Reading with My Head and My Heart

After reading a blog post about the benefits of reading a book a week, I decided to give it a try this school year.  I’ve got shelves full of professional books in my office–imagine how many good ideas are there, waiting to be rediscovered!  I’m starting, though, with a brand new book:

Disrupting ThinkingDisrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst

It only makes sense to follow the authors’ suggestion to reflect on my reading by thinking about what is

In the Book

  • To get the readers we want–responsible, responsive, and compassionate readers–we must make some changes in our practice.
  • I like the authors’ friendly, conversational tone. I’ve seen both authors numerous times and follow them on Twitter; the book made me feel like I was having a professional conversation with old friends.
  • I like the way they have asked us to reflect on the things we do and the reasons we do them–especially in Chapter 10 when they ask us to think about instructional and procedural practices we remember from when we were students that are still in practice today.



In my Head–

  • Their discussion of whole class novels in Chapter 14 stands out as significant to me. I was surprised by the citation from 1927 that “intensive study of a novel does result in more negative attitudes toward reading.”  If we’ve known it that long, why do we continue to do it?

In my Heart–

  • This reaffirms my belief in teaching kids to read for reading’s sake. I am going to become more of a cheerleader and less of a teacher when I talk to kids about books. Go Books!
  • I’m also going to become more of an advocate for student choice among my English teacher colleagues. Too many English teachers are still teaching whole-class novels because that’s how they read in high school.
  • Finally, this was the perfect book to kick off this year-long challenge: “Reading ought to lead us to thinking that…sets us on a path to change, if not the world, then at least ourselves” (161).


Making Teacher-to-Student Connections with YA Lit

I’ve never been one with pop culture, but for most of my teaching career, I was young enough to fake it. Not anymore.  Have you seen that some ecard that says “I’m 40, but still feel like I’m 20 until I hang out with some 20 year olds then I’m like, no, never mind, I’m 40”?  That’s me…except the divide at school is stretching even farther as I slide toward 50 and my students are still in their teens. As Matthew McConaughey’s character said in Dazed and Confused, “I get older; they stay the same age.” (How’s that for some dated pop-culture?)

So, I was pretty stumped when this week’s #EduBlogsClub prompt arrived in my email: “Write a post about using popular culture in the classroom.”  I don’t. I can’t.

Then, I got an email notification that one of my wait-listed books from the public library was available. That night, I started reading Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart. A YouTuber. When I got to the chapter in which she described the eight different types of content (Tags, Challenges, Vlogs, etc.) on YouTube, I realized I was learning some pop culture. The lightbulb came on:

Young Adult Literature = Pop Culture

For eleven years as a reading teacher, I read YA books every day. I learned early on that kids in my reading class wanted edgy books, book without boring parts, and books with teen characters facing issues similar to those they face: finding-out-who-they-are-and-who-loves-them. I read books I never would have chosen on my own–vampire stories, dystopian science-fiction, fantasy–and fully enjoyed them: both for the stories themselves and the connections they provided with my students.

As a literacy coach, though, my reading is more varied. My one pop-culture connection with students has taken the backseat to professional books and my own personal reading interests–like the nonfiction, psychology/business books that I was binging on last year. My office is in the school media center; I walk through displays of YA books every day, usually passing right by them because I’ve got “more important” books to read.


Thankfully, I follow some school librarians on Twitter who have renewed my interest in YA lit.  Last month, Jane Lofton tweeted about The Hub 2017 Reading Challenge.  The challenge seeks to inspire librarians and YA enthusiasts to read current award winning YA lit. Participants who read (or listen to) at least 25 books before June 22 of this year will be entered into a drawing to win a collection of award-winning YA books.

I started with an easy one–rereading Persepolis, a graphic autobiography by Marjane Satrapi because I had the “popular paperback” in my own library. It’s been years since I read it, and, as I’m preparing to teach I am Malala with a 10th grade teacher, I can see that I may be able to recommend it to students who want to know more about fundamentalism in the Middle East.

I’m halfway through Buffering (an Alex award winner) now and this is one of those that I never would have chosen on my own–but I am thoroughly enjoying. I enjoy Hart’s sense of humor and honesty. The stories of her childhood remind me a little of The Glass Castle and her resilience will be inspiring for students. (The Alex Awards are one of my favorite categories–adult books that appeal to teen readers. I work with a lot of 11th and 12th grade students who think they are too old for YA lit, so these books that deal with more mature topics are intriguing to the older students.)

