Saturday, August 6, 2022

A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, Grades 6-12

Reading my granddaughter her current mentor text, The Princess in Black


My 3-year-old granddaughter was lost in some story of her own spinning with superhero action figures and stuffed unicorns behind one of the living room chairs. I wasn’t really paying attention. Then I heard her narrate, “She brushed some crumbs from her frilly pink dress.” The line was lifted directly from a book I’d read to her earlier, The Princess in Black. That’s how we learn language—taking it in by reading or listening, then producing it in our own writing or speaking. 

The Princess in Black is currently my granddaughter’s mentor text. She’s heard it at least 6 times that I know of—once each from Mom, Dad, and Grandpa, and 3 times from me. She’s absorbing words, phrases, and even whole story patterns. 

While a 3-year-old uses mentor texts unconsciously, a conscious use of mentor texts is a powerful tool that adult writers use. The first time I had to write a college recommendation for a student, a eulogy for a family member, or an author bio for myself as a guest blogger, I first found other excellent examples of the genre for a pattern to follow. And I frequently start my own blog posts with a brief story because that is my favorite kind of professional reading—the books that start each chapter with a story of student learning, then spend the rest of the chapter explaining the strategy I can use with my students to get a similar result.

If mentor texts are effective for 3-year-olds and for adults, are they  good for students, too? Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, Grades 6-8 would answer a resounding yes. Whether you are an old hand at mentor texts with students, or wondering what exactly a mentor text is, I highly recommend this brief, practical book full of concrete teaching ideas and helpful examples of student work. 

The 7 chapters outline the benefits of using mentor texts, a process for reading like writers, 3 aspects of writing that mentor texts can inform, planning content and teaching strategies when teaching with mentor texts, and assessing students’ progress: 

  • Ch. 1: Why Mentor Texts? describes what makes a good mentor text and how they help students.
  • Ch. 2: Teaching Students to Read Like Writers articulates a helpful 4-step process of (1) noticing something interesting about a text, (2) making a theory about why the author made that choice, (3) naming the craft (a real name like “alliteration” or a made-up one like “drum-roll colon” so you can notice it other places and apply it yourself), and (4) thinking about using the move in your own writing.
  • Ch. 3: Learning About Craft and Punctuation explains the 5 steps for studying a mentor text at the word, line, or sentence level. These steps can be done over the course of a week (especially initially) or all in one lesson (with more experienced groups). The steps (1) introduce the mentor sentence, (2) notice writer moves, (3) share with classmates, (4) try it, and (5) share again. (This protocol looks similar to the one in Patterns of Power which I’ve been using for the past year.)
  • Ch. 4: Learning About Structure examines beginnings, endings, paragraphs, and transitions.
  • Ch. 5: Learning About Genre provides ideas on 9 genres from personal essay to review to free verse poetry, with a list of additional bonus possibilities.
  • Ch. 6: Planning Instruction with Mentor Texts includes how to choose content to teach and the strategies with which to teach it. 
  • Ch. 7: Assessing Students’ Work with Mentor Texts provides a continuum for 5 stages students move through as they learn to work with mentor texts, from beginning to crafting independently, and a list of formative assessment tools from “mentor move exit ticket” to “draft highlighting.”  

Each chapter starts with asking the reader to get involved, reading a text and noticing authors’ moves. The authors provide many examples of mentor tests to use, ways to use them, and student responses to them. The publisher’s website makes even more available—17 video clips and 10 digital forms/documents. 

Other resources that have informed my use of mentor texts include the following books:

The following day, my granddaughter’s mom was reading a Berenstain Bears book to her. Her mom read, “Sister gulped.” My granddaughter burst out excitedly, “Princess Magnolia gulped, too!” (Princess Magnolia is the cover identity of the Princess in Black.)

If using some of the ideas in A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts will help my students absorb into their own repertoire the moves made by the professional authors they read as effectively as my 3-year-old granddaughter accesses words and phrases from The Princess in Black, that will not only help them grow as writers this year, but empower them to continue growing as long as they are reading. 

How about you? How do you use mentor texts? What is your experience with using mentor texts with students? 

