Slice of Life: Adventures in Writing About Reading with Ali Marron

Lucky me I get to write, yet what I’m writing about isn’t easy. I chose to put myself in a place I struggle to make sense of, a place I am less than successful, a place I avoid.

I signed up for Writing About Reading at TCRWP’s Summer Writing Institute. Lucky me, I get to read and learn with Ali Marron and a room full of passionate teachers of reading and writing.

I signed up for this because I know that writing leads to greater understanding. I signed up for this because writing about reading is difficult for me be disciplined about doing, and it’s difficult for students to see the purpose or pay out. If they enjoy reading, they don’t want to stop reading to write. And, if they have to jot to hold on to meaning, it’s arduous.

I’ve worked hard on selling the merits of writing about reading, yet it hasn’t caught on.  Most of my students do it, but not with great excitement or with great outcomes. And, it’s not surprising. Maybe because I’m not a very skilled practitioner.

Ali shared some key points about the work.

First:  Writing about reading should engage us in the text.

Second: Part of becoming a stronger reader is putting yourself in a place of discomfort. Reading is invisible. So to help students, teachers need to see the kind of thinking being done. .

Third: It should facilitate synthesis. Ideas need to be tracked. Notebook structures need to promote thinking; we need to go back and revisit old ideas.

With this in mind, Ali shared some student work. Ah, mentor texts. Cool little drawings, pictures, post-its, and writing. Looks like fun.

But first, some confessions.

Confession #1: I only willingly write about reading when it’s something I’m studying, e.g., professional text. I know better. By not writing about my reading, I am accepting less comprehension.

Confession #2:  I write about reading when I must be ready to discuss. I want to become that writer who writes about reading by choice.

Confession #3: I love novels in verse partly because the words pop on the page. The white space affords lots of room for thinking. Bottom line, reading novels in verse is easier. Perhaps writing about reading is more accessible in a less challenging text.

With this in mind, I chose to read and write about Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I decided to try two approaches to the work.

First I jotted as I read. Whenever anything hit me as important, I quickly wrote.


At the end of a section, I looked back on my notes. Patterns, questions, and theories came through in a writing reflection. The experience was a controlled one. I wasn’t swept up in the story; I was swept up in the words and images.

Hope is present for Kek; this may be a source of anger for Ganwar – “A man knows when he is defeated.”

Then I set my notebook aside and pulled out post-its. I decided just to read and place post-its in spots with tiny thoughts, placeholders, to collect and sort later.


After reading, I sorted my post-its to come up with categories that leaned toward relationships, characters, ideas and then wrote reflections around each.


The second round of writing about reading allowed for a more holistic reading experience. The post-it placeholders let me get swept up in the story without guilt. I could go back after to sort, prioritize and decide what might be something I could write long about.

Lesson #1: Both approaches resulted in writing about reading. I would choose the latter as a better way to access the text as a reader first. Are there more ways? Absolutely!

Lesson #2: To grow our understandings students and teachers need to be pushed to less comfortable places to grow.

Lesson #3: To teach anything well we must do it. There are no shortcuts.

And this was just day one! Looking forward to four more days.

28 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Adventures in Writing About Reading with Ali Marron

  1. Wow!! I am so glad you blog!!! I am so motivated to get a novel (the Cynthia Lord one we all bought!) and do this hard but valuable work. Thank you for sharing your great Day 1 learning and for including photos of your notebook. Know that through you, I am doing and learning back in VA!!!

  2. Brilliant! This is exactly why we need to practice before we teach. As Sally said, I am going to revisit Cynthia Lord’s book and try out these amazing ideas, Julieanne.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this learning journey. Through you I get to be there, even though I am actually thousands of miles away. You have given me a lot to think about- yet another way I have to walk the walk.

  4. Julieanne,
    As I listened to your conversation about this session, I wondered where you would find your way. I saw your first notes pages and loved the drawings, while also knowing that’s not my way. I love that you “stuck with it”, “gritted it out” and found a path. Writing long about your post its WORKED! YAY! Can’t wait to hear more this week!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your process–I love how open you are to challenging yourself and to sharing it all with us. Enjoy your time in NY!

  6. AMAZING! Writing about reading is not something I’ve enjoyed either. I love the first idea which is almost doodling about reading. I am going to try that with my 4th graders. I also appreciate you sharing another way to organize Post-Its around themes. Please keep sharing what you are learning at TCRWP!

  7. Lucky you — getting to spend a week with Ali Marron! She was my section leader last summer. I can see she’s still imparting her brilliance. Enjoy your time at TCRWP, Julieanne.

  8. So, so glad that you shared this learning with us! Know you are going to have a powerful week. Love the lessons learned, especially “To teach anything well we must do it. There are no shortcuts.”

  9. As you described your thinking about writing about reading, I nodded in agreement. This is a hard concept to develop because we don’t stop and jot when we are reading. (At least I don’t.) I can’t wait to see how this week pushes and changes your thinking after five days, because your first day had some fabulous results.

  10. Wow! I am amazed at the rigor of your workshop. You are actually doing the work. Of course, this is as it should be. Because how can we possibly teach something we have not done? Boggles the mind. Please push me again on the virtual book club. I’d love to do that.

  11. Thank you so much for this post Julianne. I have been feeling like I need to learn so much more in this area too. Is there a book you could recommend on writing for reading? Also, I am hoping to get the Handful of Stars book (hopefully it is here in print in AU) this week and would love to join in a virtual book club. I have 2 more sleeps until mid year break so lots of time coming up for reading, reflecting and planning. I loved you examples too. Just what I needed to give me a little push. 🙂

    • That’s a great question. So much of what I have learned has come from staff developers at the reading and writing project. TCRWP has a writing unit of study for 7th grade and is working on something for 5th.
      Reading is a thing that teachers can’t see the process of and so we ask for writing about reading as a check on that thinking. A fear I have is that it becomes an accountability move versus one that pushes toward understanding. I think the beat thing to do is try it yourself and with other teachers and their students. It should be pushing into deeper meAning and engagement.

  12. Loved following your thinking. I did similar work last year with Audra Robb. She encouraged us to spy on ourselves as readers – for me that meant sketching along with writing. Although I cannot draw, I gave it a try, and found that it did in fact lead to deeper understanding of the text. Thanks for sharing this list and all your #tcrwp tweets. I am learning from home this year. Enjoy your week!

  13. Looks like such good work. I’ve tried writing about reading during summer times before and have quickly gotten frustrated and bogged down. I use it authentically when I’m trying to keep track of too many characters to hold in my mind. And generally more in the beginning of a book than later. Can’t wait to see what else you blog on this topic. And as many have already said – thank you for sharing so we can learn alongside you! I’m going to order the book – count me in for a digital book club next week!

  14. Wow, Julieanne! You have shared so many insights in this post, I’ve read it three times! I think I agree with you about using post-its, but I have to try it out. Can I join in the book club next week? Just ordered the book. Looking forward to reading more about your week in NYC!

    • Yes to the club! We are going to start week after next because some folks will be at the reading institute. I’ll get a dates and some form of communication sete up – google doc? Twitter chat? I think the idea of a progression of ways to try writing about reading is good place to start an exploration .

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