Our Words—Raw and Unrehearsed

If you were to ask me what I think my former students remember most about having been a student of mine, I would venture that my 2nd graders remember camping out in Joshua Tree National Monument during a desert study, or that my 3rd graders might talk about how we did not have a classroom library, we had a reading park complete with plants galore, a park bench and grass (aka fuzzy green rug), or that my former 5th graders remember that during a real, live earthquake instead of the well-rehearsed “Drop, grab, and cover,” I yelled, “Oh, shit!” I would never guess, however, that a former student would remember how I responded to a bit of impromptu conversation during read aloud. And yet, that’s exactly what Amanda has remembered for the past 20 years.

About eight months ago I heard from her. Maybe this is a common occurrence for some of you (I’ve moved around a fair bit and I’ve resisted Facebook), but Amanda’s email was my first. I knew from the moment I read her email that I would write about it, it’s just taken a while to, in the words of Katie Wood Ray, sit and stay.

Her email began like this:


 I’m Amanda Broder-Hahn and I was lucky enough to be a student of yours at Temple Isaiah in the 1990’s.

 My parents and I still talk about you and remember you fondly.  Recently, in a conversation about small moments that subtly changed the trajectory of our lives, I decided I wanted to look you up and say thank you.  Google is a wonderful thing.  I hope this doesn’t feel weird.  Speaking of weird:

 Confession: I always loved Amanda. I remember her precisely—she was a gentle soul and a sophisticated lover of books and authors at 8! I could count on her to bring a fresh perspective to a project or a problem. And of course, these very gifts, sometimes set her apart from the other students. Case in point, she is the now kind of person who engages in conversation about small moments that subtly changed the trajectory of one’s life. Love her!

Her email continued:

Speaking of weird:

We had just begun to read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and you asked us to raise our hands and tell you the first adjective that came to mind when we encountered the Professor.  Every hand in the classroom swung up as one, and you called on six or seven kids and everyone said the same thing without hesitation: “Weird!”  One kid (I wish I could remember who it was!) said, “Interesting.”  You invited us to consider other words that were similar to both weird and interesting, and at the end of that day I valued weird as something original, special, and capable of things I couldn’t imagine. 

 Confession: I have no memory of this moment whatsoever. Clearly this was P.T.—pre-Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I did not yet know about things like reading partners, turn & talk and read alouds that were planned, instructional and interactive. But, I did know that teaching was about more than reading, writing, and mathematics. I knew that teaching those things and teaching values went hand in hand. I knew that I had great hopes for the kind of people my students would become.

 Next Amanda wrote:

That allowed me to embrace being a bit weird myself.   I remember feeling like I had permission to really relish and value being me.  The approach you took to questions and discovery in general, but especially in that moment, has allowed me to be more curious and compassionate, to be more imaginative, to solve more problems. 

 Confession: I am not sure what to confess. Teaching is such hard work and regrets are inevitable. We attend a workshop or a course where we learn about a new strategy or approach and we experience varying degrees of guilt. If only…, we think. Might that have made the difference for…, we wonder. The truth is, as teachers, we plant seeds and we nurture and nourish those seeds, but we almost never see the harvest. And yet, year after year, we do the heavy lifting of cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, etc.

I am so grateful to Amanda for reaching out and giving me a glimpse of the amazing person she’s become:

I went to culinary school straight out of high school, and have been baking as well as working with and for local, sustainable farmers for the past several years.  I’m going back to school now to be a librarian and literacy advocate.  I’m interested in exploring the roles public libraries can take in the intersection of literacy, social and political involvement and food justice in underserved communities.  Going back to school now, and thinking of the process of becoming educated from the perspective of an adult, I appreciate the tools you gave me, both for learning and for being a person.  Every day, my life is better because you were my teacher.

I read and I k’velled. Look at the person Amanda became! A baker and a blogger, a learner and an activist. Of course, I love reading that her life is better every day because I was her teacher. But the truth is, I am the lucky one. I had the opportunity to be a part of her life for one precious year. And, it mattered. A lot. To Amanda and to me.TIDS 91-91.jpg

(That’s me in the brown blazer and Amanda just to the right in the red and white stripes.)

The Back-to-School Honeymoon is Waning

October is just around the corner. Technically, it’s already fall, but while September clings to the fading wisps of summer, October is the real deal. October means pumpkins and apply picking, shorter days that begin and end with a familiar crispness in the air. October means the energy and excitement of Back-to-School is now replaced with the reality of 168 more days until summer.

