Category Archives: #FridayReads

9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts

This fall is my first out of a high school classroom, and I miss this season of watching teens fall in love with books. I relished the task of matching every kid with the right book, armed with the energy that a crisp autumn morning and a pumpkin spice latte afforded me. By this time in September, I’d usually managed to hook most of my readers, but I had also identified my holdouts–those few skeptics who just didn’t think there was a book for them, who I couldn’t entice with a booktalk, or bribe with a “just try it,” or persuade through a conference.

So, I always turn at this time to the power of social capital, harnessing tools like speed dating with books, book passes, or writings in Red Thread Notebooks, to get my students recommending books to one another.  If I couldn’t hook my holdouts, well, their friends were my last hope.

So, to recommend some titles to hook your holdouts, I decided to ask my former students for their recommendations: what’s the last book you read that really hooked you?  Their responses, via Snapchat, are as follows:


Anna recommended Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of essays that are both scathingly funny and weightily serious about communication between men and women. It’s a great pick for your holdout who doesn’t want something long–he or she can devour one of these essays in no time.


Connor recommends the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This beautiful text, a commentary on race in modern America written in the form of a letter from father to son, “was intriguing because it touched on social justice issues in a way that I could relate to even though I had never had to deal with those issues,” according to Connor. It’s a fantastic, fast read whose subject matter will really draw you in.


Gabi’s recommendation is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a story of twisted justice told by a young, new lawyer. Stevenson’s idealism wars with the machinations of politics and injustice and biases, and is written in a voice that has made many compare the narrator to Atticus Finch. If that doesn’t make your holdouts fall in love, I don’t know what will!


Jocelyn recommends Leslye Walton’s award-winning The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a prose book of fiction that reads more like beautiful poetry. Ava is born with wings, and writes in a voice direct and melancholy–she reminded me of Madeleine from Everything, Everything. And, as Jocelyn notes, the cover is gorgeous, which is sure to help hook your holdouts.


Claire recommends Donna Tartt’s layered novel of accidentally-murderous friends, The Secret History.  Tartt, the Pultizer-winning author of The Goldfinch, introduces us to a group of college students who, through their readings and conversations, begin to fancy themselves above the law–both legal and moral. As Claire says, it’s a brow-wrinkler that’d be great to recommend to a reader you just can’t challenge enough–and its writing is amazing.


Olivia recommends John Green’s Paper Towns, of course!  Recently adapted into a film, it’s the story of a misfit boy who loves a supercool girl from afar, and then is inexorably sucked into her world of adventure in the tale that ensues. John Green is a YA favorite for a reason, and you’re sure to hook some holdouts with the knowledge that the book was big-screen worthy.


Caleb recommends Ashlee Vance’s exceedingly well-written biography, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future. Musk, described as a “real-life Tony Stark,” founded PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and other billion-dollar companies throughout a life filled with both struggle and success. While telling Musk’s tale, Vance compares his work to inventors from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, and entices the reader to wonder whether anyone can compete with geniuses such as Musk in a technology industry as competitive as today’s.


Garrett recommends Hank Haney’s The Big Miss, an inside look at Tiger Woods’ golf game through the eyes of his coach. While Tiger was always a gifted athlete, his mental game made him constantly fear a “big miss”–a wild shot that could ruin an entire round. Haney gives insight into Tiger as an athlete as well as a man, who ultimately committed a big miss in his personal life that derailed his golf game far more than he ever saw coming. This is a great pick for any athlete who’s holding out on reading.


Allison recommends C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a book I equate to a modern version of Dante’s Inferno. The story begins with the narrator boarding a bus, which takes him on a long journey of discovery about himself, great truths, and the nature of good and evil via a trip through Heaven and Hell. Described by many as their “favorite book by C.S. Lewis” (a real feat, since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so colossal in our culture), this allegory will be sure to hook any holdout into some irresistibly deep thinking.

Now that I’ve had my proud-teacher moment of so many of my former students continuing to be lifelong readers (and look at all their actual BOOKS lying around!!!), and significantly expanded my own TBR list, I hope you’ll ask your students to recommend some engrossing titles to help hook your holdouts.

