Category Archives: Books

What Will You Read Next?

I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep moving my readers forward. To stave off the lethargy that unrelenting mid-forties temperatures and 17 weeks of gray skies (winter makes me hyperbolic) can leave in a classroom. The novelty of a new year, with its resolutions and fresh semester, has succumb to the bleak midwinter pall of third quarter and we need something that says, “If that groundhog claims six more weeks of winter (rat-face that he is), we’re going to need a plan…and a good book or two.”

Well, thank goodness I have an unhealthy addiction to Twitter (Ummm…Cornelius Minor just started following me last night. I’m going to need to step up my game. Significantly).  Years ago, it was Pinterest, but that was back when I had time to scroll and save ‘Best Brunch Recipes to Feed a Hangry Crowd’ and ’19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat’ (not to say I couldn’t still use both).

My scrolling these days, however, is far more literary in focus and professional in nature (19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat for Educators – Conferring as Cardio). Seriously though, Twitter has led me to countless quick write topics, mentor text ideas, blogs to follow, inspirational quotes, professional development opportunities, booklists, laughs, collegial exchanges, and pedagogical articles to stretch my practice. #TrachersWin, #LoveToLearn, #StrongThumbs, #TwitterScrollingSavesLives.

A few days back, Penny Kittle posted this photo:

I quickly screenshotted the image to replicate in my room. This visual reminder of where we’re headed (another book and/or a swing toward spring) will provide the push forward we need. Get it on the wall!

My students needed something to set their sights on, so I asked them to take a look at their ‘I Want to Read List’ and choose what their next reading would be. This wouldn’t just be a goal to finish our current texts, but would also give us something to look forward to.

I encouraged students to take this as an opportunity to challenge themselves outside what they have been consistently reading, either in complexity or genre, and select a book they were excited to get their hands on.

Each student then took an index card, on which went the name of the book, the author, and the date they plan to start this next text.


My aide, an artistic genius, drew the book that would be the center our our display (It even has dozens of book titles written on the first page – I LOVE it, Hailey!) and started arranging the ‘Next Text’ cards around it. The whole back wall of my classroom is going to be a sea of texts we can look forward to.

I’m loving my current read (Shout Out: #3TTTBookClub – Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things), but I too will be adding a card: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

(A freak and serious arrest of my artistic development in the second grade prevents me from sharing my card with you. Please imagine it’s simplistic beauty and that might help me create something wall worthy)


Let’s Get Excited About Where We Are Heading! What Will You Read Next? Please leave your text choices in the comments below. Happy Friday. 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

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Books Can’t Be Bullied

Books: “They don’t get tired and give in, they don’t rearrange their words to soothe their reader’s ego or get a better position on the shelf, and they can’t be bullied”  – Josh Corman for Book Riot.

I’m not going to get political here. I promise.

I’m quite frankly exhausted by, though no less involved in, politics these past few weeks, but when I saw this quote, I knew I needed to explore it. It does (fair warning) come from a pretty politically charged piece that you can seek out and read, if you like, but I first saw this quote completely out of context and feel that it’s a powerful statement in and of itself.

The push and pull of it intrigues me.

I first pictured a book: proud, immovable, and cool. Spine bent ever so slightly, tantalizing a reader with the ideas inside, like the love interest in a dark romance who reads Goethe in tiny coffee shops and spells color with a “u”:

I’ve got what you need, but I’m in charge here. We go at my pace. Turn my pages to see where I will lead you. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. 

Aloof in the face of need, careful not to promise too much. If you come to this book looking for fulfillment, it won’t permit you to find it. Too easy. It’s not about you. It’s about the message.

I can also see this book as a soldier on the front lines, battling to retain pride in its themes. Beat down by two star Amazon reviews, milk spilled across its pages, and the misrepresentation of translation, reprinting, and censorship. Not desperate, but insistent:

See me. See what I really am. What I have to offer. I am not what you purport me to be. I am not what others say I am. Think. Judge for yourself. 

But what does any of this mean for our classrooms?

For my students, It means we are going to write about it. I want to know what they think. What identity this quote suggests books have, and thereby what role in our lives? What impact?

See, in an age that not so subtly suggests that books are made better by individual interpretation, I would argue we sometimes give ourselves too much credit.

I might go so far as to suggest that we need books to be a bit immovable these days.

