The Book Fort

Instructional Ideas for Immediate Implementation

Welcome to The Book Fort! Vol. 1 Issue 3

In an effort to systematically study relevant research and stay connected to the teachers I greatly respect and with whom I have worked for years to successfully implement independent reading, this newsletter came about. It will offer research and practical ideas for quick implementation and may prompt further discussion or study with your colleagues. I hope you'll find it useful and thought-provoking; I also hope you will stay in touch if you implement any of the ideas with your students. They are, after all, why I do what I do!

Missed Vol. 1 Issue 2? Find it here.

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Week Three: Building a Culture of Literacy

This week, I was reminded of some old friends as I read through some newer research. I have already mentioned Penny Kittle's work with Book Love, but I am honing in on one particular practice suggested by Kittle, Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher and countless other advocates for independent reading in the classroom. Book talks have always been an essential part of my own reading culture, both personally and professionally, but there has not been much definitive research on its positive effects in the middle or high school classroom specifically. It seems that teachers and administrators value this practice in elementary grades as students are learning to read initially and developing a love of reading (hopefully); however, once students hit middle school, standardized testing begins to take precedence and student choice in reading diminishes. Time for book talks seems to scatter to the wind.

While searching for research, I came across many blogs and article written by practicing teachers, literacy specialists, and/or writers that support the use of book talks to foster a love for reading and to build a positive classroom culture in general. Even if there is no quantitative research (at least that I have uncovered so far) to support this practice, qualitative accounts, both formal and informal, support book talks as essential to the continuing success of literacy instruction at all grade levels.

The instructional activities that follow are from practicing teachers that are constantly conducting action research to improve literacy instruction and achievement in their schools.

Norris, Lauren. "Using Booktalks to Create a Community of Readers." The Educators Room. 17 Sept. 2013. Web.

Practical Applications

Reading Strategy: Book Talks

Book talks are an engaging way to encourage students to speak about their reading interests publicly and to include adults in the journey to improving literacy skills in schools. There are many ways to do book talks, but they all come down to the same idea: consistently take time to advertise good books publicly and the "buzz" around reading will begin to spread. Here are the essentials:

  • What: a short, engaging "ad" for a book that may include a short passage or overview of the main characters, main idea, and/or plot elements (think movie trailer for a book)
  • Why: promotes independent reading and cultivates interest in literacy
  • When: regularly; once a month minimum is suggested
  • Who: students, teachers, administrators, support staff, community members...EVERYONE!
  • How: check out these book talks at Marion C. Moore School in Louisville, KY, gathered by English teacher and Writing Project Fellow, Maegan Woodlee, on her blog.

Book talks can be done digitally, also. Check out the video below from Teacher Tube.

Writing Strategy: Big Idea Journals

A successful way to incorporate writing about theme into regular independent reading practice is The Big Idea Journal. Originally suggested to me as a young teacher at a Louisville Writing Project Mini-Conference by a middle school teacher, this simple practice pushes students to make connections between their chosen independent reading texts and universal thematic ideas or motifs. Aretha Whaley, Writing Project Fellow at Louisville Male High School uses these and is seeing positive results in student writing and discussion. Here is the gist:

What: composition notebooks labeled with a wide variety of thematic ideas and/or motifs such as love, greed, justice, poverty, etc.; generally kept in a central location in the classroom in crates.

Who: students and teachers

When: regularly; once per two weeks minimum is recommended by Ms. Whaley, who operates on a block schedule (90 minute A/B blocks)

Why: to assist students in making deeper connections between reading and bigger ideas

How: check out this document and these samples from Ms. Whaley's 9th grade classroom in 2016-2017.

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Grammar Strategy: Sentence of the Week

One of the simplest, most practical ways to study grammar in context is to choose one sentence from a shared class text of any type to feature as a model. This sentence is then displayed prominently in the classroom, broken down in various ways, imitated, and placed in context of the larger text from which it comes. What better way to cover topics that need review such as parts of speech, verb tense, syntax, style, word choice, and punctuation than this simple strategy? The sentences can also be pulled from students' independent reading books as well. If you have 30 students in your classroom, that is 30 weeks of instruction covered by student choice. You could cover the first 6 weeks with model sentences from class texts.

Here is a suggested one week progression, after choosing the sentence:

  • Monday: students record the sentence in a specific place set aside for this purpose, such as a literacy notebook and parse it into the parts of speech.
  • Tuesday: students make an inference/prediction about characters, setting, topic, theme, etc. about the larger text from which the sentence came.
  • Wednesday: students closely examine any punctuation involved and experiment with changing the punctuation; the focus can be on the effect the changes have on the sentence for meaning, style, readability, etc.
  • Thursday: students consider the word choice in the sentence and experiment with substituting words in place of those existing; the focus can be on the effect the changes have on the sentence for meaning, style, readability, etc.
  • Friday: students imitate the sentence to reflect the content in their own independent reading books as a quick formative assessment.

This idea comes originally from Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts (2011).

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Social media gets a bad wrap, particularly in middle and high school, because it most certainly is used for nefarious purposes. However, educators can use social media to learn, connect with other educators, and perhaps most importantly, to share positive stories about what their students are doing in the classroom.

One such use is to feature a Reader of the Week on Twitter. Maegan Woodlee did this at Marion C. Moore School last year and plans to do it this year to continually celebrate the hard work students are putting in to become more proficient readers. This small thing has drawn positive attention to students that may never be recognized otherwise and for an academic purpose. Another great way to extend this is to tag the authors of student books in the posts. They will often respond! #winning

Follow #readMoore and #knowMoore to see more featured readers @mrs_woodlee

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Looking to increase nonfiction texts in the ELA classroom or tie fiction to nonfiction and current events? NewsELA is a free way to do that. If you haven't used it, you must check it out today! Standards are linked, Lexile level can be adjusted, and topics are timely. There is a paid version as well that allows teachers to track student progress and assign particular articles. Teachers can search for popular titles in literature and find topically related articles. A popular one is The Great Gatsby. Check it out here.

What Kids are Reading

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