Scaffolding Towards AP Lit with Literary Analysis

Maybe your school has an undesirable course that all your department members try to avoid.

Grammar for Writing? Ugh.

Economics? Eek.

Well, for some crazy reason, English 10 is the unwanted reject in my English department, and lucky for me, all this other-teacher-avoidance means I’ve been able to snag my favorite ELA core for the last eight–and now nine–years.  

Bound for APLit

Unlike some teachers, I have no dreams of teaching honors or Advanced Placement seniors on the verge of college. I love teaching underclassmen, helping them develop their skills and move on towards later refinement. English 10 is ripe for major composition transformations. With that, I have no need to keep my fingers crossed hoping “Ooh! Maybe someday I’ll have APLit on my schedule.” Nope, that’s not what I’m after; instead, I want to keep the end in mind and have the Advanced Placement courses as a goal for my students. Even if they choose not to take them, I want my students to be prepared for the demands of AP, college, and beyond.

This summer, thanks to the support of my principal, I was able to attend APLit training in an effort to prep my soph-ies for the rigor of the College Board. I’ve been doing similar work with APUSH for the last few years in my sophomore US History, pairing down the skills required to dominate the DBQ, but this summer I got the chance to finally tackle the expectations of APLit.

One of the biggest things my sophomores have been trying to tackle has been Literary Analyses. In particular, my students are quick to say that they struggle to find the purpose in writing them in the first place. If we can work on this early–eighth, ninth, and tenth grade–and as a whole department–common language and delivery–, I think that all students will write better essays.

In English 10, I typically get a class set of nearly identical Literary Analysis essays, all talking about the same symbols, same theme, and same characters. It’s just a regurgitation of class discussion or maybe Sparknotes. Thankfully, my kids can blend quotes and–for the most part–explain how they support their claim. The problem is that these essays are formulaic and incredibly boring to read.  You know how it is when you’re sitting at Panera all Saturday grading essays and one after the other, you can’t tell the difference between each student’s idea. It’s torture. No wonder I eat so many bear claws!

Provide some Purpose

Last year, Dave Stuart, author of the new gem A Non-Freaked Out Approach to Teaching the Common Core, shared this great article, “How ’bout That Wordsworth!”,  by Jerry Graff. If you follow this blog, you already understand the high regard that I hold both Stu’s recommendations and Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book, as I’ve already mentioned both a number of times, so, of course, I jumped on this resource. It’s a powerful (and short–Yay! Only 2 pages!) article about pushing students to write better and more meaningful Literary Analysis.

You should totally read it, but I want to use this post to give you a few snippets.

To start, Graff says, for one, Literary Analysis essays need to start by responding to someone else‘s argument:

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I realize that my students essays were boring, because they were trying to play it off like they were the only readers who had ever thought that Daisy’s green light means something more than a green light. Kids can’t pretend that they’re the only people who have ever talked critically about that particular book. It makes their writing lose any life or argumentative weight.

Use Counter Voices

Graff says, “The assumption is that persuasive writers need…a conversation to motivate their own arguments–that unless we are provoked by the views of others, we have no reason to make persuasive arguments at all.” Exactly! Kids may not have the consciousness or the gall to ask “Why are we even talking about these ‘enchanted’ objects? What’s the whole point?” Without someone to get the conversation started, our kids have no grounds for debate, so we’ve been playing with this idea of responding to other sources who have also discussed the book. Sometimes this is easy as looking at the book’s foreword; other times I share analyses by literary critics (Bonus: They work as great mentor texts).
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With our Great Gatsby essays, I shared Matthew Bruccoli’s foreword (found in the front of our edition) and John Green’s Gatsby Crash Course (Part 1 & Part 2). Sucking the assignment out of the vacuum and bringing in other “They Say” critics made my students’ arguments not only more engaging reads but they also provided so much more direction.

Sophistication or Informal Voice?

If I want my students to be ready for AP-worthy Literary Analyses, I have to do more than just provide purpose and counter voices. I’ve got to build scaffolds towards sophistication. Great news is that Graff and Birkenstein make our jobs easy here with the inclusion of Literary Analysis sentence starters in a new chapter of the third edition of They Say, I Say. (Yay! Cheers for High School Edition!)
Here are a couple examples of the new brushstrokes:
  • According to Critic A, novel X suggest _______, I agree but would add that ________.
  • Several members of our class have suggested that the final message of play X is ________. I agree up to a point, but I still think that _______.

Some teachers might feel uneasy when they see the use of personal pronouns and class debate blended into formal essays. Until this last year, I was one of those teachers. I marked kids down. I guided them away from this kind of writing, thinking that it was too casual and not persuasive. But since attending the APLit training and reading Graff’s article—keep in mind he was the president of the Modern Language Association, I’ve come to realize that these are key moves to add voice and life to our writing. Real literary critics do it too, you know, when they’re not writing 5-paragraph essays.

Okay, so I’m obviously still new to this APLit prep. I’d love to hear what you have to say. What is working for you and your students? Where do you find solid literary counter voices? How do you help your students increase their sophistication? What’s your take on the personal pronoun debate? How do you feel about students infusing their peers’ literary critiques into their papers?

