Setting Up Independent Reading Part 2: Getting to Know Your Students

There are several decisions you need to make before the first day of school.  Part 1 of setting up independent reading time dealt with how much time each day and where to place it in the schedule. This post will focus on a plan for how to get to know your students so that you can pair each student with books that will hopefully interest him/her. Two of my favorites are interest inventories and Where I’m From videos.

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There’s a lot of power in interest inventories. Teachers can ask lots of questions from where students shop and what video games they play to what counts as reading and how does a teacher decide who are good readers. The answers are always fascinating. My favorite answer of all time is featured above… #20. Why do you think a teacher asks all of this information? An 8th grader write “stocker”. Translated to Stalker! Yes, now is the time to find out all of the information you can on each student. I’ve found that most love answering long surveys because the questions are about their favorite subject: themselves.  And now that we have collected information about the students, we can then begin compiling lists of books to recommend each student based on what he/she wrote in the inventory.

Another way is to have students create “Where I’m From” Poems. You can google “Where I’m From” lesson plans and find quite a bit out there about using George Ella Lyons’ poem as a template/mentor text. Lately I’ve been doing these digitally. Students read the mentor text by Lyons, write their own, find images, add the test and image to a videomaker (I typically use Animoto–since it’s plug and play), record themselves reading the poem, and publish. Below is my example that I share with my students.


This is the Interest Inventory I used when I taught middle school. Reading_Survey  I have made it digitally now with Google forms. Feel free to steal questions, adopt, and/or adapt.

Here are the directions for digitally making a “Where I’m From” Poem. Where_I’m_From_Digital Assignment



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Setting Up Independent Reading Part 1: Time


There are several decisions you need to make before the first day of school.  First, you have to decide how much time of each class you will devote to IR. Your second decision is where you will place IR in the daily class schedule.

  • I 100% believe that using class time to independently read a choice book is not losing instructional time. You are actually gaining so much, if you include reading conferences and accountability. During choice/independent reading time is the only time in your classroom that you are 100% differentiated to meet the needs of your learners. You are differentiated based on student interest and level. Not that they are reading within a range you assign (don’t do this–more on this later), but that they pick books that they can read. You might also be differentiated in environment, if after they are used to the routines you establish, you allow them to sit on the floor or under a table, etc. And if they do some kind of response when they finish a text and you have choices, you’ve also got product differentiation. All 4 areas of differentiation everyday in your classroom!
  • Suggestions for amount of time to guarantee your students:
    • 15 minutes in a 50-60 minute class
    • 25 minutes in a 90 minute block
  • You may have to build up to your ultimate time goal of x minutes per class. Many students haven’t had sustained reading time during the school day and need to build their stamina. For example, the first week you might shoot for 7 minutes of uninterrupted reading time. Second week 12 minutes. Third week 20 minutes.
  • There are definitely different opinions on when IR time should be scheduled in a class period. Some prefer to schedule IR for the end of the class period; however, I find this to be problematic since you might be in the flow of another instructional task and use up some or all of the IR time you’ve committed to. I prefer to start class with independent reading. Why? The students enter the room and start reading immediately, read for the allotted time, and are calm when the other instructional activities start. You’ve provided a set amount of time everyday, and there is an established routine of how to start class.

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Independent Reading Time in Secondary Schools


Getting better at something requires practice and time spent doing the desired activity. If you want to get better at soccer, you go to practice and play games. If you want to get better at piano, you go to lessons and practice daily. The same thing is true for reading. If you want to be a better reader, you have to practice. Soccer coaches and piano teachers schedule regular practice with them and require extra practice and workouts in between the official practices. This holds true for reading. Not only do students need to learn specific reading skills and strategies, but also they need to practice in sustained ways daily, which often means we, as teachers, need to provide that time in class.

Krashen (2004) conducted a review of educational research and found hundreds of studies that argued better readers spend more time independently reading books of their own choosing. Other research shows that many students (especially struggling readers) spend less than 5 minutes during the school day actually reading. That’s roughly 15 hours for the entire school year. No wonder we have a reading crisis in America. Students spend time learning about how to read, how to implement strategies, practice finding the answer with test prep activities, read short, worksheet passages to practice a skill, but have very little practice in putting it all together while reading uninterrupted for a sustained time.

So, what do we do? We provide class time EVERY SINGLE DAY for students to silently read a book they have chosen. I call this time Independent Reading time (IR time) when I work with secondary students to make it sound more grown up (think DEAR time from elementary school). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about HOW to find the time in already busy school days, HOW to set up IR time successfully, HOW to pitch the idea with principals, and the like. If you need to know something about IR or have questions, let me know and I will do my very best to answer it.


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I guess I should tell you what really happened…

School started.

And it was a mess.

We’ve been starting school here in America for hundreds of years, and we still can’t get it right. Parents are left out of the communication loop; therefore, students are not prepared. New Teachers and new administration are not supported and end up in tears within the first few days.

Texts I’ve received this week…

“I’m stressed.”

“If crying at school was acceptable, I’d be crying right now.”

“This is so hard. How come I don’t feel prepared.”

Why does school starting cause such panic and strong emotions?

