Creating Book Buzz: Using Memes for Book Talks

We are eight days into a new school year and already I’m in awe of how hard teachers have been working to get books in kids’ hands. Our amazing media specialist has gotten kids into the space earlier than ever and it’s been fun book-talking and matchmaking. 

Last week a pink-haired sprite of a student stood with a book in her hands, looking puzzled. “What kind of books do you like to read?” I asked her. She shrugged and turned over the book she was holding. It was Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater and though I hadn’t read the book yet, I knew enough about the author to know this could be a match. “I think this book found you,” I told the student. She smiled and carried it over to the check out desk. 

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Like books just find a student. There are other times, though, when kids get in a rut. Or when students don’t even know enough about what they like to read to help figure out where they might start, or what to read next. While there’s excitement and urgency around the reading now, how do we carry that energy past October, the point where it feels like everything gets harder to sustain?

My colleague Tiffany Walters is amazing at sustaining reading energy. When students finish a book in her room, they immediately book talk it. There’s no schedule or deadline. She just creates spontaneous space for kids to share and they do it all year. I’ve been thinking about additional ways we might leverage the other readers in the room to keep the momentum going.

Tiffany turned me on to the Instagram account for a book store in St. Louis called The Novel Neighbor because they make creative recommendations. I was delighted and spent an embarrassing amount of time reading back through past posts. I even put several titles on hold as a result of the memes.

That got me thinking, how might we use these memes as mentor texts for the kinds of conversations we want to kids to be having about books?

The first step might be to flood students with examples of the mentor text. This is a padlet I created with a variety of the memes. Invite students to peruse, to craft a list of what they notice about how the memes are put together. Which ones appeal to them? What do they notice about form? About content? About structure?

Students might say:

  • each meme has an image of the book. 
  • colors are bold and the words strategically placed. 
  • The creator uses an If…Then structure
  • I read Survive the Night by Riley Sager, so I notice that the bullet points are important plot points. 

I imagine after we do this with students, they’ll need a nudge, something Ohio Writing Project co-director Beth Rimer calls “nurturing an idea”. It’s not enough to just show the mentor text and then tell students “okay, go do that.” We have to create a little more runway. 

Here’s where Gretchen Bernabei’s quicklists come in. This is the quicklist I used when I shared this idea with a group of teachers earlier this school year.

After we generated a list, we talked to each other about the lists, adding more ideas. Then I invited them to consider what kind of connection they could make between the book and one of the items on their quicklist. 

And then we messed around. In fewer than 10 minutes, we created memes on google slides full of book recommendations.

As we move further into the school year, we might post these memes along the hallway outside the media center. We might share the google slides the week we head to the library so kids can gather ideas. We might even see if admin will let us put the slideshow on the TVs in the cafeteria.

What are some ways you might have students share their If…Then reviews?

Angela Faulhaber is a secondary literacy coach at West Clermont Schools in the Cincinnati area. Working with teachers in grades 6-12. If you like the Netflix series All American, you might like the latest book Angela read Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashely Woodfolk, and Nicole Yoon.

A Pirate’s Life…Or the Adventures of Billy Bones

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

To use a literary analogy, the end of the school year can feel like a fruitless search for Captain Flint’s treasure. We know that the gold is out there somewhere, and we may even have clues about how to find it–(Jim Hawkins has an invaluable map in Treasure Island), but even given these clues, the prize is elusive.

This year, I have a seventh grade class ending the year with a performance of Treasure Island, and it brings to mind a true story of an incorrigible boy who deepened my heart forever and reminds me daily that you’re never too small (or too young) to make an impact on the world. I’m dedicating our upcoming performances to him, and redoubling my efforts to love students well even though the final weeks of school may be fraught with exhaustion and littered with the disappointments of what might have been. Though I wrote this true story for my students this fall when I had known them only a few weeks, it resonates powerfully with me now as the shores of Treasure Island are on the horizon, and I hope it encourages you to press on in your remaining time with the students entrusted to you. I would also like to thank Shana Karnes for her 2018 post for Three Teachers Talk that has inspired me ever since to write about moments that matter.

Jim Hawkins pursued by Israel Hands

The twisting blade of beginnings…

The beginning of the school year is hard.  As the seasons spin from one to the next and the leaves change from green to gold, sometimes I see former students. They’re all around me–at cross country meets, listed in the Town Crier’s Bridal Registry, or driving past my house striving for some combination of a yell and a wave.

 I might see half a dozen of them in one day, and then go for weeks without hearing from any of them. I worry about them. I hear that he has a concussion-AGAIN, or she’s having a hard time adjusting to high school. We’re not together in this building anymore but I hear their voices, see their smiles, and feel the connection that comes from shared writing and theatrical adventures. I cry because I miss them, while at the same time I’m laughing over a joke I still remember being told and retold. Sometimes, their stories take turns that I wish I could rewrite…

MARNE, MI-A 21-year-old Unity Christian High School graduate and former Dordt College student died following a traffic accident in Tallmadge Township Saturday evening.  Evan Westrate suffered critical injuries when he was ejected from his Ford pick-up as it rolled into a ditch near a curve on Luce Street. 

This is not the Evan I remember: a smirking, self-assured prankster whose enthusiasm for life infected everyone. I directed him in Treasure Island at Lamont Christian School. His swagger and rollicking threats were so convincing as he roared his lines as Captain Billy Bones, that my children used to cower under tables in the library during rehearsals. 

I hadn’t seen Evan for years when his Ford F-150 tragically spun from the road on July 26th, but ironically, I had been back in Michigan just weeks before he died, remembering him and other students I taught in Coopersville. I miss them every day.

CAPTAIN BONES: Jim, too late! Come closer! That’s what they’re here for. To tip me the Black Spot. That means they’re going to kill me. Jim-you’re the only one worth anything to me. One day, I was going to take you to sea,to an unknown island for treasure. Here’s a map, Jim! You’ll be a rich man. Take it, boy!

Evan, his eyes alight like matches, smiled more readily than anyone I’ve ever known, an adventurer thrilled with every exploration of  life. He dreamed of farming and football, going on to play as a fullback at Unity Christian High School, and attend Dordt College to study agricultural business on a football scholarship.

Jordan Westrate, Evan’s older brother, spoke of his free spirit and tendency to embrace challenges. First and foremost, however, was Evan’s love for others. “I would describe him as not only my brother, but a brother to all. He inspired us to treasure life.”

MARNE, MI: Ottawa County deputies said the driver was taken to Spectrum Butterworth Hospital  after being thrown from his truck on Luce Street, about a quarter mile west of 8th Avenue on Saturday, July 26th, just before 10:00 p.m. He died shortly after arrival on the Butterworth campus.

