Tag Archives: book reviews

A Little Learning with Big Outcomes

Last week was tough. If you teach in TX, you probably know what I mean.

December means STAAR/EOC testing, and while I teach readers and writers in 11th and 12th grade English classes at a large senior high school, many of my students carry the label of “re-tester.” (It’s an ugly label; isn’t it?)

All week students who have yet to successfully pass all five exams required to graduate filed into testing rooms to try again. This meant many disruptions for students not testing.

All week the English hall, along with other rooms, became the testing center. Classes displaced. Students out of comfort zones. Just a bit of chaos.

We know how well this works for learning.

In an effort to get my students settled in, back in our classroom and back in our routine

Julian shares his haiku

Julian sharing his haiku

of workshop, we played with words.

Testing disrupted our writing project, a series of letters in a variety of forms with a variety of tones, all related to a self-selected thematic link. We needed a revision workshop, but my seniors were not having it. With just 10.5 days until winter break, plus 8.5 until the end of term, many are already playing XBox and watching Netflix in their heads. (Me, too, but at least I’m fighting it.)

Since we read our choice books at the beginning of every class period, and I work daily to hold students who have not read a book on their own throughout high school accountable, I am constantly trying something new.  Today the new turned pretty cool.

We wrote book reviews in the form of haiku.

The tremendous thinking about word choice — well, it was kind of magical. (If only students would always think about word choice with such care.) Here’s a sampling of our book review poetry:

A book can contain

many life lessons that we

can use in our lives.

~Cesar Perez

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Are her thoughts her own

or does the tightening coil

control her whole being?

~Maria Cruz

Turtles all the Way Down by John Green

my life was stolen

but after 18 years I

got to hug my mom

~Grace Foust

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

being arrested

for helping his ex-girlfriend

Being black is hard.

~Di’Myrius Owens

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

her eyes captured me

I lost myself in her heart

Owned me from the start

~Axel Ibarra

The Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

Looking for a path

Twisted and in need of help

How do I escape?

~Jesse Borjas

Dark Dude  by Oscar Hijuelos

Running for freedom

Garret escapes boot camp

Fear, risk run with him

~Cris Velasquez

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Black lives do matter.

Police brutality sucks.

assume all black steal

~Alondra Rosales

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

The first hand account

No excuses for mistakes

Kill Osama Bin

~McKenzie Bowie

No Easy Day by Mark Owen

This simple activity led to a complex discussion about the power of words and why we need to revise our writing in order to craft with purpose. We discussed adding figurative language, creating imagery, using complex sentences. I taught how to write appositive phrases, a grammar move my students did not know.

And as students moved into their writing groups, they talked about their plans for revision. Teaching writers does not get much better than that.

When our students take on the identify of writers, they talk like writers, and they write with purpose — choosing words and phrases and making moves like real writers do.

Side note:  Some of my students produces haikus that revealed needs in their reading lives. For example, one student wrote that Fahrenheit 451 was set in WWII, and another showed confusion in the change of point of view in All American Boys. Their book review haikus gave me an action plan for reading conferences. Bonus!

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP English Lang & Comp in North TX. She loves to get her students talking about the things that matter to them. She also loves to get them talking about the things that matter to us all:  books and words and poetry and writing and serving people everywhere. Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

More Than a Coach, a Reader

Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)The following is a guest post from an inspiring teacher and football coach I met this summer. He sent it to me the day after my daughter got married, and I’ve been playing catch up with life and getting-ready-for-back-to-school ever since. Sorry, I am late in posting it, Charles. You have to know, this post excites me:  I’m excited for the PD experiences we had this summer. I’m excited for the students who will walk through your door this fall. I’m excited to know you will spread your love of books and reading far and wide — and I’ll be excited, and not at all surprised, when you share a few titles with your linebackers. (Have you read Twelve Mighty Orphans?)


It’s August 6th and my summer is effectively over. We start football camps Monday and I’ll work until 5pm most days making sure helmets are ready, tackling dummies are out of storage, and duties are clear. This isn’t a necessarily dreadful thing because I love coaching football, and this part of the year is rife with expectation and uncertainty.

