Using Book Journals for Accountable Independent Reading

I'm in a lot of teacher groups on Facebook and one of the questions that pops up most often is, How do you hold students accountable for independent reading? This is a question I have pondered throughout my years of teaching and I've struggled to find the perfect solution. Last year, when I read The Book Whisperer, I read about book journals and I was intrigued. I loved the idea of having a book chat with a student using a weekly journal and so I gave it a try. This post will explore my first experience with weekly book journals for independent reading.

I purchased a composition book for each student and handed them out on the first day. I told students that this book would be a conversation between us about the books they were reading. I presented them with a model book journal and I gave them a list of journal ideas should they get writer's block. I explained that they only needed to complete one thoughtful entry each week, to be turned in by Friday. They were excited to not have weekly logs, but I also told them that while they were not writing nightly, they should still be reading nightly. 

Now, let me digress for a minute. As a teacher, I know that the question that you want to ask is But how did you know they were reading nightly? The answer is that I didn't. I've become realistic after 12 years in the classroom. Some students are going to read every night and some students are not. The fact is, their lives outside of the classroom are sometimes chaotic with sports, helping with their siblings, and other family engagements. What is important to me is that they are reading at some point and I'm pretty confident that I build enough authentic excitement for reading in the classroom that most of my students will actually want to read on their own. As teachers, we're responsible for introducing students to new books daily and showing them that reading can be an enjoyable adventure. I also happen to be a voracious reader so there is not acting in my classroom, I am truly passionate and excited each time I get a new book in my hand! I also open my classroom early to readers who don't have a quiet space at home and yes, students do show up! 

The first journals were pretty good! For me, it was exciting to see what my students were reading and how they were responding to the characters and events in their stories. Of course, my students who were already in love with books turned in journals that were much more detailed, but I was happy to see that my struggling readers and English Language Learners were also able to write several sentences about their reading. It was fun to write back to each one of them. This is also where I was able to get them to "dig deeper" with their responses. When I wrote back to them, I asked them questions that would activate more critical thinking about the text. When I first started the journals, one of my biggest concerns was that I wouldn't be able to evaluate their comprehension strategies and skills, but I did not need to worry about that. Our conversations were authentic and I was able to better activate their use of skills and strategies through these journals than I ever was with a reading log. If you're new to teaching and so these skills and strategies won't come naturally to you just yet, don't worry. A quick Google search of ELA stem starters for your grade level and state will give you lots of resources. When you find some good ones, print them out and have them handy when you are responding to journals. After awhile, it will come naturally. Here's some examples: 

Now, another question that you are going to have is Did you grade them, Mrs. O? I marked them for completion only. The point of this is not to get a grade, it's to monitor their independent reading and guide students to think deeper about the book they are reading. I don't know that there is a proper rubric for that. For me, it's more of an informal assessment that doesn't need a grade, because the proof is in the journal. 

Speaking of which, guess what else your students are doing? They are writing! That's right, book journals trick your students in to working on their writing and reading at the same time! Genius, isn't it? Now, some teachers including the writer of The Book Whisperer, do not correct grammar or spelling in the journals. Now, I do not take the red pen of death (just kidding, I use pretty Flair pens of death) to the journal, but I do some marginal corrections here and there, sometimes on sticky notes to avoid marking their journal up. I think, Hey, why not stick a quick note about too, to, and two in their journal? Though the focus is certainly on comprehension, it's also a great chance to give a little grammar and writing feedback and I'm all about double dipping! 

So this all sounds lovely, doesn't it? Well, I'm all about being honest so I don't want to leave out the stuff that didn't go so well. Here's a list of the "oh no's" (Mrs. O "Knows" - get it?) that I will be revising for the upcoming year. 

#1: Responding takes a long time. This is the biggest drawback of journals. I don't have a great recommendation for making this easier. One thing that did help was allowing the journals to be turned in on any day of the week. They were due by Friday, but I encouraged students to turn them in whenever they were done. That way I wasn't responding to all of them over the weekend, though some weeks they all turned them in on Friday so I'd try to break it up and do 5 here, take a break, do 5 more, etc. I had a recent chat with another teacher about this problem and she came up with the idea of assigning students different due days - 5 on Monday, 5 on Tuesday, and so on. I think this is a wonderful idea to make it less overwhelming! I also think if I did the journals online, my responses would be faster because I type faster than I write. I'm currently exploring online options, but haven't found anything I love yet. Plus, I'm a sucker for a handwritten journal! 