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Joy of Reading



When my 5-year-old grandson got home from kindergarten Friday and found out his family was going on a hike the next day, the first thing he did was start running around the house collecting all the animal identification books he could find and loading them in his backpack, so recently emptied of lunchbox, library book, and Friday folder. My daughter smiled at his excitement as he filled his backpack, murmuring to me, “Here’s hoping I can convince him to leave it in the van…”

He doesn’t even read yet, and he already finds joy in the understanding that books can be a part of slaking his inexhaustible curiosity about God’s amazing world. His home community has nurtured this in him with abundant access to shelves of books at home and frequent library trips. His parents and grandparents have invested hours and hours in reading with him—selecting books that will match his interests and expand his horizons—and talking with him about what they read together. 

His home community also models their own reading life. His dad is currently reading The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri for insights it might offer into the work he does at a business that offers job and language training for immigrants. His mom is reading When Strivings Cease: Replacing the Gospel of Self-Improvement with the Gospel of Life-Transforming Grace by Ruth Chou Simons to prepare for facilitating a moms’ book discussion related to her work as the director of children and family ministries at her church. His 3-year-old sister’s current favorite book is Invasion of the Unicorns by David Biedrzycki. (I got it for her for Christmas—it had me at “Secret Agent Bubble07 reporting….”) His 1-year-old brother enjoys bouncing to the rhythms of Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.

All of that has given him an expansive vocabulary and knowledge of the world as well as a grounding in seeing other perspectives and practicing wise choices. (At 3 he used to cover his ears and run out of the room at the line where the protagonist in a fairy tale is told the one restriction that they must never do…knowing already that they were sure to do it.) I hope school continues to nurture this joy in books as he learns to read, rather than sidelining it in the barrage of all the “stuff” that must be taught. 

Why? Because he needs to read a lot to continue to build vocabulary and knowledge of the world, reading comprehension and writing skill, and perspective taking and moral choice making. And really, joy in reading is the motivation that will propel him most surely through the volume of reading that will get him there. Because those  competencies will help him learn all the other “stuff” of school and position him to keep learning and using his voice as he takes his place in the world outside of school. Because joy in reading is a much more effective and long-lasting motivator than requirements, grades, and compliance.

The Joy of Reading, Donalyn Miller and Terri Lesesne’s new book, outlines this case in five descriptive chapters, backed by research, years of experience, and personal stories. 
  1. Joy: What Is It Good For?: This chapter addresses the questions What is reading joy? Why is it important? How can we support it? And because the adults in the room must first remember and reclaim their own reading joy, it challenges the readers to write their own reading autobiography, supplying questions and sample answers from the authors.
  2. Joyful Reading Relies on Abundant Access and Time: This chapter offers many specific suggestions on how to provide the time and books that support reading joy—via school and public libraries, classroom libraries, and teaching kids to find books that give them joy.
  3. Joyful Reading Encourages Readers’ Choices: This chapter addresses what effective scaffolding for reading is and isn’t and provides guidance for knowing books, knowing readers, and making the match between them.
  4. Joyful Reading Honors Readers’ Responses: This chapter discusses what authentic reading responses look like. What do adult readers, who read joyfully for their own purposes, do when they finish a book? It depends on the reader and on the book. Maybe a conversation, a book review, a recommendation, further research, a life application. Certainly not a packet of teacher questions at the end of every chapter, or a standard book report, or even a pick-your-own creative project.  
  5. Joyful Reading Thrives in a Supportive Community: This chapter is replete with ideas for what this kind of community can look like in a classroom, a school, and beyond; and how it can be fostered with celebration and planning, not competition.
These 5 chapter titles offer a clear breakdown of the essential components for building a joyful reading experience for students—a solid paradigm for any teachers or administration who are interested in a refresher or a primer in the topic.  Elements I found particularly helpful were the reading autobiography in the first chapter, graphic “book stacks” scattered throughout (recommendations represented as a sketch of a stack of 5 current middle grades and YA titles in a given category--see photos in this paragraph and the next), and resources for finding the books that will fuel your own and your students’ reading joy. 

