Category Archives: Re-Turn and Talk

Five Ideas That Beat the Dread: A Return

Three Teachers TalkThank you for joining us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year! Don’t forget to please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section one last time.

Amy Rasmussen’s back-to-school post from 2018 will help you frame your school year positively and “beat the dread.”


A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go-to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

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The Magic of the 100-Word Memoir: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

Katie’s post in 2018 details the 100-word memoir, a workshop-ready writing activity students learn much from.


We (my teaching partner, Mariana, and I) never questioned the value of the 100-word memoir, the first piece we would take through a full prewriting – drafting – revision process with our students. After all, it’s what Penny and Kelly do in 180 Days. Need we any better reason? No. Turns out, though, there is major added value we hadn’t realized about this little genre as the first text we ask of our students. (My guess is Penny and Kelly knew, but didn’t have space to elaborate in the book.)

So, here are the values and beliefs that our experience of the 100-word memoir brought to light, mostly after the fact:

1. Short pieces offer even the most reluctant writers a sense of accomplishment. Those writers who need more time than their classmates — and we all see them right away — turned in their notebooks with a complete draft within the allotted time frame. Every single student turned in a complete draft (even if the rest of their notebooks were still in progress). Just a guess, but an early sense of “I can do what’s being asked of me in this class” can set a tone of that invites rather than excludes.

2. The value of re-vision in its truest sense becomes apparent, even palatable. I’m sure we are all used to the experience of reading a student draft that gets to any substance only at the very end, close to the word count. With the 100-word memoir, more students than I can count on two hands (out of 83 total) saw this in their own writing. They were not only willing to but intent on rewriting. Questions went from “Is it good enough if I just fix …?” to “If I’m rewriting the whole thing, should I do that in my notebook first?”

3. Students begin to understand their own processes as writers. The above questions naturally led to a class discussion of the difference between meeting a teacher’s requirements and cultivating good writing. Even my youngest students (sophomores) are mature enough to understand the value of knowing themselves as writers. “Do you prefer to rewrite the draft by hand? Or will you ‘revise’ as you retype the draft into a document?” The offer of that respect to them as real writers was a major trust builder at this critical early moment in the year. The concept of writing conferences is still alien for most students. But when they called for a one-on-one conversation about whether another “first” draft was required if they were completely rewriting, a conversation opened up about their own process. Doing so, I had the opportunity to point out we were in the midst of a writing conference right then. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic (no one has ever accused me of such a stance) to imagine that any trepidation a student had about a writing conference with me was at least a little dispelled — and I made sure that fellow writers at that table who were conspicuously keeping their heads in their notebooks heard that, too.

4. Students writers can benefit by learning the art of DELETING. Kristin Jeschke writes thoughtfully here about the value of teaching students to be incisive. Our 100-word memoirs aren’t long enough for us to do literal paper-cutting (or are they … hmm), but the practice of incision with a short piece can instill this habit early on. In Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder discuss — among other innovative cross-curricular ideas — the notion of “creative constraints.” I’ve pretty much fallen in love with this phrase in place of language resembling “criteria” or “learning targets” (and the meanings can conveniently satisfy the paperwork of performance evaluations). The phrasing helped students to see “criteria” as a creative challenge: at best, inspiring and at worst, less arbitrary than some assignment “criteria” can be. AND, as Mariana pointed out, inevitably our seniors must cure the logorrhea in their college essays, and the 100-word “creative constraint” gives them practice.

Coulda3Usually my own post-lesson, reflection phase is a litany of all that I could have, should have done. How refreshing, then, to reflect in a way that identifies value beyond what we’d hoped. What an affirmation that our practice recognizes beliefs we hadn’t even seen.

I have no intention of giving up my private, critical post-practice litanies. But the experience of the 100-word memoir lowered the volume of that familiar, reproachful teacher-self. At least for a day or so.

Imitating Poetry: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

Shana’s post in 2015 is a mini-lesson how-to for introducing writers to the process of imitating poetry.


