My Back-End, Zero-Instructional-Time-Used Reader’s Workshop

child readingClassical curriculum is very much a stand-and-deliver, sage on the stage type of instruction.  So how do you get the well-documented benefits of independent reading and talking about books (often called “reader’s workshop”) in the classical classroom when you’ve got no minutes to implement it and no mandate from administration?  You can, through what I’ve decided to call the Back End Reading Workshop, or, if you like, reading when you’re done with your work and other times during the day.

What will you need?  The following are the components:

1) Teach students that when they are done with any written assignment they are expected to read a book.  The thing to emphasize is that the book must be open or they are off-task.  The completed written assignment should be on their desk where you can see it so you know they are done and free to read. They should bring one book from home and have it in their backpack for this purpose. If they don’t have a book lend them one.

2) Collect books for a classroom library. Label the books with your name and something along the lines of “classroom book.”  I used to put the classroom number but since room numbers change, that’s not efficient.  Just your name.

3) Teach the students how to evaluate whether they want to read a book.  Tell them they must be able to read enough of the words so the book makes sense.  Tell them the book should be interesting.  Tell them if it’s not working, to take it back and get something else.

4)  Allow students to raise their hands and go to the library and switch books.  Let them take the books home as long as they ask you first.

5) Now is the time to get the beehive of the classroom library really humming.  Observe the kids, talk to the kids and if necessary take a reading interest inventory of the class and start collecting the books they really want to read.  That means considering subject matter and reading ability level.  The easiest way to do this is to do this is to do a Scholastic Book Club, sending book catalogues home, getting the parents to buy a few books, and choosing classroom books offered for free with your order.

That’s really all you have to do to radically increase the independent minutes read daily by your students.  And the workshop, or discussion of books aspect? That will happen naturally, as the students find books they are excited about and share and talk about them (whispering, of course) while they’re at the desks, eating lunch, waiting in line at the restroom and before and after school.  It happens in my classroom every year — just try it and watch.

Master Teacher of My Childhood: Differentiation in the ’70’s.

I was not a wonderful compliant student.  I was more of a disaffected and socially awkward GT type who sometimes chaffed under school routines and expectations.  There were some years that didn’t go too well.  My first grade classroom, however, I remember as being remarkable.

During kindergarten, I had suffered from social ostracism to some degree.  I can remember a girl I wanted so much to be friends with making it public that she was not including me in her birthday party. I remember being mocked by the teacher.  I can remember hiding on the playground, or playing alone.

It apparently was bad enough that my mother went down to the school and complained.  The principal replied that none of the kindergarten classrooms were likely to be any better.

“Then in first grade, can you please put her in a first-rate classroom?” Mom asked.

That, the principal promised to do, and did.

My first grade teacher let me sit in the classroom library, an alcove with books and cushions, and move at my own pace from easy readers to chapter books.  During independent work time, she had set out converted shoe boxes which had been turned into math facts machines — you fed in a paper card with a problem on the front, and it came out the bottom,  having turned itself over, and displayed the answer. I mastered the math facts quickly but I absolutely refused to do my “boring” math workbook.

Still, most days were pleasant and equitable in that peaceful classroom.  I can remember the teacher’s aide, who every afternoon poured a gallon of water into a plastic pitcher, and then, the next morning, used the “aired out” water to refill the tank of our class goldfish.  The swish of the water pouring in was one of those comforting routines of childhood. Taking care of the fish, taking care of the children, peace, serenity.  I don’t remember any mean girls from that year.

Mrs. T. knew I didn’t need much of her attention.  She let me bloom at my own pace and I never felt ignored or slighted.  Yet I had a completely unfilled-in math book.  She must have been doing math in small group  … or was math done whole group and I was I just refusing to participate?  At any rate, it was close to the end of the year.  She called my mother and proposed the turtle solution. If I would finish the book, she would buy me a pet turtle, which she knew I deeply wanted.  This got me interested.  I immediately took the book home. I sat in my room with a pencil and went through page by page. Counting the ducks and writing how many in all.  Circling groups of three balls. One digit addition.  Then subtraction.   There was something like 150 pages of things like that.  When I had finished it, my mother came after school and I was awarded two red-eared slider turtles.

I remember my mother, very respectfully, thanking my teacher.  I remember my mother’s black pumps and her early 70’s dress, skimming above the knee, and Mrs. T.’s sensible brown teacher loafers, the hem of her blue suit skirt.

Now today, looking back, I marvel at the breadth of Mrs. T’s knowledge of differentiation and her creation of the positive learning environment for all students in a diverse classroom. As I learn more about children, about instruction, the teachers of my childhood drift back into my mind, as my first grade teacher did today, and I marvel at what they knew long before research had explained it.  God bless you Mrs. T.


