Leave With A Suggestion

My growth as a reader and as a reading teacher continue to evolve. Readers of this blog might remember the first time I opened my eyes to YA literature and drastically changed my reading habits to better serve the needs of the kids in my classroom. Then a few months later, I expanded my thinking and reflected on what our Independent Reading program was looking like at the end of the year– last year! Here we are in February and I feel an update is necessary.

A few quick things: We have, since the beginning of the year, established classroom libraries, adopted the TCRWP units of study and have hired a literacy coach, Ann-Marie Chow (a superstar) to help us learn how to teach our best in “the workshop” model. Kids are reading and writing at their best and I feel more comfortable with this approach with every passing week.

So like any proper edu-literacy-book-nerd, I was a bit star-struck to meet Penny Kittle this past Saturday for a great workshop at our school.  As if meeting her and attending her session wasn’t enough, I was able, with my colleagues, to watch her teach a class, confer with kids and debrief her work for well over an hour afterwards. Needless to say, it was time well spent. If we think about teaching as a craft, and I do, then there is no better way to improve your craft than to watch a master crafts(wo)man do her thing. I took several pages of notes from her Saturday workshop as well as from her teaching today, and this post is a synthesis and reflection on what she said and did. I am not sure I will say anything that you will not find on her website or in her book, but I know my friend Ari will be curious for my notes, and who knows, you may be too.

Before I begin, however, let me say how refreshing it was to work with such a humble, passionate and sincere teacher. So many times when teachers achieve notoriety or success, they don their consultancy hat and forget that real teaching happens in real classrooms with real kids. Sure it is nice to have empirical data with which to draw upon, but I will take an in-the-classroom-teacher who refers to her kids and her own work, over a consultant years removed from a classroom any day. Penny was calm, understanding and real. And it was her gentle and supportive persona, which she displayed both with teachers and students that impressed me most. Okay, hopefully that is enough to get her blushing. Let’s get to the notes!

In order to get these notes published and shared with some level of immediacy, I will not wrap them in too much prose. I apologize for the bulletted format of ideas and the litany of grammatical gaffs and typos which I am certain litter this post. I will try and add some insight and annotations as I work through my notes and ideas, but I cannot make any promises at this time.


  1. Some Essentials:
    1. Be positive
    2. Build classroom Libraries
    3. Read everyday! Everyone- teachers and kids
    4. Confer with kids as often as possible
    5. Give choice. Choice. Choice.
      1. Don’t hand! Let them grab. Offer them three possibilities and let them choose books.
    6. Set goals.
  2. Build a school culture of reading
  3. Reading is the foundation for any writing program.
  4. Increasing stamina builds engagement (kids inhaling books), building complexity builds confidence= Independence.
  5. We Think in Narratives
  6. Persistence + Self-control + Curiosity+ Conscientiousness + Grit= Self-Confidence
  7. Try 6 word book summaries or Twitter reviews to get to the heart of thinking.

For me there wasn’t much new to what she shared, but it was reaffirming. Her workshop made me feel confident that the work we have been doing as a group and the enthusiasm I have developed personally are exactly the direction we should be heading. The time and money we have spent, along with the systems we have built to support our classroom libraries are worthwhile.

As a department we spoke a little about what is next in terms of building a school-wide culture. What would a humanities class library look like? Where are our books about science and math? What work are those teachers doing towards literacy in their fields?


Read. Write. Revise. Everyday.

That means everyone! My biggest take away from her writing session was that there needs to be room in a writing workshop for free, fun, undirected writing. Kids notebooks should look like Bubble Catchers not just skills based writing workbooks. There is room for practicing the skills explicitly taught through mini-lessons, but there should also be room for exploring ideas that may never be shared or published.

Penny shared several prompts and talked about the power of a short mentor text annotation and mimicking. She used this example by Devon Gundry from Rainn Wilson’s Soulpancake.

Depending on when you met me, I might have been: a checkers champion, the kid who squirted Super Glue in his eye, a competitive Ping-Pong player, Tweedle Dum, a high school valedictorian, a fake blond, 1⁄12 of an all-male a capella group, a graduate of the Vanderbilt School of Engineering, a nomad, a street musician, or a pigeon assassin.

The idea was to use the structure of the list to explore some thinking that might later to lead to more expansive writing. I loved how she allowed us time to think and write during this time of the workshop. At first I found the structure limiting, but the more I tried to stick to its confines, I realized how it pushed my thinking and made me write in ways I probably would not have if given the freedom to write in whatever way I wanted.