One component I want to focus on in the coming term is honoring readers’ responses. How do I respond to my reading? I know that when I’ve tried to write a
 Goodreads review for every book I finish, I mostly stare grumpily at the screen, wishing I could just start a new book. On the other hand, I love recommending a book to a friend. (I just did it this morning on Facebook Messenger with the book I finished last night.) I write blog posts about professional books (like this one!) to help me process the content and to share it with colleagues. I talk with friends and family about how books like Timothy Keller's Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter and Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice give us the courage to wrestle faithfully with all the brokenness within and around us. I want to offer students more opportunities to talk informally with classmates about their reading, and help them think about all the different ways they can and do respond to their reading.

I hope my grandson’s classroom and school community continue to nurture in him the joy of reading that his family has implanted. I hope that my classroom and school community will be that blessing to other people's grandchildren who come through our doors—both continuing what families have begun and helping students discover or rediscover the treasure of reading joy.

For further and inspiration and specific ideas for classroom implementation, I recommend the following books:
  • The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller (elementary)
  • Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle (secondary)
What about you? How important do you think the joy of reading is? When in your life have you experienced it? How do you help your students experience it? How could you build an even more flourishing reading community in your school?


Saturday, July 23, 2022

Dog Man Rescues Reading Identities


 

A giggle broke the silence of room full of reading 4th and 5th graders. The culprit looked around for a friend to share the joke with. His neighbor looked up from his book, leaned over the first student’s book, and they whispered and giggled together for a moment before returning to their own books. 

The first time this happened, I briefly wondered whether I should insist on maintaining strict silent reading protocols. Then I thought, what do I do when my husband and I are sitting around in the evening reading and I come across a funny passage? I giggle. He looks up. I share it with him. He smiles. And then we both go back to reading. It is polite reading behavior to not interrupt other readers—unless there is a reading tidbit so marvelous we can’t refrain from sharing. That's what readers do.

This past winter, Dog Man graphic novels transformed a handful of English language learners in my 4th and 5th grade ELA class into avid readers. At least into avid Dog Man readers—which is a significant start. They suddenly looked forward to reading time. They passed their copies around to each other. They shared their reading. They had inside jokes from their reading. It was truly remarkable.

The students themselves started the movement. So when I passed the class on to another teacher this spring, and the 5th graders graduated into my 6th and 7th grade ELA class, I gifted the elementary classroom a set of the first six Dog Man books. I read them first, and brought them in on successive days. The teacher said the students looked forward to them.   

One morning before the school day started, a 4th grader knocked on the door of the teachers’ office where about 8 of us have desks and shouted in to his teacher, “Do you have any Captain Underpants books?” “No, I don’t,” she answered. The student responded, “Does Mrs. Essenburg?” No—but I’m happy to be seen as a probable source of interesting reading material!

What about the students that graduated into my 6th and 7th grade class? Are they limited to Dog Man? No. Some of them still enjoy Diary of a Wimpy Kid now and then, but they've naturally matured as readers. Halfway through the spring term when we made reading ladders and I demonstrated with the Dog Man books being the easiest books I’d read and Putin’s People being the hardest, there were a lot of nostalgic “Oh, remember Dog Man!” responses, but not a single student clamored to read one. The students who enjoyed it last year have now moved on to Peter Brown’s Wild Robot books, The Ranger’s Apprentice series, and Alan Gratz’s historical fiction. 

Meanwhile, I recently subbed in the 4th and 5th grade social studies class for a few days. They were working on posters summarizing a part of their study of Alexander the Great that had interested them. One 4th grader directed me to a particular portion of the cartoon images that illustrated his poster. He said, “I learned to draw that fist from Dog Man!” When he pointed out how he’d also used the common Dog Man misspelling of “supa” for “super,” I said, “Yes, I see how you’ve patterned your poster on Dog Man, and do you think your social studies teacher will understand that?” The student thought for a moment, then erased “supa” and replaced it with the accepted dictionary spelling. A teachable moment for considering the importance of audience. 

I’d long agreed with the thinking that graphic novels are “real” reading, that it only takes one “home run” book to create a reading identity, and that while a student who enjoys reading Captain Underpants may one day enjoy reading Hamlet, the student who doesn’t read, won’t. Now I’ve seen it in action. If in addition to educating students about the importance of reading, modeling a reading life, providing time for reading, and conferring with students about reading, I work to provide a wide range of reading choice--something (maybe even Dog Man!) to grab each student's interest--students will grow into a reading identity. And when that happens, they grow in vocabulary, writing, knowledge of the world, empathy, and so many other good things.

