Tag Archives: books and boys

Top Books for Reluctant High School Readers

IMG_2877“I’m not a reader.” I hear this multiple times during my first weeks of conferencing. The non-readers are easily identifiable; their body language alone speaks volumes of their disdain for books.

“You just haven’t found the right book,” I tell them, and they smirk, knowing they’ve heard that statement before.

The first week of school is a vital week of matching students with books, and while I itch to recommend titles, I hold back, giving my freshmen the independence and freedom they so desperately crave in high school. Too often students blindly accept recommendations without so much as a thought to the contents. They lack self-awareness when it comes to their reading interests or style, which is why those first two weeks are essential to not only organizing but also empowering them through choice.

Throughout the week, I book talk popular titles, engage in “speed dating” with books, and provide ample free time for students to explore our classroom library, but I also get out of their way. Instead of telling them what to read, I model ways to find a strong candidate, considering reviews, awards, contents, genres, and summaries.

While the majority of the class tends to quickly settle into their books, there are always stragglers who remain convinced they’ll never enjoy reading. These students sometimes grab the first book they see off the shelf, and oftentimes these books are too dense, difficult, or in some cases “boring.” That is okay! I settle into conferences with these students, getting to know their hobbies and eventually handing them two or three books that might pique their interest. In the end, they still choose what to read, but in the process they might require some initial guidance.

IMG_2870Regardless of who picks the book, the end result remains the same—to find a plot that envelops and consumes students, forcing them into the story. Here are some of my number one titles that tend to break down the shell of even the most reluctant readers.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I’ve already had three students read this book, one of which is Leah, a gamer and self-identified non-reader. When I asked if she has ever had a favorite book, she thought for a second then said, “I think this one might be the only book I’ve ever really liked.”

The Compound by S.A. Bodeen

Adrian initially picked a sequel to a book he read last year. “You must have liked the first one then?” I asked.

“Not really,” he replied. “I just didn’t know what else to read.” The next day he picked up The Compound, which is full of the fast-paced suspense he craves.

Paper Towns and Looking for Alaskaand basically everything by John Green.

I chased Emily up the stairs for this recommendation. When I asked her which one sparked her interest in reading, she said she couldn’t remember which had sucked her in. She just knew that despite her protestations at the beginning of the year, by the end she “loved them both.”

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

Damion had only ever loved one book and he was bound and determined not to like any in my classroom; that is until he came across this futuristic, survival story. Upon sitting down beside him for a mini-conference last year, he looked away from his book briefly to say, “Ms. Catcher, I’m at a really good part and I can’t talk right now.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

“I’ve had people give me ‘dark’ books before, but they aren’t dark at all,” Sarah tells me. I hand her three options, one of which is Gone Girl. Three days later she tells me, “I’ve spent my whole life hating books, and you’re the first teacher who ever found one I actually liked.”

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

I book talked Unwind second this year. It’s a given crowd pleaser because of its twisted plot and graphic scenes. The fact that I only have one copy of my four originals is a testament to its popularity.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Carter claims he hasn’t read a book cover-to-cover since third grade, but he has fallen in love with Chbosky’s classic on teenage life. He said to me today, “Ms. Catcher, I love that this book talks about real things, things that are actually happening to us.”

“That book is only the beginning, Carter,” I said

What books do you recommend for reluctant readers?  Which titles are most popular in your classroom?

A What-to-Read Conference: Books on Bullying

Many of my reading conferences happen at the bookshelf, as students finish one book and begin the search for another.  Here’s one example I just can’t stop thinking about.

Yesterday, a former student of mine came down to my room to borrow a book.  This particular student didn’t start out as a reader, so I was really excited to see him seeking reading material independently a year later.

“Do you have Winger?” he asked me.  We walked to the bookshelf and looked for it–all my copies were checked out.

“Why are you interested in Winger?” I asked him.

“Christina told me about it this summer,” he explained.  I smiled–books were still going viral, beyond our classroom community and into the summer months.

“Well, they’re all checked out.  What is it about that book that interested you?”

“The bullying,” he said, looking away.  Bullying?  I was surprised for a moment that this particular student was curious about bullying–he was a popular kid.  He drove a cool car, had a boisterous and charismatic personality, and had a trail of lovesick girls whose eyes followed his every move.  But then my surprise faded–all high school students, no matter how popular, confident, or smart they seem, struggle with their peers’ meanness.

I had to decide–what do I teach into here?  This student as a reader, or as a vulnerable teen?  I am no longer his teacher–so I don’t have to teach him as a reader, right?

Wrong.  I chose to treat this as a reading conference…but in doing so, I knew I was giving this student the tools to deal with the issue of bullying.

411MJMpTseL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I began to suggest alternate books about bullying, and I promised him that I’d set Winger aside for him when it was returned.  He ended up leaving with Thirteen Reasons Why, but I also suggested Nineteen MinutesYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Truth About Alice, Speak, Wonder, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe, and By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. 

I knew that when that student finished Thirteen Reasons Why, he’d be back.  I knew that I could guide him toward more books about this issue he was curious about, and that our future conferences could help him climb a reading ladder about bullying.

“Reading ladders take students from one level of reading to the next logical level…We can help them stretch as readers by showing them books that mirror what they already like but that…will challenge them more,” says Teri Lesesne in Reading Ladders.  By continuing to guide this student toward more complex books about the same issue, not only would I be helping him to grow as a reader, I would be offering him more titles that could help shed more light on the difficult issue of bullying.

Penny Kittle is fond of saying “reading saves lives.”  My own classroom library is emblazoned with the quote “We read to know that we are not alone.”  This student was seeking salvation, solace, and information in books.  He wanted to know that he wasn’t the only one feeling the way he felt, and he hoped to find a story that showed him a triumph over bullying was possible.  That he sought this guidance in a library shows the power of teaching readers…not books.

#FridayReads: Books Boys Love

Bedtime_readingAt the conclusion of our course with Tom Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, our class collaboratively created a list of books that boys love.

Please add your own suggestions for your male students’ favorite books in the comments!

  1. Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
  2. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
  3. Unwind and others by Neal Shusterman
  4. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  5. Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra
  6. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides
  7. Maze Runner by James Dashner
  8. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and BOY21 by Matthew Quick
  9. Mexican Whiteboy and others by Matt de la Pena
  10. I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
  11. Start Something That Matters, Little Princes, and other inspiring memoirs
  12. Winger and 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
  13. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  14. A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
  15. American Sniper, The Things They Carried, Ghost Soldiers, The Good Soldiers, No Easy Day, and other war books in general
  16. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  17. Boot Camp and others by Todd Strasser
  18. Stiff, Spook, etc. by Mary Roach
  19. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Anything by Gary Paulsen or Jack Gantos
  21. Iron Man, Deadline, and others by Chris Crutcher
  22. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
  23. Warhammer novels by Ian Watson
  24. The First Stone, Running on Empty, and other books by Don Aker
    • Walking Dead
    • Maus
    • Watchmen
    • A Dozen Demons
    • V for Vendetta
    • American Born Chinese
    • Chew 
    • Naruto
    • Pride
    • Persepolis
    • Burma Chronicles
    • My Friend Dahmer
    • Stitches
    • The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders
  26. Ice Time by Jay Atkinson
  27. Everything by Walter Dean Myers
  28. An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff
  29. Crank, Rumble, and more by Ellen Hopkins
  30. 4021A by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son)

Yes, You Can Get Teens Reading: One Senior High Campus Proves It

My department manager is wise, and I admire her leadership skills. She often asks, “What is your temperature?” to see how I am adjusting, coping, feeling, managing, dealing, doing with all that I must at my new school. Thankfully, although it’s my first year here, it rarely feels new anymore.

I like that Rhonda asks me questions about my readers and writers workshop classroom. She asks me to participate in discussions and professional development sessions. She validates me as an individual and as an teacher. I trust her, and I know she trusts me.

Trust is the greatest gift in the life of an educator.

We are an 11th and 12th grade campus. We are moving to a workshop pedagogy. Our district has changed the model of intervention by bringing in local National Writing Project consultants to write curriculum and train teachers. (I write about that in part in this post.) The ELA coordinator also hosted trainings with Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller, two of the brightest minds in workshop, last summer. Every time we meet as an English team, we talk about some aspect of reading, writing, and workshop in our classrooms.

Suggesting that we might like The Color of Law by a homegrown TX author

Suggesting that we might like The Color of Law by a homegrown TX author

Teachers are trusted to get their students reading. At LHS in every English class, visitors see students reading during the first 15 minutes of the period. Teachers have had training on giving book talks and conducting reading conferences, and we’ve started building classroom libraries.

I got an email message today: “What’s the title of that book, Story of Angel, or something. My copy has gone missing.”

The Book of Life by Angel,” I replied. It’s a hot title in my classroom, too. I have to replace it every year.

Our students are reading, and behaviors are changing for the better.

I heard one teacher say to another, “I like how reading at the beginning of class helps my students calm down. We get started with ease because they know to come in and get their books out.”

To build a culture of readers, we must trust that students will read when we give them time to so. We must model what that looks like.