Yesterday afternoon, I picked up The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge–an Amelia Bloomer Top Ten book. My first in this category of YA feminist literature. I’ll be starting it after I finish Buffering tonight. I’ll let you know what I think!

I may be a few decades removed from the drama of young adulthood, but that’s part of the appeal of YA lit–it reminds us of what it feels like to fall in or out of love for the first time, of trying to figure out who we are or where we belong. Reconnecting with those timeless themes in these compelling stories can help us connect with our students–even if we don’t know any of this year’s Best New Artist nominees.

Join me in completing The 2017 Hub Reading Challenge!  Check out the booklist and sign up here.

There was another time in my coaching career where I started to lose touch with YA lit; The Book Whisperer was my salvation that time. If you don’t know Donalyn Miller and you’re looking to further your connection with students through YA lit, check her out!

20 Things for Students to Do with Informational Text

The most common request I have received this year as a literacy coach is to cover a teacher’s class. Just kidding. That’s the second-most common request.  

Seriously, the practice that most of the teachers at my school seek my help with is questioning–specifically, how to write questions for the informational text they are using in their classrooms. We’ve been trying to get content-area teachers to embrace authentic (non-textbook) readings in their classrooms for years. We’re there. Many have their own Newsela or Listenwise accounts, they watch Ted Talks in class, and they share news articles or blogs they have come across in their own real-world reading with their students.

Now, though, the issue has become what to do with the texts. The teachers want to write questions to check whether or not the students are reading, but they feel the pressure to write quality questions to meet the demands of our district’s evaluation system. They come to me seeking guidance: “Do you have any lists of question stems?” “What are higher order questions?”

In response, I usually give them copies of resources I do have. But I also ask them questions: “Why do you need to do all this work?” “What is the goal of the lesson?” “Why not let the kids write the questions?” “Have you tried any other approaches?”  The consensus is that the kids will not do the reading if they don’t have questions to answer.  

Have you ever watched a high school kid read an article with questions attached?  Rather than reading, students treat the article like a Where’s Waldo? Puzzle–they skim and scan, searching for Waldo (the answer) without paying any attention to the rest of the picture (article).

To provide options that may be less time consuming for teachers and more meaningful for students, I started compiling a list of activities that could take the place of “read and answer the questions.” Finally, with the prompting of the #EduBlogsClub, I finished my list this week!


So, if you’re tired of agonizing over questions that students don’t really answer, consider one of these low-prep options that encourage students to really read the article.  You can download both a printable color and black and white version of the graphic here. (They print on legal-size paper.) And, for a little more information about each strategy, read on…