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Literacy Roadtrip 2014: nErD Camp & Michigan Reading Association Summer Conference

Last week, I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to tour the beautiful state of Michigan—from Parma, down in the Southeast, to Mackinac Island, up off the North shore of Lake Huron—in order to share and connect with some incredibly dedicated educators.

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nErd Camp

Starting in Parma, I was invited to speak at Day One of nErd Camp 2014 on the topic of secondary writing. Lead by teachers, authors, and other education professionals, Day One included a handful of sessions on specific topics related to technology, writing, and reading. The second day was modeled similarly to other edcamps with the conference participants coming up with and leading the session topics in an spontaneous and organic fashion; however, the Nerdy Book Club takes the “unconference” format of edcamp and focuses again on all things literacy.

My session, “Demystifying Academic Writing,” took the work of some of our favorite writing gurus and broke down how to scaffold and differentiate academic writing for secondary students. We looked at high levels of support, like the two-paragraph model that Stu introduced me to a while back, and more independent levels of sophistication, like the They Say, I Say  templates from Graff and Birkenstein, that help guide students towards independent and intellectual writing.

Using one of my favorite Leonard Pitts’ Articles of the Week, we walked through the process I take with my students as they step away from casual, chatty tones and towards the language of scholars. If you’re interested in checking out the handout or the Prezi, you can follow the links here.

 

Follow Those Nerds!

What a joy it is to be a part of this energetic and engaged group of people! Even with all of the powerful connections we can make on Twitter and other online forums, I am always amazed at how face-to-face conferences can deepen these PLN relationships.  Each session brought new ideas and more book purchases. Across Day Two, I got to absorb how other high school teachers are able to adapt a workshop model to fit their classrooms. I got to soak up a crazy-long list of diverse books for diverse readers. I got to spill what it’s like to be a social studies teacher trying to “do” literacy with other non-ELA teachers.

I am so thankful to say that I am friends with the leadership team of Colby, Alaina, Suzanne, Brian, Niki, Kristin, Donalyn and so many more! Along with fellow Nerds, like Beth, Sarah, Jessica, Lindsay, Cindy, Greg, and Ann, they all make me a more reflective educator, considering the perspectives of readers and writers across grade levels, content areas, and background experiences. So, in lieu of a blogroll, I highly suggest that you follow these people via the splattering of blog links above, that is of course, if you do not already. Go on, get on it! 🙂

 

Ferry On

From Parma, I headed up through the gorgeous wooded landscape of Northern Michigan to ferry across the blue waters of Lake Huron before reaching picturesque Mackinac Island. The island, for those of you who haven’t yet visited, is a storybook setting, dotted with tasty fudge shops and art galleries and where the only transportation is from horse-drawn carriages and tandem bicycles. Serious, what better place is there to attend a literacy conference?

Gateway Books MRA 2014MRA Summer Lit. Conference

More intimate that the annual Michigan Reading Association conference in Grand Rapids, the MRA summer literacy conference gives participants a chance to slow down and connect with other educators instead of rushing across the city center to find a seat before the next keynote address.

As an adjunct faculty at Grand Valley State University, I was asked by the conference organizers, GVSU professors Liz Storey, Pam Page, and Nancy Patterson, to share some books and strategies that get adolescents enthused about reading.

My session, “Creating Hype with ‘Gateway’ Books & Strategies,” moved through methods of accountability in a choice reading workshop to many of the strategies I discuss in my “Tips for Getting Kids to Do More Choice Reading” blog series. The session also provided teachers with a list of the books that even my most defiant readers latch on to along with ideas about how to develop their own abundant, classroom libraries.

If you’re interested in the MRA Summer 2014 Handout or the Prezi, here are the links.

Page1 MRA Handout 2014

More Personal Connections

Like nErd Camp only a few days earlier, I was so energized by the personal connections to be made at these Michigan conferences. While I’ve been following Troy Hicks, author of  The Digital Writing Workshop and Because Digital Writing Matters, on Twitter way back to some of my earliest Tweets, this was my first opportunity to see him present. Interestingly, he was working to get more teachers engaged with online professional learning networks, in an effort to answer the question “How can social networking tools such as Twitter help you become a better teacher?”

As if he created a “guided instruction” model himself, we had the opportunity to further our online connection face-to-face after he graciously attended and live-tweeted from my session later that morning  (Thanks again, Troy!). 

 

Online and On the Road

What last week’s whirlwind literacy roadtrip reinforced for me is the importance of developing my PLN beyond the computer screen. In those isolating winter months, where my students seem to be the only faces I see, Twitter breaks down the barriers and allows me to connect with teachers across the globe and share my successes and frustrations. But when it comes to the warm, glorious months of summer vacation, I’m not one to sit back and forget about my classroom and the demands for next August. I realize that actually meeting up with my online community in the “real world” gives me energy and accountability for the work ahead of me. So, even if I’m driving solo up I-75 for fours hours with nothing more than audio book to keep me company, I’ll gladly take that as a convenient excuse to hit the road for some solid professional development.

Auf Wiedersehen

With that being said, starting this Friday, I’ll be hitting the road again! This time, I’m totally geeked to get my international PD passport stamped, as I was invited to join other social studies teachers as we study modern Germany for the next two weeks with the Goethe-Institut’s Transatlantic Outreach Program. We’ll be traveling throughout Munich, Geisa, Leipzig, and Berlin, learning about everything from the education and medical systems to historical and contemporary influences on society. I’m excited to share what I learn—both as I go and when I return—but in the meantime I haven’t much to say other than “Auf Wiedersehen!”