Depending on when you met me I might have been a blue-ribbon-winning horse show participant, the kid who repeatedly lit himself on fire using Aquanet hairspray, C-3PO, or the underachiever on report card day, the blue-haired guy with too many piercings, an open-mic performer, or Columbia grad student, a Peace Corps volunteer, a wanna-be writer, or a leave-the-cockroaches-alone activist.

The more we write ourselves, the more we know where kids might stumble, and so we know how to anticipate their needs.

She also mentioned how important it is to write in front of kids and make your thinking public. Show them how you start with scattered ideas and how your thoughts and writing evolve. Revise you work in front of them too, so they see the process not the final work.


Penny Kittle’s workshop was a great use of time and I found it inspirational, but to watch her confer with actual students was something else all together. As a teacher new to workshop, I feel my conferences are awkward, rushed, uncomfortable administrative sessions, only done to see where kids are in their work. A notebook check-up. But watching Penny, I knew that with some time and practice, I too could hopefully use this precious time to actual teach kids while I sit with them for five minute sessions. Watching Penny Kittle confer with kids was truly a work of art. There was so many subtle devices she used, but here are some of the basics I was able to retain.

Smile. Be kind. Give compliments. Make eye contact. Relax. Breathe. Speak with a loving voice. Listen. Listen. Listen. Start where the writer is not where you want him to be. Talk about books, writing, ideas not skills, tasks, or work. Allow kids time to arrive at an idea. If they need to summaries the plot for two-minutes, let them. Do not rush their thinking. Listen. Say thank you. Don’t think about the next kid. Be present. Don’t fill the silences. Thinking takes time. Let them stew in the silence. Make eye-contact. Smile. Listen.

Ask, “How can I help you? What are you discovering? What is it you just did?” Teach a point and ask for examples. Name what kids are already doing and compliment them on being smart. Say, “I noticed that you……tell me about that.” Ask them, “If you did know the answer what would it be?” Encourage guessing. Risk taking. Revision.

Constantly remind students that you too use the strategies you are teaching when you read and write and think. Don’t ask about theme, but ask, “Why do you think this book was written?” Say to them, “I love this strategy. I use it when I read too.” Compare their shortcomings and failures to your own shortcomings and failures. Ask them to show you were they have revised their writing in their notebooks. Don’t have an agenda when you sit down. Tell them, “I want you to figure out what you need, so you don’t need me.” Ask them, “Read me something you love or something you want me to help you with.” Smile. Say thank you. Compliment.

Listen. Teach. Don’t administrate.

And always leave with a suggestion!

I hope this post was useful for you. I know it is not the same reading this on a blog or seeing these ideas on her website. Meeting people in person and seeing them in action is where so much of our learning happens. We all know these things. Right? But like Zen, it is a practice. We have to apply these skills over time to improve. I for one feel energized and inspired to get into my room tomorrow and try out a few of these things.

No agenda. Smile. Eye contact. Listen. Teach.

I’m on it.


Beyond Blogging? Student Choice

If I were to write this post how I feel it needs to be written– long, comprehensive, timely and engaging, then it would never be written. So instead I am going to try a quicker, choppier, more get it down approach. Going to try some Guerrilla Blogging . (I might have just made that term up, because when I looked it up there were little to no references.) But what’s up with this lengthy, rambling, irrelevant intro. This is not Guerrilla Blogging! Get to it.

What You Need To Know:

I haven’t blogged professionally since September when I Backed Away From The Edge, and consequently upset a few people in the process. But I am back now. I am revamped, energized and seeing things with a fresh outlook.

I’ve just returned from Japan, where I facilitated a two day EARCOS workshop with Rebekah Madrid called Beyond Blogging.  We were primarily looking at why shared online school spaces like class blogs and portfolios seem to fall flat. We decided that we knew, or at least thought we knew, what these spaces could do or have done for adult learners, but we were flummoxed, like many of you, as to why  K-12 spaces looked more like glorified teacher created worksheets, than dynamic authentic student created spaces designed for identity exploration, content creation and community building.

Big questions I know.

Everyone I spoke to before I left said, “Looking forward to seeing what you find!” And upon my return? “So what did you find out?

Here goes:

I started by talking with some students who I knew were active online. Two successful Youtubers from our school. I chatted with them for two forty-five minute sessions and this is what they said.