Nearly all of his organs were donated to give life to others.

“Evan, you might want to tone it down a bit in this scene. I think everyone in the audience under the age of ten will run screaming for the exits if you don’t.” I am smiling as I say this, though striving valiantly to be serious with him for once.

His crooked grin mocks my attempts not to laugh. 

“Mrs. O., I’m supposed to be a wild, drunken cutthroat!” 

“I know.  And you’re completely in character.”

He won. Again. I love the way that he plays the scene and he knows it. His voice becomes the tiniest bit less intimidating to avoid the exodus toward the exits that I fear will  happen during our matinee. Every time Evan raises his eyebrows and growls Billy Bones’ challenge to Captain Flint and his crew, I fall under the spell of his mesmerizing talent and golden voice.

No one exited unexpectedly during the play, but the cast of Treasure Island got a standing ovation, and the loudest applause was for Evan Westrate, Captain Billy Bones.  

We rented Center Stage Theatre, a beautiful, state-of-the art auditorium for our shows. Saturday night, February 5th, 2006, the crew started striking the set right after curtain calls. 

Our silken backdrop for the lagoon was floating down, and I wasn’t ready for the clock to strike midnight, for the enchantment to break. 

I felt tears already-usually they waited until after the cast party. 

“Hey.” It’s Evan. “Hey, Mrs. O., let’s get a picture.” That grin. 

His mom, Jana, photographed us. For a moment, he elbowed my sadness away with his boundless warmth and our celebration of his accomplishments. When Jana gave me the photo a few days later, I noticed that Evan’s crooked grin was missing. I wondered if he was feeling the same sense of loss that left me fighting tears again as soon as his arm slipped from my shoulders, and the moment was gone.

MARNE, MI: Sergeant Christie Wendt said the Ford F150 was traveling west when the driver lost control on a curve and ran off the right side of the road before over-correcting and rolling the vehicle. The driver, who was not seat belted, was ejected in the middle of the road while his truck careened into a ditch after smashing some nearby mailboxes. Wendt indicated speed and alcohol are factors in the crash, which remains under investigation today.

CAPTAIN BONES: Come on, you rum-swilling, bandy-legged dogs! I’m the captain…and I’ll take ye down to the last man. Tell me who ye be, so I’ll know who I’m killing.

Max, as O’Brien, brandishes a dagger and leers menacingly at Evan. Amanda as Red Dog, Autumn as  Annie, Ashley as Bonnie, and Josh as Captain Flint, all tumble into the Admiral Benbow Inn, in search of the notorious Billy Bones. We’re seeking our Captain again, diminished by the loss of Evan’s smile, emptied by the absence of his passion for every moment. 

The beginning of the school year is hard–again.

Why?  Because I am caught between all of the joy and promises of a new year, and haunted by the Ghosts of What Might Have Been.  Who might Evan have become?  Are there things I could have said, words I could have written, that would have changed the way his life ended on this side of Heaven? I hope that I did everything I could to love him well. I hope he knew that he had a beautiful, old soul-even at the age of fourteen. 

And if I believe that, I have to embrace this moment–another day in writing workshop with students whose stories I am only beginning to know. Another day of being moved by the grit I see in incredible teenagers. Courage is a twisting blade of embracing fear and love together–and moving forward against any obstacle.

How did I use this story as a mentor text for my students when I originally wrote it for them this fall?

  1. It was a mentor for how to compose a tribute to a beloved person, season, etc.
  2. My students and I discussed the power of using multiple genres in a single piece to make our writing more sophisticated. In this case, I combined personal narrative with excerpts from police reports, and lines of dialogue from a script.
  3. Writing this piece also gave me occasion to remind students of the power of writing toward our passions. My writing allowed me to express what I learned from an unforgettable student, and it was also a window into my love for theatrical production and the vast array of emotions connected with the end of telling a story for an audience. Students were invited to write into what they love the most.
  4. This piece could also be used as a mentor for the importance of giving our writing meaningful titles-names are vital, and a study in using punctuation effectively to help communicate tone and mood.

Ending the year with poetry is also incredibly powerful. A few of our favorite poems that have recently invited us into meaningful writing are:

Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem by Matthew Olzmann, read for Ours Poetica by John Green

Alternative Names for Black Boys by Danez Smith, and

Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lameris, recently featured in The New York Times

As this school year draws to a close, what are the stories that you could immortalize by writing a tribute poem or a personal narrative? What are your favorite ways to end the year in writing workshop? Share your ideas in the comments, or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves writing poetry and plays with students. Her favorite stories include Peter Pan, West Side Story, Our Town and The Outsiders. She recently wrote adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

Something’s Coming: Inviting Student Writers Into the World of West Side Story

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, contributing writer

Like director Steven Spielberg, I’ve loved West Side Story all my life. Impatiently, I waited for his new film  based on the 1957 Broadway musical with a screenplay written by the legendary Tony Kushner to come to theaters.

Spielberg’s first venture into directing a musical does not disappoint. 

Perhaps more relevant today than it was upon its initial release sixty years ago, West Side Story reminds us of how deep the divisions can be between unlike minded people, and that love can bridge any divide.  Leonard Bernstein’s score was and still is a masterpiece, and Spielberg was very intentional about casting all Latinx actors and actresses to play the Sharks. Gone is the dark makeup used on white actors in the 1961 film to make them appear Puerto Rican. Additionally, the new film incorporates Spanish dialogue without subtitles, in an effort to illustrate that English is not superior to other languages.

 The new West Side Story is an incredible visual text for writing workshop teachers, whether the goal is writing film analysis, or using the movie as an entry point for Romeo & Juliet. 

Recently, I invited my workshop students to view the film with me in class, with the following goals in mind:

  • Identify how the themes of bias, oppression and responsibility “play out” in West Side Story and later in Romeo & Juliet. Special thanks to Rebekah O’Dell for her insights on big picture thinking.
  • Consider these questions: Who is my neighbor? In a world that is rife with division, what is the appropriate way to treat people who see the world through a lens that differs from mine, or come from a different socio economic or ethnic background? 
  • Draw parallels between this visual text, The Outsiders, & Romeo & Juliet.
  • Write effectively in notebooks and on electronic platforms about theme, character, plot, etc.
  • Pose authentic questions.
  • Participate in large group discussions.

Getting Started & Keeping a Journal

As our entrance for West Side Story, I used this anticipation guide (though I call it an opinionnaire) to introduce students to thematic elements. Following our conversation in response to the opinionnaire, I shared these Google slides, inviting students to think further about the film’s origins and why it matters for us to study it today. Your students may not require that much visual “front loading,” but I have several students with unique learning needs, and having the visual texts definitely provided important background information and aided their comprehension going into the film viewing. When I revisit this study with future classes, I plan to add slides introducing specific characters for clarity.

