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5 Ways to Blend Reader's and Writer's Workshop

I get a lot of questions about the best way to balance reading and writing workshop; it's something that I've struggled with myself on my journey with this approach. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder: why do we want to separate them at all?

Reading and writing are closely entwined. That's obvious. And yet, we tend to teach them as separate entities, even during workshop time. However, whether students are reading beautifully written language, or experimenting with it themselves, they are learning to become skilled readers and writers. It's all so inextricably linked.  

But, the question remains, how do you combine reading and writing workshop? Let's start with a look at some of the common core standards for reading literature in grade nine and ten:

Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

And now, check out these standards for writing in the same grades:


Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Even though the wording is a little different, each standard is basically asking the kids to focus on the same concepts, so why not ask them to do it all at once, rather than during separate lessons? That's exactly what I plan to do this year. As always, it'll be a work in progress for me, but I will share my successes and failures as I go, as well as some of the tools I will use to blend these two workshops. Make sure you sign up for my newsletter above to get some freebies in your inbox this week!

Here are four ways that I plan to blend reading and writing workshop:

1. Book Talks:
Book talks are an essential ingredient for a reader's workshop. We use them to spread the work about great reads, inspiring the kids to pick up a title they might not otherwise choose. However, if you are more deliberate with planning your book talk, you can use it for a writing mentor text at the same time. For example, at the beginning of the year, I always talk about the methods authors pull their readers into their stories. I want my readers to be able to identify and evaluate these techniques. I also want my writers to be able to craft engaging openings to their texts too, whether they are writing a narrative, a description, a poem or a non-fiction piece. I will gather a variety of novels with great openings, as well as some magazine and newspaper articles. We will evaluate them as readers, and then, during independent work time, students will use some of them as mentor texts to experiment with in their own writing. 

2. Student Novels as Mentor Texts 

When we do writing prompts and/or skill building exercises, I will ask students to use the novels they are reading as mentor texts. In the example above, after I show them the openings from the texts I have found, they will evaluate the effectiveness of opening lines of their novel, either in writing or in a conference with me. But, they will also be expected to use it as a model, and to try some of the writer's techniques themselves. If I'm teaching them about variety in sentence length, they will be tasked with the job of looking for examples in their novel and again, use them as a models. It's so easy to make that link -- and it's easier for the teacher, because you don't have to spend hours looking for mentor texts. It puts more responsibility on the students to do the thinking and the work, and it is an activity that blends reading and writing skills, as they have to be able to identify the technique in the novel (reading) and use it in their own writing.

3. Reading/Writing Notebook
I don't see any need to have two separate notebooks for reading and writing workshop, especially if I'm combining lessons as I explained above. The kids don't need another thing to keep track of (nor do you) and, if you're linking reading skills and writing skills, it only makes sense to link the notebooks as well.  Whether they are writing about the book they are reading, using a writing prompt, or using their own ideas, the end result is the same.  

4. Inquiry Questions

Inquiry questions are a staple in my classroom. I use them to approach everything we do, so I can link what happens in my room with what's happening in the students' lives. It makes them see the relevance in what we do and increases engagement significantly (you can read about how it works in Room 213 here). This year, instead of giving them the question, I'm going to open it up and let them choose their own. In the initial weeks of workshop, I want the kids to think about big questions that they'd like to find answers for. Then, they will attempt to find those answers in the books they read and use these ideas as jumping off point for their own writing. At the end of the year, they will complete a multi-genre project that will illustrate their exploration of the question. This will require that they explore the ideas in non-fiction, poetry and other texts as well as their novels. It will also require that they experiment with various types of writing as they explore the idea. 

5. Conferences

Conferencing is another essential component of the workshop approach, as they allow you time to instruct and assess your students. These provide another easy way to blend your reading and writing workshop. If I have a conference to assess a student's ability to understand how authors use language for effect, I'll ask them to show me examples from their novels and their pieces of writing. Not only is this "one-stop shopping" for the teacher, but it's a process that makes sense. Separating reading from writing is kind of like separating multiplication from division in math. Yes, they are separate skills, but students use them simultaneously in math class. 

