2 Weeks In and Already Making Changes

After just one normal week following our Reading Days (Monday and Tuesday) and Writing Days (Wednesday and Thursday) schedule, I’ve realized I don’t like the split week. I feel like it’s going to feel very divided and I don’t like it. So I’m taking another lesson from Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild and doing reading focus weeks and writing focus weeks, although I’ll probably do units instead of weeks. For example, we’re doing a genre study now. It’ll take me a few days into next week to finish it. Then we’ll start a writing unit. We’ll move to another reading skills unit after the writing unit and alternate all year. Fridays were going to be an article of the week, but thanks to a very generous principal, my aide will be taking my classes to the computer lab on Fridays so I can focus on special ed paperwork (it’s out of control). I’ll be using Edmodo and have weekly assignments where the kids will reflect on independent reading, plus do current events articles on the computer or ACT prep. I think this will actually be very beneficial for my kids (we have limited technology in the classroom).

Independent reading is going well minus a few students. I have one student in particular whom I’m really excited about. Last year it was like pulling teeth to get him to do his AR reading, and he’s already at least 150 pages into a book in less than 2 weeks of school because it’s a book that is about something he’s really interested in. A few (mostly very low level readers) are pretty resistant but hopefully conferences and lots of book suggestions will help them find something they’ll enjoy.

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Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits

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This is the PERFECT book to read before going back to school because it made me so excited to start this new (to me and my students) approach! I absolutely loved this book.

I loved The Book Whisperer because I agree with Donalyn Miller’s thoughts on the importance of free choice in reading, but at times, I felt like I wasn’t sure exactly how to change everything and get started with this approach. I read The Book Whisperer then I read everything I could find online, and then I read Penny Kittle’s Book Love. After all that, I felt like I had a pretty good beginning and started to piece together plans for this upcoming year. I decided to order Reading in the Wild a couple of weeks ago and I’m so glad I did. This book of Donalyn’s gives so many ideas (and copies of the forms she uses) to put her ideas into use.

Here are a few (okay, it’s a lot, but I loved so much!) of the things I loved and want to use with my classes from Reading in the Wild:

  • time for reading daily and conferring with students about their reading (also in The Book Whisperer)
  • starting a discussion with students about reading outside of school and how to find small chunks of time in a busy schedule to read outside of school
  • observation forms for students avoiding reading during class reading time and how to approach them about it
  • student goal setting for reading (will be very different for each student)
  • reading notebooks to keep track of books finished, abandoned, books to read next, genres read, goals, etc.
  • reading responses of some kind–either letters in their notebooks or possibly using something like Edmodo
  • Status of the Class–this is an accountability tool Donalyn uses temporarily at the beginning of the year and after breaks to encourage students to do their reading–I love this!
  • read alouds daily–books, poems, short stories, articles, excerpts–it doesn’t have to be a whole novel that we are reading-it could just be a chapter then the book is up for check out by students who enjoyed it
  • Text We’ve Shared list posted in the classroom
  • voting for a favorite read aloud at the end of the year
  • book drawings if we get a new book everyone is excited about
  • preview stacks for students who need help choosing books
  • a “Reading Graffiti” Wall where students add any quotes they love from books they’re reading
  • book commercials
  • lots of reflecting on their personal reading lives: how they choose books, who influences book choices, reading ability, etc.
  • planning for reading over school breaks and ensuring students check out books and then reflecting on how their individual goals for the breaks went
  • encouraging personal book challenges
  • possibly a class blog for reviewing books
  • formal conferences with students once per grading period to fully reflect over their reading lives

I absolutely recommend this book to any ELA or reading teachers!

What are my classes like?

I teach high school special education. This upcoming year will be my second year in my current position. For four years, I taught lower functioning 10th through 12th grade in a self contained class. This past year, I changed schools to take a high functioning resource English position. I enjoyed the change. While I loved my first teaching job, I love that in my current job I get to use my English background and I see more improvement in my current students over the course of a school year.

My current students are 9th-12th grade students. All of them have a disability and an IEP. My classes have 10 students maximum and I have a classroom aide (without an aide, I could only have 8 students maximum). My classes are mixed grade levels because of scheduling issues, so I teach the same lesson (usually) in every English class. I also am starting to teach a transitions class this year that focuses on skills my students will need as they prepare for graduation and after they graduate. This class is typically very small (this past year it was only 4 students), and currently only has 11th and 12th graders (and usually those that don’t have vocational classes–but that’s not always the case). In English, I have the same students just about every year they’re in high school. There is one other teacher at my school that’s taking one class of English so I can teach the transitions class, so there will be up to 10 students in that class, and there will be a few each year I won’t have. Also, there are the occasional switches (if a student is really struggling in regular education English and switches to resource or if they are excelling in resource and switch to regular education English).

