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March 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 6

Reader Responsiveness 2.0

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Journals, book groups, and other traditional fare weren't coaxing our 5th graders to talk about books—until we got them blogging.

If you walked into either of our 5th grade classrooms during a typical reading workshop last school year, you would have seen a diverse group of readers with different personalities and communication styles. José would've stood out as a confident boy who compulsively discussed books but hesitated about putting his thoughts on paper. You may not have noticed a tall girl named Nhi, a voracious reader who enjoys a wide range of genres and can easily record her thoughts regarding themes, connections, and the like, but until recently rarely spoke in class. Jeremiah, who lacked the confidence to share his thinking in any forum, might have wandered into your view.
Throughout 15 years as elementary educators, we have discovered that many students—like José, Nhi, and Jeremiah—need support to bring out some aspect of responding to literature that is hard for them. Getting students to think deeply about their reading is an inherent goal of reading instruction. One of the best ways to do this with elementary students is to engage them in discussion or provide them with opportunities to write about texts and their thinking. We have tried various approaches—focus lessons, interactive read alouds, student book clubs, literature discussion groups, individual conferences, and readers' notebooks. Such activities brought out high-quality responses from many students, but each approach was lacking in different ways for different learners.
Although we saw benefits to engaging in literature-based conversations with our students, this practice didn't stretch them as thinkers, readers, or writers because they viewed teachers as the experts. Students could only peek through the lens we used to view literature. We each searched for more effective ways to create a more interactive classroom reading community, and we found such a tool in class blogs.

Mirroring Students' Communication Styles

We tried blogging because we hoped to incorporate in our classrooms the types of communication that students eagerly use on their own. We knew that our students were instant messaging, e-mailing, and texting one another, but student blogs seemed to be the most appropriate tool to meet our dual goals of incorporating technology and creating a nonthreatening forum to coax out students' thinking. In fall of 2007 we jointly planned blogging activities that each of us implemented in her own setting—Jennifer Orr with her 5th grade class at Annandale Terrace Elementary in Annandale, Virginia, and Monica Mohr (an assistant principal who stays involved in the classroom) with a 5th grade class at Brookfield Elementary School in Chantilly, Virginia.
School is a social environment. Interacting with peers is essential for most students' learning. We viewed blogging as a way to tap into this social need, while supporting students who shuddered at the thought of speaking in a large group. Student blogs were eventually highly successful in getting more students to talk and write about their reading. Staff members throughout our schools even joined conversations on student blogs, increasing schoolwide enthusiasm about literacy.
Before realizing these successes, each of us carefully set up conditions that would make blogging work. We invited teachers who worked with our students, including English as a second language and special education teachers, to support the project and students' blogs. We did not immediately have students post on blogs. First, we each read Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett out loud with the class and modeled for students how to think like a reader. We had students talk as a whole class and in pairs, reflecting on reading strategies they were using. When we felt confident that students could put their thinking into words, we created a class blog (using a secure online space for student blogs that Fairfax County Public Schools makes available) and documented our shared thinking about Chasing Vermeer through group blog posts. Only members of our class and parents had access to this blog.

Off and Blogging—and Interacting

After crafting numerous posts together, we set up an individual blog for each student in the two classes. We spent time teaching the technical aspects of blogging. Some students were already technologically savvy; when we launched into individual blogs, these learners quickly incorporated links to Web sites, images of book covers, and emoticons into their posts. Others with limited access to computers had little experience with these sophisticated tools. This project was a perfect opportunity to expose less tech-savvy students to the possibilities available through blogging.
We set the expectation that students would blog at least once a week about their reading. We also assigned each student a blogging partner and required students to—at least—respond weekly to one of their partner's posts, inviting them to respond more frequently and reply to other students also. To ensure that posts were relevant to reading rather than just conversation, we monitored student blogs and posted comments ourselves. As the excitement grew, students quickly realized that they could also comment on previous posts—and did. In time, we made the blogs available throughout our schools and encouraged teachers and staff members to comment. Soon everyone in our schools seemed to be responding to students' posts.
Blogs connected students with a larger audience outside their classroom and had a tremendous effect on their growth as readers and writers. Because classmates and teachers throughout the school were reading their blogs, students felt encouraged to share their ideas about books. Here is an excerpt from one 5th grader's blog, followed by comments she received:<EMPH TYPE="3">Post from Jilian's blogI am reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This book is very interesting because it has a lot of things and characters from recent books. So far in the book, Harry has just seen what the first task is going to be. Dragons. … While I read, I visualized what the skewarts [magical creatures] looked like when their tails exploded, sending the kids who were walking them shooting forward a couple of yards. That made me laugh out loud! I could also visualize what Hagrid and Madam Maxine looked like side by side. They are both giants, you know. I felt like I was in the room when Harry talked with his runaway prisoner godfather, Sirius, about the tournament and what the first task is.<EMPH TYPE="3">Comments in response to Jilian's postBy a classmate: Imagine having a godfather who was running away from Azkaban! Yikes! Are they supposed to know that the next task is dragons? How did Harry figure it out?By Jilian's former 2nd grade teacher: Jilian, It's the best when you can feel like you're right in the story along with the characters. Have you seen the movie already? If so, does it make it harder for you to make YOUR OWN pictures in your mind?
Another student, Alina, posted this plea:Dear readers, I need more suggestions for a book to read. I'm going to want all of your ideas! What genre should I choose? Where can I get the book? Have you read it, or are you planning on reading it?
One of the school's office assistants responded:Hi, Alina. Wow! I am amazed at not only the number of books you've read, but the variety you choose from!I might suggest you take a detour from your usual, and try something I loved to read. If you like mystery and memorable characters, and I think you do, try reading the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.They were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known as a quite a character in his time. Anyway, I always enjoyed reading about Sherlock Holmes, and you might, too. Let me know if you decide to try.