Differentiated instructional routines for use with various types of literature

When we chose books for the class, how do we read them?  Classical educators tend to rely on the quality of the books to drive instruction, but is there a place for mainline reading strategies in a classical classroom?  I would say yes, and here is my description of the basic strategies I use in an average week.  I am indebted for this post to Robert Ward (@RewardingEdu) for his blog post “A Balanced approach to teaching literature … “

Who reads what Examples: Appropriate Books Who chooses the book Spotlight Objective
Teacher read aloud:  This strategy is to practice listening comprehension and reader response to heard stories.  It is appropriate for when the text itself is too difficult for the class, but the story is something from which they will benefit Reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” to a group of 11th graders.


Reading “Robin Hood” to a fourth grade class.


Reading nursery rhymes in primary grades during circle time.

The classics – canonized literature from the past


Or – popular or nonfiction books from which the students need to comprehend material, and which are too difficult for them to handle alone.

The teacher, after surveying the subject matters the class is covering and their interests. Reading comprehension.
Student shared read:  In which the teacher reads the text and the students track the words.  This is appropriate for when many in the class are able to read the text, but the rest need help and the teacher wants to discuss the material as he or she goes. Making the basal reader into a read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade classroom.



A cross-section of books, including classics, modern day, and non-fiction, but must be more or less on grade level in order to properly engage student readers. The teacher and the textbook editors of the basal reader.  Student preferences can be considered for selection of stories as well. Comprehension, fluency.
Small group guided reading:  the teacher calls two to six students to a table and they read and/or discuss previous reading as a small group. Leading a group of students who are reading a fantasy novel above grade level and discussing their progress.


Taking a group of below-grade-level students and reading an adventure story about dogs.

 Inexpensive consumable books which are leveled to the small group’s ability.  Because a classroom needs a lot of them, they tend to be nonfiction and inexpensively produced. Students and teacher collaborate in choosing from available books.


If books must be downloaded, teacher must chose after considering needs of students.

Word attack skills, text structure, going back to the text to check, text-to self-connections
Independent reading books chosen one by one, by individual student readers, and read by themselves. Allowing the students free rein over the bookshelves when they have completed their work or when you are leading a small group. Popular novels and nonfiction books are most commonly chosen, but if classic children’s novels are in the library they will also be chosen. Students chose by themselves. Fluency, text-to-self connections


Admonition: Time is passing in school and in life

At times have I seen the students lose focus, and start to whisper and look at each other, glance under the books into the desks. Instruction grinds down to a crawl.  The teacher has to do something at these moments.  “Now students,” I might say, “I know, it seems like you have time to play in class, but at 3:00 you will be leaving for the day.  Time is passing faster than you know, we have to get through the curriculum of this year before June, and as Benjamin Franklin said, “Time which is lost is never found again.”

They look at me questioningly.  Unbelieving. Time is infinite when you’re nine years old.

“Yes it’s true,” I tell them.  “When you’re young, it seems like Saturday will never come, but it will.  Even years go by. Where you are now, a child, I once was, and where I am today, a grandparent, you some day will be.”

They look pensive. They are considering whether this might be true. Turning into someone my age is not something they think is really possible.  But it might be true.  It clearly happened to me. They stop looking in the desks.

“Okay,” I say, because I’ve got them back.  “Pick up those pencils, and write this down,” I put the instruction on the board, return to asking questions, moving on.  In the afternoon, we will do independent work, stations, singing, dancing, etc., but the ability to listen attentively to instruction is to me a non-negotiable for a capable student.

What I have done I call admonition, direct instruction in personal character.  It’s difficult to do.  It has to be motivated by a sincere concern for student welfare.  And you have to put yourself in there too, be honest about what you wish you had done, back when you were nine.  It’s a way of remembering yourself.  You were like them, years ago.  Don’t you wish someone had explained some things back then?  If so, tell the students today.

Classical Education can Address the Problem with Fake News

The current focus on fake news in the media is something I was reflecting on this morning as I did my grad school reading. It was in Fountas and Pinnell’s 2001 book Guiding Readers and Writers that I found the quote:

We cannot predict with certainty what today’s students in grades 3 through 6 will encounter in the twenty-first century, but we do know that their world will be driven by information and those who seek it. For these students, quality of life will depend on their ability to use a wide variety of texts — in both print and nonprint media.” (p. 390)

As I read this, I realized that in 2001 the authors had no idea that there would be a problem with students, and adults, being able to ascertain the reliability, validity and importance of a given text.  It simply didn’t occur to even the best minds at the turn of the century that we were creating a group of people who believed that their belief was a sufficient justification for an argument.

