Category Archives: Boys & Literacy

10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers

IMG_0650I met with my new student teacher a few weeks ago, and he asked me to borrow any books that might help him get going on the readers-writers workshop–the “theory” version of Jackie’s starter kit.  He’s been in my classroom before, so he knows the general routine and character of our work, but he wanted to know the ins and outs of how I thought and planned and conceptualized the whole thing.

I sat at my desk and looked at all of the titles I had on hand, remembering how influential reading them for the first time had been.  As a result, it was hard not to just dump my entire professional bookshelf onto a cart for him, but I managed to pick out a few titles that have guided me most adeptly in one aspect or another of my current classroom practice.

  1. Book Love by Penny Kittle – This was the book that helped to solidify my vision of an ideal classroom.  Before I read it, I had already been doing many of the best practices Penny mentions–writer’s notebooks, choice reading, personalized writing.  But I didn’t know how to bring it all together until Book Love.  As such, this is my #1 recommendation for any teacher looking to jump-start their individualized workshop curriculum.
  2. Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle – This book introduced me to the concepts of mentor texts, reading like a writer, and best draft/publication of writing.  I learned about quickwrites, constant revision, writing conferences, and a great deal more of what are now standard routines in my classroom.  This is the book for anyone curious about the big picture of writing instruction.
  3. Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard – I was raised in the tradition of literature as containing mostly fiction and poetry, but Penny’s books helped me see the great value of nonfiction.  I wanted to know how to integrate it well into my thematic units, and this book helped me do that.  Georgia’s book is full of wisdom about finding the soul of good nonfiction writing and matching it to your students’ needs.
  4. Choice Words by Peter Johnston – This book taught me how to talk to students.  It is my #1 recommendation for anyone looking to address those pesky Speaking and Listening standards in the Common Core–this book teaches you about the delicate, volatile power of a few choice words between you and your students.  I re-read it every year, and it might be the most important book in this stack.
  5. Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Tom Newkirk – This book is subtitled “Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For,” and Tom Newkirk certainly made me want to engage some of my former teachers in fisticuffs when I finished it.  This text is full of common-sense brilliance that will transform the way you think about why we teach reading and what kinds of texts we teach.
  6. Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher – Why do my students keep writing about violent gun battles?  Why do they always ask if they can swear in their writing?  What’s up with the complete unwillingness of my boys to be vulnerable?  If you’ve asked yourself these questions…this book is for you.  Ralph writes about everything you ever wondered about boy writers and how to move them forward in their writing.
  7. Readicide by Kelly Gallagher – Schools have been killing reading for many years, Kelly argues, and then presents ways you can stop the slaughter.  He fires away at pop quizzes, assigned chapters, multiple-choice tests, and all the practices that steer our students toward SparkNotes.  Then he reveals ways to get students authentically engaging in literature in a way that doesn’t kill their love of reading.
  8. Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts – After finishing Readicide and wanting to abandon the eight or so whole-class novels I once felt chained to, I wasn’t sure how to teach close reading skills.  This book answered that question for me, and more.  Chris and Kate reveal how to use poems, articles, short stories, and selections from novels to get kids interacting with the beauty and power of language in all kinds of texts.
  9. Reading Ladders by Teri Lesesne – When all of your students have finally found a book they will actually read–then what?  Teri Lesesne taught me how to help students climb a reading ladder of text complexity with this book.  It’s a tough battle to get all kids reading, but it’s even tougher to get them to all challenge themselves once they are.  Reading ladders are the solution to the increasing complexity question–now they’re a consistent part of my instruction.
  10. Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean – After reading the first nine books on this list, I still wasn’t sure where grammar instruction fit in.  I knew to have students read like writers and learn from language and sentence structures that way, but I wasn’t sure how to structure my mini-lessons, until I read this book.  Jeff and Deborah helped me find strong craft study lessons and bring them into the classroom in a way that appealed to students and also benefited them immediately in their writing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list–That Workshop Book by Stephanie Harvey, Read Write Teach by Linda Rief, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and many other integral titles were simply not on my shelf when I gave this stack to Mike.  But these top ten are ones I wouldn’t be the same teacher without.

What other titles are essential to your practice?  Please share in the comments!

