The Book Fort

Instructional Ideas for Immediate Implementation

Welcome to The Book Fort! Vol. 1 Issue 4

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 previous issues? Find them below:

Issue 1

Issue 2

Issue 3

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Week Four: Conferring with Students

As the new school year is well underway (for most), reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary instruction are now part of regular instruction. If you've implemented independent reading, students have likely chosen their first (or second!) books, are reading as part of regular instruction, and writing about their books. Hopefully, they are beginning to talk about what they are reading, both to their peers and to adults.

The next step is to take your instruction to another level, one that will transform your practice if you let it. This step is to confer with your students. This is not to be done haphazardly intermittently, but rather thoughtfully and regularly. For conferring to have measurable, lasting impact on your students and their achievement, you must plan and be consistent. The action research of Jennifer Serravallo and Gravity Goldberg supports this practice and my own experience with it has been positive.

That being said, along with many colleagues, I have often wrestled with the interruption of the productive silence that ensues when these dedicated periods of reading and writing occur in the classroom. In Conferring with Readers: Supporting Each Student's Growth & Independence (2007), the great Lucy Calkins points out in her foreword the importance of interrupting student silence (which can be so sacred!) for student conferences: "...we teachers may find in our own hearts and minds the courage to interrupt what is good to strive for what is great" (xvi).

The strategies that follow expound upon that interruption of the sacred silence for conferences with students.

Goldberg, Gravity, & Serravallo, Jennifer. Conferring with readers: supporting each students growth and independence. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2007.

Practical Applications

Reading Strategy: Individual Conferences

Individual conferences with students about their self-selected independent reading books can transform your instruction, assessment, and relationships in positive ways. That being said, they are sometimes difficult to consistently maintain. There are many suggestions for how to effectively implement reading conferences, but the following are methods that I have either tried myself or seen effectively used by colleagues. Here are some tested tips for making individual conferences work for your readers:

1. Create a binder, folder, or notebook for each class just for documentation of the reading conferences. Inside, keep one page or section for each student. On this page, document the conferences you have with them and return to it each time, reviewing the previous conversations. This honors the student because it shows how dedicated you are, and it also keeps all this info straight for the teacher.

2. Instead of taking the silent time students are reading to read yourself or handle secretarial tasks like checking email, dedicate this time to conferring with readers regularly. Students will get used to this practice, as will you, if you do it consistently. This could be daily or weekly.

3. Designate a space in your room to complete the conferences so that it becomes part of your classroom rituals and routines. I have seen teachers use a small patio table with two chairs. I have personally used a comfy armchair that no longer matched my home decor after moving to a new house; the student sat in the chair and I sat at my desk. This made it more like a formal conference and students loved sitting in something other than a student desk.

4. Use the data collected to track student progress. Conferences are great even if you don't do anything specific with the data, but as Lucy Calkins said in the aforementioned foreword, why miss the opportunity to do something great with it? Use this data to track fluency and stamina progress by noting pages read and having students read aloud a paragraph to you from their text (note errors in reading the words for fluency). Use this data to suggest more complex texts for students when they complete a book. Use the time to ask specific, standards-aligned questions to formatively gauge understanding and proficiency.

For more info on resources for individual conferences, including handouts that are pre-made, visit my store on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Writing Strategy: Peer Conferences

While most teachers emerge from "teacher school" ready to engage students in group work, writing workshop, and discussions, sometimes reality gets in the way. These are all excellent ways to encourage less teacher-talk and ensure student-centered instruction, but they can surely fail without significant time upfront spent training students.

The focus this week is on conferring with students and this extends to writing as well; however, the conferring can just as easily be peer-to-peer and can be entirely student led. For writing, one of the most important things we can teach students is that it is a process not just a product. This will truly prepare them for college if that's where they are headed. Engaging in the writing process also teaches students that collaboration and constructive criticism are important to one's personal and professional growth, which is an important life skill, regardless of their future plans (or lack thereof).

So, here are some tips for employing peer conferences about writing:

1. Set clear expectations for what students should look for in each other's writing; think checklist, scoring guide, and models.

2. Model the process of effective peer writing feedback using a document camera or other educational technology, such as Google Docs.

3. Incorporate peer writing conferences in your regular writing routines to establish their importance; doing this once in a while is not going to cut it and can ultimately lead to frustration for teachers and students alike.

4. After peer writing conferences, encourage them to make revisions and editing marks in a different color ink (in print or online) so that they can be tracked.

For more resources on peer writing conferences, check out Pamela Flash's article (University of Minnesota).

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Grammar Strategy: One "Rule" a Week

For those of you who teach students preparing for standardized exams, such as the ACT or SAT, basic grammar "rules" tend to dominate instruction. Trust me, I get it; the need to perform on those tests is real for students and the pressure for teachers to somehow produce results is also very real.

So, this week's grammar feature comes from East Jessamine High School's Hillary Howard, who teaches 11th grade students who will all take the ACT test this spring. She reviewed the results of an ACT pre-test and found that her students really struggled with punctuation in general. To address this, Ms. Howard has chosen one punctuation rule or concept to focus on each instructional week and uses fun, short exercises to engage students in the work until they can demonstrate mastery of the rule. A few suggestions from Ms. Howard:

1. Use Grammar Bytes to quickly review and interact with Ed Tech.

2. Create short quiz questions and use Kahoot as a formative assessment.

3. Adapt Triumph lessons to cover important concepts that show up on those tests.

Follow @hillarydhoward for updates on her brilliant ideas for engaging students!

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Flexible Seating

Flexible seating has had a fair amount of press recently and I have always been a fan. It is sometimes very difficult to develop community among your students, for a variety of reasons. One easy way to create an inviting environment is to use flexible seating. Many elementary school teachers I know have always done this with learning centers and carpet time. Older students need it, too! Worried about cost? Ask around. You will be surprised what people will give away when you tell them you need it for students. Check out the gallery below for some inspiration.


As an ELA teacher, I struggled to find engaging informational text to support student inquiry and research that was accessible for struggling readers. Wonderopolis is an amazing place with endless resources about a variety of content areas and all of it is driven by student-submitted questions! There are even lessons on the Wonder Ground created by teachers and aligned to standards. I have created 12 high school lessons and there are several other Wonder Lead Ambassadors who contribute lessons for all grade levels. Happy Wondering!
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What Kids are Reading

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