The Tower of Books Challenge: A Reading Log Alternative

Over the last few years, thousands of teachers have used my Tower of Books Challenge with their students as an engaging independent reading challenge, often replacing a stuck-in-a-rut reading log. (You know the one... that chart with good intentions of ensuring students are consistently reading but eventually becomes a roll-of-the-eyes chore void of any student motivation. Yeah, that one.)

The Tower of Books Challenge is an independent reading challenge, great for a summer reading assignment or to replace that hum-drum reading log your students dread. An engaging format and tons of options! Read more about it in this blog post by The Thinker Builder.

I recently did a huge makeover of the challenge, with better, brighter color-schemes (two fun choices now!), updated fonts, and overall better organization. And even more recently, I added several pages of accountability and extension ideas to give you even more options and flexibility.

I've never really blogged about Tower of Books, but with the recent updates, I thought it would be a good time to create a post that explains them and answers several of the most common questions I receive regarding the resource.

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What IS the Tower of Books Challenge? 

The Tower of Books Challenge is based on two core ideas: to widen students' reading choices and to provide a fresh and motivating way to keep track of what they read.

Students are given a reading list with numerous genres and categories of books they must read to meet the challenge. For each book students read, they create a book cut-out from the printable files, fill in their book information, and begin forming their… Tower of Books!

Towers can be built with 2D book spines, each one representing a book read from the category list:

Or, towers can be built with 3D book look-a-likes, each one representing a book read from the category list:

Lots of different category lists are are included to help you suit the challenge to your students, as well as parent letters, a reader pledge and other activities to help with accountability, and even "Master Stacker" award certificates.

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Michael, there are so many options. Can you walk me through the decisions I need to make to get this thing up and running?

Options are good as long as you know what they are and how to use them, right? Tower of Books has grown to include lots of choices, designed to (1) help you suit your needs for your specific group of students, and (2) allow you to have future challenges that are different from your first. But if you're just getting started, it might be helpful to check out this "Quick Start Guide" video I made to get The Tower of Books Challenge up and running:

So to summarize the main points in the video...
  • Choose a 20, 30, or 40 book challenge. How many books do you want your students to read? Think about the age of your students and the time frame you have in mind.
  • Choose a category list. Students will read books that fit into each category on the list you choose. There are nine different lists, each one varying in genre, book type, and quirkiness, and each one comes in all three amounts (20, 30, and 40 books). And there's an editable category list too, in case you want to customize a list even more.
  • Choose a format for how students will keep track of the books they read. You can do the two-dimensional version or three-dimensional version, or there's even a "paper saver" version where everything's recorded onto one sheet of paper.
Whether you do the 2-D or 3-D version, you get to pick which color scheme you prefer: a retro chevron theme or a bright colors theme, or save some ink and use the blackline version.

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Michael, I love the idea of the Tower of Books Challenge but I don't think I have the space to display it all. What suggestions do you have?

Space to display the lengthy two-dimensional tower mats or the the three-dimensional stacks of paper prisms might be limited. Many teachers find it helpful to have students keep their towers at home, even if the bulk of the challenge is done in class. But keeping everything at school might still be doable! Consider some of these ideas:
  • For 2D towers kept at school, an easy solution to not having enough display space is to simply not display the towers. Instead, have students keep their tower mats rolled up like a scroll. When students need to add another book spine to their tower, they simply unroll their scroll. But if you are looking for space to display the tower mats, consider using the hallway, which often has miles of unused space. Still, I'm not sure any place beats hanging the tower mat on the refrigerator at home.
  • For 3D towers kept school, consider using window sills, tops of book cases, or that often unused floor space underneath your whiteboard. It might not take long for towers to start falling over, so consider having students add a bubble of tape in between each book prism. You also might consider asking your media specialist if you can stack towers on top of book cases in the school library. 

If none of those options will do the trick, consider using the Paper Saver version of the challenge, which condenses the 2D tower mat onto one sheet of paper. It's obviously not as dramatic of a way to track students' reading but the practical trade-off might be necessary.

One strategy that makes a lot of sense is to use one of the original tower methods for the first Tower of Books Challenge that you do with your class, but then with future challenges, use the Paper Saver version of tracking. Changing the category list for these future challenges keeps them fresh and student engagement high.