Reading more poetry with my students has been a goal of mine these past few years, and it’s been a goal I feel has been readily achieved with ideas like creating Heart Books or reading novels in verse.

But writing poetry–well, that’s a different story.

Students who aren’t accustomed to writing poetry need a scaffold before they can leap into free verse composition without a topic, genre, or form prompt.  For this scaffold, I use imitation.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Identify patterns of language, structure, and punctuation in a given poem; Modify the style of the given poem to suit your purpose; Create a poem in the style of a given poem.

41KeFnbnPfL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Lesson — Before the mini-lesson, I will have already booktalked two of Mary Oliver’s books–A Poetry Handbook and Dog Songs, which is always a favorite with my students.  As the mini-lesson begins, I’ll read to them from Oliver’s chapter on imitation.

“You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate,” Oliver begins. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.”

“I have some poems here today for us to imitate and investigate,” I follow up.  I pass out the following options, lately garnered from my incredible poetry seminar with Mary Ann Samyn:

“Read over these quickly, and choose one you’d like to imitate.  Then open to a fresh page in your notebook.”

“I’m going to write with you, and I’m going to choose ‘A Display of Mackerel,’” I say.  “It seems long, but look how short the lines and stanzas are.”  I put my chosen poem under the document camera.  “Now, this poem is about a display of fish, and I want to imitate it and write about a display of something.  There’s a pretty big display of colorful objects in my room…” I trail off.

“Your library!” Nathan helpfully supplies.

“Yep,” I agree.  “I’m going to imitate this poem and write about my bookshelf.  I’m just going to change a few words per line, but I’m going to keep all the punctuation and the numbers of words the same.  It’s so easy to write poetry this way.”

On the document camera, I begin my imitation next to Doty’s original:

They lie in parallel rows,                   They rest in slumped rows,

on ice, head to tail,                           on shelves, spine to spine,

each a foot of luminosity                   each a sheaf of wisdom

“See how easy that is?  I keep Doty’s structure, punctuation, and even some of his words.  I just change a few to make the poem about my display of books, rather than his display of mackerel.  Now you take a few minutes to give this a start.”

We set about writing together.

After 10-15 minutes, we each have a full imitation poem.  We break into small groups, working with others who imitated our same poem.  We read our poems aloud.  Feedback is given on what we notice–similarities to and diversions from the original, and the effects of both.

Follow-Up — We’ll practice imitation a few more times before we leap into writing poetry independently.  When we do, I’ll ask, as always, that my students create a small anthology of their work on that genre–some samples of their early forays into poetry through imitation, as well as a few examples of their own independent attempts.  I’ll definitely include my “A Display of Books” in my own anthology, as I find it a lovely description of my library that I’d like to preserve.

My Imitation Poem: “A Display of Books”
by Shana Karnes & Mark Doty

They rest in slumped rows,
on shelves, spine to spine,
each a sheaf of wisdom

creased with cracked spines,
which divide the plots’
most gripping sections

like bands of color
in a double rainbow.
Vibrant, luminous

prismatics: think indigo,
the wildly rainbowed
spectrum of a springtime rain,

think sun spearing through clouds.
Wonder, and wonder,
and all of them in every way

unique from one another
–everything about them
a onetime blend of letters. Thus,

they’re all creative expressions
of a million different souls,
each a tenuous effort

of the soul’s footprint,
writer’s essence. As if,
after a lifetime of drafting

at this printing, the author’s
taken irreversible steps,
each as permanent

in its inked completion
as the one next door
Suppose we were shoulder-to-shoulder,

like these, the same but different
from our universe
of neighbors—would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be in print? They’d prefer,

plainly, to be award winners,
forever honored. Even now
they seem to be straining

forward, heedless of their lifelessness.
They don’t care they’re ink
and simple paper,

just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were imagined:
all, all for all,

the rainbowed shelf
and its acres of brilliant words,
in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How eager they seem,
even on shelves, to be different, selfish,
which is the price of publication.