#2: Model, model, model! For some students, the freedom of writing anything about their book actually made it difficult. They needed more structure and examples. I ended up modeling for individual students throughout the year. This year, I'm going to not only model a lot more at the beginning of the year, I'm going to share good examples of their work weekly. I'm also planning to let them do their first few weeks of journals in class with me in hopes that a more gradual release will better support those students who don't know what to write about. 

#3: This is not a book report. This is not a book review. Because my students do a monthly book review or project, some of them started to write book reviews for journals. I am going to make sure that I stress the difference between the journals and the book reviews/reports so that they aren't writing a weekly book review, which is not only tedious for them to write, it's also tedious for me to read! 

#4: Model some more...and make sure you're doing both fiction and nonfiction! Are you reading a book aloud? Write a journal about it for the class to see. Did you read a really good story as a mentor text for writing? Write a journal for the class to see. Was that informational text on hurricanes mind-blowing? Model a journal! It's definitely a great idea to have your own journal that you can write in throughout the year and have on hand for students to access for ideas. Also, make sure that you model both fiction and nonfiction. I had a few students who just loved nonfiction, and my prompts were really geared towards fiction. I'll openly admit I only modeled nonfiction once. I'm going to give my students two separate pages of prompts (one fiction and one nonfiction) next year to make this easier for my nonfiction readers! 

Overall, it's the best thing I've tried yet to hold students accountable for their independent reading. I truly enjoy reading their entries and my students can't wait to read my responses! When I place their journal on their desk, they immediately open it up to read what I wrote and get these big, adorable smiles on their faces. I love it! Also, it's a great way for me to assess their comprehension of the books they are choosing and push them towards deeper thinking through our journal conversations. Although it takes a bit more time than I'd like it to, I think it's worth it. 

To grab a printable of the directions, journal prompts, and samples I included in this post, click on the image below. 



The 40 Book Challenge in My Classroom

Last summer, I picked up a book I've been wanting to read for quite some time, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. It's been on my to-read list for a couple of years and since I moved to a new school, I figured it was the perfect time to get some new inspiration.

Well, this book blew me away. You see, I love reading, and it is always my goal to help my students to love reading as well. I achieve this with engaging read-alouds, but I admit that I hadn't put much thought into independent reading other than to make sure that students are reading on their level, yadda, yadda, yadda. I realized that though I've stacked my classroom library with over 1,000 books, I've never taken the time to match students with a book that is perfect for them. I don't mean right in that it's on their level, I'm talking about it being right by being something that they are actually interested in reading. As I read Donalyn's book, I realized that I've missed out on great opportunities for meaningful recommendations. I was providing students with the opportunity to enjoy books that I read, but I was not putting enough thought into the books that they were reading on their own. Now that I've read The Book Whisperer, I am vowing to never let this happen again! Reading this book not only inspired me to create my own 40 book challenge, it also inspired me to rethink the way that I approach independent reading and I'm so glad it did. Below, I'd like to share how I'm using what I learned from her book in my classroom. I will preface this by saying that I've made changes that work for me, pulling the components that were most meaningful for me and the students in my classroom.
I decided that I would keep the goal of 40 books, and I did say that they must be books that are on their reading level or above to count towards the challenge. At first, I tried to be flexible on the level because I don't want students to avoid great books that might be easy, but I found that they started to take advantage of this, so I tightened the reins on it. I did not assign certain genres as suggested in their book. The reason that I did this was A) I knew I was going to expose them to different genres through our reading curriculum. B) There are genres that I dislike reading as an adult. Put a science fiction book in front of me and my eyes immediately glaze over. I don't want to force my students to read books they aren't interested in because I believe that defeats the purpose of creating a love of reading. I want my 40 book challenge to be focused on books that my students will truly enjoy.

When I introduced the challenge, I was really concerned about stressing my students out.  I knew some students would hear me say 40, and then hear nothing else if I didn't put their mind's at ease right away. Teachers must keep in mind that there are some students in their class who don't enjoy reading yet. I knew I needed a buy-in from those students so I thought about what they would need to hear.

The first thing that I told my students was that this was not a competition against one another, but instead the same as setting a goal and working hard to achieve it. I explained to them that as long as they were completing their weekly assignments related to the challenge, I would be proud of them, regardless of whether they met their goal of 40 or not. To chart their progress,  I hung pennants each week with their updated number and they loved this and they also recorded their progress in their binders (more on that in a minute). I made sure that it was very clear to my students that this challenge wasn't about who can read the most, but rather who is working towards their goal. This conversation took a lot of stress off of their shoulders and helped them to understand that the goal is to enjoy reading.

Our pennants at the beginning of the year. Each one says _______(name)  is ready to begin the challenge.