  1. Analyze Word Choice. Why did the author use this word instead of that one? Recognizing that connotation affects meaning and that authors may be using certain words or phrases to achieve an effect is a key component of becoming a critical reader.
  2. Compare and Contrast. Ask students to compare the way the information is presented in the article to the presentation in your textbook or in another article or video. What details were emphasized in one but glossed over in another? How did one better help them to understand the material?
  3. Dig Deeper. If you have access to computers or want to let the students use their own devices, teach them to use your library’s periodical database to do further research. Ask them to find a related article and then explain how it adds to their understanding of the concept. (Added bonus: the students may find articles you can use with future classes!)
  4. Draw a Picture. Allowing students the opportunity to represent the text visually will help them remember the text. Creating symbolic representations or reformulating information in a graph or chart takes this to an ever deeper level.
  5. Evaluate Credibility. It is important for students to learn to question the credibility of “experts” cited in the text. Are the author’s sources qualified to make the assertions they make? Has the author addressed the opposition?
  6. Frayer Models provide students the opportunity to deepen their understanding of key concepts and vocabulary. Charting examples and nonexamples, listing characteristics, and drawing a picture clarifies the concept.
  7. Identify the Most Important Word. This is a lot harder than it seems and provides a fantastic opportunity for discussion as students defend their choices.
  8. Listen. Sometimes the best way to get kids to read is to read to them. You don’t have to read the whole article–reading the first couple of paragraphs aloud provides context and builds intrigue. Once you’ve got them hooked, turn them loose to read the rest on their own.
  9. Make Connections. When students connect new knowledge to previously learned material, they are more likely to remember it. Text-to-Self, Text-to-Text, and Text-to-World connections all help students process their understanding.
  10. Questioning the author’s reasoning and conclusions teaches students to be critical readers. Do the facts add up? How does this information support or contradict what we’ve already learned?
  11. The Reporter’s Questions. Ask students to answer these six questions focusing on the main idea of the article. Encourage them to synthesize all of the answers into a sentence or two to summarize the article.
  12. Separating important and interesting information helps students to differentiate between the key ideas and the less significant details.
  13. Set a Purpose. When we decide to read an article, we (perhaps unconsciously) have already thought about why it’s worth our time to read it–we know what we’ll get out of it based on our preview of the title, author, introduction, graphics, and other text features. Teaching kids to do the same and then to explain how they think this article will connect with course content will help them retain the information.
  14. Sticky notes allow students to mark the text without actually writing on the text. Cutting larger sticky notes into smaller sizes saves money and teaches students to be concise!
  15. Take a Stand. Asking students to find an assertion that they agree or disagree with in the article and then explain why allows them to practice justifying arguments with evidence (from this text or beyond).
  16. Take a Walk in Their Shoes. Allowing students to put themselves in the position of the subject of an article helps them widen their perspective and build empathy. By writing a letter or journal entry, students can really think about what the subject of the article was feeling and why they responded the way they did.
  17. Thinking Maps help students understand causes and effects, chronology, and other text structures. Understanding how an author has organized the information in an article helps students see connections between main ideas and details.
  18. What Happens Next? Ask students to make predictions about the outcome of a situation or what they feel should happen next. If the subject is a current event, revisit the topic as it unfolds so students can assess the validity of their predictions.
  19. What’s Missing? Identifying confusing sections of the text and thinking about the information that would make it more clear helps students to become better readers–and writers!
  20. Just Read It! Sometimes the most meaningful reading experiences are those that are just about the reading. If you’ve chosen a high-quality text, letting kids just read it and process it on their own may be a refreshing change.  

I hope you’ll give one of these ideas a try the next time you’re agonizing over writing questions for an article. If you have any questions about the strategies, please post them in the comments below!

How to Create Better Worksheets: One Simple Shortcut

Please tell me I’m not the only one who has lived through this scenario while trying to create lines for writing on a worksheet:

I hold down shift and the underline key and watch that little line work its way across the page, trying to line it up as close to the margin as I can without going too far. Then, I hit enter to make the next line and my carefully crafted line jumps up and gets darker–What? Why? Sometimes I can fix it, sometimes I can’t–it happens every time, you’d think I’d know what I did, but I don’t.  I move on to the next lines, and even if I can manage to get them spaced equally, and they look like they’re lined up at the margin, when I print, the ends of my lines look like this:





No more! Once I learned the trick I’m going to show you in these videos, I have saved myself countless hours of frustration. I hope you’ll find it just as helpful.  


In the first video, I’m going to demonstrate how I use tables to create lined writing spaces using PowerPoint (because I usually use PowerPoint to create worksheets, as I explained in this blog post/video series): 

And, for those of you who still prefer Word, this video illustrates the differences between tables in PowerPoint and Word:

Over the last year I’ve been transitioning to Google for most of my work. For the most part, the Google versions of the Office software are very similar, but there are a few differences that have taken me a little while to figure out. Table borders was one of those, so this video shows you how to set up your table for writing using a Google Slide.

I do hope you’ll find this shortcut allows you to create more polished worksheets in less time. If you have any questions or comments, please leave a reply below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.  

Vocabulary Quiz on Friday? WHY?

Sometimes I think too deeply. My blogging goal this year was to write a series of practical posts—things teachers can use tomorrow to make their classrooms better. Today’s post was supposed to be about strategies for teaching vocabulary—you know, one of those lists “Five Ways to Introduce New Vocabulary Words” or “Eight Activities to Promote Deeper Understanding.”  Those will come, just not today.

Today, I’m thinking about WHY we teach vocabulary. I don’t have an easy answer.  What’s true for me in a remedial reading class is not going to be true for the physics teacher down the hall or the social studies teacher upstairs. It’s probably not even the same WHY as the reading teacher next door.


