our students these types of opportunities.  We cannot assume that students are getting the chance to read much on their own outside of school, and if you work at a Title I school like mine, you almost have to assume that they are not.      Our classroom should be a place where students can frequently experience the choice of reading something that aligns to their interests.

I’m not saying that we have to remove electricity and technology from the equation altogether, but we should give our students a chance to unplug and focus on just one thing at a time, especially reading.

 

Discussing race in the classroom

My 7th graders have begun the year with a focus on narrative writing as a way of easing them into the writing process.  They have a much easier time writing about themselves as opposed to argumentative writing where they have to formulate a thesis and support it with reasons and textual evidence.  As a teacher, I much prefer to start the year with narrative because it gives the kids a chance to feel successful early in regards to their writing, and let’s be honest, most 12 and 13-year-olds are not going to be found picketing outside of schools demanding that MORE writing be implemented into the curriculum.

On Thursday of this week, I used a StoryCorps episode called “Traffic Stop” to show my students that even though the story is spoken, it still contains all the major elements of a powerful narrative: entertaining beginning, critical character, setting, suspense, conflict, resolution and theme.  In this episode, Alex Landau speaks about his experience in 2009 of being severely beaten by several white cops in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.  The reason that Landau was beaten to within an inch of his life: he asked the policemen if they had a warrant.  Landau, who grew up with his adoptive white parents, said that this incident completely changed his perspective on how the world viewed him, and needless to say, it certainly left him fractured both inside and out.

TRAFFIC_Title_Card-636x358After we listened to Alex’s story, I had each of my classes identify all of the narrative elements in his story.  When we got to “resolution”, a hand shot up and a student said, “There kind of wasn’t a resolution.”

I’m a white teacher working in a middle school with a student body that is just 12% white.  I’m reminded of this fact every day when I look out at my students and see only one, two or none that look like me.  In all four of my classes that day, students pointed out that while Alex Landau’s story certainly had a strong theme, it didn’t have a resolution.  I asked my students if they thought the police would have reacted in the same manner if I had been in Landau’s shoes, to which they quickly replied in unison with a resounding “No!!!”.  I asked my students if they thought that was fair, and again my question was hammered back with another “No!!!”.  I told them that I agreed with them, and that it wasn’t fair, and that I hated that for them.

We then moved on to examine a model narrative written by an 8th grader in California called “The Racist Warehouse“.  The story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who is shopping for a new dryer with her mother in a completely white neighborhood.  They are discriminated against by the employees from the moment they enter the store as they are constantly being followed and monitored.  When the mother actually makes her purchase, they end up having to wait for nearly an hour before the dryer is finally loaded up onto their U-Haul.  They watch multiple groups of white customers get their purchases ahead of them, even though the narrator’s mother bought her item well in advance of these people.

My students KNEW what it felt like to be followed around a store or mall by employees or security guards.  They asked me if it had ever happened to me.  They wanted to know what I would do if I was in that situation: would I be mad?  Would I get an attitude after 55 minutes of waiting as the girl’s mother in the story had?

I told my classes that of course I would be angry, and that I’d probably write a strongly worded email to the company and demand some sort of compensation for the inconvenience.  I told them, though, that I had never been treated like that as a customer, and a girl in the back said, “Cause you white”.  I nodded in agreement.

The discussions we had that day in all of my classes were powerful, especially considering we were just a week removed from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I want my students to feel like our classroom is a safe place where we can talk about race and social injustices.  I hate it that some of them have already experienced overt racism similar to the girl from California, and I’m heartbroken when I think about my students’ futures because I know that at some point many of them are going to be treated unjustly as they become young adults simply because of the color of their skin.  As a white male, I have no idea what that feels like.  As much as I try to connect with my students throughout the year and build relationships, the best I can do when it comes to matters of race is to empathize with them because I’ll never know that kind of discrimination.

Coincidentally, the theme from my classes on Thursday found its way into my cross country practice that afternoon.  My team typically runs in the woods across the street from the school, and I always have the kids wait until everyone gets done with the run so that we can all cross the road together.  Sometimes I have to jog back a bit to encourage some of the less talented runners to push themselves all the way to the finish.  As the last couple of runners and I joined everyone else at the road on Thursday, I noticed that my principal was among them.  Apparently a woman had driven by my team and immediately called the school to report potential gang activity happening across the street, and my principal was just coming out to confirm what she already suspected: that it was just my cross country team, which is mostly comprised of African-American and Latino students, doing exactly what they were instructed to do by their coach.

