Category Archives: #FridayReads

#FridayReads — Picture Books in AP English

Sometimes speakers make you want to write. Last week when I listened to Lester Laminack was one of those times.

The North TX Council of Teachers of English Language Arts one-day conference was one week ago today. As president I had the honor of calling the meeting to order, and looking out at the audience of almost 600 ELA teachers, grades K-12, I could not help but think how fortunate the children in Texas are to have such dedicated teachers, teachers who want to help kids write, teachers who practice writing themselves.

Listening to Lester’s keynote as he talked about his writing process made my memories swirl, and my fingers get itchy.

I was not the only one.

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I left wondering:  What if more teachers stirred that kind of memory moment in the students we want to move as writers?

Picture books have that power. Elementary teachers know this. They read books aloud to little writers. They talk about meaning around moments their students can relate to.

Sometimes I think we secondary teachers forget the power in stories. We forget that seemingly simple things can spark big thinking. I want to remember.

Here’s a list of 15 of the books I will read with my not-so-little writers in the coming year: Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 4.45.37 PM

Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester Laminack

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis

Is There Really a Human Race? by Jamie Lee Curtis

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg

I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen

It’s a Book by Lane Smith

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

The Secret Olivia Told Me by N. Joy

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzburg

And I’ll probably use several of these:  wordless picture books

Please share your suggested titles for picture books you use in your secondary classroom.


Summer Book Giveaway!

Fellow teachers, I have a problem.


A book-buying, grant-writing, donation-receiving, classroom-library-growing problem.

After making it my mission to build a gigantic classroom library, Karnes & Noble has gotten a little…well, out of control.  It has grown to over 3,000 titles, many of which are dog-eared and well-loved, but all of which are wonderful reads.

The problem is, I’ve left the classroom for a while, and…I’ve got wayyyy too many books, and wayyyy too few bookshelves in my tiny townhome.


Luckily, I know a few (thousand) deserving teachers whose students would love these titles.

(Yes, I’m talking about you!)

If you don’t mind the Sharpie-d KARNES emblazoned on their spines, then enter to win one of twenty boxes of books I’m giving away!  Nothing would make me happier than knowing that all of these books will wind up in the hands of students who will fall in love with them.  (I’ll also be happy to have my guest room regain the title “guest room,” rather than its current moniker, “Amazon book storage warehouse.”)

There are five ways to enter the giveaway:

  • Complete this 5-minute readership survey to help us tailor our writing to your needs.
  • In the comments section of this page, leave your name, school name, grade level(s) taught, and a list of the 5-10 most popular titles in your existing classroom library.
  • Like our Facebook page, then post to the page a brief description of one of your favorite reading or writing assignments you do with your students.  (Example: I love the multigenre research paper the best!)
  • Using the hashtag #3TTbooks, tweet us an excerpt (pictures welcome) from a text you might use for a craft study or mentor text, as well as your school name and grade level(s) taught.  (Example: a picture of the first page of Peak by Roland Smith, or a picture of the first page of Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon.)
  • Subscribe to TTT, comment on an old post from which you learned something you loved, and then share that post via Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #3TTbooks.


Feel free to enter as many times as you’d like–you may just wind up with two big boxes of books at your classroom door!

And as a consolation prize, even if you don’t win, you’ll be helping to build–and have access to–a toolbox of assignment ideas, book excerpts, classroom library titles, and other useful resources that will be of eminent use to all of us in the fall.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Three Teachers Talk readers–for getting these books into the hands of kids, and for being with us on our teaching-writing journey every day!

The Right Book May Be an Audiobook

headphones_bookMatching the right student to the right book is at the heart of the reader’s workshop, and lucky for one and all, there are plenty of great books to go around–even for the most reluctant readers.  As a reader’s workshop leader, teachers must be well versed in a variety of genres to do their jobs well:  young adult, nonfiction, and even the classics.  But what about audiobooks?

Admittedly…I’m a book snob.  I was dedicated to paper books for years, until I got married and my early-to-bed husband complained about my reading lamp’s brightness.  Enter my very first e-reader, with which I quickly fell in love.  I reasoned that even though I wasn’t reading a book, per se, I was still reading.  I still wasn’t on board the audio train, though; after all, listening isn’t the same as reading.

Enter my best friend’s move to Virginia Beach, then a 10-hour drive away from our native Cincinnati.  What was I supposed to do for 10 hours whilst driving to visit her?!  “Listen to an audiobook,” she suggested.  “Duh.”  So, I grabbed Thirteen Reasons Why on CD from our library, and (12 hours and a one-state detour thanks to being so caught up in the book that I wound up in Maryland later) I was hooked on audiobooks.