Keep following for more details on how I blend my workshops, including the assessments that I plan to use. More posts coming soon.  And don't forget to sign up for the newsletter, so you can receive free products to use in your classroom:

If Teacher Isn't Happy, Nobody's Happy: Five Things to Take Care of First

It's taken my two decades of fighting against my type A perfectionist self to realize that one of the most important thing I need to do to have a good year, is to take care of myself.  It doesn't matter if I have the most engaging, mind-blowing lessons if I can't maintain the pace all semester.  If I can't sleep all night without waking up with my mind racing, if I can't have enough energy when I come home to be a good mother to my children, then something is not right.

So as I begin yet another school year, I am committing to five things that going to be a priority so I can be healthy, happy and sane:

1.  Exercise
I don't need to remind you of the research. We all know that we are healthier and happier when we move our bodies. I certainly am. However, after a long, demanding school day, I am really good at rationalizing why I'm better off exercising my ability to select something on Netflix than putting on my sneakers. This needs to stop. I am committing to doing something every day, whether it's a trip to the gym or a long walk with a friend (which is a double whammy). Even if I am exhausted -- which I will be during the first few weeks of school -- I am going to at least spend twenty minutes doing squats and weights while I watch Netflix.

2.  Eat Well
Right now, I'm on vacation and have lots of time to make some delicious and nutritious meals. Once school starts, though, it's harder to do that. But it's still just as necessary. To prevent myself from diving into a bag of chips after school, I'm not going to have any in the house. I'll stock up on healthy snacks so the temptation is not there. Also, I'm going to get back into the habit of spending a few hours on Sunday afternoons, making some meals that I can use all week: a casserole or a big pot of spaghetti sauce that will last for more than one meal,  and pre-chopped veggies that can be used for a salad or a stir-fry. It takes some time, yes, but it will ensure that my family and I are getting the good fuel we need for the week.

3.  Get Some Silent Time 
I desperately need some time when my brain isn't running a mile a minute, as it is prone to do. If I don't find ways to slow it down, I can run around like an Energizer Bunny until, inevitably, I crash, overwhelmed and unable to do anything well. Electronics have added to this problem, as there's always something for me to check or look up. I'm committing to carving out more quiet time. I'm going to give myself at least twenty minute a day when I leave my phone upstairs and grab a book or do some meditating -- anything that will distract my mile-a-minute mind from highjacking the time I need to unwind.

4.  Avoid the Drama
I don't know about your school, but at mine there's always some sort of drama. One staff member is ticked about something and another is incensed about something else. The staff room can become a cesspool of complaint that goes way beyond healthy venting, and I can get sucked deeply into it. I know that the best way to stay healthy is to just avoid certain people and certain situations. I'd also like to cultivate the art of diverting the conversation so I don't have to avoid. Until I do, however, for my own health, I will be seeking out the positive people who make me feel better when I leave the conversation, instead of worse.

5. Remember That It's Just. A. Job.
I know it's a calling and a passion; I get that. However, it is a job that can suck the life out of you and your relationships if you can't separate it from the rest of your life. Yes, we need to do homework in the evening and on weekends, but we need to make time for ourselves, our families and friends a priority in the after work hours. I don't have an answer for how to shut it off, but I do know that it has to happen. So, this year, I plan to work on strategies for walking away, for sometimes accepting less than my best. That might sound like a bad thing, but I don't think it is. I can go into overdrive and put way more time and energy into a lesson than is really necessary. Instead, I need to know when enough is enough. For example, maybe it is ok to use last year's untweaked lesson and go to a movie with a friend instead of reworking it.

That's my plan and I hope I can stick to it. There will be times that I do go for the junk food or get sucked into some hallway drama, but as long as I stay committed to trying, I should have a happy and healthy year. I hope you do too!

* One way you can get a break is to let other people help you. I've got lots of  classroom tested lessons and activities that you can check out, including this FREE back to school activity. Grab it by clicking here.

Back-to-School Ideas for Middle & High School English Teachers

back to school tips for middle and high school teachers
Some of you are going back to school this week, while others have a month of summer left. Whether you're setting the alarm or still dreaming of better ways to engage your students, you might find something for you here. I've rounded up some of my favourite back-to-school posts in the hope of providing you with some help and inspiration.
 I wrote recently about my decision to give up my Pinterest and Instagram Classroom envy so I could concentrate on what really matters in my room -- the learning. This post from last year focuses a little more on that, and tells you about the lessons and activities that I use during my first few days of school to create an environment of learning in Room 213.

back to school tips for middle and high school teachersWhen you're out shopping for supplies for your classroom, you don't have to break the bank. In fact, the things I use the most -- and have the greatest success with -- are pretty cheap. In this post, I tell you about the four things that I keep on hand at all times, as well as tips for how to use them in your classroom. You'll also find many posts throughout my blog that show these must-haves in action !

