A Word about Kids Labeled "Struggling Readers" Part 2

My garden is stunning right now. This year my lilies are overflowing with blooms, and because our mama groundhog has apparently moved on, we have actual flowers.

Each plant is a mix of blooms and various stages of buds, some ready to burst open any moment, and others that are still green and growing. I’m not worried about any of them; I’m enjoying watching them bloom at just the right time.

These plants remind me of students: some are early bloomers, some are in the middle, and others will mature a bit later. Like the flowers outside my window, I want to nurture and value every single one. Instead of assuming slower blooming flowers are broken, I assume they’re just fine and will open with a little more time.

This series is focusing on that last category: the late bloomers, the ones who have not had success in school. There are so many reasons our students get labeled struggling, so instead of letting the label dominate what happens in our classes, we can choose to be a positive force in their lives, a person who appreciates their individuality and strengths rather than being one more teacher who adds to the stress they’ve experienced.

In this second part of my blog series I want to talk about how I structure each class period - how I use the time I have together with students. There are  specific beliefs that back up these structures, but I’ve decided to hold off on those in favor of something more practical today.

How Do I Structure My Classes?

Our school is set up with block scheduling so I get to see kids every other day for 85 minutes. I keep the structure as consistent as I can because routines help everyone know what to do, feel safe, and allow for our energy to go into our thinking instead of figuring out what we’re supposed to do.

A typical class period:

1. Independent reading (20 minutes)
We build up to 20 minutes of reading time, starting small with 5 minute mini-chunks at the beginning, and depending on the group, are fully reading for 20 minutes within the first 2-3 weeks of the school year. This post talks about how I start my year and this one talks about book choice. Very rarely do I alter this chunk of time in any way.

We begin class with reading because it is most important. It is the best “input mode” brain work I know. I wholeheartedly agree with Sir Richard Steele’s quote, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” It is necessary daily practice.

What do I do during reading time? Every day is different, but always dependent on the needs of the readers I have in class at that moment. While I start with a plan based on my notes from the class period before, reading time is dictated by today’s needs.

Here are a few things I do:
- I watch closely what is happening right now.
- I listen to the room.
- I monitor who is sitting where and how it's working for them.
- I confer with individuals about their books and their thinking.
- I help kids find new books.
- I pull book stacks for those struggling to find a book.
- I read.
- I model with my own book and notebook--showing individuals examples of thinking I’m doing.

This chunk of time is completely driven by the kids and what they need, which sometimes includes getting out of their way and letting them read. My job is to pay close attention and teach what’s needed when it's needed. Some days feel frantic with busyness, and other days feel relaxed and peaceful.  As long as it's based on the kids, it's ok.

I can tell you that nothing has ever felt as right in my classroom structure as beginning with independent reading. In her book Upstanders, Sara Ahmed calls this quiet, student-driven beginning a soft start. "It is a peaceful way to begin," Sara writes, "no grown-up is shouting directions and no kid is unclear on what to do... that gentle, reflective interval is a good way to get kids centered and ready to learn. They have ownership and agency when they walk through the door and I am not completing to yell over them with directions" (14-16). For my classes, reading time settles everyone down and focuses them in on the world of their book and this classroom. It leaves problems and drama behind. It gets everyone, including me, into the mindset of this time and class. It allows me to mentally, verbally or physically to check in with everyone and see what they need.

2. Independent writing (5-10 minutes)
Independent writing time is the direct parallel of independent reading time. It’s a quiet, self-directed time to reflect on our own thinking, which may be about a book, or it may be about something in a student's life. Both occupy space in the same notebook in our class. I choose to emphasize the writing about our lives part of our notebook because I've noticed that it often gets eliminated as kids get older. They end up writing mostly about the ideas of others in books, poems and other texts. But I want them to remember that writing is a life-long tool for thinking about anything. And, everyone deserves time and space to explore their own thinking.

The way we use our Writer’s Notebook has its beginnings in Nancie Atwell’s book In the Middle. We create lists of territories that might become topics one day, and students always have the option of choosing their own topics. I used to have students generate their own topics exclusively, but I’ve learned over the years that sometimes a mentor text can be wonderful inspiration and can help writers explore and experiment in creative ways they might not have gotten to on their own. I’ve learned a lot from the website movingwriters.org and the book Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. This post explores the idea of Writer's Notebooks more.  

Choice still remains central. As I learned from Penny Kittle quoting Donald Murray, “If you tell your students what to say and how to say it, you may never hear them, only the pale echoes of what they imagine you want them to be.” I don’t want pale echoes, especially with kids who’ve been labeled struggling readers. I want their belief in themselves growing everyday. I want them to know they have ideas of their own that others want and need to hear. Our Writer’s Notebook gives us a place to be ourselves and to nurture our own thoughts and questions.

