Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Close reading resources to support the Common Core

"Close reading" is the new buzzword in education, especially in Language Arts and Social Studies classes. Last summer I wrote a post called "Five close reading strategies to support the Common Core." After publishing that article, I received several requests for ideas on WHERE to find passages for students to close read.

Here are four ideas to get you started, with instructional ideas for implementation in your classroom:

1. Room for Debate - New York Times

If you are looking for multiple perspectives on current issues in the news, this is your one-stop shop. Room for Debate takes an issue and asks multiple experts to write a short editorial on the issue. I haven't counted, but I would estimate there are over 700 "issues" that are covered, and the site is updated with a new topic every couple of days.

I love the fact that most of the topics start with an essential question, such as: "Should Tweets Cost You Your Job?" and "Should Kids Pick Their Own Punishments?" Within those topics, there are usually 4-8 different opinions about the issue from professional writers. As you can see, they are high-interest topics for high school students.

Instructional idea: This site is great for pulling ideas for synthesis essays, where students must pull from different sources and address the opposition. Students can close read the articles and then develop an answer to the question in the form of an argument.

Mentor Writer: Leonard Pitts, Jr.
2. Mentor authors

In another post, I wrote about "Three ways to engage your students in writing." One of those strategies is to use "mentor texts" where students closely examine the "moves" that professional writers make, much like how I analyze the swing of professional golfers to help improve my struggling golf game.

There are many great mentor writers out there. Some of my favorites include:

Instructional idea: I ask students to first close read articles from these mentor authors and then emulate them for their own papers. Check out Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This for more information on mentor texts.

In his book Readicide, Gallagher discusses how he noticed his students were not aware of current events happening in the news. His school implemented "Articles of the Week" where students read about a current event, while practicing close reading.

The last two years, I have had great intentions of doing an article each week for my students to stay current on what is happening in the news, but I keep moving away from it because I run out of time. This is something I need to commit to and stay consistent with in the future.

Instructional idea: Gallagher's site really kills two birds with one stone: practicing close reading strategies, while learning about what is happening in the world. 

Don't teach like this...
4. Short Passage from Novels

For years, I spent my time "teaching" as nothing more than a human Cliff's Notes, laboring through the plot and characters of novels. My quizzes and tests were filled with questions about which character said a particular quotation or what color of hat Holdyn wears in The Catcher in the Rye. It was boring for me, and I felt like I was working harder than my students.

I began to ask myself, "In 10 years, does it really matter that a student remembers the color of Holdyn's hat?" 

Honestly, I would argue that it is irrelevant and a waste of time.

Let me be clear: I believe it is important for students to be exposed to a variety of texts, including the "classics." However, I also believe that my job is to teach students how to dissect those works so they can extract meaning from them and then be able to apply those skills to other complex texts for the rest of their lives.

Instructional idea: I made the switch to teaching "excerpts" from the typical class novels, rather than the entire plot of a novel. 

For Fahrenheit 451, students read the entire book on their own, but did close readings of specific passages. For example, we closely examined the first four pages for the imagery and figurative language that Bradbury used. We also looked at the argument between Captain Beatty and Montag, and analyzed the rhetorical strategies that Beatty employed. 

I know... it is a radical way of thinking about teaching novels. Trust me. Students will dig far deeper into the novel and have a better understanding of the book than if you just plow through and answer questions about plot.

Final thoughts

My teaching style has been revolutionized by the Common Core. In my previous teaching life, students were only swimming at the surface level of a book. Now, we are diving in to the deep end of the reading pool. These are great places to go in order to get started with close reading.

What are other resources you go to in order to find close reading passages? Please post in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Installing the R4 System

Coaches: This is the post that you will hope other coaches in your league DON'T read.

Almost four years ago, I came across the R4 Expert System. In short, it is an "operating system" for your offense; it helps guide your quarterback in his decision-making process before AND after the snap. 

The R4 system is a game-changer for the passing game. Once we implemented the system, we began to see immediate results. Our quarterbacks became more confident, which improved their accuracy and decision-making immensely. No matter what offensive system you run, the R4 system will instantly improve your offensive production.

Check out a great Q&A article with Coach Maddox about the R4 system here.