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Michael, does Tower of Books have to be an independent challenge?

While the original intent of Tower of Books was to be an independent challenge, it has the flexibility to be used in other ways too. Here are three of the coolest ideas teachers have come up with:
  • Whole Class Record: Many teachers have used Tower of Books to keep track of all the books read aloud in class. Whether novels, mentor text picture books, or even basal stories, using Tower of Books in this way is a fun way to see all the reading the class has done together as well as the wide array of genres, too!
  • Class vs. Class: If multiple classes have a license for the Tower of Books, try a friendly class vs. class competition, or even a challenge between the whole grade level!
  • Small Group Teams: My favorite spinoff for Tower of Books is to form small group teams with about 2-4 students per team, where each team works together to complete the challenge. It's a great way to incorporate some interpersonal skills, hold each other accountable, AND it really cuts down on the materials needed.

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Michael, I worry about accountability. How can I ensure students are really doing the reading?

Holding students accountable for actually reading the books for the challenge can be tricky. As with anything, the more accountability measures you take, the more risk you have of decreasing student excitement and increasing your own workload. So, try to strike a balance so students are still motivated to read and complete the challenge, but do so with integrity.

I've added several pages to the Tower of Books resource to help give you ideas for more accountability. One of the simplest is a "Reader Pledge" that you can have students sign prior to starting the challenge.

I like how the pledge makes clear that "an honest short tower is better than a dishonest tall tower." Of course, this may not suddenly make someone honest. As Taylor Swift says, fakers gonna fake. But at least this pledge lays out the foundation for what's important.

Once the challenge has started, try choosing a couple of the new activity sheets to help hold students accountable for reading the whole book. These pages include summary sheets, book reviews, and book recommendations.

Now, if it's me, I would not want to require students to write a full-on summary for every book they read for the challenge. The motivation factor can really start to dwindle after a week or so. Plus, who wants to check all those summaries? Not me.

I know what you're thinking... If I only require students to write summaries for certain books, then they'll just make sure to read those books only. Here's the trick, you require a certain number of summaries (or reviews, or recommendations, or a combination) for the books read in the challenge, BUT, you don't tell them which books they'll do summaries for until after they've added them to their towers. For example, you tell students, "Boys and girls, after you have five books in your tower, I'll tell you for which one of those five books you need to write a summary. So be sure you've really read all five books so you are prepared."

One way to do this is to roll a die after every five books to determine which of the five books students must summarize. If a two is rolled, students summarize the second book in their tower, and so on. Or for every ten books, flip a coin: heads, you write book reviews for all the even numbered books in your tower; tails, you do the odds.

Another method of accountability is to, from the outset, make students aware that throughout the challenge you will be asking them to complete activities involving the books they read and add to their towers. (Not the actual, physical book, though. That would be impractical to keep them all handy. But that's okay, because students have a record of their books within their towers!)

The key here is not to show all your cards at the beginning. Informing students that they'll need to have really read their books, beginning to end, in order to complete these activities, is all you really want to tell students at the beginning. Leaving the details for later is important in preventing certain students from finding the loopholes.

One engaging and not-super-time-consuming activity to throw in once or twice at any point in the challenge is a book sort. Maybe halfway through, when you know all students have completed a certain number books, ten for instance, have a book sort. (Some students may be well beyond ten books--that's okay!) You randomly choose five numbers within the minimum number of books completed and students use those books for the sort. For example, "Boys and girls, I want you to check your towers and use the books with the following numbers for the sort: #3, #5, #6, #9, and #10." Then have students sort these five books into two groups. You can have students determine how to sort them, or use the included sort, "Books I'd read again" and "Books I would not read again." Students then explain their reasoning behind sorting each book the way they did.

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If you have ideas to add to any of the questions above, feel free to comment below! If you've already purchased The Tower of Books Challenge, be sure you've gotten the latest updates with the accountability and extension pages. You can do that by simply redownloading the resource from your "My Purchases" tab on TeachersPayTeachers.

For details on purchasing The Tower of Books Challenge, click HERE or the image above.

Now get to stackin' everybody!