Classical education, of course, spends much time in the study of rhetoric, the structuring of argument, and on history, which helps a reader understand the perspective of the author.  Decades ago I began a practice of checking the copyright of books.  I need to know what was happening in the world at the time a text was written.  And I am aware of the relative quality of books.  Wuthering Heights is no easy read, but the depth of its thought makes it still of value 180 years after it was written.  As I read it, I think about the author:  where in her psyche did she draw the character of Heathcliff from?  Did Emily Bronte have a friend or acquaintance that he is based on?  Or is he based on the Bronte’s father, Patrick?  As I read Claire Harmon’s biography of her sister Charlotte, I consider the details Harmon gives to support various interpretations.

This is the type of discursive reading that classical education seeks to develop in students.  We read the finest books, and then we break them down.  Last week, as we were discussing Alice M. Hadfield’s King Arthur (1954) my students and I discussed the use of the ordeal, or joust, to determine the validity of a legal claim.  “People in those days believed that a person who held a false belief would not be able to win a joust,” I explained.  “The ordeal was actually an improvement over the method for extracting justice before it, which often was no more than a blood feud.”

“You mean like family feud?” asked a student.

“No, no no!  The name family feud is a play on the concept of the blood feud.  The original feud was where they killed a member of your family, than your family killed one of theirs, and it went on, sometimes for more than a generation … you can see why having a single joust to determine a matter of justice is preferable.”

The students nodded their heads.  They could both see my point, and see the distance we had come since the Middle Ages.

This type of instruction, with texts drawn out of history, allows the student to see how writing is a truth claim that may or may not be completely valid.  In our day, the blood feud, the duel, and the joust are antiquated.  But in our history, they had their place.  This understanding of history and how life has changed teaches students that we must continue to evaluate the methods we use to settle disputes and work to improve justice for all.

The skill of reading between the lines, of questioning of the text, is developed by reading excellent texts and dissecting them.  This is something that the smartest students will do spontaneously.  Derrida’s rhetoricity is something that is understood implicitly by the very sharpest students, but it needs to be painstakingly explained for the average ones.  This is why the fake news phenomenon is so vexing for the intelligentsia:  they are not taken in, but the everyday among us are, because they have not been taught to think rhetorically and discursively.

The foundational cause of fake news is technology, of course.  But the modern educative impulse, which demands that every writer has an equally valid voice, has put us now in the company of a huge cohort of students who do not believe in the argument that some texts and ideas are better and more valid than others.  The idea that Huck Finn is not necessarily better than Captain Underpants allows people who go to fake news or politically divisive or even violent websites to claim “that’s just your opinion” when their motives and beliefs are questioned, instead of taking a look at the arguments.  The idea that if all texts are equal, all opinions are equal, is inescapable.  This is why I say that the abandonment of certain classical education impulses, such as the study of rhetoric and history along with the awareness of the relative merit of texts, has made the fake news crisis worse.


The Italian Licio Classico: Education from the Heart of the Classical World

By Giulia Bertagnolio, guest blogger

Aristotle had a school where he used to teach philosophy in a small village near Athens called Liceo, which explains the origin of the Italian word for a certain kind of secondary school. In Italy, liceo classico – a classical studies high school – has existed since Napoleon, 1796, even though some schools had been teaching Greek and Latin before he reformed the school system.

In 1923, G. Gentile proposed a law to reform the liceo, which became a school aiming to shape students’ way of thinking and educate them in the humanities, including Latin and ancient Greek. It was an elite school that trained students to reach the most highly paid and important professions (surgeons, politicians, lawyers). After five years of liceo classico, students could enroll in any university, while other licei did not give the same opportunity. Other reforms followed and more subjects were introduced. For example, philosophy turned into a core subject. Classico was structured almost as it is today (some schedules might differ slightly, depending on the school): the first two years are called gymnasium and the last three are called liceo. Students learn grammar rules within the three languages: Italian, Greek and Latin; they learn how to translate texts from the classics (versioni), which is the foundation of the classical method.

After 1969, access to any kind of university was made free to students who completed high school, regardless of the type of secondary education the student had received. This caused liceo classico a loss of prestige and importance. However,  if you want a rigorous education nowadays, liceo might be the right choice. It is considered that Latin and ancient Greek help develop the brain’s ability to reason and to interpret history, from its ancient roots in Greece, from the spread of writing and through all the ages in which Latin was used as a lingua franca in Europe. These two languages’ grammar systems and vocabulary increase students’ logical abilities and creative skills and allow them to learn about old populations and their literature, for example, epic poems such as Homer’s The Odyssey, and great  Italian poems like Dante’s Divina Commedia and many other works of art. Students who attend liceo classico face a weekly curriculum of 21 hours of History, History of Art, Philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Italian out of a 27-31 hour weekly schedule. This is a large amount of hours dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of those subjects: students translate classic texts, learn to recite poems, learn to read ancient languages that represent the basis of our European culture and origins.