What exactly makes Back-to-School so magical? And, how can we capture that magic and sprinkle it across the year? Part of the wonder of Back-to-School is the newness—new teacher, classmates, classroom and (be still my heart) new school supplies. And part is the discovery of new friends, interests and territories. That’s what makes the reading and writing identity work that we do at the beginning of the year so critical. It’s important for us teachers to discover who our students are as readers and writers. However, if that work begins and ends in September then our kids lose out on the opportunity to discover who they are becoming as readers and readers.

At TCRWP’s August Institute on the Teaching of Reading, Katy read “What Reading Means to Me… Snapshots from an Avid Reader.” It is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve read on the power of books across one reader’s life. I already love Katy for the amazing friend and writing partner that she is, but this post, this post makes me love her even more because by sharing the reader she was, is, and is becoming, Katy invites me into her library, her mind and her heart. Her writing about her reading identity also inspires me to remember my own journey as a reader, to explore new authors and titles, and to celebrate my identity as an avid reader.

So, think of this post as a reminder, a reminder to make the magic of discovering who we are as readers and writers happen across the year—not just in September.

What Reading Means to Me… Snapshots From an Avid Reader by Katy Wischow

The landscape of my childhood, the landscape of my life was built with books.

I lied to my mother. I told her I didn’t know how to read, even though I could, until she promised me that she’d still keep reading aloud to me even after I could do it myself.

When I was left, age two, overnight with my parents’ friends, they came running in to comfort me as I screamed “I want to go home! I want my mother!” I wasn’t homesick, I was reciting my favorite book, Are You My Mother?

I read Harriet the Spy for inspiration, and began squatting on the sidewalks, recording in a notebook every time the neighbor’s curtains twitched. The Tormeys, across the street, invited me into their backyard to spy on THEIR neighbors.

I began writing Louisa May Alcott on the tops of my spelling tests, instead of my own name, so I could be closer to Louisa.

I took my strawberry scented notepad to the library and copied pages of notes about chimpanzees when I had fallen in love with Jane Goodall.

I scoffed at the frequency with which the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew encountered mysteries, and secretly, desperately longed to stumble over a stolen fortune of my own.

I haunted the children’s library, borrowing my favorites over and over, the way you don’t ever get tired of seeing your best friend every day at school.

I whispered the secret spell words in The Egypt Game and Witch’s Sister, then whipped around to see what I might have accidentally summoned.

I finished The Devil’s Arithmetic in the front seat of the car and then cried so hard that my nose bled.

I finished The Best Christmas Pageant Ever after bedtime, and laughed so hard that my parents could hear me from downstairs.

I finished Bridge to Terebithia at school, and fought so hard with Katherine S. about the ending that we never quite made up.

I got older. Books held my hand as a teenager and whispered to me that I was not alone, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike terrified me, waking me at night to lie very, very still in bed, wondering what was just outside my line of sight.

I passed notes to friends and crushes in school; at home, at night, I passed notes to the books I loved, dialing up the creaky modem to email authors who changed me. Some wrote back.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved changed me, changed my whole eleventh grade class. I still can hear the echoes of her words.

I spent a series of house-bound high school snow days writing a thirty-page modern version of Antigone, because Antigone changed me.

I read Audre Lorde and felt kinship, felt power. Audre Lorde changed me.

I got older still. In my first year of teaching, overwhelmed, exhausted, I still did not tire of my best friends. Harriet. Louisa. Jane. Antigone.

I read with my students and cried at Frindle, laughed at Bud, Not Buddy, loved every word Jacqueline Woodson penned, learned from Seymour Simon and Melissa Stewart. I met my kids’ book best friends – Walter Dean Myers, Julie Ann Peters, Gary Soto.

I made new best friends, loved beyond reason – zombie books by Mira Grant that speak to my heart, time travel by Connie Willis that makes me cry. I laughed at David Sedaris, pondered with Jeanette Winterson, dreamed with James Baldwin, got lost in the beauty of Julia Alvarez’s words, looked into the future with Octavia Butler.

I made wizard best friends – Harry, Hermione, Ron. And Professor McGonagall.

I absorbed murder mysteries, one after another after another, each one painting a picture of a world that made sense, a world of justice served.