"Big Impact" Revising Strategies for Student Writers

Revising. How often does it get shuffled to the back of the writing line, skimped, or morphed into glorified editing? Probably a little too often. But revising has the potential to be a powerful part of student writing, where opportunities to grow as writers are thick.

In my last post, I gave you a plan to change the classroom writing culture so that revising played a significant, vital part of student writing. I also promised you specific, practical revising strategies that would help students get the most out of this part of the writing process, and in turn, help get the most out of their writing.

Learn twelve "big impact" revising strategies for students to use to improve their writing. (The Thinker Builder)

Well, here they are: twelve "big impact" revising strategies to introduce to your students. Each one jives really well with a one-column rough draft format, which you can read about in my post called Rethinking the Rough Draft. It's a simple change but will help set the stage for students to implement these revising strategies.

Now let's get rollin' with the strategies...

Students mark a bracket around the first few sentences of their rough draft, narrowing their focus to just the beginning of the piece. They read this marked section carefully and think about the feeling they want to give the reader and how to grab their attention. Then students try rewriting their beginning differently. (It's important to emphasize with students that even if they like their beginning, to go ahead and try writing it differently because they might stumble onto something even more successful.) After a rewrite, students ask themselves a series of reflection questions: Which beginning gives the right feeling to my reader? Which beginning grabs my reader's attention more? Which beginning makes my reader want to read on? Have I chosen the right place to start? Do I need to back up? Do I need to skip ahead?

Students mark a bracket around the last few sentences of their rough draft, narrowing their focus to just the ending of their piece. Similar to "Lead the Way," students read their ending and think about the feeling they want to leave the reader with and how to bring the piece to a close. Would an unexpected ending be a good choice? Would an ending that summarizes information be a good choice? Then students try rewriting their ending differently. Afterward, students think about which ending would be more satisfying to the reader.

Students choose a medium-length section, around 6-10 sentences, of their writing in which they like. They read the section carefully. They think about what they like about it and if there's a way to do it even more. Then students try rewriting the section. Since they already like what they have, students are encouraged to take some risks with the second attempt. They can always choose to keep their first attempt, but you never know, they might go from good to great! After the rewrite, students ask themselves a series of reflective questions: What did I write in my second attempt that is strong? What did I write in my second attempt that didn't work as well? Which attempt do I want to keep? Or are there parts of both that I want to use?

With a medium-length section of their draft, students read carefully and underline details that could be combined to say the same thing, could be stated more simply, or are off-topic or lead the reader astray. Then students look back at the parts they underlined and decide whether or not to keep each part, asking themselves: How would this section sound without the part I'm considering removing? If I had to remove one sentence, which would it be? Is the section better without it? If I remove all the parts I underlined, would this section be better. Afterward, students make any other needed adjustments so the draft still flows together.

Students choose a small section of their writing (a few sentences or one paragraph). After reading it carefully, they find one place to add a whole new detail sentence, and one more place to add two whole new detail sentences. To help find places to add details, students ask themselves: What part of this section could I explain or describe more? How can I use my senses to add more details that "paint a picture" for my reader?

With a small section of their writing, students first look for a word they remember choosing carefully, putting a start nearby to show it off. If they don't find one, that's okay! Then students find three more places to choose a word that is the perfect fit: an exact word, a special word, a word that is "just right" for the situation. They might replace two words with a single perfect word, or add a describing word, or change a word for one that better shows or describes what they want.

With a medium length section of their writing, students use their pencil to track the words as they read them out loud. It's important that they are able to hear their own voice. As students read, they pay attention to their voice. For any parts they stumble on, get stuck on, or even have to pause at, they underline them, thinking of them as rough spots that need smoothing out. Then students rewrite the section, revising the underlined parts so that when they read it out loud again, it's easier to read smoothly. Afterward, students ask themselves: Is my revised section easier to read now? Are there any parts that need touched up a little more?

Students choose a small section of their piece and read it carefully, being sure to get the full gist of what they wrote. Without looking back at the chosen section, students rewrite it. They can change a little or a lot but they make sure it still connects to the sentence before and the sentence after. Students then read their "second take" and without looking back they rewrite the section for a third time, trying to make it even better. Afterward, students reflect on questions like: Which of my three "takes" do I think is the strongest? Are there bits of one take I like and bits of another I also like? Should I try one more take to blend them? Do I need to change anything to make this section fit back into the whole piece?

