You know how the greats always make it look easy? This is the way I feel whenever I get to listen to Katie Ray or Tom Newkirk — they say something clear and simple and beautiful and even common sense, but it absolutely rocks my world.
So it was when I read Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined (Heinemann 2015). After hearing Feigelson speak at NCTE about “revising” reading and his “quick and dirty reading projects”, I knew I had found a strategy for my second semester literature focus. And, quite possibly, a road into student writing about literature. And after digging into the book over winter break, my teaching world was rocked by the book’s simplicity and brilliance.
60-Second Book Review
Fear not — Feigelson’s “reading projects” are not rendered on poster board or as dioramas (which was my initial fear upon reading the title). It is so much more intuitive and authentic than that. A reading project is simply a written record of “what the student wants to think about”. And as we encourage students to pursue those lines of thought, we make them “co-conspirators in their own comprehension.”
Why haven’t I already thought of this?
Feigelson presents a simple three-step process:
- Students notice an idea that they are developing about the text
- They keep track of that idea (in consultation with the teacher)
- They reflect on what they have learned and how their initial idea has grown or changed.
The teacher, likewise, follows a three-step process in conferring with student readers:
- Names what the student is noticing (ideally, it’s an idea that might transcend the single text)
- Gives the student a project (what to keep track of and a system to keep track)
- Chooses a due date.
It’s really that simple.
The “project” itself emerges as some kind of informal writing — some jottings, a list, a chart, a diagram. Nothing to spend hours grading. Nothing formal and polished and sweated over. Just evidence of continuous, intentional thinking on paper.
After laying out the basic steps of student-led reading projects, Feigelson spends loads of time giving student examples and letting us eavesdrop on conferences with both younger and older students (usually 4th/5th grades and 7th/8th graders respectively) to see how this very simple system works in real student contexts.
My Big Writing Takeaways
A middle-grades book about reading might not seem like the typical ground to mine for ideas on writing instruction. And yet, one of the biggest, most pervasive expectations of secondary English teachers is that their students will write about their reading, specifically literature.
But what should they be writing about? Do we really need another essay about who is most responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? Creon as a tragic hero? Lennie and George pursuing the American Dream?
Independent reading projects are a brilliant and authentic way to help students annotate meaningfully, assess and track their thinking, and then report their findings about a piece of literature. And it ensures that we don’t read 150 identical papers.
This could be used as a way into writing for whole class reading, small-group literature circles, and in independent reading — a place where teachers often struggle to find authentic and efficient modes of assessment.
How I Hope to Use It
In my Reading Writing Workshop 9, we use second semester to focus on whole-class and literature-circle reading (with writing workshop blitzes interspersed here and there focused on authentic analytical writing). We just began reading The Catcher in the Rye, and while the students are reading they are tracking their thoughts, their interests, and the elements that draw them into the text. I have conferred with each student to help them find a reading project.
These reading projects will be used in class discussion of the novel and, hopefully, used to help students find ideas for their analytical writing about the text. For example, if one of my students chooses to track Holden’s controversial use of language and shady teenage behavior, she might use this information as fuel to write a defense or a take-down of the book based on its offensive content in the style of The New York Times’ Room for Debate series on language in Huckleberry Finn.
If this goes as well as I hope it will, I will use independent reading projects for our remaining whole-class and small group texts of the year.
Should You Buy the Book?
I really enjoyed this practical little book. It’s slim, easily digestible in a few sittings, and full of resources, sample conferences, and helpful tips. While a colleague could pretty quickly explain the process to you, you will want this book to sit on the corner of your desk — ready to grab in the throes of a reading conference for a quick reference or handy tip. To solve the perennial problem of what students should do while they read, this is a must-buy.