Growing pains: Switching from whole class texts to choice reading

At the start of this school year, I committed to using choice reading as the core texts for my English 2 world literature course. Rather than use data (e.g. Lexile levels), an arbitrary page number, or a teacher supplied list, I asked students to choose their books. I explained that they would use these books, reading and writing, for approximately four weeks. During this time, they would be expected to read the entire text.

How I did it

To support this switch, I increased my YA lit reading, I researched, and I modeled reading expectations. When students were stuck on what to read or seemed disinterested in reading, I recommended high interests texts, like Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Neal Shusterman’s Scythe. In order to enhance and support cultural diversity in my classroom and my reading, I read different articles (e.g. Ben Johnson’s “College Readiness: Writing to Learn”, Brian Sztabnik’s “The Simple Trick to Get Everyone Reading”), and I participated in different Twitter chats (e.g. #DistruptTexts and #THEBOOKCHAT). Finally, I modeled the reading expectations with my classes, choosing a variety of texts and posting my reading goals. For every silent, sustained reading (SSR) time, I’ve had a book to read. I designated 1hr of class time per week, normally 3 20-min chunks, for students to read, and I read along with them. I’ve asked students to respect this time by limiting bathroom breaks, working on other assignments, etc. because I want them to focus on reading.  When I forget my book at home, I pull one from my to-be-read shelf and start reading. I don’t grade during these times. I don’t conference during these times. I don’t allow headphones/music during these times. We.Just.Read.

I use a large variety mentor texts as supplemental sources for direct instruction (e.g. works in translation, excerpts from novels or plays, poetry, TEDTalks, essays, etc.). This meets our world literature requirements and exposes students to more authors and genres.

What I’ve learned so far

Although it may seem idealistic, my hope is that students remember how reading can impact their lives. Too often in education we quantify reading expectations. Reading “gotchya” quizzes, programs like Accelerated Reader, homework reading records, and the like have made reading a chore. Inspiration is no longer about the experience, the journey, or the empathy because we’ve moved to carrots and sticks. I’ve simply asked my students to be more aware of their reading habits. We have a 2-week check up where students consider how often they switch books, giving them up for lack of interest or reading difficulty. I’ve incorporated reflection on reading into our 1-to-1 conference after each benchmark test, too (approximately every 4 weeks). My goal is to help them become more metacognitive about what they’re reading and why, hoping to inspire and challenge them.

Using these 2-week and conference forms along with their reading and writing journals, I’m better able to view my students’ performance on the essential learning standards for our course. I focus their writing around our essential questions, and I use the journals as completion grades. I quickly realized how I could group students for more small group, targeted direct instruction, which students I would invite for 1-to-1 tutoring with me or our academic center, and why choice reading is so important. I’ve even created a FlipGrid topic titled “What Should I Read Next?” where students can create 2-min book talks to promote their authors, genres and texts.

The argument for whole class texts

I’ll admit it is easier to organize my class using whole class texts. Knowing I’ll have Lord of the Flies or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar for 3-4 weeks does make my life easier. I’ve taught both more than 15 times each. I’ve got the quizzes, tests, writing prompts, reading guides, etc. It’s easier to create sub plans or to be out of the classroom. It’s easier to fill gaps in learning content because I know the texts. It’s easier to adjust when fire drills, pep rallies, or inclement weather interrupt the schedule.

BUT… With whole class texts, I was working harder than the kids. They were more passive, looking for the right answer or a Google analysis or translation for the sources. I was frustrated because even with PBL projects, I was getting similar versions of the same project, paper, research. I was losing more students who were not connecting with the whole class texts, no matter what I did.

NOW… I focus only on big ideas. Our semester-long essential question focuses on how a person creates an identity. The unit essential questions ask students to consider what we value and how value changes over time, how perceptions of others shape a person’s identity, and why our actions can be more important than our speech in order to convey to others who we are. Kids are wrestling with how to generate valid arguments, including  developing and supporting their claims. I have less duplicate assignments, and students are recommending books to one another and me.

YES… I still have students who are disengaged and refusing to read. I still have students who choose to avoid assignments. Choice reading is only the beginning of approaching the problem of apathy. It’s one small part of a bigger issue within our society, but it’s very, very important. What are your adventures in choice reading? What guidance could you give to me or my students? I’m interested in hearing your input.



