Today’s post is all about another issue I hear a lot about: reading workshop and classroom management. Giving kids the ability to choose their own books can be a beautiful thing. However, a lot of problems can ensue if they choose not to read them and choose to distract others instead.
I’ve been there. I’d by lying if I told you that every class I have is easy, with each student diving into their books on entry to the class and begging me to let them keep reading when the time is up. I have had one or two of those, but I’ve also had some that were a challenge every day. Most, thankfully, were somewhere in the middle with only a few students needing me to keep them on track.
I’ve learned a lot about reading workshop and classroom management from each of these classes, and I’d love to share what has worked (and what hasn’t) with you:
Fill your shelves with high interest titles
A big issue with reading workshop and classroom management is that kids show no interest in reading. I get it.
However, you won’t instil a love of reading with books that kids don’t want to read. That might be stating the obvious, but I have actually seen teachers discussing titles for workshop that read like a list of the classics. Now those titles have a place on your shelves. And the hope is that some of your kids might read them someday. However, a reluctant reader is not likely to get excited about silent reading if they can’t find a book that they really want to read.
There are so many amazing YA books out there now compared to when I started teaching first, that it’s a whole lot easier to fill my shelves with high interest titles. I’m lucky that our district is buying us lots of great texts, but if you aren’t in that boat, check the used book stores, or ask parents or your contacts on social media to donate old (or new) books. Students in you class might also donate (or lend) books they have finished.
Focus on love of reading
This has to be the central focus if you want to have success with reading workshop. There’s a reason why many kids dislike reading – we pair it up with tasks that interrupt the flow and love of reading (I know we have things to cover; I’ll get to that!)
Imagine if your teacher bestie invited you to a book club and you went, excited about reading the hot new title that she was proposing you read. Then, you get there and she gives you a pile of forms to fill out, including one that tracks how much you read every day. Then she says that you’ll have to do five responses and a final assignment. No amount of wine or delicious charcuterie boards would make you want to go back, right?
It’s no different with our kids. That’s why we need to just let them read as much as we can. When workshop starts, we should be putting as much energy as we can in finding a book that a reluctant reader might want to read. Let them feel like you’re in their camp, excited to find a good book that’s perfect for them – rather than frustrated with the fact that they aren’t reading.
Then, create a system where each kid can be successful. That’s hard if everybody is required to read a certain number of pages or books by a certain time. Sarah, the voracious reader, is already at an advantage in that case. And, Riley, who struggles to read, will feel a great deal of pressure and frustration to meet that deadline.
Build reading stamina, not a list of assignments
Instead, every Monday, I ask each student to set a realistic goal for themselves. While they are reading, I walk around with my clipboard and check to see if they met their goal. If they didn’t we have a quick conversation about why. Then, they set a new goal, with the expectation that each week they will add more pages.
This way, each kid is measuring their success against themselves only. So Riley, the reluctant reader, might be able to add ten pages a week to her goals, and feel very successful. And when kids feel successful, they are more likely to read.
But what about skills and standards? We need to teach them, and I do. But first…
Gradually increase the time that kids have to read:
One year, I had a class that was full of reluctant readers. I soon realized that my hope that they would read for ten to fifteen minutes was a foolish one. So, I started smaller. I told them that we were going to build up their ability to focus and read. I asked them what was a realistic time to start with. One guy at the back yells out “a minute!” I laughed and said, “Come on…you can do better than that! How about three? Can we try three?”
They agreed and I set the timer on my phone. There were a few who didn’t comply, so I paused the timer and said, “Three minutes is all I’m asking…can you do that for me?” Eventually they all settled in and they read for the three minutes. The next day, I told them I was going to set the timer again and I added another minute. We did this for a week or more until I finally got them up to ten minutes.
Now I know as well as you do that three minutes is not enough time to engage with reading, but that wasn’t the point. I was trying to train them and show them that they could do this. It’s no different than learning to run. That first time you go out thinking you will run a mile before you have to walk for a bit, and you find that you’re sucking wind after fifty feet (or is that just me?). By slowing to a walk to give yourself a rest, you can eventually build up to the point where you can run a mile, or maybe even two.