We watched the short form of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” Ted Talk in a faculty meeting this week. Each time I’ve seen it a school/district meeting (twice) or heard it referenced in trainings (three or four times), the message has been to focus on WHY we are teachers.  What was it that brought us to the profession in the first place? WHY do we do what we do?

I get that. Teachers need inspiration. We face some tough challenges every day and the negativity can quickly eclipse the enthusiasm and desire to make a difference we felt when we walked into the space that would become our first classroom. Reminding us to go back to that place, that idea, that feeling that’s hard to put into words—our WHY—is good for our spirits.

I don’t think, though, that’s the real lesson we should take from Sinek’s talk. It’s not about us. It’s about the students. The outer circle in Sinek’s golden circle is the What?—what is done for the consumer that makes the consumer’s life better (and ultimately brings success to the company)—Apple sells better/different computers, Southwest offers discounted flights. Think about that in the classroom; if we’re the “company” and the students are the “consumers,” is the WHY we need to be thinking about really our own personal motivation for becoming a teacher? Is that the WHY that’s going to drive them to “buy” what we’re selling? And what are we selling?

The missing link for our students is the WHY behind our content, our “product.” How many times have you been asked, “Why do we need to know this?” “When are we ever going to use this?”  If we don’t clearly know the answers to those questions, maybe we don’t need to be teaching whatever it is that prompted those questions. Think about the golden circle for a minute in terms of lesson planning: What do we teach? The standards. How? With a certain text or strategy.  It’s that inner circle—the WHY?—that’s the most important part.

This WHY—the reason we teach certain vocabulary words—doesn’t have to be a deep, philosophical truth. I came across an article by Kevin Flanigan and Scott Greenwood (professors at West Chester University when they wrote it), that lists a few purposes some teachers may have for teaching vocabulary; they say we may want our students to:

  • gain a basic understanding of a word or concept
  • know the defining features of a concept and compare/contrast it with another concept (e.g., what is or is not a reptile, compared to amphibians)
  • extend their knowledge of a word/concept with which they are already acquainted

These purposes definitely qualify as a WHY.  If your WHY is really just to help students gain a basic understanding, then the question becomes whether or not it is worth the time to spend a class period defining words, homework time studying the words,  and then another 20 minutes assessing understanding. But I’m getting ahead of myself now; we’ll talk about strategies later.

So, back to my reason for this post: WHY do you teach the vocabulary words you’re teaching?  Can you sell that list of words in Chapter 11 to your students? Will completing the matching section on the test next Friday improve the lives of your students?  If we can get back to the WHY—why these words matter to us as historians, scientists, readers—maybe we can convince our students to buy their importance rather than memorizing the definitions on the bus ride to school the morning of the test, only to forget them after lunch.

Here’s the part of this post I want you to take away and use to make your classroom better this week—as you introduce new vocabulary think about your WHY. Can you explain why you’re teaching these words, in a way that will convince students its worth their time to learn them?

If Sinek’s examples hold true in our world, too, then, once we start letting these WHYs guide our teaching, our students will buy into our lessons. I received another reminder of this theory in my email this week—a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In other words, if our students have a WHY to learn, they will do the work.


Flanigan, K., & Greenwood, S. C. (2007). Effective content vocabulary instruction in the middle: matching students, purposes, words, and strategies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy51(3), 226+.

Crush Tests, not Candy

One of the hardest things about coming back to school after Christmas break is managing the electronic device policy. Not only have your students spent the last two weeks checking their phones every 30 seconds, many of them got new phones over the break and can’t take their eyes off the larger, uncracked screen. Here’s a way to put these new devices to good use:


Have you tried Quizlet Live?  It is easy to facilitate, fun to play, and requires a cooperative effort–students have to work together to get the right answers. The challenge is that you can’t test it out without at least six people (with devices), so if you don’t have a large  family or a lunch group with some extra time, you’re just going to have to wing it with the first class. Don’t worry–you can do it!

What you need to play:

A Quizlet Account (don’t pay for the Teacher Account–just sign up for the regular free account).  If you’re new to Quizlet, you’ll want to come back and explore its options for study/review outside of class, but for now, let’s focus on the game.