My labor of love

The beginning of any school year comes with many requirements and distractions. The goal is to not lose focus. Sounds easy, right? It just takes discipline, right? Determining what is important or deserves attention the most is not easy for students AND teachers. I often return to school excited to meet my students, excited to implement things I’ve learned or reflected upon to improve. It doesn’t take long before my desk is cluttered, and I’m behind on grading, and I’m struggling to find ways to adapt to the diverse learning needs of my students. I’m continually reminded that several of my students have never had modeling to be autonomous and reflective about their learning. Therefore, I need to learn how to be more explicit about my own reflection and learning.

What’s working

There are a few things that definitely started my year off in positive ways. They do require time, but the routines they have established, especially early in this school year, help me save time in grading, tutoring, etc.

  • Talks with Teachers 30 day teacher challenge – Focusing on a different teaching/reflection/instruction area each month, these challenges help me find ways to stay organized, build culture, and refine my teaching to get to what matters most. I also have an accountability partner to help me stay on track. You can join the challenge anytime this year by clicking the link above.
  • Choice reading – It may sound chaotic, but I do not have a whole class text with my English 2 world lit courses this year. Students get to choose their reading, and I supplement with mentor texts. Students have enjoyed the freedom to choose without constraints on Lexile level, page minimum, genre, etc.
  • Essential questions & big ideas – Wiggins and McTighe developed and modeled how to develop instruction beginning with the end in mind in their text Backward by Design. This summer, I revisited the first edition (purple) that I used when I first began teaching through the South Carolina program for alternative certification in education (PACE). I wanted to find big pictures for each of my classes to move toward, and I’ve created essential questions for each unit within the course, lasting about every 4 weeks.
What’s not working – yet
  • Choice reading – My goal was to help students fall in love with reading if not again then for the first time. So many of my students are turned off by required reading, reading records, etc. that they no longer read poetry, novels, collections, etc. for pleasure. As a result, they don’t have the stamina to focus on longer tests with cold reading, and they do not close read. Once, skimming and scanning, is enough. Students keep asking what they’ll DO with the book. How do I move them from external motivations and random assignments that call for summary (what most have seen)? How can I refine the selection process to encourage students to choose something they enjoy (e.g. I regrouped my teacher library by genre)? Is it possible to erase past experiences with reading or to create long-lasting positive experiences with reading in only one semester?
  • Reflections – After the first two weeks, I asked my English 2 students several reflection questions. I broke them down into different categories, one focused on our 3 learning objectives. For each objective, I asked their confidence level, including an explanation of why they might feel this way. I asked them to provide questions about the learning objectives that I could answer. Many put “none” or left it blank. Another section focused on feedback. What do they notice about my feedback? What questions might they have? Again, many put “none”. At the end of the reflection, I asked if they’d like a conference before the first unit test (afterward they all conference with me). About half said yes. When asked what they’d like to conference about, many said “to understand what we’re supposed to do” or “to find out how I can improve”. (*sigh)
  • Timing/rotations – I’m getting better at transitioning my timing in class, using Caitlin Tucker’s Blended Learning and Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days as guides. However, I haven’t actually created stations or moved the kids through stations yet. I admit, this part has my nervous. However, I have some great colleagues who perform rotations fairly frequently, and I will observe them in the next few weeks to take notes and to experiment more in my class.

Teaching can sometimes feel like creating a map in the desert while the wind continues to blow, the sand continues to shift, and resources/answers may only be a mirage. Distractions and requirements won’t dissipate for us or for the students. Yet, we can find solace in the relationships and wins. My students ARE asking for conferences only 2 weeks into school. I am doing a better job of reinforcing learning objectives, including reading and writing daily. I have a great supports in place (e.g. admin, colleagues, #aplitchat, #aplangchat, Voxer, etc.) where I can find guidance and resources. This semester has just begun, and I’m interested in the landscape of our class as we venture on.

What matters most: My goals for the 2018-19 school year

Almost a year ago, I created a blog post with some goals for the 2017-18 school year. Was I able to meet all of them? No. Did life get in the way? Yes. Could I generate a laundry list of items or excuses that prevented me from meeting these challenges? Absolutely. However, I prefer not to beat myself up or to let myself off the hook. After being named the 2018-19 teacher of the year for my school this spring, I was asked to reflect on my teaching philosophies, my instruction, challenges, etc. Part of my response included, “My education and teaching experience made me realize that this profession requires ongoing learning and reflection in order to meet the needs of our students and to inspire them to grow. I frequently share my passion for learning with my students. It’s important to model that learning is messy and time consuming; it requires effort, error, and revision.” I earnestly believe that we lead by example, and I’m eager to dust off a few of these goals and to perhaps add a few new ones.

