Tag Archives: readers/writers workshop

You Should Read the Book ______________________

Our Compass Shifts 2-1Like a lot of other people I know, I like books lists.

My friend Kelly posted a list on Facebook last week, challenging her closest friends to join her in a read-a-thon. I thought the list looked dull, the majority of the titles classics I had to read in middle and high school. I’d read 49 books on that list of 100, and the author had asserted “most people haven’t even read 6.” I was a lit major in college. I get it.

And I like to read. Most of my students do not.

I watch for interesting book lists because I am always adding titles to my classroom library. I watch for books that my students will read–like the books on this post: 21 YA Novels that Pack a Serious Genre Punch or this one:  15 YA Novels to Watch Out for This Spring.

See, these lists are more like temptation for bibliophiles like me than “These are the best books ever and you should read them” lists, which do little for the book addict in me. Huge difference.

I have a growing contention with anything “you must read.”  (Okay, not anything. I do require my students to read short works that we study for craft, and analyze and discuss together.) Too many students have told me it’s the force feeding of “boring” books that has made them hate reading.

I know that some might contend that it’s the way those books were taught, not the books themselves that turned kids off to reading. I get it. And I’m guilty of it, too. It’s not like I have never taught a whole class novel, but I doubt I ever will again.

I have a few colleagues who agree with me and many more teacher friends from across the nation who are more interested in developing readers than teaching books; my #UNHLit13 peeps Shana, Erika, Emily, and Penny for sure. Heather, too. She saw Kelly’s Facebook post, and I knew her ire was up when she commented: “I still have to ask. What makes these books more of a must read than any other book out there on the market?”

The topic must have lingered because she blogged about it here: Recommended Reading–Reading Lists. Heather’s question is a good one:

Who gets to decide what the BEST or the TOP or the MUST READ books are for

any given category of interest?

I recently read Janet Potter’s 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To and saved it to use as a mentor text at the end of the year when my students do their final personal reading evaluation. Potter asserts “What [book lists] miss is that one of the greatest rewards of a reading life is discovery,” and she produces a lovely list of ways we can decide which books we choose to read. That is what I want.

I want students to choose to read. 

“You should read the book that your favorite band references in their lyrics.

You should read the book you find in your grandparents’ house that’s inscribed “To Ray, all my love, Christmas 1949.

You should read the book whose main character has your first name.

You should read the book that you find on the library’s free cart whose cover makes you laugh.”

I am with Janet Potter.


You should read the book you choose to.

I hope that I can provide enough opportunity, enough time, enough titles that my students will have some kind of positive experience with books. I hope they will notice when people are reading, and they’ll peek at the cover and be curious enough to search out the title.

That’s what readers do.

We notice books. We notice others reading.


Dear Readers, how about we write our own list. Complete the sentence in the comments.

You should read the book ________________________________________.

Reel Reading for Real Readers: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Oh, man. I love and hate this book. You have to read it. Then we need to talk about it. It’s that kind of story, a hauntingly beautiful coming of age story.

Here’s the book trailer:

And a NY Times review


I would love to hear what titles are keeping you up lately. Please share.

A Text Study with Paired Passages that will haunt your heart

This wasn’t my typical spring break. This year I spent most every waking hour either snuggling a tiny new grand baby or chasing her 17 month old sister. Grandmother heaven. Especially since my daughter and my only grandchildren live 1300 miles away from my home in Texas.

I spent my late evenings reading a handful of books from my towering TBR pile. Two have left scars on my heart. And as I look at my beautiful and innocent granddaughters, I pray: “Please protect these babies.”

The girls in these books were not so blessed. Both suffered abuse and heartache. I know it’s fiction. I get that it’s not real. But the haunting images so artfully crafted by these authors have shaped my thinking in ways that I’d never considered. My compassion swells for those trapped in darkness and fear.

