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Once Upon a Reader's Workshop

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Making Something Beautiful, Discovering Something True

Posted 04-11-2010 at 01:12 PM by BookMuncher

Eek! I'm so nervous! I was asked to speak at a local university's induction for a Literacy Honors Society. Me? Speak? Squeak, maybe. I write. But of course I said yes, because saying no would have just brought regrets. Because I'm not good with speaking off the top of my head, I had to write the whole thing out and then go back and outline it so that I wouldn't be looking down at my paper the whole time.

I thought I'd run it by my PT friends first. You're lucky- you get the long hand version, free of ums and flailing hand movements. But it also won't have the two videos that I'm going to show the audience. You'll have to make a mental image.

A couple years ago, I had four boys in my first and second grade classroom who were overly passionate about all things Titanic. They formed a Titanic club and their meetings consisted of them pouring over all my Titanic books. When they ran out of mine, they got all the ones they hadn’t read yet from the school library and read those. They even uncovered inconsistencies between books. For any group member who discovered something big (or for any outsider like myself who helped them by providing books) they created the much coveted Smokestack of Honor Awards. I have audio of one of the boys saying (and I quote): “All my first grade life, I have been looking for a map from Pennsylvania to the Titanic, and I finally found one in a book.”

Hanging above my desk in my classroom is a notecard with this favorite quotation from William Inge: “Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful or discover something that is true.” There is so much in that statement that resonates with me – not just in school, but in life. I’ve hung onto it so much that I suppose now you could say it’s kind of worked its way into my teaching philosophy.

“Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful or discover something that is true.” It is human nature to passionately chase learning, yet so much of what schools do stifles that curiosity. There is a reason that all the best minds in literacy today are pushing schools towards the workshop model: it’s because when a classroom functions like a real workshop where something is taught and then learners go to work in a buzz of REAL, AUTHENTIC work, children create things that are true. A worksheet isn’t true. A basal reading series isn’t true. Both are materials made with adult intentions of controlling the sequence of skills and the way in which they are presented.

In a workshop classroom, children read real books. In my classroom, reading real books leads kids to form their own book clubs or to tape sign up sheets around the room at eye level for the most popular books. Living in my classroom is not 20 separate students, doing their own work at their own desks, but one community of readers. They know what each other likes: Ethan only reads fiction if it has nonfiction facts mixed in, and Mackenzie reads any horse series she can get her hands on. If a new Merlin Mission is added to our library, everyone looks at Sean. My kids bring books onto the playground, and parents have told me that playdates result in their children rearranging their “home libraries.”

These kinds of happenings go on in my room every year—but every year they’re always different. That’s because the workshop environment gives readers a gift: children know that every day they will get minilesson- a quick and essential piece of knowledge they need to make their reading better, and then they will have a sustained amount of time to choose from any book they want. This allows for them to make “BIG PLANS.” It allows for them to build for themselves a reading life. It would be like if you signed up for an adult pottery workshop. Would you rather sign up for one where every day the instructor gave you worksheets about pottery in which you had to circle, label, and answer questions about pottery? Or would you rather take a class where the instructor lead everyone in the class through creating the exact same piece of pottery lock-step? Or, would you rather take a class where every lesson, the instructor started by sharing some knowledge about pottery with you, and then turned you loose to work on a project of your own choosing? Children deserve to learn the same way that we would choose to learn.

I’d like to show you a movie of my students as they talk in student- run book clubs. There are four clubs in the video and each is only shown for a short time. All of these videos were shot by me on one day, as I snuck into their circles and pointed the camera in their direction. What you won’t see is the structure of the whole workshop. Before this, children have many lessons on holding a conversation- how to “ping-pong” back and forth, how to listen well. Children had many, many lessons on the comprehension strategies. All of those teacher directed minilessons led to the conversations you’ll see here. Remember, this is time in the workshop where they put their BIG PLANS into action. There are plenty of places on this video where I can hear them word bump or not listen or miss a chance to talk about a strategy. But I get my teacher-time during the minilesson: this is their time.