A Study Set (a list of vocabulary words in Quizlet). If you already have an account and have set up your lists, you can use one of your own for this experiment, or you can just search for a list related to your content/topic–there are thousands of lists on the site, and you can easily copy/edit a list to match your exact needs. Choose a list, any list, and click on the Live icon.

A teacher computer/projector. Quizlet has put together a two-minute video to show you what it looks like; you can watch this, but there’s no need to share it with students.  (You’ll see this video when you click the Live icon.) To get started with your class, just click Create Game in the upper right corner of the screen. After you click Create Game, project your screen so the class can see the code and you’ll see the names as students sign in.

At least six students with phones/laptops/tablets. The game will direct them to the Quizlet Live site where they’ll put in the access code and then type their first name. (Tip: Set a “first-name only policy” and delete any and all nicknames from the start. This saves time when making teams and helps you avoid the possibility of inappropriate nicknames in the future. To delete a name, just click on it when it appears in your list; the student can simply rejoin the game with his/her real name.)

If you do have desktop computers in your classroom, you can use a couple of them, too–just spread the kids out and you may have to reshuffle teams once you get started to make sure those students on the desktop computers are paired with kids with mobile devices and not each other.

That’s really all you need, plus a few spare minutes in class.

The first time you play, you will need to explain a few features of the game to the kids:

  • Everyone on the team is trying to answer the same question, but the correct answer is only on one team member’s phone/device.
  • They need to sit or stand near each other so they can discuss the options and help each other to choose the right answer.
  • Teams earn a point for each correct answer, but an incorrect answer sends them back to zero and reshuffles the questions/answer choices.
  • The first team to 12 points wins. (You’ll need to project the teacher screen so that teams can track how well they’re doing.)

It’s really that simple! Give it a try and you and your students will be hooked. After the first “training session,” you’ll be able to play Quizlet Live in just a few minutes–great for brain breaks at transition time or if you finish your lesson five minutes ahead of schedule. Go crush those tests!

Going Digital? 3 Tips for a Successful Transition

If you follow me on Facebook, you may have noticed my blossoming love affair with all things Google. I was trying to explain it to a friend, and the best analogy I could come up with was that Google is a lot like sushi. I was reluctant to try it at first, but with each new taste, I found more things I liked.  


I helped write a grant at school this year to get 10 laptop carts for classroom use and have been working with teachers on setting up Google Classroom and experimenting with the possibilities of digital learning. Overwhelmingly, the teachers are excited, but a little unsure of how they can to cover their content while engaging the students with meaningful technology-based lessons. As we venture into this new territory, I’m starting to learn some lessons that may help others who are making the switch. Here are a few of the most important lessons so far:

Have a Plan B and a Plan C

I kind of feel like a beginning teacher again when it comes to planning and Google Classroom. I remember those days of panic when my lesson ended eight minutes before the bell–what if an administrator comes in and sees them all talking? (Or worse yet, lined up at the door three minutes prior to the bell?) There are a lot of variables to account for in lesson planning in general, but throw technology into the mix and it gets even harder to predict the amount of time required to complete a lesson.  

It is common sense to always have a complete technology-free lesson planned as a backup just in case–that’s your Plan B.  Should the website crash or the internet go down, you’ve got a back-up plan. Simply be prepared to move on to the next technology-free day in your lesson plans and you should be fine.  

Your Plan C allows you to keep the kids on task who have finished the original assignment. The first fast finishers can help the other students, but as more and more kids finish up with time to spare, you need something for them to do or they’ll start playing games or looking at cars on AutoTrader–both of which are infinitely more interesting to the kid who hasn’t finished his work sitting next to them. Coming up with a Plan C that does not need to be graded, but could be, will keeps kids engaged in real learning. If it looks like it’s a real assignment, and it’s posted in the Google Classroom, they’ll do it.

Need a Plan C? Check out these activities I’ve posted at TpT.

I’ve used exit tickets and Google Forms questionnaires to keep kids working, and I also created a poetry response activity that tied thematically to the lesson. Each time I’ve used these Plan C assignments, some students had time to do them and some didn’t. Some went home and did them for homework (without being asked!). We didn’t grade them, but I think if I were using Google Classroom full time in my classroom, I’d come up with some kind of participation grading system for these “filler” activities, so the students continue to buy into them.