It’s not all about us. What we like. What we need. What we get out of an experience.  Of course, authors need to make money to keep writing books, but on the back of my copy of East of Eden, Steinbeck is casually smoking a cigarette and weaving a tale of good and evil. Is there really so much room for interpretation there? Should there be?

Yes, we, and our students, benefit immensely from challenging conventional thought and learning to build meaning from difficult texts through personal connection, but at the end of that journey, the book remains. The nuance may be up for debate, but the message, perhaps not.

Books offer us a place to see that which does not grow old. The words are pressed between the pages, meaning what they did when they were published. It is we who change and must work to balance how perception influences theme.

Tweets scroll past in soundbites on the screen. Facebook spins and updates with a thousand new ideas with every pull of a thumb. Books remain what they always have been. They cannot be bullied to change with the times. They are timeless, and as such, essential to our survival in the era of eight second attention spans.

So as we bring ourselves to a text, we must be willing to meet it halfway.

It’s not about you, or not only about you.  It’s about the two of us. Book and reader. We can only succeed if we work at this together. 

What better lesson for these times, political or no, than to meet in the middle and align our unchangeable past with the possibilities that carefully crafted ideas can suggest for our future? A book, afterall, still needs a reader.

Let’s produce millions of resilient readers, hungry for truth, who will open books and listen, because a book is always ready to talk, and frankly, we could all stand to listen a lot more than we do.

I’d love to hear your reflection on the quote. Please feel free to join the discussion below in the comments. 

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

 

Finding New Books: A Lesson from Rachel the Book Bandit

I have a lot of awesome students this year.

A LOT.

img_6200One of my preservice teachers is the hilarious Rachel, who, when she stopped by Allen Hall to turn in her writer’s notebook for the semester, was carrying a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent book Americanah.

“Ooooh,” I said.  “That’s a great book.”

“It is, so far,” Rachel agreed.  “I’m only about 40 pages in.”

“Is it for one of your classes?” I asked.

Rachel laughed a little and said no.  “It’s on the African American Literature syllabus, though.”

Well, that was exciting to me for two reasons.  One was that the African American literature class was going beyond Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston into the realms of contemporary.  And the other was that clearly, Rachel had been talking to others about books.

I love me some contagious book love!

“Do you have a friend taking the class?” I inquired.

imagesRachel looked sheepish.  “Well, you see,” she explained, “at the beginning of the semester I always go around to all the different English classes and just stay for the first class so I can get a copy of their syllabus.  Then I put all the titles in my Amazon cart and my mom sends me a few books every month!!”

She was gleeful, and I was giddy.  Rachel was…a book bandit!

“Wow,” I said, impressed.  “So you discover all kinds of new titles this way.”

“Yeah,” she agreed.  “I don’t have time to take every single English elective offered, but I need to know a lot of titles if I’m going to be a good English teacher.  So I do this instead.”

I was so impressed that Rachel had discovered, and independently read, award-winning literature this way.

And, I was even more impressed that Rachel knew that to be a successful teacher of readers, you have to know lots of titles so you can match the right kid to the right book at the right time.

Now that winter break is approaching, I’m looking for some new books to read.  So I took a cue from Rachel and discovered the following amazing titles on the syllabi (found through the online university bookstore) for various English courses at our university.

Popular American Culture, ENGL 258:

  1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  2. Fledgling by Octavia Butler
  3. I am Legend by Richard Matheson
  4. The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone By by Robert Kirkman

Sexual Diversity in Literature, ENGL 288:

  1. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  2. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Allison Bechdel

Fiction for Adolescents, ENGL 405:  (this one was a gold mine!!)

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  2. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  4. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander [I bought this, read it one sitting, and cried in public while finishing it]
  5. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
  6. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  7. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
  8. Free Verse by Sarah Dooley [I bought this one ASAP; it’s set in a West Virginia coal mining town]
  9. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

Multiethnic American Literature, ENGL 255:

  1. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  3. Everything I Never Told You by Cynthia Ng
  4. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  5. Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet

Thanks to Rachel for inspiring me with a way to find all of these great new titles!  I hope you’ll find some great new titles this way, too.  Please share them with us in the comments so we can all enjoy!

2 Ways to Prioritize Student Talk in the Classroom

Workshop affords so many opportunities to explore with the students in front of me as opposed to present a set curriculum to whomever happens to be seated in my classroom. It’s teaching through interaction, and in this case, it’s teaching straight from the kids themselves.