What books have you found for igniting a student's identity as a reader?    

Friday, July 15, 2022

Building a Reading Identity 10 Minutes at a Time

 

“What would you rate this book on a scale of 1 to 10?” one 6th grader asked another, standing in front of our classroom library last Friday after class. She was holding Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee. Another 6th grader drifted over to listen in on the impromptu book talk. After discussing several books, the first student walked away with Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Sharing book recommendations naturally is what readers do. That’s why it delights me to overhear my students doing it. They are taking on the identity of readers. 

Judging by cover wear, these are 6 of the top recommendations from my 6th and 7th graders

What helps students take on this identity? I have found time, choice, modeling, conversations, and reflection to be key. 
  • Time: For most of the past 2 years, we have been starting every 45-minute class period with 10 minutes of independent reading. 
  • Choice: I make sure a range of interesting books are available for students, and that I am familiar enough with both the books and the students to make recommendations based on interests and reading level. 
  • Modeling: I model my own reading life as a curious, enthusiastic, and eclectic reader. 
  • Conversations: I check in with where students are (book title and page number) once a week and conference with them once every 2 weeks. Students share their favorite book of the trimester with their classmates inn a presentation at the end of the term. 
  • Reflection: And students set goals and reflect on their reading.

This first trimester of our new academic year (mid-April to mid-July), I added 2 experiments based on a re-reading of Book Love by Penny Kittle: (1) setting goals by reading rate (tested in a 10-minute reading time) and (2) adding a reading ladder reflection. The reading ladder reflection I initiated mid-term to help the students think about challenge and the books they chose. Students make a list of the books they’ve read from easiest (on the bottom) to most difficult (on the top). Then they reflect on their choices. It isn’t necessarily that easy is bad and hard is good. We can relax with an easy book, challenge ourselves with a hard book, and look for what is a good level of challenge and interest for learning. 

As it turned out, it was doubly good I did that mid-term reflection, because the last week of our term was a mad scramble with Covid cases sending us online. So in my own reflecting on students’ independent reading this term, I’ve used a combination of their mid-term start on a reading ladder, and their final reflection. 

Students in my combination 6th/7th grade class read an average of 8 books each (range: 2 - 15, mean and mode: 7). Favorites included novels in verse (Crossover), adventure (Hatchet and the Alex Rider books), historical fiction (Ground Zero and Grenade by Alan Gratz), memoir (While I Was Away), and fantasy (A Wish in the Dark, Ranger’s Apprentice series, and Inheritance). Books like Sideways Stories from Wayside School, The Wild Robot, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid fill the bill for students still building English reading proficiency. 

What did students learn? Here are some of their observations…
  • I realized that I use the same word too many times when I write something, and that good authors don’t use the same word over and over.
  • This term, I realized that I don’t dislike all fantasy books. Last year, I wouldn’t even try to read fantasy, but this year I decided I would try fantasy, and I really got into Ranger’s Apprentice. Since then, I realized that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
  • I can read Japanese books very fast, but I read slowly with English books. As for me, it is hard to image the scenes of each events or actions. I like books with pictures because it is easier to imagine them. Graphic novels—I like them and I can read faster than Alex Rider or The Faithful Spy, but I don’t think I can learn very much from graphic novels.
  • The Tale of Despereaux was the easiest.... The hardest one was The Book Thief because it is hard to know who’s speaking. The most satisfying one is Inheritance because it’s so long and the last of the series.

Students had a variety of answers to strategies they use to help them understand: 
  • Summarizing or translate into Japanese 
  • Trying to guess what’s going to happen 
  • Looking up words I don’t know

When I asked them to set a summer reading goal for themselves and make a plan for accomplishing it, one student really got specific: 1 day = 15 min; 1 week = 1 hour 15 minutes. Read while my grandma is doing yoga.

And my favorite final question, when I ask students to fill in the blanks of the following sentence: Reading is _____ because _____. Here are some of the responses from this term:
  • Reading is inspiring because it helps me think of new ideas and new points of view.
  • Reading is good because you can learn more English.
  • Reading is important because you can learn about the world, and can also widen your imagination.
How do you help your students build a reading identity?



