Literacy, Inquiry, and Critical Race Theory

The ongoing debate this summer about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools and how states have responded has been unsettling. The debate raises questions about free speech, about scholarship and academia, about the role of politicians in the classroom, and about community values. You can find plenty of opinions out there that likely support your own.

My goal in this short post is not to examine the pros and cons of CRT or whether or not politicians should legislate its presence in classrooms, but rather to think a little bit about what the debate has exposed about the teacher’s role within the classroom, specifically the English teacher’s role, when it comes to tackling controversial current event topics.

2 postures toward controversial topics

Some legislators apparently fear my superpowers–that I will somehow brainwash a generation of young adults into adopting a critical lens that prizes race. I like that they grant me these powers, but anyone who has spent a week in the classroom understands the absurdity of this premise. These fears of indoctrination are based on a pretty flawed assumption about what a teacher is and does. For example, I don’t know anyone who teaches (or who has time to teach) CRT. It’s not even on most teachers’ radars if I had to guess. And while I teach with some wonderful people who explored social justice this year in response to the racial unrest of the summer of 2020, their posture is worth noting. Their goal was not to indoctrinate, but to open up avenues of inquiry. I think this is what literacy is really all about and what the secondary English classroom approach should be when it comes to charged topics like CRT.

LiteracyIndoctrination
creator, researcherstudent’s rolepassive consumer
empower students
co-learner
teacher’s roleshape perspective
expert
students are self-empowered to find and
interpret information
outcomesstudents can repeat or recite information
avenues of inquiry
personalized
processone path
one-size-fits-all

inquiry driven by neutral essential questions

I assume most secondary English teachers would agree. It gets trickier in the application, though, starting with how essential questions get framed. Note the subtle difference in these two questions:

  • What is Critical Race Theory and why is there so much debate on it?
  • Why should schools continue to reach Critical Race Theory amid the current debate?

The first one is simple, but it promotes inquiry. It puts responses in students’ hands and asks them to become more literate. There is no presupposed answer or bent to their pursuit of knowledge. There is room for discussion and dialogue about what people think and why. I used the following three questions as part of a unit on anti-racism in semester 2 last year:

  • What is systemic racism?
  • Is systemic racism present in the literature that most schools read?
  • In what ways do schools perpetuate or combat systemic racism?

Notice how the first two are the most open because they are the most neutral. The third is built on the assumption that systemic racism is present, which narrows it a bit. But the posture of opening avenues of inquiry is hopefully what’s central here rather than students feeling like I am trying to indoctrinate them. The first two invite us all to participate as co-learners.

inquiry driven by vocabulary exploration

This is, like so much of literacy, really about vocabulary. In this case, some additional guiding questions can be really illuminating:

  • What do people mean when they say “Critical Race Theory”? 
  • What are the connotations of CRT? What do Republicans mean when they say this? What do Democrats mean when they say this? What do academics like professors mean?

These are vocabulary questions. How does this word/phrase work and function in different rhetorical situations? What gives it the power to elicit such reactions? How can there be such differing views about what it is?

There is a genuine academic interest in answering questions like this. It adds to our body of knowledge and understanding about the world around us, making us better citizens, and it also equips us to ask the same kind of questions about the next hot-button issue that lights up social media. I’ve used CRT as an example, but really any politically-charged topic can be effectively handled through inquiry that is driven by neutral essential questions and vocabulary exploration.

I do not want my children to be indoctrinated at their schools. I want them to be given the space to explore and learn to think for themselves. To become literate. I do not want to indoctrinate anybody else’s children. I want to pass on the values of literacy–of critical thinking that leads to empathy and understanding. Secondary English teachers are uniquely situated to create those kinds of learning experiences. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He serves on his building’s equity team and is ready for his family’s annual summer pilgrimage to Lake Michigan.

5 Tips for Writer’s Notebook Setup

In the early days of my teaching practice, I struggled with wanting my students to keep a portfolio that would house writing practice, quick writes, pre-writing, formal writings, and even some interactive notes. All the things! I went down a rabbit hole of research and found binder organization or the typical “interactive notebooks” which were a bit too elementary for my high school classroom needs. They had some great qualities I wanted to incorporate, but didn’t quite check all of the boxes. In the process, I stumbled onto a more grown up Writer’s Notebook. 

