How I Teach English in the 45 Minute Timeframe

One of the question I am asked the most is how do you teach English in 45 minutes?  Not just reading, not just writing, but everything that English encompasses.  And I can tell you; it is not easy, nor is it perfect, nor do I have everything figured out.  The 45 minute block of time is the bane of my English existence.  Yet as I have figured out it is within our biggest problems that we find our biggest inspiration, and that is very true for this situation.  I have to try to make 45 minutes work while my students and I pine for more time.  In fact, this is the core of the book I am currently writing; how do you create passionate readers when you barely have any time to teach, let alone have conversations?

I am not alone in this quest to solve it.  Many great minds of literacy such as Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller have all helped shape my thinking.  As have countless English teachers that have trodden the path before me.  While I rest my class on a workshop foundation, I have had to make some tweaks to make it work for us.  So I thought I would share a few ideas here.

We start with 10 minutes of self-selected independent reading.  Every day of the year, almost.  This is the very last thing I will take away from our schedule.  From the second day of school this starts and the students know to “settle in and settle down” as they fall into their book.  I spend the 10 minutes conferring with 2 or 3 students, as detailed in this post here.  Students have done their own attendance, all I have to do is enter it.  Students can also book shop during this time.  A timer or my voice brings us back when the 10 minutes are over.

2-4 minutes of book talks.  I sometimes book talk the same book in all 5 classes or 5 different ones.  As the year progresses, students will also book talk their books to the class if they feel like it.  Inspired by Penny Kittle I do not just book talk books that I have read, but also new books that I am excited about.  These book talks are a must as students try to figure out who they are as readers and should be transferred to the students when possible so they can find their reading buddies.

10 minutes or less;  teaching point.  I used to do a full mini-lesson every day but my students asked me to please stop.  They made me see how varied their needs were so depending on what we are doing, most days we have a very short whole class discussion point or lesson.  My students have asked me to instead do small group lessons or one-on-one conferring/teaching based on needs.  The text that I most often use for a mini lesson is a picture book.  Almost all new concepts are introduced through picture books, before we move into nonfiction, multimedia or short stories.  Picture books allow us to get to the point quickly and in a way that allows all readers to access the text.  They also bring a lot of joy back into our reading community.  To see some of our favorites, please see all of the lists here.  

The rest of class time; student work-time.  Again, this looks different based on what we are doing, but most often I am either conferring with students as they come to me or I am going to them and doing coach-ins over their shoulder.  If we are doing book clubs then I listen in on conversations from the side, if students are writing then I most often confer with them at a side table.  All writing conferences start with me asking them what I should be looking for.  They need to be able to come up with a goal for me instead of just having me check “whether it is good or not?”  This is a great way to get students to take ownership over their writing and start to understand what they need to work on.  Reading conferences always start with “What are you working on as a reader?”

The biggest learning point for me has been to limit my teacher-talk in order to get students to have more time.  If we have a day where I know my teaching will expand beyond the 10 minutes, then I often tell the students that so that they know to expect.  That way they can also understand the purpose of the lengthier instructional time.  As far as figuring out which child needs what, which yes, is one of the biggest challenges, I have students self-reflect a lot, but I will also be using a sheet like this more often so that they can tell me what they need to work on.

I am not sure this post is even helpful, It could be about 30,000 more words or so, however, this should offer a small glimpse into what a typical day in our classroom looks like.  We do not do reading or writing separately but often have both in a day, what we do though is have different focuses for our quarters, so quarter 1 and 3 are more focused on reading explorations, whereas quarter 2 and 4 are more focused on writing explorations.  Please feel free to leave your questions in the comments if I can help in any way.

I am currently working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The first book titled Reimaging Literacy Through Global Collaboration is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree.  The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

21 thoughts on “How I Teach English in the 45 Minute Timeframe

  1. Pernille,
    Could you explain the book talk portion of your daily routine a little more? I have been teaching 7th & 8th ELA for a few years now, but haven’t heard of this and am looking for ways to get my students reading more engaging and challenging books on their own. How do you introduce this? What kinds of responses do you normally get?

    • It is actually quite simple; I do a very short review of a book, explain why I loved it and then sometimes read a short excerpt from it. The students want to know my star rating so I give that, if a student has read it too then they chime in.

