Reading and discussing books with students is truly my favorite part of teaching. I look forward to our independent reading periods because I love watching the different ways students construct and develop their thinking as they journey through a book they selected. Once the right book is in the right hands, something magical can happen. Students have the potential to become so lost in a book that it no longer feels to them like schoolwork. I strive to foster these moments during independent reading.
At the same time, it is important for me to find ways for students to document and share their thinking as they read without it detracting from the joy and love of reading. Finding this balance is especially important in this time of Common Core State Standards. The Common Core does not change the powerful thinking that is occurring in our classrooms. Instead, it is a tool that provides teachers and students with the language to name the thinking that is happening during independent reading and to make it more visible.
SmartNotes is a note-taking reading response strategy I borrowed from Sue Cannone-Calick and Elizabeth Henley. As described in their book Independent Reading in the Age of Common Core, the SmartNotes page is a two-column chart that organizes student thinking to show the relationship between direct text evidence and different reading strategies. My students use SmartNotes during independent reading to document their thinking related to specific reading strategies taught. I teach Common Core-aligned reading strategies through whole class mini-lessons and individual reading conferences.
Once a strategy is taught, students practice it by pausing while they read to identify textual evidence from their independent reading book that connects to their thinking related to the specific strategy. For example, we might start with a mini-lesson teaching different ways characters are revealed to readers through dialogue. Students would then use their own books to identify and document particular lines of dialogue on their SmartNotes page, and explain how the text evidence reveals certain aspects of a character.
SmartNotes are great because they are a quick and unobtrusive way for students to organize their thinking without disrupting their engagement in their independent books. As an additional benefit, SmartNotes can be collected to display the development of ideas over time. These pages are archived over the course of the year in three-ring binders my students use as independent reading notebooks and serve as a continually developing record of their powerful ideas.
Although SmartNotes is a useful tool while my students read, there are times when more detailed reading responses are necessary. My colleague Meredith Jacks and I developed a menu of reading response options aligned to the CCSS to address this need. The menu includes a separate page of reading response prompts for each reading standard. Through reading strategy mini-lessons and a healthy dose of modeling, I gradually introduce the menu to my students one page at a time. Since the menu includes reading response prompts for both fiction and nonfiction, students use it with a variety of different texts. Most of the prompts on the menu require students to write paragraph-length responses, and my students write approximately three of these reading responses over the course of a typical week. These longer reading responses are also a great idea for homework.
I decided to include the language of the Standards on the student menu. As a result, the students internalize this language and I find they are now stronger at articulating the actual thinking they are doing as they read their independent books.
SmartNotes and the menu of response options are two ways I’ve incorporated the CCSS into our independent reading response practices. These reading response ideas allow me to meet the high demands of the Common Core without pulling the students too far from their independent reading books that the act of reading is no longer enjoyable. Although reading is hard work that requires training and practice, it does not always have to feel like it.