Category Archives: Classroom Library

Guest Post by @cJezasaurusRex — An Open Letter from a Book Thief

Dear Ms. Gerdes,

You were the first teacher who taught me how/ when to properly use “Ms.” You taught me the power of a Phenomenal Woman. You taught me to value my mother. Big Time. And you taught me that reading is magic.

Ironically, you were my math teacher.

I wish I could say that you “gave” me books. The fact of the matter is that — I actually stole them. Actually. Literally. (Non?)Legitimately. STOLE A BOOK FROM YOU. Maybe even more than one. Probably, Likely so.

And all I can do right now is to apologize. Also–what is your address? Do you prefer USPS, FedEx, UPS, Armed Guard?

Just, please forgive me.

If you remember me at all, then you know (at 36) I would eventually be safely breaking every conventional rule in regards to punctuation and grammar. I hope you knew me well enough to know there is purpose behind my rebellion.

This all started more than 25 years ago. You were a Pioneer for Choice Reading time. And I know that I talked through most of those minutes, but I swear to you that I WAS SOAKING IT IN. Conduct marks set aside, I watched as you made time to focus on your own book during MATH!? I was, assuredly, a total A-Hole about it. Again, Sooooooo Soorrryyyy About that. But— I need to tell you that you are the ONE who (unknowingly) gave me a gift that I hope I am worthy enough to pass on to hundreds of other fellow humans.

I teach English to High School Students, and I flipping swear that 15-year-olds are and will remain the ultimate worst EVER. I love them. Every day. Not every second of every day… but mostly just every day. I look at them and am reminded of when I got sent to ISS or locked in a book closet by my English Teacher, and so it’s just effing fine by me that I threw my Pre-Law Degree out the window (wish the student loan attached would disappear too).

Since I’m always broke, and I’m the baby sibling, my Big siSTAR gave me her OLD Kindle about 12 years ago. Before I reset the account, I had to read ALL THE BOOKS she left on the account. One was Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.

For roughly 12 years, I’ve (kinda) done what I’ve been told by The System while I operated another system behind that closed door. I’ve tossed the curriculum back to my students like a contagious, hot potato. What. Do. YOU. Love. To. Read. As teachers, we often forget that it was NEVER about us, and it NEVER will be about us. And it has been my mission since my first year of teaching to throw my neck out on the guillotine to fight for that freedom.

Ms. Gerdes, I hope you are proud of the part you played in creating this monster.

But I stole your book. Now that I have built a classroom library of close to one thousand books, I know how pissed I get when my curation starts to disappear. Year after year, the carefully selected and bargained-for dwindles as quickly as cotton candy in a humid, Houston Heater. Some moments, I look at my shelves and wonder why my students can’t just return that damn book!

Today, while my Punky Brewster of a daughter was helping me pull all the donations we have for our town’s Little Free Library, she brought me Miracle at Clement’s Pond by Patricia Pendergraft. Your name written in permanent marker across the back.

miracle 1miracle-2.jpg

I’m. Melting. I am so sorry. I won’t even say that, “I can’t believe it.” I won’t even say that, “I’m so ashamed.” I can believe it. And I’m a little glad that I’m not ashamed.

You must have told me about the miracles found in books. Maybe, even this one in particular. Maybe I wasn’t ready, at 11 years old, to read what my teacher suggested–but I was ready to STEAL it so HARD! (I am sorry about that.) Mostly, at 36, I know what it feels like to bury my nose in words that make magic. The spell that is crafted by each stroke of the pen. To finish a novel and then hold it close to your heart with your eyes closed. Brimming with tears of empathy and connection. The feeling that next day of “Great Book Hangover” causing all other brain functions to fail.

This is the most life-altering lesson any teacher can leave behind.

I’m real sorry that I stole your book. (Plus, also I am sorry I was kind of a pain). The most sincere apology I can offer is that I am about to read this book, and I will NEVER forget Miracle at Clement’s Pond by Patricia Pendergraft–even if it sucks so hard. Plus, each time one of my books turns up missing, I promise to think of this apology. I promise to think of how pseudo- crappy kids can turn out to be alright humans. Or that ultra-rad kids can sometimes make terribly impulsive decisions. I promise. I promise. I promise. I stole something from you that is much bigger than a 242 page paperback from Scholastic.