We see it in workshop all the time. Students given the tools to explore the world as readers and writers, and encouraged through personalized learning, quite often take their learning to places our old lesson plan books didn’t always accommodate.

One of the best opportunities for this classroom growth is having students do more and more of the talking. With the right modeling and specific expectations around that student talk, the classroom becomes a place students lead through inquiry, as opposed to follow through completion of teacher set tasks.

discussion-2

Morgan quotes Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife” to analyze how the repetition supports the sarcastic tone and proves the point that since they do SO much, everyone should want a wife. LOL!

It happened yesterday morning, in fact. My AP students were participating in small group graded discussions. Just reading the last sentence makes me cringe (yes we use a rubric, no, the conversations don’t have to be formulaic as a result), but with choice in which readings from our unit they wanted to discuss and some guiding questions throughout the discussion, our conversation about gender and the implications of historical stereotypes on a modern world (their direction for the discussion, not mine) took an interesting turn.

“Mrs. Dennis…you’re smiling weird. What did I say?”

I stop furiously typing comments and look up. “I’m sorry?”

“You had a look. Did I say something wrong?”

“Sarah, you said nothing wrong,” I smile and glance around the table. Seven intrigued faces look back at me. “In the last few minutes this group has, largely unprompted, connected several essays through the lens of analysis, used terminology we’ve not discussed since September, Trinity uttered the words, ‘I don’t believe gender pronouns are even really necessary anymore,’ and then supported her opinion with specific text evidence, and several of you actually just murmured sentiments of excitement to shift the discussion to Judy Brady’s satirical 1971 piece ‘I Want a Wife.’ I’m smiling because I was just thinking about how I used to give short answer reading comprehension quizzes on these pieces.”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “This is way better.”

Yup.  This was a discussion they wanted to have. This was a discussion I wanted to hear. They took the lead, in fact one of our rubric bands demands that, and they came to the

discussion

Part of a small group discussing racial stereotyping colliding with gender stereotyping in the Brent Staples piece “Just Walk On By”

discussion prepared to drive conversation from the perspectives of authors like Brent Staples, Deborah Tannen, John and Abigail Adams, and Judith Ortiz. Perspectives that regard gender through stereotype, race, satire, narrative, an exchange of letters almost 250 years ago, and visual texts.

Did I just sit back and let them talk, free-for-all style? No. This conversation took practice, feedback, and correction over the past few months. Today, it took redirection on some occasions and additionally it took specific intervention for those students reluctant to participate. Additionally, had it been a lower-level class, I would have been a bit more actively involved to start. But as you well know, students at any level are capable of, and actually far more likely, to get actively involved if their efforts for comprehension are supported and their exploration of the text is encouraged. We work specifically on ways to communicate both agreement and polite disagreement, so students can help clarify the text as well as analyze it.

Like any solid workshop component, it involves careful teacher planning and modeling, but equal parts careful student leading as we gradually release them to own their own education. 

We assess students on their preparation for the discussion with visible notes and use of specific text to support their points and their leadership within the group. That leadership can be exhibited through meaningfully involving others to bring them into the discussion with a question, synthesizing ideas they have heard so far, and/or including insights from additional research on a particular topic to extend discussion beyond the reading.

I spend a whole class period for discussions, breaking the class into groups of 7-10 students so all voices have more opportunity to be heard. Students not in the discussion have specific work to complete, sometimes by the end of the hour. For feedback, I type comments and insights while the students are speaking, so I can quickly copy/paste them into the comment section of my feedback form (A Google form emailed directly to students with 2 Common Core based rubric bands as dropdown tabs so I can just click the score for each band, include specific typed feedback, and often get that feedback out to kids the same day).

Another opportunity for seriously impactful student talk, is handing over the daily book talk to the class.

One of the many benefits of this scenario is that I can tap into growing student enthusiasm about books and have my kids spread the book love directly with each other. Don’t get me wrong, my book talks are something to behold. Part forensics piece, part reader’s theater, and part screentest for the literary loony bin, I sell books much like I would envision the traveling vacuum salesmen of yore putting food on the table with a pitch of salvation not just for the home, but the soul. It’s not just going to clean your carpets, it’s going to change you life, Ma’am. Your life. 