Quick Writes That Work: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This post from Lisa in 2017 gives us a variety of quickwrite ideas that work well for all writers. 


QUICK WRITE

It appears daily on my agenda and often sparks great writing, discussion, and even revision. My bestie Erin said it beautifully: “Quick writes produce pure honesty and they’re a good place for me to “talk” with my students.” The writing is low stakes, the creativity can be high, and we can “talk” with our kids and provide feedback on issues and ideas, over syntax and conventions. Plus, it helps with the endless struggle for volume, volume, volume.

But sometimes, quick writes can end up feeling a bit routine, which is not cool as I am trying to keep writers excited about their writing and producing more and more of it.

writers-block

So, because I’m sometimes known to Google my life (last weekend my foot hurt after a run and the Mayo Clinic suggested I might have cancer, so there’s that), I often head to the internet for curricular inspiration.

There are countless sources online that will lead you to quick write topics, if that’s what you are in the market for, and I am often in the market for someone’s fresh thinking to get my students writing when I haven’t left enough time to plan or the same old quick write feels bland.

graves

For example, I was inspired to write this post after I saw our friend Gary Anderson tweeting a journal topic of the day on Twitter. I’ve used several, and loved writing along with my students on his thought provoking prompts.

Here are a few reflections I have on quick writes. The process, their power, and providing writing opportunities to our kids every day.

  1. Link your quick write to what you’re work on in class that day, an essential question you’re studying, or relevant topic to your study. Or don’t! Quick writes can lead naturally into a mini lesson. They can also put that mini lesson on hold as students take off into small group and then passionate/uproarious/contentious whole class discussion. I’ll often have my students go back into their notebooks after discussion to add to their thinking, so even if they didn’t share, they are working with the ideas that class is chewing on and writing more.
  2. Let students write about what inspires them. At the beginning of the year, many students balk at the “opportunity” to write about whatever they like, but by the time you’ve established a rapport and let your students know that they belong to a community of writers, many are excited to be given time to get their thoughts on paper. And when you have them take some time to revise at the end of the writing and share their ideas or powerfully written lines with others, they take more seriously the production of that work.
  3. Give limited choice to guide writing toward a necessary discussion for that day’s mini lesson or topic of discussion. When I do want the quick write to lead into the mini lesson, I try not to lead too much. I want kids to write and discover. I don’t want to slip back into old habits of guiding students to a fixed answer. They feel duped, I feel cheap, the whole thing is a mess. So, when I am heading in a specific direction, I really try to give choice in these instances. Our mini lesson in American Literature the other day was on bias for our argument writing unit. I could have had them write about where they see bias and how it impacts an argument’s credibility. Totally fine. Instead, I asked them to choose:
    • Write on any topic from the perspective of someone who is heavily biased toward a particular outcome. Then, write the same appeal from the opposing viewpoint.
    • Consider the bias of an author you’ve read or a story you know well. How did the bias serve the author? How did the bias impact the story?
    • Defend, challenge, or qualify the idea that media bias is detrimental to a functioning democracy.
  4. Early on, I stole something I heard Amy say during the professional development she and Shana ran at Franklin last year. I always remind my students to “write as much as you can, as fast as you can, as well as you can.”Amy taught me that kids need to outwrite their inner critics, and I’ve coupled that with the discovery that, often times, a student’s inner critic sounds an awful lot like…a teacher. We need to help retrain kids to see the first quick draft of anything as just that, a quick draft. I scrap half of what I write when I consider it for revision. This is something new to most kids, who train themselves to pour writing out on a page and see that as the first, last, and only draft. We work to write quickly, revise in the moment, and later, choose some pieces for further expansion, refinement, and polishing. But in the six or seven minutes I am giving them to write, their job is to write in that moment and to keep moving.
  5. Remind students to write and respond as they see fit. Students can write, jot, draw, change colors, compose a poem…Students often limit themselves unconsciously by the “rules” they have been taught over the years. Quick writes are a place to explore, not fit in the lines or a box. Unless you want to write in boxes.quick-write-1quick-write-2
  6. Have students respond to quotes, images, poems, videos, their own writing (we are doing this today!), the writing of other students, current events, lists, song lyrics, letters to the editor, overhead conversations…You get the idea. Students can creatively explore just about anything and should. Their opportunities for creative expression are often too few and far between. We can be the place where questions, emotions, fears, innovations, and discoveries find a safe place to take root.