I stole promise.

I hope you will forgive me. I hope you know that you truly changed my life. I hope to do the same for others.

Incredibly Sincerely Best of all Regards,

Crystal Jez

Crystal Jez has been teaching high school English in Texas for twelve years.  As curator of a chaotically color-coded classroom library, she is typically knee-deep in stacks of books.  When she isn’t reading or teaching, you can find her chasing chickens or saltwater kayak fishing.  Crystal is the wife of a super-hot guy and mom of three ultra-rad kids.

Advertisements

March Madness – A Book Bracket that Breaks a Few Rules

As I write this post, I can’t help imagining what it will feel like at this time Thursday night when I am up to my eyeballs (finally) in all things Spring Break. I’m envisioning an episode of This is Us, an adult beverage, and perhaps some Easter candy the bunny just won’t get a chance to deliver. Maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind and rent a movie, stay awake for the entire thing, and put extra butter on my popcorn. Don’t try and hold me back, friends – I’m going to let ‘er rip. This girl is going to calorically navigate every day of this vacation.

Because let’s face it, sometimes we need to break the rules and revel in what feels good. Sometimes we need to abandon the stress, irritation, and seemingly endless march of…March.

Sometimes we need to break the rules.

Now I know, if I were you, I would be reading on in great anticipation of a reflective post that smacks at the very heart of pushing aside what’s prescribed and going instead with the deeply personal, life-altering, philosophy-bending, workshop work that fuels lives rich in reading, writing, and empathetic connections across our school communities.

Well…did I mention I am only four class periods away from vacation? 344 total class minutes. 18 total hours on the clock. 27 miles there and back to my nice warm bed. Dozens of warm smiles and well wishes for a well-deserved break to all my lovely students and colleagues.

Some will voyage to lands far and wide. Some will go on great adventures.

I will gladly go to my couch. My brain is fried.

 

As such, I wanted to share with you my experience with a March Madness Book Bracket, in the hopes that if you haven’t tried this yet, you’ll consider it for next year, or even better, you will ditch the March Madness component and just create your own Book Battle for April or May of this year to stir up passions around the current favorite titles in your classroom.

Personally, this idea came from two places:

  1. A random picture I saw on Twitter at some point that highlighted the excitement around a classroom book battle.
  2. March Madness Hoopla (punny is as punny does) here at Franklin High School.

Our school is blessed with a great number of hugely passionate, committed, and just all around awesome teachers and administrators across the building. This past month, Franklin saw the advent of our annual March Madness school-wide event. The incomparable Pat Gain, AP Environmental Science teacher to the stars, organizes an extravaganza the brings the whole school together in excitement, friendly competition, and support of Franklin’s Relay for Life and Best Buddies. Students earn raffle tickets for possible school spirit, teams organize to battle it out on the court, and the entire school gathers for a pep rally to watch the championship games and other fun at week’s end. This year, it inspired me to jump on the bandwagon and create a book bracket in my room.

IMG_9931.jpg

After the fact, I found this awesome March Madness Book Bracket that includes book trailers, printable brackets, a bracket reveal video, and the wherewithal to organize it all way ahead of time and share it so classes across the world can vote. You can vote in their championship matchup between The Hate You Give and Scythe right now! These people have t-shirts. It’s legit.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my humble pie and share with you what I did and what I want to try to do for next year.

First, a disclaimer. I said I broke rules. I did. But it still worked.

  • There was no actual bracket to fill out.
  • I don’t know a lot (enough, much, anything) about basketball.
  • My bracket had no actual lines.

But it all worked out. Check it out below.

Mrs. Dennis March Madness Book Bracket 2018…

  1. Each of my classes did a quick write on their favorite read so far this year. We chatted after writing, reminisced about great books, added to our “I Want to Read” lists, and then put some titles up on the board. Over the course of a few days, the suggestions for awesome books grew, and I picked 16 that represented the most consistently raved about and most passionately advocated for in each class.
  2. I matched up the books somewhat appropriately in logical pairings. Two classics up against one another. Two historical fiction texts. Two books in verse. Etc.
  3. I printed images of the book covers for each title and set up a rudimentary book bracket on the back wall.
  4. A Google Form shared on Google Classroom gave my students the opportunity to vote in any/all of the matchups they felt compelled to vote for. I also shared this Google Form with other members of the English Department and encouraged them to share the link with their students and to vote for their own favorites.
  5. After the initial matchups, I was left with eight books in illogical pairings, so I had students vote for their top four choices one week, their top two the next, and now we’ve arrived at Championship Week.
  6. Before voting each round, students lobbied for the books they felt should move on to the next round. Which were the most worthy of advancing? Which changed student thinking? Which were the page-turners? It was awesome to hear kids going to the mat for their choices, and even when their favorites lost, they continued to try and sway people to still give the book a try. It did make it to the Big Dance after all.

