Tag Archives: book recommendations

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

Shifting our Middle School Reading List to Include Authentic Voices

British Columbia, where I teach, has recently gone through a large shift in educational philosophy and has introduced an entirely new curriculum. The introduction of this new curriculum has required us to reflect on our current curriculum in our Grades 6-12 classes and make changes to reflect the changes required by the province. As well, this has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on our current reading lists and to refresh some of the novels we have our students read.

One of the first areas we focused on was our literature circle unit in our Grade 6 English classes. The unit was one that connected with the Social Studies curriculum our Grade 6 students were also studying and focused on immigration and migration stories. While we still liked the theme of this unit, it became quickly apparent that we needed to refresh our literature circle novels. While each of the novels we used to teach in the unit focused on immigration or migration stories from different parts of the world, not a single novel was written by an authentic voice. Instead, they were all written by caucasian and North American authors. While there are many amazing caucasian and North American authors we want to share with our students, in a unit about the immigrant experience it seemed a little strange that we had no immigrant voices. Many of our students are first generation Canadians whose parents immigrated from many different places in the world and we wanted our students to hear stories from immigrant voices or voices from the cultures being presented in the novels.

This started us on a quest to find new books for this unit. Below are the results of our English team reading as many novels we could find that would suit our criteria and the books we decided to replace our old reading list with:

Inside Out and Back Again: By Thanhha Lai: This beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Hà and her family. Hà has only known life in Saigon and the streets of her neighbourhood. When the Vietnam war starts, however, she and her family are forced to flee Saigon and end up in Alabama where she and her family experience the culture shock of living in a world completely foreign to the one they fled from.

Escape from Aleppo: By N.H. Sendai: This novel is set in the very current events happening in Syria. After the events of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, 12 year old Nadia and her family are forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria. This harrowing and heartbreaking novel tells of what it is like to leave everything you know behind to make the dangerous trek to the unknown as Nadia and her family make their way through their war torn country to seek refuge in Turkey.

The Night Diary: By: Veera Hiranandani: In this novel we are transported to 1947 India where India has just won independence from British rule and the British held Indian territory has been divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Our 12 year old protagonist Nisha is half Muslim and half Hindu and finds that she doesn’t know where she belongs anymore as the Hindu part of her extended family is moved to India and the Muslim part of her family is moved to Pakistan. Nisha and her family are originally resettled in Pakistan, but her father decides it is too dangerous for them to stay there. The story follows their family as they make the dangerous trek to attempt to leave what is now Pakistan to find a safer place to live.

The Only Road: By: Alexandra Diaz: This novel is the first in a series. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is killed by the Alphas gang in the small town in Guatemala his family has called home for centuries, he knows it is no longer safe. The gang violence that surrounds him every day is so extreme and Jamie is worried he will be the next victim, so he flees with his other cousin Ángela to try and make their way to New Mexico to live with his older brother. This novel follows the dangerous journey they make largely on foot to get from Guatemala to the United States.

With these novel choices we are hoping to revitalize our Grade 6 literature circles and to provide our students with authentic voices sharing important stories of the risks people will take for the safety of their families.

Pam McMartin is English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is thankfully enjoying her midterm break from school this week and has been working on repainting her bathroom and catching up on her reading (not at the same time) before heading back into the madness of end of the term teaching and marking. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Every Child Matters and Sharing the Stories that Matter

residential-school-books-display_origEarlier this week we observed Orange Shirt Day at my school. Orange Shirt day is a day to recognize, remember, and reflect on the many Indigenous children who were taken away from their homes to live in residential schools. The residential school system has a dark legacy in Canada and the United States and the after effects still ripple through Indigenous communities today. In fact, the last residential school located in Saskatchewan did not close its doors until 1996 – a fact that is always shocking to my students when I share it with them.

The tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters and it is a tagline that has resonated with me as I participated in Orange Shirt Day, as we ran in the Terry Fox run as a school to raise money for cancer research, and as I plan with my student council for National Coming Out day on October 11th. While we promote the message that Every Child Matters and we hope our students feel that way as they leave our classrooms, the reality is that in the current world political climate and with the news stories our students are surrounded with each day, it is so easy for our female students, our LGBTQ students, our minority students, our refugee students, or any of our students who feel a little different to feel like they do not matter.

Last year I had the privilege of seeing author Thomas King speak at a conference. Thomas King is an American-Canadian First Nations author who has written numerous novels dealing with the First Nations experience. In his session, King was asked if he believed that story has the power to enact change in the world and his answer resonated with me. King answered that if you had asked him that question years ago, he would have answered with a firm yes, but now that he is older, he can not answer the same way. He was, like so many First Nations people, angry and fed up with the government’s inaction to follow through with promises they had made during the last election. He said that story is powerful, but often not enough and sometimes you just need to get angry and speak your mind. His final point was that if you are going to use story to change the world, you better find those voices that are strong, angry, and give voice to the voiceless because those are the stories with power.

King’s answer has stuck with me as I feel like too often I have used the empty platitude that “stories can change the world” with my students, but then I look at the stories they are being shared and the voices are often so heterogenous and not reflective of their voices and their concerns.

So, I have started a quest to diversify the stories I introduce to my students and to find those angry voices, those suppressed voices, and the voices that speak for them. In this post I will introduce you to a few of these powerful stories and will share others I discover in later blog posts.

The Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King

This powerful work is King’s reflection on what it means to be Native in modern North American. He discusses the historical events that have so impacted his people, but also ruminates on how popular culture has served to frame the narrative that many First Nations people are stuck in. King does not shy away from exploring the darker parts of history in this work, so it would be most suitable for Grades 10-12 students.

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ngozi Adichie’s name may sound familiar. Perhaps you have seen her powerful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story  (I love to use this TED talk to spark discussion about the missing voices), or have read her beautiful novel Half a Yellow Sun. Her work We Should All Be Feminists is a short piece, an extended essay, but it is an important exploration of the need for Feminism in the 21st century and how 21st century feminism must be one of inclusion and awareness. In fact, the Swedish government felt that this book held such an important voice for today’s youth that in 2015 they decided to give every 16 year old in their country a copy. We have used this book with Grades 8-12 students at our school and how found content accessible to all age levels in the range.

These are just two of many amazing books that share the voices and stories of people with powerful and important messages. Over the next few months, I will share some more I have come across and I would love it if you could share some of your own suggested titles in the comments below!

To read more about harnessing student voice in a time of political unrest and fear, check out Lisa Dennis’ powerful post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently on a quest to help empower student voice through reading and writing and welcomes any suggestions you may have in regards to either.  Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

A Reading Conference with Tom Romano

I am fortunate to be on friendly-emailing terms with the great Tom Romano, from whom I’ve learned much about good writing instruction, multigenre, and student voice.

So when I received an email from him the other day, asking for book recommendations, I laughed aloud. My most excellent writing mentor, asking me what to read next?

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I admit, I balked a little at first. This was like having Tiger Woods ask you what golf club to try next. But then, I fell back on my tried-and-true reading conference strategies, which I’ve used countless times over the years with reluctant and prolific readers alike.

As with any student, I had much of what I needed in order to give a good recommendation between the request itself and my background knowledge of Romano. When students need help finding something to read, we’ll often meet at the bookshelf. As they stare blankly at the wall of books, one of the first questions I ask is:

“What are you in the mood to read?”

Often, students can give me a feeling–something fun, lighthearted, serious, or challenging–or a genre–romance, nonfiction, adventure. It’s even better when they can give me specific titles that relate to their preferences. I usually glean these titles by asking:

“What’s the last book you read that you loved?”

In his request, Romano gave me all the information I needed–he wanted something literary, something like The Nightingale (which I’d read after Lisa recommended it to me), Atonement, or All the Light We Cannot See. He’d also answered another question I usually ask readers:

“What’s your reading plan?”

Knowing where a student will be reading this book–at work in short spurts, at home in long stretches, or on a crowded bus on the way to an athletic event–impacts my recommendation as well. Here, Romano told me he’d be reading for long, uninterrupted stretches of time in airports, so I knew I could suggest something all-consuming.

So, I stuck with my usual formula:

I recommended three titles.

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Exit West is a title I’ve heard a great deal about and would love to read, but haven’t gotten to yet; The Secret History is an amazing hidden gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt that I read about 15 years ago; and A Man Called Ove is a new viral title that made me sob hard over Girl Scout cookies and coffee as I finished reading it. My three recommendations usually consist of something old, something new, and something I haven’t read yet.

I wrapped up my pitch as I always do, with a clincher:

A promise of what the book will do for the reader.

A week went by, and last night at 11 pm, I received another email from Romano:

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“Loved Ove.”

A successful end to a successful reading conference, if you ask me…but of course, like any other conversation about books, I couldn’t let it end there. I just had to throw in one more recommendation, which I always do for my students when they return a book:

“If you liked that book, you should try ______________.”

This quick exchange of emails, like so many off-the-cuff conversations we have with students, was packed full of powerful data about a reader’s interests and abilities; a teacher’s knowledge of texts and titles, and most importantly, the transaction between the two parties–a shared endeavor to find a just-right book at just the right time.

All our words are imbued with purpose and power when we are discussing literacy. Reading conferences don’t need to be formal, sit-down conversations all the time. They have just as much weight when they’re held standing at the bookshelf, passing in the hallway, or from afar via email. This reading conference with Tom Romano reminds me: never take any of our talk about books for granted.


Do you have a what-to-read conference “formula?” What other titles might you recommend to Tom and me? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is eagerly awaiting the end of flu season so she can go back to work without worrying about her two tiny daughters getting sick…again. When her family is actually healthy, she teaches preservice educators at West Virginia University, goes for long runs while listening to even longer audiobooks, and tweets about reading, writing, and school at @litreader.

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