Classroom discusion: wait time, affirmations and listening

As my school year is now officially over, I have shifted into reflection mode so that I can process the previous ten months.  One area of my teaching that has improved tremendously since my novice days as an educator is my ability to host a productive classroom discussion.  Classroom discussion is critical, particularly in English Language Arts. Students need to discuss to process complex texts and the ideas and themes within them.  Rich discussion can enhance a student’s ability to comprehend on a higher level. Below are three strategies that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my classes the past year that I feel really strengthened the quality of our classroom discourse:

The importance of wait time

A teacher’s role in classroom discussion should be that of facilitator.  However, sometimes teachers can unintentionally be the biggest inhibitors to a meaningful classroom discussion because they are not intentionally structuring wait time into their discourse.  In education, wait time is the amount of time a teacher waits for a student response after asking a question.  Research has shown that on average teachers provide students with 1 second or less of wait time.  Former educator Mary Budd Rowe concluded that allowing 3 seconds of wait time significantly increased the quality of student responses as well as enhancing the overall value of classroom discourse.

Why don’t teachers just keep a 3-mississippi count going in their head after they posit a question?  It seems so simple. However, allowing for wait times is DIFFICULT!  Two to three seconds can feel like an eternity when you are standing in front of a class trying to foster a discussion.  Teachers can hear the momentum of their lesson coming to a screeching halt during those silent seconds.  For new teachers, this silence can seem even more pronounced and bring on strong feelings of inadequacy, or at least that was the case for me when I first started out in the profession.  An instructional coach at my school told me that one of the new 8th grade teachers was literally finishing her students sentences; I felt for her because I knew not only how nervous she must have been, but also how desperately she wanted to reach the kids.

After six years, I can say that I feel much more comfortable with the seconds of silence that follow my questions.  Experience has taught me that it doesn’t mean that my students aren’t engaged; it means they are thinking, and eventually, someone will offer a thoughtful response that MIGHT even include a few details from something we have just read.

Resisting that urge to affirm

Sometime last year, I stopped offering affirmations to student responses.  Prior to that, if a kid raised his or hand and made an observation, I’d usually give them an “Exactly!” or “Great response!”.  However, I began to noticed that every time I affirmed a student response in that manner, one or two other hands would slowly make their way down.  My affirmation caused these students to choose to not participate, most likely because they thought that the other student had given the “correct” answer.  With all of the book discussions that we do in my ELA classes, the last thing I want to do is discourage participation because exposing my students to diverse viewpoints concerning the same topic is an essential component of my job.

I reflected on this observation, and I changed.  Now, when a student gives a response during a class discussion, I usually offer either an “okay” or “uh huh”, both in my most neutral tone possible.  This leaves the door open for more replies, and I’ve definitely noticed an uptick in participation since I started employing this strategy.  When I don’t positively affirm a response, other students feel as though their ideas are still valid.  Our role as teachers is to ENCOURAGE classroom discussion, not dominate it.

Helping students become better listeners

Last summer, I attended an International Baccalaureate conference in Atlanta, Georgia, and the instructor used a host of pedagogical strategies to introduce the various concepts to us throughout the three-day event.  I stole one of them called “One-minute partner talk” that I began using in my classes this year.  Basically, you pair up two students and they each get a maximum of one-minute to discuss whatever topic you are having your students talk about.  They can use the full minute, or they can talk for just 10 seconds (that was the minimum I set with my students).  The person who is not talking CANNOT respond to anything their partner says during the minute; the only thing that he or she can do is LISTEN.  I absolutely LOVE this strategy.  First off, it gets the kids talking, which is something that middle school students clamor for all the time.  Second, it teaches them to listen to one another without jumping in and interrupting.  I joke with my kids that I have plenty of adult friends that need to play this game to practice their listening skills.