I was struck particularly by the key words which I highlighted in the video.

These words seem pretty straightforward. I think most teachers would like to think that they attempt to incorporate at least a few of these ideas into their daily teaching. But listening to the girls, it is pretty clear that they do not see the work they are doing in school at all similar to the work they do on their own.

This discrepancy, to me, seemed like the crux of our issue. The dichotomy between school generated curriculum and what kids w0uld choose to do if given a chance appears to be wider than many of us think.

You can take a look at the agenda from the workshop and explore some of the work the participants did here, but I wanted to take some time in this post to try and consolidate some of my own thinking. I thought about the Do’s and Don’ts we generated, and wondered what next. Here are some raw thoughts fresh from the weekend:

1. Choice matters– No one likes to be told what to do, and we like it less when we are told when or how to do it. Kids are no different. True, we are all working with a written curriculum which needs to be taught– a set of skills, concepts and understandings that we have pre-determined are vital for learning, but kids will always see this as “work.” It will be rare to find kids enthusiastically reflecting or sharing this type of teacher assigned work. When kids create or share online on their own accord, they seem to share ideas, skills and understandings which they choose an care about. No amount of forced reflection will make the work we assign authentic. Blogs will not magically make students care about what you want them to care about.

2. An Audience Matters–  Kids are not worried about being exposed to the world, but they are aware of who might be watching, and they want feedback from this audience. Perhaps, the idea that every kids has the same method of sharing (a blog or portfolio) with one massive audience (The world their school or class) is false. It is important that students create their own spaces and connect to smaller interactive audiences that give them feedback, instead of sharing everything with everyone and never connecting in a meaningful way with anyone. The tools learners use to create these spaces and communities must be chosen by the user.

3. Diversity of Tools- Kids need to create their own unique audiences and choose the methods and tools with which they connect to this community. Perhaps the readers in your class connect to other readers using Goodreads, but the actors choose Youtube as a place to connect with other actors, and the writers use a blog designed for Harry Potter fans. We cannot expect every member of our school community to use one platform to share their learning.

4. Being Open Requires Trust– Students have to know that their teachers are not looking for reasons to doubt or question student choices. They have to feel free to be themselves even if their identities do not always illustrate the perfect student. Life online requires risk taking, exploration, and the awareness that sometimes we all make mistakes. If we want students to be authentic we must allow them the time and space to find out for themselves what that means–without our own systemic institutional expectations.

5. Time– True student interests often exists beyond the curriculum. Kids need time to explore questions and solve problems of their own choosing. We need to make time for students to think, play and learn beyond our curricula. Things like the MYP Personal Project or Google 20% time could be key areas to allow for real blogging and online sharing. Allow students the time to learn, create and share the things that are important to them. Beyond assessment, school and work might be where students can share their learning. Take a look at this great pitch by Madeline Cox:

The problem, as I see it, with student blogging is not technological but curricular and institutional. We are expecting students to be excited about content they never chose to be excited about, and then we are disappointed when they are not super keen to write about it or share it with people who are not really their friends and who also lack interest in said content.

Share everything with everyone will never work. The better model is share what you love with those who care and can help you.

What does this type of sharing and learning look like in our schools? Most teachers do not work in student-centered, problem-based, inquiry model, project based institutions. No matter what we tell ourselves most of us are responsible to a curriculum and all the restriction it includes: explicit instruction, assessment, and reporting.

I think we need to think about what the learning looks like beyond our curriculum, so that it makes room for looser, freer, student choice. I have been hard on curricula in this post. I do not mean to say that students do not need the skills, concepts and understanding we teach them, but perhaps they do not see the value in sharing their school work in the place that we tell them to.

In a perfect world, we would see evidence of the curriculum in these more independent projects, and like Sidney said, the teacher can build the learning around what has already been done by the student. I am not sure what this model looks like in different schools or different subjects, so I can only share  examples of what we are doing in our MS English department at UWCSEA East.

We are using the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop. Coupled with our benchmarks, we have a pretty solid set of skills we are responsible to teach. I think these skills are important and I think teaching them explicitly is valuable. I also feel that assessing these skills, offering feedback and reporting on student progress is crucial for their growth as readers and writers. But I do not expect them to share their reflections of their learning on a blog. Who would want to read that?