Update:  Here are must-read folks that readers have suggested via Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the comments:

  1. Lucy Calkins
  2. Nancie Atwell
  3. Linda Rief
  4. Katie Wood Ray
  5. Donalyn Miller
  6. Don Graves
  7. Donald Murray
  8. Peter Elbow
  9. Ariel Sacks
  10. James Moffett
  11. Louise Rosenblatt

Five things you can do to guarantee your students will read

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. [Books are] so endlessly delicious.”
― Ruth Reichl

I’ve spent a lot of time with the love birds my children gave me for my birthday. They are beautiful. Marianne and Colonel Brandon And scared. I made the mistake of not reading enough about them before I tried my hand at training. Now, I am having to back track just to get them to like me. I knew better. Should have done my research.

It all starts with trust. Every day I put my hand inside the cage, hold it there, and just talk. I talk about the weather — it’s been quite tragic in north TX lately. I talk about the book their names come from — Sense and Sensibility. (My daughter dubbed them Marianne and Colonel Brandon.) I talk about how we will be the best of friends if they will just trust me.

Colonel Brandon bit my finger and held on so hard I stamped my feet for five full seconds hoping he would let go.

I’ve even tried speaking my limited Spanish. (The birds came from a Mexican vendor at an outdoor market.)

“Hola, buenos dias.”

Sitting on the floor near the cage is my school bag. In it is my conferring notebook. It holds a roster with check marks for books read and pages for each student where I record our conversations about books and reading.

This morning I was finally able to get Marianne to step up on to a perch and gently pull her from the cage. She sat on the top, eating happily on a millet twig. Progress.

I flipped through the notebook, remembering conversations I’ve had with students this fall.

“I used to love to read,” Henry told me, but then I didn’t like textbooks so I didn’t read anything again until 8th grade.

“What do you mean textbooks, you mean like an anthology of stories and poems and such?”

“Yes, those,” he said, “I hated those, so I just didn’t read anything in middle school. Then my teacher in 8th grade let us choose the books we wanted, and I read a ton. Hunger Games, Divergent, all those dystopian books. Then in 9th and 10th it was back to textbooks. I stopped reading.”

Henry was a hard sell at first. I’d already set up the routines in my reader’s workshop classroom. He missed the read arounds, the notebook set up, the initial book talks with the titles I know students love every year. And just like with my birds, I started wrong with Henry.

I expected him to step up without question into our reading world. He didn’t.

I had to back track and build some trust. I’d do a book talk and then set the book not far from him. I’d talk to other students about their reading near enough so Henry could hear. I’d ask Henry questions and I’d listen to his answers, so he would know I cared about him as a person more than as a reader.

And Henry started reading.

Henry has read four books since September when he joined my class:  Article 5, Friday Night Lights, Peace Like a River, and Labron James’ Dream Team.  Not bad for a young man who went two years without reading anything in 9th and 10th grade.

For any teacher who says independent reading just doesn’t work for you or your students, I issue this challenge:  Backtrack and try again.

Five things you can do to guarantee your students will read:

  1. Read. The more you read books you think your students will enjoy, the more you will be able to talk about books your students will enjoy. Don’t have a clue about YA? Read anything by Matthew Quick, A.S. King, Jandy Nelson, or John Green (my personal favorites). You’ll have a good start.
  2. Share book talks daily. Talk about books you know students love. If you don’t know titles, ask your librarian for help, read book lists like this one, read lists we’ve shared in previous posts.
  3. Show book trailers. I used to post book trailers on this blog. You’ll find many post with trailers, interviews, and other ideas here.
  4. Get students talking. The more students talk to one another about their reading the better your chances of getting all students to read. One favorite activity in my classroom is speed dating with a book.
  5. Give students time. I heard it first from Penny Kittle:  “If they aren’t reading with you, they are not reading without you.” We must give students time to read during class. Too many teachers and administrators think silent reading is not a good use of instruction time. FALSE. The only way to become a reader — or to become a better reader — is to read. If we want students to develop the habits of life-long readers, we must help them develop the habits in class where we can help them 1) stay focused, 2) learn what readers do when they get stuck, 3) practice choosing books for learning and for pleasure, 4) make plans for future reading.


What tips can you share for anyone who’s struggling with independent reading? Please leave your suggestions in the comments. Thanks!



#FridayReads: Investments, Books, and the Need to Read

I am addicted to books. No question. I am a bibliophile.

And I am proud of it.