And I hope I can serve as rescuer to anyone who needs a person to trust. I know many students come to school hurting, hungry, hopeless. If only we can offer solace and provide peace, comfort, safety. If only we can help them fight their way to light and love, and help them be the actors in their own inspiring stories instead of always being acted upon–

My students will want to read these books, so I will chat about them and share these passages.  They are rich enough for text study and I’m sure will inspire some insightful conversation.

from My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt p122

Skills Focus:  tone, symbolism, hyperbole, metaphor

The worst thing was

Serena ending up being stolen

by someone else’s story–

just a character in his story,

and the ending she wanted to have

got him instead,

just a part of his stupid story . . .

that was the worst thing of all.

I threw up again,

maybe with a chunk of heart,

and Call came in and I said,

do you see any bits of heart in there?

He said, you’re losing it,

said, this could all be over in a minute

if you take your candy,

and I forgot to answer because I was thinking,

he can’t have her anymore,

I’m writing a new end to her story,

I’m taking Serena’s story back.

Question:  Explain how the author uses the word story in this poem?

 from Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman p40

Skills Focus:  tone, details, euphemism, diction


The metal flash of a pair of wire strippers, the unexpected shine on a Phillips head, these things cause the same fear in me, the same gut-tightening, ass-puckering panic as the midnight gleam of a switchblade. Chain locks have the same effect. And lightbulbs. You can find all of these at your local hardware store.

Sometimes Carol goes with Tony to Guido’s Pizza and leaves me at Ace. Tony is her boyfriend and he says having a six-year-old around all the time cramps their style, but I don’t like him anyway, be cue when I’m with them he either hogs the Close Encounters game or he hogs Carola and I never get a chance at either one.

Ace smells like orate hand cleaner and WD-40, and I pretend not to hear the adult talk that passes across the counter between the men of the town about certain women of the town as they pay the Hardware Man for their wood screws and drill bits. I also pretend like I never have to go potty. Because I don’t need help, but the Hardware Man will want to help me anyway. And when he helps me, the lights go out.

Question:  Explain how the author creates a tone of dread.

Paired passages question:  Explain how the passages are similar.

Finding Success in Hell

Guest Post by Jackie Catcher

flames“Ms. Catcher, do you have Inferno?”

Inferno?” I asked.  I looked up at Sean*, a skinny freshman with small gages in his ears and a bleached blonde buzz cut.  His punk skater image matched the rebellious reputation of the book he had recently finished: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This was the first time he had come to me with a book request for his independent reading.

“Yeah, you know that book about hell.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle—when Sean came into my classroom he associated books with being in hell, now he wanted a book on hell.

“Um, yeah, let me find it.  Dante’s Inferno?” I repeated again.  I tried to mask my surprise but could hear my voice crack with the title.

“Yeah, that one,” he said straight-faced.  The image of my tired college English professor popped into my head; the threadbare sports jacket he wore as he droned on about Inferno; I remember feeling like he single-handedly had pulled me through all nine circles of hell.

Sean owned the video game adaptation of the book, which had sparked his interest.  I handed him a copy, warning, “This is a hard read.  Even if you get through part of it, that will be impressive!  I read this in college.”  I felt the need to somehow soothe his frustrations even before he started.

“Ok.” He brushed off my warnings.

Every day I watched Sean crack open Inferno and slowly make his way through the convoluted English translation.  And every day I expected Sean to walk into my classroom and abandon the book.  But he didn’t.

“How much does he really understand though?” asked another teacher after I brought up Sean’s accomplishments.  She made a good point.  Not only was Sean in my academic class, the lowest level in my tracked high school, he had also scored partially proficient in reading on the New Hampshire state standardized tests over the past two years.  Even if Sean didn’t understand the book in its entirety, I believe he gained just as much as any freshman English major dissecting the poem.

Sean might not have delved into the intricacies of the epic poem, but he took away a sense of confidence and pride that can only accompany struggle.  Many students lack the reading stamina Sean exhibited, an essential skill for success in post-secondary schooling.  Students can be quick to abandon books, and I have found that it isn’t until students become more developed, advanced readers that they understand the value of pushing beyond the first ten or even one hundred pages of a book to get to the “good stuff.”  Despite Sean’s distaste for reading prior to this year, his hunger for a challenge paired with the independent reading initiative allowed Sean to build his stamina and prove himself as a reader.  As Sean said, “I kept telling myself it’s just a book.  You can keep reading.”  Reading Inferno stemmed from his curiosity and transformed into an undertaking of pride.