Franklin March Madness Book Bracket Every Year From Now On…

  1. Start the whole process earlier. Give students a chance to pick up a book or two from the bracket and add fuel to the fire of how many kids have a book in the race.
  2. Complete actual brackets for some random and cheap prizes from my Kelly Gallagher-inspired Bag of Fun Crap.
  3. Random pairings. I love the idea from the link above to let the chips fall where they may and let books battle au natural. This eliminates my perceived issue of illogical matchups. Brackets are made to be busted!
  4. Measure twice, cut once. My book covers were almost too big. I had to move furniture! The hallway may be a more appropriate space and would promote the matchups to a wider audience as well.
  5. My pithy neighbor Brandon suggested that tape between the matchups would make it look a lot more like an actual bracket. Touché.
  6. Expand the empire and work to involve more students, more grade levels, more opinions, more passionate pleas for books to advance. More. Madness.

IMG_0107.jpg

My March needed a bit of madness and I look forward to doing it again next year. Though we didn’t have any actual brackets to fill out ahead of time, or league sanctioned seeding, or even actual matchups past the first round, the results involved a whole lot of passionate talk and writing around books.

When students hustle in the room to see which books are winners, as opposed to hurridly taking one last glance at their phones before the bell rings, I consider it a slam dunk.

(He he…told you I needed a vacation).

Our bracket is down to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Which one would be your winner? Which books could go the distance with your classes this year? Please leave your comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her knowledge of basketball is limited, but her support of underdogs is fierce. Let’s Go, Loyola! Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

Five Ways Your Classroom Library will Sell Itself (Without taking up valuable class time!)

Classroom libraries are essential in the workshop model, as kids who have access to books will naturally read more books. I’m beyond thrilled that my school has invested so much into our classroom libraries. Now that the books are here, it’s time to get the students to read them!

classroom library fall 17

This is what my classroom library looked like in the fall of 2017.

 

Book talks are an essential way for teachers and students to discover new treasures hidden in classroom libraries, but they aren’t the only way.

Speed dating, student led book talks, and book tastings are all excellent methods for students to learn about books and develop healthy next reads lists, but they all take time.

Below are five ways to “book talk” without using valuable class time:

  1. These are quick, easy to photocopy book recommendations written by students. I keep a stack of them on a shelf with the books, and as students return books they read and loved, they can choose to fill in the recommendation form. I’m sure there are more beautiful recommendation forms out there, but this is what we have, and it works.

2. Mini-whiteboards are easily changed-out, and both students and teachers can quickly feature new and different titles. It takes moments, and the written “grab” can be copied from the inside flap or the back of the book.

  1. themed book display

3. Themed book displays are easy to curate.  All that’s necessary are a few display stands and either some mini-white boards or some heavy paper that can be switched out. I rotate my display about once a week, and sometimes my students ask me to “do a theme” with the display. I try to oblige. This one focused on humor, but anything is possible. I’ve currently got a music theme going, and it’s fun to find themed collections based on other random ideas – animals, travel, even the color of the covers. Imagination is the only limitation with this one.

 

4. We reinvented the old-school card catalogue by filling an organizing bin with book recommendations. The categories in the bin match the ones on the library shelves, and students add their recommendations as they are motivated to do so, but only after reading the books, and if they liked the title. I gave them some basic guidelines for making the cards:Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 5.29.43 PM

It takes students about five minutes to make a card, and they can even browse the “card catalog” at their desks.

 

5. The last method utilizes these frames from IKEA. They are double-sided, so on one side is a copy of the book cover, and on the other is the student recommendation.

I provided minimal guidelines for making the inserts to the frames:

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 5.29.23 PM

We are displaying them on our classroom conferring tables, on our book shelves, and in our school’s learning commons.