Be Flexible with Your Goals

Twice I have worked with classes on a “reading” lesson that ended up becoming a “technology” lesson. In each case, we had one class period to accomplish a reading/writing exercise with a technology component, and the technology component ended up becoming the real “learning” experience.

My first Google Classroom lesson took place in a web design class. The students were going to read an article about the ethics of altering digital images, complete a graphic organizer, and write a paragraph response. As I watched the kids click back and forth from one window to another, I realized they did not know how to look at two windows at the same time. I called for a break and demonstrated how to separate tabs into different windows (drag the tab off to the right of your screen) and then right-click in the taskbar to “show windows side by side.”  They still completed the reading lesson, but the greater takeaway was definitely the ability to easily view multiple windows at once.    

On Day Two of a Romeo and Juliet lesson, the fake text-messaging website glitched.  Instead of allowing kids to download the complete phone screen, it was leaving blank space at the top and cutting off the bottom of their work. There was no way to recover the work the student had just typed, either.  When this happened to the first two or three students, we knew we needed a work-around, and decided to use the snipping tool to copy/paste the image into the slide. Some students knew the snipping tool; others had no idea it existed. So, we added a few new objectives to our lesson–using the snipping tool, keyboard shortcuts for copying/pasting, and flexibility…for us and them.

Trust the Kids

I like to think I’m pretty techy; however, more often than not, I’ve learned something from a student in the class that makes the lesson better. By letting them know that I’m open to their suggestions and that I need their help at times, they’re willing to share with me, which improves the experience for all. It’s also nice to see the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment the students get when they teach me (and their classmates) something.

One thing I’ve found is that my desktop computer performs differently than their laptops–whether it is a matter of permissions or wired vs. wireless or just computers, I don’t know.  Something that worked perfectly fine when I tested it (the text messaging activity, for example), doesn’t work in the classroom. It was a student who pointed it out to me and suggested the use of the snipping tool. He saved the lesson for me and nearly 100 other ninth graders!

Kids are also more willing to experiment. I ran into an issue when trying to teach a class to use Kami to mark up a .pdf text. For some students, it worked fine, for others, it wouldn’t open. I couldn’t find an easy solution and was ready to revert to Plan B (my printed copies and highlighters), but a student who just kept clicking around found the magic steps we needed to open it up for all. She talked the whole class through the steps, and everyone was able to complete the assignment as originally planned.

In addition to being digital natives, they have the benefit of learning tips and strategies from multiple teachers throughout their school days. I am largely self-taught and I can share some shortcuts and suggestions with them when they’re in my class, but they’re getting this kind of advice from teachers–some of whom have a lot of real training in technology–all the time. By letting the students share their own strategies and tips, we can improve the learning for all of us!

Have you started making the switch to a digital classroom? Please share any lessons you’ve learned or post questions about the transition in the comments! I’d love to hear how it’s going for other teachers in other schools.

Take Charge: Teachers as Chief Learning Officers

For the majority of my teaching career, I worked for an amazing principal. When he moved from a middle school to my current high school, he asked me to come with him.  He explained his reasoning by referencing a business book by Jim Collins—Good to Great.  Collins analyzed the performance of leaders at consistently top-performing companies to see what made them great. My principal told me a story from the book. The first step in great leadership, he said, was to get the right people on the bus, and then once you’ve got the people you want on the bus, you can move them to the right seats. He asked me to get on the bus.

I could write for days about all the reasons that was the best professional decision of my life, but those stories will come over time. Mr. W. was an amazing principal and now that I’ve been without him for a year and a half (he retired), I’m realizing he was an even stronger leader than I knew.

It was 14 years ago when he asked me to get on the bus. When I accepted the invitation, I read the book. Then I gave it to my brother who works in the business world because although I found it interesting, I thought it applied to him much more than me. Now, through my reading challenge, I’ve realized that Mr. W was onto something with the business books. Continue reading “Take Charge: Teachers as Chief Learning Officers”

Quick & Easy Reading Checks

“It will be different this time,” we tell ourselves each time we begin a new novel.  No matter how many times we’ve been there before, we go in with a sense of optimism.  We believe that our choice will finally hook the students; they’ll want to read this one.  We read the first three chapters in class, get to that point where they have to know what happens next, and then turn them loose to devour the next two chapters for homework.