I have nightmares before each and every trip that I step on the train, climb in the car, settle on the plane, and open my bag to find no books.

Christmas, 2014. My father cleans out the attic and pulls out a stack of Babysitters’ Club books, and they feel like old friends. I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to them.

The landscape of my childhood, the landscape of my life is built with books. Books gave me doors to new worlds, books gave me windows on other lives, books gave me mirrors – kind, forgiving mirrors that showed me a future for myself that was good, hopeful. This is what reading means to me, this is what I want for every reader. The landscapes of our shared, beautiful world, built with the words that matter.

Researching Writers (Or… How’s It Going? Version 2.0)

It’s institute season here at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. My colleagues and I have hit the road, traveling all over the country leading institutes (weeklong courses) on the teaching of reading and writing. And, there’s nothing like teaching an institute to get me storytelling stories from my classroom. You know, those precious/quirky/ridiculous/memorable moments that capture the true nature of living and learning in a roomful of kids day after day.

For example, I often tell the story of Alejandro who, when asked “Tell me about the kind of reader you are?”, looked up at the ceiling, carefully considered my question, and after a long pause replied, “I’m the kind of reader who… likes math.” Love!

I also tell moments that reveal my flaws and foibles as a beginning workshop teacher. I joke about how during my first year of workshop teaching, I was in great shape. The reason? I was terrified (Terrified!) of pulling up alongside a writer and asking the conferring question, “How’s it going?” I was terrified because my teaching-of-writing pockets weren’t very deep and I was certain that conferring with my writers would reveal the fraud I believed I was. So, I walked laps round and round my room. Every so often the Nike ‘Just Do It’ voice in my head would win and I would pause mid-lap, pull up alongside a kid and ask, “How’s it going?” To which Wendy or Jose or Dea would reply, “Good.” Then I’d say, “Good. Keep up the good work,” and resume my laps.

That was over fifteen years ago. I’ve come a long way since that first year. (I owe so much to so many members of the TCRWP community who shared their hard-earned knowledge, expertise and brilliance with me—Lucy Calkins, Kathleen Tolan, Mary Ehrenworth, Amanda Hartman and Colleen Cruz, to name a few.) My thinking and practices around conferring have changed dramatically. Specifically, I now know that the most successful conferences are done with the student, rather than to the student.

One way to accomplish that writer-to-writer rapport in a conference is to teach kids some predictable things writers talk about when discussing their writing. You see, I’d always had this fantasy of pulling up along a student during writing workshop and the student saying, “Thank goodness you’re here. I’ve been working on… and I could really use some help with…” At some point, I realized that rather than waiting for this particular miracle, I could simply teach kids how to talk about their writing at the beginning of a conference.


My list of what to teach begins with topic. You might teach kids to say, “My piece is about…” You may be thinking, “Um Shana, my kids tell me their topic without any teaching or prompting.” True enough. Still, we can teach kids that a sentence about their topic is usually enough. We can also teach kids to push past what the piece is about and into what it’s really about by asking a follow-up question like, “Okay, you’re writing about… Have you thought about what you want your readers, your audience, to think, feel or know after reading your piece?” I find that talking with kids about audience is incredibly powerful. If kids can identify even just one reader (besides you, their teacher) that they want to read their piece, then all sorts of decisions from structure to tone to message become much more concrete and therefore easier to support.

Writing Process

Knowing where a writer is in his or her writing process helps us know what kind of support to offer. During rehearsal, I want writers to dwell in possibility—considering a variety of moments/topics/issues they could write about and a variety of ways they could develop those. During revision, I want writers to embrace a spirit of experimentation, trying out parts of their drafts in different structures, tenses or tones. Because of this, I teach writers to say something about where they are in the writing process. Also, sometimes I look at what’s on the page and I get a kind of tunnel vision—I picture this exact page on the writing gallery in the hall—and I start to teach the writing, specifically the errors in punctuation and spelling, rather than the writer. There is a place and time for every kind of instruction our writers want and need across the writing process. That’s why knowing where a writer is in his or her process is so important.

