Category Archives: Classroom Library

Our Friends the Books Are a Way Back

As I’ve scrolled (endlessly, too much, really) through Twitter recently, I’ve stumbled across some teachers (even Carol Jago!) admitting how hard it has been to read as of late. This is understandable, especially so when many of our typical access points for reading are a barrage of news and opinions and stories of COVID-19. 

As for me, amidst the social distancing and the so many unknown’s, I’ve turned to my first and truest friends: books. When friendships proved difficult and sometimes elusive growing up, many adults in my life offered me books. Books provided companionship that taught me much about my own humanity and the humanity of others. Perhaps that’s why I’ve reached for books now and why I’m using them to connect in my home and to all of you. 

I’m including in this post a book that I am buddy reading with my fifth grader; books that my fifth grader has recently read; and books that I have read or am reading. There are friends that give me ways to share stories and grow with others. There are friends that challenge me, stretching what I’ve known into what I can know and become. There are friends that are old, inviting me back into their pages so that I can find solace and laughter. There are friends that will help me find my way back to all of you when next we socially convene. 

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 2.39.22 PMMy fifth grader and I are currently reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. According to the eleven year old (11yo): “I think it gives a really good idea of the history of racism and anti-racism, even though, as Jason Reynolds says, it is NOT a history book.” When I asked my 11yo what it does, he explained that it goes through every detail from the earliest period on and tells a really good story through it. Although we aren’t finished yet, he would recommend it to other kids and adults because “it shows how bad people have been.” One example is what happened to Black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment: “they were kicked out of the army and some of them had been falsely accused of killing a bartender and wounding a police officer. These soldiers had been the pride of Black America and had done much for their country.” I recommend it as well, for fifth graders to adults. Jason Reynold’s remix of Stamped from the Beginning uses a conversational tone that shifts to sarcasm at just-right points to reinforce the gravity of the history and perspective shared. 11 yo and I take turns reading, and I ask him follow up questions. I wish I had this book to challenge and expand my worldview at his age. Yet, here we are, growing together.

 

Two other books the 11yo has read recently include Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid and Nic Stone’s Clean Getaway. About New Kid, it focuses on seventh grader Jordan Banks who gets sent to a private school where all the students there are white, and it shows how hard it is to fit in when you are different than everyone else. The graphic novel makes it engaging, especially where it “includes parts from Jordan’s notebook” (11yo thought this was cool!) that he keeps to process what he experiences at school. New Kid is recommended too. Clean Getaway, in 11yo’s estimation, “tells the story of a kid who sneaks away and ends up on a road trip to Mexico with his grandma, where he learns more about his grandpa and his past on the journey. There are lots of surprises throughout and the pictures and point of view of Scoob make it exciting and fun to read.” Each of these books helps 11yo explore and engage with different perspectives. 

 

Two books I’ve read recently, in addition to reading Stamped, continue to challenge me to be a better human: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.  Just Mercy tells the story of the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative and its work to seek justice and mercy for those whom our system and policies consistently fail. I appreciate its call to action–that “all of us can do better for one another. The work continues.” In How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi interweaves his own story with critical history to distinguish between racist, assimilationist, and antiracist, culminating in a powerful analogy, one that should inspire us to do better. Both books are accessible to high school students and would be excellent reads for AP Language, AP Government, or AP US History classes. 

And, I’ve found myself thumbing through old favorites like Mary Oliver’s poems from Red Bird (and her other volumes), which remind me to look to the birds, look to the brilliance of their energy, look to all that’s thriving as spring blooms. Your students might respond to Spring, The Sun, Red Bird–each with their own light. When I’ve needed a laugh I reach for Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, excerpts of which you can find  here; the stories about the birthday cake and the dinosaur costume spark laughter for their graphic depictions as well as the persistence of the young Allie Brosh and the insistence of her memories.  I’ve found needed solace by re-reading J.K. Rowling’s(okay, and maybe watching the movie, too) Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, resting in Dumbledore’s assurance that “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Perhaps, as you connect with your students in the days ahead you will consider sharing the words on which you lean.

 

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Finally, in my ever-expanding curiosity about instructional coaching, I chose to read Jim Knight’s Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other To Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected. I appreciated the simple statement that “When trust exists, there is learning, joy, and love,” and this point seems most poignant as I think about connecting, face to face, sans screen. It won’t be just about physical closeness, but emotional, too.

Books remain steadfast friends, the friends I have that will lead me back to all of you, a better person, ready to do the work alongside you. 

