Building Writing through Independent Reading Projects – a Follow-Up

In January, I reviewed Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined, and I was on fire! I couldn’t wait to take the brilliant-yet-simple idea of inviting students to track an idea of personal interest throughout a book. No more prescribed annotations! No more end-of-chapter questions! No more herding students into tightly-constructed pens of thought built on what I think is significant!

Especially with a book like The Catcher in the Rye, the whole-class novel my ninth graders were about to tackle.

I’ll tell you the end of this story upfront: independent reading projects were a huge success. I’m never going back to what I was doing before.

Here’s the rest of the story and how we walked through the first independent reading project together (chock full of goodies from my classroom for yours!):

Lay the foundation that readers think while they read

Somehow, my ninth graders don’t always know this. They know that a reader might think about what they have read,but many have never been explicitly taught that they are also thinking while they read … even when they don’t realize it!

Knowing that independent reading projects were on the horizon, I asked students one day to spend their independent reading time tracking their thoughts. I briefly modeled with my own thinking from my reading of chapter 1 of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 2.32.33 PM
Modeling reading-and-thinking in I’ll Give You the Sun

(I tried to walk that fine line of keeping my model brief and accessible but also showing a variety of thinking.) I asked students to follow suit as they read that day — to simply see what happened — and to submit their findings at the end of class.


I gathered their findings and synthesized them into a handy guide that students could glue into their notebooks.

Model reading-and-thinking in the text.


Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.58.20 PM
Students glued this hand-out into their notebooks to help them as they began to track their thinking


I wanted to reinforce this idea of simultaneously reading-and-thinking, and I also wanted to introduce my students to the sound of Holden Caulfield’s voice. Time for a read aloud!

I pulled out my document camera, opened to chapter one, and began reading — pausing as I read to talk through my thoughts and annotate my text.

Let students read, think, and annotate.

After reading Ariel Sacks’ Whole Novels for the Whole Class, I have become a firm believer that the best way we can help our students process and enjoy reading is to replicate the way we truly read — by sitting down and reading through a text from start to finish without the interruption of reading quizzes, study questions, class discussions, or cute activities.

I gave my students a calendar to help them pace their reading, but reminded them that this was just a suggestion. If they got caught up in Holden’s story, they should keep reading!  I also gave them a handout broadly outlining the idea of an independent reading project.  (Allison made the rubric!)Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.04.00 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.04.08 PM

Finally, I set aside six class periods during which they could read and track their thinking. Although I expected them to be reading out of class, it was important to me to have the class time to confer with each reader and to reinforce to students that the reading is important. It’s not what we do in order to get to the work. Reading IS the work!

After two days of reading of in-class reading, I had planned to confer with each writer about what they were noticing and help them devise a reading project. However, snow intervened, which actually worked perfectly! I had been anxious about my ability to listen to students’ thoughts and, on-the-spot, lead each one to a unique reading project. So, with time off for snow, I changed my plan and asked students to reply to an email with 2-4 elements of Catcher that they were finding interesting. I responded to each student with a couple of ideas for projects and allowed them to have the final say.

Students read, tracked, produced their findings, and reflected on what they learned. Here is Stella’s reading project:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.11.12 PM

And here’s Sydney’s:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.14.33 PM.png

Enjoy the Writing Pay-Off

After students read the whole book, we had three days of structured discussions. (Again, Ariel Sacks does a brilliant job of helping teachers break this down so that meaningful conversations happen even with the youngest students!) Armed with their reading projects, students were ready for a deep conversation about the text. I didn’t have to pull teeth to get them to refer to the text — they had examples and page numbers to share galore! Through their independent reading project, each student also had a unique and valuable perspective to share, which gave many quieter students confidence to contribute.

And, of course, all of this deep thinking, careful reading, and stimulating discussion was invaluable to their writing!

Though it was not required, most students also pulled from their reading projects in the real-world analytical writing they produced about The Catcher in the Rye — a book review, a character study, or an analytical infographic. (Click here to see mentor texts for each of those subgenres.) With a claim and evidence at-the-ready, much of the heavy lifting of analysis was already done!

Stella turned her reading project into a draft of an analytical infographic:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.17.05 PM

And Sydney’s became a draft of a character study in the style of NPR’s series In Character:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.14.51 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.14.59 PM.png

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.15.08 PM.png

Weighing Independent Reading Projects

I did have to let go of some things in order to see independent reading projects work. I had to ignore some fun activities I have devised over the years on The Catcher in the Rye in favor of student-driven inquiry. I had to learn to be okay with students “missing” some important elements of the text in order to let them uncover meaning through their own interests. Neither of my two ninth grade classes discussed “reaching for the golden ring”.  Is this okay? My students did explore loss of innocence and Holden’s fear of getting older. They had evidence that supported it, though they missed this one famous piece.

And, at the end of the day, I think I’m alright with that. Having me tell them what to look for wouldn’t have made that information meaningful. They’ll probably notice it when they go back and read The Catcher in the Rye again someday and connect it to the thinking they did as a ninth grader.  And they have a much higher chance of actually going back to this text in the future because they had their interests encouraged rather than interpretively beating the book to death.

I am a believer in independent reading projects because they ask students to work from a place of passion and personal interest. It asks they work from a place of potential, optimism, and positivity. Even when a student says, “This book is kind of boring,” an independent reading project asks, “Okay, well, what do you find interesting in the book?” There is always something.

Rather than trying to decode those elements that I find interesting, students are motivated, driven, and inquisitive because they are generating the thinking.


Have you tried an independent reading project? How did it go? How else do you drive student inquiry about texts? How does inquiry in reading connect with student writing? Comment below, find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or connect with us via Facebook.




Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PM
Available on Amazon or Heinemann!



  1. Rebekah, this is such a well-outlined, useful and inspiring post. Making whole-class literature study a student-centered experience is a struggle for me and other teachers I talk with. You’ve provided such a cool, authentic framework for working with a whole-class text here.

    I like the mix of Ariel Sacks’ Whole Novels approach with the authentic writing projects you asked students to do. The analytical inforgraphic and NPR-style essays are ideas that I immediately wanted to use in my class.

    Thanks for sharing such a helpful article.

  2. I am captivated and inspired by this post! This has my gears turning about doing an Independent Reading Project in my classroom…thank you for all the wonderful resources! I wonder what this would look like if students were all reading different books? Or there were a handful of lit. circles in the room? I like how this led to such wonderful discussion at the end of the unit, so maybe it’s important that they are reading the same book….hmmmm, you’ve certainly given me lots to think about. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for reading, Colleen! My students are actually doing this with lit circle books RIGHT NOW. Though they are just starting to identify their reading projects, I will admit that it has been a bit more challenging. The elements worth tracking in CATCHER are much more apparent than those in some of the YA texts I selected with the librarian’s help. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

      I definitely plan to bring this into my students’ independent reading, though!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s