As a high school teacher, I see my students for 42 minutes each day. That’s 3½ hours in a good week (without pep rallies, blood drives, and so on) to spend on reading, writing, listening, and speaking. There never seems to be enough time! In the face of a lot of content to cover, it is important to remember the value of taking the time to allow students to engage in authentic reading and writing. I recently came across a quote that said, “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” It was a great reminder to me that even though my time with students is short, as the classroom teacher, I am in control of how that time is spent.
The majority of the reading that my students will do in the course of the school year will be self-selected and independent. There is just no way my students will be able to do enough reading to increase their fluency and comprehension and prepare themselves for the rigors of college reading if they are reading only in class. They have an assignment to read two hours outside of class each week. Each student has an individual goal of a number of pages based on their calculated reading rate. That being said, we still spend the first 10 minutes of most class periods on silent reading. To be honest, at first I was a little leery of implementing this routine in my classroom. Ten minutes is one-fourth of the class period! But the payoffs have been worth it, and I have never regretted this decision.
Many of my students are not in the habit of reading when they enter my class. Assigning two hours of reading a week seems daunting to some of them. The 10 minutes of reading at the beginning of class helps to cultivate that habit. It’s just long enough to get a good little chunk of reading in, and just short enough to make you want to pick that book up later to find out what happens. It also allows students to see what their classmates and I are reading, which often spurs mini book conversations and recommendations. Lastly, it’s a calming way to begin class. It gets students in learning mode, and they frequently remark on how quickly the period goes by.
Even though most of my students’ reading is done independently, I still keep tabs on what they’re reading and whether or not they are meeting their personal goals and challenging themselves as readers. I also find that students have questions about what they’re reading or need help finding the next book they will read. When is there time to address all of this? For a long time, I knew that conferring with my students was the answer, but I struggled with how and when to fit it into an already packed schedule.
I first tried chatting with individual students during the 10 minutes of silent reading, but I found that to be distracting to others, and it prevented me from modeling reading for my students. I then decided to spend an entire class period on conferring once per month. At first, I would just see where a convenient day popped up in the course of my planning, but I soon found that conferring often fell to the wayside in the face of other unit lessons. I realized that to make sure I conferred with each student once a month, I was going to have to have a date set in stone, such as the third Friday of every month; otherwise I was going to either forget to do it or brush it aside.
I have an average of 15 students in each class period. That means if I want to talk with each student, I have about two minutes. That’s not a lot of time. I learned that I need to be focused and know what I want to address with each student ahead of time. I look over my notes about each student the night before and boil my thoughts and concerns down to one question for each student. It might be as simple as asking how a book’s coming along or as specific as how a strategy we had previously discussed is working for the student. While I confer with each student, I give the rest of the class an assignment to write me a letter, focusing on a particular aspect of their reading, such as the pace of the book or character development. Many of my ideas for the letters have come from Penny Kittle’s Book Love. These letters give me the information about my students’ reading that I don’t have time to bring up during our short conferences, as well as keep them occupied while I talk to their peers.
Writing Notebooks and Quick-Writes
In addition to the literary analysis essays, arguments, and expository essays I will assign to my students over the course of the year, I want them developing and writing about topics that have special meaning and importance to them. This is where the writing notebook comes in. This is a place where my students brainstorm topics and ideas, as well as try out a lot of writing. At the beginning of the year, we spend an entire week of class setting up the notebook, completing brainstorming activities, and writing. Setting aside this time establishes the importance of the notebook and jump-starts its use.
After the initial setup, we usually do quick-writes in the notebook two to three times per week. Students spend seven minutes on a quick-write. I’ve found over the years that five minutes isn’t quite enough time for students to get their ideas out, yet 10 minutes seems too long. I just want students to begin exploring a topic or telling a story in this time. Each month students self-select entries from their quick-writes and develop them into longer, polished pieces. When the seven minutes are up and students are still itching to keep writing, I remind them that that particular entry would be a good one to expand. In my experience, my students produce their best work when they are emotionally invested in a piece or have a passion for the topic. It is important to spend the time letting students cultivate these writing ideas.
Click here for a quick look at what my 42-minute class period looks like during the first month of school as we set up the routines of independent reading and writer’s notebooks.
I didn’t always think I had time for silent reading, conferring, and writer’s notebooks in my classroom. I used to view these activities as chunks of time that could be better spent teaching content. The reward wasn’t immediate, and therefore, not as obvious. I now know that the return on the investment of time spent reading, writing, and having conversations with my students is a big one that grows and develops over time and creates students who see the value of reading and writing in their lives.