Writing about reading: offering students choice in reading responses

When I first began teaching, Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle was my go to PD book for all things to do with reading and writing workshop.  I modeled so many of my teaching practices on what I learned through that book and through a few workshops with Nancie.  More than anything else, I wanted to create the environment Nancie had, one in which each of my students would feel the same sense of passion and personal investment in their reading and writing lives.

Among my “I must do this in my classroom” activities was Nancie’s once a week literary letters from and to her students.  “Through our correspondence my students learn … about the worlds of writing and literature,” she wrote,  “what good writers do, what good readers do, how readers of literature think and talk, what books are good for, and how kids can get in on it.”  A rich reading life is closely connected to a rich writing life, I think, one fuels and inspires the other. I wanted my kids to experience this connection,  so  I  began the practice of these once a week letters in my class, too.  And, just as it had for Nancie, these letters became important  conversations between my students and myself.

We wrote back and forth about themes, characters, ideas and life.  With each book they read, class readaloud, shared discussion, and minilesson, my students grew as readers and became comfortable navigating  varied literary landscapes.  Their letters reflected this growth – they became a place in which to experiment with ideas, pose interesting questions, wonder about characters and story lines.  There was no specific format,  no page specifications or particular questions they had to answer.  These letters evolved naturally, and their content reflected my students’ real time  reading experiences.   I loved the way these  letters allowed me to nudge thinking, make suggestions, pose questions   –  they were an extension, really, of my reading conferences,  as well as  an authentic way in which to assess reading workshop.  My students loved the letters, too, and many said it was one of the things they missed most about their reading lives after they’d left sixth grade.

Even after Nancie published The Reading Zone, in which she rethought the purpose and structure of the literary letters, and moved over to letter-essays once every three weeks, I didn’t see the need to change practices in my own classroom. My kids were reading lots of wonderful books, and they were also writing lots of wonderful letters: the literary letters were working for us.

  

But, there were some doubts I’d had from the beginning which continued to nag:

  • how much time was spent writing about reading as opposed to reading?

  • my struggling readers sometimes needed help composing these letters – wouldn’t it be better for them if they spent this time with me being guided in their reading as opposed to their writing about reading?

  • sometimes my kids would add a sketch or diagram to their letters, sometimes a picture from a magazine or a snippet from a newspaper, and these gave me added  insights into their thinking  – how could I act upon and grow these ideas?

  • was this weekly letter becoming a chore rather than an authentic response to reading?

  • was there another way??

And then I was lucky enough to spend a whole week with Mary Ehrenworth at the TCRWP Summer Institute.  In her characteristically enthusiastic way, backed up with tons of supporting research into best practices, Mary reiterated the one essential truth about reading workshop:  the primary goal was to keep our kids reading…a lot.   Yes, part of our reading instruction is to teach  our kids how  to be able to critique literature, and to how to articulate their ideas about literature in  well written essays and reading responses.  But, our kids need options – they need other avenues through which to express their ideas.  Mary shared some beautiful examples of creative approaches to reading responses:

  • emotional timelines

  • setting / plot maps

  • illustrations

  • thought clouds

  • title art

  • cartoons

The journals were lovely to look at, but, more importantly, they expressed such a range and depth of thought and creativity.   I knew immediately that my own students would love the opportunity to do work like this.  After all, bits and pieces of art work had been filtering into their literary letters already, my kids were definitely ready for this!

In the new school year, I introduced the idea of “creative reading responses” midway through  the second quarter, once I had laid the groundwork for reading workshop, and after we’d spent some time exchanging our usual literary letters.

I created a simple list of some ideas they could tackle  :

                                              The “creative reading response”: making your thinking visible

The Title

The characters

A powerful scene

An unexpected turn of events

The setting – or a change in setting

The mood of the story

A series of important scenes

Thought shots

Symbols which represent ideas or characters in the book

Emotions

Words

Images

Phrases

Details

Questions

“Let’s see what you can do!” I challenged them one Monday morning,  and then I waited to see what they would come up with.  That Friday, the day of our first gallery walk, they blew me away:

Creative response for Olive’s Ocean

Creative response for The Hunger Games

Creative response for Gregor, The Overlander – contrasting worlds characters can inhabit within a single text.

Creative response for The Book Thief –  important events in a character’s progress through a novel

My kids were so excited to see what everyone else had created, how their classmates had  made their “reading thinking” visible.  As they walked round the classroom marvelling at each others’ varied responses to literature, they were also learning new ways to respond to texts – titles and symbols came alive, settings were beautifully described through maps.  Best of all, some of the most stunning work came from my struggling readers and writers, here was  a wonderful way to express their thoughts and ideas!

Over time, I introduced other reading response  ideas I had learned at TC:

Creating an “emotional time line” as a way of explaining thoughts about a character’s development over the course of a book.

Being able to cite evidence for theories about the text:

:

“Writing long” from sticky note jottings:

And, over time, my kiddos came up with some ideas of their own:

  • heart maps for characters

  • a letter from one character to another, and the response

  • letters of advice to a character

  • a character or  novel scrapbook page

  • character Twitter chats

  • Facebook pages

  • postcards

Last summer, after another learning-packed Summer Institute workshop, Mary Ehrenworth generously offered to share more student samples on the TCRWP website, truly a treasure trove of reading response ideas: http://readingandwritingproject.com/resources/student-work/student-reading-notebook-samples .  I keep a notebook  filled with reading response ideas  and examples from my students, and from PD books, teacher blogs, and workshops I attend, as well as   a class binder of examples for my kids to refer to.

I introduce these ideas one at a time, spaced over many weeks.  They become part of our literary tool box, one we can reach into when we respond to our texts for independent reading, book clubs, and readalouds.  They also become the foundation for more complex tasks like forming thematic analysis across various texts, and writing  literary essays.   Yes, we still write our literary letters once a month or so, but in the weeks between we get to change things up a bit. Because these days in room 202, we have choice in how we respond to our texts.   It has, I think, made our reading experiences richer and deeper, and my students love this freedom of choice .

This has been, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

We would love to hear more of your thoughts on writing about reading in a Two Writing Teachers community get-together of sorts. Please join us on February 3 at 8:30EST for a Twitter Chat on Writing about Reading. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. We hope to see you there!