It’s important to note that listening skills are not the same as reading skills, but in the battle to build literacy, one is a scaffold to the other.  While decoding can only happen when a reader is looking at text, the analysis of universal themes, practice of reading strategies, and ability to make connections can happen with any text, written or oral.

“Understanding the message, thinking critically about the content, using imagination, and making connections is at the heart of what it means to be a reader and why kids learn to love books.” –Denise Johnson

Were it not for audiobooks, my own reading life would almost certainly be suffering right now, as I’m so busy and sleep-deprived with an infant, but I love listening to my favorite murder-mystery series in my spare moments.  In countless conferences with my student athletes, I’ve come to realize that their practice and travel schedules keep them incredibly busy on nights and weekends, and audiobooks have helped them remain readers in their busiest seasons, too.

I strongly believe that audiobooks can save, strengthen, and supplement any rich reading life, and as such, I take great pains to recommend this medium to my students, often in the following categories.

51NcMaqTCsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Series – A great way to immediately get students hooked on audiobooks is to recommend a series they’ve already started.  Sequels to titles like The Maze Runner, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Legend, Divergent, City of Bones, and more are great gateways to the world of audiobooks.

Books read by their own authors – Many writers read their own audiobooks, and it’s fascinating to hear the nuances of Michael Pollan’s or Malcolm Gladwell’s writing as he reads it aloud.  The likes of Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Barbara Kingsolver, and even Barack Obama have deigned to offer themselves to readers in audio form.  It’s endlessly fascinating to me to add a new dimension to “reading like a writer” when I listen like one, too.

20910157Humor – Similarly, so many amazing essayists, comedians, and satirists read their own audiobooks.  Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling, Neil Patrick Harris, and more are just a few of the folks whose movies or TV shows I’ve watched, and who’ve then joined me in my car or at the gym in audiobook form.

Challenge Books – Books that for one reason or another–length, difficulty, topic, multiple narrators–are challenging are great candidates for audiobooks.  I don’t think I could’ve made it through Unbroken, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Thinking Fast and Slow, or other lengthy, difficult tomes had I not listened to them rather than read them.  Their tough topics and intimidating lengths would have been much too off-putting for me, and many students find themselves in similar situations.  Audio is my favorite way to scaffold students up to the level of a slightly too difficult text.

Whatever’s always checked out – No one could ever find Winger, Crank, Paper Towns, Because I Am Furniture, My Book of Life By Angel, Boy21, Red Queen, or The 5th Wave this year–they were just way too in demand.  Instead of waiting for those titles to be returned, many students opted to download the audio version instead.

What are your thoughts on the world of audiobooks?  Which titles are your favorite?

#FridayReads & Becoming (Twitter) Literary Critics

I am beat. My students are beat. I know you know exactly how that feels.

In an effort to lighten the mood but keep the idea of books and reading alive, my students and I had a little fun with Donald Trump. Now, it doesn’t matter what you think of the man or his politics, his tweets make pretty good mentor texts.

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I’m not the only one to think so — actually, I got the idea from someone Buzzfeed. Some clever writer put together a list of tweets, written as if Mr. Trump critiqued literature. Brilliant.

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So to have a little end-of-year fun, I asked my students to consider Trump’s sentence structure, and then write their own reviews based on the most recent books they’d read. Really, my only requirements:  a clear tone, but they didn’t have to be mean, and correct spelling and punctuation.

Here’s a few for your reading pleasure. Of course, the review makes the most sense if you are familiar with the books students refer to — I get that not everyone is as versed in YA like they might be the canon.

(Side Note:  To those who say students will never move beyond YA or ‘easy’ reading when it’s all about choice. Um, wrong again.)

What kind of end-of-year fun with books and reading — or anything else– have you had with your students? Please share in the comments.

14 Days to Take It Up a Notch

I keep thinking that if I could consider myself an expert at conferring I might actually feel confident in writing a book about it. Then every once in awhile I hear a voice that tells me that the only way to become an expert at conferring is to write about it. Then another voice says, “Can anyone ever be an expert?”

I think about conferring a lot. I know that when I confer regularly with my readers they read more, and they read better. The same holds true for my writers. The more we talk about the moves they make and the meaning they want to convey, the more they take ownership of their work and confidently work at it.

But the consistency in conferring trips me up a lot.