It’s also, for me, a time of reflection. Did I make the most of my time away from the classroom? Did I find enough time to shower my own kids with love and affection? Did I make sure I did the dishes and laundry and kept the house in order so that my wife had time to relax when she got home from work? I hope the answer to all these questions is “yes,” but I fear it’s a “maybe,” at best.

I was at school most days. The first two weeks after graduation were dedicated to our very first CCISD Literacy Institute, and mornings spent with athletes at Strength and Conditioning camp consumed most of the rest. The Literacy Institute was an incredible experience in almost every way. I learned so much from my teaching partner, Meggie Willner, and we both fell head over heels in love with our group of STAAR Camp students. Working with our curriculum director, Billy Eastman, and Amy Rasmussen made this the most valuable professional learning I’ve ever experienced. Those two weeks will make a difference in the lives of students in my class and the time trade off was more than worth it. Strength camp is bittersweet because I didn’t get to sleep past 6:15, but my football players and my own kids were there for most of it, and seeing them learn and work was worth it. For better or worse, this physical connection to campus means that I never really stop thinking about teaching or coaching. I’m always there.

My summer was, for the most part, wonderful. Whether afternoon napping, writing, playing board games with my kids, or swimming in our new swimming pool, my family and I always found ways to fill our time with laughter and joy. This summer was, however, different, and not just because of our much deeper sun tans. This summer I read like a “real” English teacher should. I’ve always listened while my colleagues extolled the virtues of their summer reading regimen. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been known to crack open a book on a hot summer afternoon while sitting in the cool air-conditioning, but it hasn’t been my habit. Reading during the summer always felt like “work,” and I shouldn’t be working during my break. I should be chasing my kids around the house, helping them build blanket forts or taking them to the trampoline park. Reading threatened to get in the way of all that fun, but I wasn’t going to use that excuse this summer.

This summer, I consciously committed to being an avid reader, and while I’m sure many of you read much more than I did, that felt like a success for me.

CharlesMoorebookstackI read so many amazing books and looking at my stack makes me realize what an eclectic collection it is. I read fiction, memoir, poetry, a thriller short story anthology, and even a graphic novel. I read the first book in a series, the fourth book in a series and a few standalone novels.

I’m proud of the volume that I consumed (remember I must spend SOME time thinking about inside linebackers). I’m proud of the variety and scope and I think it will make me a better teacher going forward.

These are the books in the order in which I read them:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My teaching partner, Meggie, and our curriculum director, Billy, wanted to throttle me when I told them how I felt about this book. They both RAVED about it and I really didn’t care for it. I’m sure a second reading would do it justice because I was dealing with a lot personally and professionally at the end of the school year while reading it, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I hope this doesn’t make me an embarrassment to the profession.

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Rebar

They say reading is like a roller coaster and I went with an easy to read book for the Literacy Institute at the start of summer. A super straightforward, gently-paced book was exactly what I needed at the start of summer. I really enjoyed this book and for those seeking YA that appeals to both boys and girls, you can’t go wrong here.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

I loved this book!!! It is a blend of Sci-Fi and fantasy with a strong female protagonist. I loved the author’s take on super powers and the surprisingly effective post-apocalyptic setting. I was tempted to read the second and third books in the series, but I want this world to be there for me when I want to revisit it.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

This book spoke to my teaching soul. Vance examines a culture drowning in poverty and while it’s a reflection on his firsthand experiences, I felt like there was so much from his past that echoed in mine. I don’t think I realize how much our students’ home lives affect their school lives, but this book made me reflect on it again and again. This book coupled with a viewing of The Shack, directed by Stuart Hazeldine caused a sort of mid-summer epiphany that will change my teaching in the years to come. Another blog post, maybe?