These first two pieces, independent reading and writing, are not fluff. They’re not warm-ups. They, along with time to talk and listen to classmates, are the most important elements of our class and must happen daily. I do not believe this is true just for students who are labeled struggling. I believe this for all students in every ELA class. If we want students to view reading and writing as valuable, useful, life-long tools, they must be relevant, choice-based and consistently given time in class. Never doubt that kids are learning just because you’re not in front of the room teaching. I’d argue they’re that by giving them time to explore their own reading and writing lives, they are learning far more (but that’s another post).

3. A lesson/work time (30-45 minutes)
This is the part of class that has the most variety to it. Its structure depends on what we’re studying. Units of study is the closest term I can find to describe how I chunk up our year. A typical year follows this pattern.
Semester #1:
1.  Getting to know students as learners and humans
2.  Narrative/fiction focus
3.  Nonfiction focus

Semester #2:
1.  Nonfiction 
2.  Genius Hour
3.  Poetry

This feels artificial even as I write this down. Even though that there is an overarching focus for different parts of the year, everything is woven into everything else. For example, despite the fact that poetry seems to have a focus at the end of the year, we do poetry all year long. The same could be said for everything else. I choose to have a guiding structure, but I cannot allow the structure to run me. A timely, relevant article on a school shooting will get airtime in our classroom when it happens. A new Jason Reynolds poem will get air time when it is published. So, while I definitely believe a map is essential, I absolutely think that meandering into an unexpected detour can have a bigger impact than a steady, unwavering march in a straight line.

Some things that happen during this lesson/work time:
-  A mini lesson on a strategy, skill, craft move, or other relevant direct instruction
-  Modeling of reading or writing with a shared text
-  Student work time (like choosing topics for a poem or project; doing a more formal response to a book or other text; working on a draft of a story)
-  An activity to introduce or practice a skill, strategy, or craft move
-  A whole class structured discussion (like a Socratic Seminar or Philosophical Chairs)

I don’t typically do mini lessons at the beginning of class because that structure didn’t work for me. A lot of people do, and it works for them. I just found that when I did a lesson first, students overwhelming thought about what I wanted them to think about instead of thinking and valuing their own thoughts first.  For me the freedom to explore in individual ideas outweighs adherence to my lesson, and so I choose to do lessons after independent reading and writing.

4. Conversations/Sharing (10-15 minutes)
When all goes smoothly, the last thing we do is sharing. This happens in a variety of ways: small groups (kids are sitting in pods), partnerships, and whole class. We use our pods most--sometimes for a more formal conversation, such as when our Book Groups meet, and other times, this is an informal sharing--about a piece of writing, something in their book, or a topic I want them to chat about. Partnerships also can happen formally and informally, but they often form by the kids themselves--they’ll check in with someone close or a friend about something they need help with or to share.

Like the other pieces of our lesson, talking and listening don’t only happen during this last chunk of class; they happen throughout. However, because I want conversations to happen at the end of class more often than anywhere else, I have to be conscious of saving time for them. For real, anything you schedule at the end of class can easily get omitted (just ask the kids how far I got in our read-aloud last year…). It is so rare that we have time left over, that I must guard conversation/sharing time or face the reality that we will not get to it.

I’ve learned over the years that conversations and talking take a lot of teaching, modeling, and coaching just like everything else. It is worth every second to teach kids about body language, eye contact, how to speak, how to listen, how to get others involved, how to monitor their own involvement and anything else I notice is a struggle for students. Role playing good and bad conversation groups is a lot of fun--kids will eagerly volunteer to be the “what not to do” group!

I also set up two DON’Ts for myself during sharing:
1.  Don’t check out. This is not time for me to catch up on email or get ready for the next class. I must watch and listen carefully to what is happening in each conversation. I am also making notes in my notebook about who I notice participating, who looks tuned out, what they’re talking about, which groups look like awkward first dates where no one knows quite what to say. I must remember that conversation, like every other skill, is learned and mastered over time. And, for kids labeled struggling readers, they may not see themselves as having anything to contribute. Rich, quiet teaching conversations can help individuals (next class during conference time) and sometimes whole lessons will emerge from my noticings.

2.  Don’t hover. Conversations can be amazing when the teacher is in them (because we have a tendency to be well, teachers!), but they’re not independent. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible when listening to groups. My students might get the idea that Ms. Hagen does a lot or random stuff during book clubs, like put a book on a shelf, tidy up the books on the whiteboard. When pressed, they would also tell you I’m carrying and notebook and writing something while I do this. I want groups to function on their own, but not only when I’m staring at them or participating with them. So it is intentional that I look like I’m not watching. But I am. And, on occasion, I step in. But not often. Usually, we debrief afterwards and I ask, “Who noticed something in their group that went particularly well today?” and “Who’d like to share something their group needs to improve next time?” And usually, they have noticed the same things I would have told them.
And that is it. Those four parts make up the backbone of our class. Reading, writing, speaking and listening are the essential, most important things students need, so they take up the majority of our class time.

Post #3 in this series will be about the students themselves. Until then, I have loved getting questions on Twitter and through messaging. Keep them coming! I’ll be happy to describe and share what has worked in my classroom, what I’ll be trying next year, and anything else I have learned about helping students labeled struggling readers succeed.

Happy Tuesday everyone!


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