The common denominator with all of these ideas is that they are easily displayed, often student-created, and require minimal class time for students to create and use. They also get kids talking about books that they love, about their next reads lists, and about their reading lives. It’s win-win-win!

The gradual removal of scaffolding (like book talks) and the journey to independent reading lives are a couple of the major goals of workshop. Helping students build a community of readers means that they will depend on each other’s recommendations rather than those of their teachers’, and that helps us all reach the common goal of student independence. When students are encouraged to talk to each other about the books they read without the interference of the teacher, then true independence is closer than ever.

How do you encourage your students to build a reading community? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

A Book for Women, Young and Old and In-between

I am always on the look out for books that will hook my readers and mentor texts that will inspire my writers.

But when I saw the title The Radical Element, 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other

My Radical Granddaughters

It’s never too early to give girls hope.

Dauntless Girls, I thought of my own three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters. (Well, not so much the debutantes, but definitely the daredevils and the dauntless.)

We need books where our girls see themselves –where they feel empowered to take on the world. In a brochure I got from @Candlewick, it states:

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting.

So today, I write to celebrate the book birthday of The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood.

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 12.54.36 PM

Jessica writes:

. . . Merriam-Webster’s definitions of radical include “very different from the usual or traditional” and “excellent, cool.” I like to think our heroines in these twelve short stories are both. Our radical girls are first- and second- generation immigrants. They are Mormon and Jewish, queer and questioning, wheelchair users and neurodivergent, Iranian- American and Latina and Black and biracial. They are funny and awkward and jealous and brave. They are spies and scholars and sitcom writers, printers’ apprentices and poker players, rockers and high-wire walkers. They are mundane and they are magical.

. . .

It has been my privilege to work with these eleven tremendously talented authors, some of whom are exploring pieces of their identities in fiction for the first time. I hope that in some small way The Radical Element can help forge greater empathy and a spirit of curiosity and inclusiveness. That, in reading about our radical girls, readers might begin to question why voices like these are so often missing from traditional history. They have always existed. Why have they been erased? How can we help boost these voices today?

I have only read a few of these stories so far, but they are a wonderful blend of adventure and courage.

Here’s what three of the 12 authors have to say about their stories:

From Dhonielle Clayton, “When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough”:

1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

 I wanted to write the untold stories of hidden black communities like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m very fascinated with black communities that, against all odds and in the face of white terrorism, succeeded and built their own prosperous havens. Also, World War II America is glamorized in popular white American culture, however, we learn little about what non-white people were doing during this time period. 

 In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

I didn’t find as much as I wanted because historians focused on white communities and the war effort, leaving communities of color nearly erased. I had to rely on living family members that experienced this time period and a few primary sources detailing what life was like for black nurses in the 1940s. 

 How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

The one thing I trust is that black communities have been and will always be resourceful. Accustomed to being under siege, we have developed a system of support. I think I would’ve fared just fine. 

From Sara Farizan, “Take Me with U”:

1984: Boston, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

I’ve always been fascinated with the 1980’s. Even with all its faults, it is the period in time that stands out for me most in the 20th century. The music, the entertainment, the politics, the fear and suffering from the AIDS virus, the clothes, and the international events that people forget about like the Iran/Iraq war.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

It was hard to look back on footage from news broadcasts about the Iran/Iraq war. I felt embarrassed that it seemed this abstract thing for me when really my grandparents came to live with my family in the States during the year of 1987 to be on the safe side. I was very young, and didn’t think about why they had a year-long visit, but looking back, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for them. Fun not so heavy fact: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Purple Rain came out in the summer of ’84. And so did I!

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

I think I would know all the pop culture references and my hair is already big and beautiful so that would work out great. My Pac-Man and Tetris game is strong, so I’d impress everyone at the arcade. However, I’m not down with shoulder pads and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to come out of the closet back then.

From Mackenzi Lee, “You’re a Stranger Here”

1844: Nauvoo, Illinois

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

My story is set in the 1840s in Illinois and is about the Mormon exodus to Utah. I was raised Mormon, and these stories of the early days of the Church and the persecution they suffered were very common place. It took me a while to realize that, outside of my community, no one else knew these stories that were such a part of my cultural identity. I wanted to write about Mormons because its such a part of my history, and my identity, but also because, when I was a kid, there were no stories about Mormons. There are still no stories about Mormons–it’s a religious minority that has been largely left out in our current conversations about diversifying our narratives.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

Ack I wish I had a good answer here! But honestly not really–I already knew so much of what I wrote about because I’d gone to a Mormon church throughout my youth.

