The Best of Both Worlds: Honoring Student Voice While Also Covering the Curriculum in a Literacy Classroom

This year, my school district has made a commitment to try to move ourselves towards Ellin Keene’s vision of a Literacy Studio.  The idea behind Literacy Studio, as I understand it, is that we provide a more connected way of teaching and learning when it comes to reading and writing. Instead of teaching each of the two subjects in isolation, we look for ways to make the connection between the two more obvious for our students. In addition to that goal, there are also the goals of empowering students to make choices that help them to grow as readers and writers, engaging students in authentic work that is both meaningful and purposeful, and providing flexible time that our students need to accomplish all that they need and want to accomplish. Ellin describes her ideas of literacy studio in her book To Understand.  If you are curious, there is also a great handout on the Heinemann website that you can see HERE.

From the minute that I heard this description, I loved everything about the idea of literacy studio. The emphasis on authentic work. The belief in engagement over compliance. The connections between reading and writing. All of it sounded so good.

But I had no idea how to make it work.

Like so many things, I loved the ideas behind literacy studio but was unclear about how to actually carry them out in my own classroom without ignoring the realities of the curriculum that I am required to teach. And more than that, I was unsure how to provide this level of choice while still making sure that my students were also learning the things that I believe are important. No fifth grader, on his or her own, might ever choose to study the lives of other people through the stories that they share. However, I believe, with my entire heart, that this is important work. I want to guide students through that work. I want to use that important work to work in the objectives, targets and standards that I am supposed to be teaching in fifth grade.

How do I do all that I want and need to do with my students AND continue to do work that is student-driven and allows students to be the ones making the decisions about what and how they learn?

This is a struggle that is not new. The balance between student-directed learning and the realities of our standards driven world have been one of my greatest obstacles in the journey that I have been on to try to empower my students and give them more control and ownership over their own learning.

In the past few years, I have found ways to make our work more authentic and to offer more choice so that our learning is more student driven. In our inquiry circle unit, the students had complete control over the topics. When we wrote our informational picture books, my students were in charge of selecting and analyzing their own mentor texts. During that same unit, the students took over and taught lessons on the writing strategies they had discovered to small groups of students who felt they could benefit from those strategies. The goals that my students work on during independent reading are focused on their self-selected texts and are driven by student interest.

In many ways, I have found ways to work student interests and student choice into our literacy curriculum. And yet, I still felt as if I was always letting the curriculum drive my instruction. And I longed for space to allow my students to drive my instruction instead. Really drive my instruction. Not just work their interests into what we HAD to do, but really allow them to tell me what THEY had to do in order to grow as readers and writers.

It seemed like literacy studio could offer me and my students that space, but I wasn’t sure how to do both what I wanted to do and what I felt I needed to do.

Enter my brilliant literacy coach.

One afternoon last week, maybe it was Monday (it seems so far away already), my students and I were getting ready for the independent writing time that always follows our writing mini-lesson.  I told the kids their task for the day was to go back to the memoirs they were writing and look for places that they could weave in the writing strategies we had been practicing.  For some reason, on that day, hands went up and students began to ask if they could do other things during this time instead. Some wanted to work on a blog post. Some wanted to read. Others wanted to write a fiction story. And my answer to all of them was no. And it just didn’t sit well with me.

Isn’t this what we were supposed to be doing? Isn’t this what the vision was? Children happily selecting reading and writing tasks that were meaningful to them. Why then did I feel like I needed to say no?

So the kids went off to work on their memoirs. And we did good work. And then they headed off to thirty minutes of Spanish.  And I texted my literacy coach and told her I needed to talk to her about literacy studio. So she came in and in the next thirty minutes we tried to figure out just what was going on.

I told her that what I didn’t want to loose was the immediacy of the writing lesson we just had. The kids had been really engaged as we looked at how memoir writers, Lois Lowry in this case, can reveal the deeper meaning of a story by showing a character’s emotions through their actions. We did some great work analyzing our mentor text (Crow Call). We had some great discussions. And then I wanted them to go and write. Because while my fifth graders might not choose to write true stories from their lives on their own, I truly believe in empowering students to shape the way they are seen by others by learning to masterfully craft and write stories from their own lives. And when we learn a new writing strategy, I want them to be able to apply it right away to the genre of writing that we are studying.


I also want to capitalize on any enthusiasm that my students have for literacy that comes from their internal desire and need to read and write. If they WANT to write blog posts, that is what I want them to write. If they WANT to finish reading the book they are currently enthralled by, that is what I want them to read. If they WANT to write an entire novel, that is what I want them to write.

I needed my literacy coach to help me figure out how to do both.

And she did. She asked me what-if I looked at our writing time as an extension of my mini-lesson. What if I taught a lesson and then gave them a chance to apply in both writing and in reading. Then, I could take the time that I usually set aside for self-selected independent reading and instead turned that into independent work time. The mini-lesson and time for application (in both reading and writing) could be focused around class goals. Goals that were dictated by our curriculum AND by the things that I truly believe my students need to know in order to be empowered to create positive change in the world through reading and writing. Then, during independent work time, the goals would be individual goals that were dictated by what my students felt would help them learn to be better readers and writers.

And with that, everything began to come into focus.

That was what I needed. I needed to restructure my time.