This week I read in a student’s notebook: “I didn’t take the AP exam because my teacher didn’t make me feel like I was good enough. I know that is a terrible excuse to go off an emotion like that. But it also connects with the reason why I don’t do my homework. I get no educational support from anyone. I feel like I’m a nobody that just exists in school. That’s why I turn to music cause it makes me feel special and important.”

That burned. He knew I’d asked to read it. He wrote that for me.

I flip through the notebook and read poem after poem that reflects this student’s sadness, despair, and thoughts of hurting himself. Of course, I take it to the counselor.

I turn to my conferring notes and see that I’ve conferred with this student as much as my others, but he has never let on he was quite so unhappy. We’ve talked of academics, of books, of English things like reading and his writing. I’ve known he’d been depressed in the past. I thought he was doing better.

Now, I wonder. What if more of my students feel this way? What could I have done differently this year that would have let them know I care more about them as people than as English students?

I could have approached conferring differently, more purposefully, more personally. The irony? I wrote about the need to confer with fidelity here, and my first point is about our students’ need for personal attention.

I have 14 days left with my students this year. Surely not enough time.

I’m still going to try.


And now for the rest of the story.


That evening I went to the bookstore thinking I would buy this boy a book. I was on the hunt for the YA novel Someday This Pain will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, a book I haven’t read yet — but oh, that title.

No copies available.

Then, I saw You are a Badass:  How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.

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Diego:  “…when you feel like you have everything but you are never satisfied” that speaks to me.



The next morning, I scribbled a note inside the cover and called Diego into the hall to give it to him. I told him that I’d read his message and handed back his notebook. We talked a bit, and he assured me that he’d written those poems awhile ago, but he still felt lost at school. I assured him that he was not alone, he needed to believe that every adult in this school cares about him — that’s why we teach here, and the worst thing we could do is take it easy on him because life never will. I gave him the book and watched as he hurried back inside the room and quickly read my note.

I’ll take that smile.

Day 13.


Note:  When I snapped that photo of Diego, one of the girls nearby laughed and said: “Mrs. Rasmussen, taking it up a notch.”

“I’ll be writing about you next,” I said.

Student name and writing used with permission.



Top 10 Books That Will Drastically Change Your Mood

img_1534I don’t know about the weather where you live, but it has been raining cats and dogs for a week here in West Virginia.  Baby Ruth and I are dying to go out for a walk, a coffee, a Target run–anything!!–but the rain is keeping us indoors and we’re feeling rather glum.

Luckily, I have a solution–reading.  It can transport us to other worlds, brighten our days, and alter our moods for the better.  Her little bookshelf is full of great titles by Shel Silverstein, Eric Carle, and other children’s greats, and mine is full of great titles like the ones my awesome student Giulia recommends below.

Giulia made a Top 10 List of books to drastically change your mood when reflecting on her semester’s reading last winter.  She realized that no matter what she was embroiled in–school, work, friends–these ten books could rip her away from reality and change her mood.  So if you’re looking for something to sweep you away, check out Giulia’s list below…and make sure you have these titles in your classroom library!

Giulia’s Top 10 Books That Will Drastically Change Your Mood

71VBpx0qsmLThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is one of the few non-fiction books I’ve read. I was more interested in this non-fiction book because the events that took place in The Glass Castle were completely insane so it seemed more like a fiction book. I think this is why I was more intrigued. This girl went through the majority of her life with the most ridiculous parents. They traveled America and went on all these adventurers that most people would consider insane. One part of the book that really stuck out to me was when this girl was little, she was boiling hot dogs on the stove, BY HERSELF, and something happened where the boiling water spilled down the front of her body and she had third degree burn and scars for the rest of her life.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is one of the rare books where I’ve seen the movie first then read the book, and come to find out that the book was way way way better than the movie. Both the movie and the book made me cry like a baby, but the book was more interesting, obviously. The book is based around a little girl who is growing up in Germany during the Holocaust. She begins to find that she is fascinated with books and does anything she can to get as many books as she can. Her family also faces the fears of hiding a Jew in their basement. Everything that happens in this book seems so fragile to me because I basically get to see this little girl grow up and face the world.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

This book was recommended to me by a friend and usually I like to discover good books on my own, but I decided to read it. It was a nice love story mixed with humor. I love when authors do that. This girl is in high school and her older sister just died so she’s living with her crazy grandma and uncle. She and her sister’s dead boyfriend begin to fall for each other, but they both know it’s a big no no. They finally start to come back to reality and realize that they aren’t actually falling for each other, they are just trying to find comfort in one another. Throughout the entire book, this girl is STRUGGLING to find her way out of a hole she fell in when her older sister died. It’s touching and humorous and I loved every single bit of it.