I have this not-so-secret hope that my students will be bibliophiles, too. I work very hard to make them so.

This year I’ve had a bit of trouble getting students to read. Okay, I’ve had a lot of trouble getting students to read. It’s been the hardest year for me in the years since I turned to a workshop and choice pedagogy.

I am at fault for not conferring enough, not talking about books enough, not introducing enough books that I know my students will love.  I’ve reflected enough on my practice to get that.

Finally, the light dawned:  Get them investing in the books, not just invested in the reading. But get students making the choices about what books I need in my classroom library.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with some kind grant benefactors and have some money to invest in books. (Shana is an expert at grant writing, and I’ve highlighted her post in the past. I do it again here.) It takes some time to write grant proposals, and then once awarded, it takes some time completing books orders — I should have done all this sooner in the year.

In class this week, I gave students an assignment:

  • Search and find a book about social issues you want to read with at least one other person in class. (I’m working on getting multiples of great titles in my classroom library.)
  • Find an award-winning book, or at least a book written by an award-winning author. (At NCTE Penny Kittle said something like “…the more you read of the best literature, the more you’ll recognize it.) I know this is true. Students begin to see it too when they read books that reflect rich and meaningful author’s craft.

So, today for #FridayReads I share with you the list of books my students came up with. I’m pretty sure they will be fantastic reads.

The Martian Andy Weir
Everything I Never Told You Celeste Ng
Challenger Deep Neal Shusterman
Love and Other Ways of Dying Michael Paterniti
Did You Ever Have a Familly Bill Clegg
Fate and Furies Lauren Groff
All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doer
The Goldfinch Donna Tartt
The Road of Lost Innocence Somaly Mam
Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates
Inside a Hollow Tree Kevin White
Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine Boo
Symphony for the City of the Dead M.T. Anderson
A Little Life Hanya Yanagilhara
Refund: Stories Karen E. Bender
Sickened: the True Story of a Lost Childhood Julie Gregory
The Invisible Girls Sarah Thebarge
Pretty Little Killers Daleen Berry
Columbine Dave Cullen
Redeployment Phil Klay
My Story Elizabeth Smart
Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland Amanda Berry

#FridayReads: 7 Author-Talks Students Love


This week’s author-talks

As my students and I returned from a full nine days of Thanksgiving break this week, getting back into the groove of workshop was tough–for all of us.  I was totally whacked out from frantically finishing NaNoWriMo, and the kids were all out of sorts from too much turkey and not enough routine.

I needed something that would hook them back into the magic of reading and writing workshop–wonderful books, but more than that…wonderful authors who write those books.  So this week and next, my booktalks are all author-talks…book pairings by high-interest authors students love, whose stories captivate and amaze and inspire.  Here are seven book pairings by the same author that are insanely popular with my readers.

Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl & Carry On Fangirl goes over well with my seniors for two reasons–one, it was drafted during NaNoWriMo, and two, it begins on the first day college for the main character, Cath.  Cath is an unabashed fangirl who writes her own fanfiction–and that’s where Carry On comes in.  Carry On is the fanfic that Cath spent most of Fangirl writing.  For a generation who grew up reading as many alternate-ending fanfics for Harry Potter as they did, this unique pairing is a instant hit.


Inside Countdown

Deborah Wiles, RevolutionCountdown – Penny Kittle has been singing the praises of Revolution for two years now, first at UNHLit and then again this year at NCTE.  It’s a brilliant multigenre novel that blends photos from the sixties with the narrative of a girl struggling to deal with that tumultuous time in history herself.  Countdown, the first book in the series, is even more popular with my students than Revolution is.  The series helps bring to life something they study in history class again and again, all in a unique, compelling format.

Chris Lynch, Freewill & Inexcusable – The award-winning Inexcusable tells a story of sexual violence from the perpetrator’s point of view.  Kids are compelled by this tale’s unique presentation of a controversial event, and it helps boys and girls alike gain a new perspective on an act that is often discussed but rarely experienced.  After they read Inexcusable, I recommend the Printz-nominated Freewill, the story of a boy who is oddly compelled to create totems in his wood shop class after a rash of local teens begin committing suicide.  Themes of grief, guilt, and creative outlet make this one a hit with my students too, as does the unique fact that it’s told in second person point of view.