Advertisements

Five things I know for sure about most middle school students

In less than a month, I will complete my sixth year of teaching.  The first two of those years were in a 10th grade World Literature classroom, and the last four I have been teaching 7th grade English Language Arts.  When I told my high school colleagues that I would be moving down to middle school, the most common reaction usually involved the phrase “You’re crazy!”  Over the past four years, whenever I tell someone that I teach 7th grade, I’m either told that I’m “brave”, or that they couldn’t imagine being around that many 13-year-olds all day.

I recently listened to Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled Eight Things I Know For Sure about (Most) Middle School Kids, and it got me thinking about the little intricacies and idiosyncrasies that I have decoded and come to understand about my students.   I wanted to share these thoughts in an attempt to connect with my fellow middle school teacher brethern, or possibly to provide some insights into this age group for any potential middle school teachers.  Without further adieu, here are some things that I KNOW for sure about middle schoolers:

“I hate your class!”   If you teach in a middle school, then you have invariably heard this phrase either muttered under a student’s breath; or, it’s been hurled right at you with reckless abandon.  As both a teacher and a human, one’s first response is to take offense to such an aggressive statement and jump on the defensive. Let me give you some advice: don’t.  Any kid that has worked up enough moxie to shout out such a brash criticism is clearly dealing with something outside of the class or school that is impacting their emotional stability.  They don’t hate your class; they hate whatever is disrupting their lives at the moment and they don’t know how to confront it, so the easiest way to vent is to target a scapegoat, i.e., your class.  Whenever a student has offered me this review, I typically respond with a quick and semi-genuine “Thank you”, which I have found usually diffuses the situation (diffusing situations is a major part of being a middle school teacher).

“This class is boring.”  If a kid says this to you, then take it as a badge of honor; I know I do.  Any student who tells you that your class is boring is not actually referring to the lessons and content of the class; what they really mean is that in your class they don’t get to talk off topic and joke around with their friends any time they please. Also, they’re not allowed to leave their seat whenever the moment strikes them.  “This class is boring” is code for “You have solid classroom management skills”, and you will usually only hear it from students that historically are more likely to push the boundaries of the classroom expectations.  I have students that are completely wrapped up in the independent reading books that they are reading in my class, so much so that they will take them into the halls with them when we take restroom breaks, and yes, these same students have told me that my class is boring.  Once again, don’t take anything a middle schooler says personally.

They need to move some during class.  My favorite professional learning sessions are always the ones that tend to be more interactive.  I’m not nearly as engaged in an hour long session in which I’m in my seat for the entire 60 minutes, and our students aren’t either.  Middle school students are like overgrown elementary kids with bodies that are growing and surging with hormones.  The boys literally cannot be still for extended periods of time.  Plan for 5 to 8 minutes of  class time that will allow the kids to be free of their chairs so that they can stretch out and move about.  I’ve been known to hold “Rocks, Paper, Scissors” tournaments after our independent reading time as a way to get the kids’ blood pumping again before we move on to our next activity.  These tournaments last for 2 to 3 minutes, and they serve as excellent brain breaks for these kids.  Another strategy I’ve used a lot this year to get my students out of their chairs is at the end of the class, I have everyone stand up with their composition notebooks.  I then play a song on the overhead, and they can walk, dance or slink about the room.  When the music stops, they share one of their responses to something that they read during our work session.  When the music starts again, they move, and when it stops, they share again.  My kids absolutely love closing out class this way, and some of my toughest kids will be dancing their hearts out to Justin Beiber between sharing sessions.

Don’t take anything they say personally.  Remember earlier in this post when I encouraged you not to take things personally?  Yeah, that’s kind of a biggie if you want to survive in a middle school atmosphere.  You see, these students’ brains are not fully formed, so they do not yet have the development that allows them to control some their impulses.  The result: they can say some rather rude things to each other and to you.  I just try to reteach and dialogue with them when they same something offensive.  I’ve had huge success from just asking them to put themselves in my shoes and consider how I felt about whatever they said.  It’s amazing how giving them a little perspective can help them understand the power of their words and actions.  If you’re having a tough day or you don’t have time to explain to a middle schooler why they shouldn’t say how amazed they are by how old YOU ARE, just give them a quick “Thank you” and move on.