I do see the value, however, of offering them choice in content. The beauty of the workshop model is that it offers absolute choice of what they write about and what they read. The units do focus on certain text types and this can prove problematic for everything I have mentioned in this post, so what we have done is intersperse independent writing units in between the more prescribed units of study.

For our last unit, students were given the choice to write about any topic or issue in any style or text type they found relevant. They wrote a range of pieces from cookbooks, to Rubic’s Cube tutorials, poems, songs and short stories. The next step is to coach these kids how to create communities around the content they create. Instead of publishing their assigned article on a blog, they need to learn how they might create a space to share their independent work, in hopes of finding other chefs or musicians.

As adults, we build communities around the content we create to express our passions and foster our learning. Why then do we not allow students the time and space to do the same? It’s not that blogging is dead or that we need to find out what lays beyond.  Schools as we know them are dying and we need to look beyond them.

This what I am thinking so far. What do you think? Share some thoughts and let’s see if we can’t figure this out together.


Back From The Cutting Edge

Been a while huh? You still there? How did you end up here after so long? Is RSS still a thing? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read a blog post in almost six months. Have you? Did you follow the Twitter trail here? Are other people still blogging? Are you? Did I miss anything?

I am not even sure who you are, and to be honest, these days I am having a hard time knowing who I am, and what I am doing here. Blogging. Writing. Sharing. It has been so long since I did any of those things that I feel I have lost what it was I wanted to say when I started. Have I turned my back on whatever audience or community I spent so much time and energy cultivating? Do you care? Does it matter?

Yeah, I am and have been having a bit of an existential crisis since the end of the school year last year.

What have I been doing you might ask? I have been spending my time reading every Young Adult book I can get my hands on. I’ve been falling in love with #TCRWP (Reading and Writing Workshop), to the point that I even have grade eight kids writing in notebooks. Pen and paper old school. Pages and pages of it. And it feels great. I am hand writing charts on flip chart paper for goodness sake. And to be honest, I feel I am doing some of my best teaching in years.

What else? I spend some of my energy on the plants in my classroom. I’ve also been playing open mics in the hope that I will be able to sing a full set of songs without tabs and lyrics by Christmas.

Not sure how or why I fell into this new territory. There was no conscious choice to turn my back on ……What do I even call it? What exactly have I turned my back on? Is there anything at all to be named? My PLN? Blogging, Ed Tech? These labels seem so simplistic. Have I turned my back at all?

My thoughts have drifted I suppose and my priorities have shifted, but what really happened is that I have grown bored of my own shtick. Digital stories, sharing, sharing, sharing and networks– round and round left me dizzy, till I just had to get off the ride. I have forced myself to name what I value and why? In short, I know that I still value open networks and community learning. I still value expression and stories and the magic of the web. But what that looks like in my classrooms these days? Your guess is as good as mine.

Things have been feeling stale for me for a while. After a decade of being on the cutting edge, I need a break. Maybe, for the time being I need other people to be the innovators. I need some time to reassess what I value. What felt new and transformative when I started, feels stale and unimaginative.

This re-evaluation reminds me of the value of having people on campus who sustain the momentum when some of us lose it. Every school needs people on the edge, so that when the rest of us need to move back from it, they can push us back where we need to be.  I’m talking to you Digital Literacy Coaches and Tech Facilitators. Thank you for the work you do, to keep the rest of us on our toes. So that when we hit a rut, like the one I have described, you can rejuvenate us and remind us of what we value that we may have forgotten.

Which brings me to Learning 2.014. Feels like I have gone full circle in the last decade. I feel like the doe-eyed n00b again this year. I am very much looking forward to seeing what everyone is excited about this year. I have no role to play at this conference other than open-minded learner. I am looking forward to having energizing conversations. I am hoping to creep back to the cutting edge, or maybe share the view from the way back.


Building A Vibrant Reading Program

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about what seemed to me at the time to be a major breakthrough —  I had, believe it or not, finally realized that reading the books my students are reading would be a good idea. I understood that maybe having a clue as to what they like and finding books to help them become more confident readers was my professional obligation. After years of obstinate snobbery, I decided to step off my adult literature reading pedestal and acknowledge that there is merit in young adult fiction. To be well-read in the genre is indeed empowering. You can read more about my epiphany here, but the post I am writing today is meant to share the events that followed this breakthrough. Below you will find a rough sketch illustrating some of the success we had implementing our Independent Reading program in the last term of the school year.


