The Book Fort

Instructional Ideas for Immediate Implementation

Welcome to The Book Fort! Vol. 1 Issue 17

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Week Seventeen: The Literature Workshop

While I am certainly an advocate for self-selected independent reading, I also truly believe that students must be exposed to challenging and complex text in meaningful ways in our classrooms. It is our job to push them outside their reading comfort zones, to equip them with the tools they need to access these texts. If we fail to do this (because it can be difficult), we really set them at a disadvantage for college and career.


In that spirit, this week I returned to Sheridan Blau's The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers (2003). One of the touchstone texts for yet another doctoral elective about literacy instruction, I was moved by the simple reminders of best practice in literacy instruction and so glad, as always, that practical suggestions for implementation comprised most of the text. 2018 will be here before we know it and thinking about how we might reset in positive ways is never a bad idea. I hope you find the following strategies useful as you plan for a new calendar year!


Download a sample here from Heinemann.


Blau, S. (2003). The literature workshop: teaching texts and their readers. Heinemann.

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Practical Applications

Reading Strategy: Three Readings

Helping students to improve their close reading skills is quite possibly one of the most important and beneficial things we can do as teachers, no matter what content area. I haven't been to a class yet in which students weren't required to read something, whether that's music, literature, textbooks, instructions, syllabi, or even technical directions. Students are inundated with text and they just need to know how to deal with it in multiple ways for various purposes.

In Chapter 2, "From Telling to Teaching", Blau presents a vignette of an experiment he did with one of his own classes on reading poetry. Here's the gist, adapted by me of course:


1. Choose a short poem that relates to your course theme or current unit focus. The sample in the text is "Sonrisas" by Pat Mora (featured below).


2. Present the poem to students and ask them to read it three times, "noticing what [they] notice" (36) each time. This will include thinking through the following questions:


  • What is troublesome or difficult about the poem?
  • What do you like about what it says?
  • What do you want to say against the poem? What upsets you?
  • What questions do you have about the poem?
  • What else do you observe in general?

Notice that this is not an annotation of devices or an identification of the theme, main idea, or motif. This is simply reading and reacting. Arguably, students will notice the things you expect them to and possibly want them to, they simply may not be able to "label" them as terms, techniques, or devices.


3. Ask students to rate their understanding of the poem after each reading and noticing on a scale of 0 - 10, with zero meaning no understanding at all and 10 meaning perfect understanding.


4. Finally, prompt students to explain in a short narrative what happened to them as readers when they did this exercise of multiple readings and noticings. The guiding question could be, for example: How did your understanding evolve each time you read?


The idea is that you will be able to assess students' initial and independent understanding of the poem, learn how they can or cannot articulate their own learning, and honor what they already know about poetry. Then, students can share with one another, gain new perspectives from peers, share with the whole group, and you can plan your supplemental instruction around the gaps in their learning or the need for enrichment. This can be adapted for use with any text, of course, because it is not focused on elements of poetry or English literature. Starting with poetry, however, is an excellent scaffolding technique because the text is short and the protocol can be learned easier.

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Writing Strategy: Updates on Classic Writing Assignments

In Chapter 7, Blau points out the persistent problems with traditional writing assignments when it comes to analysis of literature (or any text, for that matter). I am sure you can commiserate about the lack of authenticity and voice in many of the literary analysis papers you may have read over the years; it feels a bit like "rinse and repeat" reading through them, especially in AP Literature and Composition courses. Also, the bigger problem is they don't really tell you much about what students know or can do when it comes to analysis of complex texts.


So, Chapter 8 is filled with possible solutions. Here are my favorite, paraphrased and adapted by me:

1. Reading Process Research Report: This assignment asks students to study their own reading processes as they read challenging texts. Half the battle in increasing literacy skills is knowing which processes to use and strategies to apply. Blau assigns it in the first week of class and it truly informs his practice from then on (168). It can also be an on-going narrative students come back to throughout the year. The sample assignment is shown below from Blau's syllabus. He uses a poem as the touchstone text, so this could easily build off the reading strategy above.


2. The Interpretation Project: This assignment is more of a formal literary paper and involves the interpretation of literature and the formulation of a literary argument about its potential meanings, themes, or author's purpose/intent. Instead of simply assigning a literary analysis, however, Blau suggests compiling a list of challenging or problematic short fiction, poetry, or other literature and asking students to determine the interpretive problem and present possible solutions. This is quite a twist on the traditional assignment and ramps up the cognitive demand significantly. A sample assignment is below.


3. The Literacy Portfolio: This is not a new idea and has gained quite a negative reputation over the years due in part to standardized writing assessments, but the fact remains that a true portfolio, a showcase of student work over the entire course put together in such a way that it shows growth is always a win. Blau suggests that students collect samples of various types of writing from the course with a critical eye when making the selections and meaningfully reflect on what the body of work reveals to them about their own skills. A sample assignment is below.

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Speaking & Listening Strategy: Talking about Literature in Meaningful Ways

In Chapter 5, Blau suggests that there are problems with interpretation: what does it mean, is there a right or wrong way to do it, how do we talk about it, why should we do it...the list goes on and on. The bottom line is, students do need to engage in the interpretation of text and media in safe spaces where they can grow this skill. It is cognitively demanding to do this with complex text and part of the trouble is not knowing what to say.


So, Blau suggests asking students to share stories from their childhood, culture, or traditions that have shaped them in some way, such as fairy tales, Bible stories, allegories, myths, or in Blau's example, personal stories about experiences they have had in their own lives that taught them something. Then, in a workshop style, students discuss what those stories meant to them, what lessons they could teach, how they have shaped entire cultures, etc. They trade the texts themselves with one another and compare interpretations. By starting here, students realize that they can talk about literature with authority and flex their "interpretive powers" (108-109). What students will find is that there are multiple perspectives on similar themes or texts and that's perfectly OK. Then, as a teacher, you can fill in any gaps students may have with backing up their interpretations with evidence and commentary. This skill transfers to multiple subjects and grade levels.

Classroom Tool of the Week

TextingStory Chat Story Maker

As you probably know by now, I am always looking for ways that students (and teachers) can present their work in creative and polished ways. I get very frustrated with PowerPoint and Google Slides; don't get me wrong, they do the trick and offline, they really work in a pinch. However, if students want to stand out and truly enhance their work in presentation, using emerging web tools is the way to go. Effective presentation skills are essential for college and career readiness!


So, if you've got Apple devices that run iOS, check out TextingStory! It is a free tool that grabs texts and turns them into digital stories. There are tons of options for customization that encourage creative writing and the possibilities are plentiful. Students will love being able to use texting to create poetry, stories, summaries of essential content, etc. using their phones or iPads. The Techie Teacher, another essential follow @JGTechieTeacher, reviewed the app. Check it out!

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Strobel Education

Love Genius Hour? Want to learn about the science of happiness? Intrigued by the Law of Attraction? Need tips on assessment and growth mindset? You need Strobel Education in your life! Sign up for the free newsletter to learn about professional learning opportunities that we will re-energize you and your teaching for the new year and check out the website for more information. There are free resources, digital workshops, and in-person events you won't want to miss. Follow @StrobelEd and sign up today!

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#NCTE17 Recommended Reads

Since visiting the exhibit hall at #NCTE17, I continue to go through all of the books I bought and received from generous publisher giveaways. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be promoting amazing books that students might like and I will be giving away some in exchange for student reviews. Stay tuned!
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Kristie Hofelich Ennis, NBCT

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!