Friday, July 8, 2022

Can You Teach It? Harnessing Authentic Assessment for Language Learning (Part 2)

Student slide showing the location of the Mkugwa refugee came in Tanzania

 

In the hall outside the 4th grade classroom, one 8th grader was frantically digging through his backpack. More frantically than he ever looks for homework in my class. (Not that it happens that frequently.) His classmate is hovering over him anxiously. 

I hint, “Are you ready go in and teach the lesson?” 

The classmate says, “No.” 

“No? It’s time for class to start. The 4th and 5th graders are waiting. What’s the problem?” I say.

“He can’t find his script.” 

“Do you have yours?” I ask.

“Yes.” 

“Is it the same?” 

“Yes.” 

“Then hand it to me and I’ll make a copy.” 

Life lesson learned: Be prepared. How many times has an adult told him that? This time, I think it will take. Not because of a scolding or a docked grade, but because he was imagining walking into that classroom without his script, looking out over the expectant elementary faces waiting for him to speak, feeling his own embarrassment and his friend's frustration. 

Recently my 8th grade advanced EFL class had the opportunity to teach an elementary class. From the day I announced the project, students took so much ownership for their learning—the energy and focus in the classroom was palpable. I wrote about it here. Now that the project is finished, it’s time to reflect on how it went. Was it worth it? Would I do it again? The short answer—in a heartbeat. Not all the time, but maybe at the end of every trimester.  

After the nerve-wracking prequel in the hallway, the 8th graders introduced themselves and started the lesson with a hook: “Imagine that you suddenly had to leave the country. What would you do?” It was meant to draw students into the life of a refugee who suddenly had to flee home. After a few moments of thought, a 5th grader responded, “Email my teacher to tell her I would be absent.” I watched the 8th graders realize what it means to engage a real audience that doesn’t always respond as you expect. And they did. 

They began to work the room.
I watched them adjust instruction as they identified the different levels of the students they were teaching. I watched them ask follow-up questions to prompt deeper engagement (“show me how
 you would scrunch a piece of paper”), or give hints to clarify confusion (“Look in paragraph 5”). I watched them answer questions from the students, and sometimes get stumped (“What’s the difference between scrunch and crumble?). (Note to self: Let them in on the secret that even better than a teacher who knows everything is one who models delight in finding something new to learn. “Great question! I’m so glad you asked. I don’t know the answer. I wonder how we could find out?” )

That is learning I really want to build on. 

What exactly were the benefits?
  • Motivation. Authentic assessment is powerfully motivating. They spent two weeks fully immersed in making sense of the content themselves (big ideas, like how global issues create refugees; facts, like where Burundi is located; vocabulary, like scrunch; grammar like present perfect tense), planning the lesson, and creating effective materials—a slide deck and assessment (see photo).  
  • Learning. Acquiring information is one level of learning. Applying that information to a new situation is another level. Teaching someone else to acquire and apply information is the apex of learning. Conversely, the ability to teach is a characteristic of a good language learner. So learning to teach language not only ensures that my students have the highest mastery of the content and skills taught, it also makes them even better language learners!   
  • Flourishing. We exist to love God and neighbor. When we can use our learning to teach others, actually helping them to develop the potential God has placed in them, we are living part of God’s purpose for us. Learning is purposeful and learners flourish. 
  • Role models. Sure, teachers can be role models for students. Older students, whether they realize it or not, are also role models for younger students. This project capitalized on that natural connection. The elementary students told their teacher afterwards, “They’re so COOL!”  They don’t say that about me…
  • Metacognition. Eighth graders learned how teachers construct lessons, with a hook, goals, frontloading, the lesson itself, and assessment to demonstrate to what extent the goals have been met. They realized how much more teachers know about their subject that they can pass on to students in one lesson. 
  • Empathy. Putting themselves in the shoes of elementary kids: what do they already know? What do they need to know? What will engage them? Putting themselves in the shoes of their teachers: Thinking like a teacher thinking about students.
  • Practical life lessons. Checking your materials ahead of time. Including running through your slide decks. (When I had them practice the lesson the day before, they discovered one of them was teaching the definition scrunch as in "to smash into a small ball" and the other was assessing the definition "the sound that walking on gravel makes.") 