Scythe by Neal Schusterman

I one-clicked this book the day Billy Eastman book talked it at the literacy institute and once I picked it up, I couldn’t stop. It’s original and well-written and even though parts of it were somewhat easy to predict, others still kept me guessing until the end.

the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

I read this poetry book under a shade tree in Wimberley, Texas, on our 16th annual summer camping trip. My mother-in-law noticed how fast I was turning the pages while reading this one and told me it wasn’t a real book. I handed it to her and she read it cover to cover. We didn’t talk about it, but I think we both knew how it affected us: deeply.

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe by Cullen Bunn and Dalibor Talajic

Determined to read a graphic novel, I picked up one about my favorite Marvel character. I’m not particularly experienced with graphic novels, having only finished George R. R. Martin’s graphic novels that are companions to his A Song of Ice and Fire. It was fun but not intellectually stimulating. Maybe this experience will help me with a reluctant reader or two or maybe give me some “street cred” with my Manga readers.

Matchup edited by Lee Child

Please don’t hate on my man crush on Lee Child. I’m obsessed with his Jack Reacher character and devour anything Child publishes. This book is produced by the International Thriller Writer’s Association and paired a dozen female authors with a dozen male authors to write a dozen short thrillers with varying success. There might be mentor texts here.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

This book was a quick read for me and it made me feel like an idiot because I didn’t see the plot twist until it was too late. I really enjoyed reading about how Yoon’s main character dealt with her problems the way a teenager would. I think this is an important book for our students to experience. To some, the main character’s relationship to her mother will be an eye-opener; to others, all too familiar.

Vanguard by Ann Aguirre

A vanity read if there ever was one. I love the Razorland trilogy and I couldn’t resist buzzing through this fourth book in the series. The love story made me uncomfortable at first, but I think books should do that sometimes. I enjoyed the happy ending in this book as my summer also draws to a happy ending. A modern Romeo and Juliet story? Maybe, maybe not.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

This might be the top of the list of my summer reading. The story was incredible, the characters were deep and it is set in the same part of the country that J. D. Vance visits in his memoir from earlier in the summer. I love when books connect like that. This is one of the few books this summer that would keep me up late at night reading. I fell in love with this book and can’t wait to read Zenter’s Goodbye Days (if I can ever get it back from our freshman A.P. teacher).

Ah, the ones that got away…

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

The Last Neandertal: A Novel by Claire Cameron

House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

and so many more…

So now I must start a list for the new school year. I don’t typically read a lot during football season. Working 80-hour weeks and trudging through months without a day off will take the motivation out of me. But maybe I can set a goal for the fall. Something to reach toward even when my knees and ankles are tired and my eyes won’t stay open.

Maybe I can get to school 20 minutes earlier and squeeze in some reading while the coffee percolates. I crush coffee.

Charles Moore is the senior English team lead at Clear Springs High School in League City, TX. He enjoys leisure swimming, reading, and coaching linebackers. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

desire-is-the-starting-point-of-all-achievement-not-a-hope-not-a-wish-but-a-keen-pulsating-desire-which-transcends-everything-napoleon-hill

I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Best Books About Life and How to Live It

Amy and I have been talking a lot lately about how to help our students connect meaningfully to the books they’re reading independently.  This focus on personal connections stems from our recent reading of  Louise Rosenblatt’s work, our effort to make our instruction authentic, and our noticing of the ease with which our students disconnect from the world.

One activity we gave our students the option to complete was the creation of their own Top 10 Lists, like this one.  Emily’s list is titled “Life and How to Live It,” and it is full of her own personal connections.  It’s reflective of Emily’s desire to become a published other, full of her love for literacy and learning about the world through reading.  I hope her passion spreads to your students when you share this list with them.

img_1502Emily’s Top 10 List: Life and How to Live It

Here, I present to you my top ten favorite books all loosely based around my personal favorite theme to read about: life and the different outlooks different people have on life. Some see the good in life, some see the bad, and others get to see both. Each one of us will face hardships throughout our lifetime while later on finding that one thing that makes us feel as if we have a purpose to exist. When we first open our eyes at the beginning of each day, we are faced with the option to treat this day like a curse, hiding away from this beautiful life we are given to live, or to focus our attention on the positives we have. The choice is yours.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver is hands down my favorite book of all time. I first read it in middle school and have been in love with it since then. The idea is basically that Jonas, the main character, lives in a utopian society with no bad whatsoever. At age 12 everyone in this society receives their career, and Jonas has a difficult time dealing with the career he has been given. I love this book for a few reasons: one is the way that the book itself is written, and the other is the story behind it. I love the idea that Jonas is the only one who gets to see the bad in the utopian society, because to me it sends the message that what may seem perfect, deep down has repressed secrets we all can’t see.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men: a classic. In this tale Steinbeck tells the story of George and Lennie, two friends who take on the hardship of the Great Depression. Lennie, however, takes on more considering he is practically a father figure to George. Times get hard, but they don’t give up on each other. In the end, Lennie realizes that sometimes no matter how much you love something, if it’s not what is best for you then you can and will be able to survive without it, no matter how hard it is. I think overall this is the reason why I love this book so much.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

This book brings me to tears–a lot of tears. Based on the true story of a young man who is happy in his life, living a life full of money and materialistic things. On the other side of the story, his old college professor Morrie is diagnosed with a deadly disease and must reunite with Mitch to teach him the things in life that are truly important. I love the idea behind this story, that in life we get lost in materialistic things and lose sight of the things that are most important in this short life we are given.

717Tx5+P+7LIt’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

The relationship between myself and this book is remarkable. I can honestly say that I personally connect to it more than most other readers. This book is about a young man who deals with severe depression and one night decides to admit himself into the hospital after contemplating suicide. He then spends a week in a psychiatric hospital, learning things about himself and everyone else. Vizzini actually spent time in a psychiatric hospital before writing this book which makes it that much better considering he can grasp the inside look on what it’s really like. I, myself, have spent time behind the doors of a psychiatric hospital, and strangely enough my story started off almost the same way Craig’s did.

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Yet another amazing book that has the ability to bring tears to my eyes. The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows the story of Charlie, a freshman in high school who is struggling with depression and anxiety issues. Through letters, he talks about the good days and the bad, along with what is going through his mind. Charlie befriends Patrick and Sam who being to show him that it is okay to be different from everyone else.

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska by John Green is a beautifully written story of a young boy who develops the nickname Pudge at a private high school where he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Alaska Young. So much happens while they are there together and he learns a life lesson. She teaches him to not be afraid of life, to go out and grab it because it can be a lot shorter than we expect.

Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns tells the heart-warming story of Quentin Jacobson who has secretly been in love with the girl next door, Margo. Margo taught Quentin a lesson which is the main reason I love this book so much – she taught him to go through life without being afraid of adventure. This is one of my top favorite books because I relate to Margo and her adventurous personality. I love Morgantown but I have always wanted to move somewhere where I can start completely over – the idea of recreating myself in a new place is thrilling.

410BrI9l37L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Skinny by Ibi Kaslik

Many teenage girls face a deadly mental illness – anorexia. Skinny tells the story of Giselle and how her battle with anorexia has flipped her life around. It also tells the story of her younger sister, Holly, and how her sister’s disease is effecting her life as well. The writing in this book was not my favorite, but it was still a great read. I love the idea that someone would want to put the issue of anorexia into words. My favorite part of the book, and the main reason it made my list of favorites, is the fact that it not only goes into the mind of the person facing the anorexia but someone close to her as well.

Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler

When I first started reading this book I didn’t think I would make it through but I’m glad I decided to finish it. Afterparty follows the story of a quiet girl who moves to a new town and decides it’s time for a change. She meets new people and gets to experience new and exciting things. This is something I have always wanted to do, which is why it made this list. Getting into a new place where you get to start completely over is more than exhilarating.

Everyday by David Levithan

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be someone else for a day? To get inside of their minds and read their deepest secrets? A, the main character in Everyday, gets to wake up in a new body each and every day. To me, the idea of this is both terrifying and fascinating. When I was reading this I was thinking about the psychological aspects of this because I want to become a psychologist one day so I will be in people’s mind, understanding then, just as A does.

What other titles teach readers about life and how to live it?  Please add your recommendations in the comments!

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