When researching Writer’s Notebooks and seeing the innovative ways teachers were using them in their classrooms, I found wonderful ideas for activities to put in them, but wasn’t finding guidance that would help me shift from a hodgepodge notebook of miscellaneous writings and notes that students don’t revisit easily to the tool I was imagining for my students. Over the course of several years (and tons of trial and error), I honed in on a few basic “rules” for notebook setup in my classroom. 

If you are new to using Writer’s Notebooks and desperately seeking some guidance on where to begin or an experienced notebook Rock Star just looking for some new ideas, here are my setup basics: 

  1.  Use a Table of Contents

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big fan of the bullet journal. I absolutely love the flexibility it provides me as a “pen and paper” type of person who loves to keep different types of lists, but doesn’t want to keep multiple planners or notebooks. As long as I utilize the Table of Contents, everything is easily found. 

This seems like such an obvious thing to incorporate, but none of the online resources I viewed talked about using one. After all, I wanted my students to use their notebooks as a writing tool, to revisit resources we’ve glued in, review previous writings, annotate short texts, etc. It’s so much easier when the kids can flip straight to the page they are looking for instead of making ostentatiously dramatic page turns to locate something. (If you know, you know). 

Because I couldn’t find an example of what I wanted to use, I pulled from my bullet journal and added some additional information I wanted students to have to create my own print out. On Day 1 of notebook setup, each student receives two copies to glue into their notebooks (front and back) on the first page. It has space for them to include the date, page number, name of the entry, and even a space to enter grades. 

Click here if you’d like to make a copy of the Table of Contents I created. You can customize it to your needs. 

This is an example of my teacher notebook’s Table of Contents.

Pro-Tip for printed notebook resources: Knock down the sizing of any full page copies to 85% and they will fit perfectly on the pages of a composition notebook.

  1. Number ALL Pages

Again, this may seem obvious, but I make my students number the pages of their notebooks after they’ve glued in their table of contents. Every. Single. Page. I used to let students number as they go, but my experience has proven that, more often than not, kiddos will forget. When their pages aren’t numbered, that information doesn’t make it to the table of contents, and then the whole logic of having the organization starts to crumble. I promise it’ll only take about 5 extra minutes during your setup, but the payoff is priceless. 

  1. Everything Is Written in Ink

I love a freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencil as much as the next teacher, but follow me around the room on this one. How many times have you seen a student take a pencil and begin to write only to pause, panic, and frantically erase whatever they’ve just written? Write. Erase. Write. Erase. Eventually, that student has erased a hole straight through their paper. 

My students hear my spiel every year: Write with conviction. Mistakes will happen. Writing is a process. Put a line through it and keep going. 

I know it may seem odd and I’m not saying that this is the hill I’m going to die on if a kiddo starts writing in pencil, but it does serve a purpose in writing instruction. It may take some time and some cajoling, but even my most tentative kiddos eventually come around to writing confidently in ink. After a week or so, I don’t even have to remind my kids to use a pen. This leads to my next guideline.  

  1. Whiteout or Removing Pages is Outlawed

The explanation for this links to the guideline above- writing is a process and mistakes will happen. We all know that as we draft, we change bits and pieces along the way. It helps me coach students when I can see the evolution of their writing. Part of my practice is to teach students to review their own pre-writing and “ugly” drafts to look for parts that may work better during a later revision. Being able to see where they’ve been can help them figure out where they’re going more times than not. If a kiddo has erased, used whiteout, or torn out pages, we no longer have that roadmap. 

The end result of not allowing erasures or removals of student writing from their notebooks means that it becomes a living timeline of their growth as writers.  

  1. Decorate and Make it Yours! 

This is not so much a hard and fast “rule” as it is a solid nudge for students to really take ownership of their notebooks. I give students permission to decorate the outside (and interior) of their notebooks with anything that sparks joy for them. Enjoy the creativity they bring to their notebook decorations! I have so much fun decorating my notebook alongside my students and it gives me a chance to get to know them in those early days together. Win-win! 

When students take the time to fully complete their notebook setup, it’s unlikely they will lose it because they don’t want to repeat the process and attempt to recreate all of their hard work. BONUS! 

At the heart of it, a Writer’s Notebook is intended to be a space for students to build fluency, play with language, explore the writing process, and own their voice as a writer. The beauty of this basic setup is that you can build in space for as much or as little structure as your students need. 

What are your best tips for setting up Writer’s Notebooks in your classroom? Share in the comments


Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Twitter @SimplySivils and on her blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Friday Night Quickwrite 6/25

It is hard to believe this is the last Friday in June. This coming week marks the halfway point of my summer vacation, and there are still so many things I want to do before I turn my thinking back to school. I hope you are taking some time to explore and enjoy your summer…and maybe even find some time to write.

This week I spent some time rereading parts of Tom Romano’s book, Write What Matters. This book is an invitation. An invitation to seek advice about creating a writing habit, to find ways to build your confidence as a writer, and to find your voice through writing activites and examples.

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I want to share a few thoughts from the chapter “Seek Surpise.” Tom suggests to “take note of surprise in your daily living.” He encourages us to “be alert to surprises, however subtle. Life, relationships, work, and writing itself increase in pleasure and purpose when we take note of surprises.”

Isn’t summer the perfect time to seek surprise? Maybe it is sitting on a porch or patio and watching nature. Maybe it is lauging at the antics of a young child or an elderly person. Maybe it the surprise in our thinking as we put words down on the page.

In the book, Tom states that his notebook has a place to record the surprises he encounters. I decided to create a similar space using some “creative journaling.”

What are you thinking about surprises? What surprises have you had today or in your own life? I hope this leads you to some writing this week, and I hope you come back to share. I look forward to hearing from you.

Leigh Anne lives in hot and humid southern Indiana and teaches 6th grade language arts. She is looking forward to some beach time, and maybe…just maybe she will find a few surprises along the way.

In Memoriam: Celebrating Memories in Writing Workshop

By Elizabeth Oosterheert: Contributing Writer

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Last week…

I attended a conference in my district for language arts teachers. One of the themes was the importance of sharing stories that tell the truth. I also have the privilege of working on a postgraduate study in adolescent literature this summer with a professor who has mentored me throughout my teaching career. I’ve had time and space to write and reflect, and to reconsider how vital it is to share true stories (including our own) with students in the context of our reading and writing workshops.

Come with me, and I will invite you into stories I’ve been reading that tell the truth, and collaborative, creative writing experiences for our students based on a variety of mentor texts.

Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue


Daniel Nayeri’s Printz Honor winning memoir Everything Sad is Untrue, defies classification. While it includes true tales from Nayeri’s youth in Iran and in refugee camps before his family finds asylum in Oklahoma, it is also a fictional nod to Scheherezade, the famed storyteller from Arabian Nights who uses story to preserve life. The writing is so riveting and arrestingly poetic that I often found myself moved to tears, folding pages and highlighting passages as I read so that I could quickly return to them later. The true hero of the story is Nayeri’s mother, whom he describes as a relentless force.

Nayeri writes, “I don’t know how my mom was so unstoppable…Maybe it’s anticipation. Hope. The anticipation that the God who listens in love will one day speak justice. The hope that some final fantasy will come to pass that will make everything sad untrue…Unpainful”(Nayeri 346). 

Photo Courtesy of Red Samurai on Zazzle

Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig

Fleischman, who is renowned for his Newbery medal winning book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, also wrote Whirligig, the story of one teen’s transformation from a murderer riddled with guilt, to a prince of tides. 

After accidentally causing the death of Lea Zamora while attempting his own suicide, Brent Bishop’s penance, assigned by his victim’s family, is to create whirligigs and place them in each corner of the United States in their daughter’s memory. Though Brent doesn’t feel worthy of forgiveness, he considers that perhaps the decisions he made that led to Lea’s death don’t make him irredeemable. It’s possible that he is a beautiful mess just like everyone else. He also reflects on the longevity of the whirligigs he’s created, and the legacy he’s left behind.  “Maine summers, like dawn colors, were brief. Darkness and winter predominated…but his memorial would give off sound and color all year, holding back the tide of death…Lea would not be swallowed up”(Fleischman 125). Brent has morphed from a prisoner of his past to a prince of tides, free to roam and create a new life for himself from the ashes of his old one.

 Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and the World War I Poets…

I’ve written previously for Three Teachers Talk about how much I enjoy sharing Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Our Town with students, but Wilder also wrote a plethora of shorter plays beginning when he was a teenager longing for distraction from the monotony of algebra. He composed a variety of what he called Three Minute Plays for Three Persons, and one-act plays including Pullman Car Hiawatha, a play that was in many ways a prototype for Our Town, and playlets like The Angel That Troubled the Waters. 

