Tag Archives: Literacy

Beyond Classroom Walls: Encouraging Independent Reading and Engaging the Community

Too often, students, at least those in middle school, maintain and apply the skills  and habits we seek to build in our English classroom struggle once they walk out of our doors.  Of particular interest to me today is how we build up students to read for pleasure.  There are many great classroom practices, such as free-choice book units and independent reading time built into the school days.  One of our hopes in these practices is that students will find an appreciation for reading within the school day that they will eventually pursue on their own.  For many students, though, even if they enjoy the practice of selecting their own titles and reading independently at school, it becomes more of a task in the real, often chaotic worlds they live in outside our walls.  Lately the question of turning a reading practice into a reading habit follows me everywhere I go.

Star Wars ShakespeareOne thing I think is key to creating independent readers among young teens, especially, is showing them that they are  surrounded by independent readers and that those independent readers are not only their peers.  I try to keep a book I am reading for pleasure on my desk at school at all times.  It usually takes me a long time to finish these titles since there is not much time for pleasure-reading in my day, but it’s presence and the slow progress of its book mark is still valuable.  Right now, you will find Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher presiding over my desk.  Despite my significant lack of Star Wars knowledge, it is clever, funny, and surprisingly well done, but I will provide a review when I finish in a few weeks.  My hope is that they will see that not all reading is assigned and that there is a surprising amount of variety out there.  Star Wars written in the style of Shakespeare? Who would have thought!?!

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

Still, I am their English teacher, and of all the adults they know, my students expect me to be one who reads for pleasure.  I needed to expand the picture for them.  I reached out to my fellow 8th grade teachers and asked them what they were reading for pleasure that would also be appropriate for our students.  The response was great!  I created a collage/slideshow on my class website (see screenshot to the right) to illustrate for students that reading for pleasure is not reserved for English teachers alone.  Math teachers read! Science teachers read! History teachers read! And, they read things you may be interested in!  I also wanted to provide these teachers with a new avenue for reaching out to their students by showing the kids what their teachers are reading and hopefully inspiring some new conversations and connections.

So, now students know that there are adults out there who read for pleasure, but you may have noticed by now, that one critical element is missing.  Parents.  Teachers are a unique subset of adults in the minds of teens, and what applies to teachers does not always apply to the world around them.  Teens need to see adults in the world outside their school, and their parents in particular, reading – maybe even reading to them!  On numerous occasions, I have had eighth grade parents share with me that their children used to be readers, but that their enthusiasm has drop as they progressed through middle school.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon pattern as students go through dramatic changes that seem to consume their thoughts and more demands are placed on their time.  Just because it is a pattern, though, does not mean it needs to persist.  In communication with parents, I usually give three pieces of common, research-based practices in encouraging a student’s at-home reading practice.  Feel free to share with the parents of your own students:

  • As a family, make sure that reading for pleasure is a visible act from time to time.  If reading for fun is modeled, it will become a more normalized activity that teens are more likely to pursue on their own. 
  • Have casual conversations about what your teen is reading.  These conversations should not feel like work or a quiz.  For instance, I know that [insert student’s name] just started a book for independent reading titled [insert title and author].  This title could be a great jumping off point for some dinner table conversations.
  • When appropriate, recommend something you have read to your teen, or read a book you may both be interested together. 

Hopefully,at least some of these practices are already a part of a family’s environment, but even when they are, I remind parents that being a little more intentional in them can make a difference.

How do you move beyond reading logs and book reviews to help students turn reading independently into a valuable habit?


My Latest Tech Tool Experiment: Piktochart and the Value of Infographics

When time allows, and sometimes even when it doesn’t, I like trying out new technology tools for the classroom.  I am the type of technology user I have deemed the tech-experimenter.  I learn through trial-and-error; I work backwards, forwards, and backwards again; I push all the buttons (only occasionally to the dismay of our tech department).

Recently, at the NCTE National Convention back in November, I heard Penny Kittle speak on the importance of adding infographics into our students’ critical reading repertoire, and perhaps even their writing repertoire.  In response, I decided to try my hand at infographic creation and made it the focus of my next tech-experiment.