When it is time for back to school, you may want to switch things up a bit. Secondary students meet several teachers on their first day and hearing about rules, routines can get a little repetitive and monotonous. Break the pattern with more engaging ways to give them that first day information.

Once you get past those first days, it's time to get focused on your curriculum. I know many teachers get frustrated with older kids not doing their reading, so you may want to check out this post, where I offer suggestions for ways to get your teens to actually read.

And once they've done the reading, it's time to teach them how to analyze text. You can grab some tips for that here.

I have some amazing English teacher friends who have some back-to-school tips for you as well. You really should check them out:

back to school tips for middle and high school teachers
The Secondary English Coffee shop Gals have just share back to school teacher hacks -- you're sure to find something to help with your preparations there.
The Daring English Teacher has Classroom Routines to Establish at the Beginning of the Year.

Addie Williams provides you with a fun back to school student survey.

Secondary Sara lets you in on Five Rookie Teacher Mistakes to Avoid the First Week of School.

I hope you've found something here to ease your way back into the new school year. Good luck!


Tips for reader's workshop conferences in middle and high school English classes

A few days ago, I wrote about my favourite activities and strategies from the last school year, but I left one out: conferencing with my students. This strategy has totally changed my life as a teacher and I can confidently say it has improved the learning for my students. I wrote a post last year that details the reasons why you should conference, so I'm not going to rehash that today. Instead I'm going to share my plans to up my game, to make this strategy work even better.

Tips for reader's workshop conferences in middle and high school English classesConfession time: organization does not come naturally to me. I really have to work at it. While I loved the conferences I did last year, I knew that I was a little haphazard in how I rolled them out. I started really well, but as often happens with me, I can get a little off track. To prevent that from happening this year, I created some conference guides that will keep both me and my students focused on the skills I want them to develop during reading workshop (ones for writing are on the way). Each one has focus questions that will remind me of the areas I want my students to focus on during the conference. We can move in other directions as we talk, of course, but I will have those questions as a reminder of the purpose of the conference. Each one will get filed in my conference binder as I systematically move through the topics that I want to cover during reading workshop.

If I want my conferences to go well, I need to take the time early in the semester to teach my students how to prepare for one. They will need to know the topic ahead of time so they can think about how it relates to the text they are reading, and prepare their notes for discussion with me.  I will emphasize that it's important that they have details and textual evidence to back up their answers and that they have it all organized and ready to go. This student organization is a key component to running conferences in your classroom: you have a limited amount of time with each student, so s/he needs to come ready to be focused.

Tips for reader's workshop conferences in middle and high school English classes
The purpose of these conferences is twofold: I am trying to assess the skills of the students and they are trying to learn how to improve their skills. Just as I needed a better plan for covering the skills I want students to attain, I needed a better system for assessment too. You can see on the page above that I have a quick and easy-to-use rubric for each conference. I also have forms for each student, with each skill recorded, so I can track their progress through our reading workshop. I plan to record it all in pencil, too, because I want to give students a chance to improve. If they don't score well on recognizing the way authors develop theme, for example, they can try again with their next book. Once they've shown me that they have mastered the skill, they don't need to do it again with future books that they read -- I don't want to penalize the voracious readers with more work.

If I want all of this to work, I need the kids to take responsibility. When they confer with me, they need to be recording my feedback. And I want them to actually write it down - I won't be giving them back the scoring sheet I use. When they actually go through the process of recording the information, they have to take a much more active role in the process. Later, if they want to improve their evaluation, they will have to show me evidence that they used the feedback I gave them in previous conferences.

I'm happy with my plan and thrilled with my new guides. If you'd like to check them out, you can see them here. They've also been added to my Reader's Workshop Bundle, so if you have that, they're yours already - just go download again!