Inside Wintergirls

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory & Wintergirls – Most students at our school read Speak in ninth grade, and they begin to appreciate Laurie Halse Anderson even more when they read Wintergirls, the story of a teen who battles bulimia and anorexia.  The writing in this book is stunning, and the plot is compelling.  When kids finish this un-put-down-able book, I recommend The Impossible Knife of Memory, in which a teen girl struggles with her father’s PTSD after his return from Iraq.  The novel hooks both boys and girls, as it follows both the father and daughter’s struggle.

Matt de la Pena, The Living The Hunted – In The Living, Shy is excited to get a job on a cruise liner…until “The Big One”–a major earthquake on the Pacific coast–hits.  Most of the passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship are killed, save for a few, including Shy, and a few people also on the dinghy he clings to for life.  When Shy learns a secret that people will kill for, he goes from just being one of the living to being one of the hunted.  This believable suspense series hooks my students.

Screenshot 2015-12-03 at 4.18.48 PM

Inside Symphony for the City of the Dead

M.T. Anderson, Feed & Symphony for the City of the Dead – I learned about Symphony for the City of the Dead, a powerful book detailing the siege of Leningrad during World War II, while standing in line to register for ALAN.  Kim McCollum-Clark told a few of us teachers and librarians about this amazing story, which pairs gripping exposition with historical photographs from the time period.  Amid brutality, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a symphony for his dying city that uplifted both its citizens and the Allied forces working to free them.  The spies and death and music of the book intrigue my students, and I recommend to them Feed when they finish.  Feed is eerily plausible, the story of a future in which smartphones aren’t in our hands, they’re in our heads.  The feed contains advertisements, social media, news, sports, and anything we currently look at on our phones–all behind your retinas.  When an accident disables Titus’ feed, he struggles with life beyond the feed, and it’s a haunting cautionary tale my students are compelled by.

Jason Reynolds, The Boy in the Black Suit & All-American Boys (with Brendan Kiely) – I picked up The Boy in the Black Suit last year at ALAN, and this year I scored All-American Boys after Amy’s recommendation.  In Black Suit, the main character wears a black suit every day for his job at a funeral home, although his peers think it’s some weird tribute to his mother’s recent death.  Matt feels like he is barely getting by until he meets Lovey, who is a model of strength despite dealing with even more tragedy than he.  All-American Boys is a timely novel that alternates between points of view of Rashad and Quinn as both boys–one black, one white–deal with an incident involving Rashad, a fist-happy cop, and Quinn as a witness.  It is haunting and beautifully written and incredibly eye-opening for my readers.

What author-talks are guaranteed to engage your readers?  Please share in the comments!

#FridayReads A Must-Read Book: All American Boys

I saw a tweet last week that read something like this:  “What if you look like the people others are afraid of?”

The context was the Syrian refugees, I’m sure. The terrors in Paris blasted the news. So many dead. So many injured.

So many with no place to go.

My heart hurt, and I am not sure about the timing, but I’m quite 25657130sure God told me to read the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, the story of two American teens who attend the same high school:  one white, one black. Both with families who love them. Both caught in a situation that represents many we’ve heard over and over again:  “the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.”

For the past couple of weeks my students and I have read some of the writing of Leonard Pitts, Jr. We read his work to learn to become better writers. Among others, we read “We need a better plan to probe police shootings,” and “We don’t want to watch police — but we have to.” We talked about Pitt’s message, and we analyzed his craft.

We questioned what we know has happened way too often, and we shared ideas and opinions about how the actions of some affect the lives of many.

We sat in a circle: Black and White and Chin and Mexican. We talked. And listened. We tried to understand.

All American Boys is a story for every classroom library. It’s a story for every classroom teacher. Every administrator. Every parent. Every police officer.

We must invite candid stories and candid conversations about race into our learning environments. How else will we ever learn to see past color into hearts and minds and hope?

Booklist Starred Review states: “. . .this hard-edged, ripped-from-the-headlines book is more than a problem novel; it’s a carefully plotted, psychologically acute, character-driven work of fiction that dramatizes an all-too-frequent occurrence. Police brutality and race relations in America are issues that demand debate and discussion, which this superb book powerfully enables.”

If you add one book to your reading list this fall, I hope it is All American Boys. It ranks right up there with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock for books that will stay with me forever.

I need about 10 copies for my classroom library.

