Sometime during the first week of school, a student asked, “Are you going to make us do post-it notes?” I answered a simple no, which triggered an audible sigh of relief around the room, and a few thank you’s. I asked them to tell me why they didn’t like post-its and I braced myself for complaints of extra work, but instead, a student replied, “We just want to read.”

Over the summer, I read Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zonelarge-5390b3c894dfbThe Reading Zone, and I found myself highlighting every other line. Nancie points out a simple idea that seems to have gotten lost in all of the post-it note clutter. The bare bones of it, is that we need to stop interrupting students from reading, and start making time for what Nancie calls, “the reading zone”. If you were to walk into a classroom that does Reader’s Workshop, you might see students with their independent reading books open, a pad of post-its at their side, and a pen in hand. Students are told to “stop and jot” text connections, tricky vocabulary words, cause and effect, etc. Looking at it passively, it seems like a great concept; but, what Nancie Atwell points out, and what I’m already noticing early on in my career, is that it makes kids hate reading. Atwell puts it in perspective, pointing out that we, as adult readers, wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of  a good book to write down how we can relate to a character. Stop and jot takes away from the largest part of why reading is so enjoyable: it lets us get lost.

Atwell presents a solution to all of this by introducing reading response letters (which are, in most basic terms, – very long post-it notes). I loved this idea so much that I have been working very hard to implement it in my own classroom. Starting the letters from scratch is a bit tricky – especially as a new teacher. While Nancie offers a lot of help and resources in her book, I needed to decide what was best for my class. I had to figure out when to collect them, how to grade them, what a good letter looked like, etc. — all this for 50+ kids (S.O.S.). I went back and forth on a lot of these, especially grading, but I’m happy with where it’s at now, and where it seems to be going. Here’s how it all panned out:

The first week I introduced the letters, it was a bit shaky. The students were confused and if I’m being honest, I was confused. But, I put on my “teacher face” and told the students we were going to learn and grow together (or something along those lines). For the first set of letters I collected all 50 journals and gave every student feedback. It was time-consuming, but definitely worth it. I have already seen an improvement in their second letters, and I finally gained some footing on how I wanted to grade. At first I intended to only grade a few letters each week using a rubric. However, I quickly realized that the rubric wasn’t the best, and that some students would inevitably feel like they were doing work for nothing.

So, here’s how I set up RRL’s now:

Students always know that their reading response letter is due on Friday. This allows them to manage their time, and complete it throughout the week. On Friday, they come in and trade notebooks with a partner to respond to their classmate’s RRL in at least one paragraph. By doing this, students get to peek at another writer’s work, and also get ideas for their next read. They write for about ten minutes, and then it’s silent reading time. During this time, I walk around to read and grade each of their letters on a check scale. While it took a lot of trial and error to come up with this, I’m really happy with the way it worked out. It’s a great way to check in with every student, and it also allows them a good chunk of quiet reading time. We talk frequently about what it feels like to be in the reading zone, and what you should do if you don’t like your book. Also, keeping in line with Nancie Atwell’s stress on teacher feedback, I collect a few journals each week to respond more thoughtfully to students letters. I did this for the first time last week, and it is amazing to see how eager they are to have their notebooks collected. They really do, just as adults, crave feedback.

So far, I feel really good about reading response letters, and I think the students do too (secretly, of course, they are middle schoolers).

Click the picture to purchase my RRL product on Teachers Pay Teachers