 

 

Getting Real with Argumentative Writing

Entering the Conversation

Most of ya’ll know my friend and colleague Dave Stuart over at Teaching the Core.  A few weeks ago, Stu shared ways that we’re working on supporting students so they can learn to really argue.  I wanted to explore this idea over here as a way to both expand the conversation and invite you all to share your experiences teaching argumentative writing.

Inquiry & Research

During the last two years, I have been researching ways that I can push my students to be better academic writers.  I’m really  fortunate in my district that students come from a rich, narrative writing workshop in the middle school, so my students were entering the high school able to free-write with great stamina.  I’m lucky also because my students are incredibly passionate about big issues (ex. they’ve raised thousands of dollars for Charity:Water in ninth grade World History).  But–even though my students had these strengths–I was noticing that they struggled to clearly organize their ideas, and their writing seemed to lack conviction, despite all that big passion.  It was becoming more and more obvious that the freedom and love of a narrative writing workshop wasn’t transferring to the disciplinary writing being asked of them in their other core subjects, namely the informational and argumentative writing tasks in social studies and science.

So, let’s be honest, this learning gap—which spans this chasm between totally focusing on love and freedom to actually working towards rigor and the realistic demands of life—only hints at the major imbalance facing current adolescent literacy instruction. This year I’d like to explore this imbalance with more than the “Tips” series has allowed me to do so far on the blog.

Today, I’ll just take a small step towards this debate by saying that  ELA teachers, even those who follow a totally free-style writing workshop, have to realize that students need to learn how to take a stance and use textual evidence to support their ideas.   From English and science to art and social studies, all content teachers need to make expository and argumentative writing the major writing focus across all content disciplines. 

When I was a single-subject teacher, my English major background lead me to believe that students would be prepared for college if they could master a personal narrative and half a dozen literary analyses. But now that I’m also teaching Social Studies and researching reading and writing across disciplines as a professor of literacy studies, I realize that this kind of limited thinking leaves my kids ill-prepared for any college major outside of English.  So as I began exploring these gaps, I kept coming back to these same questions:

  • Q: How can my students start practicing the language of scholars?
  • Q: How can my students learn formal structures without losing their autonomy? –and how could I teach those structures without selling my soul to some standardized test?
  • Q: How can my students write effective arguments, according to a standard of excellence?

Over the summer, I spent time reading and researching these problems with the Lake Michigan Writing Project.  My LMWP friends pushed me in my role as a teacher-researcher, urging me to explore how writing instructions needs to teach kids to stretch their thinking, to extend their analyses, to pull apart their claims and examine the details of an argument.

“Stretching the Cotton” became one of the metaphors I began using with my students to discuss the importance for a writer to elaborate her argument, highlighting the tiny fibers which hold it all together.

Another way to get these ideas to stick is this simple chant we’ve been using for years: “Blend-In, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote. Blend-in, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote.” Trust me when I say, I try to make it as annoying as possible, so it gets stuck in kids’ heads when they’re writing non-narrative essay.  So annoying, in fact, that we have accompanying dance moves for the chant.

Mentor Texts & Models

My students and I read, analyzed, and emulated the arguments of published authors, like Gallagher suggests in Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Though Modeling and Mentor Texts.  Namely, we studied “Articles of the Week” that had an argumentative slant, like those found at The Week and The New York Times Room for Debate, and, more specifically, we frequently examined the work of Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts (I love, love, love his work).

To do this type of text study, we use our “First Draft Read” to explore the texts for content, and our “Second Draft Read” invited students to share what they noticed the writers were doing, like structure, tone, and use of research.

Along these same lines, I regularly wrote arguments in front of my students, whether it was modeling their assignments in class or and sharing my process of writing my Master’s project at home.

In particular I wanted to model for my students how I use sentence starters or “brushstrokes” from Graff and Birkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this book many times before.  A lot of colleges are requiring this book for their freshman writing classes; however, I think that it should be in the hands of all high school freshmen.  My high school’s English Department included some of the They Say, I Say templates in our high school’s Academic Writing Handbook that we distribute and host online each year. This way all students and staff have access to the same common language.

Great news! Jim Burke, author and teacher extraordinaire, just announced that he’s teaming up for the third edition of They Say, I Say high school edition!

Quick Writes

Keeping the end in mind–writing effective academic arguments using the language of scholars–, I worked backwards to meet students at their level of proficiency.  We began with high support: the two-paragraph “They Say, I Say” argument structure presented in Graff’s Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

The general argument made by author X in her/his work, __________, is that __________. More specifically, X argues that __________. She/he writes, “__________.” In this passage, X is suggesting that __________. In conclusion, X’s belief is that __________.

In my view, X is wrong/right, because __________. More specifically, I believe that __________. For example, __________. Although X might object that __________, I maintain that __________.  Therefore, I conclude that __________.