So when did we start writing? Immediately! I gave each student one of these journals inviting them to think about different story elements daily, from 3D character traits (thank you to Susan Barber and Carlos Escobar for their brilliant ideas about looking at characters through varied lenses), to considering how music moves the narrative along, and finally to writing a thematic statement for the character that each student writer chose to “follow” throughout the film. I invited students to follow Tony, Maria, Riff, Bernardo or Anita, but you could also encourage students to follow secondary characters as there are many significant supporting players in West Side Story such as Chino and Valentina.

I loved the ongoing discussions we had about our writing, and the depth of students’ observations. Though some of them were initially skeptical about watching a musical, even the most reluctant eventually fell under the enchanting spell of the Bernstein score.

Summative Assessment Opportunities

David Alvarez (Bernardo) with some of the Sharks. All photo credits to Twentieth Century Studios.

Since we dedicated a significant portion of class time to viewing the film and it’s an invaluable doorway into Romeo and Juliet , and to reflecting on our own biases and what it means to love fiercely, I’ve offered my students two different ways to respond. The first, which we did last week, was to post questions for a large group discussion. Each student was invited to post questions connected to the following categories:

  • CHARACTER
  • MUSIC
  • THEME
  • PLOT
  • CONFLICT
  • TONE/MOOD

Students are familiar with writing a variety of question types since we’ve done Socratic seminars throughout the year, so writing their questions was in that sense, a review.

In addition to participating in the discussion through writing and speaking, students will be composing individual responses in which they take our large group conversation a step further by responding to a question that remains unanswered for them. Finally, students will share some concluding thoughts about their thematic thinking, and embracing characters as three dimensional beings (physical, emotional, and psychological).

I’m excited to see how this immersion in an iconic musical will enrich our study of parallel text Romeo and Juliet.

What are your favorite ways to use visual texts in your reading and writing workshops? How is music part of your craft? Share your thoughts in the comments, or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.  

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, West Side Story, and Our Town. Recently, she finished writing adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

Listening Matters: Writing Profiles

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, contributing writer

Recently, the New York Times Learning Network offered teachers the opportunity to invite their students into a profile writing contest. The idea behind this was sheer genius: Find a captivating individual, interview the person, and spin those notes into gold: Write that person’s thoughts in the form of a CBS Sunday Morning sort of interview, take a photo of the person–and voila–a fantastic profile is born from an authentic conversation and active listening.

Sadly, I didn’t learn about the contest until after it was closed, but I loved the idea of asking my students to listen well to one another and then process it through writing. I began our profile study with a few visual mentor texts. First, we listened to a portion of Andrew Garfield’s very moving interview about the loss of his mother and acting as an art form with Stephen Colbert, linked here. I asked students to write down a few quick notes sharing what they noticed about the questions being asked AND the depth and integrity of Garfield’s responses. Secondly, we viewed a portion of this profile about Olympic pairs figure skating champion Katia Gordeeva. Though it doesn’t follow a Q&A format, it’s an excellent example of a profile of an athlete’s journey and resilience in the midst of tragedy.

Ekaterina Goordeva and Sergei Grinkov

Following our look at these mentor texts, we moved to written mentors from the New York Times. Several helpful Q&A mentors were posted on the Learning Network. My favorites were actually articles that I discovered on my own: This profile of James McAvoy that first captivated me because of the title referencing a purer form of storytelling, and theatrical performance as a sacrificial act, and this one about Mike Faist, who recently starred as Riff in Steven Spielberg’s brilliant reimagining of West Side Story. I loved using this mentor since my students will be viewing segments of the film when we discuss bias and oppression as part of our study of Romeo and Juliet.

Mike Faist as Riff in West Side Story

What did we notice about writing craft in these mentors?

  • We noted the Q&A format, and the open-ended nature of the questions that left ample room for creative replies, as well as the importance of asking follow up questions.
  • New York Times profiles are edited for length and clarity. Ours should be, too!
  • We agreed that excellent writers make choices about thoughtful doorways into writing, from physical descriptions of people and places, to interesting quotes.
  • We discussed the importance of ending well, but also noted that an effective conclusion when writing a profile doesn’t need to be lengthy, it simply needs to serve its purpose.
  • We had a conversation about playing with formatting to increase visual appeal and to make our questions stand out from the rest of our text.
  • We talked through the importance of naming compositions. I shared that I probably wouldn’t have read the piece about James McAvoy if the title hadn’t intrigued me.
  • Sentence variety is vital. We noted that the questions weren’t all worded the same way, and that there was also a considerable amount of variation in the way interviewees’ responses were recorded.
  • We discussed the importance of checking back with our interviewees during our drafting process to make sure that we represented them accurately.
  • We talked through the difference between paraphrasing and directly quoting someone, and how good writers do both.
  • Finally, we talked about the power of images and how to use them as writers to add appeal to our well chosen words. Students were required to include at least one photo with their profiles.

What other supports did I give my student writers?

It was more difficult than I imagined it would be for my student authors to craft good questions. We had a discussion about the difference between writing a closed ended question and an open ended question, and then students posted questions on a class discussion thread that they might ask during their interviews. I shared this list of suggestions with students, and then gave them time to conduct their interviews and take the important step of moving from what they transcribed to writing their actual profiles. As with writing a screenplay adapted from a book, authors of profiles need to make choices about what is vital and what is not when moving from their rough notes to a best draft. Along the way, I shared profiles that I had written as well since I always write alongside my students. I wrote this profile about my son Shaun, and this one about one of my student actors, Riley. One of the interesting talking points from both of these profiles was that it’s possible to incorporate poetry into a Q&A.

End Result: Student Written Profiles

I asked students what their takeaways were from profile writing, and several of them said that though in many cases they’ve had the same classmates throughout their grade school and middle school experiences, taking the time to do these interviews and write profiles invited them to learn things about one another that they didn’t know, and many of them shared that their classmates’ replies to the questions posed surprised them. One of my student writer’s profiles is linked here. I’m so grateful that we took time in the busy weeks leading up to Spring Break to listen well and to create these mini time capsules of students’ eighth grade lives before they transition to high school.

Next up for our writing workshop is more composing with the New York Times, as we prepare to write argumentative pieces for the Learning Network’s latest writing contest.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into speaking and listening? Share your ideas in the comments or write to me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves writing with her students, and recently composed adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

A Beautiful Voyage: Winter Ventures in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

Construction begins on the Hispaniola.