Liceo classico is the only high school where ancient Greek is taught and where Greek authors (historians, politicians, philosophers, poets and playwrights) are studied. This distinguishes it from every other high school here in Italy. This does not necessarily mean that it is a better school, though it is a high level preparation and the effort required often discourages students, who end up choosing other schools.

As for my experience, I attended Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico in Torino, Italy, from 1992 to 1997. This liceo is a rather famous one in my city; Italian poet Cesare Pavese and book publisher Giulio Einaudi studied there. My time at liceo was very happy, despite the amount of time I spent studying. I loved ancient Greek and its free way of writing and I really fell for the Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and their exploration of the human condition at the very beginning of western civilization. I did not always appreciate the long tests, unexpectedly challenging pop quizzes or scary teachers (there were some…) but I can say now, more than 20 years later, that it was worth it.

Giulia Bertagnolio is an English teacher at “IPIA Plana” vocational school, Torino, Italy. She has been teaching ESL in secondary schools since 2004: she has worked in adult education, night school, liceo linguistico and liceo artistico. Giulia has taught English language and literature for eight years in a linguistic school because of her love for the language and the classics.

The first aim of Giulia’s teaching is the relationship with her students; her teaching degree thesis was centered on this very topic. She loves researching and practicing action-research in her classes. She loves reading books to her two daughters and adores the cinema.

Toward a School Culture of Instruction Instead of Just Innovation

I was minding my own business reading grad school materials when a sentence jumped out at me and my head almost split open:

“It is clear from the writings of (researcher name and researcher name) that (grade level) students are not getting enough time in (skill, subject matter) and it is affecting the quality of what they can (do in skill in subject matter.)  ”

This is what I’ve heard innumerable times over the years, from administrators, from text books, from professors, through articles from researchers.  “Spend more time on X!” they say again and again.”  But Mr. or Mrs. Administrator, Mr. Superintendent, Mrs. Board Member, we only get five and a half hours of instructional time each day.

This problem of the limited school day was addressed in the early 2000’s by teachers being told to assign more and more homework, until some parents were overseeing three to four hours in a single night and parent rebellion was in the air.   Homework, then, was not the answer.  We’re still human beings with only 24 hours a day.

How can we make the day more efficient?  The economy of scale in factory production, where producing more widgets is more efficient an cheaper, is mimicked in schools by the economy of repetition of various instructional components in the classroom.  Repetition of any known effective routine or practice  saves time.  There’s a reason why we schedule the day.  There’s a reason why lunch is always at the same time.  Can you imagine the chaos that would result if we switched the lunch time every day?

By the same token, time is lost when we switch curriculums and teachers have to sort through them all over again and “find out what works.”

Why can’t we develop a culture of instruction, based on what teachers have seen in the past, and using what works for us, to make the school day more efficient? Then we would only have to search out new practices and curriculum for actual student needs in our own schools.   Not everything we do is a failure, some of it is already quite good!  If we are allowed to repeat our past successes it will be and accrued gain. Yet every year teachers are told to abandon successes of the past in pursuit of something that might be better — might — while time is lost in transition and translation.

Certainly we need professional development.  Teachers should be learning and improving their game all through their careers.  Textbooks should be updated and when technology changes we have to innovate and evolve.  But  we should be building on what we know, not replacing it wholesale.  Forcing massive adoptions of new and often untested practices and curriculum on teachers who already know what they want to do and how to do it is courting … well not disaster, but slow academic progress.

And researchers who make the impossible demand that we “just need to spend more time on (insert academic subject here)” without metaphorically goring any other subject’s ox are unrealistic.

If we can do that, we’ll next be ready to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.

A Classical Educator Reflects on Writer’s Workshop

The ancient Greeks wrote on papyrus, made of cross-hatched strips of the plant.

Just to be above board at the first:  I think Writer’s Workshop is 100% compatible with classical education methods and curriculum.  If you don’t think so, let me explain …

In grad school this week, we were assigned an essay about Writer’s Workshop by the famous (to public school teachers) Lucy Calkins. I have glanced over her materials in the past, but a vignette from the Calkins essay we read struck a nerve with me.  She told of a writer who remembers being sick as a child and her mother bringing her orange slices that were almost too beautiful to eat.  If she ate them, they would be gone forever, and this thought seemed awful.  “These oranges are part of my life,’ she thought, ‘and I am going to forget them.”  Thus was born in her the desire to write.