10 Reading Checks

And then they don’t do it.

I know I’m not alone when I say that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching English.  Not only have the students cheated themselves out of the opportunity to read a good book, but they’ve thrown our discussion, activity, or lesson completely off track.  How can we talk about this or do that if they haven’t done the reading?

Sadly, I have not discovered a solution.  I do have some band-aids—temporary fixes that might heal the problem for the day, and unlike the standard five-question quiz, these techniques have potential to inspire interest in the reading  so that students will get on board for the rest of the book.

Here are 10 mostly low-prep options to credit those who did the reading and give the others some insight into what they missed.  Give one a try the next time you see students hurriedly flipping through the pages or hear the hushed questions, “Did you read?”  “What happened?”

  • SparkNotes Summary: Want to see who is reading the book as opposed to the SparkNotes?  I learned this amazing idea from Carol Jago at a district inservice:  Project the chapter summary from SparkNotes on your screen and ask the students to read the summary and identify three things that happened in the chapter which are not included in the summary.  Not only will this identify those who did read, it will provide those who didn’t even read the SparkNotes some background so they won’t be completely lost in the discussion.


  • Feeling Response: After a particularly emotional chapter, list four or five “feeling” adjectives on the board (angry, annoyed, outraged, exasperated) and ask the students to choose one (or come up with a better one on their own) that expresses their feelings toward the chapter/character/author. Ask them to explain—in detail—why they feel this way.  After collecting the papers, you can ask students to share their responses, sparking a more thoughtful conversation about the events in the chapter than a standard summary.


  • Essential Question: You chose the book to connect to the Essential Question. Why write new questions?  Direct students back to your essential question and ask them to make connections (or predictions) based on last night’s homework.  See if they’re heading in the right direction and redirect as needed.


  • Quotable Quote: Choose a quote that relates to character motivation, conflict, or theme from the chapter and ask students to explain the quote in the context of the chapter.  If you are teaching more than one class, try to come up with different quotes for each period!  Usually, you’ll find powerful quotes near the end of a chapter or section.  For example, you could use, “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired” for Chapter Four of The Great Gatsby—Nick thinks of this quote after Jordan reveals the backstory between Daisy and Gatsby.  Asking students to explain this quote in the context of the chapter would allow them to address all five characters.


  • Student Questions: Rather than quizzing students with questions of our own device, let their entrance slips serve as the discussion starters for the day.  I use Thick & Thin questions with students all the time; with practice, they can write some very solid questions.  You can put together your own question starters (just Google Thick & Thin questions) or use my reference cards that include question stems and guide students to look at specific text features for literary or informational text.


  • Twenty in Ten: I saw this idea on a blog post about creating meaningful worksheets. The teacher gives the students 20 thought-provoking questions about an aspect of the book (a character, key idea, or the plot) and asks them to answer the questions in ten minutes.  Combine questions from  teaching guides with your own questions and student-developed questions from the Thick & Thin activities to come up with twenty different (but maybe somewhat overlapping) questions about an element of the book.  Check out his sample questions on Caliban in The Tempest to get a feel for the approach.


  • Oral Discussion: Use the same questions you would use for the Twenty in Ten activity to turn a written task into a class discussion. You can use the tried-and-true popsicle stick technique to select random students to answer your questions.  Record tally marks on a roster to track their responses (points?) throughout the reading of the book.  Another option is to record each student’s name on an index card, shuffle the cards, and choose one at random.  You can record a plus, check, or minus and the date on the card to track their reading responses.


  • Chalk Talk (Silent Collaboration): I’ve seen many variations of this idea, but my favorite for a reading check is the whole-class approach. To track individual contributions, you can make notes on your roster/index cards, or just sit back and let it happen and then use the written responses to award credit.  Students take turns visiting the board and adding to a word web about the idea/character/event started by the teacher.  Once the board is full, students can use the ideas on the board to write a response to the reading.  You might ask them to use five words from the board, for example, in their response.  The written responses will show you who has read; those who haven’t read may be inspired by the ideas on the board to begin reading.