But, let’s be real. Though I sprinkle my classroom with good will, good cheer, and good books, I’m not the best salesperson in the room. If you’re going to sell the vacuum with radial root cyclone technology (I Googled that), or the book with 389 scary looking pages on dystopian fantasy rooted in a chromed society, you need to know your audience. You need to relate to your audience. You need to be one with your audience.

There are plenty of reasons to get kids doing your book book talks, not the least of which is I can’t read fast enough these days to keep up with the need for the type of really passionate and informed book talks that come from having read the whole text (Books do sell themselves sometimes, just by reading the back cover and a page or two at the start, but I love to hook kids with a section from the middle to show the impact of the rising action or depth of character development).

book-talk

Priyanka book talking Stitches, a graphic novel by David Small, under the document camera.

  • Students trust one another’s opinions. Yes, often more than mine. I sell hard, but at the end of the day, I’m usually still the biggest book nerd in the room, and therefore I think I am occasionally regarded in much the same way  as the Dancing Grannies in a holiday parade: Enthusiastically adorkable, but a bit of an anomaly to be trusted only at a distance.
  • They find titles, authors, and series that aren’t yet on my radar. Despite my best efforts, I can’t read fast enough or comb enough best of lists to meet the recommendation needs of over 120 kids. But when the classroom experiences a new student perspective on reading each class, additional book talks at their tables after reading, speed dating with books,  and an invitation to help grow our classroom library with tax free, gluten free, guilt free donations of gently used books, everyone wins and the depth of our classroom repertoire grows.
  • Their enthusiasm is relatable and often focused on books that don’t speak to my own bibliophilic tendencies, but can ignite the reading sensibilities of their adolescent peers. For example, I took several YA Lit books home at the start of last summer. Two days in, I was already struggling with the voice. It grated on me (no offense scholars) after hearing it all day in person for 180 days. So when a student book talks The New Guy (and Other Senior Year Distractions) by Amy Spalding, and two sophomores in my class (who have struggled to meet reading goals week after week) add it to their “I Want to Read List”s, that’s another win, because we can’t push kids to deepen their reading if they aren’t reading. First hook them, then book them with more challenging pieces.
  • I offer up the option to produce their book talks digitally and for some students, this is what makes the entire experience meaningful. Students sell their books through book trailers, compilations of related imagery and voice over to meet the same requirements of a live book talk. I’ve had kids include clips of author interviews, live action fight scenes with voiced over dialogue directly from the text, and this year, I have a student who wants to read over the top of a mannequin challenge he plans to shoot to represent some of the major action in the text.

What results is growing book lists, renewed enthusiasm as students go back to books they’ve read and revisit their love for the text, and involving each and every single student as a valued reader in our classroom community.

We’d love to hear from you! What tips and tricks for student talk make their way into your daily workshop practice? Please comment below! 

Book Birthdays by Amy Estersohn

img_20161006_115756265Tuesdays are bar none the best day of the week.  Tuesdays are when most new books are released.  On Tuesdays, you can run to the bookstore, go to the library, or wait eagerly for a package to arrive.  If you love reading new books, Tuesdays are nothing short of wonderful.

I have a Book Birthdays list in my room to help my readers and I track upcoming and highly anticipated new releases.  I use chalk ink (more on how much I love chalk ink another time) and a section of my blackboard for this list.  Though I don’t spend much, if any, class time talking about books that are on the list, I sure get a lot of questions, requests, and (occasionally) demands from readers as to which birthdays we should be celebrating.  

I also update this list about twice a month.  For example, I booted off the second book in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series after its October 4 release date in order to make more room for the social media thrillers of Sarah Darer Littman and Stuart Gibbs’s goofy mysteries.

Creating a customized list of upcoming releases can seem like a daunting task, but with the right tools it’s easy enough to build and maintain over time.

Step 0.  Gather a list of authors that your students already enjoy reading.  Sprinkle that list with authors you hope your readers will discover.    My readers come in knowing and loving Margaret Peterson Haddix, Rick Riordan, Raina Telgemeier, and Jeff Kinney.  By the end of the year I also want them to read Jason Reynolds, Gary Schmidt, Marie Lu, Renee Watson, Pam Munoz Ryan, Gordon Korman, and Jennifer Nielsen, among others.