What’s fascinating about these plays is the way that they mirror human life by illustrating the miraculous in the mundane. They invite us to recall that even when we might feel like we’re in the gutter after an exhausting year of teaching, the stars are still shining. We only have to look up to see them. 

Reading Wilder’s plays, famous World War I poetry, and letters written by a relative of mine who died in the Battle of the Argonne inspired me to write my own short play recently (an excerpt is linked here).  

This year, during our study of stage and page poems, I would like to invite students to use a combination of World War I poetry and several of the poems that we read by living poets, to write their own scripts. This will give students an opportunity to write collaboratively from mentor texts, and to blend narrative, poetry, and maybe even pieces of their own life stories that might otherwise be lost to history and imagination.

World War I Poet Rupert Brooke

Poetry Foundation has excellent resources for delving into the work of World War I poets such as Rupert Brooke, whose movie star looks

 and ability to capture public sentiment in the early days of the war, gave him mythical status during his brief lifetime. Other poets whose work has endured include Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen. One of Owen’s most famous poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” has many different recordings on YouTube that are fantastic for classroom use. My favorite is this version performed by British actor Ben Wishaw. 

I hope that your summer is filled with opportunities for relaxation, and also with reading of stories and poetry that move you with their beauty and honesty, and will in turn move your students in their reading and writing journeys.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Friday Night Quickwrite 6/18

Welcome to another Friday Night Quickwrite. As the days are heating up (at least here in Indiana!), I hope you take some time to grab a pen, a notebook, and a refreshing drink and write with me.

I stumbled upon a blog I want to share with you. Tales of the old forest faeries is simply beautiful! The photos are stunning, and the poetry is inspirational.

Tonight I share with you a poem titled “She Danced.”

And, that very night
She danced,
Like
She had never danced before
Like she knew
She would never
Dance
Like that, again

Poem written by Athey Thompson

After reading this poem several times, I began to see a metaphor for life. When were the times I “danced” in my life? (Metaphorically because I don’t dance!) Danced like I had never danced before? Like I knew I never would?

This poem took me to how my parents divorce affected me and how my husband was a gift because marrying him was when I truly learned to dance again. The poem led to the notebook page, which led to the blog post – The BIG Dance.

Where does this poem, or any of the poems from the blog, take you? I would love for you to write with me any time this week and share your thoughts or your process. Happy Writing!

Leigh Anne teaches 6th grade ELA in southern Indiana and is trying to beat the heat by spending time in the pool and sipping sweet iced tea! You can find her on Twitter @Teachr4 or on her blog, A Day in the Life.

Guest Post by Sandi Adair

On my way home from school on the last day, I made a side-track to drop off a book for a student. As I left the book on the porch with a post-it note attached, I jumped into my car and drove off excited for her to get this surprise. We had just spoken on ZOOM in the chat extensively about this book, and how I thought she should add it to her summer reading list. This is a student who I have only met in person once this year, but created and maintained our connection via messaging back and forth during class. I knew what books she had read, and some of her interests, so I had the perfect book for her to read next.

Early on, I set an expectation of daily independent reading to start class, and while I could easily monitor and conference with my face-to-face students, the virtual realm is where it got trickly. My in-class kids liked to tell me that the virtual kids weren’t really reading, and the ones that returned were quick to come clean about that fact. Nonetheless, I didn’t give up, and found my readers, nurtured those that needed suggestions and created a dialogue of honesty and frankness about reading habits. Some read the news all year; others listened to podcasts. Through it all, they had a choice. And the ten minutes of solitary silence also did something for our collective mental health. That I know for sure, because students told me weekly that they enjoyed that time to read and regroup. The act of focusing on the words on the page, getting caught up in a story, or hearing the familiar voice of the narrator was calming, something we needed so much this year.

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

The gift of words can come in many forms. Sharing these words together, sharing these experiences, sharing these situations–that is what I choose to continue. I am not naive to the fact that my students on the other side of the screen may not have actually been reading, but when I played an audio, or read aloud to everyone (yes even in 10th grade), those were always the best days. Sharing words, sharing stories, sharing experiences together – that is the silver lining of the year.

Time and time again, my students told me that they enjoyed reading our one class novel that we did together this year, and they asked for more. That was the one thing they asked for, to read more books together. Due to the nature of the school year, we actually read and listened to our class novel. The conversations that ensued were like water in a desert. Talking about ideas, themes, characters and more was a shared experience that brought us together. 