Kristin Jeschke is, besides a reader, a mom to an eight year old and an eleven year old, who are also readers. That is to say, books are among our dearest friends. She also serves as an Instructional Coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

AP Lang Students Read a Variety of Texts: Student Voice and Student Choice Increase Both Volume and Love of Reading

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The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights; Where the Crawdads Sing; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Blink; The DaVinci Code; How to Stop Time; Thinking Fast and Slow; Girls and Sex; One Hundred Years of Solitude; There is No Me Without You; Dark Money; Deception Point

I recently asked my eleventh grade AP Language and Composition students to share with each other their “favorite” books from the school year. I explained to them that they didn’t have to choose just one, and they didn’t have to pick the top book of the year if they couldn’t decide. They just had to list some favorites. They were happy to oblige!

The variety of topics and genres was a lot of fun to see on the list.

Some of the nonfiction that was popular wasn’t necessarily a surprise. I’ve loved some of these titles, too.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last summer and loved it so much that I bought four copies for my classroom library. I thought it was a great book for many reasons – it appeals to students who love science, history, ethics, and great writing. Several of my students have read it this year, and it made the list of favorite books.

One of my students read Inventing Human Rights during the first half of the year, and she’s still not over it. She went on to read A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she was feeling inspired.

Another one of the titles that I have heard several students talk about this school year is Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

 

Because of their interest and thoughtful conversation about this book, I ordered a copy of Orenstein’s new book, Boys and Sex for next year’s new classroom library books.

 

AP Lang titles

The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights

My students aren’t just reading nonfiction, even though that is the primary focus of AP Lang.

Congo and The Firm are some classic thrillers that some students have nearly inhaled, they’ve read them so quickly. All the Missing Girls is a more current well-loved title, and it’s not just a thriller; it’s written so the timeline is backwards, which makes it a bit more complicated to follow, and I love that my students are tackling this kind of challenge.

Another work of fiction that doesn’t ever seem to be on my shelf – it’s always checked out – is Crazy Rich Asians. I made sure to order another copy as well as the rest of the trilogy, so next year I’ll have some happy students.

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There are quite a few titles that have made the list of favorites, and most of them are from my classroom library rather than our main school library. I truly believe that the immediacy of availability along with the daily book talks are what have made these books interesting and intriguing enough to my students that they try them out, take them home, and declare them as favorites.

Immediacy of availability along with awareness of their existence, plus the expectation and option of student choice become a powerful combination. Authentic readers like wildly different texts sometimes, and other times love the same titles, but are ready for them at different times. The poster with the titles is helpful for this because students can find recommendations as they are ready for them, and can choose their own timing.

The fact that sixteen and seventeen-year-old students have favorite titles makes me happy. The fact that these titles are smart, thoughtful, and challenging is even better.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Confessions of a Grown-Up Fangirl

I have finally discovered the cure for a story hangover.

You know the feeling I mean–turning the last page of a book, watching the final scene in a movie, knowing that the work of the creator is done when it comes to the characters and worlds you’ve come to love.

I’ve been known to enter depressions when I get to the end of a beloved book series (Harry Potter, notably), TV series (Bones wrecked me), or classic novel re-read (Pride and Prejudice still upsets me when it ends). But recently, like many in the Star Wars fandom, I was emotionally ravaged by the conclusion of The Rise of Skywalker.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the ending of the film (I didn’t); I was also distraught that the nine-movie space opera that spanned 40 years had come to an end.

So, I did what I always do when I’m just not ready for a story to end–I turned to fanfiction.

And I certainly wasn’t the only one–there were thankfully already thousands of stories to read, with no shortage of choices when it came to theme, characters, length, or writing style.

So for weeks now, I’ve continued to immerse myself in the Star Wars world I love, and I’m just now coming up for air. The difference in my emotions is remarkable, as it’s now my choice to exit the story’s universe, rather than it being dictated by a non-negotiable end to a film (in which I left the theater sobbing).

After reading pretty much every “fix-it fic” (fics that seek to change the ending to a more palatable one), I realized that there were still some details I wanted to read about that I couldn’t find in any published stories (like, hello, that Death Star scene should have had much more dialogue!).

So I did basically the nerdiest thing in my life and started writing fanfiction.

Writing stories using someone else’s established characters and worlds was shockingly easy, even though I’ve never really tried to write fiction before. And because of the community of kind and voracious readers in the world of fanfiction, I didn’t even hesitate to hit publish on my stories, which began with notes about how new I was to the writing side of things.

The comments, kudos, and hits kept me motivated to write like nothing else could. I wrote a few short stories that were self-contained, but couldn’t help starting a longer story that I could only write a chapter of at a time. Having readers comment that they were desperate for the next chapter spurred me to write in the early morning hours before school.

