Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Choice, Doors and Reading Journals

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Yesterday a student stopped by to use my printer. She's an upperclassman now. I asked her how her year is going. She said her class has completed two books, Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby in and that they write analysis every day. She pulled up the file she needed to print from her USB drive, leaned in and said,  "You know what really helped me, Mrs. Spillane? All the writing we did in our reading journals. Are you still doing those with your classes?"

Indeed I am.  

My practice around independent reading and shifts subtly year by year, but this year students still choose the books they read and I still ask them to write about their independent reading once a week. 
I've written about our reading journals here, and here and elsewhere; lasts year's quarter one journals are described here

Homework in my English class is to read thirty minutes a day, five days a week. I follow Penny Kittle's lead and ask students to set page goals; this year, we are going to adjust our goals for each book students read. We'll see if we can keep up with that.

Kids then practice writing analysis in their reading journal each week. The left side of the page is for a passage from the book (or my feedback). And kids write about one of the prompts each week on the right-hand side of the page. 

This student glued it a large passage from Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe.
After reading and marking the text, she practices analyzing the setting on the right.
My feedback is aimed at showing her the difference between summary of plot and analysis of the setting.
 I keep the reading journal right along with them--that way I can better troubleshoot and problem solve. Today, for instance, I know we need to talk about how to embed evidence and how to stay focused on analysis (and not plot summary) based on my own practice.  We will use one paragraph from my own analysis of Walls' The Silver Star and to examine evidence (summary, paraphrase or direct quotations).

Modeling moves my practice formward and when I'm conferring having a model to show  and to speak from makes a difference. 

At the beginning of the year, I need to confer with each reader-writer. I have to spend that time to make sure each child understands the process and the weekly writing. I use that time to give students feedback. During the first two weeks we wrote entries together in class. This week and last,  kids started their entries with me in class on Monday and then finished them for homework if they didn't finish them in class. On Tuesday, while students are reading and engaged in another task, I work the room, meeting for two to five minutes with each child.

If I spend five minutes with each child, I am spending 125 minutes conferring (or three days, three class periods). That is not feasible in my high school classroom. Nor is it realistic in terms of students' needs. Every conference is not five minutes. We won't confer about every written entry nor about every book they read. Just as nature varies, so too the typical high school classroom. Kids have different needs.

Some kids need me to affirm that they are on the right track. They have set up their journals correctly , they are focused on analysis (and not summary or response) and they are doing well citing evidence in a variety of ways from the text. Other kids need more feedback or more support from me.

If kids are unsure or have questions, I need to take the time to listen to and answer clearly. They may be writing response or long summaries instead of finding ways to focus their analysis. They need individual coaching. Some, need  a quick re-teach to show them how to refocus their writing on analysis or to show them how to paragraph even.

Like Linda Rief, I give journal entries a quality grade and a quantity or process grade . For most of this quarter, I will focus more on quantity. As students become better at analysis, I will shift to giving them a grade for the quality of their analysis. As I start to give more students more independence and time, I will confer with just half the class each week.  I am grading writing standards five (the writing process standards) and  eventually will grade writing standard two ( informative or analytical writing). As students learn to analyze, their writing about their reading improves, so I drop lower grades from their earlier attempts.

This is what Tuesday's conferring class period looked liked.
Students and I worked side by side at different tasks. 
I love the individual time I get to take with each child, but it can't happen if the rest of the room is not engaged. I know that I have to have systems in place that keep the class engaged while I am working and talking with individuals. Kids have to trust that I will indeed get to them and give them the same kind of attention they hear me giving to him, and her and her and him.

The tasks I give the class while I confer vary. Sometimes that task will be a discussion, or a strategy practice or work time on a project or independent reading.  It all depends on how much time I need-- and how well my community has come together.

Other times that task will be reading and marking a text that to prepare for discussion.   That is what students did this week--they marked up a short story, "The Wife's Story" by Usula Le Guin that we are going to discuss during Thursday's Socratic circle. I had students working in ten to twelve minute segments. They would read and mark (while I conferred) and then they would come together in their small, table groups and talk. Sometimes, to my delight, it happened spontaneously as they read the story.

Managing reading journals--the writing practice,  the reading practice, and the feedback loop or response time that goes into such an assignment--is time consuming.

It is, I admit it. But you know what?

It varies. It's heavier now than it will be in a month. In a month it will feel routine. In a month, students will be celebrating their successes (I will too!). No matter, the time. It's worth it.

Reading and writing opens doors. Kids who are skilled readers and writers have more doors they can choose to walk through: doors to college choices, doors to writing contests or scholarships, doors that lead to rich service or work experiences. Choice, in books to read and in future opportunities, is a good thing.

I want my kids to have every advantage. I want their futures to be filled with choices. Imagine all the doors as wide open.


  1. Every time I read your posts, Lee Ann, I am in awe of the deep thought and careful layering that goes into your planning. Such a rich post - so much to learn from you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Tara. I'd love to hear the words you'd use to name the layers you see.

  2. I love how I know that your deliberate and careful planning builds on itself, and I bet the students begin to realize that too, and feel more and more comfortably expert. What gifts of knowledge you are giving, Lee Ann. Like Tara, I always enjoy what you are explaining and doing, wish I was closer so I could observe a group sometime. Thanks for showing about this!

    1. Thank you, Linda. I'm trying! I wish you lived closer too,I know you could teach me a lot just by describing what you see and hear if you were in my classroom. I learn a lot from your posts too. Know that any time you are down this way during the school year, you are welcome to schedule a classroom visit.

    2. It's this idea of focusing on what one moment, one passage in a text illuminates for the reader that I'm working on w/ students, too. They too often want to approach writing about literature from the perspective that they need to say all there is to say about a book, which, of course, is impossible.

  3. Oh my. This is my third reply. Even your blog is encouraging (forcing) me to write more. Thank you so much for writing this entry. I have really been struggling with the 45 minute period and it's helpful to see how your reading journals work in that short time period. And just today we were discussing how to ensure our grades reflect mastery and not completion, so your thorough explanation, including grading and standards, is excellent food for thought. Not only are you an awesome teacher for your students, but also for me and my students too. Thanks! :)