What sticks out to me as their teacher as I watch that video, is that each group really did have a POINT. To me, they have learned to strive for the truth and to talk about things that actually matter. I could have jumped in during that fourth group and neatly cleaned up that misunderstanding (after all, I knew the answer!), but I would have robbed them of the most precious thing of all- their right to debate, re-read, question, and eventually come to a consensus on their own.

I’d like to show you one more movie tonight. This one is of our Question Fest. In this video, we were celebrating the end of a unit on questioning and determining importance to answer our questions. Each child had come up with one “big” question, not easily answered, that he or she was dying to find out. In minilessons, I taught them how to sort the information and determine what the most important pieces were. In this video, they are attempting to share their answers with their visitors. As you listen, you may hear some pseudo answers, some half-truths, or others that are just plain wrong. By now, you probably realize that my purpose in this event was to teach them to search… to teach them how good it feels to learn. I think you’ll hear that in their voices…


Remember the little boy who was trying to answer the question of how the universe was formed? "I think," his voice rising on that last word (a scary start for a big question), "that there were gases and that the gravity pulled it together. And I'm inferring that it popped.” And while it may sound like a weak explanation, isn't he joining the ranks of centuries upon centuries of people who have inferred about the origin of our universe?

These were kids on a mission. They did not just learn the answers to some very good questions. They learned that from now on, if they want to know something, then they can go get it. They have learned that reading unlocks knowledge previously reserved for "other." They have learned that they are on equal ground with every other reader who reads in order to know.

They were making something beautiful, discovering something true. For the rest of your career as a learner and as a teacher, may you do the same.
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  1. Old Comment
    jbkz's Avatar
    Bravo BookMuncher! You will do an awesome job and they will be listening to your every word. Great idea showing some video clips - that will bring them into your classroom - not just leave them guessing about what it actually looks like.

    My favorite part of your speech is about the pottery class. I think I need to copy that and keep it to use when anyone questions reading or writing workshop.

    You Go Girl! It's about time you got some real recognition for your contributions to the teaching of reading and writing!
    Posted 04-11-2010 at 04:37 PM by jbkz jbkz is offline
  2. Old Comment
    liketeaching1's Avatar

    You made something beautiful

    I think you've said it perfectly. Can I listen in on your speech? AND could you come and give it in my district? It is so true that reading is not a basal. Reading is not filling out a worksheet and answering an achievement type quiz each week to satisfy RTI and the district's requirements. The good feelings come from watching the children read, talk, and strive to read anything and everything just for the pure enjoyment.
    Posted 04-12-2010 at 02:46 AM by liketeaching1 liketeaching1 is offline
  3. Old Comment
    2nd grade rocks's Avatar

    Dumb Question

    Okay, is the video on here? I just want to make sure that I am not missing it.
    Posted 04-12-2010 at 09:14 AM by 2nd grade rocks 2nd grade rocks is offline
  4. Old Comment
    SisterAnne's Avatar

    What an honor...

    for those students to hear about real reading from such a marvelous teacher and speaker! The videos will give witness to the work done at each potter's wheel (student's) as they fashion and mold a vessel for all of their reading discoveries and loves. Thank you for passing on the torch of what makes a readers' workshop successful as it creates lifelong readers and lovers of the word.

    Can you make a video of your talk so we may view it? We are so proud of you!
    Posted 04-12-2010 at 09:26 AM by SisterAnne SisterAnne is offline
  5. Old Comment
    luvin1st's Avatar


    I am so inspired. It made me cry... I realize you don't know me, but those who do, know that I do this when I am truly touched! I love how you looped Inge's quote throughout the presentation. It certainly grabbed me up. I have heard a lot of amazing people share their passion, and I know that yours will be wonderful! At my school, we like to say "Smell the Flowers. Blow out the Candles." In other words, take a deep breath! Please let us know how it goes Thanks for sharing with us!
    Posted 04-12-2010 at 01:37 PM by luvin1st luvin1st is offline
  6. Old Comment
    BookMuncher's Avatar


    Thanks for all of your support everyone... I think I'm beyond nervous now. More to the terrified stage. But I know I'll be glad after I did it. (I think) Knowing that it made you tear, luvin1st, makes me feel good. Maybe if I could get the whole audience in tears then my nerves will disappear!