I asked the 8th graders about their thoughts for next time. They would pick a shorter reading. Try different goals. Ask some deeper questions, like “What did you learn?” (a question the elementary teacher asked the 8th graders at the end of the lesson).

So I’ll be looking for a good shorter reading to use at the end of next term. Or maybe ask 8th graders to be on the lookout for one. And I'll be re-reading this post to remember the learning I'm building on.

How about you? Have you ever had students teach a lesson to peers or to younger students? What were the benefits? How did you build on them? 

Friday, July 1, 2022

Reset on Reading Conferences

School's out in three weeks: Gearing up our online library splash page for summer reading!


“Mrs. Essenburg! This talks about learning from failure, too!” a sixth grader whispered at me, excitedly waving her independently reading book, From an Idea to Google, across a sea of students silently buried in their own choice reading books. The surprising relationship between failure and success has been the topic of our whole-class readings, and this student just realized it is a much bigger topic than an English class unit. Making connections from a text to yourself, to the world, and to other texts is a vital strategy of effective readers, and this child is using it! Maybe because I've restarted reading conferences.

Conducting reading conferences with students is important not only for monitoring and encouraging their reading lives in general, and mentoring them in the types of conversations that readers have, but also for scaffolding the transfer of specific reading strategies. Unfortunately, I’ve found it all too easy this term to slide into frittering away my first 10 minutes of class, while students are reading their independent choice books, in organizational tasks—passing back papers, touching base with students who have been absent, connecting my laptop to the projector. These are tasks that have to get done sometime, but I’m losing the two most important things that have to happen while students are reading: modeling reading myself, and conferencing with students about what they are reading. This week, I got back on the conferencing bandwagon, and I’ve had some really interesting conversations.

Since we worked on determining a theme together as a class, asking individuals, “What is a theme of the book you’re reading?” is a great check on how they’re doing with transfer. When I asked the student reading The Wild Robot, he looked at me blankly. “What are some big ideas in the book?” I prompted, as I pointed to the poster of one-word big ideas on the wall. “Oh! Um...family…um…love,” he responded. “Okay, now put those into a sentence that tells me what the author believes about family and love.” He lit up: “Family love is important!” 

When I asked another student the same question about her fantasy book she ventured, “Well, the main character looks different from everybody else, but she keeps trying and finds she does have a gift…so I guess the theme would be, even if you don’t fit in, keep trying and you can succeed.” I considered this young woman with one Japanese parent and one American parent and then took the conversation one more step: “Does that theme connect to your life in any way?” She paused for a moment and then responded, “Yes, because I looked different from everybody in Japanese school I went to.”

Another student has devoured all the fantasy books in my classroom library that he finds interesting and has resigned himself to exploring other genres in the last few weeks. Curious about his findings, I asked him which of the non-fantasy books he’d enjoyed the most. He picked the one he was currently half-way through, The Last Cherry Blossom, about a Japanese girl living in Hiroshima during World War 2. Wondering whether he was saying that just because it was at hand and easy, I asked him, “What do you like about it?” He said because it connected with the novel we’d read as a class back in the winter, When My Name Was Keoko, about a Korean girl during the Japanese occupation of her country. The two books taught him about the experiences of two different people living through the same war on different sides. “Give me a specific,” I pressed. He answered, “They were both hungry.”

I’m still a novice at conducting reading conferences with students, but these and other conferences I conducted this week, and the further connections they’ve inspired, motivate me to keep practicing. It just takes two to three minutes per student, so I can do three or four a day. I plan to get around to every student once every two weeks. 

Sometimes I’m afraid I won’t be able to think of good questions, so when I walk around conferencing, I carry notecards with questions I can ask if I go blank. They come from Penny Kittle’s book Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, where she categorizes reading conferences into three types and gives typical questions for each:

Conferences That Monitor a Reading Life (Kittle 80)
  • What are you reading? How did you choose it? How do you find good books?
  • What’s on your to-read-next list? Which authors are your favorites?
  • How much did you read last year?
  • Do you consider yourself a reader? Where do you read at home?