Next Steps

While the first two items—topic and writing process—provide general research, teaching writers to talk about their next steps in a conference yields much more interesting information. Writers are planful. So talking about next steps in a conference reinforces that writers plan. They plan what to do with a current piece. They plan future pieces they want to write. They have a stack of mentors they plan to read, etc. I find that even when writers glance at the chart and say, “Next I am planning to…” with a grand dramatic pause, they almost always fill in the blank with something worth doing. Plus, I love following up with, “Any idea how you are going to approach that work?” Our smart and sophisticated students have such wonderfully original ways for how they are going to proceed in their work. One writer decided to reread really sad parts of books from her reading log to see if she could figure out how to write a story that would make her readers cry. Because I loved this idea and wanted to see this writer succeed, I also pushed for accountability by asking, “Any thoughts on how you will organize your notes to capture what you are discovering?”


I love what Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words: How Language Affects Learning, says about trouble. He says that we need to normalize trouble in our classrooms. He adds that trouble is neither good or bad, it’s information. I love this. Everyone—reader, writer, teacher, friend, partner—encounters trouble. The goal is not to live a trouble-free life. The goal is to become more and more accomplished at navigating and learning from trouble. Still, lots of kids come to us thinking trouble is a bad thing. For this reason, I often have to model what talking about writing trouble sounds like. I recently explained to a student that I was having trouble making time for writing in my life. I explained how hard it was to squeeze writing in when I got home because at home there was the dog and the dishes and my desk with its endless to-do lists. I also shared how my amazing writing partner, Katy Wischow, suggested a fabulous solution—make a writing pit stop (even five minutes counts!) on the way home. Again, it’s important to follow up on trouble by asking, “What have you tried so far?”

So while I’ve yet to pull up alongside a writer who says, “Thank goodness you’re here. I could really use some help with…”, teaching kids what to talk about in a conference comes pretty close. Most importantly, teaching this will change the dynamic between you and your students during conferring. Give it a try and let me know what you discover.

during a conf

(Almost) Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Partnerships, I Learned in Kindergarten

By Brianna Friedman Parlitsis (guest blogger)

When kids arrive at kindergarten, teachers are often overwhelmed with the amount the kindergarteners can’t do independently. Everything from using the bathroom to writing their names is an overwhelming task in September. However, one thing that comes so easily for students is talking to the person next to them. So we do that… a lot. When you do something a lot, you get better at it. While there are still so many ways we can learn to improve our partner work (would love to hear what works for you), here are five tips from Kindergarten that can work for upper grade (and middle school!) teachers as well.

1. Predictable Plans

Kindergarten teachers are great at planning. Young children can be unpredictable, so we need to be prepared. Each child has a clearly labeled change of clothes ready to go for when accidents happen. Nobody takes a fire drill more seriously than a Kindergarten teacher. If you had to be stranded on a desert island and can only bring one thing, I would grab the closest Kindergarten teacher’s bag.

When it comes time for partner time, a plan is absolutely necessary. There are predictable topics of conversation.

  • Partners may want to ask them some questions to help you understand a part.
  • Partners may need help understanding a tricky word.
  • Partners may want to share a funny part.
  • Partners may want to act out a part.

Giving students these choices is a way to help them have choice and create a clear plan and helps them stay on track. Using these partnership mats is a great way to help students plan to use their time efficiently. Introduce new choices to add to their ‘to do’ list slowly. You can also differentiate by some students having different choices. For example, perhaps your higher level partners may have some work on their mats about comparing books, while students that need more support with fluency have ‘choral reading’ on their ‘to do’ list.

7e4db84417ef7a45-09bf4cdbcf3467637-1To_Do_Done (1)

writing partners

2. Consistency

Routines are the fiber of kindergarten. Primary teachers have a routine for everything! I have created routines for things that I didn’t even know needed routines. In addition to unpacking routines, bathroom routines, snack routines, routines for when there is glitter in the room, and routines for hand sanitizing after feeding the guinea pig, there are partner routines. Primary teachers have clear routines for

  • Where to meet
  • What to bring
  • When to meet

Establishing these routines also lets kids know that partner time is important time. Making time for students to talk about their books, and talk about their writing is important enough to carve in your daily schedule. It sends a message that this time is valuable.


3. All Day Long

While clear routines and plans are important, it is also important to not isolate partner time to five minutes after independent reading time. Talking with a partner is done all the time. You can talk to your partner on the rug during minilessons for reading or writing, you can talk to your partner during a read aloud, and you can talk to your partner after independent reading or writing.