What books are your students recommending to one another? Please share in the comments!

Ugly Cry Round Two – #FridayReads

Hi. My name is Lisa, and I’m a book hugger. “Hi, Lisa…” 

I feel like I can tell you this. Like you’ll understand and still let me sit near, if not at, the cool kids’ table. See, last week I was a dork. This week I’m a book hugger. Is that super dork? Literate dork? Biliophilic dork?

Either way, I’ll own it. That’s totally fine. In fact, if I know myself at all, as I hugged my copy of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale this morning,  my eyes were probably a bit wild too, breath bated, satisfied smile projecting my hope that pens would fly across the pages of our “I want Read” lists. Basically, when I book talk, I feel like the author is standing next to me. “Get them interested, Lisa.  Get them thinking. Sell it. Put my book in their hands, and hearts, and minds.”

So obviously…no pressure.

One of my AP Language students, Zach, smiled as I stood hugging my book today.img_5539 “Mrs.Dennis,” he said with a coy smile, “you’re super emotional.”

Who? Me?

Well…ok. Maybe. I do love a good cry. The “cathartic, wring you out, snot on the back of your hand, tell everyone to read the book” cries are my favorite (Please see my unraveling at the hands of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness). But I know that you know; you’ve been there. Whether the tears actually fall or not (and they should, trust me, it feels great), a book that captures you can feel like a conversation with a good friend, an exploration of pure emotion, and a learning experience that leaves you a better person. Talk about a worthwhile human endeavor.

So, I quickly reflected and responded to Zach’s observation. “True, true. Hallmark commercials make me cry, but with books, that shows a pretty deep connection, doesn’t it? When the characters in a book are so real that you feel their struggle. When their stories remind you of your own, even if their life experiences are completely different from yours. That’s what I want for you. That’s why I’m up here hugging this book. Human connection.”

With further reflection, it’s how I have chosen each of the books I’ve book talked so far this year. No, they haven’t all made me cry, or I know for a fact that I’d be missing a significant portion of my audience; however, they have all been books that have touched me in different ways, to different degrees, and in different parts of my life.

So far this year, I’ve book talked:

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan – This text started my summer reading and while it’s justly won acclaim for it’s themes surrounding racial tension in the south, betrayal, and the secrets that can bury a family, I spoke to my classes about the rich voice Jordan is able to give a wide variety of characters. With a new narrator each chapter, you see this story from all angles and each is more personable and heartbreaking than the next.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I finished this book right before summer break and I book talked it then too. It has quickly become one of my favorites as a cautionary tale and an all too real examination of how gradually, but how drastically people can become complacent to the loss of personal freedom. I took students down a “let’s imagine” path by asking them which events in their daily lives they inadvertently take for granted, but would certainly miss if they were denied the privilege. What if it was the right to have your own money that was denied? Or the right to travel? Or learn?

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – The characters became family to me. I realized that the terrible trials of World War II were occurring when my grandmothers were the same age as the main characters. Just because the pictures of the time period are in black and white, doesn’t mean the stories to come out of that time period are any less real. Or relatable. Or powerful (I hug what I love. I loved this book. It may be my current favorite piece of fiction). My three copies of this book disappeared today. I was tickled.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – This is the first book I read this school year. I took it down in three days and could not stop laughing. I told my students that my connection to this book surprised me, and I think that’s part of the endearing quality of protagonist Junior’s voice. He hooked me with fart jokes. Certainly not my usual forte, but Junior’s search for hope is so real. And as I said to students, we all search for hope in different capacities. Junior searches off the reservation. I search the room during reading time. Just as Shana suggested, reading outside your comfort zone can offer some big rewards.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – We’ve been well over this one. Ugly. Cry.
Though an additional sell, at the moment, is the forthcoming movie based on the book. My students want to take a field trip, but I’ve only committed to investigating the release date, if they get on reading the book. All six of my copies are currently gone from the library shelves. Win.