Although I’ve only made room for three professional development or teaching books this summer, all are sources of great inspiration. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents provides some insight and recommendations to using a workshop approach in the classroom. Combined with Caitlin Tucker’s Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change, I’m able to layout and develop more dynamic and responsive instruction practices, including updating some of my blended learning video instruction and incorporating more student-teacher conferences. I confess, I haven’t finished either of these yet. They are so rich with information, and I am taking my time to read through and plan. Although I’ll most likely finish both by the end of August, I plan to use these as resources going forward.

The third “teaching” book is Tom Rademacher’s It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching. While I didn’t agree with some of his points, his candor about race and empowering students is spot on. This is not a profession for those who seek isolation, control, or power. Teaching and learning occur best through relationships, and my best memories in the classroom often occurred when I had no idea what would happen next. Of course students need challenges, but those are not necessarily grades or standards. I also believe that I should be willing to challenge and reflect on my learning. I’ve committed to participating in the Talks with Teachers 30-day challenge where I’ll focus on everything from instruction and classroom management to reflection and growth. I even have an accountability buddy to push and motivate me. This post is one example of the August day 2 challenge because I’m committing to 4 tenets for my classroom for the 2018-19 school year:

  1. I will support student choice in reading, focusing on universally applicable skills and setting aside in-class reading time without worrying about loss of instruction. This involves planning for and continuously implementing more of a workshop model.
  2. I will perform student-teacher conferences after each benchmark assessment to provide more targeted and timely feedback.
  3. I will write daily based on my research, reading, teaching, learning, etc. Whatever is important or inspiring that day will guide my writing, and I’ll generate at least two blog posts a month.
  4. I will accept the leadership roles of mentoring another new teacher and co-sponsoring our school’s evolving student-led academic center to support a positive school culture for student and teacher learning.

Choice reading in 7 courses

The College Board will release Advanced Placement exam scores later this week. I could sugar coat my anxiety about how my students may have performed or how their scores might reflect on me, but I won’t. Instead, I’d like to share one of my favorite projects from our #APLit class this year.

I had the privilege and advantage of a small, close knit class this year (7 students), and I always enjoy using something creative for the final exam. In the past, I’ve used caricature videos, documentaries, and movie translations, but this year we performed a “book tasting”. A quick search generates almost 150 million results for book tasting, and I’m certain that each teacher’s take is a little different. For our class, it meant combining our love of reading with the never-ending teenage love of food!

Leading up to the #APLit exam, our final independent reading project was a read-a-thon where students selected “AP worthy” texts. During the read-a-thon, students wrote blogs about their thinking on various aspects of different texts, similar to Brian Sztabnik’s flipped lesson. For the final exam, they chose one of these read-a-thon books to use for the tasting.

We focused on works published since 2000. While I appreciate and use several “classic” texts, I think it’s important to recognize the merits of good writing, no matter the publication date. The student choices covered a variety of genres, too:


For our project, students created original menus based around their novel. Each menu had to have a unique restaurant name and menu options. The minimum requirements were one appetizer, two entrees, one dessert, and one beverage. The items had to capture the author’s style and convey knowledge of the text without giving away spoilers.

In addition to the professionally designed menu, each student provided one of the dishes for our book tasting. They presented their menus and dishes to each other and other guests (e.g. admin and teachers).

As always, I’m amazed at my students’ creativity. Their menu designs and dishes were great. We had a variety of genres and food, and I surprised them with guest judges (their parents) to enjoy our final class day together. I’ll know I’ll fondly remember this day and our final project.


My life in four books

Per my 2017-18 teaching manifesto, I pledged to write alongside my students and to offer more choice in reading and writing. One of my many virtual PLN heroes through #APlitchat and Voxer Adrian Nester gave me a great idea for my second blog. Her challenge is to find four books (or series) that helped readers shape their lives. So many titles and authors came to my mind as I started to draft this blog on paper last night. Before I knew it 2 hours had passed, and I was left with bullet notes, random titles and author names, question marks and a pseudo sense of ranking. This. Is. Tough.