Flexible Seating, Pinterest Envy, and Common Sense

Secondary Classroom Decor

I have always decorated my classroom. I want it to be homey and a place that is welcoming and somewhat comfy for my students. But my past decorating meant hanging cool posters, adding a reading lamp or two, and buying some plants to replace the ones I killed the year before. I've also arranged and rearranged my desks so many times, I can't even remember all of the configurations.

Lately, however, I've been feeling a little inadequate. I see the amazing classrooms of other teachers on Instagram and Pinterest and I feel like I'm not measuring up in the classroom environment department. My classroom looks like a dungeon compared to many that I see, and I want to run out to buy new stuff. I've even looked online to see how much it would cost to buy some chairs and tables. I was thinking that if I bought a few things this year, I could add a few more next year, and then I might have a classroom that looked like the ones I was drooling over. My seating would be flexible, my walls would be IG and Pinterest worthy...

And then I shook my head.

My job is to educate and when I actually have spare time, I need to be thinking about the best way to engage my students, not how to wow them with the decor of their classroom. Isn't what they are learning most important? Or will they actually learn more if my room looks more like the coffee shop from Friends than a classroom? I really didn't know the right answer. I still don't.

As I was pondering this, I saw a blot post from Kayse Morris of Teaching on Less about why flexible seating didn't work for her. When I read about her experience with this, I felt like she was echoing my thoughts and concerns about making things too comfy for my teens. She tried it and found it didn't enhance learning, so she went back to the basics because, as she says, "that's where the magic happens." Her post made me feel better and started me thinking about happy mediums and following what I know to be true for my teaching.

Classroom decor for middle and high school classrooms
I do not, for one moment, think that those who create amazing classroom spaces are not putting learning first. It's just that I know I don't have the time and energy (and don't want to spend the money) to do that. So as I plan my latest classroom "revamp", I will be thinking about the following things:

1. Everything that I use needs to enhance, not detract from learning. It's great to use things that make your room cozy, but most things should be learning tools - anchor charts and posters that act as visual reminders for your students. These, thankfully, are cheap. I keep a ton of chart paper, markers and post-its on hand for making anchor charts and the construction of them is also an effective learning activity.

2. Too much "stuff" can be distracting for some learners. We need to be aware of that and keep it simple or have some "quieter" spaces.

3. Anything that helps me and my students stay organized is a good thing and so new items that will do so will go to the top of my list!

4. I don't need to spend hundreds of dollars to make my classroom a place that students want to be. I will continue to find inexpensive ways to make my classroom a great space for my students, but I'm going to stop feeling bad about my OK-looking classroom, because I know that the learning that happens there trumps anything else. The lessons and activities I use and the relationships I cultivate will go a whole lot further than any decor item I could buy.

So there it is. I will be redecorating before the school year starts, but I'm going to try to keep my Pinterest-envy at bay.  I'll keep you posted!



I'm only two weeks in to my summer vacation, and already, my brain is full of ideas for next year. However, before I start changing and improving, it's important for me to reflect on the things that worked last year, whether they made the class run smoothly or they created a lightbulb moment for the students.

Here are my highlights from the 2016-2017 school year {spoiler alert: there may be a few freebies!}:

Group work kits are one  of my favourite tools in my high school English class.
 If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I love my group work kits. Last August, I bought some plastic containers at the dollar store, labeled them as you see above, and filled them with the things my students might need when they work in collaborative groups (which they do a lot). 

Group work kits are one  of my favourite tools in my high school English class.
Each one contains post-it notes, highlighters, markers, a glue stick and paper clips. Now, instead of wasting time passing these things out individually, my kids know that they need to send someone to my back cupboard to grab a kit. I can start circulating or conferencing right away, since the kids can form their groups and get ready to work without my assistance. If you'd like to try this with your kiddos, you can grab the labels (as well as a colourful classroom poster) here.
Highlighting text is an effective strategy for instruction and assessment
I've used this technique before, but I really embraced it last year, and it made a definite difference. Whenever I gave students a model of writing, I colour-coded the individual elements so students could have a clear visual of what I wanted. Topic sentences were in one colour; transitions were in another. Summary for context was different than analysis.