Using the Star Reading test as an assessment, my students have a VERY wide range of reading levels. The average is about 5th grade to 6th grade. I do have a few that scored less than that (my lowest being about 2nd grade level) and several above that (my highest is a college level reader with a writing learning disability). This huge range is one reason why it’s SO hard to find a common text that will work for the whole class. This is another reason why I’m so excited to start an independent reading approach that is so focused on individual student interest and level. I do have a few high school interest/low level reading books in my classroom library, and luckily a lot of YA books are typically 5th or 6th grade reading level.

Writing is an area that the majority of my students REALLY struggle with. I’ve recently discovered Gretchen Bernabei and her strategies and look forward to implementing them with my students this year. I think we’ll see a huge improvement.

I have such great students. I do think I see a few more that are anti-school than a general education teacher sees. Don’t get me wrong; I know there are lots of students who don’t like school everywhere, but I feel like students in special education typically give up on school more often and earlier than regular education students because they have so many academic struggles and many feel like it’s easier to just give up. I have a handful of students I want to reach so badly (and I’m hoping the Book Whisperer approach helps them) because they HATE school. Daily, they are complaining, and talking about dropping out, and questioning why they have to be there. I want so badly to show them the value of education and the value of reading. I’m scared I won’t be able to. They are probably the biggest reason for my classroom changes for the upcoming school year. I feel like I reached the majority of my students this past year. I am confident that the independent reading approach will be beneficial for those students that excelled last year. But I’m searching for something that will reach those kids that don’t want to be reached. I’m hoping this is it. I look forward to trying it this year! Hopefully this post gives you a little better idea what my classes are like, and from all of the research I’ve done, I haven’t seen any anecdotes on a special education teacher using the Book Whisperer strategies. I’m interested to see how successful it will be with my students.

Goals for Next Year for English

I spend a lot of time planning. Not just for my classroom. I’m a planner by nature. I’m constantly spending time planning future trips or activities to do with my kids and family. I’m not sure I’d function properly without a life planner/daily calendar. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about my classroom for next school year.

Originally I was planning whole class novels and short stories to set my class up pretty similarly to what it was like this past year. I read Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks and really loved it. I will definitely be adopting some of her strategies for my class this year. At that point (sometime during spring semester) I was still planning on doing several whole class novels throughout the school year because I do see the value in having a common text to build community and have a text to refer to as a class. My biggest concern at that point was reaching some of my least engaged students. I have several that are just so done with school and struggle so much that they don’t care. I did my very best to choose interesting texts last year, and they did successfully engage some or even most of my students. But not all. I’m looking for something to reach those kids that just don’t want to be engaged (or think they don’t). I’ll post more about my specific group of students in another post.

I loved so many of Ariel Sacks’s ideas from WNFTWC, but I still was struggling with trying to select texts that would engage all of my students. Then I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and I LOVED the idea but I was skeptical at first that it would work with my students. I was so in the mindset that I needed to catch my students who were trying to fake read that I wasn’t thinking that my job is to convince them that reading is valuable and to stop fake reading in the first place. After a lot of reading and research on Miller’s strategies, I decided to really commit to it for this next school year. I next read Penny Kittle’s Book Love and got even more excited about a free choice reading focus in my classroom. I’m still in the very beginning of this, but I’m so excited to see how it changes my students and how they view reading.

My goals for my English resource class for 2015-16:

  • Be EXCITED about reading and talk about it daily. Emphasize FREE CHOICE in reading. I don’t care what books they choose as long as they are reading daily.
  • Book talk daily. I know this may not always happen, but it’s going to be a priority.
  • Independent reading time every single day. I know it’ll be tempting to cut reading time if we are short on time, but I’m going to do my best not to. One thing I’m doing to try to keep it the focus daily is to having reading time be the first 15 minutes of every class every day. I will also have to commit to enforce that reading time is for reading! Not whispering to your neighbor, not finishing homework for your next class, not going to the bathroom or going next door to ask your last teacher if you forgot your jacket in there. I will show my students that reading time is important in our classroom.
  • Reading conferences at least once a week with each individual student to talk about their reading.
  • Using interesting mentor texts to teach reading skills.
  • Having a class read aloud novel or a daily poem to use as a community text. Incorporate as much class choice as possible when selecting these.
  • More of a writing focus. So many of my students struggle with writing and honestly I was overwhelmed at how much work we needed to do last year to improve writing, so while I tried, I didn’t try hard enough. I’ll be incorporating writing days each week and have found so much good information and strategies in Gretchen Bernabei’s books/website. I look forward to using her ideas with my students. I think it will help improve all of their writing.
  • Incorporating Article of the Week. I read about Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week last year and thought it was such a great idea. Nonfiction is something my students usually resist, but having interesting current event articles in our weekly plan is something I want to start. Hopefully lots of good discussion and improved nonfiction reading/writing skills will result.

I plan to post a lot more about these ideas in detail, but this is an overview of my thoughts and plans for next year. I’m excited to see how it benefits my students.

Resources I mention in this post:

Ariel Sacks 

Donalyn Miller

Penny Kittle

Gretchen Bernabei

Article of the Week