I love how clearly this structure breaks down the They Say (Paragraph One) and the I Say (Paragraph Two), and within that, the structure explicitly guides students through “Blend-In, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote” with multiple opportunities to elaborate and “stretch the cotton.” It gives them various brushstrokes to try out as they learn the formal structures of academic writing.

In the beginning of the year, I required that all students use this format to write their Article of the Week one-page responses. As we’ve moved through the school year, students have been individually “released” from this high structure when they have shown that they’ve mastered it.  Students next step is to begin trying out the various sentences stems on their own. The hope is that–with time and repeated practice and modeling–they will use these strategies independently.

Student Examples

The following example is an argument written during Trimester #1 last year. This multi-source essay asked students to argue whether or not the United States is still a “Land of Opportunity.” In doing so, students had to support their arguments with well-explained evidence/quotes from their choice of texts we read in English and U.S. History.  This is one, especially truant, sophomore’s essay:

Is the U.S still a “land of opportunity”? I would say yes. I say yes, because in the U.S you can grow up in a poor family. But if you work hard and put in the detection [dedication], you could eventually be in the middle class or even the upper class. Another reason why i say yes is because, back when the U.S was first discovered people would come over and start new lives. Like people today, we still have the same opportunities. Its just harder to get it. my last reason is because there are a ton of scholarships for you to get, And that can help pay for a lot of the college coast.Today in America if you graduate high school with a 4.0, you can get into almost any college you want to. You don’t always have to go to a college thow. We have the option to go to a trade school. If you go to a trade school. The only thing you need is your high school diploma or a GED. In America you don’t even have to graduate high school, you can take a test and get a GED.

They Say, I Say Options -Anchor Chart

They Say, I Say Options -Anchor Chart

Aside from the lack of “They Say” research support, you can see that because this truant student has missed out on the opportunity to study mature mentor texts, he is following a very elementary organizational structure: starting off with the question, answering with a yes/no, and the very unsophisticated idea transitions (ex. “Another reason why I say yes is because…”). It’s obvious that the student doesn’t know the language of scholars, so he has to fall back on language that is beneath him.  Furthermore, he hasn’t expanded his argument to really develop his claim of the United States being a land of opportunity.

Conversely, this is just an excerpt from the same student’s argument during Trimester #3. (Note: His attendance didn’t really improve, but his writing did make some gains.) This time, students were asked to argue whether or not it’s justified to do immoral or illegal acts in response to threat. Many spoke specifically about how we, as global citizens, responded to the threats of WWII. Again, the students had to ground their argument in textual evidence.

we did not respond appropriately to the japanese internment camps. Here many critics would probably object that the camps were good because they took the people that were a threat to us and they held them all up. There was then no other way they could get information from us, through spy work. In other words, the spies aren’t free, so they couldn’t get involved with our military or armed forces. On the one hand, they are right to say that spy work was going on. On the other hand, it is still true that they were taking pretty much what was going on in Germany and doing it in the US. They thought that they had more of a reason. Basically, Germany was having a genocide going on, and that was the whole reason for the war. When we took people and put them in a camp, it was just like Hitler was doing in Germany. to put it another way, he was taking Jews from their homes, taking their jobs, and pretty much destroying their whole lives, by making them into animals. 

According to PBS’s “Internment History, “They were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their jobs; in some cases family members were separated and put into different camps. President Roosevelt himself called the 10 facilities “concentration camps ” (PBS ). In making this comment, PBS argues that this was the same concept that was going on in germany to the jews as what we were doing on are home to the Japanese-Americans. Ultimately, what is at stake here is that they’re mistreating the Japanese-Americans, like they’re not humans. Everyone should have equal rights, no matter what is going at the time. Just because someone’s ancestor is bombing their new homeland, it doesn’t mean it’s their fault; therefore, they’re not to blame for the attack….

Although this scene may seem of concern to only a small group of people, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about citizens of the United States, because they are American citizens, so obviously they have the same rights as any other American citizen. Clearly, we did not respond appropriately to the japanese internment camps.

This go-round, it’s obvious that he was able to develop his argument, add research evidence, and maintain a more sophisticated tone.

Student Feedback

When I asked my sophomores what they thought about using “They Say, I Say” brushstrokes, they responded as follows:

“I like how they give me a place to start, because they help you set up your argument and save you a lot of time.” – Sean

“The templates gave you a set format to start and end an argument, so that no matter what–if you were well-prepared on both sides–you had it in the bag.” -Nate

“[They Say, I Say] helped me by giving me a place to start, looking for a side to argue, and putting in the evidence I can use for both sides of the… argument.” -Becca

“They helped me in a lot of ways. I worked to get better in areas where I needed it, and I actually improved in the areas that I was already good.” -Aaron

“It helped me develop how I argued and made me sound more like I knew what I was talking about.” -David

What are your experiences?

Seriously, I wanna know! As I continue to research this dilemma, I’d love to collaborate with you, hearing what works and what doesn’t at your various grade-levels.

  • Q: How do you find a literacy balance between the love/freedom and rigor/realistic demands of life?
  • Q: How do you help your students start practicing the language of scholars?
  • Q: How do you support your students as they learn formal structures without losing their autonomy? –and how do you teach those structures without selling your soul to some standardized test?
  • Q: How do you teach your students to write effective arguments, according to a standard of excellence?

