Why I’m Obsessed with Guided Reading Notes

A few years ago, back in the first few years teaching at my current school, I was teaching on what was called an “overload” schedule. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s the schedule they give you when all the money is gone. For three years I taught six out of seven periods, five preps a semester, seven preps total a year. For those of you currently on a schedule like this, I offer you my deepest sympathy and bow to your fortitude. After three years on this schedule, money was found to hire an extra English teacher (praise the Lord!) and I was asked to “hand over” two of my electives. Initially, I targeted my Shakespearean Lit course as one I was willing to lose. However, I realized I couldn’t really hand over any materials to an incoming teacher. Sure I had handouts and tests, but there were no notes.

Why? Because the notes were all in my head.

After that moment I realized that the knowledge of my literary content, the knowledge that I spent a lifetime learning, analyzing, creating, and teaching, really ought to be written down. Therefore in the following school year, basking in all the extra time I gained with an easier schedule (joking, there’s never extra time), I created notes to pair with my instruction for every literature unit in my Shakespeare course. The following year I did it with my sophomore classes. Then I started making them for AP Lit. I call them Guided Reading Notes, and they have saved my sanity.

Here is an example of one of my slideshows of guided reading notes from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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Here are several reasons that Guided Reading Notes are lifesavers: 

  1. Absences. Face it, kids are gonna miss school. Even the darling try-hards have to miss once in a while, and sometimes even more when you factor in college visits, field trips, and testing days. It seems like the older they get, the more school they miss. I got tired of having students ask me what they missed when they were gone. It put me in the position of having to sit down and re-teach the material one-on-one, or simply saying, “We read and discussed chapter 4. Good luck, it’s important.” With guided reading notes, I teach the material in class, but post the notes afterwards on an online learning platform. My school uses Schoology. Before this I used Moodle. Many teachers love Google Classroom. Any of these will support guided reading notes. Simply use them to teach in class, then upload them afterwards. Once you start doing this consistently, students who were absent will know to read over the notes from when they were gone. If they still have questions afterwards, I am happy to give them one-on-one time. But at least this takes the bulk of the extra work off of my plate.
  2. Review. One thing that I find so eccentric and endearing is how quickly the teenage brain can forget something. It helps that I, too, am extremely forgetful. And unfortunately, if a book is long, students tend to forget the events in chapter 1 by the time the test rolls around (which stinks, because as everyone knows chapter 1 sets up all the good stuff for later). Guided reading notes help students review for tests by outlining important details and pointing out big-picture themes, symbols, and plot events. Sometimes students don’t even notice something big until they go through the review. These notes prove even more helpful before our AP Lit exam. I mean, seriously, who remembers what we read back in September? But with 10 minutes of easy review, students can brush up on those important literary units and turn short term knowledge into long term knowledge.
  3. Teacher Sanity. As I said before, my memory is quite bad. Sometimes I think of something brilliant, teach it, and next year I can’t make any sense of what I meant when I put a certain question on the test. By making guided reading notes, I maintain my own sanity from year to year. My students don’t know this, but I use my own notes as a review before I give literature lessons. It has also proven useful when I am absent and need to make sub notes. Instead of writing notes for a full chapter or reading assignment, I can simply assign students to read the guided reading notes, then use class time to complete the next assigned reading. My job: upload and post. I cannot even begin to describe the sanity they have saved my three maternity subs, who found themselves in the intimidating task of subbing for AP Lit. By using my notes, they felt confident that the challenge level was appropriate. Plus, they used my notes to learn the material beforehand!
  4. Multiple Learning Opportunities. My notes don’t simply review everything that happens in a chapter. In fact, I avoid this as often as possible. Guided reading notes are not Sparknotes summaries that replace reading. They are teacher-designed notes that help guide students through the material, pointing out things they might have overlooked and helping them make connections in the literature. I have used guided reading notes to do point out literary elements, pose discussion questions, give a pop quiz, lead a small group activity, organize jigsaw learning, give hints to tough study guide questions, break down important quotes, and more. My students learn very early on that if they want to do well on my tests, they need to study from the notes.

If you are brand new to teaching, guided reading notes are a wonderful tool to use, but keep in mind they take a while to prepare. If you are in your second and third year and you know your content fairly well, creating guided reading notes is a wonderful strategy to reduce prep time for yourself in the future and create study resources for your students to access in the future.