Romeo and Juliet Characters InfographicAfter looking around at my options, I selected Piktochart as my tool and Romeo and Juliet characters as my subject.  Piktochart has a great drag-and-drop format, plenty of examples, and a great pre-loaded library of templates, backgrounds, fonts, graphics, etc.  It took me about thirty-forty minutes to make the infographic to my left, but I’m sure I will become a little quicker and creative with repeated use.

Next came integrating the graphic into our lesson.  I did not spend forty minutes creating the image just to have them file it away in their notebooks for future reference.  It was a great chance to practice some close reading of a visual.  Inspired by Kittle’s talk, we asked ourselves the following about the infographic:

Why do the following matter:

  1. Color choice (consider backgrounds, text, and graphics)?
  2. Icon/image selection and placement?
  3. Order in which information is presented and arranged?

These questions can be applied to just about any infographic and really help students engage with this unique form of presenting information.  Can you think of any other general questions you might add to my list?  Eventually, I would like students to be able to create their own infographics.  Perhaps in conjunction with a research project?

Also, feel free to save and use my graphic if it suits your needs, but please do not claim it as your own (See Creative Commons note in footer).  Thanks!

English Classrooms and Libraries – Bound at the Spines

I know, I know, National Library Week was a while ago.  We celebrated in my classroom by showing a little extra love to our school’s part time librarian (who is also our art teacher) and by encouraging those amongst us with out library cards to go ahead and sign up for one.  However, the state of libraries in our state, nation, and the world at large is seriously bothering me.  Fortunately, the county in which I work seems to have a reasonably healthy library system.  They are large, with many programs, well stocked and staffed, and boast ample hours.  However, the county in which I live is trying to sustain a library system that has taken some serious hits.  Entire branches are closing and many have had their hours and staff cut back significantly.

Teachers, and English teachers especially, should be some of the libraries biggest advocates.  Many of us know the value of a classroom library and pour hours, and often dollars, into cultivating a classroom environment that boasts easy access to a wealth and variety of books.  We know that the more students are surrounded by books, the more likely they are to develop life long reading habits.

The same benefits are true of our school and public libraries.  They provide the invaluable service of opening up more opportunities for reading and research than most of us could find on our own.  They are staffed with knowledgeable persons eager to cultivate our reading interests and habits.  For teachers, that’s one more expert in our boat, one more advocate for the reading practices we are preaching in our classroom, and hundreds more books than we could provide on our own.

Now here is the tricky part – Library usage is not down.  In fact, it is the highest it has been in recent decades.  Libraries are seeing more visitors and less money than ever before.  Does this seem as backwards to you as it does to me?   It blows my mind that local officials could look at the ways libraries are serving their clients and decide to reduce funding.

So how can we help?

Here are some ideas I’m sharing with my students.  I would love to read some of yours in the comments section – especially if you are a librarian.  How can we help YOU?

My ideas:

1.  Donate used books to library sales and restock your home library from those same sale tables.

2.  Join your local “Friends of the Library” group and participate in the many avenues for service those organizations offer.

3.  Write to local officials advocating for increase funding for your library.  Share what the institution has meant to you.

4.  Show your librarians a little extra love.  While this may not get them more funding.  Letting them know that you care while they may not get the same appreciation from those negotiating their budgets will be uplifting.

Check out the info graphic below (you can find it online here):

Summer Reading: The Good and The Bad Part II

It’s about that time of year, again.  The time of year our thoughts, students and teachers alike, turn towards summer.  If you are an English teacher, these thoughts probably include some musings over summer reading.  If you missed my initial introduction and poll regarding this topic, you can check it out here.  I could go on for pages and pages about summer reading, but the beauty (or trouble with) of a blog is that it lends itself to succinct writing.  I will try to be pithy, but I’m afraid it’s not my strong suit.