This month, I’ve been thinking about how much writing has in common with building…

So much must be built for authentic writing to occur. Writing workshop teachers must be facilitators of choice, demonstrators of what risk looks like, and intentional collaborators who conference with students and illustrate the definition of community.  

Winter is bittersweet. The flavor of goodbye begins to linger on my tongue as in my school, I  only have one trimester left with students I love; yet at the same time I feel unspeakable joy as I consider all of the ways students have grown during the past months.

In addition to teaching readers’ and writers’ workshops, I direct our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe, and this winter, three of my students approached me with an idea that had never been proposed at our school before. They wanted to build the Hispaniola for our winter production of Treasure Island, and they assured me that they had the blueprint, the tools, and the experience to build a seaworthy vessel. Their only request? Could they bring their tools to school? I told them I would ask our principal and get back to them.

With his consent, the boys began their construction project. They were committed to working on their shipbuilding during any spare moment that arose during the school day, from study hall to staying after school with me for as long as I was willing to linger in the building.

As I watched the ship take shape,  I considered how much writing and construction have in common. 

  1. Both require the right tools–and what are the best “tools” that we can give our student writers? Excellent mentor texts, choice about how to approach their writing and sometimes what writing mode or discipline they are going to employ, AND the gifts of time in writing conferences and space for listening to them–in their conversations with us and with one another as they craft writing that is nothing short of extraordinary.
  2. Precision is important. For the Hispaniola to be seaworthy, its designers had to have the correct measurements so that every piece of lumber fit together like part of a puzzle. In the same way, good writers are exacting. They consider each word and how well it “fits” with its fellows. They wonder about the impact of elements such as point of view. Writers must revise, and the same can be true of builders to ensure that the final product is all that they dream that it can be.
  3. Both writing and building are, as Shakespeare famously said, the stuff that dreams are made of. In construction with lumber OR construction with words, the craftsman imagines what is possible, and dreams of what might be. This leads to beautiful homes, and breathtaking word pictures.
  4. Humility is a hero. Humility isn’t weak. Humility sees that there is always room for growth, and celebrates not only his accomplishments, but all of the ways that he can make the process better or more impactful next time. Humility is a lifelong learner, whether he’s building a staircase or a sentence.

So what were my student writers been building in workshop this winter as the Hispaniola prepared to set sail on stage? 

Message in a Bottle Narratives : Thanks to Xochitl Bentley and Ruta Sepetys for the idea of keeping our stories alive by choosing tiny but important moments to share with others. As mentor texts for this, I used excerpts from Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Students chose snapshots from their lives that they wanted to capture in writing (their messages in a bottle) and also engaged in word studies for their pieces by creating Google slides sharing five words that were important to their topics. I chose Peter Pan as my topic. My slides are linked here. 

Podcast Scripts: Ever since I experienced isolation from my students when our school was closed due to the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for the connection that arises from inviting students to shelter in podcasts. We begin our study of podcasts by listening to excerpts from professional podcasts on a variety of topics and we agree on elements that are non-negotiable such as  having an engaging introduction, including authentic body details, and designing an exit “strategy” for the podcast that works. I give students several choices for directions they can go with their podcasts, and invite them to record using Anchor.fm. The result? Student podcasts about everything from football to PBS Kids series. Podcast scripts provide students with a cool new mode of writing to experiment with, AND Anchor gives them the space to add “extras” like music and images for their podcasts in addition to selecting fitting titles and writing descriptions for each podcast episode. Our podcast notes template is linked here.

What happened with the construction of the Hispaniola? I assisted my boys with painting the ship once construction was complete, and the result was a proud and beautiful ship that we used for our annual theater trip to area schools AND that we will reuse as we have our Winter Showcase coming up in just a few days. It’s difficult to count all of the ways that I loved this project, but what I loved best was that an idea that was entirely conceived by students came to life, and that students were invited to use skills that aren’t typically connected with the traditional definition of school to create something that blessed and will continue to bless their classmates and our larger school community.

The Proud and Beautiful Hispaniola, with the PC Winter Theatre Troupe

What are you building in your workshops this winter? How are you sheltering in words with your students, and creating extraordinary things?

Share your thoughts in the comments, or send me an email at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theater arts teacher in central Iowa. She enjoys writing poetry and plays with her students, and recently completed a script for a November 2021 production of Arabian Nights.

Dream Poetry

I don’t know about you, but I have struggled to write since Covid-19 hit. While my lack of productive writing has been noticeable, the presence of vivid dreams has been increasingly notable. Sometimes, we can recall dreams in great detail and convey them like stories. More often, we remember fragments, images, feelings. Thus, dream recollection lends itself to poetry. 

The idea of keeping a dream journal is nothing new; I have even tried to remember to do this before. However, the pressure of writing about a dream in a linear, prose style proved difficult and even cumbersome. Thus, I have started recording my dreams as poems. There is no pressure to make sense. I am free to incorporate snapshots. I don’t need to provide context. 

Always the lesson-planner, I began to think about how I could adapt this for students. While I won’t require my students to keep a dream journal, it could be an interesting activity to explore poetry structure, imagery, and so many other topics based on the course. Ultimately, I decided on a few basic goals for introducing this to students:

  • Modeling is key, so I will introduce this with a mentor text that I’ve written and that is appropriate for the class. I will talk through how I translated the memories/images/feelings into words. Even better, I will recall a dream and craft the poem in front of the class!
  • I will urge the students to simply write, reminding them that they do not need to craft in full sentences, add punctuation, etc. unless it feels right.
  • When they finish, I will ask that they look back over their writing and see if they can substitute any more specific words, if they want to add or remove line breaks, and think about how they have arranged the words on the lines. I show them my revisions and edits in my writer’s notebook.
  • Once students have their final drafts, I will ask them to reflect on why they made the choices they did. Why, for instance, did they add breaks between stanzas (or not). Did they add punctuation or not, and why? In this way, we will talk about the writing craft, and they will more readily make connections between other writers and their craft choices.

I hope some of you try this out – please let me know in the comments. I am filling up my notebooks with poetry once again, and it feels wonderful!  After writing the poems in my journal, I put them in Canva so I could add graphics. Here are a couple of poems from recent dreams:

Dream 1/30/22-a by Amber Counts
Dream 2/1/22 by Amber Counts

Amber Counts is an AP Literature teacher, graduate English student, and lover of the humanities. She’s enjoying life as a grandmother while trying to stay young at heart. She wants every student to know the power of their voice.