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

Badly! The Mormons went through so much for their faith, and as someone who has had a lot of grief as a result of the religion of her youth, I don’t know if I could have handled having a faith crisis AND being forced from my home multiple times because of that faith. Also cholera and heat stroke and all that handcart pulling nonsense is just. too. much. I didn’t survive the Oregon Trail computer game–no way I’d survive an actual trek.

Radical_Element_social_media_quotes_4

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches readers and writers at a large suburban high school in North TX. She loves to read and share all things books with her students. In regards to this post, Amy says, “It’s Spring Break for me, and I’ve been idle. Kinda. Three of my grandkids arrived at the spur of the moment, so I’ll use that as an excuse for posting late today.” Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

 

The Battle of the Canon

I recently found myself entrenched on a familiar battlefield. After making what I thought was an innocuous statement about needing more texts that my AP Literature students would enjoy reading that would also represent “literary merit,” and noting some contemporary texts that would meet these criteria, another teacher began to lecture me on the necessity of requiring students to read canonical British literature.

Her unyielding tirade provided some insight into what it must feel like to be a student in that class – in which choice is something the teacher makes, books are taught (not students), and the teacher is the sole purveyor of knowledge.

Before I continue, let me say that I truly believe that this teacher truly believes that she is doing what is best for her students. Her primary argument, in fact, was that we are doing our students a disservice if we do not expect them to read “hard texts.”

To her, rigor means old. She explained that if students are not struggling to decode classic books such as Beowulf or Cantebury Tales, they are not being challenged enough. She said that any book they read that’s not canon is a waste of their time.

But herein lies the rub: many students from different English classes eat lunch in my classroom, and I listen to their honest conversations about school. I watch as they use Sparknotes to fill out question packets on classic texts. When the focus is on a specific book, and the assessments are designed to elicit responses about the plot, students do not have much incentive to read the book. Thus, they find answers they need online and wait for the teacher to tell them what they should have learned from the text.

While I held back from sharing such observations, I did agree that students benefit from reading challenging texts. MRIs have recorded all of the brilliant ways the brain lights up with activity when reading the works of Shakespeare! However, I offered the suggestion that students need not read full novels as a whole class to receive this benefit. I often pull excerpts from classic texts to analyze in class so that the focus is on the writing craft and on ourselves as readers. We explore passages in depth to build reader confidence, look for literary devices and discuss their functions, and connect to theme. I provide them with incentive to read other than “because it’s tradition,” and – more importantly – I encourage them to find their own reasons for connecting to texts.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 9.10.07 PMAmy Rasmussen and I have engaged in numerous conversations about the magic that happens when students choose the books they read for our AP English classes. Sure, students will often choose a contemporary text if given the chance because it’s easier for them to read and it seems more relevant to them. What’s wrong with that? Books like The Kite Runner and Never Let Me Go have been referenced by the College Board on the AP Literature and Composition exam®, so why do some teachers still cling to the classics as if nothing written after the turn of the 20th century has merit?

My students regularly start with more contemporary books like The Help or The Road and then choose, for various reasons, to explore books from the canon. Often, they have built confidence due to the work we do together in class with shorter texts and from their own choice reading, and they feel comfortable taking on a challenge. Sometimes, they decide that they want to read books they’ve always heard about. I currently have students who have chosen to read Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, and Les Miserables on their own. When we have book talks and the students begin speaking with excitement about the books they’re reading, you better believe that others will want to read these books, too. I’ve seen it happen for several years in a row; students read more canonical texts due to choice than they ever would if the books were strictly assigned.

Many of us speak and write about the benefits of a workshop classroom, and the idea of choice in reading has been explored by leaders in education such as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. So why are some teachers so afraid to let go of their perceived control? What do they think will happen if a student walks out of high school without reading Beowulf? I would rather see my students leave my classroom having read several books they chose to read than having faked their way through a list of classics, and based on the honest feedback I get from my students, they prefer it this way, too.