This spring, I put together an install cut-up that highlights the different types of throws in the R4 system: Rhythm, Read, Rush and Release. Check it out, and hope that your opponents don't:

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three ways to make your CLASSROOM more efficient

I believe that in order to be a great coach, you must be a great teacher. The two skills are really the same.

When I am coaching football, my classroom is 100 yards long, and I am managing 100+ student-athletes. When I am teaching Sophomore English, my classroom is about 15 yards long, with 25+ students. The skills needed to instruct on the playing field and in the classroom are really the same, even though the size of the classroom and number of students may be very different.

Last week, I wrote a post called “Three ways to make your practice more efficient.” As I thought about it, those three components really extend to the classroom as well: have a plan, go on the clock, and create competition.

Have a plan

This really goes without saying. However, there are multiple types of plans I believe you should have in the classroom: daily, weekly, unit, and yearly.

I still keep an old-fashioned plan book where I write down what we did each day in class. At the end of the day, I use any extra space to reflect on how the lesson went, and what I would change for next year. This is very valuable to me as I reflect back on the year, and when I prepare to teach the same unit or lesson next year.
When planning ahead, I have learned not to write anything in ink. Instead, I use small Post-It notes to write lesson plans on. I have found that it is easier to move those Post-It notes around in case there is a snow day, fire drill, or some other distraction that throws off your entire schedule. On the day of the lesson, I write down the objective, lesson, and my reflection in the book.

Go on the clock

Much like using a clock during practice to keep yourself on pace, I have found that using an egg timer is extremely valuable during class. It keeps me from getting too long-winded, but also gives students time to fully write or discuss a topic. I use it several ways:

  • Timing the first 10-minutes of Silent Sustained Reading at the start of the hour.
  • Giving students 5-10 minutes to “Quick Write” where I ask them to write and keep their pen or pencil moving the entire time.
  • Providing students with one minute to discuss a topic with their shoulder-partner.
  • Holding myself to a certain amount of time when delivering a mini-lesson so that I do not speak too long.
  • Keeping track during a time-write assessment.
I would be lost now without my egg timer. It is a simple thing to use, but it really helps to keep my lesson on pace each day.

Create competition (with yourself)

A few years ago, I went in a radical new direction with the “3PGrading System.” I have modified this system some, but one of the key components is factoring in how much a student improves throughout the year. This creates competition within the student: motivation to improve.

As I wrote about with my outside reading project, I ask mystudents to read 20 books in one school year. For some students, they have never read more than one or two books, if any. To think about reading 20 books seems like a huge stretch, so I ask them to compete within themselves to do it. If I have a student who only read one or two books last year, but reads 10 books in my class, I call that a huge win.
My students also keep writing portfolios. At the end of the year, I ask them to reflect back on their writing from the start of the year until May. I challenge them to identify areas where they have improved, whether it is organization, ideas and content, embedding quotations… something. This drives our end-of-the-year conferences where we look at their reading and writing and how much improvement they have made.

These are three simple things I do in my classroom that parallel what we as coaches do on the football field. What are some other strategies that you bring from the classroom to the athletic field?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fahrenheit 451 Synthesis: Common Core-Style

In my former teaching life, I used to scour the internet for quiz and test questions for the book I was teaching. When I first started teaching Fahrenheit 451, I pulled questions from Sparknotes, such as:

1. Why does Beatty hate books so much?

2. Read the poem “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold. In what ways is it significant that Montag reads this particular poem to Mildred and her friends?

These are both great questions, but frankly... who cares? The old days of multiple-choice tests to assess whether or not students can remember minute details from a novel are gone.

This year, my Sophomore English colleagues (Jessica Magaha, Neil McEachen, and Erika Backs) and I developed an AP-style synthesis prompt that acted as our culminating project for Fahrenheit 451.

The prompt we developed was: Write an essay in which you defend, challenge or qualify the claim that it is in the best interest of the people that the government restrict freedoms.

This is a huge idea; not one that you can find in any textbook or online resource.

While students read the novel, we did close reading of "texture texts" students could use as resources for their argument. The sources included:

Once we were finished studying all of these texts, students were asked to write an argument that synthesized three of the sources, with the requirement that Fahrenheit 451 was used as one of the sources. 