Sean’s experience with Inferno didn’t include deep literary analysis and his takeaway would most likely make my stuffy college professor cringe, but I’d argue that Sean learned the lesson Dante intended: perseverance and hard work lead to significant achievements.


*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student

 Jacqueline Catcher is a first year teacher at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire. She teaches Academic and College Preparatory Freshman English and an upper level elective writing course using the workshop model.  She can be reached at jcatcher@sau16.org.

Multi-purposing My Quickwrites

Photo Credit: Jennifer

At NCTE last week, Penny Kittle reminded me of the need to consistently share beautiful language with my students. If I ever want them to be able to read it, understand it, and use it in their own writing, I must make conscious choices about voicing that which is lovely. I do a fine job of this right until my students choose their own topics and begin their compositions. Then the room gets stale, and the feeling of “what a chore” begins.

No wonder. I stop sharing short texts and poems. I stop having students respond in their notebooks. I stop allowing them to share their thinking.

While in Boston, I stole a moment with Penny and asked her about my problem, and she simply said, “I keep sharing beautiful language every day.” I must do this, too.

I made a list in my notebook of the things I need to do better when I return to the classroom. Continuing to share poetry and short passages that students can respond to sits at the top of my list, but I want to try to multi-task this activity.

My students are in the process of writing a feature-length article. They chose topics and began drafting before the break. I want them to think about ways to make what they are writing pop into 3D on the page; I want them to see vivid verbs and colorful word choice, and all kinds of devices that they might include in their own writing. My goal is to use poems and passages from now on that will serve several purposes:

1) rhythms of beautiful language,

2) models for sentence structure,

3) examples of figurative language,

4) built-in book talks,

5) questions that aid student thinking about things that matter in their lives.

We will read, and we will respond. We will notice author’s craft as we craft ourselves.

I know, I know, I am slow on this boat. Good planning would make this possible with all my quick writes.  I get that. Thus far, I’ve been a bit disjointed because I struggle with doing it “all:” Independent reading time, quick writes, mini-lessons on craft, grammar, mechanics, student-to-student reading response, reading and writing conferences, book talks. . . I keep most plates spinning, but more and more are crashing lately. My #nerdulation is to do better. (Search that hashtag on Twitter if you don’t have a clue.)

Here’s the passage I will use today. I think it’s appropriate to read a beautiful passage about books since I got a ton of new ones at NCTE. My classroom library welcomes them, but it’s screaming “crowded.” I gotta get a new shelf.

From Broken by C.J. Lyons: 

Kids fill the hall from wall to wall. Despite the unfamiliar press of bodies, I don’t panic. Instead, I let them steer me, like running with a herd of wild, untamed horses. At the end of the corridor, the herd separates into two, leaving me alone in front of a high glass wall.

The library.

Footsteps and lockers banging and voices colliding barrage me. Then I open the door, cross over, and step inside. I’m greeted not by silence, but instead by a hushed burble, relaxing, like the sound of a water fountain. I stand, enjoying the sensations, and take a breath.

School smells so much better than the hospital. And the library smells the best of all. To me, a good book is hot cocoa on a stormy winter day, sleet battering the window while you sit inside, nestled in a quilt.

A room filled with books?

I inhale deeply, a junkie taking her first hit. Sweet, musty paper. Ebony ink so crisp it threatens to rise off the pages and singe my nostrils. Glue and leather and cloth all mixed together in a menage a trois of decadence.

Another breath and I’m drunk with possibilities. Words and stories and people and places so far from here that Planet Earth is a mere dust mote dancing in my rearview mirror.

Hugging myself, containing my glee, I pivot, taking in books stacked two stories high, couches and chairs strategically positioned to catch the light from tall windows lining both sides of the corner, like the bridge of a battle cruiser, broad, high, supremely confident, and comforting. In here, I dare to imagine that I might just survive high school after all.

Respond in your notebook:  Describe a place where you find  peace or refuge?

How do you revision your instruction when you know something isn’t working?

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