#FridayReads: Hot Non-fiction for High School Readers

I still have non-readers. We are ending the ninth week of school, and usually by this time each fall, my Hold Outs experience a shift. They start reading. I haven’t pinpointed exact reasons for the resistance this year — I think I’m doing as many book talks, conferring sessions, and cheerleading-moments-about-books that I have in the past, but something is up with a good number of my students.. They just do not want to read.

I asked Bryan about his reading yesterday. He said, “I only read when I have to.”

“What can I do to help you want to read?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

This is where it gets tough. I get to be a magician and a mind reader.

Or, I just need to know books and keep talking about them. I just need to keep encouraging my students to read and surround them with books they will find interesting.

A few weeks ago, Jackie wrote Top Books for Reluctant High School Readers, and I remembered Ready Player One, Gone Girl, and Perks of Being a Wallflower. I need to book talk those!

About two months ago, I wrote about the novels-in-verse I got for my classroom. Many of my students who had never read a book have read two, three, and four of those titles now.

I know many boys will read non-fiction when they won’t read “make believe.” Seems it’s time for an infusion of hot non-fiction books that might add some intrigue to my classroom bookshelves. I need books that students like Bryan will want to read.teen_school_boys_reading

I posed this question to my writing partners:

What are the hottest non-fiction titles in your classroom library?

Here’s our master list:

Jackie’s List

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

I’m Staying with my Boys by Jim Proser

Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides

Kick Me by Paul Feig

Shana’s List

Pretty Little Killers by Daleen Berry (two girls murdered their best friend at the other high school in our county…kids cannot put this book down)

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink (about Katrina; pairs well with Zeitoun)

Missoula by Jon Krakauer

…anything by the great sportswriter John Feinstein (The Punch, Next Man Up, A Season on the Brink)

Stiff by Mary Roach

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty (similar to Stiff; about working in a crematory)

…my War shelf, featuring Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Redeployment, or any other autobiography of a soldier

Erika’s List

Lucky by Alice Sebold (account of her rape and healing)

The Prisoner’s Wife &  Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story  both by asha bandele

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin

Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Yummy by G.Neri (graphic novel based on a true story)

Shaq Talks Back by Shaquille O’Neal

Raising My Rainbow by Lori Duron

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Adult and YA)

A Child Called It, The Lost Boy, The Privilege of Youth, A Man Named Dave by Dave Pelzer (four part series, but each piece can be read independently)

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Journey to Reunite with his Mother  by Sonia Nazario

The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise & The Bond by Sampson Davis and George Jenkins

Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi

Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir & Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum

Amy’s List

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Letters to My Young Brother by Harper Hill

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo

American Sniper by Chris Kyle

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Exactly as I Am by Shaun Robinson

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Journey to Reunite with his Mother  by Sonia Nazario

Life without Limits by Nick Vujicic

Do you know of any titles we left out?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Top Books for Reluctant High School Readers

IMG_2877“I’m not a reader.” I hear this multiple times during my first weeks of conferencing. The non-readers are easily identifiable; their body language alone speaks volumes of their disdain for books.

“You just haven’t found the right book,” I tell them, and they smirk, knowing they’ve heard that statement before.

The first week of school is a vital week of matching students with books, and while I itch to recommend titles, I hold back, giving my freshmen the independence and freedom they so desperately crave in high school. Too often students blindly accept recommendations without so much as a thought to the contents. They lack self-awareness when it comes to their reading interests or style, which is why those first two weeks are essential to not only organizing but also empowering them through choice.

Throughout the week, I book talk popular titles, engage in “speed dating” with books, and provide ample free time for students to explore our classroom library, but I also get out of their way. Instead of telling them what to read, I model ways to find a strong candidate, considering reviews, awards, contents, genres, and summaries.

While the majority of the class tends to quickly settle into their books, there are always stragglers who remain convinced they’ll never enjoy reading. These students sometimes grab the first book they see off the shelf, and oftentimes these books are too dense, difficult, or in some cases “boring.” That is okay! I settle into conferences with these students, getting to know their hobbies and eventually handing them two or three books that might pique their interest. In the end, they still choose what to read, but in the process they might require some initial guidance.