sun_375wI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This book and the previous book both have the same author, Jandy Nelson. I’m assuming Jandy either grew up with a rather odd family or she has a rather odd imagination because both the families in each of these books are not your typically family. This is one of the first books I’ve read where one of the main characters is gay. It was definitely interesting, but not weird at all. The two main characters are a set of twins, both struggling with the divorce of their parents. One child is a boy and the other is a girl. Basically, they are both trying to get into this really nice art school, but the boy is trying harder than the girl. Throughout their childhood they are super close, like best friends, but as they grow older, there are a couple specific events that happen that tear them apart. This book, while wildly outrageous, was fun to read. It may seem confusing and slow at the beginning, to the point where you might contemplate finishing it, but it was totally worth finishing.

Everyday by David Levithan

I just recently read this book so it is fairly fresh in my mind. I was crazy about this book in the beginning, like I thought this was my favorite book of all time, and then it ended. It was maybe one of the worst endings I’ve ever read, but besides the ending, this book was ridiculously amazing. There were some things that were never answered, but then I keep thinking of how awesome the beginning of the book was and all I can do is fantasize about it. There is a boy and he is currently sixteen, and he wakes up in a different body every day. But there’s a catch. He only wakes up in sixteen-year-olds’ bodies, and it only happens in Maryland. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. On top of all that, he begins to fall for this girl that he only meets one day. He then continues to spend the rest of his “life” trying to find the girl he fell in love with all while trying not to harm any of the bodies that he inhibits. Crazy book, but ridiculously intriguing.

5152478Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

This book actually disgusted me in so many ways, but it was sooo good. These two girls have been best friends for a while, then one of them dies. Before the one girl dies, they make a pact to be skinner than the other… gross. The girl that’s still alive is literally insane. She starts hearing/seeing her dead friend. This girl continues to be as skinny as humanely possible. At one point I think her weight was a little less than 90 pounds, which is extremely poor for your health. She’s just having a hard time dealing with her friend’s death, so she is trying to feel better about herself by working out and eating basically nothing to reach her desired weight. The ending seemed a little rushed, but the rest of the book made up for it. I’ve never, in my life, read a book that seemed so realistic like this before. I didn’t know people like these girls actually existed or that it was so extreme.

Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover

I began to start reading books by Colleen Hoover because I wanted to take a break from some of the harsher books I’d been reading, so any of Colleen’s books are a nice book to read if you want to chill. The majority of them are all romance books, but not the cheesy kind. The main character is a girl who just moved into an apartment with her brother because she has a new job and is attending college at the same time, so she needed some help. Come to find out, her brother’s friend is insanely good-looking, so she is attracted to him immediately. There is something that this boy is hiding from her, but every time she tries to pry it from him, he immediately closes up. Warning: there is an EXTREMELY heart-breaking part in this book where I cried for a good ten minutes before continuing on with the rest of the book. The best part is that the movie is coming out in 2016 and I didn’t even know there was supposed to be a movie! So I’ve already made plans to go see it and determine if it will be as good as the book.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

I read this book shortly after I read Gone Girl, and this book was an intense, short read. I have always been intrigued with the most profuse, disgusting, murderous books I can find, and this book definitely hit that level. This family is based on a girl whose family was murdered when she was a little girl. Everyone in her family is dead except for her, her brother, and her deranged father. She lives by herself because her father fell off the face of the earth and her brother is in prison for supposedly murdering the rest of her family. Ever since she was young, this girl was told to believe that her brother was responsible for the murder of her family, but as she grows older, she begins to wonder whether or not her brother was actually capable of something so insidious. She starts to dig deeper into the history of the murder and discovers the real murderer, along with her family’s mysterious past. This book was simultaneously disgusting and captivating and I love how Gillian Flynn writes.