For this strategy, students use their whole draft. As they read it, they look for places where there seems to be a hole. They mark these places in the margin with a circle. Maybe they find a gap in their story or they simply forgot to tell a part. Or maybe they realize they jump from one part to another too quickly. After reading and marking their draft, students revisit the places they marked and write the missing pieces so the holes get filled. Afterward, students ask themselves: Have I closed the gaps that need closing? Was I careful to only add details that help make the piece more clear?

Students use their whole draft for this strategy. Before doing anything else they think carefully about the purpose of their piece as a whole... Why did they write this? What is this piece truly about? What did they want to make sure their reader knows or feels after reading it? Next, students read their draft carefully, pausing after each half-page to decide if the section is on track with the big picture they thought about before beginning. If they think the section might be off-track, they mark the margin with a circled question mark. Students then revisit the places they marked and make revisions to bring them back on track, asking themselves: How can I change this section so it fits better with my purpose? How can I get it back on track?

This is a partner strategy. Students split their draft into four sections, using the margin to number each section, 1-4. Then they trade drafts with their partners. Students read each section of their partner's draft, thinking about what's working well and what might not be working as well... How easy is this section to understand? How easy is this section to imagine in your mind? After reading all sections, they choose which section is working the best and they tell their partner why they think so. Then they choose one section that could use a little more work and tell their partner why they think so. Partners then trade back drafts and reread the section that might need a little more work, revising it where needed, asking themselves: How can I make this section work better? Why did my best section work so well? Can I use any of those strategies here?

This strategy is a spin-off of the other "smooth it out" strategy, adapted to partners. Students trade drafts with their partners and sit side by side. One partner reads one page of the draft out loud (we'll call this partner the reader) while the writer of the draft follows along. For any spot where the reader stumbles, gets stuck, or that the writer has to explain, the writer marks the margin of the draft with a dark dot. (The writers do not attempt to fix or revise these spots while their partners are reading. They just mark the margin for now and let their partners continue reading.) After one page, students change roles, working with the other person's draft. Students then trade drafts back to the owners and revisit the spots marked in the margins of their own drafts. They make choices about what needs to be revised in order to smooth out the writing. Some spots might be a quick fix or change, and other spots may need a bigger revision.

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You'll notice that most of the strategies have students isolate a portion of their draft with which to revise. Putting serious effort into revising can quickly become overwhelming, but when balanced with just a bite-size chunk of their draft, it's much easier for students to be in the right frame of mind. They can always (or you can always have them) apply the same strategy to additional portions of their draft if needed.

These strategies also show that revising hard is much more than a little tweak here and a little tweak there. Trying to make your writing better comes in a variety of actions.

To help drive home this way of thinking, I made this "Revising Is..." poster. You can download it FREE by clicking HERE.

You might also be interested in getting my pack of all twelve revising strategies you read about here, on handy half-page cards. Each card breaks down the strategy into sections: What to Use, What to Do, and What to Ask Yourself. Then I included an example of using the strategy so students can have some context and see the logistics of implementing it.

Print and laminate the cards and stick them on a ring, or create mini-booklets for each student! The resource comes with color and blackline versions of all the strategy cards, as well as helpful posters for student reference, booklet "accessory pages," and teacher notes. Click HERE or the image below to check out the resource in my TeachersPayTeachers store.

"About Me" Roll-Ups: A Fun and Fresh Back-to-School Display

Looking for a fun and fresh "About Me" activity for back-to-school? Check this one out!

These "About Me" Roll Ups make the perfect back to school display. I love the little peek-through windows to get to know students on the "inside" too!

This "About Me" Roll-Up gives students a chance to share a ton about themselves in a unique, interactive, and space-saving display. Classmates and visitors can see all the info by turning the roll-up around AND peeking through the cut-out windows!

Let me show you how it works. First copy the two pages front to back. Have students fill out all the sections. The front side includes "quick facts," a "favs corner," space to tell some activities they enjoy, space to tell what they are excited about and nervous about for the new school year, and a self portrait.

On the back, students record five positive traits about themselves, and fill out a picture and caption for something few people know about them. Once the paper is rolled up, these two sections will only be seen through the the peek-through windows.