Fostering Structured Discussions: Coffee Talk

Students in classroom Multi-ethnic group of students in classroom, working together on a project. middle school discussion stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

This school year has been one of simplification for me. I’ve really been trying to embrace doing more with less. Can I reuse this mentor text? Are there ways to better scaffold this concept? I’m constantly having to evaluate my lesson plans. Trying to find the tenuous balance between student engagement, skills practice, and bridging gaps has been difficult.

You know what? That’s ok. I tell my students all the time that growth happens when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. So this year, my teaching practice is growing and changing. Reading this post definitely encouraged me to be reflective about my goals and practice.   

Here was my issue: 

I’d give my students a speaking prompt in response to something we’d read, journaled, etc. Sure, they’d chat about non-academic topics with their friends, but when it came to something related to class- crickets. My simple side-bar turn and talk activities were falling flat. 

Logically, I know this often comes down to students lacking confidence in their own ability to discuss the topic well. But I also know how necessary it is for them to break through that.

As teachers of writing, we know that if our kids can talk about something, they can write about it. I repeat this ad nauseam for my students. Making space in our classrooms for our students to discuss ideas is imperative to their growth as writers, but what do we do when they won’t?

Here was my solution:

This, my friends, is where we employ structured speaking opportunities in our lessons. In true teacher fashion, I went digging through archives of activities to see what popped out. I like to use an activity called Coffee Talk. Why I forget to use it from year to year? I’ll never know. It was something used in a professional development I attended ages ago and genuinely enjoyed because I, too, am often one to avoid jumping into a conversation if I feel a little unsure about how my ideas might be received. 

In the way a Socratic Seminar is like an essay, Coffee Talk is kind of like pre-writing. It embraces unfiltered, messy thoughts and protects the speaking time of every person in the group while still providing structure to help move the conversation along. 

Coffee Talk is a discussion in three rounds, designed for small groups of 3-6, and is easily adjusted to your purpose. It goes like this:

Round 1: 90 seconds per person is set aside to discuss the topic, text, etc. Whatever is in their brain about it is fine. Stream of consciousness-type thoughts abound. They may repeat something they heard- totally fine. This is NOT an open discussion.

Round 2: 60 seconds per person is set aside to continue their previous train of thought, expand on something they heard, and so on. This is STILL not an open discussion. Students should be more clearly developing their ideas as this round progresses.

Round 3: 5 minutes is set aside for the entire group to discuss. This is the moment they’ve all been waiting for- NOW it’s an open discussion. Encourage your kids to ask questions, respond to one another, and dig deeper into the topic. 

The fully detailed instructions I use with students can be found here

The beauty of this protocol is that every person is guaranteed a chance to speak, it’s easy to customize, and the entire class participates. 

What are some of your favorite ways to foster structured discussions in your classroom?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Unsung Heroes

“The soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke…” Taylor Mali

For the last several years, my first writing study in January with eighth graders has consisted of what I refer to as food narratives. Many thanks to Karla Hilliard for inspiring me with this idea originally!

Over time, I’ve learned that food writing is a love language of sorts for teenagers.

Students soon discover that in writing about food, though meals are significant, it’s the memories evoked that matter. We’re remembering not only the Christmas cheesy potatoes, but the person who made them and the conversations that we savored around the table. Meals are like lighthouses on the shorelines of our lives, and writing about food ignites the light and spreads it as we choose sensory details that give our writing color and meaning.

On Martin Luther King Jr., Day,  a day that memorializes a man who crossed racial and religious divides by speaking the common language of love, I’m reflecting on how often teenagers are marginalized, how frequently they are overlooked by a culture that tags them as unmotivated, relationally awkward, shackled to their phones, and the list goes on. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an unsung hero. Webster’s definition of “unsung” is as follows:

unsung adjective

un·​sung |  \ ˌən-ˈsəŋ   \

Definition of unsung

1.not sung

2. not sung meaning not celebrated or praised (as in song or verse)

an unsung hero

Last week, I wrote the following narrative for my students about a season in my life when a high risk pregnancy required bed rest, and I found myself confined to a hospital room for months. On one level, it’s a story of struggling to consume the number of calories required to support multiple babies–but it’s also about the endurance of love, and what a difference a visit from my theatre students made. They were my unsung heroes, and my current students are also givers of courage and hope in a world that is often forbidding and constantly changing.

Unsung Heroes

March 29th, 2004

 9 AM: I wake up thinking: “Today is going to be awful.” Dr. Rightmeier invades my room, perfectly clinical in his long white coat, stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck like a lifeguard’s whistle. He’s pacing, frustrated. 

“You can’t possibly overindulge.”.

“Eat whatever you want. Eat THIS,” he says, holding up a supersized Hershey bar. “You should be taking in more calories.”

I CAN’T!  That’s what my mutinous mind is thinking. My doctors increased my dosage of magnesium sulfate, a drug intended to prevent early labor, causing constant nausea and dizziness. How could I eat when the room was turning like a carousel?

Twenty-four hours later, I’m propped up against a snowy mountain of pillows with a full breakfast tray. Waffles swimming in maple syrup, a covered bowl of oatmeal, two packets of brown sugar, a plate of toast that I hadn’t even ordered…

My stomach churns in protest. The babies, butterflies waiting to emerge, flutter under my hands. 

Tears hurry down my face as I contemplate the overloaded tray. Suzi, one of my nurses, sweeps into the room, smiling a good morning. “I’ve come to get your vitals,” she announces, wheeling the blood pressure cart up to my bed.

Her smile softens as her eyes read my tearstained face.

“Still feeling sick?” she asks.

I nod, embarrassed that I’m crying. 

“This is too much with your stomach doing somersaults, How about a protein shake instead?” she asks.

“Yes, please..” 

 She grabs my hand and holds it for a moment before disappearing with the tray. 

10 AM: I drink half of a vanilla protein shake. It isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a start.  My laptop is open. I’m trying to write my final paper for my last Masters Class at Calvin University.

My mind wanders from my blank screen to a conversation with my lead physician, Dr. Cook, the day before.
“This is such an important week, Elizabeth. The threshold of viability. If you can press on until Friday, everything looks brighter. Your babies’ chances of survival skyrocket.”

He prays with me, and writes Romans 12:12 on a notecard. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

Joyful. Patient. Faithful. Am I any of those?

Why am I writing about middle school theatre? Will I ever direct a play again? I’m only allowed out of bed to take a shower.

1 PM:  Saltine crackers. That’s all I’ve been able to eat since the protein shake. Loneliness lingers like an old friend, My mind seems as closed as the books scattered on the end of my bed.

 I  rewrite a paragraph for the fifth time, and then, I see familiar faces in the doorway.  It’s Steven, Paul, Josh, Shelley and Staci,  principal cast members from the production of Peter Pan that I directed before a doctor’s orders changed everything.

