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Peer Writing Partnerships

Middle school teachers have four to five sections of writing classes, which can translate into 100 to 150 students. Having to read, confer, and offer feedback on that amount of writing is frustrating and exhausting; it often results in teachers asking their students to do less writing, even though the research clearly shows that not only does writing frequently improve writing—it also improves reading comprehension (Writing to Read, Graham & Hebert, 2010).
Inviting students to help one another and provide feedback while they plan, draft, revise, and edit means students improve their writing before teachers read the work. Responding to these drafts takes less teacher time because many issues have already been addressed.
Peer partnerships can be formal, created by the teacher and given a specific purpose. They can also be informal, allowing students to choose their partners and the focus of the feedback. In a workshop, students might work informally with one to three peers each time class meets, based on the writers’ needs and their classmates’ expertise in the area that requires feedback.
Please share how you use writing partnerships in your classes.
Laura Robb

Negotiating Criteria Before Students Plan and Write

Instead of using rubrics, I prefer negotiating writing criteria with students. Criteria are organic because they emerge from what students already know and what I'm hoping they'll practice and learn; they are positive and change with each piece students write. Eventually, students learn to create their own criteria for free-choice writing, setting specific standards for themselves. Students negotiate content and some style and organization criteria after studying one or two mentor texts. I might add a style criteria and suggest a writing convention criteria based on my observations of students' writing needs. Because you negotiate criteria before the planning stage, you know early on the mini-lessons you'll need to teach as the unit progresses. See Teaching Nonfiction Writing: A Practical Guide (Scholastic, 2010) and Teaching Middle School Writers: What Every English Teacher Needs to Know (Heinemann, 2010), for a detailed discussion of criteria.
Laura Robb

Student Book Talks: An Effective Way to Advertise Books

There is great advertising power in book talks. When you invite students to choose an independent reading book to talk about each month, you improve students' listening capacity and introduce them to myriad books and magazines. A class of 25 students that presents book talks for ten months introduces one other to 250 books. Yes, it's a powerful way for students to motivate and engage one another as readers. Each month, reserve about 30 minutes of two or three consecutive class periods for books talks.
Books talks should take no more than two to three minutes and should focus on high-level thinking, not retelling. It's important for you to model how you plan, take notes for, and practice presenting books talks so you build students' mental model of the process. In my book Differentiating Reading Instruction, you'll find an entire section on book talks in the classroom. If you have the binder (Teaching Reading: A Differentiated Approach), you'll find guidelines for book talking in the section that discusses classroom libraries.
You shouldn't have students complete a project for each book; this discourages and punishes your best readers. However, book talking is short, beneficial to the entire class, and develops students' public speaking skills and self-confidence.
Laura Robb

Tips for Enlarging Your Class Library

What follows are suggestions for finding books for your class library.
  • Join a Scholastic Book Club and use bonus points to order free books.
  • Ask parents to contribute books their children no longer use.
  • Visit yard and library sales and purchase books, which are often priced below a dollar each.
  • Apply for a grant that gives funds toward books for school.
  • Ask your principal for funds; you never know when there are extra dollars available.
  • Invite your school's PTA to run a fundraiser for classroom libraries.
Please share what you do to enlarge your class library collections. When students have access to inviting and enjoyable books, reading can become a free choice experience that they repeatedly turn to.
Laura Robb

Organizing Your Classroom Library

It's that time again: preparing your classroom, unpacking boxes of books, notebook paper, and students' journals, and of course, attending faculty meetings. I'm also hoping that you've been collecting books for your classroom library, as access to books is crucial for developing readers from K to 12. My eighth graders tell me that they love "having books at their fingertips." I couldn't agree more. Here are some tips for using your library to showcase books and advertise to students that reading is great fun!
  • Organize books on your shelves by genre because that's the way students shop for books: fantasy, suspense, adventure, realistic fiction, historical fiction, biography and autobiography, science fiction, informational texts, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers, short stories, folk tales, etc. Tape an index card printed with the name of the genre onto the appropriate bookshelf.
  • On each shelf, place one or two books with the cover facing out so students see the inviting illustrations and titles. Change these featured books each month and call students' attention to the changes.
  • Feature a genre or author every six weeks. Place these books on your desk, on windowsills, on the chalkboard tray, and book talk one each day. A book talk can simply be reading the first two pages, or sharing the back cover matter with students. You don't have to read every book you add to your library. Challenge students to go on the author's web site and share information with the class.
  • Have a sign-out notebook for students to complete: students write the title and their name when they check out a book. Students cross out the title when the book has been returned to its shelf or the specific place you've designated for returned books. Older students can put books back according to genre. It’s your choice, but I'm always looking for ways to save my time.
Classroom libraries mean your students can check out books any day; they don't have to wait for their scheduled library period.
Laura Robb