Conferences That Teach a Reading Strategy (Kittle 82)
  • How is the reading going for you?
  • Is this an easy or a hard read for you? How do you know?
  • Tell me about a time when this book has confused you and what you’ve done to get yourself back on track in your understanding.
  • Tell me about these characters—who are they, what do you think of them?
  • What questions are at the heart of this book? What questions might the author be trying to answer through the struggles of these characters?
  • I see you’re almost finished with the book. When you think back over the way a character has changed in this story, can you point to specific moments when something was revealed about this character? Could you make a claim about this character and support it with evidence from the text?
  • How is this book different from the last book you read?

Conferences That Increase Complexity and Challenge (Kittle 84-85)
  • What else have you read by this author? What other books have you read that are as difficult as this one?
  • Which books on your next list are challenging? Have you considered how to push yourself as a reader?
  • Which genres have you read this year? Tell me about a genre you don’t usually read and let’s think about books that might ease the transition from what you love to what will challenge you to think differently.
  • Tell me about a book you’ve dropped this year. Why did you drop it?
  • How are the books you’ve been reading this year similar?

How about you? Do you conduct reading conferences with students? What questions do you ask? What great conversations do they prompt?

Friday, June 24, 2022

Being a Fan of Student Growth

Photo by Ronny Sison on Unsplash


No one can celebrate like sports fans. All season long, they’ve been focused on the goal, tracking stats, arguing which player is the best. (The day after the basketball season is over, the pundits my husband watches are heatedly discussing the next season!) And when their team finally wins the World Series, the World Cup, or the NBA championship, the celebration is jubilant. 


Even though I don’t create quite as much noise and mess, I can feel just as much delight when I see students growing. Like when… 

  • The teacher whose desk is next to mine shares that a student told her Jesus gives her peace and she wants to follow him.
  • A colleague in a book discussion of Becoming a Globally Competent Teacher explains how students grew in their empathy for refugees as a result of a social studies project.
  • A 6th grader giving a book talk to the class on A Wish in the Dark says, “I liked this book because Pong is courageous. Reading this book can help you wonder what is right to do, and do it.”


These stories of student growth—whether my own students or a colleague’s—encourage me, energize me, and send me back to focus even more on achieving my big dreams for students. What if these moments didn’t just happen serendipitously and individually? What if our international Christian schools fermented as much discussion around achieving our purpose statements as sports fans do around their team achieving victory? 


Teaching is hard, and to really flourish, teachers need all the encouragement we can get. Passionate purpose—like a sports fan—is one significant driver of flourishing. My deep hope is that staff at my international Christian school—and at every international Christian school—are experiencing the discussions (including celebrations) of the meaning, implications, and achievement of the school’s purpose statements that will help them flourish in terms of passionate purpose.


In my 30-plus years as a teacher, department chair, and curriculum coordinator at international Christian schools, I have experienced, used, and heard about practices that contribute to this kind of passionate purpose. Some are personal and individual; some are communal and institutional. Personal practices include prayer, conversation, expressions of gratitude, reflective blogging, and real or virtual learning communities. Communal and institutional practices include staff devotions, staff meetings, department meetings, and book discussions.


What exactly has this looked like?

  1. Starting emails and meetings by thanking people for the time and attention they give to achieving the purpose statements (rather than by apologizing for taking their time).
  2. Regular prayer in private, in staff devotions, and at the beginning of meetings for guidance as we seek to achieve the purpose statements.
  3. Brief 5-minute devotional time at the beginning of meetings, focused on the meeting’s topic
  4. Consistent times in staff and department meetings to celebrate student achievement of the purpose statements. It can be as simple as a turn-and-talk or think-pair-share about something your students learned this week.
  5. Long-term staff sharing their story at meetings: what brought them to the school and what has kept them there.
  6. Book discussions with other teachers where we deepen our best practices that help us achieve the purpose statements, celebrate the student growth we see as a result, and develop a collegial culture that continues such conversations beyond the meeting time itself.


What about you? What if we discussed and celebrated our international Christian school’s purpose as passionately as sports fans do their teams? How do you personally focus on and celebrate student growth? How does your school focus on and celebrate student growth? What would help you focus on and celebrate student growth even more?