I left the battle of the canon feeling that we had reached a stalemate. Until I can convince nonbelievers of the benefits of choice in the AP classroom, I will continue to provide a safe space for any students to come in and talk about books, even as some Sparknote and Google their way through the classics.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

Trigger Warning – Whole Class Novels

Ideas don’t sneak up on me. They hit me from just beyond my peripheral vision like a swift backhand to the kneecap. I can’t possibly go on as I had been only moments before. The ideas explode onto my consciousness, and then my to-do list, and then leap onto my calendar, and then to most of my waking moments until I actually do something about them, or surgically remove them somehow from my obsessive brain.

Translation: I had been happily proceeding about my merry workshop way with the start of the second semester, until this weekend when I met Kate Roberts from The Educator Collaborative via her recent blog post “The Healthy Skeptic.”

And now I can’t stop thinking about whole class novels. Or the brilliance of Kate Roberts. Or whole class novels. Or nostalgically gazing in the rearview mirror of my career at some whole class novels.

However, it would be disingenuous of me to paint my work with whole class novels, even The Scarlet Letter, with rose-colored glasses (Sorry. Hester has enough to deal with. I shouldn’t try to make this punny). Self-reflection and engaging students in honest dialogue, often reveals that my students, like most students, were experts in the art of fake reading. We were experiencing texts together, in many cases for far too many weeks at a stretch, but few were reading.

So while the merit of the texts in and of themselves might be harder to shake, it was easy to admit that the value to my students was relatively low in comparison to the amount of time we took, form writing we constructed, and smiling/nodding (on a good day) that was had.

I wasn’t teaching the readers, that’s for certain. And if students aren’t reading, I’m not really teaching reading either. We’re unnaturally drawing out the process for avid readers at best, turning young people off to or supporting preexisting negative feelings about reading at worst, and going through the motions far more often than our nation’s tenuous relationship with literacy can afford.

Yesterday, I found myself in a nearby district sitting around a huge conference table with two administrators, one reading specialist, and a dozen or so high school English teachers. I had been asked to come in and talk about Franklin’s experiences with high school workshop as this department weighs their options in moving forward with balanced literacy, daily practice, and all the options to start parting ways with traditional, and explore the unknown. This group of educators had incredible questions, a healthy amount of skepticism I think, and most importantly, a sincere desire to do right by their students.

We talked a lot about the nonnegotiables of workshop, considerations when structuring daily lessons, the difference between engagement and compliance, fake reading, assessment, classroom libraries, and the notion that teaching students to be English teachers leaves far too many students on the sidelines, nodding along or possibly disengaging from reading once and for all.

Mostly we talked about control. How hard it is to let go. How necessary it is to work to balance the power in your classroom. How creating a “reading love fest” as one cross-armed gentleman yesterday suggested, really is the best way I have found to get kids seriously, joyously, consistently reading. Is it a personal savior for every single kid? Sadly, no. Does it solve some problems and create countless more, absolutely. But here is the bottom line in my book: Letting go of some control to hand it over responsibly to the students whose education we are entrusted to support is one giant step toward getting our students to value that education that so many take for granted, can’t afford to really embrace, or think they don’t need for one societal reason or another.

Letting go of some control and embracing the very specific needs of the students can come in many forms. Right now, I’m thinking about how it might impact the selection of a whole class novel.

booklove

This needs to look different and it must be intentional in every class, and my estimation of what my students need is only going to take me so far. Selection of a whole class text must serve the purposes of addressing the specific needs of the students in front of me.

My ninth grade teachers know, from speaking directly with their students, that most read, but don’t necessarily challenge themselves. Additionally, many have had longer texts read to them (excellent!) but have rarely finished a longer piece independently (not good!). In this case, the team feels that starting the year with a pointedly chosen whole class text is needed to really help students see what they can be looking for, thinking toward, and discovering when they read on their own. Many simply don’t have that skill developed deeply enough yet, to really do the type of critical thinking we’re asking them to do. And if that’s the case, the changes that their skills will develop independently are markedly lessened.

At the upper levels, I now have students who have been working in the workshop for over a year. As evidenced by students with books across campus, there is more reading happening now than in years past. However, the push toward challenge is spotty and in some cases, the real depth of understanding when challenge is pursued seems even spottier. In this case, our AP Language classes are considering using Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates to not only tackle some recent unrest in our own school community but to work carefully together to analyze author craft across the main ideas of this dynamic text.