First Reading Conference With Students

After you've invited students to complete two or three getting-to-know you pieces, you can use the information gathered to develop a focus for your first reading conference. The purpose of these conferences is to take you deeper into students' attitudes toward reading so you can support them by helping them select books and improve their skills.
For example, when an eighth grader wrote that reading was "annoying" on his survey, I asked him in our first conference what he meant by that comment. His response helped me support him: "I read so slow. I'm the last one done. Reading homework takes too much time. I avoid reading." What I discovered was that this student was reading three years below grade level and struggling with textbooks in content subjects and a whole class novel in English class. Offering him choices of books he could read and enjoy, books on topics that he cared about, improved his reading rate and his desire to read. Though the texts were below grade level, the student applied all the skills and strategies that were eighth-grade requirements.
Laura Robb

Create a Reading Folder For Each Student

Keeping a reading folder for each student means that I have, in one place, key work samples that enable me to identify conferences topics and determine whether students need scaffolds or re-teaching. Equally important, what I learn informs and guides my instruction.
I refer to the data in the folders during parent-teachers conferences, when meeting with an administrator, and during IEP (Individual Educational Plan) meetings. Here's what goes into a folder during the first semester:
  • What's Easy About Reading? What's Hard About Reading? questionnaire
  • Interest Inventory
  • Reading Survey or Ten Questions About Reading questionnaire
  • Photocopies of two journal entries that reveal progress and/or specific needs.
  • Observational notes of varied learning situations.
  • Copies of tests or quizzes.
  • Notes from the first reading conference
  • Any other papers or projects that you feel should be in the folder.
You can review the folder's contents with students and ask for their feedback. Often, because time has passed since completing the initial survey and questionnaires, students have insights that can support them and guide you. How do you feel about keeping and using a reading folder for each student?
Laura Robb

Getting to Know Your Students as Readers

During the first two weeks of school, your students are getting to know you, and you need to get to know them as readers and learners. You can facilitate this process by inviting them to complete some of the inventories listed below, which appear in my book Assessments for Differentiating Reading Instruction.
  • What's Easy About Reading? What's Hard About Reading? It's helpful if you model how you would respond to these questions, then invite students to respond on notebook paper.
  • Interest Inventory
  • Reading Survey
  • Ten Questions About Reading
I have students complete two each week, which gives me time to read and absorb the information and decide on the focus of my first conference. Students’ responses can also help you suggest reading materials that tap into individual interests and strengths. You'll discover students' attitudes toward reading and what they know about reading strategies such as inferring, posing questions, visualizing, or synthesizing information. I find it helpful to start a reading folder for each student during these first weeks of school. The folders, just tabbed file folders, contain data on each student that inform my instruction and the scaffolds I develop.
Please write to let everyone know how you get to know your students.
Laura Robb

Relaxation and Reflection

Summer is a time to recharge our batteries, to spend time doing what we find enjoyable and thinking about family, friends, life, and school. For me the most relaxing activity is taking long walks very early in the morning, before the heat and humidity rise and make spending time outdoors difficult. Next, I love to read; during the summer I catch up on professional reading, but I also read mysteries and newspapers. I find that all the time my mind is connecting these experiences to what I learned about teaching from last year's experiences. Mulling over experiences is quite enjoyable. What do you do to relax and reflect on the school year? Please share.
Laura Robb

A Great Professional Book

If you work with at-risk adolescents, then you'll want to read Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent (Heinemann, 2010). Both authors believe passionately in the power of community, of belonging. Lent discusses ways to foster trust and community that all students benefit from, whether they're at-risk or doing well. The book includes Baca's original stories with activities and an interview with Baca that's truly inspiring. Baca ran away from his dysfunctional home early in life and lived on the streets. By nineteen he found himself convicted of possession of heroin and sentenced to five years in prison. Here Baca had to choose between violence and anger and becoming literate. He chose to learn to read and write, and that decision gave him the freedom to gain control over his life and reach out to help others. An inspiring story to share with all students who can come to realize the power that resides in reading deeply and widely.
Laura Robb

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in The Laura Robb Blog are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.