I extended this activity by enlarging and cutting up a sample paragraph, so students could get even more practice. You can read about how this activity worked here

Highlighting text is an effective strategy for instruction and assessment

My highlighters also became an effective tool for faster grading -- and greater learning for the students. Whenever I took in their note-books, instead of giving them written feedback, I would highlight areas that were well done in one colour, and areas that needed work in another. Then, they had to write out the "needs work" sentences and improve them. They passed those in for a mark. It was so much easier for me, and they were forced to use my feedback -- and learn. 
I've always put a lot of focus on the revision process, but this year I decided to spend more time on pre-writing, and I saw big improvements in my students' first drafts. I added essay planning stations to my collection, and students were required to actually put in time thinking about their focus, playing around with ways to organize, and ensuring that they had enough detail and information to develop their points. It took more time but, boy, was it worth it!

Teaching essay writing? Spend more time in the pre-writing stage to ensure better essays.

After a particularly frustrating round of assignments from my twelfth graders, ones that were full of basic grammatical errors, I decided that something had to change and that something was me. I was continuing to accept work that was clearly done without care and attention to things the kids know, like the fact that you capitalize "I". The result was that they continued to do it. They just didn't seem to care that they were losing marks.

I made up this handout and told them that I would stop grading anything that contained any of the errors on the sheet, and I would give it back to them to redo. It's something I should have done years ago, but I was always afraid of making more work for myself. However, after I instituted this policy, a funny thing happened. Everyone did a better job of editing --except Chris. We had to do a few rounds of me giving him back an assignment to redo, but by the end of the semester, he'd stopped making his careless mistakes. If you'd like this handout to give your students, you can grab it here.

These strategies and activities definitely made a difference for me and my students, so they will be go-to's for next year as well. Stay tuned for part two!

Managing Workshop with Stations

Would you love to try reading or writing workshop in your secondary classroom, but don't because you aren't quite sure how to run one?

Reader's and Writer's workshop can work in middle and high school. In fact, it reduces apathy and increases accountability. c
I know -- because I've been there -- that one of the reasons secondary teachers shy away from a workshop approach is because it's outside of their comfort zone. I get it. We know today that a teacher-centered approach is not always the best pathway to learning -- but a student centred one can be hard to manage. It's so much easier to teach a full class text, or to assign one writing assignment, that we can tightly control. We can see the road ahead and how to get there. We even have lots of tricks for keeping students' eyes on the road. That's what made the switch to workshop so hard for me -- I had two decades of well-honed lesson plans that were easy for me to roll out and manage. Why mess with what's been working?

Because there are methods that work better

Reading and writing workshop gives students more choice and freedom, but it also puts more onus on the them, making them more accountable, more likely to do their work AND more likely to engage in learning.

Even though we know this to be true, it's still harder to manage a workshop approach, especially in the beginning when you and your students are not used to it. One of the biggest problems is keeping the kids on task while you conference with individuals or work with small groups. For me, stations were the answer, because they keep everyone - myself included - focused.  Middle and high school English teachers: use stations to manage reader's and writer's workshop. keep your students focused and organized and free yourself up to conference!

Once I started using stations during independent work time, everything fell into place. I could conference with my students or work with small groups while students had a clear procedure to follow and tasks to complete. Also, they love the fact that they can get up and move around the room, which always helps with focus and engagement.

During Writer's Workshop, students can move between stations that require them to work on pre-writing, creating or revising. They can also go to stations for skill-building, inspiration and feedback. The beauty of the process is not just that they are busy and focused while I work with students, but that they have the freedom to go to the area that they most need to work on. With writing workshop, students are working on different things at different times, and these stations provide them with a focused way to do so.

Reading Workshop Stations provide the same opportunities. I especially like them for getting students to work on their notebooks or to spend time discussing their books with each other - without me being there to direct them.

So, how do you organize the stations and the students' journey through them? Well that depends a lot on your class and what you want them to accomplish. I teach high school, and once I establish my routines, I can depend on them to work well on their own, with a little bit of reinforcement from me. For the most part, I let them go to the stations they want (or need) to work on and then they move to the next one when ready. If you have a class that needs more structure, however, you can group them and have them move through each station together, after ten or fifteen minutes. I tend to use the less structured approach with writing workshop, but when we switch to reading, I find it makes more sense to have them move through the steps together. That said, if I have a very independent group of readers, I'll give them more freedom.

There are many ways you can keep your workshop focused and organized, but stations are what work best for me. What are your favourite methods for keeping your students on task? Please leave your ideas and/or questions in the comments!