Monthly Archives: December 2015

Connecting with Readers at Community Circle

In the world of education, we are always looking for more time. How can I get ten minutes more for this subject? What about five minutes more for that one? Even if our days were ten hours long, we would still have every moment filled to the brim.

These time pressures lead us to make many decisions, usually trimming activities that are not directly related to academic content. Despite these pressures, there has always been one non-academic routine I refuse to cut. I won’t remove it, won’t shorten it, and won’t slide it to another time of day. It is our daily community circle.

This is Part 2 of my series on connecting with readers. (Part 1 – Reading Response Letters) Community circle is a huge part of building my relationships with my readers.

Each morning, after completing the day’s morning tasks, I ring my chimes, signaling the students to stop working and arrive at community circle. As with other routines, we had to practice this multiple times at the beginning of the year, and now the procedure is automatic. Students sit in the same place each day near their teammates.

I begin by welcoming the group and review the day’s agenda and any announcements or news. Sometimes, we celebrate an accomplishment by another student. Then, most days there will be a question or prompt for students to address.

  • Monday – Catch-Up Time – Tell us about something you did since we saw you last week.
  • Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – These topics vary. Sometimes, we’ll share something we’re working on in another class. Others times, I’ll use the Kids’ Book of Questions to come up with a fun topic. We’ll also discuss lifeskills or important events.
  • Friday – Free Share – Tell us anything you want!


“But I thought this was a post about reading?” you are now likely asking. The information I gather from students during this time period helps me understand each and every student. I learn what they like to do in their free time. I learn about teams and clubs they belong too. I learn what they love and what they can’t stand. Their successes and difficulties shared at our community circle help me know them as people.

If I truly know my students, only then can I make meaningful book recommendations. I know the book to place in front of my student who loves horses (Riding Freedom), the one who wants to be a scientist (The Hive Detectives), and one who is always talking about her annoying sibling (Sisters). If I didn’t know my students, I’d just be guessing. Now, uninformed book recommendations are better than none at all, but community circle allows me to connect with my students in an unparalleled way. This connection helps me guide them to be the amazing readers I know they can be.



So You Went to a Great Conference…Now What?

I had a wonderful opportunity to attend the IAG (Indiana Association for the Gifted) conference for the past two days, and my brain is stuffed. You’ve probably had the same sensation after a conference as well. You are filled with inspiration and ideas, but now what? What do you do when you return to school the next day? Here are some thoughts.

Try one thing now. – You heard a lot of ideas, and for some of these ideas, your energy will never be higher. As soon as you get back to class, try it! Even if your colleagues don’t understand your thinking and even if you don’t fully understanding your thinking, give it a go. If you can’t do it that day, put it in your plans for the next week. If you don’t, there’s a chance you might never regain the energy to try it again.


Give yourself permission to let things go. – Again, you heard a lot of ideas, and right now, you have this idyllic visualization of doing every single thing you learned about. This redesign of your entire room and curriculum would be amazing. This is great in theory, but it’s simply not realistic. We have to allow ourselves to say, “That’s cool, but I’m not ready for it now. Maybe one day.” This allows you to rejoin your classroom and not feel like a failure later in the week.

Check out the websites. – Chance are that at your conference you heard about numerous websites others love. Even though you can’t incorporate everything you saw into your classroom, spend twenty minutes clicking through each one. Join the free ones. Watch the video tutorials and think about how they might be useful later on. If you do this now, it will be part of your website repertoire you can call upon in a few weeks, months, or years when you are looking for that perfect site to improve one of your units.

Connect with one person you met. – Maybe it was a presenter, maybe it was another attendee, or maybe it was someone you just heard about. Either way, reach out to them. Finding them on Twitter is easiest, but do whatever is necessary to build a relationship. Even if you don’t need this person’s expertise immediately, you might in the future. Beginning this relationship now will make it more likely this person will respond when you really need it.

I hope you had a great conference!


Knowing Your Students Through Reading Response Letters

It’s the most time-consuming thing I do, but it’s value is immeasurable. I spend large chunks of time writing responses to students’ letters about their own reading. It takes forever and sometimes looms over my Saturday morning, but I cannot overstate the importance of this communication.

This is Part 1 of a series focusing on connecting with readers. We know teacher’s relationship with his/her students is of supreme importance. However, a major piece of this relationship is knowing kids as readers. I’ll be offering easy ways to construct and grow connections with your readers.

Every other Friday morning, I have students write a letter to me about the reading they have done in class this week. I carve out a twenty-minute block for them to all do this at the same time. Some experts suggest staggering these throughout the week and having students complete them during the independent reading time. I never had success with this. I enjoy the opportunity to address the group and then send them to write.


So, what do they write about? Most of the time, I leave it open to them. Our first two sentences always are structured the same: one with the title and one telling what part they are on. But after that, the students are free to explore their own thinking about what they have read. As I tell the students, this isn’t a retelling of the story; it’s about what you have been thinking about while you have been reading. I do give them a page of Thinking Sentence Starters (here’s a copy) they can use if they are stuck.

Sometimes I will give them a topic or format to use in their letter. For example, during last week’s writing workshop, we were working with persuasive writing, so in their reading letter, students had to convince me to read or not read their book, supporting their idea with opinions and examples. It was the perfect opportunity to connect our reading and writing content.

As I mentioned, responding to all these letters is a tall order, but I learn so much about my students as readers through their letters. I learn who is and is not understanding what they are reading. I learn how they are feeling about reading. I learn who needs help moving beyond retelling, and I learn who is exploring complex themes. All of this informs the decisions I make about how to best help kids.


Want to try it? Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t do it every week. Responding to these takes awhile, so take it slow.
  • Don’t feel like you have to respond with a full page. Pick one thing to reinforce or share in your respond.
  • Do respond! And make it personal…not just “Great letter.”
  • Model, model, model. Write a letter to the class about your reading as they watch. Think aloud about what you are doing.
  • Teach kids how to develop their own ideas, not always being dependent on a prompt.
  • Grade these with a basic rubric. Here’s mine! Count each grade as a separate entry in the grade book. If you’re spending a lot of time grading an assignment, it should be worth multiple grades. I create a weighted category in my grade book for these responses.

Don’t worry if it crashes and burns the first time. Just stick with it! You’ll be pleased with what you are able to learn about your students as readers.