    • Yes, I do, especially if I am teaching a brand new concept like Notice and Note. Those days I tell the students though that I will be speaking more. I have set timers in the past, something I will do again this year, but simply being aware of it. It also means that it is a specific thing that is taught rather than an overview of many different things. I think we all fall victim to trying to teach too many things at once and then wonder why students are confused. But I hardly ever take away independent reading so no matter what, I would only get 35 minutes to teach, but even then if a lesson takes the whole 35 minutes then it means that the students are doing a lot of discussion and work with each other.

  2. Good morning!
    We are moving toward a reading workshop (I teach English 9), so I am curious as to your format – starting with reading versus the mini-lesson (anchor text and such) and then work time. What might be the advantages to starting with the reading versus the mini lesson then the work time (reading and/or writing). Currently, I am using more class time to teach lessons than what we are moving toward, so this is going to be a struggle for me. I have a a lot of student based activities, but I use more than 10 minutes each day. Any suggestions as I move toward this layout come September? I love the idea of using picture books for the lessons 🙂 Since we’ve started the Notice and Note strategies, this has been a great way to teach them!

    • We start with independent reading because I found myself wasting minutes waiting for all students to be settled in and in class. With the middle school format some kids are called to the office, others are dealing with stuck lockers etc, so starting with the 10 minutes of reading means that all students are present once the lesson begins. It also allows the children to settle into class rather than be bombarded with new material right away. I feel inherently bad that my students only have a lunch recess so allowing them the 10 minutes is almost a sort of break for them where they can just settle in with their book. Keeping my lesson to 10 minutes is always a battle. I think being standards based and only focusing on one skill most of the time helps. See the answer above for more info on what I do.

  3. Good morning, Pernille. I was wondering if your school district gives you a set curriculum to follow or if you’re given the freedom to teach the CCSS using whatever resources you prefer? Or maybe it’s a combination? I know that there are schools out there (including mine) where the district has spent thousands of dollars on curriculum (this year is was around $200,000) that the teachers are expected to use. I also know there are teams of reading/English/elementary teachers who are expected to plan together and teach pretty much the same thing every day which can get a little tricky when some teachers prefer to follow the basal step-by-step/use worksheets, etc. and others prefer a reading/writing workshop approach. Advice?

    • I am incredibly fortunate to work for a district that does not dictate curriculum to us in English at the middle school level. Instead they ask us what we need and then trust us when we tell them. I am also lucky in that I work with an incredible colleague, Wendy, who shares many amazing ideas with me. While we teach differently we do many similar projects and also cover the same standards each quarter pretty much. We plan together every week, not because we have to but because we like each other’s ideas and are given the opportunity to work together. I think the push toward basal and curriculum is another symptom of school being more about the adults than the kids (as Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfellippo discuss in their new book Hacking Leadership). I think we are often looking for an easy solution so that no matter which teacher a child gets, they get the same experience. But in this push toward fidelity and sameness we are forgetting about the experience of the very children we teach. Are we creating reading and writing explorations or merely teaching lessons?

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  5. Thank you!
    A teacher friend forwarded your post to me and I’ll be spending time this summer devouring your past articles.
    My school board has mandated 60 minutes each day for math – my confort zone – and this fall I will also be teaching ELA for the first time in seven years. I only have four 40 minute ELA classes each week, and I’m looking forward to figuring out the reader/writer workshop format for my new job.

  6. Thank you for the incredible ideas. I’m moving from a 90 minute high school ELA to 42 min 6-8. Your insight has given me some concrete ideas to make the time transition. Thanks for being so generous with your professional skills.

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  8. Hi, Pernille!
    I’m wondering how longer writing assignments work in this time frame. In my 90 minute block, I still often feel like I can only get reading OR writing in one day.
    Thanks!

    • If we are doing a longer writing project that is what the focus is, they still get 10 minutes of reading but my mini-lesson focus and conferring is on writing instead of reading.

  9. Are students allowed to have a book on their phone or kindle and read from it at the start of class or do you require that they bring a physical book to class? I struggle with this because I love reading on my Kindle and know the kids do too, but it is hard to manage. I usually walk around the room and just let them know if I catch them playing on their phone, etc. instead of reading they loose the privilege for the rest of the year. Thoughts?

  10. Hi Pernille, I enjoyed reading this post and appreciate all you do to share with colleagues.

    I have one question: Does read-aloud time fit within this 45 minute timeframe, or do you do read-aloud at a different time of the day?

    Many thanks and best of luck in your upcoming school year!

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  12. This is one part I have not totally figured out yet, often times our read aloud is our mentor text. So often our read aloud is the picture book I am using or the chapter book we are reading.

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