In talking with my students, I am constantly shocked by how many of them have had similar experiences–they read and write fanfiction about their favorite books, movies, TV shows, video games, and even musicians and artists. “Fanfiction is always there for me,” my former student Victoria recently told me.

I hope to nudge more students toward reading and writing fanfiction in my classroom, as it’s a wonderful way to grow as a writer and reader. In the meantime, I’ll continue my own reading and writing journey as an enthusiastic, unapologetic, grown-up fangirl.

Shana Karnes teaches 9th graders in Madison, Wisconsin. When she’s not geeking out with her students about literacy, she’s reading with her cats, writing with her coffee, or telling stories to her two young daughters. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

How To Break Up With Your Phone

I have told every student I know about How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. I’ve also told my friends, family, and actual strangers in the grocery store. Today, I want to tell you about this book.

Price, a health and science journalist, began writing this book only after she felt compelled to break up with her own phone (she writes about this moment with poignancy here).

As I write this, twenty teens are in front of me in a study hall. Of them, ten are studying or working on projects for another class. Three are gossiping. The other seven have their heads bent, phones in hand, screens scrolling. When I ask students what they do on their phones, they tell me–Instagram, YouTube, games. Passive apps that require no interaction and which don’t provide much “content” for absorption.

When pressed further, one student told me she was a little shocked to realize she’d never thought about what it was she actually did on her phone–it was just a reflex.

Too many of us do the same thing. I worry about the impacts of this habit on our society in terms of interpersonal interaction (read Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle or The Shallows by Nicholas Carr if you’re as fascinated with this topic as I am), but I also worry about it as a teacher of readers and writers.

A passage from Price’s chapter on attention span gets to the heart of digital vs. print reading:

If you’ve noticed that reading a book or printed newspaper doesn’t feel the same as reading the same material on your phone or computer, you’re not crazy. It’s not the same.

When we read a book or the paper, most of the distractions we encounter are external… This leaves our brains with plenty of available bandwidth to think about and absorb what we’re reading. …

But when we read on a phone or computer, links and ads are everywhere. …when mental fatigue causes us to give in to our brains’ natural preference for distraction…we reinforce the same mental circuits that made it hard to sustain our focus to begin with. We get better at not staying focused.

How to Break Up With Your Phone, pp. 56-58

The implications of this are massive. As more and more English departments shift to online textbooks, and as more and more of our students have a phone in their pocket, it becomes much more difficult to sustain attention to anything, let alone the habit of deep reading. A generation of distracted, solitary young people is being born before my eyes.

I fully look forward to a generation of young people who chooses to reject the addictive lure of mindless technology use–which, perhaps, I can help speed along by throwing this book at every teen I see–but until then, I’ll keep sharing what I’ve learned from this book with everyone I know in an effort to get them to break up with their phones.

Shana Karnes is working on breaking up with her own phone by making more frequent trips to her local library in Madison, Wisconsin. Reading print books before bed and in spare moments leaves her feeling more relaxed and intellectually productive at the end of a busy day filled with teens and her two small children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

A #FridayReads Come back

How could I forget?

I just remembered I used to celebrate #FridayReads with my students. Every week, after independent reading time, we’d talk about our books, maybe tweet a selfie with them, maybe imitate a favorite sentence. It was probably a Friday when we wrote book reviews in the form of haikus. It was a Friday when we became literary critics. That one was epic.

This year we’ve been having Friday discussions. Reading, talking, listening. That’s worked well — we’ve explored many interesting and important issues — but I completely forgot about doing more with our books. Dang it.

No wonder my students are not reading as much as they have in the past.

I won’t play the What/If game, but it’s staring at me in with weary eyes.

This morning I read about the 2019 National Book Award winners, and while I haven’t read any of them, yet; I gulped at the beauty of these lines, shared by one of the winners as she spoke of her mother–

“As a child, I watched her every move, seeing her eyes fall upon every word everywhere — encountered in the grocery store, on a bus, pamphlets, the package labels, my high school textbooks. She was always wolfing down words, insatiable — which is how I learned the ways in which words were a kind of sustenance, could be a beautiful relief or a greatest assault.”

Words. A beautiful relief or a greatest assault.

On this Friday, I think we will start here. We’ll write in response to this idea:  How are words both a relief or an assault?

Then, we’ll explore books — in anticipation, and hope, that just maybe one of my readers will fall in love with words.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large high school in North Texas. She’s still working on building her classroom library to its former glory, and knows she needs to read more herself if she wants to get every student into a book they will love. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

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I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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