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From the Classroom: Reading Conferences + Building a Professional Reader’s Toolbox

By Brittany Carlino

“Ms. C, I am giving up on post-it notes!” It is a Friday after school and I’m sitting beside Lily*, one of my brightest and most motivated students, and we are giggling about how much we hate when post-it notes stick out of our books too far.

Lily is here for a reading conference. As part of my Honors 9 Literature class, she’s in the midst of our first outside reading assignment where the kids are independently navigating a text and will have to do some writing on it in the end. As the honors kids, they mostly love to read, thus it would be easy to expect they read well. In most cases they do: they comprehend the content and can say interesting things about it. But when it comes to combing through a lengthy, complex novel to write about it with focused, meaningful, positioned points, well, no they can’t. They are 14 after all.  Even for my juniors, this presents challenges. 

As a result, for both grades, I’ve invested a sizable chunk of time talking about HOW to read. There are two intertwined skills that occur here: knowing what to read for and then annotating for those things in a meaningful and helpful way.  If readers don’t know the first, they cannot do the second effectively. For example, if your students are like mine, they have been “talking to the text” for as long as they can remember.  But how they are doing it and what they are gaining from it needs attention.  We all have the highlighter (and over-highlighter!) kids, or the I-circle-all-key-words, or the hyper-underliner, the I-must-summarize-every-chapter kid and of course, the kid who just wants to personally respond to everything (“OMG my mom loves dogs!”). Lost, wandering aimlessly in the woods of the text, they are highlighting and annotating without direction or focus, which potentially leads to a dangerous belief that notes really don’t help.  So, how do we prevent that?  

We fill their literary toolbox.  This came about one night as I was sitting in bed, mulling over the next day’s lessons and how to help my juniors approach a writing-about-a-novel assignment.  I wrote down this line:

To write well, you must read well. To read well, you need a full literary toolbox.

I know.  It’s nothing earth-shatteringly new.  There are books about this, like Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor, and How to Read Literature Like a Professor. They have shaped my practice in many ways, and I’ve had students read excerpts from both. But since creating this phrase, I’ve kept it posted in my room, and my 9th graders are currently designing a bulletin board that we’ll add to each time we gain a literary tool.  

For both grades, it has helped us focus our reading, and when I sit down with kids one-on-one, we talk about the tools at their disposal and how they can use them to make their reading experience more focused, meaningful, and powerful.  We use our shared language of literary devices and narrative elements like diction, imagery, motifs, symbols, characterization, theme, syntax, and any combination of those and more, asking how they contribute to each other and/or the overall message of the text.

I encourage meetings at all stages of reading. If the reader is just starting a novel, we look at the first pages together, and investigate what else the book has to offer. Is there an epigraph?  A glossary?  Preface?  Maps?  To this end, I’ve found this a helpful resource to give to kids as a whole class activity; it’s then something we can review together or do another task of in our conference.  If the reader has finished the book, we still go back to the opening pages to see what insights or literary gems may have been missed.  

Because of this shared literary language and reading intention, we can evaluate the strength of the student’s annotations.  I’ve found a good quick activity to do with a one-on-one or whole class is ask them to locate certain pieces of information within their own notes. As I put on the sheet itself, if they are easily able to complete the tasks indicated (which were based on a specific assignment, and thus would need to be amended to your needs) then it’s a good sign they have organized, helpful notes.  If not, that means either the information isn’t there or even if it is, it’s not helpful because it’s not accessible.  

Brittany Carlino 1This is where the reading conference becomes especially important because upon discovery of annotation problems, the reader’s next question is “Okay, so what other styles or strategies exist that I can try?”  Myriad answers exist to such a question as each reader has his or her own style. I’ve been developing ways to show readers what effective annotating looks like.  Again, there are many resources out there, and I know we all have countless annotated documents in our own classrooms.  I’ve started making copies of them for kids to peruse during our conference.  

Something I do heavily emphasize is the value of writing in a text and/or on a document, in line with the philosophy of Reading Apprenticeship (one I believe in deeply!).  A small but helpful tool I use is this document to the right.   

The top information says the exact same thing as the bottom, but I show it to the reader and ask what her eyes were drawn to first (the response is always “the bottom stuff”) and how such visual layering enhances processing and recognition of relationships between information (it makes it faster and easier to see the patterns).  I share that the top says the exact same thing as the bottom, but it was easier and more effective via the visual cues.

The downside to this strategy is it requires the student to own the text, or to have copies made of the reading task, which isn’t always possible.  When it is, though, the benefits are innumerable.  

In that conference with Lily, I wanted her to see what this looks like for me as a reader in an academic text.  So, I handed her a page from my teacher copy of The Great Gatsby paired with the same page that only had a post-it note on it (as seen below), and she gasped in understanding at the meaning created depending on the different approach. I also showed her annotations I had done on a short story, which were different from my novel annotations.  We discussed how it’s sometimes helpful to keep a “What am I reading for?” bookmark in the text.  

We talked about how the post-it note is not bad if it is utilized as an after-reading action of processing and synthesis rather than just a vehicle to record summary notes.  What I emphasize in all conferences repeatedly is that each reader will engage in many strategies, and we must recognize that doing any one in isolation – even just annotating closely without stopping to pull it all together to see the overarching patterns – is not going to produce thorough understanding.

I want my kids to be professional readers.  To know and see and do what we implicitly do when we pick up a new text.  Every book tells us things about it when we open it.  Being able to understand and use that information as we continue reading is an invaluable skill.  It extends FAR beyond just literature as well.  In these reading conferences, sometimes we end up looking at a history or science text. I love that moment when a student realizes that strong reading skills transcend the novel.

I must admit that I still squirm a little bit when writing a line like the one that starts the previous paragraph, because of how academic this makes reading sound. To combat that, I share that exact sentiment with my student in the conference. I remind him that there are reading lenses, and I do not always read with the analytical, preparing-for-a-writing-task lens. A good beach read is just a good beach read!  But even when reading for fun, I love how my knowledge of literary patterns gives me a richer experience with the text. As Foster says, “Literature is full of patterns, and your reading experience will be much more rewarding when you can step back from the work, even while you’re reading it, and look for those patterns” (How to Read Literature).

Take Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  In knowing it was dystopian literature, I could predict the protagonist’s uprising and subsequent conflicts. Given the extreme governmental oversight, I thought about George Orwell’s 1984, and the districts harkened to Huxley’s Brave New World. Realizing the word Panem could connect to the Greek god Pan, I looked up the meaning of the word and discovered that it was indeed meant to mimic the Roman games in the Coliseum.  That then made me think symbolically, wondering if the Capitol was Las Vegas or LA, and if that was Collins’ social criticism of Hollywood’s dynastic and dangerous rule over American society.

Phew.  It can be lot to take in, obviously!  But in that think aloud, I try to model what Foster explains:

When an English professor reads… he will accept the affective response level of the story (we don’t mind a good cry when Little Nell dies), but a lot of his attention will be engaged by other elements of the novel. Where did that effect come from? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before? Didn’t Dante (or Chaucer, or Merle Haggard) say that? If you learn to ask these questions, to see literary texts through these glasses, you will read and understand literature in a new light, and it’ll become more rewarding and fun.

Foster’s last line is incredibly important to me: a deep concern as an English teacher is the potential to destroy the thing we love because we require it or over-do it. I promise, Kelly Gallagher, I work to avoid Readicide; I do not want my kids to dislike reading because it becomes a never-ending chore of annotating or feels impossible. Yes, academic reading takes work, but with the right tools that excavation should be enlightening and not disheartening. Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, wrote “I don’t like work–no man does–but I like what is in the work–the chance to find yourself. Your own reality–for yourself not for others–what no other man can ever know.” If we educate kids how to avoid taking notes for the sake of notes, we foster authentic reflections that enrich the personal understanding of the focal text and the likelihood that the reader will pick up another book.  I have honestly found through these discussions and conferences that my kids do just that.  They love knowing how to see the text in all its literary glory and take pride in sharing their discoveries with me and the class.  The better they get at note-taking, the easier the patterns are to see, and the more confidence they feel at doing it all over again.

The one drawback is time. Long ago I committed to Penny Kittle’s writing beside them model. Now adding in reading beside them creates a very full calendar both for me and for our very-busy kiddos.  To meet the demands, I create time for both reading and writing in the classroom. Tricia Ebarvia has written extensively about this with her 9th grade via a weekly time to engage in choice reading. I have found it important to extend it to required reading as well. In these 45 minutes, I can meet realistically with about five kids on their writing or reading. It feels like a whirlwind and takes close management, but I love these and the outside-of-class meeting times because we get to explore together. I can model and share my own love for reading, and how I am constantly adding to my own literary toolbox, even after all these years.  

Most important, I love that when we finish the one-on-one reading conference, we both walk away feeling empowered and enriched: side-by-side we are reading, annotating, discussing, and discovering together, filling our literary (and life!) toolboxes.

*name changed

First day of school with VPG in backgroundBrittany Carlino is an English teacher at Great Valley High School.  Though she typically works with 9th and 11th grade, she also teaches Debate and Films as Literature.  As one who is passionate about culture, travel, and learning, she led the International Classroom Exchange Program for 5 years, and as you have read, taught in Budapest, Hungary for the 2013-2014 school year.  In general, Brittany loves reading and writing and engaging in all things learning. (Indeed, she has a “Nerd” tshirt and wears it proudly!)  In addition to being Ms. Carlino, she’s a singer, a Penn Stater, the luckiest of wives, and a very proud aunt.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. janiceewing #

    This post is inspiring! I love the way you balance teaching students to “read like professionals” while keeping in mind the importance of not removing the pleasure of reading from the process. We all need to develop our literacy toolboxes and use them with confidence and flexibility.


    January 8, 2016

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