The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

Reader’s Workshop, an exciting innovation

As part of my transition to my new role as a middle school principal, I have set a goal of meeting every staff member between the first day of summer vacation (June 18 in our district) and the first day of school for students (September 6 at most places in Michigan). In one of my recent meetings a teacher, Caroline Thompson, she suggested I pick up a book that members of our ELA department are reading this summer, The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller. My order from Amazon arrived early last week, and I sat down to get the book started this afternoon.

Much to my surprise, two hours later, I was nearing the end, and had not moved from my chair. I found myself completely engrossed in this work, not only because I was learning so much, but also because I saw such clear value to the Reader’s workshop approach to teaching the author wrote about.

In a recent post about flipped learning, I advocated creating purposeful work for students. I believe that kids will make time to learn outside school if they see a value or the material is of interest to them. It was clear to me that Reader’s workshop does that. In a free-reading classroom, where students select their own books, students take control of their own learning and exercise some choice. It’s a basic innovation that significantly changes instruction. Rather than having everyone read from one novel and teaching about the story, teachers allow many different works (at different reading levels) that lead to direct teaching about reading.

Miller argues that reading leads to more reading. I agree with her analysis and see amazing possibilities for kids to talk with one another about books and authors. She told stories of kids who became so interested in what they were reading that they requested more time with their books, and were happy to make time to read outside school. Miller pointed out that students are already doing this, she coined the term “Underground Readers” for students who are enjoying their own books in spite of what their classes are being forced to read by a teacher.

Each year, Miller challenges her students to read 40 books, from the first day of summer vacation through the last day of school. Our school is working on something very similar and has set up a Google Spreadsheet to track every0ne’s progress. Again, a simple strategy that gets both students and staff engaged in meaningful work. Teachers are still needed to facilitate, recommend books, keep kids on track, engage in “conferences” about the progress students are making, and lead the classroom.

Another thing I took away from this book is a clear need for students to have “reading role models.” As their principal, I am now brainstorming ways to make sure that kids at our school see that I am reading, not only to learn, but for enjoyment.I’m going to schedule time when reading is happening in our classrooms to join students and really “walk the talk.”

I was also inspired by her characterization about kids who are having a hard time reading. Instead of “struggling” she characterizes them as “developing readers.” I realize it’s semantics, but I like the shift in paradigm from kids who are having a hard time to kids who are growing beyond their current capacity.

I could not be more excited to see this in action this year. While our district staff has been working with Reader’s workshop for the past several years, this year is going to be a significant step forward in our implementation. It is an innovation based on quality instruction.


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7 thoughts on “Reader’s Workshop, an exciting innovation

  1. Mr. Bernia, I really appreciate your look into the curriculum your staff is teaching, its just great leading. The readers workshop is my reading program of choice because it truly meets each reading at their level and also allows for the freedom you just explained. It truly fosters a love of reading in kids. One additional thing that may get you connected to some reluctant readers is “graphic novels” my kids love Bone and Sardine, and are also series. I picked them up to target some boys but found just as many girls enjoy the graphic books as well.

  2. I think it was Spence Rogers who told me early in my teaching career that success leads to success. That’s true of reading, math, teaching, administration … The workshop approach offers the opportunity for success by connecting to Vygotsky’s theory of learning. What Miller calls “developing”, Cambourne would call “approximating”.

    We have been trying to foster the idea of “just right” problems to parallel learners picking just right books. Not too hard, not too soft … I wrote a post about it on my blog if anyone’s interested.

  3. Dear John,

    Thank you for your positive comments about my book, The Book Whisperer, and for directing me to this post. Of all of the methods I have tried, reading workshop works for the greatest number of students and increases their achievement and motivation more than I thought possible. I wish your staff and you well as you embark on this new initiative with your students.

    -Donalyn Miller

    • Hi There,

      Wow! Feedback from THE author! I appreciate you taking the time to visit my blog, read my post, and respond. If it is alright with you, I, or a member of our ELA staff may try to get in touch with you as we implement this initiative.

      Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: Leaders of Learning « The Principal's Principles

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