 

Assessing independent reading without using the dreaded reading log

I read every single day.  During the school year, I typically read from a novel before going to sleep each night.  In the morning, I usually ingest news articles between bites of Cheerios and gulps of coffee before heading off to school.  Once summer hits,  I find multiple times throughout the day to leisurely read news, blogs and books.  I’m an English Language Arts teacher; I enjoy reading.

You know what would make reading unenjoyable?   If I had to write down the date, the title and the number of pages that I read along with a short summary.  I would hate to be forced to complete a reading log.  In theory, reading logs are intended to be used to hold students accountable for independent reading; they are meant to assure teachers and parents that their kids are in fact reading for 20 minutes a night in order to promote independent reading.  In reality, though, these logs are actually having the opposite affect on students.  Instead of encouraging an intrinsic love of reading in young people, reading logs inevitably make reading feel more like a chore, another thing that must be done, like making the bed.

inquiries_readinglog-level1_0

Want to remove the joy from reading?  Give your students one of these.

Reading logs take all the fun out of reading.  So why do we still use them in the classroom?  A big reason is the need for assessment, which typically comes with pressure from administrators.  Principals want to see proof that learning is occurring in the classroom. When students are all reading different books, the task of assessing that learning becomes trickier for the teacher.  But notice I said “trickier”, not impossible.  Reading logs are not the answer.   With a little creativity, we can get written responses from students in regards to what they are reading without the mundane request of “What happened in your book today?” (a staple question of any reading log).

I use a number of engaging closing strategies that illicit authentic responses from my students.  A lot of times, they don’t even realize they are being assessed; when it comes to talking about the characters and conflicts from their books, they want to respond.  Below are closers that I regularly use in my classroom to wrap up independent reading time:

  1. Give one piece of advice to a character in your book about a choice or decision that he or she made today.  Make sure that you explain to them why you are giving them this advice and how it is going to benefit him or her.
  2. Change something about a character in your book – it could be how he or she looks, feels or acts.  Explain why you are making this change to this character.
  3. Make a change to the plot of your book.  This change could be major or just something small.  Be sure to explain why you are changing this part of the story.
  4. Write about a scene that happened in your book today, but do it from the perspective of another character (in other words, not the narrator or protagonist).  How did he or she feel about what happened?  Why did he or she feel this way?
  5. Compare a character from your book to someone that you know in real life.  How are they similar?  How are they different?  Why did you choose to compare these two people?
  6. Compare a character from your book to a character from a novel that we have read together in class.  How are they similar?  How are they different?  
  7. Convince someone that he or she should read your book.  Why would he or she enjoy it?  Provide details from the story that help to support your claim. (This is a great one to use to reinforce those argumentative writing skills!)
  8. Pretend that you are a news reporter covering a scene from your book today.  Write a report explaining what occurred.  Where was it?  What happened?  Why? (This website allows students to create a realistic looking newspaper pdf file)
  9. Write a six-word summary about what you read today. (I love using six-word summaries in class!  Here is a great video to introduce this concept to students)
  10. Write a six to eight line rap that summarizes what you read today.  Make sure that the rhymes occur at the ends of each line. (I like making songs and rapping for my students, apologies in advance for the singing)
  11. Write a sentence using the following format: “Somebody wanted to…, but…, so…” (This is a super quick way to get students to write a response to what they have read, and it hits on key ELA skills like writing a succinct summary, using conjunctions, identifying conflicts and resolutions)
  12. Create a 3 to 5 question quiz over what you read today.  Each question must begin with either “How” or “Why”.

The aforementioned strategies can all be used to assess independent reading in the classroom.  And what’s more, I love reading the students’ responses to these questions, and they usually offer me chances to ask follow up questions that deepen our book discussions.  I don’t need a reading log to tell me that my kids are reading; I can tell by how earnestly a student provides genuine advice to a character from his or her book that that student is highly engaged in the novel.