If anything, last week’s poll reveals that we are a divided profession on the subject of how summer reading programs should be handled:

Results from Summer Reading Poll

Results from Summer Reading Poll as of 4/18/2011

I feel as if there is no real majority of opinion, here.  Technically, offering one required title, a few free choice requirements, and not requiring any written work had the most votes, but only by one vote, and even then, it is quite different from the “runner-ups” of having no formal program or offering a student created inquiry project.  Beyond having a variety of opinions, many of us do not have the option of creating our “dream program” and must work within the stipulations set for us by our school systems. Regardless, we at least agree on one thing – CHOICE is key when encouraging students to read over summer break.

Visual Representation of Summer Reading Poll Results

Recognizing the variety of responses recieved by the poll, I know that not all readers are going to agree with my point of view.  Keep in mind, however, that I am not suggesting that there is only one way to orchestrate a summer reading program.  You know your  students best, and that knowledge should play a key role in designing your own program.  In the mean time, I would like to share some of my ideas with you.


My school requires a formal summer reading program, but I must say that I agree with them on this one.  In fact, my students once asked me why I couldn’t simply suggest that they all read over the summer and leave it at that.  A very honest discussion with these students revealed that the reading enthusiasts would keep reading and the self-proclaimed non-readers would keep, well, not reading, unless their parents enforced the suggestion.  The summer is a great time to put books in the hands of all students in a low-stress, independent environment in the hopes that they will learn to see how the practice of reading for pleasure may look in their own lives.  With the right amount of freedom in choosing books, the practice can also help students find books, genres, and series that they like.  The tricky part is holding students accountable for their reading.

In the past, I have usually required one common title because it will give my classes a common foundation from which we can pull from in our reading mini-lesson once the new school year begins.  In turn, this method also helps me to justify a student-choice book unit in the first semester rather than a whole-class novel, which works well in the semi-workshop setting used in my classroom.  This year, students are going to be able to choose their required title from a list of three options.  They will then read two additional books that are totally up to them.  In my experience, getting students to read on their own is all about choice, choice, more choice, and the availability of time and books.  In summers past, I also included a small assignment to be completed on the assigned title.  This year, there will still be a small assignment to be completed, however, I am offering options that cover a variety of learning styles, from visual, to auditory, to kinesthetic.  This representation of their learning, whether it be a blog, collage, podcast, or other conceptulization will be applied to their choice of what they read over the summer.  Once again, choice is king.


One element of reading for pleasure that becomes more evident in adult readers, in my experience at least, is the social element of reading.  Too many students relegate their reading to the classroom and do not always understand the concept of a reading community.  Feeling that you are a part of a community as you read can increase your tendancy to participate in acts of reading more often.  One of the biggest successes I have experienced in my summer reading programs is the addition of what I dubbed “Summer Reading Socials.”  Students began asking in January of this year if I would be including them this upcoming summer.  The basic idea is that I placed myself at a central location (that included ice-cream!) every other week.  Students could purchase a dessert on their own if they wanted to.  The main idea, though, was that we were gathering in a social setting to talk about what we were reading.  This was a huge success with my struggling readers in particular.  You can check out the flyer I sent home with students last year for a clearer picture of what these events looked like.Summer Reading Socials.  I also tried reinforce the idea of reading as a social activity through a webpage I created using google sites.  It is obviously no longer updated, but you can get the general idea by visiting it here: Summer Reading 2010. To keep motivation high, I also help current students take ownership of the program by helping to create a list of options for the free-choice books.  Students do not have to choose from this list, but it is nice to see what their peers have enjoyed and gives them a good place to jump off from.

Comments/Ideas/Anecdotes Welcome!

Summer Reading: The Good and the Bad Part I

Since returning to school after spring break, I’ve been mulling over summer reading.  How it will look for my students and how it would look in an ideal world.  I’ve got a blog post on the subject almost ready to go that I’ve been working out over the past few days.  I’ll share what I’ve done in the past, what I’m doing this year, how to get the most out of even the more restrictive programs, and my thoughts on the practice in general.  First, though, I’d love to get your thoughts on summer reading.  If you wouldn’t mind taking the poll below, that would be fantastic!

Thanks friends!

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