How deeply I have felt that same sense of the treasured moments of life slipping away.  Once, I jokingly told a friend that I had a “disordered attachment to being alive.” Attached to every second, I clutch at time as it slips past.  I feel a momentary sadness for every passing day.

I can’t be sure, but I have the belief that students feel the same way about their lives.  When Calkins says “we can’t give children rich lives but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there … “ I feel like agreeing  “everyone’s life is rich in some sense.”  Even boredom is a kind of gift, if used in the right way to drive us to become creative.  But is this seeking the richness in life, and writing about feelings, really a classical strategy?

Writing freely and personally is what the ancient Greeks did when they studied what interested them the most (such as philosophy and education).  Dialogue about what we are writing and thinking is what Plato did at his Academy, arguably the first university.  Writing workshop can be seen to descend from these impulses and practices, giving every student the treasure of time to seek out and sift out what is really important to them, and bring it to a sharper focus.

Sometimes classical educators have the impulse to eschew all “new” methods.  However, Writer’s Workshop is not actually a new method.  It reminds me very much of the activities of the aforementioned-in-this-blog Bronte sisters in Claire Harmon’s biography Charlotte Bronte a Fiery Heart.  The three sisters wrote and shared homemade books and stories for years and years, wrote letters and diaries … all the types of activities we now do in Writer’s Workshop.  In other words, Writer’s Workshop mimics not just ancient scholarly environments but the home school of the early 19th century.

As a classically inspired educator in a public school,  I’ve always had faith in students to work by themselves or together in small groups. From the earliest I have found that although we can’t dispense with direct instruction, independent learning is powerful as well, and proceeds mystically as students self-engage in meaningful tasks.  Of these tasks, I know of none more powerful than writing.

Therefore, as we seek to classically educate students, I think we should look to these earlier models, and answer “yes” to students writing on self-selected topics and sharing their writing.  Although I never agree with anyone all the time, I admit that I believe we owe a great deal to Lucy Calkins and her writer’s workshop promotion, for allowing this venerable method of developing young minds to be known all over the country, to the  good of students.

What is Classical Education — Definition for my Grad School Colleagues

Music and dance as well as fine art are all part of the classical education tradition.

I was asked in online grad school for a quick definition of what classical education is.   I paused for a moment, then thought: wait!  I can do this.  And here’s my response.

What is classical education? Well that is the $64,000 question …

I will say that classical education emphasizes literature and history that is considered excellent over time, and also certain pedagogical methods that are actually truly ancient such as memorization of poetry and speeches, live performance of drama, and ancient language study especially Latin. There is a focus on chronological history, and great books. Many classical programs include the ancient subjects of music, fine arts and dance. The result of this education plan has been high achievement for students across a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds. Although classical education has been at times misused and misunderstood, so that people often think of it as exclusive or repressive, as I understand it, it is a humanistic and progressive method of education.

Favorite Blog Posts of August

Favorite Blog Posts of August

My very favorite:  This post by @RewardingEdu about how you can combine whole-class book studies with independent reading so that your students can develop both comprehension skills with your support and analysis of their own reading on their own level.

Education News and the Hurricane:  posts from teachers in Houston, where I live: 

Woman spots two alligators in back yard due to Houston floods via @sarahtaylorbran

@Colliding with Science’s post about school being closed for a week due to flooding and feeling sad to miss the kids … this was before the flooding got really ugly.

Arts and Literature

The words writers say most often says something about their writing’s theme – check out John Updike.  Honestly I’m not surprised … this is from @guardian

Education Theory:

Will the Common Core work as described?  Problems with the Common Core’s literacy objectives.  This was shared by @LHudson – thank you for this very concerning article.

Do Teachers Have to Be Readers?  A painful but serious question – and you all know the answer.  By @MrZackG.

Can you make homework effective even in primary grades?  Well – As one colleague said to me, whether homework is effective or not depends on what homework you’re assigning.  And in this blog post, what you’re willing to do after hours to back up your students.  From @MrZackG again.

Classical Education: 

Thanks to @CanaAcademy for this reflection on various Classical Education programs and their contexts, linking Rev. Martin Luther King’s writings with classical sources and showing how Classical Education is for all, not just the “privileged.”

Finally, do you think the SAT and the ACT are good or bad?  Whatever you believe, now there’s a new test for students from classical schools.  A classical test for college entrance:   from @FirstThings.