Next, students cut open their peek-through windows. They leave one side attached to create a flap to fold open.

Now the roll-up is ready to... roll up! Students add a little glue to the edge section and attach the sides together.

The sections on the inside line up just right with the peek through windows to make a fun little surprise for the viewer.

Stand the "About Me" Roll-Ups on the corner of students' desks for a perfect display piece for Back-to-School or Meet-the-Teacher Night. Or simply use them for a gallery walk for your own class to get to know each other.

You can get this ready-to-go activity from my TeachersPayTeachers store right HERE, complete with the printables you see in the photos, as well as student directions and teacher tips. Or, you can download my free blank templates for students to design their own roll-ups, right HERE.

Click the pic for details on how to purchase the activity from my TpT store.

You might also be interested in more of my popular Back to School Activities. You can check out Pack #1 HERE and pack #2 HERE.

Revising HARD! Changing Our Classroom Writing Culture

You should have seen the first draft of this post.

Revising often takes a back seat in our writing block. But revising "hard" not only leads to better writing, it creates stronger writers. Here's how to change your classroom writing culture. (The Thinker Builder)

You probably would have clicked the back-arrow pretty quickly. And a buck gets ten you'd never have returned to my blog again because of the scattered, drab, downright stanky taste left in your mouth from your visit.

Seriously, you would have been looking at a big ol' hot mess.

But here's the thing: I knew it was scattered. I knew it was drab. I knew it was a stanky hot mess.

And I was good with that. Why?

Because I knew the revisions would be coming. I knew I would make my crappy first draft better. A lot better. All the way to the level you are reading now.

How did I know?

Because that's just how I write. I write something. And then I revise it...hard. And continue to do so until it's right. And a buck gets ten that's how most writers write. Improving something that's there is just easier than trying to get it all right the first time. But this isn't the norm with students.


For students, making a revision is seen as "fixing" something. And if something needs fixing, it had to be wrong in the first place. And students don't like to be wrong. I can't blame them. In much of the other work students do (e.g. math homework, spelling tests, any tests), being correct the first time is the desired outcome. And this mentality spills over into their writing. The revising stage of the writing process often gets whittled down to what amounts to glorified editing: a little tweak here, a little correction there, an extra adjective over there.

Revising is more than that.

At it's core, revising is all about making decisions, with each choice intended to make something better.

If you revise your living room hard, you aren't simply fluffing the pillows or vacuuming dog hair. You are painting walls, rearranging furniture, ripping up floors. Revising your writing hard involves big changes and small changes, adding and eliminating, rearranging and experimenting.


When the revising stage gets passed over, or is done superficially, massive opportunities to improve the piece of writing go missed.

But more importantly, opportunities to improve as a writer also go missed.

I used to think the easiest way to become a better writer was to write a lot. But just as important to improving as a writer is revising your own writing. It's here in the trenches of looking critically at our writing, of making decisions about what's working and experimenting with alternatives... it's here where we learn and grow. A ton.

And as revising becomes a more natural part of how students write, you're going to see another benefit creep up. When students know (like, really believe in their hearts) that their writing gets better when they spend time revising it, the initial drafting phase actually becomes a lot less stressful. Students don't need to have everything figured out prior to getting started. Stuck on a part? Give it a shot and revise it later.


So how do you get a revising-filled writing culture in your classroom?

Step One: Set an Example

It starts with you. If students never see you revise, don't expect to see them do much either. 

Maybe you already incorporate modeled writing, where you introduce a new writing skill or strategy by modeling it in front of the class. Whether you realize it or not though, you aren't just modeling the new skill. You are modeling all of the surrounding writing behaviors, too.

It used to be that when I intended to do some teaching through modeled writing, I would plan the writing piece ahead of time, often writing the entire thing on a sticky note so when I went to write it on chart paper during the lesson, I could do it perfectly without a second thought.

But such silky smooth modeled writing is costly. Even though it allowed me to focus my attention on teaching a new writing strategy or skill, my surrounding writing behaviors said, "Hey kids, watch me suddenly pump out this perfectly organized, polished paragraph without even breaking a sweat. This is how writers write. Don't you want to be able to do this?"