I. Don’t. Know.

I do know that in many schools there is extremely high turnover and the average experience of the teachers is under 5 years. We have the blind leading the blind. What can we do? Here’s my starting point. It’s not comprehensive and it definitely needs work, but here’s where I am today…

1. Support new teachers and administration. Just because a person graduated from college (even with a teaching degree) doesn’t mean they are 100% ready to embark on this journey alone. They need those of us with experience to share information, to share strategies, to brainstorm lists, to use our connections to build a network of veteran teachers that will catch them when they fall.

2. Teach our pre-service teachers that they are NOT in this job alone, and they won’t be perfect. We need to share our missteps, mistakes, and failures, so that when they mess up (cause we all do), they can get back up. That tomorrow is another day. Resiliency is a necessary skill. We have to learn to screw up and not give up; screw up and stick with it. And by stick with it I mean learning from the screw up, and keep working and trying new things.

3. Grace. Enough said, right? This relates to #2, yet I want to explicitly say–  Everyone deserves grace, including yourself. We have to learn to give ourselves the grace we give to our students.

4. Work to find a balance. Teaching is hard and important work. But we can’t let it consume our young teachers’ lives. We have to work towards life balance. They need to hang out with friends, have a beer, go for a run, enjoy life away from school….

With this partial list, I’m signing off.

What do you do to support new teachers and administrators?



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Frustration… We must stand firm.

Over the last few years, I have been growing increasingly frustrated with myself and other teachers who do not resist the negative indoctrination that veteran and preservice teachers undergo as part of their roles as teacher. This sense of growing frustration is unfortunately linked to the exposure of so much negativity in today’s public schools that, instead of searching for student strengths often we only see what is wrong or deficient with the  students (Delpit, 1995). I feel that teachers allow this negative indoctrination to marginalize their expectations of children. This, in turn, influences their pedagogy. Lowering standards and expectations only continues cycles of failure that has plagued many schools AND students for too long. This negativity dominates many school cultures, as some teachers find fault with the home lives of students and exclude these children from teacher’s goals (see Ms. Brant’s Rants for an example of pre-testing exclusion of some students). We must stand firm in our instructional decisions that can and will facilitate learning of ALL children regardless of class, race, abilities, gender, and/or how close they are to passing a test. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing stories of teachers and their practices and decisions so hopefully more educators can begin to see ways to STAND FIRM in their pedagogical beliefs.

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Note to Self Shelf

I absolutely love how my 8-year old, Kat, is growing and maturing into a little lady. Today I happened upon a blue piece of construction paper with “Note to self shelf” written on it. This paper is taped to her closet door!

Her notes include:
“14th shop for stuff” and “were a coat on Tuseday.”

This is where I diverge into my teachery self. Kat’s teacher is incredible! So often teachers have students earn tickets for good behavior or making good decisions. In this, students often get to spend their tickets on plastic, junky goodie bag type gifts that I end up throwing away when Kat is not looking.

This year is different! Her class earns tickets and then purchases things like “eat lunch at the Dragon Park” or “have recess on the field.” There is also “read a favorite book to another class.” What cool prizes! When one student does well, the whole class does well. What a strong community building motivator! Kiddos are even combining their tickets to be able to “purchase” the bigger items (i.e. Lunch at Dragon Park is 100 tickets)!

I love, love, love this idea! All this to say: Kat’s shop for stuff note is referring to this. Last week, Kat bought “read to another class.” This means, she has selected 3 books, read them aloud repeatedly (text appropriateness and fluency building), and contacted 2 different teachers to request permission and a time that would work for them (writing, communication, and negotiation).

This is my kind of reward! Academic, confidence-building, supporting the good of others, and encouraging!


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Throughout the last few decades, politicians have called for educators to make decisions based on data and scientific evidence (Celio & Harvey 2005 among others). The last couple of years that I was in a middle school classroom as a Title 1 Reading Intervention Teacher, I was required to have data and standards-based assessments and instruction. In theory, this sounded like an ok plan. I mean really knowing what the students know and planning instruction from there sounds smart, right? However, the control and decisions often did not lie with me. I was emailed common assessments with a date to administer them. In addition to common assessments, our students were required to take twelve (yes, count them TWELVE) language arts benchmark tests aligned with the a curriculum map that was to be adhered to at all times. (I mean there were only 176 days of school, and we “lost” 12 to benchmarks, 6 for state testing, 4-5 for ITBS testing, plus all the other events where students miss class–I’ll post some research on missed class time soon and add a link.)

The pressure to stay together was so great that at one point, if a teacher posted a grade for a standard all teachers in the subject area had to post a grade within 24 hours. Oftentimes, I felt like I was climbing on the edge of a cliff waiting to see if I would find a safe foothold or not. Would I get in trouble for reading an alternate story or deviating from the daily grammar practice outline? What would happen if the administration ever figured out that I was not on the correct place on the map?

I was more off the map than on. This standardization of all aspects of my teaching and learning with my students was troubling as I base(d) my teaching and learning on relationships. I try to enact a thoughtful pedagogy that builds on the strengths and interests of the students. NOT a testing calendar and scripted curriculum.

to be continued…

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