Step 1.  Create a Goodreads.com account.

Step 2. Visit these authors’ pages on Goodreads to “follow” the author.

Step 3. Go to your “account settings” under your avatar and click on “e-mails.”  If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll notice an opt-in settings for New Releases e-mails and e-mails from authors you follow.

Step 4. Wait for e-mail notifications to come to you.

Depending on the age and independence of your students, you may even consider opening up this task and invite students to help build a list of highly anticipated books.  

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY.   She also reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com.   Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MSE.

Using a “Traffic Light” System to Explore Readers’ Interests and Sensitivities by Amy Estersohn

9kThis summer my social media has been clamoring about content warnings and safe(r) spaces within an academic community.  To what extent do we as educators bear responsibility for how our students respond to the material we may present to them?

I’m sure some educators probably feel that such gestures are a product of an over-coddled generation at best or somehow reduce literature to mere plot points at its worst (spoiler alert: Johnny dies), but I decided that I wanted some way of understanding my students’ emotional lives and some understanding of what topics upset them or get them excited.

On the first day of school this year, I introduced and modeled a traffic light system in response to independent reading:

Green — topics I like to read about and topics that interest me.

Yellow — sometimes I like to read about these topics, and sometimes I don’t

Red — topics that upset me.  If I come across this topic in an independent reading book, I stop reading.

I modeled a response for my seventh graders, using touchy subjects that often come up in middle grade fiction.  I described divorce as a red topic for me, autism as a yellow topic, and illness as a green topic.  

Reader responses were fascinating.  Death and illness books were by far the most divisive, with some readers describing death as a green topic and others as a red topic.  Holocaust books were similarly divisive.  Many readers described enjoying books that were “sad, but not too sad.”  Some readers identified red topics that I would have never identified on my own as a potential tough topic (e.g. car accidents, physical disfigurement.)

imgresAlso interesting was that what I know about my readers’ personal lives didn’t always square with what they wrote about their reading topics.  Some of my readers seem to want to read books that mirror their real-life struggles.  Others want to veer far away from those topics.

Based on these responses, I adjusted some of my lesson plans slightly.  I had been planning to use parts of Lisa Graff’s phenomenal Lost in the Sun as a whole-class model for character, but based on these responses, I’m not sure all of my readers would appreciate reading about survivor’s guilt as much as I did.  Instead, I’ll use parts of Jason Reynolds’s As Brave As You to teach the same concepts.

I don’t see myself swooping in to warn a student before starting a book as lovely and potentially upsetting as Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson or The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner.  However, I want to continue the conversation about red, yellow, and green topics. As independent readers, we have a right to establish limits, and when we read a part of a book that approaches or goes over our limits, we have a right to put it down and talk to somebody about what’s upsetting us.


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY.   She also reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com.   Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MSE.

Booktalking Awards: Letting Students In On the Buzz by Amy Estersohn

downloadIf your readers have ever played fantasy sports or filled out a March Madness bracket, they’ve experienced the same feelings that book lovers do over awards announcements.   And just the way sports fans are making predictions about championship winners all season, readers spend all year making predictions about which books will win which awards.

The recently announced longlist for the National Book Awards’ Young People’s Literature category gives readers a lot to talk about.  When I introduced the list, I did a brief book talk on each title and added some color commentary as well.

Obvious picks: Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, and Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina are three of the best books I’ve read this year.  All three books have received heaps of critical praise from a variety of sources, including from Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller.   

download-1Pleasant Surprises:  March: Volume 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, Booked by Kwame Alexander, and GHOST by Jason Reynolds.  These three books have tremendous teen reader appeal, and I was concerned that reviewers wouldn’t find them distinguished on their own merits.   

Unknown Quantities: When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson, The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon, and When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin haven’t been released in bookstores and libraries yet, so it’s hard for me to weigh in right now.

Introducing these books to my readers was an effective way for books to gain exposure without my being the primary endorser.  I had five readers yelping for my two copies of Pax, I encouraged my graphic novel readers to check out March, and my World War II buffs are now deeply interested in reading about the United States’s aggressions in Japan.

I’ll continue to monitor the National Book Awards announcements for their finalist and winning books.  By then, I hope more readers will have a chance to read these books and chime in on how they feel about the results.

__

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, New York.  She  reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com and is a judge for the CYBILS book awards this year.   Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MSE

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