You know your partnerships are really rockin’ when kids start to steal moments to chat with their partner. There are moments that we sneak all day long. Whenever I am in a long line (DMV, Trader Joes, Staples the week before school starts) I call my favorite reading partner, my mom, and ask her about the latest book she read. Once you know how to talk to your partner about a book, you find sneaky moments all day long. Perhaps on the next school trip you sit next to your reading partner on the bus to talk, or during indoor recess you bring your book to have a conversation.

4. Love Match

Finding a partner you can sit and talk with isn’t always easy, as those of us who have survived many bad first dates can tell you. There are many factors to consider when helping students form partnerships. You will want to think about reading level, verbal skills, personality, and literacy goals. Don’t be afraid to break up partners that aren’t working; sometimes you need to try on a few partners before you find a great one. Chemistry is important.

Triads are a great solution to a variety of problems such as an odd number of students, students low verbal skills, the student that nobody wants to partner with and more. Children learn language from listening to their peers. When you have a student who is learning English or struggles with language you may want to put this student with two students with high verbal skills who can be great models of speaking and listening. Sometimes that really struggling student can do well when paired with partners that work well together; the working partnership can be a great model and mentor for behaviors.

5. It’s Natural

At its core, partner time simply gives kids an outlet to talk about what they are reading and writing. It is the most natural thing one can do. When I am reading a book and something happens to a character, I always look around the room to see if there is someone I can tell and talk about what just happened. When I finish a book, I call the person who recommended it or someone I know who read it. When I sit down to write, I call people who can help give me ideas and feedback. People are social by nature and to be social about our literacy is a natural extension of that. Teaching kids to turn the person next to them and say “Hey, how is that book?” is so easy that even a Kindergartener can do it.

About the Author

Brianna Friedman-Parlitsis is a primary staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She taught first grade at PS 197 in New York City and received her M.Ed. from Teachers College prior to joining TCRWP. Brianna is co-author of Bigger Books Mean Amping Up Reading Power (Heinemann 2015). Brianna has a special interest in data and works with teachers at high needs schools with large populations of struggling students and ELLs. You can follow her on twitter @BriannaFriedman.

“Have you read…?” The Art of Recommending Books

A colleague mentions that he is a huge fan of historical fiction. You immediately scroll through your list of favorites and ask, “Have you read…?”

You attend a workshop where the presenter sprinkles her content with references to texts that have influenced her ideas about the topic. You click on your favorite book-shopping site and begin to fill your cart.

While standing in line, you overhear some strangers talking about a movie and you can’t help yourself, “Did you guys read the book?” you think, or maybe actually ask!

Book recommendations. They are one of the most essential ways that readers talk about reading. So it seems like a no-brainer to teach kids recommend books. However, only recently have I begun to teach recommending books in a clear and explicit way by teaching the categories readers usually touch upon when recommending books. (I am placing an emphasis on teach because there is a difference between providing time for something and teaching how to do something. Or teaching how to do that something in increasingly stronger and smarter ways.)

Some Categories Readers Discuss when Recommending Books

Title and Author—Pretty self-explanatory to mention the title and author in a book recommendation, however, we might also teach kids to add the little details that often push a book from shopping cart to ‘buy now with 1-click’. Little details like other books by the same author or whether the book has been made into a movie.

The Characters—We might pick up a book because the subject or storyline interests us, but we keep turning pages because we care about the characters and what happens to them. I recently finished binge watching the first season of Transparent. While doing the dishes, I found myself wondering when Ali would she stopping blaming her parents and start taking responsibility for her life. While driving, I pondered whether Maura/Mort would begin hormone therapy. Even flossing was not immune to thoughts of characters; when did Len turn out to be such a good guy? My point here is in narrative texts, it’s all about the characters. Let’s teach kids to transfer all the smart character work they’ve done for years to their book recommendations.

The Events—While characters are compelling, many of our classes are filled with plot junkies; kids who turn pages with only one question driving their reading—What. Happens. Next. Choosing what events to share can be tricky. I knew I would ‘buy now with 1-click’ when I heard the amazing readers at the Bookrageous podcast recommend The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. They shared an event that happens very early in the story—an infant is abandoned in a bookstore. (As an adoptee, I am a sucker for a good abandonment story.) I think there’s a bit of an art to choosing which events to share in a book recommendation. Events that leave readers thinking, I want to know what happens, are great. Events that reveal too much or spoil the joy of discovery can leave a potential reader thinking, No need to read that one! Perhaps the best way to work on this is practice.

The Audience—Simply put, audience can be reduced to “If you liked… then you’ll also enjoy…” (which, by the way, is exactly what’s stated my chart). However, I think one of the most powerful parts of book recommendations is that they can add new roads to our reading maps. A quick glance at my kindle reveals lots of one-book stacks, lots of things I’ve tried one of as a reader. For example, my love of fairy tales written for children led me to try When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James, a fairy tale adaptation written for adults. There are no other fairy tales written for adults on my kindle, but I now have a new road on my reading map and who knows, maybe I’ll decide to blaze that trail in the future. Book recommendations can be an invitation to go off-roading in our reading lives. And, the way readers talk about audience can be that invitation.

Rs recommend

Maurice Sykes says that invitations are more compelling than assignments. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s invite our students, our friends, our families to read more and more and even more by teaching, practicing and becoming more expert in the art of recommending books.

Sex, Death, and… Summer Reading

I am a self-proclaimed podcast junkie. My love of podcasts began about 2 years ago. I had just moved to Israel with my then-partner and I was struggling. The best way to explain it is like this: if English is my SuperPower then Hebrew was my Kryptonite. It completely disabled me. I struggled with the most basic of levels of communication. My friend Susy, who grew up in a home where both English and Hebrew were spoken, had a long, delightful, belly-gripping laugh when I told her about walking Floyd in the neighborhood and being asked by a fellow dog owner, “kelev or kalbah?” I stood there dumbstruck. What was this person asking me? I knew ‘kelev’ was dog. Every Jew who attends Hebrew school learns that one. But what the heck was kalbah? For the uninitiated, kelev is the masculine form of dog and, you got it, kalbah is the feminine. In other words, I was speechless at being asked whether my dog was a girl or a boy. Kryptonite.

So podcasts became my friends. Literally. Ira Glass, Guy Raz and Mignon Fogarty talked to me in English twice a week as I rode from the North of Tel Aviv to the heart of the city where I attended ulpan (Hebrew language courses). Now that I’ve returned to the states, podcasts remain my friends. I find listening to podcasts to be one of the best ways to pass time when I am commuting, working out or doing chores.

I love sharing what I’ve learned from my podcast listening with others. But, listen to enough podcasts and they all seem to run together. Which is what makes the May 15, 2015 episode of This American Life so remarkable. I cannot stop thinking about it. Here’s the description from their website:

 557: Birds & Bees

MAY 15, 2015

Some information is so big and so complicated that it seems impossible to talk to kids about. This week, stories about the vague and not-so-vague ways to teach children about race, death and sex…

Don’t worry. I am not planning to tackle talking to kids about sex, racism or death in this post. However, I strongly recommend that you listen to the folks at This American Life as they discuss those topics. But I would like to talk about another big and complicated topic: summer reading.

Yeah. Summer reading.

Most of us are well-versed in the research regarding summer reading. Middle-income kids make progress in the summer. Low-income kids slide. About two months. Every summer. Year after year after year. Doesn’t this mean that summer reading isn’t really about summer reading? Doesn’t this mean that summer reading loss is really about access to books? In other words, doesn’t this mean that summer reading loss is really about poverty? And, does that mean that we need to talk to kids about poverty? Because that topic feels big and complicated and I want to be able to talk to kids about poverty in the thoughtful, well-researched ways that Ira and company do. In preparation, I’ve added girls, social class and literacy by Stephanie Jones to my summer reading stack on Katy’s recommendation. (Thanks, partner!)

If you are looking for general ways to sell summer reading to your whole class, I recommend you read @clareandtammy’s recent Nerdy Book Club post.

But, what if you are seeking something more targeted and more specific? What if you want to reach individual students who you suspect will read if they have access to books and choice[1]? Then, I suggest conferring with those readers about their summer reading plans.

Here’s one way a conference about summer reading could go:

Set-up the conference: You could say, “I want to talk to you about summer. As we talk, I am going to take some notes in my notebook. I am setting up my notes into a t-chart. On one side, I’ll jot what I am learning and noticing about you as a reader. On the other side, I’ll jot any ideas or tips that I think might be important to share with you.” (More on open notes in an upcoming post by Katy.)

Research: You might begin your research by saying, “Tell me about your summer. What plans have you made? What else? Anything else?” If a student says that she doesn’t know what her plans are, you can ask about last summer and use that as a predictor of how this summer might go. For example, 6th grader Josh wasn’t sure about his summer plans and said ‘My mom said we might take a trip.’ When I asked about last summer, he shared that he spent part of every day in his room watching TV or playing Xbox and part of his day outside playing sports.

Follow-up: If the student mentions reading then follow up by getting detailed and specific. If the student does not mention reading, ask, “What about reading?” I did this by saying, “You know I’m a teacher, right? So I have to ask about reading. Have you thought about your plans for reading this summer?”

Teach: Then you could explain, “I’ll tell you why I am so interested in summer reading. Let’s take a look at this graph together.” Full disclosure: I used this graph as a visual representation of summer reading loss. I removed the title and did not talk about income. Rather, I talked about progress during the school year and what happens when some kids don’t read in the summer. After studying the graph with a 4th grader named Aidan he said, “It’s like a pattern. Every summer the line goes down a bit. Then every school year it goes back up.”

You’ll want to continue teaching by adding, “Here’s the good news: reading just 4-5 books during the summer is enough to prevent what some people call ‘summer reading loss’. And here’s even better news: It does not matter what you read. In fact, it’s actually better if you choose the books you want to read, rather than the books someone else wants you to read.”

Plan: Next you might ask permission to work together on a summer reading plan by saying, “So let’s get detailed and specific about how you’ll get those 4-5 books read. Ready?” Introduce the planning sheet and support the student as they think through specific titles that want to read. To do this, you might think back to the things the student mentioned during the research phase of the conference. For example, Aidan mentioned that he would be attending baseball camp in the summer and the he liked the “Who Was…?” biography series so we added Who Was Babe Ruth?” to his ‘Books I Plan to Read’ list. Or, you might study the reading log together and recommend read-alike books. “Oh, I see you read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I bet you’d love My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian. (Another shout out to Nerdy Book Club for this post on ten books for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.) Also, it is super helpful to have access to the internet during this conference. I’ve used my kindle, my goodreads account, and the overdrive app while conferring into summer reading plans.

After Aidan and I created his list, I asked, “So how will you get these books?” Without skipping a beat, he said, “At the library.” I asked, also without skipping a beat, “Do you have a library card?” Aidan did not have a library card, but after a bit more conversation he remembered that his grandfather and his friends, E. and S. go to the library so he planned to ask them to take him.

Finally you can map out the when and where parts of the plan on a calendar. Josh set the goal of reading 2 books per month so on the 2nd and 4th Friday of each month he wrote “Due” and the title of the book.

___________________’s Detailed and Specific Summer 2015 Reading Plan


  1. WHAT 4-5 books are you planning to read?
Books I Plan to Read
  1. HOW will you get these books?
  1. WHEN and WHERE will you read?
July 2015
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31
August 2015
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31 September 1 September 2 September 3 September 4 September 5

So that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Conferring with lots of kids about summer reading and helping them get detailed and specific about how they will read those 4-5 (or more!) books.

All this work reminds me of that starfish story. You might be thinking, “I can’t possibly make detailed and specific summer reading plans for each and every one of my students. I can’t put 4-5 books in each and every reader’s hand. I can’t even organize a field trip to the library!” Here’s what I say. Channel the old man on the beach and make a difference when and where you can.

[1] For the research-curious, I reread No More Summer Reading Loss (Heinemann, 2013) where I came across this goodie: “Guthrie and Humenick evaluated twenty-two studies designed to improve reading outcomes and found just four factors that explained almost all the variance in motivation and reading achievement. The two largest contributions to reading achievement were access to interesting books and student choice of the books that would read.”

Talk Structures

Talk. It’s a huge part of our personal lives and our schools’ lives. I love what Donald Graves said about why he refused to learn how to use an ATM—he liked going into the bank, he liked talking to the teller, he liked connecting and conversing with people outside of his universe. With all the technology that is at our fingertips, conversation may be a dying art.

I am not immune. You have a much better chance of connecting with me via text or email than by phone. Case in point, my 82-year-old father, frustrated with my reluctance to answer my phone, taught himself to text. Now, we “talk” all the time—via text. But, as reluctant as I sometimes am to engage in voice-to-voice or face-to-face communication, There. Is. No. Substitute. This is true for us, and it is also true for our students.

So how can we make talk a vibrant, essential, and enjoyable part of classroom life?

Club Talk
Club talk gets a lot of attention in the hearts and minds of workshop teachers. There is a sense of anticipation and, if we are honest, sometimes dread when a book club unit is approaching. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because while kids might be fluent talkers of all things non-academic, the minute they sit in a group to discuss a text… you hear crickets. Everything they know about how to initiate, sustain, and switch conversational topics seems to disappear. I believe one possible cause of this is our students do not have a vision of what they are trying to create. (Think Lucille Clifton: You cannot create what you cannot imagine.) Maybe our students cannot have rich, provocative conversations about texts because they cannot imagine what they are trying to make. In other words, club talk is not the beginning of strong talk work, it is the continuation. I suggest beginning with whole class conversation. Whole class conversation provides students with a vision of how readers talk about texts.

Whole Class Conversation
Ideally, you and your students will gather once, or better yet, twice a week to talk about a shared text: the read aloud, a video, an article. As with any predictable structure, you’ll want to establish a few guidelines:

1. It’s your turn to talk if no one else is talking and you have something to say. In other words, no hands, no objects, no roles. In real world conversations, people do not raise their hands, pass objects that permit them to speak or speak only about an assigned job like vocabulary. In the real word, conversations are messy and dynamic—people interrupt each other, topics intersect and people talk about information and ideas. I want the conversations that occur in the classroom to reflect and prepare kids for real world conversations.

2. Sit facing most of the readers. During whole class conversation, readers sit facing each other for the simple reason that listening is an essential ingredient of a strong conversation. Heidi Hayes Jacobs teaches students to listen with their eyes and their ears, their hearts and their minds. Teaching children to sit facing in each other (as opposed to you, the teacher) provides repeated practice in listening with eyes and ears, hearts and minds. This, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to improve talk.

3. Can’t hear? Use our “turn up the volume” signal. Nothing is more disruptive to a speaker, particularly a reluctant speaker, than being repeatedly interrupted with, “What? I can’t hear you,” or, “Could you please speak up?” For this reason, teach your students to use a non-verbal gesture that indicates to the speaker that they need to increase their volume. I usually recommend putting two arms in the air, but any signal can work. And, don’t forget to teach your students to stop using the signal as soon as the speaker gets the message.

You’ve shared a text together. The guidelines are in place. Time to talk! Only sometimes, when presented with the question, “So what are we thinking about… ?” or, “Who can get us started on a conversation about… ?” you can once again hear those crickets. One way to deal with this is to invite students to turn and rehearse their ideas with their partner first. During this time, you can bop to a few different partnerships listening for an idea to launch the talk, then say, “All eyes on… (name a student).” Another way to support readers in saying something is by teaching them to prepare for talk by jotting a “Let’s talk about…” post-it. With post-its in hand, each reader feels confident that they have something to say. Congratulations! You’ve just launched a whole class conversation.

Partner Talk
If whole class conversation provides the vision of what kids are trying to make when they engage in intellectual talk about a text, then partner talk provides day-to-day talk workouts. By this I mean, daily time to meet with one’s reading partner and talk. About texts. Partners might retell or talk about favorite parts or ask for help in resolving a confusion. Partners might talk about the book they are currently reading, the class read aloud text or books they’ve previously read. There are myriad options. The first step is creating leveled partnerships and a predictable time for those partnerships to meet.

And… Back to Book Clubs
Earlier I mentioned that clubs can be a source of mixed emotions—anticipation and dread. Although hopefully more anticipation and less dread now that you’ve created a vision for talk via whole class conversation and provided predictable and ample opportunities for students to practice talking about texts with their reading partners. This is certain to make the club work, reading a common text in sync with a few other readers, go much more smoothly.

I realize this is a tip-of-the-iceberg post. There is so much more to explore related to whole class conversation, partner talk and clubs. I’ve merely provided skeletal definitions. So, I am curious, what are your questions and confusions, struggles and successes connected to talk? I’ve heard Lucy Calkins say that the definition of a good conversation is thinking grows and/or thinking changes. Katy and I want this blog to be the kind of place where thinking grows and thinking changes and for that to happen we need to hear from you. Jot a comment. Tweet an idea. Chat with a colleague. In other words, turn and talk.