Thanks for the help and your support! 🙂

Author Chat with Malcolm Gladwell

Last week,  I was fortunate to experience one of the highs of my teaching career: my students participated in a live web chat with author Malcolm Gladwell.

As a part of our unit “Is the United States still a ‘Land of Opportunity?,'” my Humanities 10 students read Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.  We connected Gladwell’s concepts of deliberate practice, lucky opportunities, cultural legacy, family upbringing, and timing to the Industrial and Progressive Eras in U.S. History.  Students explored how titans of the early 1900s seized the “predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities” that show “success is not a random act.”

Students carried their understanding of success over to issues of today, especially in terms of economic mobility and racism/xenophobia.  They read current Articles of the Week which expanded this conversation, such Leonard Pitts’ “Miss America and Social Media’s Ignorant Bigotry” and my favorite New York TImes Room for Debate piece.

So, like most of our History units, they read, researched, debated, and wrote arguments, and, finally, to make their learning truly authentic, this time they got to interact directly with the author!

We had the “lucky opportunity” and solid “timing” to participate in this live web-chat hosted by Goodreads.

To put it simply, the students were totally geeked. I mean, when I shared the video chat invitation with my sophomores, one student–who was being totally genuine–actually shouted, “Are you serious? We get to talk to Malcolm Gladwell!”  What made the experience even cooler–if I can fangirl a bit here–was that Gladwell answered a number of my students’ direct questions, one being the very girl who had gushed about the chance to talk to him.

I often hear about other savvy teachers bringing authors in to chat with their students.  I admit that, until this experience, I was really nervous about the engagement of my students, flexibility of my colleagues, and investment of time and planning, but, in the end, it worked out so well that I’m definitely going to seek out opportunities like this in the future.

As a ELA conclusion to this unit, the students just began reading The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates They’re doing profound work connecting Gladwell’s ideas about success to Moore’s question of fate.

Would you believe that yesterday I had a kid ask me when we’d be chatting with the author? So, Mr. Moore, when are you free?  We’re ready when you are. 😉

Tips for Holding Students Accountable to Choice Reading: Reading Ladders

Reading Ladder Organization

Reading Ladder Organization

What is a Reading Ladder, and where does this idea originate? A Reading Ladder is simply a piece of explanatory writing where students rank the books they’ve read according to complexity, reflect on their reading habits, and make plans for future growth.  When teachers question how to hold students accountable to choice reading, this piece of writing is probably my favorite response.  For one, it is nearly impossible to fake, because it requires a ton of thinking that is unique to each student; furthermore, students practice such incredible critical thinking and literacy skills that it’s totally worth spending valuable class time grappling with it. 

Reading Ladder Student Example

Reading Ladder Student Example from Penny Kittle

I originally heard about this idea while attending a workshop with Penny Kittle at Hudsonville Public Schools back in February of 2012.  (Thanks, Steve and Karla!) She mentioned how she was inspired to push kids thinking forward by Teri Lesesne‘s Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d like Them to Be (2010).  At that time, I’ll admit hadn’t read Lesesne’s book, and we all know Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers (2013) wasn’t even published, so I had to do what teachers do and improvise.  Because Kittle really only mentioned it briefly in the workshop, I didn’t even really know what a Reader Ladder actually was, yet I knew it was good stuff if she mentioned it.  Thanks to this student example [see right] I found online, my students and I figured it out together.  (Now, for the life of me, I cannot figure out where this example came from! I really apologize that I can’t give credit to the awesome educator that shared it online.  Thank you whoever you are!) <<LATER REVISION: That awesome educator was, in fact, Kittle herself! Thanks again, Penny!>> With this mentor text, my students and I worked backwards, noticing what the writer did in each paragraph and then constructing a rubric that we imagined the student’s teacher probably required of her.  For a year, this worked just fine, and now, since Book Love has been released, Kittle has provided a really stellar description of how she uses Reading Ladders in her class (see pages 124-132).  Today, I basically do what she says, but the reason I’m regurgitating it here is to share my interpretations and variations with you and to show that it works with “real-life” students.

How does a Reading Ladder benefit student thinking?   When students construct Reading Ladders, they have to consider the questions “What makes reading difficult for you right now?” and “How will you work to improve?”  We all know the benefits of this kind of internal reflecting and planning conversations: they push students to evaluate their current habits and abilities while making goals for the future.

"The goal of reading ladders," writes Teri Lesesne, "is to slowly move students from where they are to where we would like them to be."

“The goal of reading ladders,” writes Teri Lesesne, “is to slowly move students from where they are to where we would like them to be.”

The students in my sophomore class have thankfully come from a highly supportive, book-lovin’ environment in ninth grade, but as they transition to tenth grade, we always talk about how important it is to “step up our game.”  From the first day of Humanities 10, they take on a new reading challenge.

Within in this challenge, we talk about how important is to consider all the evidence that proves they’ve grown as a reader.  They always say, “I just know I’ve gotten better.” Yeah, okay, that’s great!  I know that feels really good, especially for those developing reading.  Of course, I want to celebrate this good feeling, but this feeling isn’t always going to push them to the next level.  Sometimes, they don’t even know what the next level is.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, talks about how powerful it is for students to see intelligence as something more than a fixed trait.  Sadly, far too many kids think either you’re born a good reader or you’re not: “Reading was hard for me when I was little, so I’m never going to be a good reader.”  If they can embrace intelligence as a quality that can be developed and expanded (through grit and other character strengths), they are likely to show even more growth. Isn’t this just crazy-awesome?