If time is tight and you are interested in purchasing any of my Guided Reading Notes, just visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store and click on the Guided Reading Notes category on the left-hand side. I currently have resources for the following novels and plays:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Hamlet
  • Frankenstein (AP Lit)
  • Othello
  • King Lear (AP & general student audience)
  • Macbeth
  • All the King’s Men (AP Lit)
  • Things Fall Apart (AP Lit)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Of Mice and Men (includes vocabulary unit)
  • Twelfth Night (AP Lit)

My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Three

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After four months of observation, preparation, and prayer, the day arrived to open our school’s writing center. And despite our modest beginnings, we had six different visitors on our first day alone!

We opened at the beginning of January, and in the four months we’ve been open we have had over 150 different appointments. For a school with only 325 secondary students, that is astounding!

Here are some pics of our coaches in action.

 

So much of our success is due to our amazing faculty members. Several teachers have offered extra credit for visiting the writing center, which is a wonderful promotion, as long as we know ahead of time! We learned quickly that when students are given this incentive oftentimes we have more visitors than writing coaches. But if I know to expect many students ahead of schedule, I am able to schedule extra coaches on for that day, and everyone is taken care of. So far this semester we have had 3 different “all-staff” days, where almost every coach was utilized due to our flood of traffic.

Some ways I’ve kept the writing center a well-oiled machine are through organized binders containing writing resources.

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I have a file box containing writing handouts given out in our school’s ELA classrooms, including quote integration, italicization vs. quotation marks, MLA formatting, and more. When a writing coach is stumped or I see them struggling to remember a concept, I can easily grab a handout from this box and bring it over to them. Receptionists often do this on their shifts as well.

 

All of our writing center resources are contained in these two locations: a shelf at the entrance of my room and a wooden organizer on a table near the entrance. The shelf holds the writing resource box (see above), binders containing assignment details and rubrics, sample essays, dictionaries, thesauruses, and other resources. Oftentimes the receptionist on shift will distribute these resources once visitors are checked in, and they know to re-file them when students leave.

The other container holds highlighters, post-it notes, a list of all writing coaches and skills (for receptionist use), scratch paper, and most importantly, the tutoring session form.

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This document is the most important in Writing Center success, in my opinion. It tells me what brought a student into the writing center, and gives feedback on each individual experience. The coach notes at the bottom are also very valuable. For example, one visitor gave positive feedback, but the writing coach noted that the student sat back and seemed to expect the writing coach to make all of the changes for her, which directly contradicts our policy. She even became angry when asked to do the work herself. This feedback was very useful to share with the assigning teacher, who was able to speak to the student directly about taking more initiative over her own assignment, rather than asking others to do the work for her.

Overall, the experience was grueling but incredibly rewarding. Our attendance is strong and so much of the work is done to implement an even stronger writing center program next year.

One benefit of going through this process is the ability to share what I’ve learned. I am so grateful to anyone who has taken the time to read this, especially if you read all three posts! To any teachers or administrators interested in forming their own writing center I have bundled all of my resources for training and running our writing center into a Writing Center Starter Kit, available at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Click here to read Part One or Part Two of this post series. Special shout-out to Nicole Case for some of the photography in this post 🙂

My Journey Toward a Writing Center – Part Two

Writing Center title part 2

So to recap from Part One of this posting, I had become overwhelmed by the needs of my students when it came to one-on-one writing help. I was inspired by a wonderful Writing Center at a nearby public school. I was quickly approved by my administrator to start a center at our own school and word began to go out. The Writing Center was a go!

But I had no budget. No stipend. And no idea where to start.

Ok, I wasn’t completely clueless. But I was definitely feeling overwhelmed. Luckily, around the same time as my observation at Minnetonka, I began drafting a survey to give out to the student body on how (and if) they would use the Writing Center. I didn’t want to be completely disappointed if we opened and no one showed up.

Here are main results of my survey, and thanks to Survey Monkey for their free survey tools to help me in this process!

 

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The first question showed that over 80% of those surveyed would attend the Writing Center at least once, and more than 30% would be repeat visitors. That was great news for me!
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This question was to help me decide how to train my staff and to give me an idea of how students felt about writing at our school. Being the department head, this information was useful on many levels.

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We had several write-ins for this question, many being requests for help with lab reports. It turns out many students need help writing about science. I never knew!
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So far our staff hasn’t been able to help with any college prep sessions, but the Writing Center staff at the school I observed puts on regular coaching sessions in preparation for the ACT. It is a goal of mine to integrate these sessions in the next few years.
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This was to answer my biggest question: How on earth could I convince students to spend their precious free time tutoring other students, when I can’t really offer them anything? Naturally, several students suggested we pay them, but as I wasn’t getting paid that was definitely not an option. I was surprised at how many students were willing to do it for the sake of volunteer work and service hours. It really reaffirmed that we have such great kids at my school!