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Everything I’ve ever read up until the point of reading Gone Girl didn’t matter to me (until I continued reading other books). This book was that good. I mean I’ve never read any type of thriller like this before in my life and I will never forget this book. It wasn’t the shortest book, but I finished it in two days, and that’s quick for me. The book is centered around this man whose wife goes missing and of course, he is the main suspect. He begins to find clues to lead him to his wife’s whereabouts, which become more gruesome as the “scavenger hunt” goes on. I REFUSE to watch the movie because I know nothing can beat the book. It was excruciatingly hard for me to set this book down. While some of the book was rather sexually descriptive and intense, I still loved it. The ending made me mad, but a good kind of mad.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I read this book after I read Dark Places and while I liked this book a little less, it was still amazing. I don’t know how Gillian Flynn comes up with all the insane, nasty events that occur in her books, but it’s all brilliant. This girl is a journalist and lives by herself, but she just heard about a good story to write about back in her hometown, where her deranged mother, father, and younger sister. So she travels back to her hometown and is temporarily living with her family. As she does some research about the murders in town, she starts to link them back to her family. This girl is also not the most stable, so she has a terrible habit of making her body a canvas, and by this I mean she is constantly carving words into her body with any sharp object she can find. While the girl may seem somewhat crazy, it is nothing compared to her mother. One part of the book sticks out to me where the girl was spying on her mother who was taking care of a friend’s baby. When her mom thought no one was looking, the mom bit the baby’s cheek hard enough to draw blood. Obviously, the mother is crazy as well, but everything ties in at the end. The ending is the best part.

What titles do you and your students love that drastically alter your mood?  Please share in the comments!

#FridayReads: Poetry as a Gateway into Reading

Before I started reading novels in verse, I had no idea how important they would be to the readers in my classroom. So many of my students who say they hate reading will read these books of poems that tell a story. (Chasing Brooklyn is one of the girls’ favorites. The Crossover, of course, is one of the boys’.)

This week, Sung, one of my quiet students from Myanmar, asked for a recommendation for her next book. She reads far below that of an 11th grader in an AP class, but she’s tenacious and determined to catch up to her peers. She and I have focused on her fluency since the beginning of the year when in our first conference I learned she could read all the words in a novel, but she understood little of the meaning. (Similar to my ELL student who read every word of The Great Gatsby last year without comprehending any of it. This was before I clued in to her need to save face with their peers.)

“I am reading,” Sung said, “but I don’t know what’s going on.”

I’ve heard this before, and I always celebrate when my readers let me in on this secret. (It takes guts to be vulnerable, especially at 16.) In talking with high school students who struggle with reading, I’ve learned they usually have no idea why. Most of them think they are slow or dumb — or they simply claim reading is boring or dumb because it’s easier to say that than admit reading is hard.

The hard part for me is teaching them to read. My degree is in literature after all, and my Masters in Secondary Ed did little to prepare me for the adolescent reading crisis I face every day. So I teach reading by getting students to read. I talk to them about their reading and get them talking to me about their thinking.

8537327Sung had just finished her 8th novel in verse, her favorite so far, Inside Out and Back Again. As I conferred with this reader, she told me she wanted to try something more challenging that was a ‘real’ novel. What she meant was a story with more words on the page. (Last year I caught one of my ELL students at the book shelf flipping through books. When I asked him why, he said he could tell if he could understand it depending on the “thickness of the words.”)

I walked to my “Explore: It’s Your World shelf” and pulled a few books I thought Sung might like:  Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, In Darkness by Nick Lake, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, a book of short writings by various authors about human rights, published in association with Amnesty International, and several other titles I cannot remember now.

Then, I gave her time to explore.

A few minutes later, Sung held two books in her hands and quietly told me she wanted to read them both. She left the room with Karen Hesse’s award-winning book and the anthology of stories by writers like these: Paulo Coelho, Yann Martel,  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ishmael Beah, and more. These are not difficult books. They are not complex. They are way too easy by most high school standards. But they are exactly what this young woman needs to not only grow in confidence as a reader, but to grow as a citizen of her world.

And an interesting insight? Quite often it takes more inferencing skills to understand the story in a novel in verse than it does with a story written in prose.


For a list of other novels and verse, see this post.

Here’s a highlight from my most recently read novel in verse, Audacity by Melanie Crowder. I think it will make a nice quickwrite at the beginning of the year as we build a reading community:

alight  22521938

I passed my Spelling

and Mathematics exams!


I hurry after work

to the free school

to check the schedule

for the next round:



And Trigonometry.


The thing that separates

rich from poor

in this world

is knowledge.

A person can rise up


if she can read

if she can think

if she can speak.


I cannot attend

every class

every lecture

but if I share what I learn

with the girls in my shop

in between bites

during lunch


ff Pauline shares

with the girl in her shop

in between bites

during lunch

it is as if we all

Were there together.


I see

these lunchtime lessons

spreading like fire

skipping from one box of tinder

to the next

across the shops

through the slums

until the entire city is alight

with small

fierce-burning flames.