Use a lot of self-deprecating humor.  Middle school students are the fragilest of fragile.  They have zero tolerance for commentary on their appearance or intelligence.  This is why they can be so quick to make fun of others at this age.  But you know what will really get them eating out of the palm of your hands?  Make fun of yourself!  I do it all the time.  I routinely act like I’ve never heard of wildly popular rap songs in front of my kids, even though I probably listened to said song 10 minutes earlier on the drive into work.  They love it!  There’s something about being lame while not knowing you’re lame that they find hilarious.  Last year, I pretended in front of a class that I thought when they said something was “lit” that they were commenting on the lighting in the room.  The laughter from my class could be heard from across the hall.  However, my relationships with those kids grew tremendously because they would take any free moment to try to teach me things that they felt I must know regarding slang and pop culture.  I became sort of a project for them, and they entered my class with a positive attitude and ready to learn.

Fellow middle school teachers – what are some things that you know for sure about middle schoolers?

 

Experimenting with restorative justice

While my students were working in small groups on Thursday, two students in nearby groups got into a verbal altercation that sounded like it was getting heated quickly.  One of the students escalated things by telling the other student that he would “beat his ass”.

The first-year teacher version of myself would most likely not have known how to handle this situation, if for anything other than lack of experience. I might have acted like I didn’t hear what was said and moved closer to the students; or, I may have given both a verbal warning and left it at that.

The second-year teacher version of myself most likely would have removed the student that cursed from class immediately to quell the situation.  I probably wouldn’t have engaged in a dialogue with the punished student other than telling him which room he needed to go to in order to complete his assignment.

I will be done with my sixth year of teaching in a little over a month, and here is how I handled this particular situation:

I had both boys stop working and come into the hall with me.  I began by asking Gabriel, who was on the receiving end of the cursing, to explain to me what he said that got Phillip (the one who made the threat) so riled up.  He told me that he was joking around with another boy at Phillip’s table, and that he didn’t mean any harm by it. I pointed out to Gabriel that Phillip was clearly upset by what he had said.  Gabriel acknowledged the same and apologized to Phillip.

I then turned to Phillip and explained to him that his aggressive tone probably put Gabriel on the defensive.  Phillip agreed and promptly apologized to his classmate.  By the time I sent each of them back into class to finish working, they were both smiling (aside: I did tell Phillip before he re-entered class that the next time he curses like that I will be writing an office referral).  Crisis averted.

As I walked back into the room, I was visibly on cloud nine.  I have been listening to multiple podcasts lately dealing with restorative justice in schools, and I realized that I had just implemented a form of it in the hallway outside my classroom. By simply getting each student to consider the perspective of the other student, I facilitated an interaction between them that resulted in them calming down and squashing whatever beef had sprouted between them. Not only that, but each of them was able to save face in front of their classmates since the conversation occurred outside the room, and my relationship with each student instantly became a tiny bit stronger.

I’ve been trying to incorporate more meaningful socioemotional development into the lives of the students that I teach this year by getting them to consider the point of view of the people around them as well as how their actions might be impacting others.  Last week, it was my turn on the 7th grade hallway to host “silent lunch”, a punishment for students that continue to not meet classroom expectations after multiple warnings.  In the past, when I’ve had silent lunch in my room, I spread the 5 or 6 students out around the room and watched them like a hawk for the full 20 minutes.  If a student talked or made a disturbance, I would add another day of silent lunch.  However, the same students continued to be in silent lunch for the entire year, which means (A) it wasn’t a very effective consequence, and (B) the students weren’t learning anything to help them improve their behavior.

I decided to mix things up a bit last week in silent lunch.  I had all 6 students each day sit at the big table at the front of my room so that we could eat our lunch together, like a family.  I started off by asking each kid their favorite color and then their favorite desert in an attempt to discover what commonalities we shared. Then I moved onto the tougher questions: why are you here? Who was involved in your incident? How do you think they felt during the incident?  What can you do to improve if this incident potentially comes up again?