Sharing books together is the biggest joy of being an English teacher for me, and always has been. We have the important duty of sharing what we love, welcoming new perspectives and ideas, and creating readers of all ages. Kids want to be challenged to think, discuss, be engaged, enlightened, listened to. Getting virtual students and in-person students to talk together as one class was the single most important and rewarding aspect of this year. I knew that if we were reading something that day, it would be a good day. 

Sandi Adair has been an English teacher for 23 years. She was a Dallas Morning News Teacher Voice Outstanding Columnist in 2014. Currently, she teaches high school in McKinney, Texas.

You Tell Me You Know What It’s Like To Be A Teacher In A Pandemic

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic.

Yes, you’ve had zoom meetings, too!

You worked from home as well, juggling

kids, work, health, social isolation.

You were also scared, but somehow

somewhat relieved because of the freedom

from hectic schedules.

You, too, weathered the pandemic.

But were you forced back

to in-person work while the government

officials declared that you were essential

not for educating children, but to get the economy

back “up and running”?

Were you forced to do your job twice over

in-person and online at the same time?

Were you also given new duties of nurse,

custodian, and therapist for the inevitable trauma?

Were you constantly gaslit, told to “smile,

the kids need to see that everything is okay,”

yet you went home and often cried because

no one was assuring you?

Were you then told that despite

your hard work and grueling year,

“the students are behind” and

you must find a way to “catch them up”?

You tell me you know

what it’s like to be

a teacher in a pandemic,

and you may have lived through

this historical event at the same time

as us, but

you will never truly understand

what it has been like

to be an educator in this time.

Find the artist on Twitter @alabbazia

One of my favorite Quick Write lessons of all time was when I showed my students this video of Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley performing “Lost Voices,” and then we responded with our own poems, starting with the line “You tell me you know what it’s like to be…” From there, students could choose any identity they had that they felt people often acted like they understood or could relate with, but it was too deeply a personal experience that those outside of that identity could never understand. This idea came from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days in the Narrative section where they provided all sorts of mentor texts for “swimming in memoirs” to encourage students to address their own story from lots of angles.

When I did this lesson with my students in my second year, they soared. I got quick writes that started with “You tell me you know what it’s like to be autistic,” “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an assault victim,” and “You tell me you know what it’s like to be an immigrant.” Each story, each window into those students’ lives were so powerful. I often did not know what it was like to be what my students were writing about, but their willingness to be vulnerable in their writing helped me see from their eyes and understand just a little more.

As I recover from this year of teaching in a pandemic, my mind wandered back to that activity, and I began writing the beginnings of the poem above. As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggle with finding time/space/ideas/willingness to write. I keep having to learn that it often only takes a strong mentor text and I am off to scribble in a notebook. This remembering will play a huge role in my teaching this coming year. I am also having to constantly re-learn/remind myself how powerful a tool writing is for processing things. It has been an almost impossible year for many teachers, including me. It is only the beginning of summer, but I have had all sorts of reflections and emotions surface. I hope, if you want to get into more writing as well, that you will take time to soak in the words of these poets and write your own “You tell me you know what it’s like to be” poem. Maybe it’ll help you process the emotions and experiences of your year, too.

If you do write using these ideas, please share in the comments or tweet it tagging @3TeachersTalk.

Rebecca Riggs is a writer (or tricking herself into being one the same way she does her students- by just declaring it so). She is currently reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Her current obsession is trying out new cookie recipes and working hard to not fill up her entire schedule so she can actually rest this summer. You can connect with her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs or Instagram @riggsreaders.

Friday Night Quickwrite 6/11

Welcome to Friday Night Quickwrite! Each week I will share something that has sparked my writing and hopefully will spark yours as well.

I struggle with finding balance in many areas of my life. It seems I overdo one thing and neglect others, whether that is a balance between work and home, time with family or by myself, or even a balance between time spent reading or writing. Does this sound familiar?

This week I ran across a blog post from Stephanie Affinito, A New Perspective: From Balance to Beats. She explains how there is no such thing as balance, and she shifts the thinking from balance to beats. (Before writing today, I encourage you to take some time to read her post.)

She further explains “If we think of teaching and learning as a melody played in our classroom, then we would naturally expect variation in the beats over the course of the song. The rhythm might shift from fast to slow, gain intensity and then dissipate and even have a repeating chorus. The point is that the variation is what makes the song a song and the varied practices in our teaching are what make a classroom a classroom.