Reading Challenges for Growth, Connection, and Reflection

My students complete a reading ladder at the end of each quarter, during which they reflect on their reading from that nine weeks, write about the texts they read, and set goals for the following quarter.  When I read first quarter’s reading ladders, almost every student said one of their goals was to challenge themselves either with a book in a new genre or a more difficult length/writing style/topic.

So, I challenged them formally during second quarter to read a book outside their comfort zone, then write an essay that showed me that process.  I love Jak’s essay about his chosen challenge book–Cut by Patricia McCormick.  While this text is short and not full of especially difficult vocabulary, it challenged him because of its topic–self-harm and depression.  His essay is full of voice, text evidence, and text-to-self connections.  It’s a strong piece of writing that helped Jak reflect on his reading of this book, and is just one of many authentic alternatives to a traditional method of reading assessment.


“A Challenging Cut” by Jak McMillen

Ready, Tropics? 1, 2, 3! LET’S GET TROPI—actually, let’s get dark for a moment. Let’s talk about Patricia McCormick’s Cut, a challenging and rough look into the mind of a depressed teen named Callie. Cue synopsis mode! To get into this mindset, Callie cuts herself. Never too deep, never enough to die, but just enough to feel the pain. Because she cuts, she’s been placed in Sea Pines, a treatment facility where everyone has a problem in one way or another. The only problem with Callie here is that she doesn’t speak, and for the most part refuses to throughout the book. Okay, synopsis mode over.

Now, Karnes, I’m assuming you have grown tired of the banter and have asked, “Well, how does this challenge you?” I’ll answer that shortly. In my essay earlier typed this year Of Mice and Misery, I cited one particular moment of my life that still affects me to this day, that of which being my father’s unfortunate passing. Now, my shell opens up more through this essay to share some of the past that I hold back.

Throughout my schooling years, I’ve found myself growing more and more tired of everyday tasks, even so far as just waking up and dressing myself. I could even use yesterday as an example: I had already felt like nothing more than dust the night before, which carried over to the next day. After coming back from MTEC the feeling was still there and unexplained, just as Callie’s feelings through the first parts of Cut. For me this is a culmination of years upon years of dark and harrowing thoughts of self-harm, and unfortunately at some points, even thoughts of suicide. Over the years of therapy some of these thoughts are still here. Now… I know that you probably didn’t want, nor did you need, to read that information, but I had to be relatable somehow, right?

41jIgmsYB+LAfter breaking her silence to her therapist, in their time between pages 122-125, Callie exposes her scars and tells what she uses. At one point in this segment, she says “Guess I’ll never wear a strapless ball gown,” from which I related in my own thoughts as feeling like I would never be good enough. Callie’s thoughts—as well as my own, but not in the book of course—were at most unexplained until later in the text. Cut took a vast amount of effort to read, and for this I praise McCormick for putting the amount of effort she did into writing this title.

When I read this title, it hit very close to home, and still does. I guess that’s why it’s such a challenge for me to read. Also, for the love of all that is holy, please do not take this as a cry for help or a sob story. I’ve moved on mostly and do not need any more sympathy than I’ve already received. Do know that it is much appreciated though! In closing I would like to say something Callie said once: “I may not want to get rid of my scars. They tell a story.”

How do you encourage your students to make personal connections to their reading?

#FridayReads: Required Reading “Our Students Want to Write”

Confession:  I buy a ton of pedagogy books. I rarely read them all the way through. I blame it on my blossoming OCD. I can only take in so many ideas before I run out of space in my head to hold them all long enough to use them.

412bcpby4iol-_sx326_bo1204203200_That is not the case with this classic, suggested to me by my friend and mentor Penny Kittle, Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray.

I remember when Penny recommended it. She was in the DFW metroplex teaching a workshop, and I’d asked if we could meet up and talk about my writing. She graciously agreed, and we met at a Starbucks inside a Target. As always, Penny radiated positive energy. She told me about the work she was doing with Kelly Gallagher. I told her about my struggle trying to write a book, a book I am still trying to write.

I still cannot believe I had a writing conference — yet again — with Penny Kittle! (My first was during her class at The University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute the summer of 2013.)

At one point in our conversation, Penny paused and asked if I had read Don Murray’s book Learning by Teaching. I said no. At the time I hadn’t read any of his books, but I’d heard Penny talk about Murray with such affection, quoting him often. I knew this was a book I need to not just purchase, but one I needed to read. I’ve read and re-read and marked page after page.