In short, the kids were confused, mainly because I wasn’t making them be silent. Also, I think they thought that I was looking to use the questions to corner them into a “gotcha” moment.  However, once they realized that we were more or less just analyzing each of their particular situations, they really opened up and responded honestly.  Will all of these kids stay out of silent lunch for the final 6 weeks of school?  Probably not.  However, I’m certain that they are now more conscious of the fact that their actions do impact others after considering the perspectives of the teachers and students involved in their episodes.

A teacher with 29 years of experience told me during my first year of teaching that teachers get 50% better at classroom management every year, and while I cannot prove it quantitatively, I kind of think he’s right.  As a Language Arts teacher, I’m constantly imploring my students to ponder the various perspectives of the characters in the books that we read; I’m just now learning that the same strategy can be used when reteaching expectations to our students as well.

The power of a positive phone call

This week my students wrote an essay in which they argued that they should be allowed to chew gum in school.  They had to pull evidence from a pair of articles that I provided from CNN and The Guardian.  Argument writing has been our focus this quarter, and with the quarter winding down, I wanted to see how well they could craft an argument on their own.

One student in particular did a phenomenal job of creating a well-organized essay, which is such an accomplishment for her because she entered my 7th grade class reading at a 3rd grade level. For her to be able to complete this task is nothing short of huge. I had to pass this information along to her mother.  Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Me: I wanted to let you know how proud I am of Nakia for her work on her argumentative essay this week.  She worked really hard, and she put together a great piece of writing that used several pieces of strong supporting evidence that supported her claim.

Parent: Uh-huh.

Me: I’m just so proud of how much growth she has shown this year as both a reader and writer.

Parent: So…this is a good call?

Me: Yes!  Definitely a good call.

Parent: Oh, that’s so nice to hear! I thought maybe she hadn’t gotten something done in class.

Me: No, no, no. She’s doing fine.

Parent: That’s really nice to hear.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon.  I try my best to call home whenever students reach milestones in my class, whether they finish a book, write an amazing essay or just improve upon their behavior.  For the most part, these calls are met with uncertainty because the parents at my school generally assume that if they are getting a call from the school, their child has done something wrong.

Now, I make my fair share of parent phone calls home when my students aren’t meeting my expectations, either academically or behaviorally. I’m sure, like most teachers, I make way more phone calls home of this variety.  The student that disrupts the learning environment in my room is going to get a call home that day; the other twenty-something kids who come to class and attempt to do everything I ask of them will not.  Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to call all of our student’s parents regularly to discuss positives or negatives.  It just isn’t happening. But we must make time to have those positive discussions with parents when their children are succeeding at school.  Here’s why:

Positive phone calls build currency with students

Teaching is all about relationships. Teachers that have strong relationships with their students are going to have classes where those students are engaged and ready to take the academic risks that are necessary for true learning to occur.  Making a good call home for a student when it is warranted is an important step in cultivating that teacher-student relationship.  It rewards the student for his or her accomplishment, and it shows the student that you value that accomplishment so much that you wanted to share the good news with someone at home.  Students will work hard for that sort of praise.  Plus, a teacher that makes a positive phone call home for a student now has currency that he or she can use when they might have to make a phone call home to discuss a transgression.  Students, like their parents, naturally presume that a call home means that they’ve done something wrong.  When a student knows that his or her teacher calls home to discuss both the good and the bad, that student will see that their teacher is invested in them.

Positive phone calls improve parent-teacher relationships

Being a parent of a student who struggles at school has to be difficult.  Getting phone calls to discuss poor grades or behavioral shortcomings cannot be easy.  As teachers, we all have those students that are regularly not meeting the expectations of our classroom, and if you are like me, you spend a decent amount of time on the phone with those parents. I believe it’s critical to make parents aware of what their child is doing in my class when that child is not performing well.  If I were the parent of that child, I’d want to know.  However, having these discussions is not a simple process because emotions are involved.  Whenever I call home to let a parent know that his or her child had a slip-up behaviorally or academically, I am cognizant of the fact that I am speaking to someone who loves this student for better or worse.