I have also included Stephanie’s sketchnote to get us going. There is so much to think about and unpack from this blog post, quote, and sketchnote.

Although this is designed for thinking in the classroom, I took some time to write questions about my life in my notebook. These questions led me to some answers and some goals, which I have chosen not to share.

What melody are you creating in your classroom? In your own life? Please take some time to think about this week’s prompt and share your your thoughts and where your writing took you. If this prompt inspired a blog post, then please share the link in the comments. As always…I look forward to writing with you this week.

Leigh Anne is a 6th grade ELA teacher in southern Indiana and is trying to find a new summer melody by focusing on and taking care of her. Follow Leigh Anne on Twitter @Teachr4 or on her blog, A Day in the Life. She would love to connect with you.

My Top Ten Books of the 2020-2021 School Year

This year has been a long one, but one thing that went well is the amount of reading my students and I did. As of today, I have finished 69 books, and I still have about three weeks to go. Find calling a title a “favorite” is difficult for me, I have narrowed down my list to a “top ten.” The order below depends on the day. (I’ve already changed it at least 12 times, and there are other titles I’m reading now that could have made the cut.)

10. Starfish by Lisa Fipps (realistic fiction in verse)

“Whale.”

“Splash.”

 These are just some the awful nicknames Ellie hears often from an early age, even from her own mother. It seems almost everyone in her life believes her weight is a problem, except her father. Her mother hides her food and makes her try various diets, and even considers bariatric surgery. At school, no one sticks up for her, especially after her best friend Viv moves away. Ellie knows she must follow her self-created Fat Girl Rules if she wants to survive, and she does. Ellie has her pool, where she can be a starfish and just float, a place where she’s weightless. After a particularly horrible incident at school, Ellie’s dad takes her to see a therapist, who helps her begin to heal, as well as use her gorgeous, powerful voice.

I’ll truly never forget Ellie. She’s a beautiful human being, inside and out. An empowering book to teach all readers that size doesn’t matter, as well as how debilitating words can be.

9. Grown by Tiffany Jackson (mystery)

17-year-old Enchanted Jones wants to be a famous singer, so when the legendary R&B superstar Korey Fields sees her audition one night, he immediately takes her under his wing. Months later, Enchanted wakes up groggy with blood all over her, and Korey Fields is lying next to her, dead. What follows is what happened before the murder: an inside look into what Enchanted thought would be her dream come true. Instead, she was sucked into a hell she couldn’t get out of, no matter what she, or her parents, attempted to do.

Another gripping read from Tiffany Jackson! This story was oh so difficult to read, for Jackson doesn’t hold back on the descriptive details when it comes to the horrific abuse Enchanted suffered through. But, this story must be read. It must be shared. Time for some tough conversations about rape culture and older men who prey on teenage girls.

8. We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (historical fiction)

14 Japanese American teens weave a story together, starting three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 14-year-old Minnow begins with the harsh, appalling racism that many Japanese-Americans faced during this time. Soon executive orders are given, and anyone of Japanese decent, including those that look Japanese but aren’t, are rounded up and sent to internment camps. At times, the teens stay strong, for they have each other. Other times, they witness such atrocities that they don’t know how to go on.

This book taught me so much, from the stories, to the photos, to the author’s note. Yes, I knew about the internment camps, but Traci Chee made me feel like I was there. I cried, I laughed, and I even felt anger and shame, for so many Americans committed such horrific acts against their own people.

7. Stamped (for Kids) adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul (nonfiction)

“RACE. Uh-oh. The R-word.” This nonfiction title, which is adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul from Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, tells the 400+ year story of racism in America in a way young readers can understand. My son, who’s 11, and my daughter, who’s 9, both understood the majority of it and had a lot of great questions. By the end, it was my children telling me they learned so much. More importantly, they want to learn more.

6. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (nonfiction)

It began in August of 2019, when the first 20 enslaved African men and women were delivered in Jamestown, Virginia. What follows in 400 years of true African American history, oppression, struggles, and achievements, from the British ships that stole Africans from their homeland to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. This collection of 90 essays and poems–edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain and written by many famous historians, scholars, and poets–tell the real stories. The ones that our white-washed history textbooks left out. “But as the narratives in Four Hundred Souls reveal, Black people have never stopped dreaming, or fighting for those dreams to become a reality.” These stories capture “a spirit of determination,” as Blain stated. These 90 powerful pieces share how much Black people have overcome, as well as how much work still needs to be done.

5. Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden (realistic fiction)

Meet Libby. She is a budding artist who is tired of most people–teachers, classmates, and neighbors–assuming she is a bully just like the rest of her family. In fact, Libby is far from it, and she knows it. To prove this to herself, she uses her artistic ability to make colorful notecards with positive messages on them, and leaves them for others to find. Little does she know that her words set off a chain reaction that will lift up three other kids who need her encouragement at that time.

Libby and the three other children are all unique and imperfect, but there’s so much to love about each of them. This powerful book that will encourage readers to pay it forward. My own two children created notecards just like Libby did and posted them around our neighborhood.

4. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee (nonfiction)

Heather McGhee, an expert in economic and social policy, shares why the economy often fails its people. After extensive research into many aspects of it, she found one root problem: racism. Though many of us may not realize it, over centuries, racism has seeped into every aspect of our lives. They’re all interconnected, from public education, to integration, to the housing market. The question is, can we fix this? McGhee argues yes. She introduces the zero-sum policy–the idea that progress for some must come at the expense of others–and proves it wrong. McGhee’s compassionate, yet honest account introduces us to the tremendous challenges our country still faces. Racism has cost us so much, but reminds us that there is reason for hope. We can still prosper together, and honestly, we have no other choice right now. As McGhee says, “We need to refill the public pool of good for everyone.”

3. Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (realistic fiction)

17-year-old Maverick Carter is the proud son of King Lord legend, Adonis Carter. Life in Garden Heights isn’t easy, but Maverick has a smart, beautiful girlfriend, and a cousin who is more like a brother. He doesn’t want to sell drugs, but when he finds out he is a father himself, he doesn’t have a choice. He’s got to provide for his son, for money is tight at home, even with his mother working two jobs. After getting a part-time job at a local store, Maverick begins realizing that being a King Lord is keeping him from being the man, boyfriend, and father he needs (and wants) to be. But you can’t just leave the King Lords, and his part-time job doesn’t pay what selling drugs does. But just when Maverick thinks he has the right plan, a murder in the Garden changes everything.

I finished this book within 24 hours! Maverick’s story is beautiful, powerful, and oh so important. I loved seeing all of the connections to The Hate U Give, and even to another YA author’s book as well (see if you can find it!). You’ll fall in love with Big Mav all over again, and you’ll have that much more sympathy for him when he makes mistakes, and sometimes learns from them.

2. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

Award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson introduces readers to the American caste system, “a rigid hierarchy of human rankings” that’s hidden under race and class. Wilkerson masterfully links our caste system with those of Nazi Germany and India, often showing how the American caste system influenced theirs. She explains the cruel logic of caste, for there must always be a “bottom rung” that’s subjected to little respect, and rarely gets the benefit of the doubt and access to important resources. It’s a cruel system that shows what Black people are truly up against.

Wow. Where do I even start? Wilkerson’s research is quite extensive; she weaves facts in with engrossing stories from real people, like Satchel Paige, Dr. King, people she interviews, and many of her own, showing the numerous ways caste is experienced every single day. Oprah’s right: “This is required reading for all of humanity.”

1. In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (realistic fiction) 

Cash Pruitt lives in Sawyer, Tennessee, a small town filled with gorgeous rivers and rolling hills, but also addiction. He already lost his mother to drugs, and his Papaw is dying from emphysema. The only positive that addiction brought into his life is Delaney Doyle. She’s a scientist at heart who teaches Cash so much about the world. They provide one another distractions, and are each other’s lifelines.

On one of their trips into the wild, Delaney makes a scientific discovery that changes their lives: she earns both Cash and herself full scholarships to a Connecticut boarding school. Deciding to go, Cash can’t help but wonder what this school will do for him. His experience ends up being more than he could ever have imagined.

This book truly has it all! I laughed, cried, and took about eight pages of notes because of all the beautiful language I wanted to save. Jeff Zentner has a remarkable talent for creating realistic, lovely, unforgettable characters. I fell in love with so many of them for the oddest of reasons. Zentner has truly outdone himself, for this is a literary masterpiece. Be sure to grab a copy when it comes out in August.

So that’s my top ten of this school year. I would love to hear what others are reading (and loving), so please share your favorite(s) in a comment below.

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 19th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

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Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

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