The key is to choose with purpose. To invite student input into that choice. To spend a reasonable amount of time working with the text (3-4 weeks is a general recommendation based on my recent experience and the advice of those far more seasoned than I). To have student-centered goals in mind. To celebrate the text without covering every inch of it, and possibly killing the book AND a student’s hope of becoming a reader in the process.

Our students deserve what our careful analysis of their needs would suggest we best use our limited class time for. The unifying study of a text can be just such an activity. Your professionalism, the unique make-up of your classroom, and the social events/factors that should drive national discourse – these are some of the most important factors in selecting any curriculum; however, the goal should always be the same. We want our students to value the power that comes with better understanding the human experience. Powerful books can take us there. Let’s read them together.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her personal mission statement is a work in progress but needs to involve equal parts readers, writers, thinkers, believers, and dreamers. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

A Reading Conference with Tom Romano

I am fortunate to be on friendly-emailing terms with the great Tom Romano, from whom I’ve learned much about good writing instruction, multigenre, and student voice.

So when I received an email from him the other day, asking for book recommendations, I laughed aloud. My most excellent writing mentor, asking me what to read next?

img_6004

I admit, I balked a little at first. This was like having Tiger Woods ask you what golf club to try next. But then, I fell back on my tried-and-true reading conference strategies, which I’ve used countless times over the years with reluctant and prolific readers alike.

As with any student, I had much of what I needed in order to give a good recommendation between the request itself and my background knowledge of Romano. When students need help finding something to read, we’ll often meet at the bookshelf. As they stare blankly at the wall of books, one of the first questions I ask is:

“What are you in the mood to read?”

Often, students can give me a feeling–something fun, lighthearted, serious, or challenging–or a genre–romance, nonfiction, adventure. It’s even better when they can give me specific titles that relate to their preferences. I usually glean these titles by asking:

“What’s the last book you read that you loved?”

In his request, Romano gave me all the information I needed–he wanted something literary, something like The Nightingale (which I’d read after Lisa recommended it to me), Atonement, or All the Light We Cannot See. He’d also answered another question I usually ask readers:

“What’s your reading plan?”

Knowing where a student will be reading this book–at work in short spurts, at home in long stretches, or on a crowded bus on the way to an athletic event–impacts my recommendation as well. Here, Romano told me he’d be reading for long, uninterrupted stretches of time in airports, so I knew I could suggest something all-consuming.

So, I stuck with my usual formula:

I recommended three titles.

img_6005.jpg

Exit West is a title I’ve heard a great deal about and would love to read, but haven’t gotten to yet; The Secret History is an amazing hidden gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt that I read about 15 years ago; and A Man Called Ove is a new viral title that made me sob hard over Girl Scout cookies and coffee as I finished reading it. My three recommendations usually consist of something old, something new, and something I haven’t read yet.

I wrapped up my pitch as I always do, with a clincher:

A promise of what the book will do for the reader.

A week went by, and last night at 11 pm, I received another email from Romano:

img_6006.jpg

“Loved Ove.”

A successful end to a successful reading conference, if you ask me…but of course, like any other conversation about books, I couldn’t let it end there. I just had to throw in one more recommendation, which I always do for my students when they return a book:

“If you liked that book, you should try ______________.”

This quick exchange of emails, like so many off-the-cuff conversations we have with students, was packed full of powerful data about a reader’s interests and abilities; a teacher’s knowledge of texts and titles, and most importantly, the transaction between the two parties–a shared endeavor to find a just-right book at just the right time.

All our words are imbued with purpose and power when we are discussing literacy. Reading conferences don’t need to be formal, sit-down conversations all the time. They have just as much weight when they’re held standing at the bookshelf, passing in the hallway, or from afar via email. This reading conference with Tom Romano reminds me: never take any of our talk about books for granted.


Do you have a what-to-read conference “formula?” What other titles might you recommend to Tom and me? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is eagerly awaiting the end of flu season so she can go back to work without worrying about her two tiny daughters getting sick…again. When her family is actually healthy, she teaches preservice educators at West Virginia University, goes for long runs while listening to even longer audiobooks, and tweets about reading, writing, and school at @litreader.

%d bloggers like this: