Tag Archives: Book Talks & Book Reviews

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.


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


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).


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! 


Three Good “Ninja” Books About Children of Alcoholic Parents by Amy Estersohn

downloadI’m always on the lookout for ninja books – the kinds of books that address tough issues directly, but are also swift and subtle in how they go about doing it.  These are books that have middle school-appropriate characters, plot points, and pacing with some high school-ish themes.  See also: author Kerry O’Malley Cerra’s #mggetsreal campaign.

Without further ado… here are three terrific ninja books about children of alcoholic parents:

Shug by Jenny Han

Shug (nickname for Sugar) is stuck between being a child and being a teen, and she’s in the unfortunate situation of having a huge-o crush on her male best friend, Mark.  While Shug is primarily an optimistic if awkward tween relationship novel, astute readers will pick up on Shug’s mother’s social withdrawal and her tendency to rely on wine to solve problems.  This novel reminds us that chemical dependency can affect anybody without regard to class or gender.

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

This book is about a boy named Arthur Owens who throws a brick at an old man’s head, nearly killing an old man. Whenever I booktalk this book, there’s always a reader who says, “Surely it was an accident that Arthur threw the brick.”

To which I smile and say, “No, Arthur really meant to throw that brick.”

The Seventh Most Important Thing just might be my favorite book ever, if I really had to choose a favorite book.  It’s a book that transformed me; it’s also transformed some of the readers I’ve worked with, readers who have never felt compelled by any particular text until THIS ONE.  (Note that this book isn’t some magic cure-all, as some of my readers find it a little too character-driven and not cliffhangery enough.  But still.  This book.)  

I won’t give too much else away here, but I will say that Arthur’s father did his best to be a good dad to his children despite a struggle with alcohol.

This Side of Home by Renée Watson

Watson has written a book I can only describe as a gentrification romance.  Twins Maya (named after Maya Angelou) and Nikki (named after Nikki Giovanni) are watching their Northeast Portland neighborhood change before their eyes.  It’s becoming more white, the stores are changing, and their neighbor and best friend Essence’s landlord has started remodeling the bathroom and kitchen … before raising the rent on their apartment.   Maya wants to go to Spelman with Essence, while Essence isn’t sure she’ll be able to leave Portland and her alcoholic mother, who constantly needs her help.

Each of these three books gives a different lens into how different characters may cope with an alcoholic parent, and each of these titles could appeal to younger and older teens.

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.

Thanks for the Great Read #FridayReads

I think it was a “thank you,” of sorts.

My associate principal, the ever-smiling, ever-supportive, Anita Sundstrom, had asked at the end of last school year to borrow some books to read over the summer.

I sent her home with Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale (and I swear to the heavens and Nicholas Nickleby that Ms. Hannah isn’t paying me to write about her book. Though I may have mentioned how it made me weepy here, and how I broke the law to read it here,  and how the lovely Erin Doucette – who is so very lovely that she helped me with the title of this post at 7:31 a.m.- and I book talked it for the whole school here).

Only a few days later, I received a text from Anita. Something about reading until two in the morning and then not being able to fall asleep for fear of Nazis.

As I said…I think it was a thank you.

She couldn’t put the book down and immediately wanted another recommendation.

Translation: A book captured a reader and fueled a desire to keep reading.
Further Translation: The deepest desire of each and every English teacher fulfilled.

However, it wasn’t until I went to book talk The Nightingale for my current students a few weeks back, that I noticed the Post-it stuck to the inside cover of the book: “Thanks for the great read. – Anita” 

It made me smile. And want to pass on the book love.

So, when I did the book talk, I shared the brief reading story above and showed that Post-it to my students. I joked that Mrs. Sundstrom’s note added street cred to the book. After all, she’s a former science teacher.

Translation: The book has a wider appeal than just a tearful (though sincerely passionate) English teacher.
Further Translation: I now had an idea to help “sell” more books.

Next to the book return bin in my classroom, I placed a stack of Post-its and a few pens. I introduced the idea that we could all help each other better understand the books in our library and their appeal by leaving each other notes in the text. 

These quick little reviews could reach out to readers in search of a book. Those souls searching for a little connection to the readers that have gone before them. Swaying back and forth in front of the bookshelves. Staring. Now, they would have the recommendation of fellow readers right there in the book. The book that would already be in their hands.

Sometimes those Post-it notes can recommend a book I’ve not yet book talked. Sometimes those notes can recommend a book before I can get over to the shelves and help a student select a text. Sometimes those notes lend cred to book when a cover/title/description doesn’t do it justice.



Read a book.
Love it.
Leave your name and your thoughts on a sticky note.img_6677

Simple, right?

Helpful too.

Now I tease kids that their old school Post-it note reviews might find their way to Mrs. Sundstrom’s office, which is better than finding themselves in Mrs. Sundstrom’s office.

My hope is that the inside covers of my books end up looking like our writer’s notebooks: colorful, messy, informative, creative, and full of inspirational, deep thoughts.

So, thank a peer, thank a friend, thank a reader, thank a book. #FridayReads and then pass it on.

How do you capture students’ thoughts on books they love? Please share your ideas in the comments below! 

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.

Using the Whole Book: A Nose-to-Tail #FridayReads

“Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul.” 

I love this quote from Joanne Harris. I love her book, Chocolat, and truth be told, I really love the movie adaptation’s casting of Johnny Depp as Roux… for aesthetic reasons. Seems there’s a lot of love up in here.

Speaking of book love. It’s a rare and wonderful treat to see a student experience this type of consumption through reading, but it’s delicious when it happens in my own life as well.

My heart has been most recently consumed by Gloria Steinem’s new memoir My Life on the Road and this week it became a text I was sharing with everyone.

Now, don’t hurt me, but I’m a bit too young to have really appreciated Gloria Steinem’s political prowess, revolutionary movement for equality, and inspirational professional ascension to feminist icon firsthand. I had, however, heard the name and when I heard an interview with Steinem on NPR, I was immediately hooked by her candor.

Steinem was on All Things Considered, discussing the inspiration for her new book, and I caught the interview on my way home from work.


Bookmark courtesy of one crafty Shana Karnes

Safety alert: I used the Amazon app on my phone to purchase the book while at a stoplight. Unwise, but enthusiastic. Book love makes you crazy.

Steinem’s explanation of her text as part analysis of family dynamics, part travel journal, part personal exploration of leadership, and honest look at how we all live, had me intrigued. The fluency of her voice had me convinced that her prose would float off the page as beautifully as her words were floating through my car radio. Her stories had me laughing and almost crying just in the course of a six or seven minute interview.

In short, I knew this would be a captivating book.

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how relatable, inspirational, and downright touching this memoir is.

And thus began my very public consumption of and by this text. In the course of a week, I have:

  • Book Talked this book to all my classes. I explained the above reading story to my kids and shared a passage with them where she talks about being a reader and writer. Perfect for my readers and writers! “Writing, which is solitary, is fine company for organizing, which is communal” (40). 
  • Shared several pages with my 9th grade colleagues working on character development in their classes. Steinem goes into rich detail about her father and the struggles her family endured at the whims of his wandering spirit. She then talks pointedly about how her own travel (detailed later in the book and familiar to those that know and devoured Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert) was most likely inspired by her youth, even though she wanted nothing more as child then stability. Students could relate to those first few instances in life where we start to see our parents in our behaviors. (I’m personally turning into my father).
  • Used that same section on character as a mentor text with my sophomores to discuss narrative purpose. Steinem’s anecdotes about her father in this section are reminiscent of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, but at the same time made several of my students laugh out loud when we were reading. The author’s voice here shows poignancy through her choice of heartwarming and heartbreaking stories about her youth. We analyzed each of the anecdotes that Steinem shares in this section by having students break up into groups and evaluate how the author might have intended to use that anecdote in her self-proclaimed purpose to show how she had long been embarrassed by her father.
  • Utilized a specific quote with my AP students for a quick write. We are currently studying education and focusing on an essential question of “To what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education?” I projected Steinem’s quote of “When humans are ranked instead of linked, everyone loses”(44) on the board and asked students to quick write on their reactions to this in light of our unit essential question.

I have also raved about this book to my husband, colleagues, friends, and three-year-old daughter, to whom I’ve suggested that she must travel, embrace her power as a woman, and learn from everyone she can. She asked if we could play Candy Land. I may have a ways to go with that one.

But at the end of the day (and week, yay!), this is a book that tells the story of what it means to explore the world and find a home wherever you are and does so with a voice that will make you want to read, share, and repeat. As a bonus, it details the life of a budding writer. For students to read and digest the struggles, joys, and challenges involved speaks deeply to what we ask them to explore in our classrooms each day.

What texts have consumed you recently? How are you sharing them with your classes? Please comment below! 

Steinem, Gloria. My Life on the Road. Random House, 2015.

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

9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts

This fall is my first out of a high school classroom, and I miss this season of watching teens fall in love with books. I relished the task of matching every kid with the right book, armed with the energy that a crisp autumn morning and a pumpkin spice latte afforded me. By this time in September, I’d usually managed to hook most of my readers, but I had also identified my holdouts–those few skeptics who just didn’t think there was a book for them, who I couldn’t entice with a booktalk, or bribe with a “just try it,” or persuade through a conference.

So, I always turn at this time to the power of social capital, harnessing tools like speed dating with books, book passes, or writings in Red Thread Notebooks, to get my students recommending books to one another.  If I couldn’t hook my holdouts, well, their friends were my last hope.

So, to recommend some titles to hook your holdouts, I decided to ask my former students for their recommendations: what’s the last book you read that really hooked you?  Their responses, via Snapchat, are as follows:


Anna recommended Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of essays that are both scathingly funny and weightily serious about communication between men and women. It’s a great pick for your holdout who doesn’t want something long–he or she can devour one of these essays in no time.


Connor recommends the National Book Award winner Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This beautiful text, a commentary on race in modern America written in the form of a letter from father to son, “was intriguing because it touched on social justice issues in a way that I could relate to even though I had never had to deal with those issues,” according to Connor. It’s a fantastic, fast read whose subject matter will really draw you in.


Gabi’s recommendation is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a story of twisted justice told by a young, new lawyer. Stevenson’s idealism wars with the machinations of politics and injustice and biases, and is written in a voice that has made many compare the narrator to Atticus Finch. If that doesn’t make your holdouts fall in love, I don’t know what will!


Jocelyn recommends Leslye Walton’s award-winning The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a prose book of fiction that reads more like beautiful poetry. Ava is born with wings, and writes in a voice direct and melancholy–she reminded me of Madeleine from Everything, Everything. And, as Jocelyn notes, the cover is gorgeous, which is sure to help hook your holdouts.


Claire recommends Donna Tartt’s layered novel of accidentally-murderous friends, The Secret History.  Tartt, the Pultizer-winning author of The Goldfinch, introduces us to a group of college students who, through their readings and conversations, begin to fancy themselves above the law–both legal and moral. As Claire says, it’s a brow-wrinkler that’d be great to recommend to a reader you just can’t challenge enough–and its writing is amazing.


Olivia recommends John Green’s Paper Towns, of course!  Recently adapted into a film, it’s the story of a misfit boy who loves a supercool girl from afar, and then is inexorably sucked into her world of adventure in the tale that ensues. John Green is a YA favorite for a reason, and you’re sure to hook some holdouts with the knowledge that the book was big-screen worthy.


Caleb recommends Ashlee Vance’s exceedingly well-written biography, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future. Musk, described as a “real-life Tony Stark,” founded PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and other billion-dollar companies throughout a life filled with both struggle and success. While telling Musk’s tale, Vance compares his work to inventors from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, and entices the reader to wonder whether anyone can compete with geniuses such as Musk in a technology industry as competitive as today’s.


Garrett recommends Hank Haney’s The Big Miss, an inside look at Tiger Woods’ golf game through the eyes of his coach. While Tiger was always a gifted athlete, his mental game made him constantly fear a “big miss”–a wild shot that could ruin an entire round. Haney gives insight into Tiger as an athlete as well as a man, who ultimately committed a big miss in his personal life that derailed his golf game far more than he ever saw coming. This is a great pick for any athlete who’s holding out on reading.


Allison recommends C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a book I equate to a modern version of Dante’s Inferno. The story begins with the narrator boarding a bus, which takes him on a long journey of discovery about himself, great truths, and the nature of good and evil via a trip through Heaven and Hell. Described by many as their “favorite book by C.S. Lewis” (a real feat, since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so colossal in our culture), this allegory will be sure to hook any holdout into some irresistibly deep thinking.

Now that I’ve had my proud-teacher moment of so many of my former students continuing to be lifelong readers (and look at all their actual BOOKS lying around!!!), and significantly expanded my own TBR list, I hope you’ll ask your students to recommend some engrossing titles to help hook your holdouts.

What books are your students recommending to one another? Please share in the comments!

Ugly Cry Round Two – #FridayReads

Hi. My name is Lisa, and I’m a book hugger. “Hi, Lisa…” 

I feel like I can tell you this. Like you’ll understand and still let me sit near, if not at, the cool kids’ table. See, last week I was a dork. This week I’m a book hugger. Is that super dork? Literate dork? Biliophilic dork?

Either way, I’ll own it. That’s totally fine. In fact, if I know myself at all, as I hugged my copy of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale this morning,  my eyes were probably a bit wild too, breath bated, satisfied smile projecting my hope that pens would fly across the pages of our “I want Read” lists. Basically, when I book talk, I feel like the author is standing next to me. “Get them interested, Lisa.  Get them thinking. Sell it. Put my book in their hands, and hearts, and minds.”

So obviously…no pressure.

One of my AP Language students, Zach, smiled as I stood hugging my book today.img_5539 “Mrs.Dennis,” he said with a coy smile, “you’re super emotional.”

Who? Me?

Well…ok. Maybe. I do love a good cry. The “cathartic, wring you out, snot on the back of your hand, tell everyone to read the book” cries are my favorite (Please see my unraveling at the hands of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness). But I know that you know; you’ve been there. Whether the tears actually fall or not (and they should, trust me, it feels great), a book that captures you can feel like a conversation with a good friend, an exploration of pure emotion, and a learning experience that leaves you a better person. Talk about a worthwhile human endeavor.

So, I quickly reflected and responded to Zach’s observation. “True, true. Hallmark commercials make me cry, but with books, that shows a pretty deep connection, doesn’t it? When the characters in a book are so real that you feel their struggle. When their stories remind you of your own, even if their life experiences are completely different from yours. That’s what I want for you. That’s why I’m up here hugging this book. Human connection.”

With further reflection, it’s how I have chosen each of the books I’ve book talked so far this year. No, they haven’t all made me cry, or I know for a fact that I’d be missing a significant portion of my audience; however, they have all been books that have touched me in different ways, to different degrees, and in different parts of my life.

So far this year, I’ve book talked:

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan – This text started my summer reading and while it’s justly won acclaim for it’s themes surrounding racial tension in the south, betrayal, and the secrets that can bury a family, I spoke to my classes about the rich voice Jordan is able to give a wide variety of characters. With a new narrator each chapter, you see this story from all angles and each is more personable and heartbreaking than the next.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I finished this book right before summer break and I book talked it then too. It has quickly become one of my favorites as a cautionary tale and an all too real examination of how gradually, but how drastically people can become complacent to the loss of personal freedom. I took students down a “let’s imagine” path by asking them which events in their daily lives they inadvertently take for granted, but would certainly miss if they were denied the privilege. What if it was the right to have your own money that was denied? Or the right to travel? Or learn?

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – The characters became family to me. I realized that the terrible trials of World War II were occurring when my grandmothers were the same age as the main characters. Just because the pictures of the time period are in black and white, doesn’t mean the stories to come out of that time period are any less real. Or relatable. Or powerful (I hug what I love. I loved this book. It may be my current favorite piece of fiction). My three copies of this book disappeared today. I was tickled.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – This is the first book I read this school year. I took it down in three days and could not stop laughing. I told my students that my connection to this book surprised me, and I think that’s part of the endearing quality of protagonist Junior’s voice. He hooked me with fart jokes. Certainly not my usual forte, but Junior’s search for hope is so real. And as I said to students, we all search for hope in different capacities. Junior searches off the reservation. I search the room during reading time. Just as Shana suggested, reading outside your comfort zone can offer some big rewards.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – We’ve been well over this one. Ugly. Cry.
Though an additional sell, at the moment, is the forthcoming movie based on the book. My students want to take a field trip, but I’ve only committed to investigating the release date, if they get on reading the book. All six of my copies are currently gone from the library shelves. Win.

So, as I wrote last week when I was working to get to know my students, I feel it’s important to share who you are as a person, as much as you share who you are as a teacher, and illustrating you are a reader and writer is a part of that
img_5537-1opportunity/responsibility. With that in mind, showing you are a passionate reader is even more impactful. I feel like my students are getting to know the real me (dork and all). It’s the very best way to start building honest relationships. The kind that build trust, and thereby, community.

I’ve carefully chosen some of my favorite texts to book talk, followed my colleague Catherine’s lead in making my reading life visible, and jumped into this year with the goal of spreading my enthusiasm about books to another set of students through an honest look at what moves me, in a sincere effort to move them.  So far, so good. I just need some extra Kleenex boxes in room.

Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.


This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title

Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!

Mini-Lesson Monday: First and Last Lines

In the spirit of all the books we’re giving away (winners announced tonight!), today’s mini-lesson is one of my favorites to do with independent reading books.  It celebrates the beauty and power of language, no matter the text–poetry, nonfiction, YA, award-winners, graphic novels, and more.  It also celebrates the pure joy of discovery; the launch into a new world attained only by opening to the first page of a new book.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify patterns in opening and closing lines of texts, synthesize their noticings, and draw conclusions about a text’s craft and structure.

primcacyLesson:  “Have y’all learned about the concepts of primacy and recency in psychology yet?  Who can refresh us?”

A student reminds us that the concept says that the first and last items in a series are easier and more likely to be committed to memory.

“Well, this concept isn’t just for psychology.  It applies to books too.  The first and last lines of books are the most powerful, and the most likely to stick with us.  Let’s talk in our table groups about why the first and last lines are so powerful.”

I wander the room for three minutes as students discuss, in groups of 3-4, these concepts.  They conclude that the first line often sets the tone, introduces a new world, or hooks the reader with some mystique.  The last line, they say, helps keep the reader wondering, or solves a lingering mystery, or even makes you cry.

I write these conclusions on the board, or elicit them from groups if necessary, so that we’re all on the same page.

“Okay, let’s take a look at some of our current reads and see how they can grab our attention.  Open up your independent reading book and read the first line again, and then read the very last line, too.”  (There’s always some anxiety about this, but I reassure them that last lines rarely contain plot giveaways.)


(OMG, have you read this? It exploded in popularity the last few weeks of this school year. Read it!)

I ask a few students to give me examples:

  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children begins with “I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen,” and ends with, “We rowed faster.”  
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany opens with “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meaney,” and ends with, “I shall keep asking you.”
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August begins with “The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996,” and concludes, “Instead, for those few days you have left, you are mortal at last.”
  • Room opens with “Today I’m five,” and ends with “Then we go out the door.”

I ask students to write for a few minutes about all that they can learn from the first and last lines, based on what they already know of the text from reading.  This is key–the lesson is much different than a simple craft study of a text they’re not already invested in, because they’re bringing lots more prior knowledge to their text analysis.

7937843I quickly model with Room, whose plot is simply explained and well known from a recent booktalk.  “I notice the sentence structure first–both lines are short, simple sentences.  Then I get a sense of the narrator’s voice, as he is obviously five years old, and that shapes how I’m going to view the text.  I also know that while they start out trapped in Room, they manage to escape somehow, either literally or figuratively, because of the last line.  I’m intrigued by all of these things, and it sets me up for what sounds like a pretty good read.”  As I talk, I note on the board the kinds of things I’m noticing–craft, tone, characterization, theme, plot, sentence structure.

Students write for five minutes about these topics.  Because they’re midway through these books, they have more knowledge of the text than just the first and last lines.  After a few minutes of writing about what they’ve noticed, I ask, “Now, how does revisiting the first line, and looking ahead to the last line, shape your reading of the text?  What do you find yourself thinking about?  What do you predict might happen?”

Follow-Up:  After students have written their reflections, I ask that they pass notebooks.  They’ll read all of their table mates’ entries, providing 2-3 mini-booktalks–a variation on speed dating.

This lesson could also be a great companion to Jackie’s mini-lesson on writing leads.

This lesson also acts as one of a series of lessons leading up to the students’ writing of a craft analysis of their independent reading books.

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