Yikes! Unintended and indirect though it may have been, that was the way students always saw me write. So I changed. I stopped prepping the writing I would do in front of the class. (Don't get me wrong, I still had a plan for the lesson, but I didn't plan every little detail of the written model.) I stopped trying to write a final draft right off the bat. I intentionally revised portions of what I modeled, thinking aloud so students heard the process.

Writing this way in front of students took some getting used to for me. The getting stuck, the messing up, the crossing out, the struggle, the muddling through. But it was ten times more realistic. And I'm telling you, the muddling is exactly what kids NEED to see. They need to see it in order to break down the stereotype that a "good writer" writes exactly what they want right away. They need to see the unsettled feeling that it's not quite right yet, the hem and haw over a single word, the move-on-and-come-back.

These behaviors do not show weakness. It's an authentic path to making the writing strong.

While I do want to end up with a strong model of the new skill I want students to practice, I also want to model how to get there. It takes a little more time during the lesson, sure. But I also saved time by not planning out every little word and phrase ahead of time. And the more students saw me revise the writing I did in front of them, the more natural revising became.

Step Two: Remove Obstacles

Help change the classroom writing culture by removing obstacles that get in the way of revising hard.

One obstacle that always pops up is simply where to revise. Often, students fill their paper with drafting, which makes it cumbersome to make significant revisions. Little tricks can help, like skipping lines or drawing arrows, but I've got a solution that sets up the rough draft in a way that's super conducive to revising hard. You can read about it right HERE, a post I wrote for the Upper Elementary Snapshots collaborative blog.

Time can be an obstacle, especially if we're trying to add a bunch more revising into an already cramped writing block. Remove this obstacle by shortening the length of the piece of writing. Instead of having students write, say, five pages, scale down to one to two pages. This gives students more time (and less to deal with) when revising.

A third obstacle, which can often be the largest, is student motivation. Revising hard is a different way of looking at your writing, one that accepts the idea that your first attempt is not your best. We know this idea doesn't come naturally to most students. Add to this the fact that many students will see the idea of more revising as simply more work, and motivating students to revise hard can be a challenge. But once the tide turns, it's like a snowball effect.

Shorter pieces of writing naturally help the motivation factor for some students. However, I've found two other keys to be even more instrumental: a meaningful topic and past success.

Students have to be writing about an idea that is meaningful to them in order to care enough to revise it hard. When the topic or story is close to their heart, it's easier for students to want to do it justice.

Your attempts at moving to a culture of big-time revising will be short-lived if students do not see the fruits of their labor. Make it a priority to highlight the difference in quality, like the before/after photos on an HGTV room makeover. Students need to see how much a piece of writing has improved as a direct result of revising it hard. They need anchor examples of personal success which can then serve as motivation for future writing.

Step Three: Teach Specific Revising Strategies

Back in the day, I often found myself asking students to revise their work, assuming they would know what to do, and then I'd get frustrated when I saw their piddly little attempts at making their writing better. But my efforts to explain what it meant to revise were general, even vague.

How did I expect students to do something they've never really done before unless I taught them how. So I began to develop very specific, practical revising strategies, some that could stand alone as a revising lesson and activity, and many that could be applied to whatever it is students were writing.

And students' revising "toolbox" grew fat.

I share a bunch of these revising strategies with you in my next blog post HERE, but before you go read it, step back and think about your own writing and the revising you do, whether it be an email to an administrator, a post to your classroom blog, or the welcome letter for Meet-the-Teacher Night.

What little nuggets of revising gold can you extract and share with your students?

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Let's saturate our writing block with undertones of improving what we write, because developing a culture of revising breeds stronger, more thoughtful writers.

So revise.

Revise hard.