“Mrs. O.! It’s so good to see you…” Steven’s words fill the semi-dark room with light, and in his voice I’m reliving scenes from the play. I hear him saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!” All he needs is some glitter in his hair and an epee. In my mind, he’s soaring across the stage, flying over the audience throwing pixie dust like confetti.  Ageless. 

“The rumor is that you need to get outside,” said Paul.

“That sounds awesome, but you would have to get me past several nurses.”

“We already have permission,” Staci insists.  Shelley and Josh go into the hallway and return with a wheelchair-the chariot of 4th Floor.

Within minutes, I’m outside of my room for the first time in weeks. Steven, the Prince of the Never Land, gently pushes the chair into the elevator , while Paul and Josh complain about writing workshop without me. Piles of grammar worksheets. Homework overload.

Out in the hospital courtyard, we’re all tasting blue skies, savoring the flavor of hope.

In March, Michigan clouds rarely part, but that day, the sun glints through the trees like a cutlass. We talk about our shared memories of Peter Pan.  I ask them what I could have done better. I think about how often God works through teenagers, unsung heroes that the rest of the world overlooks.

“We’ll never forget it, Mrs. O. The flying rehearsals especially,” Steven muses.

“You need to be on stage again,” I said. “You still have stories to tell.”

“When will you be back?” asks Paul. After that, no one says anything for a while, because we don’t know when that will be.

4 PM: As the sun melts lower in the sky, I know it’s time for them to go, and for me to go back. I will forever remember them as I see them that day. Beams of spring sunlight. I don’t need to tell them how much I miss them, or that I don’t want the day to end. With the unique wisdom of eighth graders, they already know.

January 2022: Unsung Heroes Still Surround Me

I remember that visit as if it just happened, because those students were unsung heroes, givers of hope and courage. So are you. You are life giving in the same way.

Thank you for being a gift.

Reading Like Writers:

Always, I ask my students what they notice about a mentor text, whether it’s professionally written, a draft that I’m working on, or an eighth grade writer’s work. What ideas did they take away from my narrative?

  1. One way to write a food narrative is to approach it as a Day in the Life sort of food journal, with time stamps and short bursts of descriptive language.
  2. Dialogue helps to advance any piece of writing, whether it’s a food narrative or something else.
  3. Sometimes writers use intentional sentence fragments to emphasize words that they want their readers to notice.
  4. Writers may choose to use prologues or epilogues to set the stage for a composition OR to bring a piece to completion.

What Options Do Students Have During Our Food Writing Study?

Autonomy is a vital component of writing workshop, and I love to give students as many choices as possible around whatever our focal point–in this case food writing-is. 

Here are a few of the options that I give them, including links to the professional mentor texts that they may explore as they think about what they would like to write, and what the best path into that writing is:

  1. A Food Themed Letter of Recommendation–With Thanks to The New York Times. We read this article entitled “I Recommend Eating Chips” as a way to explore excellent descriptive writing. This piece also illustrates that a good writer can write about food while at the same time cleverly expressing commentary on different cultural elements. I invited my students to write imitations of passages they admired.
  2. A Widow Takes the Helm at Blackberry Farm: Once again, The New York Times provided an outstanding example of a food narrative that is about SO much more than food. This is a story of tragedy, grief and resilience. The narrative is filled with beautifully structured complex sentences for students to use as mentors in their own compositions, as well as breathtaking photos of one of the most exquisite resorts in the United States. 
  3. The Story of a Recipe: This idea came both from my own life experiences, since my great grandmother passed down incredible recipes to the next generations, and also from an NPR feature that I read about high school students sharing their recipe stories and compiling them in a cookbook. My students have the opportunity to record a recipe that they love and share why it’s important to them. The NPR feature is linked here

We also enjoyed watching this CBS News feature about a world famous chef who is revolutionizing school lunches. Earlier this year, we wrote menus filled with our ideal entrees, beverages, sides and desserts.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I hope that today is a day filled with celebrations of Dr. King’s life and legacy, and of the unsung heroes in your life, including those in your classrooms.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. Her favorite stories are The Outsiders, Peter Pan and Our Town. Recently, she wrote a script for a production of Arabian Nights. Share your amazing ideas for writing workshop in the comments below, or email Elizabeth at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Taking stock at the midway point

As we launch into the second semester I imagine everyone is facing a different scenario when it comes to returning to the classroom or establishing what’s “normal” again. Regardless of the tumult, it’s a pretty natural time to pause and look backward, to take stock of where we’ve been and to look ahead at where we’ll go next in the classroom. 

I wanted to think about three ways of looking back and offer a couple of tools and resources that I’ve found helpful with my junior English classes.

3 ways to reflect

Below is just an attempt to break down some different ways we tend to ask students to think about their work and their learning journey. Clarifying this helps me to fine-tune the reflection questions or task. I think each has its place, but lately I’ve really been thinking about how to add more space for self-discovery to units. Without the self-discovery component, I find that my students can lack direction when given choice or feel more disconnected from a unit and its focus. I find that having some time for this at the beginning of units is really important– a chance to bring their passions and curiosities into focus.

Hattie link; Zmuda and Kallick link

A couple of reflection resources

These are a few quick things I’ve tried or found useful at junctures like this:

  • BuzzFeed quiz generator:  BuzzFeed has their own quiz generator, but I like the free version of Opinion Stage. This is a quiz I gave my students in December about their “reading diet” that tried to help them think about their tendencies over the course of the semester. Then I simply asked them to reflect on the quiz results and to think about next steps. It generates some interesting aggregate pictures for me, too. Below is the composite response to the question, “Which best describes your reading volume?”
  • “Burning the Old Year”, a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye: I love using this poem in January because it asks us to look backward and think about three things from the previous year: the things that are “flammable” (disposable, temporary), the things that are “stone” (permanent, lasting), and “the things that I didn’t do” (the unfinished). These can be framed as academic or as personal questions. We use it to launch into some brainstorming for personal narratives. The poem also asks us to think forward, to consider how we will start again in a new year and fill our days with what will last. So we set a few goals for 2022, some academic, some personal. 
  • Something/Nothing passage from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (108-111): This is a powerful passage that can stand on its own, but it’s the narrator’s grandfather writing to his son, the narrator’s father. He describes how he and his wife tried to set up rules and live by them, including taping off sections of their apartment and labeling them as “something” or “nothing” spaces. It’s a wonderful metaphor made visual and the students usually find it interesting. But it lets us ask the question, what is “something” or “nothing” for you? We can apply it backwards to what we did in the previous unit/semester or use it to think about writing territories. This passage leads to other good conversations about communication and the power of language, too. 