One way my students begin to shift their thinking about intelligence is by analyzing their own reading data.  Of course, they take the ACT Reading prototype, and yeah, they also do the Scholastic Reading Inventory, and sure, they chart the books they’ve read, but individually these things don’t paint the whole picture of how they’ve grown as readers.  When they really look at all of these pieces of data combined with their own reflections, they are able to appreciate their progress, recognize effective strategies, and set new goals.

What process do my students take to construct their own Reading Ladders?  To start off, my students #1 compile a list of all of the books they completed and abandoned so far this school year.  Most of them keep track on their genre requirement chart or on Goodreads, but some of them forget to keep up with their record.  Often, they’re revisiting the shelves to look for titles they missed while I’m printing off their “Student Checkout Detail” under the reports section from Booksource’s Classroom Organizer, hoping that they actually remembered to sign out all the books that they read this year. <<Check out these posts where I discuss how I get kids to do more choice reading and how I organize my classroom library using this awesome resource.>>

Look here to find the page number on a Goodreads book profile.

As they list the titles, I ask that they #2 determine the number of pages that they read in each book.  They do this by either physically finding all of the books in our library that they read or by checking the page numbers on Goodreads website.

After they’ve done a bit of digging around,  I ask them to #3 calculate the average number of pages read per week.  Thanks to Kittle, all of my students can tell you that colleges expect students to read between 200-600 pages per week; therefore, we must develop our stamina as in order to compete with other students.  College is competitive, and if we want to succeed, we’ve got to practice daily.  So everyday, we work on reading for an extended time frame and with greater fluency.  I know that in Book Love, Kittle talks about recording students’ reading rates on a regular basis.  I never seem to have time for this, so instead, we talk about it regularly and try to track it at least once a trimester. Students calculate their reading rate by first adding up the total number of pages they read and dividing it by the number of weeks in that trimester.

Reading Rate Reflection

Reading Rate Reflection

Next, they #4 write their first reflection, comparing this reading rate with last trimester.  Before they get started, I model my own reading rate reflection.  Sharing my # of pages/week with them creates a common ground during reading conferences.  I discuss the obstacles that get in the way of my reading and how I try to get around them.

This reading rate calculation primarily helps students pay attention to the reading they’ve done outside of class, along with identifying areas of needed improvement, and celebrating gains.  I also ask students to discuss if/how they are challenging themselves, in preparation for the stamina and grit they’ll need in college.  Most are very honest if they are only reading in class,  a little here and there at home, or devoted to “stealing minutes to read” wherever they go. Whatever their habits are, sharing this reflection highlights that the choices they make have a significant difference in their later success.

These are the characteristics that one of my recent classes came up with to determine the complexity of a book.

As a class, we next #5 discuss what makes a book difficult. Over the years, I’ve done this a few different ways, but now I’m taking Kittle’s most recent suggestion by dropping a pile of books in front of a group. The title are mixed based on genre, level, structure, fiction/nonfiction, etc.  Students work together to re-stack the pile in order of text complexity.  As they’re debating over the characteristics that makes one book more difficult than the next, I walk around and write down some of their spoken statements.  We share our new book stacks with the other groups, arguing why they’re in the order that they are.  Because we have created an atmosphere that supports debate, other groups, naturally, counter-argue, providing alternative evidence. Together, we then discuss their spoken statements and all the qualities that come in to play when determining the complexity of a book. 

From there, students return to their earlier record of books and spend time #6 organizing the titles on the list from the least challenging to the most difficult and write a corresponding argument.  If this is the second or third trimester, students blend new reads in with their older reads, often annotating the new books with asterisks for the sake of clarity.  As with a lot of arguments, there may not be a “correct answer,” but as long as they clearly explain and support their thinking with quality evidence, I’m satisfied that they adequately reflected.

Following the “Why this Order?” paragraph, students #7 write mini-reviews of their favorite books. We spend time analyzing mentor texts to see what other book reviewers do. This year, my students really enjoyed analyzing the amazing YA Lit book bloggin’ work of Brian Wyzlic, of Wyz Reads; Sarah Anderson, of YALoveBlog; Jenn Fountain, of Fountain Reflections; Jillian Heise, of Heise Reads; Aaron Bergh, of Real Men Read YA, and Beth Shaum, of Foodie Bibliophile and Use Your Outside Voice.

As mentioned, the need for students to make plans for improvement is critical to their learning; therefore, each goal should be unique and individual to the student. Often these are derived from our conversations during reading conferences or students’ own awareness of their particular challenges. When #8 writing about their goals, they should be specific: “I will read 15 books by June. I will read at least one non-fiction book. I will read one Jane Austen novel. I will develop an at-home reading habit. I will….” This specificity will make it easier for them to measure if they’ve accomplished what they intended to do when we reflect next time. I also ask them to include a list of To-Read books, which contains at least a few titles that they want to read of increasing difficulty.  This is another great opportunity to do a teacher model. Throughout the year, my students start to learn about my reading challenges and goals, and this helps them see that we all have room to grow as readers. 