(Hey there. You're still here? Cool. I thought it would be interesting, as an example of how much revising this particular post went through, to show you exactly how the title for this post evolved. Below is the list, from where it started to where it ended.)
- How to Be a Better Model-Writer
- How to Do Modeled Writing Like a Boss
- Why You Should Be Writing in Front of Your Students
- Flipping the Narrative on Modeled Writing
- Messing Up: The Most Important Part of Modeled Writing
- The Most Important Thing About Modeled Writing
(Side Note: At this point, I realized that what I wanted to say was much more about revising than about modeled writing.)
- A Revising Revolution!
- Revising Revising
- Revising How We Go About Revising (Hint: It Starts with You)
- Revising Hard: A Change We Need
- Revising Hard: Shifting to a Revising Mindset
- Revising Hard: Revising the Writing Culture in Our Classroom
- Revising Hard! Changing the Writing Culture in Our Classroom
- Revising Hard! Changing Our Classroom Writing Culture

How a Simple THOUGHT BUBBLE Can Send Students Deep into Literature

When you read, do you ever think about what a character is thinking?

This is not a trick question.

You do, right? Of course you do. You may not even realize the extent to which you do it.

If we slow down the process (like, The Matrix slow-motion slow), an experienced, engaged reader gives a lot of consideration to a character's thoughts.

Let me give you an example.

Let's say I'm reading Harry Potter (the first one) and I'm in the part towards the beginning when Harry's Uncle Vernon refuses to allow Harry to open any of the letters from Hogwarts, and goes to great lengths to keep them from Harry, even moving the whole family to a dreary rock of an island in the middle of the sea.

So what do I think Harry is thinking?

I think Harry must be streaming several lines of thought. He detests living with his Aunt and Uncle and Dudley but has become rather hopeless that his situation will improve, and then along comes a letter addressed to him. He allows himself a glimmer of hope, but then his Uncle destroys the letter as well as the subsequent letters that follow. Harry is probably coming to terms with the idea that his Uncle will go to any length to keep him from opening the letter. Which is a bummer. 


But, he also has to be thinking about the logic that whatever is inside those letters must be pretty significant if his Uncle is willing to move the family to the middle of nowhere in the middle of a storm just to keep more letters from being delivered. Which is intriguing. 

And Harry also must have given some thought to the persistence of whomever is sending the letters. If they've continued to mail him dozens of letters, hundreds even, why wouldn't they continue until he has received one? Which is promising.

Find out how to use thought bubbles as a jumping off point for inferring a character's thinking and making sense of it.I want students to be able to do what I just did there.

I want them to be able to use a character's words and actions and the surrounding events given to them by the author and be able to infer a character's thinking.

But not only do I want students to be able to infer those thoughts, I want them to be able to make sense of them. To make decisions and draw conclusions based on them.

But not only do I want students to make sense of those thoughts, I want them to be able to then explain it all. To verbalize it. Even to write it.


That's a lot.

But by slowing down the process of inferring and making sense of a character's thoughts (you know, Matrix slow-mo)--breaking it down, talking it out, recording it on paper--students begin to do it more naturally when they read.

So what?

What's the big deal? Why do I want students to be able to do all of this? Three reasons: When we become adept at thinking about what a character is thinking,
  1. we understand the character better and more deeply. We understand the choices and actions he/she makes, and can even better predict future choices and actions from that character.
  2. we connect to the character. We get to know him/her and the similarities to our own life. We can identify with, relate to, even learn from that character.
  3. we really hit some Common Core standards full on in the face. (Check CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.3, and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2 and 5.3.)
So let's dig into how to get students going. Enter, the thought bubble.
I love using a thought bubble because it gives students a concrete starting point for something that's not very concrete. And it becomes an anchor symbol that helps trigger the thinking about a character's thinking.

Before we get too far into a character's thoughts, it's really important to first show students how to slow down and explain their own thoughts.


To practice recording students' own thinking, with lots of elaboration and details, try this preliminary activity:

Have students get out a notebook and pencil and prepare a large, empty thought bubble on their page. It should fill most of the page. Make sure you have one on the board, too.

Then go behind your desk and without students seeing, put something small, like a stapler or a glue bottle, in your hand and then hide it by draping a towel over it. Bring the covered item to the front of the room and dramatically explain to students that you have a surprise addition for the classroom. Jiggle the item slightly, as if it moved on its own, and then whisper-scold it to stay still.

Then, without revealing what the item is, say something like, "Let's pause right there for a moment, boys and girls. I want you to write down what you are thinking. What thoughts went through your mind when I brought this thing out? Write inside your thought bubble. Be honest, and be as detailed as you can."

After a few minutes, have a few students share their writing. (All the while, you are holding the covered item in your hand.) As each student shares, prod him/her and the class with questions to help them see opportunities for further elaboration.