Download the complete assignment here.

We also encouraged students to attempt to qualify the prompt, which was a new way of thinking for them. When you qualify, you take a side while acknowledging that the issue is not black or white. We asked students to use the following template from They Say, I Say for their thesis paragraph:

Template for introducing ongoing discussion:

In discussions of _____, one controversial issues has been _________________. On the one hand, ____________ argues _________________. On the other hand, _____________ contends ______________. Others even maintain ________________. My own view is _________________.

This template forced students to look at multiple perspectives of the issue, and admit that it isn't a simple answer. 

Here is one student's opening paragraph:

In discussions of restrictions of freedoms, one controversial issue has been that the government restricts too many freedoms. On the one hand, Ray Bradbury argues that if the government is too strict and doesn’t allow much freedom, a dystopian society will develop where all individuality is gone. On the other hand, Todd Blodgett contends that the government needs to restrict freedoms or things will get out of control. Leonard Pitts, Jr. even maintains that restricting freedoms like the government does is illogical and can easily get out of control. My own view is that it’s acceptable for the government to restrict freedoms when there’s a threat the country’s safety, but not if that means taking away freedoms given to citizens in the constitution.

From this point, we used the tips from my previous post about getting students engaged in writing: we analyzed a student sample paper, and I wrote in front of them.

Overall, this was a challenging and rigorous assignment. Yes, it may be easier to give a scantron test with 100 multiple choice questions, but this assignment went much deeper into the IDEAS of the novel, and asked students to make connections to contemporary issues.

What are some ways that you are changing the way you teach novels in the era of the Common Core?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Packaging plays: Inside Zone & Quick Screen

The current trend for offensive coaches is packaging multiple plays together so the quarterback has multiple options once the ball has been snapped.

In the "old days," I would call a play and we were basically locked into it unless the quarterback was savvy enough to audible us out of it. Today, we are working to package as many plays together so the quarterback can choose the best option he has based on what the defense gives us post-snap.

In previous posts, I wrote about combining Draw and Y-Stick, and our Double Screen. 

Last year, we packaged Inside Zone and Counter-Trey with a quick screen. It paid huge dividends. There were a couple of obvious benefits:

  • It gave us an easy 5+ yards on the quick screen if there was a big cushion on the receiver.
  • It forced our Wide Receivers to block on every run play. In the past, our receivers were very lazy blocking on plays that were designed to hit inside, like counter-trey and inside zone. With the quick screen tagged, they knew the ball could be coming their way every play. Incentive to block!


For the offensive line and running back, it was inside zone. They honestly did not know where the ball was going.

We taught our inside receiver to run a "bench" or "flat" route, and then block the first threat. Ideally, we wanted him to hook the flat defender so the receiver catching the ball could get up the sideline. 

The receiver running the quick screen would take two-steps vertical, then then work back to behind the line of scrimmage. Once he caught the ball, he sprinted upfield. Ideally, we wanted him to get outside and away from the extra defenders in the middle of the field. 

Last year our quarterback was not a runner, so we did not want him to carry the football. We taught him to pre-snap read the cushion of the receiver and defensive back. If there was significant cushion there (+5 or more yards), he did a quick flash fake to the RB and threw the quick screen. If the cushion was not there, we handed off to the RB on the inside zone or counter-trey. If we had a QB who was a running threat, we would also give him the option to read the backside defensive end and keep the football like true Inside Zone Read Option.


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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Introducing Macbeth: Common Core-Style

Which of the following do you believe is the most creative interpretation for the opening scene from Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth?

  • Three old hags burying items on a lonely beach.
  • Witches, dressed as Catholic school girls, destroying a cemetery.
  • The witches disguised as nurses in Nazi Germany ripping the heart out of a soldier on a gurney.

With the new Common Core State Standards assessment looming on the horizon, teachers across the country are looking for ways to modify what they are doing in order to fit the increased rigor that the standards demand.

Previously, I wrote about how I changed my approach to teaching Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Instead of listening to and reading the entire play, I broke it down and did a close reading and analysis of specific speeches from the play.

When I used to teach Macbeth, I would just read the first scene, discuss it briefly, and move on. This year, I wanted to change my "old" way of teaching Macbeth by first looking at how different filmmakers directed their versions of the Scottish Play.