Sharing a love for the work of R. A. Salvatore

Sharing a love for the work of R. A. Salvatore

We must trust our teachers to be readers themselves. How can we talk about books to kids if we are not reading them? Children of all ages revere authenticity.

Each week when we meet in our department meeting, a teacher gives a book talk. They share a bit of the passion they have for an author or a book.

Jeremy shared his love of fantasy, and Jayne shared a bit of Dickens in her fun fake British accent then talked about a new book she enjoyed by a Texas author. Karen read from The Yellow Birds and The Things They Carried and talked about how they made a nice pairing, and, most recently, the baseball coach Mike talked about a book he loved. (I wish I could remember what it was, but I forgot to write it down.)

Administrators must trust that when visiting classrooms they will, and want, to see rooms of students silently reading. What better activity in a class designed to improve literacy skills than to see all students engaged in the practice of it?

Students come to trust that reading and books provide value to their lives because the adults in which they trust value it, talk about it, model it, and, if necessary, enforce it.

Too many teenagers claim to be non-readers. Ask them, if you haven’t. They will tell you truly.

They will also tell you when they experience a shift in that thinking. They are surprised — and grateful.

an excerpt from my student Joseph’s last independent-reading evaluation

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Craft Study and a Book Club Addition: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I needed a book for my next student book club. I knew the book had to deal with war, literally or figuratively, in some way, so when I found Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, I had to crack the pages and give it a try.

I can see why Khaled Hosseini said this:  “Such a rich book. It’s angry, it’s moving, it’s compassionate, it’s dead serious, but it’s also really funny.” (I just finished re-reading A Thousand Splendid Suns as part of my students’ current book club. I trust this author.)

I’ve only read half of Fountain’s book, and I’ve marked almost every page.

Literature lover heaven.

Here’s a review in the NY Times in 2012. You can read how someone else likes this National Book Award Finalist, too.

Honestly, the last time I read something that struck me so emotionally was Yellow Birds, and I rave about it, too.

The story takes place at Dallas Cowboy Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Bravo Squad is on a national tour “to reinvigorate interest in the war.” Billy Lynn, a specialist in Bravo, experiences moments of “pure love and bitter wisdom” as he meets the owner of the Cowboys, a born-again cheerleader, and various “supersized” players eager for a vicarious taste of war” (back cover).

Maybe I love this book so much because I’ve been there — sat in Cowboy’s Stadium and sort of thought similar things.

“The Goodyear Blimp is making labored passes overhead, bucking like a clipper ship in a storm. The Jumbotron is airing a video tribute to the late, great “Bullet” Bob Hayes, and displayed along the rim of the upper loge are the names and numbers of the Cowboys “Ring of Honor.” Staubach. Meredith. Dorsett. Lilly. This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it. In two days they will redeploy for Iraq and the remaining eleven months of their extended tour, but for now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American — football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, “Yew ARE America.”

They take the steps two at a time. A few people call out greetings from the stands, and Billy waves but won’t look up. He’s working hard. He’s climbing for his life, in fact, fighting the pull of all that huge hollow empty stadium space, which is trying to suck him backward like an undertow. In the past two weeks he’s found himself unnerved by immensities — water towers, skyscrapers, suspension bridges and the like. Just driving by the Washington Monument made him weak in the knees, the way that structure drew a high-pitched keening from all the soulless sky around it. So Billy keeps his head down and concentrates on moving forward, and once they reach the concourse he feels better” (21).

Not that I am in any way comparing my experience to a soldier’s. I just mean I’ve felt the hollowness of that place, and as I sat there in the leather seats of that stadium, I kept thinking: “Oh, the classroom libraries the money for this place could have filled.” Seriously. It’s huge. And frivolous in an embarrassing kind of way.

Maybe I love Fountain’s book because my four sons are football fans. My oldest son played on a state championship team. Huge deal. If you know Texas football, you know exactly what I mean. For almost two decades my husband I lived high school football — sometimes three games a week. That’s like nine hours on a bleacher.

Maybe I feel a tug into Billy Lynn’s story because two of my sons plan on joining the military. I’ve got about two years before that becomes a reality. (Right now they are serving missions. One in Puerto Rico and one about to leave for Taiwan. Missions then military. Both far from mom.)

I’m trying to show my students how literature can touch us, take us by surprise, raise our awareness, make us feel things we never imagined. That’s what is happening as I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

That’s what I want to happen to them.

So I keep reading to find books for my student book clubs. Our next one starts after spring break. Students will choose to read one of the following. I am pretty confident everyone will find something that speaks to them (and we can practice analysis skills with pretty much anything.)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

ROOM by Emma Donoghue

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Do you have any suggestions for books that have particularly moved you? I’ll add your suggestions to my TBR mountain.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

He read ZERO books before he came to me. Not Good Enough.