Maybe a students writes, "I'm wondering what is under the towel," but after some prompting it could turn into, "My teacher just brought up something in her hand but it's covered with a towel. I'm wondering what is under the towel. Is this a joke? It looks like it just moved a little bit, so maybe it's alive. But Mrs. T. hates critters, so why in the world would she be holding something alive? I think she's just messing with us. But why is she messing with us? And even if it's not alive, I still would like to know what she is holding. Maybe it's a rock. Maybe we're going to do a unit on rocks."

Finally, reveal the item to students. "Don't you love it, boys and girls?" Egg them on a bit, and then stop them again. "Okay boys and girls, I want you to draw another thought bubble, and write down your thinking again. I want you to try to be even more detailed than before." 

Give students a couple of minutes to write. As they work, turn to the board and write the words, "If I were you..." outside the thought bubble you drew and record a model example. Maybe something like, "When Mrs. T. took the towel off of the stapler, I was outraged! How could she think we'd enjoy this 'new addition' to our classroom? But then I calmed down a bit and realized she was probably doing all of this just to give us something to write our thinking about. But still, why couldn't she have done it with a gerbil or a frog or something? Like a new class pet. Would that have been so hard?! Oh dear, the outrage is returning!"

Before sharing with the class this time, have students pair up and read their thought bubbles to each other, comparing them and making suggestions on how to elaborate even more.

*   *   *

In your next lesson, transition to the thoughts of a character in a story. Refer to the elaborate thinking students recorded of their own and how they'll now apply this technique to explain a character's thinking.

Prepare a large thought bubble to model with a picture book. You can download a copy of the thought bubble you see in the images below by clicking HERE

Some of my favorite books to use with this lesson are: The Old Woman Who Named Things, by Cynthia Rylant, The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart, any Henry and Mudge book (yes, even for upper elementary), Some Birthday! by Patricia Polacco, and Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen.

Gather students with their notebooks and pencils. Read aloud a portion of the story, and then pause at a certain point to record a character's thoughts in your thought bubble. As you write, point out evidence from the story, both from text and illustrations, that helped you infer the character's thoughts. (Which sort of means you're thinking about your thinking about the character's thinking. Whoa. Never mind, don't think about that.)

Continue reading. Then pause at another point and have students draw a thought bubble in their notebook and record what the character is thinking. As students write, erase your own thought bubble and fill it in with the character's new thinking. Then have a brief discussion with students about what they wrote and what you wrote.

*   *   *

When students get used to thinking about and recording a character's thoughts in detail, it's a good time to begin transitioning into doing it more naturally. As a stepping stone, have students record "thought bubble thoughts" on sticky notes.

If you do a class novel read aloud, use it to model for students how to find an important moment to pause, and how to record notes about what the character is thinking. Show students that since the sticky note is small, we have to be more succinct in how we write, maybe in a "jot it down" notes-style rather than complete sentences, but be clear that the thinking stays just as intense.

After modeling a sticky-note-thought-bubble with your novel read aloud, give all students a sticky note. Continue reading and choose a new spot to pause for students to practice for themselves. Discuss the sticky notes or collect them for a quick formative assessment check.

Choosing a common spot in the book for all students will help you assess how each student is progressing. Don't forget that having students discuss their inferences about a character's thinking can be just as meaningful as making the inferences.

It's also really interesting to use the thought bubbles to infer the thinking of a supporting character, not just the main character. Particularly with a book written in first-person, where the main character gives much of his/her thinking just by narrating the story, try changing students' perspectives and digging into the thoughts of one of the other characters in a scene.

Eventually, have students practice recording sticky-note-thought-bubbles with self-selected books they are reading in class. Keep the large laminated thought bubble handy to use with future texts and to be a reminder to students as they read on their own.

*   *   *

Ah, thought bubbles. They are such simple little things, but with the right guidance and modeling, they can be the jumping off point for some seriously deep and rewarding reading work.

Come read my post about the Thought Bubble's more outspoken cousin, the Speech Bubble, on the Upper Elementary Snapshots collaborative blog. You can read it here.

Credit: Thought Bubble clip art created by Sarah Pecorino Illustration.
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