IMG_2870Regardless of who picks the book, the end result remains the same—to find a plot that envelops and consumes students, forcing them into the story. Here are some of my number one titles that tend to break down the shell of even the most reluctant readers.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I’ve already had three students read this book, one of which is Leah, a gamer and self-identified non-reader. When I asked if she has ever had a favorite book, she thought for a second then said, “I think this one might be the only book I’ve ever really liked.”

The Compound by S.A. Bodeen

Adrian initially picked a sequel to a book he read last year. “You must have liked the first one then?” I asked.

“Not really,” he replied. “I just didn’t know what else to read.” The next day he picked up The Compound, which is full of the fast-paced suspense he craves.

Paper Towns and Looking for Alaskaand basically everything by John Green.

I chased Emily up the stairs for this recommendation. When I asked her which one sparked her interest in reading, she said she couldn’t remember which had sucked her in. She just knew that despite her protestations at the beginning of the year, by the end she “loved them both.”

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

Damion had only ever loved one book and he was bound and determined not to like any in my classroom; that is until he came across this futuristic, survival story. Upon sitting down beside him for a mini-conference last year, he looked away from his book briefly to say, “Ms. Catcher, I’m at a really good part and I can’t talk right now.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

“I’ve had people give me ‘dark’ books before, but they aren’t dark at all,” Sarah tells me. I hand her three options, one of which is Gone Girl. Three days later she tells me, “I’ve spent my whole life hating books, and you’re the first teacher who ever found one I actually liked.”

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

I book talked Unwind second this year. It’s a given crowd pleaser because of its twisted plot and graphic scenes. The fact that I only have one copy of my four originals is a testament to its popularity.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Carter claims he hasn’t read a book cover-to-cover since third grade, but he has fallen in love with Chbosky’s classic on teenage life. He said to me today, “Ms. Catcher, I love that this book talks about real things, things that are actually happening to us.”

“That book is only the beginning, Carter,” I said

What books do you recommend for reluctant readers?  Which titles are most popular in your classroom?

#FridayReads: Matching Reluctant Readers to the Classics

IMG_9287On Tuesday, during a lull in class, Tyler was staring at the ceiling.

This isn’t unusual, or even discouraged, as our ceiling is covered with tiles that represent books.

“What’s that book up there?” he asked, pointing. “The one with the fire?”

“That’s Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury,” I replied.  I know that Tyler is a volunteer for our fire department.  I also know that he hasn’t had a lot of positive experiences with reading, so I tailored my impromptu booktalk to my knowledge of him specifically.

Fahrenheit 451 is a book about a fireman.  But he’s not an ordinary fireman–instead of putting out fires, he starts them.”

Tyler looked incredulous, and a bit offended.  “So he’s an arsonist?”

“He is, but that’s the job of the whole fire department in this book. Their job is to start fires to burn books and maintain censorship. Anyone whose house has books in it is the target of the department–they burn the house, and the books inside.”

“That’s messed up!” Tyler said, eyebrows raised.

“Right?!?” I agree, equally outraged for his benefit.  I tell Tyler some more of the plot–the corrupt fire chief, the terrifying mechanical hound, the strange professor that Guy happens upon.  “But eventually the main character–his name is Guy–gets curious.  He’s never read a book.  He starts to wonder, do they really need to be burned?  So, one day, at one house, he takes one.”

“The hound goes after him, don’t he?” Tyler predicts.

IMG_9289“He does.  And a lot of other crazy stuff happens.  I love that book so much…the way that Guy changes is so cool.  I really grew to love him by the end.”

Then, he asks the best question:  “Do you have that book?”  We cross to the bookshelf and I thank the gods–it’s there.

I give it to him, and he starts reading right away.

Tyler has abandoned a lot of books, but I think he’ll finish this one.  This was a case of matching the right book with the right reader at the right time, as Teri Lesesne says.

Tyler wants to read this book, despite its difficulty–he has reading strategies to cope with the challenges in vocabulary, sentence structure, and chronology that he’ll encounter.  I have faith that he will employ those strategies and grow as a reader and a thinker, as I have seen many a student do before, with greats like The Poisonwood BibleTheir Eyes Were Watching GodPride and Prejudice, and Brave New World.

We don’t need every single student to read all of those books.  They are gorgeous works of art that I hope everyone will discover, but thinking the only way to expose students to those books is to make everyone read them isn’t the way to do that.  Our student readers will find the classics on their own, if we give them the tools and the hunger to do so.  Tyler has the tools, and the hunger, so he found Fahrenheit–all because of a simple desire to know more, to find out why firemen would act so radically, sparked by the depiction of a flame on our classroom’s ceiling.