He came to me pretty much hating to read. This tall freshman, eager to talk and laugh, and constantly wanting to do anything else but open a book. He admitted that he read zero books his 8th grade year.

The first book I got him to attempt was Game, a chapter book of about 160 pages that took him four weeks to get through. Every day I had to put a hand on his shoulder and whisper “Get to reading.” Next, he tried Gym Candy, and while he seemed to read it faster, he couldn’t tell me much about the plot or the characters.

Finally, with a stroke of luck, this young man picked up Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach. I had book talked it a week or so before, reading the first few pages to the class. At the time, R.J. wasn’t interested. When I saw him with this book, I hurried over and practically begged him to give it a try. “Okay,” he shrugged and moved away from the bookshelf toward his table.

Every day for two weeks, R.J. came to class and told me how much he had read. “I like this book,” he smiled at me more than once. He finished this book in two and a half weeks, and then took himself to the bookshelf to find I’m with Stupid. (At the time, we thought this was the next in the series.)

When I finally made it over to kneel by R. J.’s table and conference with him about his reading, he told me that the beginning was hard to read because the main character’s family was “weird,” but he really liked the parts about football. We talked about character development and how the main character Felton changes throughout the book. “He grows up,” R.J. notices. I asked him what kinds of questions he would ask the author if he had the chance, and then I remembered:  I follow this author on Twitter.

“Hey, R.J., let’s take a picture of you reading this book and tweet it to the author. I bet he’ll respond.”

“No way…. Oh, okay.”

So we did.

RJ tweets to author

RJ tweets to author responses




R.J. left class that day feeling pretty special. He will finish his fourth book this week. His personal reading goal for the whole year was only FIVE.

Now, here’s the really cool thing:  While wondering the exhibition hall at NCTE in Boston, I struck up a conversation with the representatives from Sourcebooks Publishers. They asked if I knew of the books by Geoff Herbach, and, of course, I had to tell them about R.J. Then one of those very sweet insightful women reached under the table and handed me this:

Fat Boy cover

She understands the value of nurturing readers. She’s helped me make a difference in the life of this young man. I wish I could describe the yelp I got when I told R.J. he’d been gifted with an ARC of an ARC — how cool is that?

I’d love to hear your best “Conquering the Reluctant Reader” story. Please share.

Converting the Fake Reader

I’m trying something new this year:  my students are reading every day. Last year I reserved Friday for independent reading. Students did okay with that, but few read as much as I had hoped they would. This year I dedicate the first 10 minutes of every class to silent reading. We’ve been in school a month, and I have many students who have finished a book–some have finished three and four.

The first week of school I set the expectation, and I talked about books a lot. Every day I introduced a book and its characters to my students. I read passages and book covers. I testified to the importance of a book in my life. I read reviews and showed book trailers. I worked at getting a book in every single student’s hand. And it’s paying off.

Even for Ever.

Ever is that one student. You know the one. He grabs the first book off the shelf and pretends to read it. He does this every day for a week. You know he’s a Fake Reader. You’re just waiting for the right time to talk with him about it. Then one day he leaves The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells in the classroom–you know he’s not reading this book anyway. What normal sophomore would? So you hide it just to see what book he’ll choose to Fake Read next. He doesn’t. He sits. And does nothing.

Finally, you make your way to talk with Ever. “What’s up with this Fake Reading?” you ask.

He mumbles something that you don’t understand.

“If you tell me what you’re interested in, I can help you find a book,” you offer.

He shrugs but walks to the bookshelves, soon returning to his seat with a bright non-fiction paperback. You don’t see the title, but you watch to see if Ever’s reading.

Nope. He’s an Advanced Fake Reader.

Then he surprises you. He asks for help finding something real and historical, so you offer a stack of memoirs with authors from Cambodia, Iran, and South Africa. He doesn’t even bother to pick them up, but he’s drawn to the shelf they came from. You can see it in his eyes.

You’re pushing but not too hard. You barely know this child, and you know the first three weeks can make or break the relationship with a student for the whole year. Then you see him. He’s got a thin book–historical fiction. And he’s reading. He’s really reading Once by Morris Gleitzman.

The next day Ever is one of the first students in class. You glance over, and Ever is reading, and the bell hasn’t even sounded yet. You walk over to offer a bit of praise.

“Hey, Miss, I’ve read 120 pages since yesterday!” he tells you. And inside you’re grinning so widely your cheeks hurt.

Ever finishes that book the next day and reaches for Then.

Then You know you’ve got him when he turns the pages in Now.

And maybe, just maybe you’ve converted the Fake Reader.


How do you get your Fake Readers to give a book a try?

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