However, when I make a genuine positive phone call home for those same struggling students, it begins to change the narrative of my relationship with that parent. They see that I am not just another teacher that focuses on all of the negative attributes of their child. Those positive phone calls show those parents that I celebrate the positive contributions that their child is making to the class as well, and that communication can be transformative.  The parent sees that I am observing their child fairly.  They know that I care about their child’s well-being.  It’s a big step in fostering a relationship with that parent that says to their child that the parent and I are on the same team.

Helping students master argumentative writing

On Friday I was in a professional development session, and the speaker asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves by saying our name, what book we are currently reading and a recent success from the classroom.  I shared that this quarter my students are working on argumentative writing, and I have been pleased with the progress that they are making in being able to explain their reasoning when using text evidence and details their responses.

By the time the students get to me in 7th grade, they are decent enough at finding relevant text evidence when I present them with a text-dependent question.  Where they struggle is being able to explain to the reader how their evidence relates to their ideas.  At the beginning of the year, most of the responses that I get from students on questions that require text evidence usually JUST include the quote from the book or article that we are reading; for the most part, they do not make an attempt to connect that evidence to their topic sentence or claim.

However, my students are now working through that step, and they are showing me in their writing that they understand why they are using the evidence or details that they have selected, and how that evidence supports their ideas and thought process.

I use an argumentative writing model called CSET that I learned in a professional development training at the beginning of the previous school year.  The (C) stands for the claim that that student is trying to make.  The set-up (S) shows the reader where the information is coming from, whether it’s a book, article, movie, etc.  Examples of set ups that I provide my students are:

  • “Article Title” says that…
  • <Author> said that…
  • <Author> reveals that…

The evidence (E) is just that, evidence that the student is using to support his or her claim in the topic sentence.  The last part, the tie-in (T), is the hardest piece for students to master.  This is the part of the paragraph where students have to show me that they understand how their evidence connects and supports their reason(s).  I usually give the kids the following sentence frames to use in their tie-in sentences:

  • Generally, when people…
  • Usually, when people…
  • If people…

I instruct them to use this sentence to show how their evidence supports their claim, and how this is true not just in this one instance, but across a broader societal spectrum.

The first time I teach the kids CSET, I use the following cartoon:

shylock_fox_1

My students and I will co-construct a CSET that answers the following question: How does Slylock know that Shady Shrew is lying? 

I have done this activity with students several times now, so I cannot remember the exact CSET that my students and I put together this year, but it generally looks something like this:

(C) Shady Shrew is definitely lying.  (S) In the cartoon, (E) there is water on the table from a glass that got knocked over. (T) If someone had been gone for three weeks, then that water would have already evaporated; he couldn’t have been away on vacation that long because the water is still there.

Once the kids have the model above to reference, I have them create another CSET using a really short passage.  My students were not amazing CSET writers right off the bat.  They struggled with the tie-in piece because it forces them to think critically about why they are using the evidence that they are using.  But through repetition and practice, they are getting better and so is their writing.

As my students master this concept, I can push them to include multiple pieces of evidence in a paragraph.  Or, if I want them to produce a longer piece of writing – I just tell them to come up with several reasons and write multiple CSETs.

Argumentative writing can be tricky for our students, especially that critical portion where they have to connect the evidence they are using to their claims.  The CSET format gives students a model that helps them convey their thought process and reasoning in an academic fashion.

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!

 

 

Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

priority“This is your child’s lexile score.  We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year.  Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences.  As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables.  The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.  In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library.  I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom.  The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library.  Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together.  Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk.  When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”.  Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing.  They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels.  Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit.  If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so.  Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom.  I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections.  I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time.  And guess what?  They love it!  I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents).  As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class.  I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning.  Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel.  As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements.  Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it.  The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement.  Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper.  Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such.  I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family.  Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.