  • Connections: This strategy might take a little work, but it’s worth it. Start collecting connections—photographs, songs, poems, video clips, or news articles—that relate to particular sections of the book and then use these as a “thinking prompt” to get students started at the beginning of class.  Ask them to make the connection between a photograph and the characters, events, or ideas from last night’s reading.  You can build your collection by asking students to bring in connections, too.


  • Moments: Ask students to specify the most important “moment” in the assigned reading and then explain why they think it is important.  They should relate their chosen moment to other events within the selection to illustrate its significance.   Even though they get to choose their own moment, their explanation should make it clear whether they have or have not read the rest of the text.  To start discussion for the day, share a few of the moments from the class and let others debate their significance.

One final suggestion—mix it up!  Use different strategies with each period each day to keep your “quiz questions” from being shared between classes.  It should be pretty easy to do, too, because these are all rather easy-to-implement reading checks.  Do you have any quick checks you can add to the list?  Please share them in the comments!

AIWATT – Say What?

“Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” 

Marshall Goldsmith introduced me to this gem of a question in his book Triggers.  He abbreviates it as AIWATT—rhymes with say what—and uses it in his coaching of business executives to help them focus their attention on the areas in which they can have a positive impact.

We do this somewhat naturally in the classroom, right?  Pick your battles, we say.  We may overlook the gum-chewing student texting in the back row to avoid the disruption of our otherwise peaceful and focused classroom.  We’ll also reschedule our test to accommodate the basketball team (and spirit busses) traveling to the state tournament on Friday, even finding a way to stream the game into the classroom since we know everyone who stayed behind will be constantly checking their phones anyway.


Making the conscious decision to consider AIWATT, though, provides us with a sense of control and the ability to make positive differences in our lives as well.  Twice yesterday I realized the power of this simple reflection.

First, I decided to skip a meeting about a possible policy change at my school.   Sometimes I have a hard time deciding whether I need to be present—not because I can make a difference, but because presence communicates interest/concern/involvement.  As I approached the media center, notepad and coffee in hand at 7:55 yesterday morning, I saw a room full of my colleagues and an assistant principal standing in front, preparing to speak.  I paused, asked myself the AIWATT question and realized that I did not have the energy or the desire to make a positive difference: I was only going for appearances; I could get the Cliff’s Notes from anyone else at that meeting; I had better uses for my time.

Sure enough, reports from the meeting detailed the unfulfilling data, repetitive complaints, and general uncertainty about going forward with this plan.  It’s clear to me that I made the better choice to review my ACT strategy lesson and share ListenCurrent through email with other reading coaches—both of which made positive differences for students.  It’s not often that we have the option to attend a meeting or not, but when we do, it’s definitely worth pausing to ask AIWATT.

Not only did the AIWATT question help me avoid an energy-depleting meeting, but it helped me find a positive at the end of the day.   I used the question to guide my choice to send out an email, offering peer observations to teachers as they prepare their Professional Growth Plan self-evaluations.  I’ve been doing the same for years (as a peer coach, this is part of my responsibility), but with little authentic buy-in—those that do seek an observation are just doing it to check the box on the eval.  Rather than letting the frustration of past experiences prevent me from doing something I know is valuable, I decided I would try to make a positive difference and send the email.

One teacher responded that she would love an observation and feedback and wondered if I was available during 7th period.  We had a brief conversation about her goals and the lesson during her planning period and then I went to observe her students as they began drafting their essays explaining how Ayn Rand and Franz Kafka convey their personal philosophies through the protagonists in their novels.  Talk about energy-giving.   Watching these students reminded me of the reasons we do what we do.   They were completely engaged in the content, and their practices clearly showed mastery of the writing process.  The teacher spent some time clarifying her expectations—third person, present tense, MLA citations—and the students knew how to do it and why they should.  When she set them loose, they got right to work—turning to each other for genuine conversations about objectivism and existentialism, flipping to passages within books to back up their ideas, and turning back to their notes to scribble new ideas.

Not only did I get to invest my time in an experience that turned out very positively for me, I saw how AIWATT can work in the classroom.  This teacher chose to turn the challenge of preparing students for the academic writing demands of the Florida Standards Assessment into something that will make a positive difference for her students, long beyond the test.  Rather than just sticking with the standard test prep, she found an authentic way to integrate the skills these student need into a meaningful context.  I’m glad my AIWATT moment delivered me to her classroom to see it in action.