Don Murray validates the moves I make in my workshop classroom, the moves I make


My thinking while reading the essay “The Process of Writing” by Donald M. Murray


when planning instruction for my AP Language and Composition course. I have learned from those who learned from Murray, and his work reminds me again and again why teaching with student choice in mind works. Every time I feel like I fail, every time I get frustrated with the way an assignment flopped, or I didn’t reach a certain student what I’d hope to teach him, I turn back to this book of essays by Murray. (I did this recently after most of my students bombed an assignment, which was mostly my fault.)

Here’s an excerpt from Murray’s essay titled “Our Students Will Write –If We Let Them” published in North Carolin English Teacher, Fall, 1977. I probably break a copyright law by sharing, but I’ll risk it if it means freeing more writers. (See more about freeing writers in Penny Kittle’s piece “What We Learn When We Free Writers.”)

Our students want to write — but not what we want them to write.

Our students want to write of death and love and hate and fear and loyalty and disloyalty; they want to write the themes of literature in those forms — poetry, narrative, drama — which have survived the centuries. They want to write literature, and we assign them papers of literary analysis, comparison and contrast, argumentation based on subjects on which they are not informed and for which they have no concern.

We should see that their desire to write proves the vitality and importance of literature and literature-making in each generation, that language is central to the human experience, not just as a communications skill but as the best way to recall and understand experience. We tell our students the unexamined life is not worth living, yet we seldom allow those students to examine their lives firsthand through what is termed creative writing.

It is time that we, as a profession, not only support the reading of literature but the making of literature; that we encourage our students to write what they want to write and realize that what they want to write is more intellectually demanding, more linguistically challenging, more rhetorically difficult than the writing we usually require in the English class.

The biggest problem in the teaching of writing is ourselves. We do not encourage, allow, or respond to our students’ desire to write. We do not believe that our students can write anything worth reading, and they prove our prediction. Conditions will not improve until we realize that what we face is a teacher problem, not a student problem.

There are many important reasons to consider taking what is usually tolerated, at best, in the elective creative writing course and placing it at the center of the writing curriculum. Some of them are:

  • Writing about individual human experience motivates both the gifted and those we often consider disadvantaged. In fact, we may find that the disadvantaged aren’t in terms of experiences which can be explored through writing. Students who are not motivated by our lectures on the need for writing skills–they know the need does not exist in the lives they expect to live–still share the human hunger to record and examine experience. Students who are bored with papers of literary analysis or even incapable of writing such a paper at this state in their development may be able to write extraordinary papers based on first-person experience.
  • Students discover…that they have a voice, they have a way of looking at their own life through their own language. They discover and learn to respect their own individuality.
  • Through writing, the student increases his or her awareness of the world, and then works to order that awareness.
  • As students follow language towards meaning they extend and stretch their linguistic skills.
  • The experience-centered, doing nature of the writing curriculum will reach many students who are not comfortable with the analytical passive-receptive nature of the typical academic curriculum.
  • Creative writing gives students a new insight to literature. The study of literature is no longer entirely a spectator sport, but an activity which they can experience and appreciate.
  • The creative writing class may be the place where some students learn to read. Test results in many community colleges and other colleges of the second chance show that many students who test as not being able to read are also the best writers. They are able to read their own words and to perform the complex, evaluative techniques essential to revision. They learn to read by writing.
  • Students and teachers of creative writing rediscover the fun of writing. Art is, at the center, play, and perhaps that is the reason it is so little tolerated in the school. If it is fun can it be learning? Yes.
  • Finally, we should teach creative writing because it is more intellectually demanding than the study of literature or language as they are usually taught in the English class. This runs directly counter to the stereotype believe by most English teachers. IT is easier to complete a workbook on grammar, easier to tell the teacher what the teacher wants to know about a story than it is to use language to make meaning out of experience. The writing course is a thinking course, and it should be central to the curriculum in any school.

There is more. I believe Murray’s writing, like Penny’s books Write Beside Them and Book Love, should be required reading for every English teacher. I wish they would have been required reading in my education classes. For the first few years of my career, I struggled like many teachers I know with student engagement and learning while I taught literature instead of readers and writers. (Someday I’ll write about the Dickens I subjected my 9th graders to. It’s a sad sad tale of student, and teacher, woe.)

And someday I’ll finish this book I’m trying to write. I think Don Murray would want me to.

What books do you think should be required reading for all English teachers? I’d love to read your suggestion in the comments.