Increasing Reading and Deepening Understanding

As blogging took off, students wrote about their reading more frequently on blogs than they ever did in readers' notebooks. They initiated blogging from home, during class, and during indoor recess. As we witnessed students who didn't have computers come in before school to write posts, we understood the power of audience for our young readers.
Within a few weeks of launching blogs, students' discussions around reading strategies strengthened, their understanding of texts deepened, and they willingly spent more time reading. Students found that reading one another's posts helped them become better readers. When students simply wrote in their readers' notebooks, their sole discussion partner was their teacher, and opportunities for broad discussions about texts were limited. Blogs allowed the conversation to expand, and this broader range allowed for dialogue that cultivated a variety of perspectives and a deeper level of thinking.
One student noted, "When you read somebody else's [blog] you can use their thoughts to help you become a better reader." A blog post and response between Jenny and Alina shows how they encouraged each other to think more deeply and make predictions about a story, and even to try writing a sequel:<EMPH TYPE="3">Post from Jenny's blogI wonder if Cooper and Fergison will ever turn back into humans?<EMPH TYPE="3">Response from AlinaI'm wondering about a lot of the same things. … What happened to Micky? Didn't he always play lots of pranks on Cooper? Or Fergison? Now that they're gone, do you think he misses them or was he glad that his brother made a voluminous disappearance, possibly never to be seen again? … I hope Micky gets what he deserves and realizes that his brother has as much right to live as he has. … We should all read the book and then we can make a sequel.
After this exchange—for the remainder of the year and continuing into 6th grade—Jenny, Alina, and two other girls went to Monica's office during lunch almost every day to work on writing a sequel to this story. They are now planning to put one copy of their sequel in the school library and deciding how else they want to share it.

Building Confidence and Community

Blogging was extremely effective in bringing out shy students and strengthening supportive relationships among all students. Students themselves recognized these benefits. Madison, a quiet girl who often played alone, confessed that she preferred writing in her blog to writing in a traditional journal or speaking in class "because everyone can read it and respond." If we based our understanding of Madison as a reader solely on class discussions and conferences, we never would have imagined that a larger audience would inspire her. And blogging was a perfect fit for Nhi. It allowed her to share her brilliant thinking as a reader without having to speak in a large group. We believe Nhi would never have contributed to in-person discussions as frequently as she posted on her blog.
As if magically, students' personalities appeared, walls between groups of students disappeared, and our classrooms truly became communities of readers. As one of our coteachers observed, "Students are not only talking about their reading through their blogs, but they are recommending books to one another." We noticed that during transition times and outside at recess, students' talk turned to the latest books they were reading or whether they were engaging in a strong dialogue on their blogs. Blogging helped our kids form literary bonds and learn from one another.
By the school year's end, reading workshops in each of our classes felt different than in the past. Once reluctant students engaged in authentic conversations about reading. Their blogs served as their voices. To encourage all student readers to freely exchange their thoughts in a way that deepens literacy, teachers need to look beyond traditional reader response tools and step into the world in which our students live.

Jennifer Orr is an elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She has taught for more than two decades in almost every elementary grade at schools serving highly diverse populations. She has experience with students who are learning English; in special education and advanced academic programs; and from military families.

Throughout her career, she achieved and renewed National Board Certification; wrote articles about technology in education, literacy, math, questioning, and more; and presented at state and national conferences on the same topics. Orr is a member of ASCD’s Emerging Leader class of 2013. In 2012, she won the Kay L. Bitter Award from ISTE.

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