The last step that my students take is a new one for me, as of this winter. Kittle shares in Book Love that she asks students to #9 reflect on their reading in a short essay. Check out the assignment description and list of prompts she uses with her students.

I liked all of these prompts and will probably use them next trimester, but this time I wanted to use this moment as an opportunity to do some of that “Hey! Check it out! All these skills we’re learning actually cross over into other facets of writing.” So, we blended the reflection in our work with close reading and argumentative writing.  I gave them an Article of the Week from The New York Times Room for Debate series (I love this by the way. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s killer for studying multiple arguments of the same topic) where the authors argued why young adult fiction become such a phenomenon — even with older adults.  Students close read it, like any other week, following the AoW direction of Kelly Gallagher. Then, like all of our argumentative writing this year, students practiced using Graff & Birkenstein’s “They Say, I Say” model.  They argued their opinions, including both text-based evidence from the authors (“They Say”) as well as evidence from their own engagement with reading this year (“I Say”).  And because this Article of the Week was unique to blend it with the Reading Ladder, I did ask that include more “I Say” evidence than they normally would do in a typical AoW, mostly because I wanted them to do lots of reflecting on their own lives in order to really spur that growth.

In the end, I am always impressed with the thinking my students do as a part of their Reading Ladders.

What does a finished Reading Ladder look like?  The example below comes from one my actual students.  According to power data, this kid is about six grades below tenth grade proficiency.  I’m including it here because, although he struggles, his Reading Ladder shows really deep thinking and awesome grit.

Another Student Reading Ladder Example

Anonymous Student

  • No Right Turn – 256pgs
  • Forever – 178pgs
  • Othello – 154pgs
  • My Orange Duffel Bag – 202pgs
  • Jumping off Swings – 230pgs
  • The Great Gatsby – 189pgs

Reading Rate Trimester Two: 1209 pags / 12 weeks = average of 100.75 pages per week

Reading Rate Reflection: Reading is difficult for me right now mostly because of comprehension problems and lack of interest. My reading rate is relatively low comparing to classmates however 1209 pages in 12 weeks is fantastic to me that is probably more than ive read out of books in my life but i do understand i need to continue growing as a reader and open my mind to different types of literature i have found myself checking in new areas for books and really asking friends who know me best what they would recommend this trimester has been  much different with reading but the main goal from this point forward is to read at home more.

I have improved a lot more than i ever would have thought in the first week of school i came into this class thinking reading is not my cup of tea it made my eyes hurt looking at the pages my brain would pound after reading a chapter and i wasn’t interested in anything but it did not take long and i wouldn’t put some books down i’ve been reading more magazine articles and the newspaper every once in awhile also i started to really dig into deeper thought about what i want to read next and a lot of this growth in reading has given me a mental drive to write more which has always been my favorite topic in school until high school so over all  reading is advancing me in more places than reading.

Book Reviews & Text Complexity: No Right Turn was the easiest book i’ve read this trimester however it was my favorite. i was introduced to this book by Mrs. Beaton and i really enjoyed it i have even considered reading it again. what makes this book difficult for me was the parts when the main character would think back years time and talk about his thoughts but it wasn’t very hard to follow.

The second book would be Forever and this book is a great young adult book in my eyes and a great piece of literature at times the drama and “girl talk” could be hard to follow and the pregnancy issues were interesting to read about i really enjoyed this book because it was all high school drama and because i’m a 10th grade adolescent all i am surrounded by durring the day is highschool drama.

Next i dug up the book Othello this book was difficult not only because its a shakespearean tragedy but the form it was written in was a play format and i did not enjoy it in the beginning of the book however Mrs. Beaton had use act it out in class and we were assigned individual parts also when some words didn’t make sense, mostly fault of the old english writing, on the other side of the book a modern version was offered of the same play and this in the end really helped me grow as a reader that constant struggle with reading is not a good sign but i overcame that and finally started to understand the tragedy.

After that, the autobiography My Orange Duffel bag was new in this class and despite the elusiveness of me holding a book at this point i was first on the list to read it and i passed it up at first however Mrs. Beaton told the class a little bit more about it and i felt the need to give it a chance and i have to admit i really enjoyed it. The difficulty with this book was the few moments reading about his college football life and the only reason i claim this is because i’m adolescent not really a huge fan of sports “jocks” also have never had a true interest in football but this book is much more than that and i’m glad i got the opportunity to read it.

the next book can be argued the most difficult out of two but i really enjoyed it Jumping off Swings was an excellent book i think many young adults should read however the most complicated part with this book is the fact it is told from four points of view and each chapter is a different person’s point of view only changing between the four friends and how they see life drive by. This is a style of writing i am not familiar with however i was interested and would love to try it with a story of my own.

finally the hardest book i’ve read ever was this trimester The Great Gatsby however i was not a huge fan of this book but i think if i could totally understand it and compare it to the american dream and view any other perks it may have to offer i feel i would appreciate Gatsby a lot more and my respect would build

Personal Goals: I am more than satisfied with my reading rate and really appreciate the opportunity i have here in class to read like i do the past nine years of school i spent fake reading and  googling books however i am happy to say i don’t really do that anymore i am really enjoying reading in school i still struggle to read at home now and then but as one of my goals i will read 15 books this trimester and i will get there without gimping out on children’s books but on top of that i will start reading 30 minutes at home every night to strengthen my reading skills i may have got a late start on the reading and loving books but i’m glad it’s now and not never  really happy to see how blind i was up until this year when it came to books. Next i would like to read a nonfiction.