So, as I wrote last week when I was working to get to know my students, I feel it’s important to share who you are as a person, as much as you share who you are as a teacher, and illustrating you are a reader and writer is a part of that
img_5537-1opportunity/responsibility. With that in mind, showing you are a passionate reader is even more impactful. I feel like my students are getting to know the real me (dork and all). It’s the very best way to start building honest relationships. The kind that build trust, and thereby, community.

I’ve carefully chosen some of my favorite texts to book talk, followed my colleague Catherine’s lead in making my reading life visible, and jumped into this year with the goal of spreading my enthusiasm about books to another set of students through an honest look at what moves me, in a sincere effort to move them.  So far, so good. I just need some extra Kleenex boxes in room.

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone (And Booktalking Beyond It, Too)


Ruthie the Riveted Reader

This summer, I was so overwhelmed by new motherhood that I barely found any time to read.  Instead of my usual 40+ books devoured by the beach, perused over afternoon coffee, or listened to while driving to a summer class, I finished maybe four or five books.  I found myself reading Corduroy, Go Dog Go, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar nearly every night…but I missed the solitude of my own reading life.

When I finally got Ruthie to start sleeping, I was ready (and able) to read again, but I wasn’t sure where to start.  Books that used to hold my attention just didn’t anymore.  So, my husband and I started a little game–I asked him to go pick me any book off our fairly full bookshelves.

After a few weeks of reading, I realized something: he was choosing only what he knew.


Just a snippet of our bookshelves, arranged by genre (Jon always goes for the top left)

He selected for me In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; The Big Short by Michael Lewis; On The Road by Jack Kerouac; The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig; The King of Torts by John Grisham; The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell…are you noticing a pattern?  Jon reads nonfiction, with just a few legal or spy thrillers sprinkled in.  He suggested what he knew.

As I quickly got sick of reading nonfiction (which I faithfully attempted), I started to think about my own booktalks to students last year.  I kept a record of those booktalks on posters that hung on the back wall of our classroom, and I know if I looked at them for genre, I’d find some variety:  poetry, award winners, nonfiction, war stories, thrillers, sports fiction, classics, multicultural literature, and lots of YA.

But you know what I wouldn’t find?

Graphic novels (I only know a few).  Science fiction (beyond the popular dystopian series).  Fantasy (I just can’t keep all the weirdly-named characters straight).  Historical fiction (snooze, good sir).  Horror (I like to sleep at night, thank you very much).

Those just aren’t books I’d pick up on my own.  That means I’m less likely to put them in my classroom library…so I’m less likely to booktalk them…and I’m less likely to reach every student in the room.

Teachers must read beyond our comfort zones.  It’s important that we’re the best readers in the room, as well as the most prolific.  Our students’ reading success depends on our wide knowledge of books.  Conferring–the cornerstone of workshop–does no good if once we know our students we don’t know enough titles to match them to a book.

So, I made it my goal to branch out.  I attempted City of Bones, the first in The Mortal Instruments series, by Cassandra Clare–and I loved it!  Yes, there was talk of daemons and faeries and vampyres and a lot of other stuff with which I was unfamiliar, but I really liked the story.  Next, I tried A Murder in Time by Julie Mcelwain, a historical fiction account of murders in 19th-century England.  Again, I was surprised–I loved it!

Now that I’ve accepted the challenge of reading outside my comfort zone, my next step is to figure out how to learn about good books within genres about which I’m clueless.  I’ll ask students who say they like those genres to fill me in (I remember last year a student was horrified that I’d never heard of Dune by Frank Herbert–“What! It’s like the original science fiction!!”).  I’ll lurk on Goodreads to see what my teacher friends are reading, and I’ll pose the question on Twitter.

I know that if I don’t read outside my comfort zone, I can’t booktalk outside it either–and in that case, I’m disadvantaging students who don’t share my reading tastes.  That’s enough of an impetus to spur me to read something different, but beyond that…a little change is never a bad thing.

What genres are you unfamiliar with?  Share in the comments, and let’s help one another find some great new titles to booktalk this year.

#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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 3.29.59 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.38.47 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.40.19 PM

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.

%d bloggers like this: