Do I have to read all of the books for reading workshop?
How do I assess students if I haven’t?
I get these questions a lot, and they are ones that I definitely had myself when I started reading workshop. I used to worry that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all of the books that my students were reading, until then I got some very wise advice from another teacher. She told me that I could never keep up – nor did I need to.
Here’s why it doesn’t matter if you’ve read all the books:
First of all, there are so many great books out there that your students can read, and you are just one human. If you limit your students to only the books that you have time to read, you’re cutting out so many wonderful choices for them.
Secondly, reading workshop allows you to focus on skill attainment, regardless of which book students are reading. You will still be teaching them to analyze and to support their analysis with textual evidence, and this is something that you can assess, even if you haven’t read the book.
Let me show you with the following standards:
Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
The secret to feeling comfortable about assessing students when you haven’t read the book is to focus on the skill you want them to attain. In this case, you will look to see if the student can:
a) identify how a complex character develops over the course of the text, and
b) back up their statements with strong textual evidence. You can do that, even when you haven’t read the book.
Let’s look at an example:
Here’s the checklist I use to assess these outcomes in a short, analytical paragraph on character:
You were able to:
- Focus on and explain the development of ONE character trait (2)
- Identify at least two ways that the writer developed this trait (2)
- Support your points with specific textual evidence (2)
- Choose effective quotations that are properly embedded and cited (2)
Rachel Price from The Poisonwood Bible is vain and self-absorbed. She’s also pretty funny at times. She is obsessed with her looks but I can forgive her the selfish behavior because the way she describes things makes me laugh. “Already I was heavy -hearted…granite.”
> In this paragraph, the student is not focused, nor did she identify two ways that the writer develops ONE trait. She’s used some evidence, but it is not embedded or cited properly.
Rachel Price from The Poisonwood Bible is vain and self-absorbed. She has moved to a village in the Congo, and despite being surrounded by poverty, she obsesses over her looks and her clothing. For example, on their first Easter in the village, she is incensed that she doesn’t have a new outfit to wear, stating that they “tromped off the church in the same old shoes and dresses we’d worn on all other African Sundays” (43). She cannot see beyond her own desires to the fact that those around her barely have enough to eat. Her sister, Leah, comments on her selfishness when she observes that she had watched “Rachel cry real tears over a burn hole in her green dress while, just outside our door, completely naked children withered from the holes burning in their empty stomachs” (430). Rachel, then, is a girl who is so wrapped up in herself and her looks to try to understand the new world she lives in.
>In this paragraph, the student has achieved all of the outcomes of the assignment, and you can identify that, even if you haven’t read the text.
But what about comprehension? How can you really know if they are getting it right? Well, to be honest. you can’t for sure. However, you can use shorter texts like short stories to assess that. You can also do book clubs or full class novels at some time during the term. Yes, you may sacrifice the control of knowing for sure, but you are going to gain so much by allowing the kids to choose their own novels. And it’s my experience is that it’s pretty clear when the kids understand the novel, especially when you conference with them (Click here to access some scripts that illustrate how I conference with students).
How can you do book talks if you haven’t read the books?
Book talks are an important component of reading workshop, used to get kids excited about books. Of course, the best book talks happen when you’ve read and loved the book – your enthusiasm will come through and you’ll get some kids excited about the book – some, but not all. Not everyone will like the same books as you, so you can’t just book talk the ones you’ve read and enjoyed.
For example, I am not a fan of dystopian fiction, but many of my kids are and so I’m still going to promote novels from that genre. But how can I do that when I haven’t read the book? It’s easy. First of all, be honest. Don’t try to bluff your way through (we don’t want our students to do that, so we shouldn’t either!). Tell them that you haven’t read the book, but you’ve heard great things. Then you can read the blurb on the back, or find on online. Finally, read the opening of the book to give them a taste of what it’s like. You can also ask if any of your students have already read it and have them say a little about it.