The first week of school, I gave an interest survey. I had to do mine differently from the one used in the book because I'm elementary and hers seemed to geared towards middle school students My main goal with this survey was to find out what makes each student "tick" so that the books I recommend for them will be closely aligned to their interests. I also asked some questions to find out their strengths and weaknesses with reading to give me a heads up on their needs. As I read each survey, I went into my classroom library and started pulling recommendations for my students and leaving them on their desks. This was great for me because it allowed me to become reacquainted with my own classroom library. It excited my students to see my recommendations. As we went through the year, I would order books from Scholastic and when they would arrive, I'd immediately introduce them to the class and then recommend them to students who I knew would enjoy them! They loved it and I enjoyed using their interest surveys to get to know them as readers and seeing their wish lists grow!

Click on the image above for a reproducible copy of my interest survey for elementary students.

Click on the image above to get a printable copy of this cover for student binders. I have it in 20, 30, and 40.

I created each student a book challenge binder of their own. In that binder I placed a reading log where students tracked each book they completed, a wish list for books they wanted to read in the future, and sample book reviews, to be explained in an upcoming blog post. Of course, you are probably wondering how I knew for sure that they were reading each book, and for this, I did a combination of Donalyn's ideas, my own ideas, and what the students have already been doing. 
I decided to have students complete a weekly journal in which they write about a book that they are reading. I respond to their entry and it becomes a weekly chat between student and teacher. Their journal entry makes it clear if they are reading or just skimming. For a more in-depth post on the pros and cons of this, as well as a more-detailed explanation of how I used journals in the classroom, head over the the following link: Using Book Journals for Accountable Independent Reading

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an AR person. I wish it would go away entirely. However, my students have spent the past 5 years participating in AR and some really love it, so I didn't want to take this option away from them completely. I allowed students to take a test on their level or above and as long as they passed it (I set the goal at 80%),  I allowed them to count the book towards their 40 book challenge. I did have one incident where students were all taking the same test and sharing the answers (one of the many things about AR that I do not like), but it was an isolated incident. I monitored daily to make sure that did not happen again.
For students who don't often pass AR tests, or do not enjoy taking them, I allowed students to complete a book review with two options, a written review on Kid Blog or a video review on Kid Blog. I purchased the yearly subscription to Kid Blog and loved that we could use this format to share the fantastic books that we are reading and recommend them to others. I did my own examples of each and posted them to Kid Blog in advance to share them with my students. I also created a rubric to share with the students and walked them through their first book review on Kid Blog. I found that they were much less nervous about book reviews once they completed one together. It's all part of the I do, we do, you do model when it comes to these. I required everyone to complete at least one book review per month, but the remainder of the books that they complete can be AR tests if they choose. Overall, this went well, but I think they got a little bored of it, so I am planning to add a book project each trimester that will take the place of 1 book review each trimester so that they have a bit more choice in their accountability. Here is a link to my post on book reviews: Book Reviews: An Alternative to Book Reports
 I am very pleased with the results of the 40 book challenge. As I assured my students on the very first day, it was always about finding books they love and reading because they wanted to, not because I was forcing them to. In the end, only three students met the challenge of 40 books (with one reaching 73), but every single child surprised themselves because they read more this year than they ever had in years before. Even more importantly, they loved each book they read. Parents were a bit nervous about this challenge at the beginning of the year, but they were thrilled with it in the end because they saw that regardless of how many books they had read, all students were seeing themselves as readers and were proud of what they accomplished because of this challenge. What more could a teacher ask for?

I will absolutely do the challenge again. I will tweak a few things here and there. As mentioned, I do think that the book reviews became a bit monotonous so I need to reevaluate those. I think a project a trimester will help and I'm going to think about other choices that I can offer that students will be excited about. Also, I'm going to do a better job of modeling their journal entries in the beginning so that I get more meaningful journals from students.

Want my pennant template? Click the image above to download it for free! You will need to add text boxes to add student names and numbers. 

If you have any questions about how I did the 40 book challenge in my classroom, please feel free to comment below! I strongly encourage you to grab a copy of The Book Whisperer before starting your journey! 


Editable Student Bookmarks

When I shared my end of the year gift for this year, I realized that in the madness of my move last summer, I never shared the gift that I gave to my students last year. If there was one book that my students LOVED last year, it was The One and Only Ivan. Even months after we had finished, my students were still talking about it! So when it came to an end of the year gift, I knew I wanted to give them a copy of the book, but I also wanted to give them something personalized. I decided to create a "One and Only" bookmark for each of my students, with a clip art picture that had a likeness to each student. This was a bit of an adventure in buying clip art!