I found the following clip online already edited together featuring the opening scene from the following directors: Roman Polanski (1971), Geoffrey Wright (2006) and Rupert Goold (2010):

I posed the following question to my students:
"Which filmmaker's version is the most creative in terms of ______________________?"

The blank space should be one aspect of each version. As a class, we brainstormed aspects such as: costumes, setting, casting, props, music, sound effects, and camera work. Students were to pick one aspect, and collect evidence from each version using the following graphic organizer from all three versions.

View the graphic organizer here.

After taking notes, students developed an argument in answer to the question above. We used the following template from They Say, I Say in order to introduce an ongoing debate, and culminate with the student's main claim, or thesis statement:

Template for introducing ongoing discussion:
In discussions of _____, one controversial issues has been _________________. On the one hand, ____________ argues _________________. On the other hand, _____________ contends ______________. Others even maintain ________________. My own view is _________________.

First, I wrote in front of my students. I chose to do an unrelated topic, but one that I hold dear to my heart: Star Wars. In about five minutes, I used the template above to create an opening paragraph and thesis statement:

In discussions of the Star Wars films, one controversial issue has been the introduction of new characters to the film's universe. On the one hand, some critics argue that the Ewoks are essential because they ultimately helped destroy the Death Star. On the other hand, some people contend that Darth Maul was a ferocious Sith, and the only highlight in The Phantom Menace. Others even maintain that Boba Fett's introduction  (and subsequent death) added a bit of mystery to the series. My own view is that Yoda was, in fact, the most essential introduction to the Star Wars universe because he ultimately trained Luke Skywalker, and guided his development as a Jedi Knight.

Then, it was their turn to write. They went back to their notes, and reflected on each director's version, and chose which version was the most creative in one specific aspect. The template above served as a guide to get the students writing. Here is an example from one student:

In discussions of the various film versions of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, one controversial issue has been the costumes of the witches. Shakespeare purists favor Roman Polanski's traditional portrayal of witches that are frumpy older ladies with long noses. Others prefer Rupert Goold's ironic portrayal of the witches with a very eerie demeanor and a nurse facade. I prefer Geoffrey Wright's witches who are contemporary teenagers in schoolgirl uniforms, but still have an apparent edge to their character.

After this initial paragraph, students developed the rest of their argument using the argument writing models discussed in Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This. They were required to pull in evidence from all three versions to support their claim: both as examples and evidence that addressed the opposition.

This lesson moved far beyond my standard way of teaching the opening scene: listening to a CD and briefly discussing what the witches are saying and doing. Now, students were forced to analyze the director's decisions in dramatizing the play for film. It went into much deeper analysis than I ever had asked students to do before with the play.

What are some ways you are making Shakespeare fit the new demands of the Common Core State Standards?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Three ways to make practice more efficient

As coaches, unfortunately we are often solely judged on how our teams perform on game night. Few people get to see the inner-workings of the program on a day-to-day basis, particularly practices.

Below are three simple things you can implement to make your practices run smoother and more efficient:

1. Have a plan.

People thrive on consistency. When you have a consistent practice plan, then everyone will be on the same page every day. Drills will run smoother. Transitions will happen quicker. Less time will be wasted. Generally, everything will be more efficient.

We try to be consistent on a daily and weekly basis. In other words, all Monday practices are the same, all Tuesday practices follow a different format, and so on.

Here is an example of a practice schedule we used last year. Note: We were a two-platoon system, so there is an offensive plan and a defensive plan included on separate pages.

Notice a couple of things:

  • Positions are grouped together. In other words, we find times for QBs to work with WRs, RBs to work with the OL, etc...
  • We progress through practice from individual to group to team. Everything builds on itself and culminates with the team session at the end.
  • 90% of our coaching happens during individual and group time. We coach on the fly during team time, and rarely stop to correct or redo a play during this part of practice. Pace is important to our offense, so we want to interrupt the pace of practice as much as possible. 

2. Go on the clock.

If you have a consistent practice plan, then everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to time. Unless every coach syncs his watch at the start of practice, nobody will be consistent. 

