Book Review: Linda Rief – Read Write Teach

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“I must be what I teach: writer, reader,speaker, listener.” – Linda Rief

Teaching our kids to read and write with commitment and passion is an ever evolving labor of love.  There are so many expert educators to read, so many moving pieces to choreograph, so many new ideas to sift through, figure out and put into practice.  And, lurking in my thoughts as I take notes and dog ear another book about teaching and best practices, are these questions: how will this look in my classroom? how will students respond?  what might some examples of this type of work look like? Luckily, I know that whenever I read anything by Linda Rief, these  questions will be answered in thoughtful detail.  For Linda writes as an active practitioner of the craft of teaching, and her books are grounded in all the magic (and hard work) that takes place in her own 8th. grade classroom in Durham, New Hampshire.  So it was with her first book  Seeking Diversity,  and so it is with her just published  Read Write Teach:Choice and Challenge in the Reading-Writing Workshop.

Reading Linda’s new book is like accepting her generous invitation to step into her classroom, to look around, meet her students, listen in on conferences, participate in read alouds and class projects.  We learn about what she does to inspire her students, and (most importantly) we learn how and why these practices came to be.  I found this to be the most powerful aspect of Read Write Teach – the idea that what we do in our classrooms is always intentional, always the product of thoughtful observation and analysis.  As Linda writes:

“As teachers, what we do has to be based on sound philosophical, theoretical, pedagogical, and humanitarian underpinnings. What do I believe in and why? How do I shape those beliefs into sound practices in the classroom? Who are the students with whom, and from whom, I learn, to whom I teach, and for whom I care and have a responsibility?

…To grow as learners and as teachers, we must always be researchers in our own classrooms. What I have learned frames beliefs about writing and forms the foundation – the why – for all that I do.” (p. 16)

The search for “the why” defines everything Linda does from the moment her students arrive in her classroom – every practice, assignment, and activity is grounded in the core beliefs she explains in her first chapter “Grounding Our Choices in Our Beliefs.”  And, at the heart of it all is a passionate commitment to nurture the natural link between reading and writing, as she reminds us:

“We have forgotten that a person can read without writing, but she cannot write without reading.  If we neglect writing while focusing our attention almost exclusively on reading, it can also be at the expense of reading. Writers are readers. If we really want to teach kids to be the strongest readers, they need to be taught how to be the strongest writers.” (p.20)

I love the care with which she structures the launch of her school year with such activities as :

*The Marshmallow Challenge – learning creativity, collaboration and communication all at once, and creating a metaphor for a year of reading and writing work.

*The Poetry Challenge – “an icebreaker with so many added benefits”, which can also be done with picture books for the younger grades.

*Creating a Portfolio Wall to share reading and writing work all year long.

*Setting up the Writer Reader Notebook – who wouldn’t be excited to begin the year with a notebook like this?

And I love the way in which Linda leads us through her reading and writing workshops, showing the way in which she:

*Plans for the school year to give students “choices within a frame” (p.36).

*Immerses her students in what it means to be a reader who writes about his reading life, and a writer who learns how to mine her life and her imagination for topics she cares about.

*Structures an environment in which students are empowered to choose books they can lose themselves in, and writing they can express their emerging selves in.

*Shares read alouds and author genre studies to inspire students to “think and feel something about themselves and make them pay more attention to the world” (p. 185).

*Shifts the focus of her unit on persuasive writing in order to fulfill this elevated goal:

“I want my students to know that they have choices in their lives, and those choices involve others as well as themselves…Their ability to share their beliefs and opinions can nudge the world a little.” (p.211)

I followed Linda from chapter to chapter, taking copious notes and going through many stacks of brightly colored sticky notes.  There are many ideas I want to think and read further about, such as drawing as thinking, based on the works of Roger Essley.  Linda makes a powerful case for incorporating more of this type of visual note taking in reading workshop, and I am certain  that my students will benefit from this.  There are many ideas that I just know will be part of our routines in Room 202  next year – reading and writing adventures that  I am excited to try.  And then I came to the last chapter: “A Model of Writing”, in which Linda shares part of Madi’s multi-genre project.  It is a fitting way in which to conclude.  Madi’s writing shows what a student can accomplish when guided and mentored through a year of  challenging and meaningful reading and writing workshop.  It is proof that, “When students write about those things that matter most to them, the writing (and their lives) matters to others…Through her writing, Madi not only has found her voice,  but also has found herself.” (p. 246)  Isn’t that how we would like to close the year with all our students?

Read Write Teach is full of Linda’s wisdom about teaching and about kids. I felt honored to read it, to be privy to all the thinking and effort involved in truly inspired teaching.  It is a book to  be savored slowly, for there is so much to take in!  It is also full of  student samples, photographs, and links to additional online materials which are invaluable resources.  Although Linda teaches 8th. grade, and I was reading it through the lens of my own sixth grade needs, Read Write Teach is a book for teachers of all grade levels – for the principles and practices of great teaching are the same, whether one is teaching first grade or twelfth grade.  It is a book that will be sure to energize you and fill you with wonderful plans and ideas for next year, yes, even in the waning days of this school year, when summer and school-less days beckon.