I created a template using PowerPoint by inserting a rectangle with curved corners, changing the inside color to white and the edge to black with a thick border. I then added a big dot at the end of each bookmark as a place for me to punch a hole. After adding the graphics and the names, I took my templates to Office Depot and had them laminate them with thick laminate and let me tell you, it was THICK! They offered to cut it for me and I didn't take them up on this. If you decide to take this somewhere to have it laminated, let them cut it for your own sanity because the thick laminate is not easy to cut through at all. Also, purchase a corner rounder from Michael's. It was a life saver. I also bought some ribbon from Michael's and tied it through the hole for the final touch.

These would be great as stand-alone gifts or with a book. I added a note to go with the gift as well as a handwritten personal note to each student. My students loved the bookmarks, and kept asking how I got each one to look like just like them. But I can't give them all of my secrets, can I?

If you'd like an editable bookmark template to use, click on the picture below to download the template I created. Please keep in mind that only the words are editable. I cannot create a completely personalized bookmark for each of your students, but I did attempt to include a wide range for you to choose from. Directions for editing are included in the download. 


Jars of Positivity End of Year Gift

Each year, I try a different end of year gift for my students. After 12 years of teaching, it's not easy to come up with something new each time. I've used original ideas as well as ideas I've found on Pinterest. I've done some that I loved, and some that I wouldn't likely repeat again (beach balls are only a great idea if you love the idea of 25 beach balls being blasted around your room for the last hours of the school year). Since I'm a military wife, I move around quite a bit, so there's really no reason to not repeat some of the more successful ones. However, my goal is to try to come up with something that is specific to the group that I have and as anyone who has taught for a few years can tell you, no two groups are EVER alike. Thus, my attempts at mixing things up from year to year.

This year, we read some really amazing books together. We started with Rain Reign, then joined the Global Read Aloud and read Pax, devoured Maniac Magee, and ended the year with an amazing and inspiring book, Fish in a Tree. Most of our books focused on treating others with kindness and compassion, embracing our differences, and not judging a book by it's cover.

So what to create that represents those themes? I really didn't know. I contemplated those cute word cloud poems, but couldn't find reasonably priced frames that I love (yes...I'm picky). I loved the idea of embracing their positive qualities in some way, as I did something similar to that years ago and was happy with the results. Still...I didn't know exactly what to do.

Leave it to a shopping trip to Michael's to inspire me! I found these adorable little mason jars and my wheels started turning. I have a crafty parent that loves to use her Cricut and so I contacted her to see if she'd be willing to personalize the jars for me. The jars are about 4 inches tall They were about $1.50 each, but I had one of those valuable 25% off your entire purchase coupons, so it wasn't too bad. My plan was to fill them with positive words about each student and call them jars of positivity. Of course, the words weren't just going to come from me. I wanted their peers to write them because I know that those are even more meaningful at this stage in their lives. I created a letter and attached a template with the names of each student. To do this, I simply made a table in PowerPoint and made the borders thicker. I then typed their names in each box. I copied the letter and the templates on a variety of colors of paper.

Once I had all of these returned, the toughest part was cutting out each individual strip and separating them. I won't lie and say that this wasn't time-consuming, because it was.  But if you put on a good TV show in the background, it makes it go by a little quicker!

Now I was ready for the jars. They came out adorable thanks to my super crafty parent!

I folded up each strip and placed them inside the jar. This was also a tad time-consuming, but I think my excitement for the final outcome got me through. The different colors looked fantastic inside!

But...I needed one more thing, something to explain what was inside the jars. So I wrote a poem to go with it.

I put the jars in pretty bags and the students couldn't wait to see what was inside! 

Yesterday was our last day so I presented my students with this gift. I had them take the poem out and I read it aloud before they took the jars out. Because the last day is always emotional for me, I made it to the second stanza before I started bawling. 

So how did it go? Was it a hit? YES! They loved it. They couldn't wait to see what their classmates wrote about them and they had these huge smiles on their faces as they read them. One of my favorite moments was hearing a student who worked super hard all year read one aloud that said, "______ is a hard worker because she never gives up, even when it's hard for her." She beamed as she read that. That's how I knew this gift was exactly what I was hoping for. Although this gift took more time than I thought it would, it was completely worth it. I'd definitely do it again, but perhaps after I've moved so there is still an element of surprise. It was really a great way to wrap things up! 

If you'd like a copy of the poem without my name or the school year on it, you can click on the picture below. I print two to one page so that I can get a smaller version without losing any quality.


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