YA Fiction That’s Funny and Full of Voice

After millions of snow days, my student teacher, Mike, and I are finally wrapping up our Siddhartha self-reflection unit and jumping into a new writing unit I’m really excited about–comedy!  We’ll study satire, sketch comedy, stand-up, commentary, and monologues for mentor texts, then work with our students to craft strong comedy writings that exemplify the skills of pacing, payoff, “punch-up,” and one other skill that I think is the most important:


Writing voice, for me, is where humor, sarcasm, and personality come alive in a piece of writing.  “Voice,” Tom Romano writes, “is the writer’s presence on the page.”  Voice is the most elusive quality of writing to teach, I think, because it’s not really quantifiable and cannot be duplicated or imitated.  Each writer must craft his own authentic voice.


Brainstorming the bare bones of a comedy unit

While discussing the very bare bones of our comedy unit, we brainstormed mentor texts, seed prompts, and writing skills.  After we hammered those out, Mike wondered about which books to booktalk for the unit.  “Nonfiction comedy is easy,” he said.  “Bossypants, Yes Please, Confederacy of Dunces.  But I’m not sure what to booktalk for fiction.”

“But YA fiction is so hilarious!” I exclaimed.  I started rattling off narrators who cracked me up.  Their writing voices were the perfect mentor texts for our students, who’d be focusing on crafting a humorous writing voice over the course of the unit.

“Looks like I know what I’ll be brushing up on for my weekend reading,” Mike remarked.  So here, in part, is a list of what I recommended to him–YA fiction that’s funny and full of voice.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — This novel, paired with illustrations by the narrator, is loosely based on Alexie’s own upbringing somewhere between two identities–his poor Indian self who lives on the rez, and his striving-to-succeed “white” self who attends a better school up the road.  It’s infused with Alexie’s signature wry humor even against a pretty dark plot backdrop.

49750An Abundance of Katherines by John Green — This is, to me, the funniest of Green’s novels, although all of his narrators are pretty hilarious.  Colin Singleton has dated 19 girls named Katherine, and has been dumped by all of them.  If that’s not funny enough as it is, Colin is trying to write a mathematical formula for relationships and likes to find anagrams in random places.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by e. lockhart — For me, Frankie is the female version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  Determined to subvert the male-dominated traditions at her private school, Frankie gets into all kinds of mischief, and I loved her headstrong voice.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang — This excellent graphic novel pairs multiple storylines, all of which are made hilarious primarily through dialogue and stylistic choices in Yang’s illustrations.  From antagonists so dumb they’re funny to Yang’s monkey alter ego, this is a humorous look at growing up different in America.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins — I identified so much with the quirky narrator of this novel.  Forced to change schools right before her senior year, Anna is self-deprecating, sarcastic, and delightfully bewildered when she moves to the International School of Paris.  There’s also a great cast of hilarious supporting characters here.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — I just loved Willowdean, the narrator of this terrific, important novel.  Most of her snide comments are made through internal monologues, but her interactions with her mom through dialogue are also quite funny, too.  Like Part-Time Indian, there are some heavier themes, but all in all I smiled throughout most of this book.

9464733Beauty Queens by Libba Bray — An all-girls’ Lord of the Flies, this book was fantastic for a variety of reasons.  The colorful cast of alternating narrators means there’s someone every reader can identify with, the interactions between those characters are often ridiculous and hysterical, and interwoven with it all is a series of broadcasts from a corrupt third party who are so evil it’s funny.

Noggin by John Corey Whaley — I finally read this book after it was stolen from my library countless times, and it’s hilarious from page one.  The story of a boy whose head is transplanted onto another teen’s body after he dies of cancer, Travis’ tale is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious as he tries to navigate the world five years after he last left it.  A fantastic series of supporting characters elevated the humor in this book for me, too.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews — For me, this was a more realistic version of The Fault in Our Stars.  I found Greg’s writing voice engaging and entertaining right away, and it made me read this book in one sitting.  His frequent addresses to the reader combined with his hilarious interactions with his friend Earl made Greg a favorite narrator of mine, and makes me eager for Jesse Andrews to write some more books!

Winger by Andrew Smith — All of Andrew Smith’s writings are hilarious at times, but for me Winger was the funniest.  Ryan Dean West is a scrappy fifteen-year-old making his way through freshman year at a private school, and his escapades with his rugby teammates, his crush, and his teachers made for a lot of laughs–up until I completely broke down in sobs for the last 30 pages or so of the book.  Still, Ryan Dean’s voice was so great that I couldn’t wait to devour this book’s sequel, Stand-Off.

What are some of the best-voiced YA books you’ve read that have cracked you up?  Please share in the comments!

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