With that class, I still had squirmers who found ten minutes to be an eternity. We had an agreement that they could put the book down part way through, but only for a minute or so. They didn’t read as much as some of their classmates, but they read a whole lot more than they did when the term started.
Create a code of conduct
One of the reasons I was able to get that class of reluctant readers to settle and read (most days), was because I let them have some power and control. I didn’t come into the class and lecture them because they weren’t reading. When I decided to use the timer, I asked them to tell me how long they wanted to read for. I didn’t accept the first suggestion of a minute, but I did it in a cajoling way.
Whenever you can give kids some say in what is happening in the class, you are more likely to get buy-in. I often start my year with a discussion about classroom expectations, and the students and I work to create a classroom code of conduct. You can read more about that on this blog post. It focuses on dealing with talk in the classroom (too much or too little), but you could do one that is specific to reading time too.
Anytime that things are not going well, I try to enlist their help, rather than go off on the rant that I am so tempted to let loose. Instead, I pull up a chair, so I’m at eye level with them, and say, “Guys, things aren’t going so well with reading time. How can we work together to make it better?” I usually get a few jokers making inappropriate comments, but I stick with it and respond with, “Come on…let’s really look at this. I know once you find a good book, you are going to want to read – or at least find it less painful. Let’s figure out some solutions together.”
Do you know what this does? It let’s the kids feel like they have some power and control over the situation. It let’s them feel like you are in it together. And I’m a firm believer in this being a key to effective classroom management, because I know from experience that it works.
A key to good classroom management? The three C’s
The Three C’s are oh-so-important when it comes to classroom management, whether you are doing reading workshop or not. And they are pretty simple to remember:
- CLARITY: Make your expectations and consequences for not not meeting them very clear. Keep it simple – don’t overwhelm your students with a ton of rules. If you can pair this with a class code of conduct, even better!
- CONSISTENCY: Be consistent in following through. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you tell kids that they can’t do something and then you ignore that behavior, they will keep doing it. In the same vein, you need to apply consequences consistently to all students. If they aren’t reading, ask them to stay after class and have a chat about it (far better than doing it front of their peers because then they will perform).
- CONFIDENCE: Follow through with confidence – don’t waffle because the kids will think they can change your mind (unless there is a really good reason to allow them to do so!) In order to be confident, you need to avoid making decisions in the heat of the moment You can’t anticipate everything, of course, but by thinking about as many scenarios as you can, you will be well on your way to dealing with them in a clear and consistent manner. So, if a student is not reading and is distracting those around her, I need to know how I am going to respond.
What about the curriculum?
I told you I’d get there… In case you think I just let kids read without holding them accountable, that’s not the case. (However, if I were just doing silent reading and not a reading workshop, that would be fine).
As I said above, my mission in the first few weeks of workshop is to just focus on love of reading. I don’t bog my kids down with too many tasks. We talk about building their reading stamina and setting weekly goals, but that’s a task that takes one minute every Monday.
My assignments are skills-based, not book-based:
I have a series of skills-based activities/assignments that I want students to do, but they don’t do them for every book they read. Instead, they do them based on whichever book they are reading at the time. This avoids the scenario where they have to do X number of responses or assignments for each book.
I reduce the number of written assignments by doing more conferences
Let’s go back to my book club example – I’d love to chat with my friend about the book, but I’m not going to be as excited about doing an assignment. And during our chat, it will be very obvious to her what I’ve learned about the book. If I want students to show me they understand the development of character and theme in a text, they can do so by having a good chat with me about the book.
But, you might be asking, how do I make the time to conference? And how do I avoid more classroom management issues while I conference? I’ve got some solutions for you here: Four Ways to Make Time to Conference
Time up front will pay off
So, are you feeling any better about reading workshop and classroom management? I know I gave you a lot to think about there, and it may seem like a lot of effort. And it is at the beginning of the semester; I’m not going to lie to you. You have to have a plan. You need to be on your toes. You have to be willing to put in the work to “train” your students. However, after a few weeks of that, you will find that more and more of them are enjoying the process. And, you will have given them the biggest gift if they can learn to enjoy reading.
I’m sure many of you will have questions about all of this…feel free to ask! If you’d like to explore this even further, The Cult of Pedagogy has a great podcast you can listen to on this post.