Notice that our practice schedule is divided into five-minute segments. One drill might be five, 10, or 15 minutes long. We started using our scoreboard clock to help us keep pace during practice. Our managers keep track of the clock, blowing a horn every five minutes to help keep us on pace. 
The managers also advanced the home score by +1 for each period, so everyone knew what period we were in. For example, everyone would know that 7-on-7 starts with period 17. 

If practice is not going well, one effective strategy is to yell out, "Stop the clock!!" This will quickly get everyone's attention, and it is a signal that we are going to do things right, even if it means taking more time. Sometimes players think they just need to put in time and wait for the clock to run down. Stopping the clock is a good reminder of when practice will end IF things are done correctly. 

3. Create competition.

Practice can get monotonous and boring as the season goes on. There is only so much team time you can run against your scout team. Eventually, boredom will set in and bad habits will form.

We implemented a short, five-minute period called "Championship Period" where we went our #1 offense vs. our #1 defense in a game situation. This was full-speed with little to no coaching involved. 

Our championship periods included:
  • Goal Line (1st and Goal from the +8)
  • Read Zone (1st and 10 from the +20)
  • 3rd and Long (+8) - Blitz pick-up
  • 3rd and Short (+2) - Short yardage plays
  • 2nd & Short
  • Two-minute offense
  • Four-minute offense
  • 1st and 10
Each play there was a winner, so if the offense gained 10 yards on 3rd and 8, then the offense won. This created a spirited competition, with even the players on the sidelines getting excited. 

This period lasted no more than five minutes, which was about eight total plays. This competition prepared our players for the speed and intensity they would face on Friday nights.

Final thoughts...

I believe coaches are some of the best teachers in the school. The ironic thing is that these same principles apply to teaching the in classroom, although we often don't correlate the two. In an upcoming post, I will talk about how I apply these same ideas in my English classroom. There really aren't many differences.

What are other key strategies you use to help make sure your practices are efficient?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Three ways to engage your students in writing

For years, most schools have operated under the following assumptions:

  • Social studies teachers know how to teach students about World War II and the Constitution.
  • Art teachers know how to teach students about painting and art analysis.
  • English teachers know how to teach reading and writing.

This is the logic in many schools; however, in the era of the Common Core State Standards, this paradigm must shift. One of the great things about the CCSS is that it asks ALL teachers to help teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. Previously, I wrote about five easy ways any teacher can get her students to start close reading.

For some reason, even though all teachers wrote countless papers in high school, college and maybe even graduate school, teaching writing simply freaks teachers out. Even English teachers aren't immune to this feeling when it comes to writing instruction.

Writing instruction should not fall only on the Language Arts department. Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This is an excellent example for how English teachers can teach writing in their class.

However, his basic principles can be applied to ANY subject area.

Here are three simple things that you, yes even you Mr. Math teacher, can do to engage your students in writing:

1. Training wheels: Provide templates

Learning how to write is a bit like learning how to ride a bike. At first, students need to have "training wheels" before they can learn how to write on their own. Templates make excellent training wheels.

I first learned about templates from the book They Say I Say

Before the CCSS, my assignments would require a minimum number of quotations, and students would just "throw" those quotations in without any introducing or explanation. They would just appear randomly throughout the paper. Now, we use templates especially with our freshmen and sophomores when we teach them how to incorporate evidence in their writing. Simple quotation templates from the book include:

Introducing a quotation:

According to ___(Author)____, "________(Quotation)___________."

__(Author)________ states "______(Quotation)____."

Explaining a quote:

In other words, _____(Explanation)_______________________.

Basically, _________(Explanation)___________________________.

Sure, it is a bit like doing a Mad Lib, but it works. Once students have a basic understanding of how to incorporate templates in their writing, we expand to longer templates that we create in our professional learning communities. Here are some examples of longer, more complex templates:

Rhetorical Precis (From:
Satire analysis of Animal Farm
Imagery in Fahrenheit 451

Could you design a template for writing a lab report in science class? What about justifications in Calculus? Heart rate analysis in physical education? Think about templates that would be applicable to your subject area, and then create them from scratch. Once students have this basic writing idea down, then we can begin removing the "training wheels."