I mean, I honestly feel guilty when I make these selections because I believe my obtuse measuring scale left out a “better” work. I also feel hesitant and anxious to publicly state that these works helped to shape my identity as a reader because, well, what will others think about my choices? What do my choices reveal about who I am? How do I define who I am when I am so many people: teacher, mom, wife, daughter, sister, Lutheran, etc. Do these works jive with all of these roles? And, then I got over it. I LOVE to read. I love to share what I read. I’m the kid who deliberately walked around with more books from the library because I wanted to be seen as a reader. Reading defines who I am, not just these works. Yet, the four I’ve chosen seem to have had a lasting impact on me.

The Secret GardenBook #1: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I grew up in a house with four siblings, and I shared a room with both of my sisters. I was also very physical and demanding when I was younger, believing that the louder and more forceful my personality, the easier life would be/people would see my point clearly. Is it any wonder then why I quickly identified with Annie Lennox? True, I could not empathize with her parent’s loss, but the idea of having a 100-room house to wander seemed wonderful and peaceful. Once Annie discovers the garden and befriends Colin and Dickon, the manor doesn’t seem so lonely. Perhaps the language is flowery, but I felt like a grown up reading “real” stories in early elementary school. This was my first big chapter book, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment and a place to escape.

Book #2: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Similar to Burnett’s Garden, Salem’s Lot made me feel like an adult. I “borrowed” my dad’s copy of the novel. He started a membership into a book-of-the-month club, and he quickly acquired several King titles. My dad’s interest in King peeked my curiosity, though maybe reading my first adult horror novel at age 11 wasn’t the best idea. The creepy novel about the sinister town of Jerusalem made the hairs on my neck stand up. The scandal, violence, and language shocked me, but I also understood the courage and frustration of Ben Mears when he refused to leave this mystery unsolved– even more so when he chose to do something about it. Salem’s Lot was the first book I read under the covers with a flash light, and it started a life-long appreciation of King’s style and candor when crafting his stories.

Book #3: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Oh, how I love Irving’s narrator, characterization, and story line. I was in my early 20s the first time I read this novel.  It was not assigned for my English literature classes; I just happened to notice it at a friend’s apartment. He simply said, “I think you’d like it.” That was an understatement. At first the chunked timeline frustrated me because I didn’t see how or why Irving was taking me along so far into one portion only to shift gears to another. In the last 60 pages when the finished puzzle started to form, I wept and wept and wept. This novel is so beautiful. I ached to know more, to be friends with or to take these characters out for coffee just to talk. Irving is a master story teller who creates complex characters. He demonstrates heroic qualities in ordinary lives. I’ve ready several of Irving’s works, but my first love will always be Owen Meany. Just writing this reflection inspires me to read it again!

Book #4: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I’ll admit. I never enjoyed history when I was young. It’s not that history isn’t interesting; it’s more so that my educational experience was simply skill-drill-and-kill. Rote memorization of places, people, and events without context does not breed interest. Thus, as a teacher, I became a history student in order to build context for my students, making the experience richer. Golding’s allegory about the fall of man and the dangers of war gave me an opportunity to extend our learning about World War II and the effects of the Cold War. The first few times I taught this text, I enjoyed learning alongside my students as they built more connections. After several years, I still love watching them hunched over the novel as I read aloud. I am even more excited when a student asks to read a cold passage aloud, trying on their best British accent. The excitement, the shock, the anguish, and the relief on their faces most often translates into their passage analyses, allowing me to engage them in how literature and history are symbiotic.  I’m also a sucker for Dystopia!

Honorable mentions

Yes, perhaps, having this honorable mentions portion is a bit like cheating because I get to list more books and authors, but seriously, there are so many that give me fond memories. At one time or another these rejuvenated my love of reading because of the great experiences attached to them. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak were the go-to picture books for my sons when they were little. I read them so frequently that even now I can recite them by heart. Both the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter series reminded me of how fun and fulfilling suspending my disbelief can be, and the beautiful characters and themes are timeless and universal. As an adult, I’ve also become more interested and deliberate about my nonfiction reading. In the last decade, I’ve read several titles that have had a definite impact on my classroom, my instruction, and my reflection about how we shape our identities: Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and Jonathan Bergmann’s Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement.

In the end, reading is about discovering more about myself. Reading affords me the opportunity to research and connect, to live vicariously, and to entertain others. I LOVE it when I can share that experience with my students and my children. And, I’m always looking to make my to-be-read pile even higher, so let me know which titles you’d recommend. Happy reading! #MrsTReads