Some other professional resources for self-reflection:

  • Sarah Zerwin’s end of semester letters: You can read about Sarah Krajewski’s experience with end of semester reflection letters here. Chapter 7 of Point-less describes this process as well.
  • Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle from 180 Days: p.126  has their end of year reading/writing reflection, which asks students to take stock and includes the wonderful question: “Which piece would you like to burn?”
  • Maja Wilson from Reimagining Writing Assessment: She has several wonderful pages that focus on self-reflection, specifically p.75-6 and p.137. What I like is the direction of her questions, which she insists should focus on the student’s “decision-making and intent”, or why they did what they did in a writing piece. Here are a few more of her questions:

I don’t think there’s a wrong way to reflect other than omitting the step because of the “fierce urgency of now.” One of my goals this year is to carve out more time for self-discovery and to allow students space to think more about who they are in the midst of the chaotic world they find themselves in right now. It’s a January aspiration.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s still celebrating the unlikely success of the Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Burrow, and Jamar Chase.

A Star’s Good Company

PC Theatre Students Prepare Cuttings from Our Town for Regional Competition

Since I have the distinct privilege of writing a post just days before Christmas, I thought this was the perfect time to share a tribute to a literary work that has profoundly impacted my pedagogy and my students’ lives–Thornton Wilder’s iconic Our Town. I posted previously about Our Town in 2019, sharing how I workshopped a canonical text.

This post is different. Our Town demonstrates in the most gentle and profound of ways-how difficult it is to be a human being. In the midst of every kind of unrest from the horrors of school shootings to political upheaval that polarizes families and communities, this play invites us all to pause and to savor the people and things that give our lives meaning. I wrote this tribute for my students recently as we finished reading Our Town together. It was intended to be an invitation to them to think about why reading an eighty year old Pulitzer Prize winning play matters, and as a step into writing their own tributes to the things that make up the fabric of their lives, as well as an introduction to designing one pagers in response to the play. My job sheet for our one pagers is linked here.

Knowing the Stars by Name

A Playlet Starring Various Eighth Graders, and TIME as the thief, as Mrs. O. reflects on one of her favorite things…Our Town.

Act I Scene One:

Date: February 13th, 2019. Time: Late afternoon

 The second trimester is fading like a rose, and the clock is ticking. TIME, that relentless thief, is busy stealing.

The PC 8th Grade Theatre Troupe is preparing to present Our Town, a play in three acts by Thornton Wilder, at District V Regionals. 

TOBY and EMRI are in the window at the Gibbs’ home in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, playing the roles of GEORGE and REBECCA. I know I will read the play again, with other students in these roles, but these two voices are perfect. Melody and harmony. 

EMRI (AS REBECCA): George, do you know what I think? Do you? I think maybe the moon’s getting nearer and nearer, and there’ll be a big ‘splosion…

TOBY (AS GEORGE): Rebecca, you don’t know anything. If the moon were getting nearer, the guys that sit up all night with telescopes would see it first, and they’d tell about it, and it’d be in all the newspapers.

EMRI (AS REBECCA): George, is the moon shining on South America, Canada, and half the whole world?

TOBY (AS GEORGE): Well–probly is.

ISAAC (AS STAGE MANAGER): Nine thirty. Most of the lights are out. No, there’s Constable Warren trying a few doors on Main Street. And here comes Editor Webb after putting his newspaper to bed…

MRS. O: The first time I read Our Town, I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher and one of the most significant mentors of my life, Dale Brinks, assigned the play and we read it in a few days. I remember both loving the story, and desperately wanting there to be more to the story. I knew as a fifteen year old kid who had just fallen in love for the first time, that it was a play that would matter to me for the rest of my life.

Act I Scene Two: Where We Are Now–December 2021

As I think back on our 2019 season, I remember that TIME kept stealing, stuffing minutes into his pockets like crumpled dollar bills, and hurrying away. WINTER was another villain,  brutally icy and cold, blotting out the sun. We had snow days upon snow days…a stack of missed opportunities.  I remember tears of frustration when another email landed in my inbox announcing a cancellation or a two hour delay. 

Members of the 2018-2019 8th Grade Theatre Troupe with Mrs. O.

Then, in February, theatre troupe member Josh’s father died from cancer on Valentine’s Day, while the rest of the troupe was performing Peter Pan in Sully. We dedicated the performance to Josh and his dad. It gave Our Town another layer of meaning for us, and made us treasure the time that we had left together even more.

So here we are. It’s December, 2021.. TIME is still stealing, and Our Town endures, reminding me in its plain and gentle way that more goodbyes are always coming. “Don’t waste time,” the pages whisper. Make the most of today. Be a gift-whether you’re reading a play, or washing dishes. Everything matters–and people–my family and my students–matter the most.

Cast Members at a Dress Rehearsal for the 2021 8th Grade Theatre production of Arabian Nights

 Another day will dim, another rehearsal ends, and the moment, as all moments are, is unrepeatable. I will only be able to “open” the gifts of being with you for a few more months. And then your stories will continue.  Without me. That is the way of things every year, but I never get used to it. It’s unspeakably painful to say goodbye to students who have journeyed with you through everything from the secret of staying gold in The Outsiders to the magic of Arabian Nights and everything still to come.  How do you bid farewell to souls who have lit candles of love and hope with you through their words, and the characters they’ve played? I don’t know the answer. Maybe I never will.

So why is Our Town one of my favorite things? The words are old friends. When I return to them, they are the same, whether I am a fifteen year old girl flushed with first love, or a wife and mother tempered by time, failures, dreams, and devastation. The message is the same regardless of my life season. Don’t presume too much, or berate yourself, either. Be tender. Treasure each moment. Love your family. Love your students. Love life. I can’t think of a message much more meaningful than that.

CURTAIN

What are the stories that live in your heart? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net. If you’d like to learn more about the endurance of Our Town and why it’s one of the most performed plays in the world, check out this video from the Wilder family, or this one from CBS News, including interviews with award-winning director David Cromer.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves reading and writing poetry and plays with her students. Recently, she wrote Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Kids These Days Are Amazing

I know this title is going to cause some teacher eye rolls because it is rough in education right now. Some of us are using every classroom management tool we can think of and still struggling with refusals to work or listen. I get it- I am there, too.

However, despite this year being even more difficult than last due to social-emotional needs we weren’t expecting, I still think kids these days are amazing. I don’t think I could show up to work everyday if I let this belief go.