After the data was in, I was convinced: our school was ready for a Writing Center, and I was pretty sure our students would use it.

I also created a faculty survey to assess what kinds of writing was being assigned, and how many “big” projects we needed to prepare for. Later I presented the Writing Center concept to the staff at a faculty meeting and explained how they could help get the word out in preparation for our opening. I love my colleagues, and they were obviously very supportive.

Now on to the next step: finding a staff.

After talking with our guidance counselors, I decided that to start out the Writing Center in our “beta-testing mode,” the best staff would be comprised of our National Honors Society students. The NHS students are generally among the most gifted writers and are usually student leaders at the school, which might make them natural writing coaches. They also have a tutoring requirement, which the guidance counselors were actually struggling to meet for each tutor. I sent out some e-mails, scheduled a training, and boom, I had a staff!

Over Christmas break, I was tasked to create the training in preparation for a 3-hour session on the third day of the second semester. The writing coordinator at Minnetonka had sent me with a few articles to help me train the staff, so I figured that wouldn’t be too hard to sort out. I spent the majority of my time shopping for supplies and researching best practices in Writing Centers (both in high school and college).

As it usually does, Christmas break was over instantaneously, and before I knew it the training was upon me. The night before, I set out to finalize the powerpoint and organize the training presentation. At least, that was the goal. For almost an hour I simply moved papers around and stared at a blank screen.

My husband walked past me, making an innocuous comment on what was on tv. His presence was enough to push me over the edge and I broke out in ridiculous, almost infantile sobs. As my husband rushed over, I repeated over and over, “I can’t do this.”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t create the training. I knew I could, and I had the materials to do so. What seemed impossible to me was the actual likelihood that I would be able to get such a big program off the ground, and in just a short amount of time. Also, I was doing this almost entirely by myself.

I’ve had a lot of experience leading things, but never ideas that were 100% my own. I’ve led drama productions before, but usually in an assistant role. The best part about being an assistant is that when something goes wrong, the “blame” is never on me. But this Writing Center was my baby. I had the idea, I sought out the answers, I created the workspace, I organized the staff and the training, and I was responsible for the results.

The bottom line was this: If this Writing Center failed, it meant that I failed. 

After a good cry and some bucking up from my husband, I finally (somehow) finished preparing the training. The next morning I got some help from some students I had identified as my best leaders in the Writing Center and we began.

Our short training consisted of the following agenda:
– Purpose and Functions of the Writing Center
– Coaching Training (tips on peer reviewing, step-by-step guide for conferencing)
– MLA Research Review
– Sophomore paper brainstorming

During the MLA review, half of the students were taken aside and asked to fill out some writing coach biography cards I had created, which are available for download on my TpT store (they’re free!). Our photography teacher was also gracious enough to take quick headshots of each coach to accompany the cards.

The last thing we did was go into my sophomore English classes and work on coaching. I wanted students to learn how to conference about writing, in a way that was beyond simple peer review. My students were just beginning writing a pretty extensive research project called position papers, and they had just chosen their topics. The great thing about having upperclassmen writing coaches is that every student had written this paper before. This meant that they were able to relate to the journey the sophomores were beginning and could give tips from experience as well as general writing advice. The sophomores reported later that this conference was very useful, as it made them talk through their choice of topic and bounce ideas off of another student.

The Writing Center was set to open in just a week and there were two things left to do: prepare our workspace and inform the school community.

I’ll be honest, the decorating was my favorite part. Because we had literally zero budget, the Writing Center would be operating out of my classroom. But I still wanted it to have a special space that we could call our own. Over break I had bought a chalkboard calendar, a corner bookshelf, and some desktop organizers. With the coach bio cards finished and the headshots printed, I decorated the entryway of my classroom and organized some writing resources for coaches to access. It didn’t take long for our Writing Center to look cute, even though it wasn’t technically a “center.”

 

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I put out some e-mails to the faculty and made some postings on Schoology to get the word out. I had also asked a student to design a logo for us (see below) and I blew it up and had it posted on my door. It also serves as our watermark and logo on our paperwork.

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Finally, I had to face it: there was nothing left to do. It was time to see if the Writing Center would be successful.

Here’s a quick recap of the process to opening a Writing Center, for anyone else interested in starting one at their own school. Feel free to message me for resources and training materials mentioned in this post.

Writing Center Infographic

This is the second post in a three-part series. Stay tuned for the final installment on how I integrated a Writing Center at my school.