    2nd grade rocks- sorry! I didn't post them directly to PT because there are kids on them, but both of them are under the Reader's Workshop link on my classroom website. One of them is called book clubs and the other is called reading celebration.
    Posted 04-12-2010 at 03:17 PM by BookMuncher BookMuncher is offline
  7. Old Comment

    I am so inspired after reading your post! I teared up. I am sure that your audience will be in tears. I just told one of my 4th graders last week (because I was in tears listening to his story about his mom's wedding and how he felt proud walking her down the aisle to a man he considers his get the drift)--that if you can make the teacher cry with your writing then you have succeeded! I will tell you the same thing, Book Muncher....all your blogs inspire me and I also love your website. I always lurk around your blog and website.
    Posted 04-12-2010 at 06:49 PM by
  8. Old Comment

    Love it!

    I too love the analogy to the pottery class. I attended a pottery class where the teacher did do a type of "mini-lesson" and then let us do our own project. It was great--even though I'm definitely no artist!!!

    I know you'll do well. If you weren't nervous, I'd be worried because public speaking is always a challenge. Even Lucy Calkins says she gets nervous before a workshop!!

    Would love to see the videos. Is there a good way to access your website?????
    Posted 04-13-2010 at 01:00 PM by sonshine sonshine is offline
  9. Old Comment
    Mrs. R :)'s Avatar
    I really enjoyed your speech. Very well done. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. It also helps me to think about how to phrase my beliefs so others may hear them!

    Best of luck to you.

    Mrs. R
    Posted 04-13-2010 at 04:12 PM by Mrs. R :) Mrs. R :) is offline
  10. Old Comment
    QTpie's Avatar

    Yea for you!

    Loved your speech. You are very inspiring and I'm sure your audience will be moved!
    Posted 04-13-2010 at 06:45 PM by QTpie QTpie is offline
  11. Old Comment
    BookMuncher's Avatar

    It's over!

    I did it! It's over! I can move on with my life.

    Speech went fine- I was definitely more passionate in front of them than in front of the mirror. I'm not positive that all of them, being juniors, seniors, and parents, knew just what I was talking about but they seemed to laugh in the right places and nod their heads every once in a while (mostly the professors).

    ANYWAYS- You can't know how much extra confidence it gave me being able to show you first and have good feedback. Thank you to my PT family!
    Posted 04-15-2010 at 01:19 PM by BookMuncher BookMuncher is offline
  12. Old Comment
    luvin1st's Avatar
    Bookmuncher! Sigh! I know that you must be relieved for this to be on your accomplished list. Doesn't it feel great to be able to share all about what you believe in for your kids. Yea!
    Posted 04-16-2010 at 07:14 PM by luvin1st luvin1st is offline
  13. Old Comment
    liketeaching1's Avatar


    that your speech went well and it is now over. I am sure you were passionate because you live it!
    Posted 04-18-2010 at 07:24 PM by liketeaching1 liketeaching1 is offline
  14. Old Comment


    Can you post them, by any chance?
    I am launching book clubs and have been DYING to see them in action!
    Posted 04-19-2010 at 05:32 PM by gdt1727
  15. Old Comment
    KQueen's Avatar

    Congratulations, BookMuncher!

    I am certain that you made something beautiful for those lucky members of the university audience, just as you make something beautiful for the lucky students of your second grade class each and every day!! WAY TO GO!! Thanks so much for sharing your speech with us on PT, especially since we couldn't be there to hear you speak in person!!
    Posted 04-19-2010 at 08:24 PM by KQueen KQueen is offline
  16. Old Comment
    BookMuncher's Avatar


    I can't post the videos of my kids on PT, but if you scroll up in these replies, you'll see a response to 2ndgraderocks where I tell her how to view them on my website. There is a link to my site on the left of this page.

    thanks, liketeaching and Kqueen!!
    Posted 04-21-2010 at 02:27 PM by BookMuncher BookMuncher is offline
  17. Old Comment
    txtchr205's Avatar

    Beautifully Written

    I would love for the reading teachers at my school to hear your speech. I believe it would inspire them to do more than teach the test. Will your speech be available for viewing afterward?
    Posted 05-17-2010 at 05:41 PM by txtchr205 txtchr205 is offline

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