I like to use this countercultural phrase because we often hear “kids these days don’t want to learn” or “kids these days don’t know how to make choices for themselves” or “kids these days just don’t care.” I wholeheartedly believe this is not true. Kids, like all human-beings, have an innate need to learn and make sense of the world. Right now, a global pandemic, a year of less connection, continued uncertainty, etc. has caused learning to end up on the backburner of needs. Am I saying this means teachers should just suck it up and deal with the environment of burnout we are experiencing? Absolutely not. We have also been through all of these draining circumstances, too, and we have to give ourselves grace and maybe even a break. The only thing I ask from you is to stop, look around, and see what’s going right. YOU are doing many things right.

I had my own moment of revelation as I sat in bed for days grading our most recent project while I am quarantined for COVID (my case is not bad, and I am doing okay). This quarter, our sophomore English students chose a nonfiction book on any topic they wanted that made them curious and they wanted to know more about. Students chose books like Lone Survivor and Stamped and I Have The Right To. They read about true crime, UFOs, wars, history, racism, assault, poverty, the justice system, psychology and on and on.

My inspiration when creating this project was from those ordinary moments we all experience: we are sitting on the coach watching a movie or reading a book and a question about what we are reading/watching pops in our heads. “Did that historical event actually happen?” “Did those actors break up?” Then, we find ourselves down a rabbit-hole of research from which we emerge half an hour later after reading about how asparagus might cure unwanted hair loss. Though I am making light of this common phenomenon, it demonstrates the yearning to know and understand in our real lives. I wanted to create that phenomenon as authentically as I could for my students while fostering independent reading.

Inquiry Project Details

As students read the nonfiction books they chose, they kept an inquiry log of questions that arose for them as they read their book; they took these questions into our research days to find out more information about a topic in their book. For example, multiple students read about sexual assault and wanted to know statistics about assault in America. At the end of our time reading, questioning, and researching, the students created either a podcast, a TED talk, or a website to present their learning to their peers. This project involved choice, authentic research, authentic product, digital literacy, and authentic publishing. The conversations, products, and learning that came from this project were superb. I had to take a few moments to just stop and bask in the goosebumps-producing joy that is kids being freed to learn what they want to learn.

Of course, there were lots of road bumps (or even total road closures) along the way. We had issues with students picking random books without a lot of consideration as to their interest in it to just get their reading check grade. We had students who didn’t or wouldn’t read. There were lots of absences and catching students up. And we also dealt with a total lack of knowledge in research because of the circumstances of their last two years of school.

For students who picked books they didn’t actually want to read, the remedy was pushing them hard to read in the first two weeks with the option of abandoning their book. Some kids still didn’t read enough within the two weeks to know if they enjoyed their book or not, so those students were stuck with their book and the lesson to choose more carefully next time. For students who had a hard time getting started in their reading (always the toughest, but most important time!), my colleague, Kristal All, created these awesome bookmark trackers so students could practice making checkpoints along the way for themselves. These led to some good conversations about goal-setting, following through, and the mess we make for ourselves when we don’t do the work early on. We also had reading conferences to check in on their progress, understanding, and enjoyment of the book as well as to check in on what kinds of questions students were asking about their books. They kept track of their questions on this document.

Many students started out asking questions that would later be answered in the book or questions about the author’s thoughts/feelings. As we continued in our reading, we steered students toward asking broader questions about the topics that arose in the book that would be better for outside research. We kept reminding them that if the question could be answered by the book, it wasn’t a research question. It took a little while to get them out of a compliance mode and into true curiosity, but the work was worth it for true learning.

Every two weeks, we had a research day. We would start with a mini-lesson such as using the benefits of using the databases, bias in sources, or reliable vs. unreliable sources. The students would then be released on their own to do their research. For my level students in particular, I highly encouraged them to stay on our school databases so they did not have to do the extra work of determining reliability/credibility and so their citations would be made for them. I plan to do some more lessons to open up their research to the whole web next quarter. Our first research day really helped students reframe their thinking about what kinds of questions they should be asking as they read their books.

We used these charts to have conversations about bias in media and when it’s appropriate to use certain sources. For this project, we encouraged them to stick to the center of the bias chart, if researching outside of the databases, since this was supposed to be purely informational.

At the end of the quarter, students chose what mode of media they wanted to present their project in- TED Talk, podcast or Google website. They were given this sheet of instructions, tutorials, and planning documents. The intention was for students to get a major grade for the project and a major grade for presenting. This was our rubric for the product they created. My getting COVID messed up presentations for my classes, but I think it still heightened the level of product I received from the students. For the TED Talk and podcast, students would simply play their media for the class and answer questions at the end. For websites, students would have to present in real-time in front of the class and answer questions. The podcast was a popular choice for students since they didn’t have to be on camera, they got to re-record as many times as needed, and they could potentially read off of their script without anyone knowing. It was also fantastic for my students who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language. They got to practice the very important skill of speaking, and I was so impressed with how hard they worked on these.

Student Products

I did this with both my level and my honors ELA II classes. This podcast was produced by a wonderful young lady in my honors class, Brooklyn Spikes (tw: it deals with the topic of sexual assault). She sounded like a podcasting professional, and I think everyone can feel the passion in her speaking. This podcast was created by a student in my level class, Enzo, and my favorite parts are the well-timed comedic pauses and asides.

I wish I could share the amazing websites students have done, but my district has publishing settings where only those inside the district can access the sites. Nevertheless, I will share that many students knocked it out of the part with their website design, flow, engaging details, etc. I have received no TED Talks, and I am still reflecting on why that option wasn’t chosen.

The Joy in it All

I chose to share this project because, at its core, it is a pretty simple idea from which I saw such a powerful effect. It wasn’t easy, as seen in all of our setbacks above, but I think the students were more engaged in their reading and more excited to learn than they have been for a couple of semesters. I know I felt immense joy every time I had a reading conference, and I got to see the light in my students’ eyes as they passionately explained their topic to me. That’s why I say kids these days are amazing. They are very much re-learning how to “do school,” but I think this proves that they are up to the task and that authenticity and choice lead to ultimate engagement. I will also add that this project could not have been as successful without the wide-ranging availability of books for students to choose from (with permission slips from their parents saying they will talk to their children about what they feel is appropriate for them to read). There are many counterarguments to book bans, but above is mine. I hope these resources are helpful to you in some way. Keep hanging in there, teacher. Your work is making a difference.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching, but her first year at Conroe High School. She just finished reading The Cousins by Karen McManus and really enjoyed another thrilling mystery from the author. She would like to thank COVID for nothing except the little margin it afforded in which she was able to write this blog post. She is starting her Master of Education in curriculum and instruction at UT Tyler in January, but has no plans to leave the classroom soon. She does, however, wonder when she will find time to post on the blog. Her next read will be Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. You can find her on twitter @rebeccalriggs or on instragram @riggsreaders

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