Some of my recent favorite topics are below. These are quick writes that generated some fantastic discussion in small groups and whole class debriefs.


From Gary Anderson a few weeks back, I had students choose one and write:

Today…
I am concerned about…
I am upset about…
I do not understand…
I wish I could change…
I am grateful for…


From Austin Kleon’s blog that I started following last week, students took this image in a thousand directions and one class even had a collegiate level discussion on the implications these suggestions (directives? nudgings?) could have for society:

goethe


I will sometimes choose several images and have my students respond to one, or try to tie them together, or imagine they are the photographer, or…whatever best suits our purpose for that day. The exploration of the human condition is reason enough to put pen to paper. “Tell this story” is a great search term to yield a wide variety of results.

tell-this-story-2


Quick writes can even be 2-3 minute reflections on the simplest of reading adventures. At the start of the new calendar year, I had my kids search for what their lives would hold in 2017, according to their independent novels.

quick-write

Have a favorite quick write topic that gets the pens moving in your classroom? Please share your ideas and insights in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She has no fewer than six quick write journals going at once, mostly due to her inability to settle on spiral vs. bound. She added to Goethe’s list that we should smile at the thought of someone each and every day. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

Alternatives to Reading Logs: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

Shana’s post from 2017 sources readers’ ideas for alternatives to reading logs. The ideas are here, and the document is still open for your additions.


Ahhh, Labor Day weekend–that first glorious three-day respite from back to school, or the last vestiges of freedom before it begins.  Whatever this weekend is for you, I hope you’re using it to relax and recharge before we see bright, smiling faces (or sleepy ones) tomorrow.

I bet you’re using a book or two to help you enjoy this weekend–what are you reading?  I’m reading little bits of Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue whenever I can squeeze it in (usually as I fall asleep).  In longer chunks, I’m reading Scaachi Koul’s memoir, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, which is a perfectly-sized series of essays for my busy days.

In quiet moments on long weekends like these, I wonder what our students are doing.  Do their reading lives mirror mine?  If the answer is no…what can I do to help them become readers?

And, more pressingly–is there something I’m doing that’s preventing them from becoming readers?

Reading homework, requirements, levels; book reports, assignments, due dates.  None of these are what I’m tying to the books I’m reading this weekend.

But is that true for our students?

This article from School Library Journal talks about the work done by librarians to match a person to a book.  They call it readers’ advisory.  Then, they lament that so many classrooms discourage the important work of “talking with a child, observing body language for clues, and walking together through the stacks while offering suggestions” and rely on leveled bins, assigned texts, or assessment-bound reading units to get kids to read.

How much of what goes on in my classroom is readers’ advisory–and how much damages that work?

Slide2I’ve been thinking since last May about how we should stop grading independent reading.  The best and brightest in our teacher hive give us their advice and wisdom in books, blogs, and articles, with quotes like this one from Donalyn Miller.  Books, time, encouragement–these are themes we see repeated in what students need to blossom as independent readers.  Nowhere do we see that we need to measure, assess, or grade them.

To be sure, our kids need our instruction and guidance to grow as real readers.  Conferences, follow-up activities, book clubs, goal-setting, talk, and self-assessment are powerful tools to help move students forward.  How can we prioritize those things instead of more measurable (and infinitely less revealing, rewarding, or authentic) methods like reading logs, records, and quizzes?

Well, we really want to know.

Please share with us:  what are your alternatives to reading logs?  How do you approach a gradebook that must be filled, and fill it with meaningful activities tied to reading?


Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 7.15.11 AM


In that Google Doc, we’ll work to compile a series of alternatives to reading logs, and share them here for everyone to benefit from.  You can also leave a comment on this post, write on our Facebook page, or tweet to us.  Together, we can create a repository of ideas and strategies for approaching independent reading in a way that’s authentic and helpful this school year.

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, chocolate (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

A Workshop Approach to Whole-Class Novels: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This 2017 post by Amy Estersohn details one answer to the age-old workshop question: how to balance choice and whole-class novels.


I spent my President’s Day-Week vacation (the one that New York teachers and students get- yes, a whole week off for President’s Day!) scrapping my whole-class unit on The Outsiders and rebuilding it to reflect the values of a reader’s workshop.  First, I had to define my values:

read and write in english class

  • Choice in what we read and what we read “for” (information, entertainment, character chemistry, therapy, etc.)
  • Diversity in opinions, experiences, and interpretations
  • Engagement in ideas.  I always like to tell students that you don’t need to read to think, but a book can make you think something you haven’t thought about yet

I also had to define my teacher non-negotiables:

  • Reading for ideas. Students will be able to read a scene from a book and connect it to an idea
  • Tracking how that idea changes over time.  Students will be able to see how ideas unfold and develop over the course of a story, either by using a chronological progression to explain how an idea unfolds (At the beginning of the story… in the middle….at the end) or a more conceptual approach (At first I thought…. Then I realized….)

Here’s how a typical lesson on a typical day looks like in this unit:

  1. A visual reminder of what we’re reading for when we’re reading The Outsiders
  2. A mini-lecture on the chapter.  After I summarize the chapter, I choose a passage and my readers help me write an entry.  I make sure my passages reflect “small moments” of the book instead of the plot-heavy moments of the story to show how careful reading leads to intellectual rewards.
  3. A group “crowdsourced” journal entry on my chosen passage. This requires a lot of fast, on-the-spot teacher thinking, as I will call on one student to begin the entry and another student to provide a follow-up sentence.  I like the idea of composing a paragraph in real time under real demands, because it allows me to ask the questions that writers should be asking when they write, like “What more can I say here?” and “Do I have any evidence to explain this idea?”  Later on, I post each class’s journal entry for other students to see and appreciate.  I emphasize that four different classes will have four different readings of the same scene.
  4. Time for individual journal entries on one of our four major ideas.  I invite students to post-it note possible scenes to write about as they read, through I don’t require it and I don’t encourage students to annotate as they read, either.  (Incidentally, my low-stakes approach to post-its has resulted in more student requests for more post-its than I ever thought possible.)  Most students have a scene or two that they want to take ownership of in their own notebooks.  Some students will continue the conversation we had as a whole class in their own notebooks, taking the scene I chose and adding something new to it.
  5. Time to share our thinking at the end of class.

I also post and tracking some of the “greatest hits” ideas, ideas that I know will inspire strong thesis statements once readers finish the book.  By the time students prepare to write an essay, they will have a menu of student-generated thesis statements along with their own thinking about the book to reflect on.

IMG_20170303_075827356

Adapting this teaching to other books.

I was thinking about how I might teach other works using the same approach.  Here’s one thing I’ll say to high school teachers in particular: if you try this, you’ll find yourself making careful decisions about what you really want students to know and what you will let them figure out on their own.   It means letting some “juice” of the book drop and appreciating that you won’t have time to discuss the importance of every reference with every student.

For example, if I were teaching The Great Gatsby, I think I would let readers encounter and interpret the Valley of Ashes and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on their own.  I would want to instead focus on Nick’s first description of Gatsby as a quasi-Moses figure and the fact that he dropped out of St. Olaf College — small details that lead to powerful and enduring interpretations and ideas.

Some suggested ideas and topics for popular high school books:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • Civilization
  • Friendship
  • Trust
  • #ownvoices (if you aren’t familiar with this twitter hashtag, look it up!)