2. Take the plunge: Teacher modeling

We learn new skills best by observing others who are experts at the skill we are trying to learn.  Kelly Gallagher's analogy is that you would learn how to golf by watching PGA golfers swing a club. I show my quarterbacks game film from college and professional teams to teach them technique and plays. This is basic teaching, but something we forget when it comes to writing. Students need to see the teacher write (and sometimes fail!) in front of them.

It. Is. Terrifying.
Take the plunge! Write in front of your students.

It is scary to sit at a computer in front of 25 teenagers and have every keystroke appear on the projector. Sometimes the words flow right through my fingers. Sometimes, I can't think of anything to type. Sometimes, I make a number of mistakes that my students are quick to correct. It is very scary, but it is essential for students to see us struggling with the same work we are asking them to do.

This can apply to ANY subject area:
  • Social studies teachers can write thesis statements.
  • Math teachers can write justifications.
  • Art teachers can write art reviews.
  • Science teachers can write lab reports.
The next time you incorporate writing in your class, take the leap and try writing in front of them. You will learn something about the assignment you are giving them, and your students will learn through watching you write in front of them.

3. Learn from experts: Mentor texts

The problem with most high school students isn't that they don't know how to write. The problem is that they have yet to find their own style and voice. That takes time and work; unfortunately, it doesn't happen over night. One way to help this is to provide mentor texts that students can close read to analyze what the author is DOING, and then emulate that style in their own writing.

We first have students perform a close read of the text, making note of the moves that the author is making. I will often have questions about "how long" a piece has to be, or "what all needs to be included" in the writing. When we look at these mentor texts, we notice the length of paragraphs - usually 2-3 sentences (Not 8-10 you say? Blasphemy!) There are also usually 20+ paragraphs, which is wildly different from the five paragraph essays that we all know and love (hate?) to teach. This is how real writers write, and our students need to closely examine what these writers do.

There is a great blog written by two English teachers called Teach Mentor Texts where they highlight examples of texts that can be used for emulation. I love using Roger Ebert, Rick Reilly and Leonard Pitts Jr. articles as mentor texts because they have have distinct styles that students can emulate.

Admittedly, I am lacking knowledge when it comes to this area in other subjects. I do not know who the writing gurus are for math, science or social studies. I would encourage you to look through articles or examples from real experts in your field, allow students to closely look at the moves author makes, and emulate the style until they are able to find their own voice.

Final thoughts

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers. The basic idea is that it takes 10,000 hours for anyone to become an expert in her area of expertise. If students are only writing in their English classes, they will never get to the 10,000 hour mark in 12 years of school. However, if the writing is happening in every subject area, this is a much more realistic goal.

No matter what subject you teach, all teachers can implement writing in their courses. The responsibility should not fall solely on the shoulders of the English department. These are three strategies that any subject area teachers can quickly implement in their classes: templates, writing in front of students, and mentor texts. My belief is that if we can just get students writing in their other classes, the English teachers can worry about the grammar, organization and everything else that comes with it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tackling Readicide: Five rules to establish

I will admit it: I am a control freak.

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of reading in my classroom and how I get my students reading books. Now that I have established the purpose for outside reading, I am going to share some of the rules I have established. For me, the scary part of this project is that I can't be a control freak. There is a need for established rules and procedures, but you also have to let your students go... which is scary for a control freak like me.

Here are five rules that I have established in my classroom that help me be LESS of a control freak:

1. Students must READ for the first 10 minutes of class.

For years, I attempted every type of bellwork they teach you in college: journals, grammar exercises, and responses. It probably works for some people, but it never really did for me. When I tried journaling, students would write for a couple of minutes and then put their pens down and sit. When I tried grammar exercises, there were always a million questions that I would have to answer. Nothing seemed to work.

Reading a book is something that all of my students can do every day. 

I have an egg timer that I use, but you can also use the timer on your cell phone. I wait until everyone is settled down (usually 30 seconds or so), and then I start the timer. 

I protect this time: I don't allow passes to the bathroom or their locker, I don't answer questions, I don't pass back papers. This is their time to read. 

If a student does not have a book, I have a set of short story books on my counter. That usually motivates them to come with a book of their choice to the next class period.

We have three 50-minute class periods a week and one 90-minute block. I dedicate 40 minutes a week for my students to read; this is almost an entire class period. Even a math teacher can see how important reading is in my class. 