So at the end of the day that day, I sat and came up with a new plan for our time. I started with the two days each week that I am lucky enough to have two full hours for literacy.  Here is how I planned to use that time:


The next day, I went over with my students what I thought we might try. I asked for their feedback and they were absolutely thrilled by the idea. I told them that I would make sure to keep my lessons under 20 minutes and they needed to make sure that they kept their application times focused and productive. Here are some other things that we went over:

The goal of everything that we do is to grow as readers and writers. If that isn’t happening, then we need to make adjustments.

Some times, I will need to take a bit more time, but I will always let them know why and always find a way to make up that time to them.

The application of our reading strategy will usually occur with a text or set of texts that I have selected. This is different than the goal work they will be doing during their independent reading time when they are in charge of selecting the text. This will help to ensure that I am still able to expose students to a wide variety of texts and levels of texts.

Sometimes our reading application time will be whole group, especially if I am reading a text out loud to them and then asking them to apply a strategy we are working on. Sometimes this work will be small group or in pairs or individual.

The independent work time is their time to choose their task. However, they must be reading and writing in a way that is helping them to grow as readers and writers. This independent work time needs to involve students engaged in authentic reading or writing (no center activities, no vocabulary worksheets, no spelling packets).

This independent work time will also be driven by the given expectations and deadlines that will be established for my classroom. For example, when we are nearing an end of our memoir unit, students will need to have at least one draft ready to revise and edit and submit as an assessment. In addition, every three weeks students are expected to “write long” about their reading. This means that they need to be tracking their thinking through a text often enough to be able to write about their reading. If students need to use independent work time to accomplish these things, then they will have to make that choice.

Students will also be asked to keep track of the choices they are making and the specific goals they are working on. Students will be responsible for making sure that they maintain a balance between reading and writing. If we notice a student go too long without spending time reading, we will have conversations on how we can help them get back in the habit of reading in class.

Independent work time is still instruction time. I will be constantly conferring with students during all of our application and independent work times. During this conferring time, I will still be teaching and asking students to provide evidence that they are learning. Even if a child has chosen to write a blog post one day, if I need to check-in about a reading goal, I will ask that student to stop his or her choice for a few minutes to meet with me one-on-one or with a small group.

Even knowing all of those things, my students were extremely eager to try the new structure out. I will tell you, during that first day, all of our work time was more focused. It was incredible. It worked so well, that I decided to try an adapted version of the schedule, with fewer minutes of independent work time, the next day since we had less time together to spend on literacy. I loved the independent work time SO much that I decided to use it every day last week and will continue to offer this structure (in some way) each day this coming week.

Throughout the week, I made adjustments to the way I take and keep conferring notes. I know carry around one clipboard that has class lists for both of my fifth grade classes. Each time I confer with a student, no matter what part of the literacy studio we are in, I simply mark down what we are discussing. R for reading. A for writing in the assigned genre. B for blogging. And F for free writing.

On that clipboard, I carry three different conferring forms PLUS blank lined paper so that I can find a form that will work for any kind of conference that I am having.

HERE is the reading form I am currently using.

HERE is the writing form I am currently using for assigned genre writing.

And HERE is the form I made for independent work time IF the student is not working on reading or assigned genre writing.

When I sit down with a student, I take note of what they are doing and then pull the form that I think will work best. When I am finished, I put the form in either the reading or writing binder that I have that is split up with one section for each student. In this way, I am able to always use a form that works for the conference that I am having AND I am also able to quickly look back at post conferences that I have had with students to check in on how they are doing with their goals.

My students will also be starting to write down their specific goals and I will be working on finding ways to help them also keep track of evidence that proves they are meeting these goals.

There is certainly a lot to still be figured out. However, I have not been this excited about a new structure for my classroom in a very long time. I will keep you updated as we continue to learn and work within the literacy studio structure, but for now I am thrilled simply with the possibilities.


11 thoughts on “The Best of Both Worlds: Honoring Student Voice While Also Covering the Curriculum in a Literacy Classroom

  1. HI!
    Your post couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been wrestling with the exact questions you were. How do you get away from compliance and still teach the curriculum?
    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thinking and ideas. I saw your post earlier with your set up, and had so many questions that you now have answered.
    I love the idea that kids still have deadlines that they are working towards, but can self direct their attention.
    Please keep us all up to date!

  2. It is all about changing the way we use time, I think. Such a great message about the enduring challenges of wedding mandates with student voices and teacher desires and shifting local initiatives. I can’t wait to share this with my pre service teachers as they plan curriculum for our after school program. They are often working to feel more at ease with competing interests and that discomfort and work is really perpetual. Thank you for making your journey so visible.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with the literacy model described here. Don Graves promoted this model several decades ago and I am delighted to see its resurrection.

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  7. This is such a great post and I truly appreciate the work you put into helping other educators through your experiences!
    I was wondering if there is a post or place I could find regarding the end of this post? The part about a sheet for their goals “My students will also be starting to write down their specific goals and I will be working on finding ways to help them also keep track of evidence that proves they are meeting these goals.”

    Thank you again for your time and dedication to this profession!

    • Hi Meagan! I am not sure that I have one specific post that directly explains my conferring process and how students keep track of their goals using their reading journals and then how they use the notes they take to write about their reading. This summer, I will work on putting together a post explaining that!

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  9. Jess, you’ve been a pioneer in this work for a long time before this incredibly insightful and practical gift of a blog!! You and your extraordinary literacy coach, Jenn Ladd, continue to re-see and infuse brilliant new light into our practices that may become stale. Now wait ‘til you see what happens when you begin your Literacy Studio with the independent work time, confer and then build a combined reading/writing Crafting session!! We are deeply indebted to you for the work you do and for your willingness to share it!!!

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