How do you match your readers with classic texts?

A What-to-Read Conference: Books on Bullying

Many of my reading conferences happen at the bookshelf, as students finish one book and begin the search for another.  Here’s one example I just can’t stop thinking about.

Yesterday, a former student of mine came down to my room to borrow a book.  This particular student didn’t start out as a reader, so I was really excited to see him seeking reading material independently a year later.

“Do you have Winger?” he asked me.  We walked to the bookshelf and looked for it–all my copies were checked out.

“Why are you interested in Winger?” I asked him.

“Christina told me about it this summer,” he explained.  I smiled–books were still going viral, beyond our classroom community and into the summer months.

“Well, they’re all checked out.  What is it about that book that interested you?”

“The bullying,” he said, looking away.  Bullying?  I was surprised for a moment that this particular student was curious about bullying–he was a popular kid.  He drove a cool car, had a boisterous and charismatic personality, and had a trail of lovesick girls whose eyes followed his every move.  But then my surprise faded–all high school students, no matter how popular, confident, or smart they seem, struggle with their peers’ meanness.

I had to decide–what do I teach into here?  This student as a reader, or as a vulnerable teen?  I am no longer his teacher–so I don’t have to teach him as a reader, right?

Wrong.  I chose to treat this as a reading conference…but in doing so, I knew I was giving this student the tools to deal with the issue of bullying.

411MJMpTseL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I began to suggest alternate books about bullying, and I promised him that I’d set Winger aside for him when it was returned.  He ended up leaving with Thirteen Reasons Why, but I also suggested Nineteen MinutesYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Truth About Alice, Speak, Wonder, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe, and By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. 

I knew that when that student finished Thirteen Reasons Why, he’d be back.  I knew that I could guide him toward more books about this issue he was curious about, and that our future conferences could help him climb a reading ladder about bullying.

“Reading ladders take students from one level of reading to the next logical level…We can help them stretch as readers by showing them books that mirror what they already like but that…will challenge them more,” says Teri Lesesne in Reading Ladders.  By continuing to guide this student toward more complex books about the same issue, not only would I be helping him to grow as a reader, I would be offering him more titles that could help shed more light on the difficult issue of bullying.

Penny Kittle is fond of saying “reading saves lives.”  My own classroom library is emblazoned with the quote “We read to know that we are not alone.”  This student was seeking salvation, solace, and information in books.  He wanted to know that he wasn’t the only one feeling the way he felt, and he hoped to find a story that showed him a triumph over bullying was possible.  That he sought this guidance in a library shows the power of teaching readers…not books.

#FridayReads: Books Boys Love

Bedtime_readingAt the conclusion of our course with Tom Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, our class collaboratively created a list of books that boys love.

Please add your own suggestions for your male students’ favorite books in the comments!

  1. Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
  2. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
  3. Unwind and others by Neal Shusterman
  4. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  5. Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra
  6. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides
  7. Maze Runner by James Dashner
  8. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and BOY21 by Matthew Quick
  9. Mexican Whiteboy and others by Matt de la Pena
  10. I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
  11. Start Something That Matters, Little Princes, and other inspiring memoirs
  12. Winger and 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
  13. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  14. A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
  15. American Sniper, The Things They Carried, Ghost Soldiers, The Good Soldiers, No Easy Day, and other war books in general
  16. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  17. Boot Camp and others by Todd Strasser
  18. Stiff, Spook, etc. by Mary Roach
  19. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Anything by Gary Paulsen or Jack Gantos
  21. Iron Man, Deadline, and others by Chris Crutcher
  22. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
  23. Warhammer novels by Ian Watson
  24. The First Stone, Running on Empty, and other books by Don Aker
    • Walking Dead
    • Maus
    • Watchmen
    • A Dozen Demons
    • V for Vendetta
    • American Born Chinese
    • Chew 
    • Naruto
    • Pride
    • Persepolis
    • Burma Chronicles
    • My Friend Dahmer
    • Stitches
    • The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders
  26. Ice Time by Jay Atkinson
  27. Everything by Walter Dean Myers
  28. An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff
  29. Crank, Rumble, and more by Ellen Hopkins
  30. 4021A by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son)
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