I’d love to hear how you’re using Reading Ladders in your classroom, so please share your ideas below. I’m always hungry for more student examples and variations of the process.

Close Reading + Argumentative Writing Surrounding a Wordless Graphic Novel

As a continuation of our practice of close reading and argumentative writing, my students began their first U.S. History unit trying to answer the question “Is the U.S. still a Land of Opportunity?” Working from the ideas of Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, we want to maintain the idea that if I—as a student—only talk about what I think, I’ll sound ignorant to the larger conversation going on around the world on a given subject. Students must recognize that yes, their opinions—the “I Say”—are important; however, their commentary needs to also reflect what others are saying—the “They Say”—regardless if they support or oppose one’s own argument.

As an entry event to our study of the Industrial Era, my students close read The Arrival by Shaun Tan, a wordless graphic novel.

“In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He’s embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life- he’s leaving home to build a better future for his family.

Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant’s experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can’t communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character’s isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy” (Summary from Goodreads).

To start, each student was assigned 3-4 pages of the book to close read. They were to write a brief argument, stating what message they believed Shaun Tan was trying to share with his readers. Students used sentence templates from They Say, I say to strengthen the academic awesomeness of their arguments.

Academic Templates for Introducing Something Implied or Assumed:

  • Although Shaun Tan does not say so directly, he apparently implies that _____________ due to ______________.
  • Shaun Tan  apparently assumes that ______________ based on ___________.
  • The artwork suggests/hints/implies ___________ because __________.
  • Based on my understanding of _____________, I have to assume _______________.
  • What I know about ____________ makes me think that __________________. Continue reading

Use In-Class Debate as a Transition to Argumentative Writing

New Waves of InitiativesWhen it comes to the Common Core, many teachers today feel a bit overwhelmed by the barrage of ever-changing standards and top-down state expectations.  In terms of these changes, most of us will readily agree that we just want to be protected from the waves of new initiatives that wash upon us as school employees.

The agreement for protection, however, usually ends at this desire.  Some teachers are totally convinced that these changes are tsunamis or personal attacks on the beaches of their individual teaching philosophies. They maintain that they’ll lose all ownership of their classrooms with each new crash upon their shores.  Although I agree with these sentiments up to a point,  I am too optimistic to accept the overall conclusion that we’re turning into script-reading robots.

The Common Core Anchor Standards for Writing begins by stating that students should be able to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  While the CCSS is rolling out new language and structure, there is no need for teachers to freak.  Jaws is not approaching the beach!  Argumentation is something we’ve always asked students to do, regardless of grade-level, subject-matter, or standards-era.

They Say, I SayInitially,  I’ll admit. I was freaking out. Even the CCSS shift in semantics from “persuasive essay” to “argument,” threw me for a tizzy; however, with the support of my colleague Dave Stuart’s blog www.teachingthecore.com, I felt comfortable at least experimenting with these changing standards and argumentative writing expectations. This year, Stu introduced me to Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, which as one reviewer said, this book “demystifies academic argumentation.” My goodness! I wish I could jump in my DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor, and force 17-year-old me to read this book before heading off to college. It would have saved me many an all-nighters. <<More on the awesomeness of They Say, I Say later>>

In the following videos, you’ll see my sophomore Humanities students practicing their argumentative skills in our first in-class debate.  I began experimenting with argumentative writing by starting with debate. The awesome students I get to “hang out with” this year are not only very engaged socially but quite competitive. I figured they might internalize the CCSS aspects of speaking and listening before tackling the writing.

An example of student close reading notesDuring the week, students were first asked to independently close read an article about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Like most of our Articles of the Week, I found the article on one of my favorite resources: The Week. <<Find my students’ version of the Article of the Week (AoW) here.>> At the end of the week, they divided into two teams, with one side supporting diplomacy and the other supporting military action.

Debate Requirements

Debate Framework

Following a modified Lincoln-Douglas debate format, students had a few minutes to organize who was speaking when, since I require all students to speak at least once during the debate. Each team has three minutes to speak during the opening session. Then each side rallies back and forth with two minutes each to shoot down the other side. This leaves each side four minutes to conclude and wrap up their arguments. As long they show social intelligence and encourage all students on their team to speak at least once, the remaining students can “reenter the arena” to expand the argument.

Be mindful that this was prior to instruction on the importance of They Say, I Say, so you’ll note that they’re not using it.


Following the debate, the most powerful learning happened when I had the students watch the footage of the other class’ debate. They critiqued and praised their fellow students, noting ways they could improve before our next debate.  When they watched their own debate , they cringed at all the things that they had just bashed now apparent in their own flawed arguments. Since this initial debate, I’ve found deep experiential roots for them to drawn upon as we practice writing some of our first CCSS argumentative writing tasks.

Obviously, we’re still experimenting with debates, so I’m wondering how have you begun experimenting with argumentative writing in your classrooms? What have you done to support student learning?