The Great Gatsby

  • Sin and Religious Iconography
  • Money

Macbeth

  • Greed
  • Lies/Lying
  • Power
  • Dreams/Reality

How are you using workshop methods and thinking to approach whole class novels?

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  When she was in middle school, her favorite authors were William Shakespeare and Meg Cabot.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MSE

Book Talks, Choice Reading, and Fast Food Drive-Thrus: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This post from guest writer Amy Menzel struck a chord with readers in 2019. Amy writes here about ‘aha’ moments that strengthened her convictions about choice reading.


I can’t put my book down. I’m (finally) reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I am loving it. I book talked it a week ago and I’m 75 or so pages from finishing. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it before! I’ve book talked it before, so I assume I was so engrossed in another title that this one had to wait. Anyway, I’m already anticipating a serious book hangover upon finishing.

As I crawled into bed and turned on my reading light last night, I had two lightbulb moments. In addition to the obvious one, there was the realization that I am not rereading a book for the eleventy-seventh time this year. In fact, I haven’t reread an entire book for the past two years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there may be something misguided about an English teacher focusing all her efforts on teaching the same few books year after year.

I spent nearly the first decade of my high school teaching career doing just that. I could still deliver a solid lesson on To Kill a MockingbirdFahrenheit 451The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner at a moment’s notice. Give me an hour or so to prep and I could review layers upon layers of annotations in my personal copies of each and make a solid lesson a good one. But I’ve been there and done that. Sure, I found new insight with each reread, but I don’t think enough to warrant the time it took. I’m not convinced my lessons got that much better from year to year, despite my thoughtful (and time-consuming) planning and preparation. And, really, that shouldn’t surprise me.

Writer Haruki Murakami once tweeted, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” And, there I was, only reading the books that I had read, and only thinking what I had thought. I mean, I added related readings to ever-expanding text sets and used new pedagogical practices, but I was basically the academic equivalent of a Taco Bell drive-thru. It was all the same stuff just packaged differently.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to grow.

amy 1

I see my job as an English teacher much differently now than I did as an eager newbie. I’m still eager, alright, but I also have this sense of urgency. Part of it is that I teach seniors now. And second semester Senior English is basically the pressure cooker of secondary education.* I have 90 days to help students identify as readers. Let me tell you, it’s not going to happen with a traditional approach. At best, a traditional approach might convince them that reading is “not that bad” as they grind their way through a couple assigned books (or the SparkNotes of a couple assigned books) that they may or may not find all that engaging. I’m striving for more than that.

I don’t have a lot of time with these young scholars and there’s no time to waste. It’s time they find books that intrigue them, inspire them, and challenge them. It’s time they find books they actually want and will read. And it’s really important that we shift to students finding their own texts. “Real world” readers don’t read because some lady named Mrs. Menzel tells them they should. They read because they find books that speak to them. Of course, I’m here to help. I book talk a new title every single day. I make it my job to play nerdy cupid and match the right title with the right reader. It all takes a lot of time. But not more time. I’ve simply reallocated my time. I don’t spend hours rereading the same books and turning last year’s burritos into this year’s enchiladas. Instead, I read. For real. I read a lot. I read books I want to read and books recommended by librarians and students. I read novels and nonfiction and graphic memoirs and collections of poetry. I read magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts and lyrics and scripts and transcripts. And I share what I read. And I ask students to share what they read. And we talk about it and we write about it.

amy 2my book board, featuring all the title’s I’ve book talked this year so far

And I’m finally living a reading life I want my students to follow.

(And look at them follow!)

*I’m pretty certain this analogy checks out. It sounds good. Truth be told, I’m much more Taco Bell than I am pressure cooker kinda person in the nonliterary, culinary sense.


Amy Menzel finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nearly seven books ago. She just got around to revising and submitting this guest post because teaching. She knows you understand. You might also understand why she’s contemplating spending $20 on this “SAVE THE WORD TACOS” t-shirt. She hopes you have a great end of year and a fantastic, restful summer filled with great reads.

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