I get a lot of questions and concerns from teachers who are reluctant to try reading workshop because they have standards that have to be met. I totally get this fear. Workshop requires that we let go of a lot of control. When we do the full class novel we can clearly see the path we need to take to teach literary analysis to our kids. Reading workshop takes us down a road less travelled without that clear map.
I’ve written about ways to meet reading and writing standards before, but today I want to dig a little deeper into how I teach skills to kids who are all reading a different book. Let’s look closely at one of the common core standards for reading literature in grade nine and ten:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.
In the old days of teaching a full class novel, I would deal with this in a variety of ways, but my favourite method was to assign quotes from the text and ask them to analyze the author’s word choice. If we were doing To Kill a Mockingbird, there wasn’t a quote that couldn’t be analyzed with a quick Google search, so I didn’t always know if the kids were doing the work on their own. Now, I require that my students find the quotes to analyze in their own texts, in class, without any electronic help.
Let me show you how.
First of all, I teach my students to be active readers, and sticky notes are the perfect tool for this. I give them a blank template and ask them to put stickies on each square. Then I put each one through the copier to put instructions on their sticky notes.
(NOTE: students need to adhere the sticky part of the note at the top of each square. Then, you place the page into the copier so the sticky part is at the top too. You put the pages with the stickies into the paper feed, and then copy the appropriate handout).
Each sticky guides students to look for the writer’s craft in their novels. This sheet focuses on author’s use of language, which is what we’ve been learning about this week.
Next, we spend a number of days talking about the power of words, looking at various ways that authors use language for effect, using short mentor texts to illustrate different techniques. We also do some short writing exercises to get students working on their own craft (the best way to get them to understand how authors shape meaning is to learn to do it themselves).
After each mini-lesson, students spend time reading their novels. As they read they will look for author craft. Today, for example, I’m doing a lesson on vivid verbs. Students will find at least one passage where the author has made a deliberate verb choice to create an effect. After they read, they will share this passage with a partner. Then, I will instruct them to re-read some of their journal entries, underline weak verbs, and replace them with stronger ones.
Tomorrow, we’re taking a closer look at figurative language and imagery. Next week, we delve into character. Each time, I will repeat the process above. The pattern is the same with each literary element I address:
1. Give the lesson
2. Use mentor texts for illustration
3. Have students look for examples in their novels
4. Get them to practice the skill in their own writing
I use this sticky technique during the first weeks of my workshop, focusing each week on a different topic. Then, as we get further into the semester, I start doing conferences with the kids so I can assess their skill attainment. In order to ensure that they come to their conferences prepared, I give them bookmarks that guide their preparation. The bookmarks work like the sticky notes, but give the kids more room to write notes.
What about assessment? I take their notebooks in every few weeks. I do not read every entry. Instead, I look to see that all entries are complete and part of their grade is just for completion. Then I randomly choose two entries (ahead of time) that I will read. They don’t know which ones I will choose, so the hope is they will do all well. I will also assess their skills during conferences. Finally, we end the semester with a full class novel. By then more of them have decided that reading is ok and most have learned that they can analyze text on their own. You can read more about this process (and grab a freebie) here.
It was scary the first semester when I started using this approach, and I was fearful of the same things I’ve heard from you: how will I make sure my kids are learning when we aren’t all reading the same text? Now, after several years of doing it this way, I can confidently answer the question. Reading workshop does allow you to teach to standards and, in fact, results in more kids learning the skills we want them to master.
If you’d like to try this sticky note activity, you can check it out here.