2. Set a lofty goal at the start of the year. 

I commend her for this, but I did not feel like this was a goal that my students were ready for. For my sophomore students, I set a goal of 20 books in a year. Last year, I would say 1/3 of my students read 20+ books, 1/3 read 8-15, and 1/3 read 8 or fewer books. 

I am not naive. I know that probably half of my students lied and did not read the number of books they claimed to. However, at the end of the year I asked how many students read more books than ever before, all students raised their hands. I believed them.

This year, I have three sections of Pre-AP Sophomore English classes. I would guesstimate that many of them had read 20 books before the end of the first semester. They are avid readers. Next year, I will probably up the requirement for Pre-AP to 30-40 books, which I believe is a more appropriate goal for them. 

When I ask students how many books they read a year ago, I usually get the same answer: "None" or "Just the books we were assigned." When I ask how many books they have read this year, and they answer with "five" with huge smile on their face, I know that is a win. Going from zero to five books in one year is huge. Setting that goal of 20 is important because it gives students something to shoot for, even if they all don't reach it. 

3. Define what constitutes a "book."

When you set a goal for how many books students need to read, you must think about what defines a "book" when it comes to number of pages.

My loose definition is that 175 pages constitutes a "book." However, if a student reads a short book of 120 pages, I still count that as a book. For counting purposes, I say that every 175 pages is a book. So:

175 pages = 1 book
350 pages = 2 books
525 pages = 3 books
700 pages = 4 books

This system encourages students to read longer books, because they know they will count for more than one book. I have had students read the entire Harry Potter series, which puts them over the 20 book goal. 

It is up to you how rigid you want to be with this counting system. I often have students say, "This book is 330 pages. How many books is that?" I make a judgement call on how many books I want to count that as. If it is a rigorous book, I will count it as two. 

There has to be a cut-off somewhere, and this page numbering system for defining a "book" has encouraged students to read longer, more rigorous books. 

4. Allow students to read what they want, but push them to more rigorous books.

Genres is something that I am really struggling with.

My students become locked into a specific genre: Sci-Fi, Dystopia, Sports, Vampire, Chick Lit. I love that once they find a genre they enjoy, they want to read more books from that genre.

I have so many students who have read The Hunger Games series, and then the want to read the Maze Runner and Divergent series. That is great. However, I want to push them to more rigorous books.

One thing I have tried this year is once students have established they enjoy a specific genre, I recommend a more challenging book in that genre. For example, for my dystopia-loving students, I have recommended The Road. For my Vampire-loving students, I have recommended Salem's Lot. 

I am also working on how to push students out of their comfort zone. So many of my students get locked into a specific genre, usually fantasy or sci-fi. I want them to experience other genres, while still reading the books they enjoy.

Here is an idea I am working on for next year. During the course of a semester, each student will play tic-tac-toe. They must read from three other genres in some fashion on a tic-tac-toe board. (I put this board together in about 10 minutes, so I haven't given much thought to where the genres should go on the board.)

The idea is that students will still have choice in what genres to do, but they will be pushed from what they normally read. 

Has anyone tried something similar to this?

5. Abandon books if they are bad.

Simply put: If a book sucks, stop reading it. 

Some books are bad. Some books are not the right "fit" for students. Some students are not ready for the book they chose. 

I remember trying to read The Trial by Kafka on my own in high school. It was terrible, but I plowed through it because we were supposed to be reading a book, and I couldn't quit once I chose one. 

Fast forward 20 years. Last week I recommended The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien to a student who likes war books. I loaned him a copy, and he started reading it. A few days later, he brought it back to me and said he read 100 pages, and it just wasn't for him. I didn't make him feel bad; I helped him find another book. 

If a student reads 175 pages of a book, I have her write it in her book log and count it as a book. 

If we are going to encourage students to read many books, we have to acknowledge that some books suck, and teach them that it is OK for them to abandon books. 

I know this outside reading project scares many teachers away because it feels like it is taking the control from the teacher and giving it to the students. These five simple rules have really helped me give structure to something that seems like it could easily get out of control.

What rules have you implemented to outside reading to help guide your students, while still making them feel in control of the process?