After reading a few YA books, (I was determined to read five YA books for every one book I read for pleasure. The score at the end of the year, by the way, was forty-seven YA book to zero personal books. What can I say, I was hooked.) I read Book Love my Penny Kittle and Falling in Love With Close Reading by Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman, and realized that while I was on the right track in my thinking, I had some classroom routines to establish. My biggest take away from Kittle’s book was the power of the Book Talk. Simply put a Book Talk is when a person, so far it has been only me, but students can deliver Book Talks as well, stands up in front of the class and tries to “sell” the book. Below you will find some key points I try and include in every Book Talk, which I try to limit to about seven minutes:

1. Read the back blurb and talk about the cover.

2. Mention its strengths. Here are some example:

This book had me laughing and crying at the same time. Skillfully crafted, it moves beyond simple plot description. The author plays with language in very interesting ways and had some amazing passages. While the voice is funny at times, Alexie is able to deliver some very poignant scenes. (Absolute Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie)

The last one hundred pages of this book were off the hook. I couldn’t put it down. While it started a bit slow, the book pays off for readers who can be patient and invest in plot development. I don’t want to give too much away, but after about page 150 everything goes a bit crazy. (Erebos by Ursala Posnanski)

Well-development characters
I fell in love with Eleanor and Park. Because they are deeply flawed, and so they appear to be human. I not only knew people like this in high school, I think I was a person like this. I can really relate to Park’s inability to be himself in the face of society’s definition of masculinity. These characters take time to understand, but pay-off once you know them. Good luck not crying at the end. (Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell)

Reverent themes to my students
This book was very difficult to read. While I know some of you have studied the Cambodian genocide in humanities, this story makes it feel all too real. Because we do so much work with Cambodia NGO’s, I think this book should be mandatory reading for all UWCSEA middle school students. (Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick)

Compared it to books I know are popular
Five Flavors of Dumb is not a particularly well-written book, but if you liked The Future of Us and Everyday, then you will like this one too. Simple and easy to get through. This book will not change your life or affect your soul, but it will keep you interested and does some cool stuff with growing up and Rock and Roll. (Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John)

3. Discuss some of the themes or ideas covered on the book (I try to avoid plot summaries).
4. Give it a 5 star rating and explain why I rated it as I did.
5. Read a passage from the book to give kids a taste of the voice and the style.

That’s usually about it. I’ll take a few questions and be done. I think it is important to have a physical copy of the book as it adds a certain gravitas; besides, you need it to read the passage, which is not a step to be missed.

I cannot tell you how powerful these book talks have been in my classroom. I have kids running up to me during lunch time, thanking me for my recommendations. Middle school kids want to read, but they don’t always know what to read – and random scouring of the library rarely bares fruit. Kids need help and the Book Talk is a great first step.

The effectiveness of the Book Talk has been evident during our fifteen minute independent reading time. When I look around, I would say that 90% of the books that kids are reading are books that I have book talked in the last few weeks. I also supplement the book talk with my book wall.

Real simple – On my classroom door, I have a sign that says Currently Reading, and I print out the front cover of whichever book I am reading at the moment. Once I am done, and I have book talked the book,  I then add the printed cover to the wall outside. Sometimes when a kid asks me for a recommendation, I physically walk them to the wall and we talk about the books that are there. The wall serves as a reminder for us both.


I would like to talk a bit more about the fifteen minute independent reading time I previously mentioned. Kids value what we value. If we want them to take anything seriously in the classroom, then not only must we feel excited and passionate about it, but we must also deem it valuable enough to dedicate time for it. We talk about a million things, but until we do them and dedicate consistent time to routines, then we are only paying lip service. So at the start of every class, we read for fifteen minutes. The key is that there are no exceptions. Even if we have a shortened class for whatever reason, or if we have an assessment due the next day, we still read for fifteen minutes. Our reading time is never cut short. Never.

When kids understand that this reading time is set in stone, it cuts down on forgotten books or those kids who are simply not reading, because those kids know you will be checking to see their progress every class. (Quick note about forgotten books. After a few weeks, it happens less and less, but even your most avid reader will occasionally forget his/her book. I like to have magazines, poetry and short story books on hand, so that a student can start and finish something in that day’s time and return to his/her novel when home. That being said, you will have your serial forgetter, and honestly I am still working on strategies for those kids. Feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments.)

The fifteen minutes, while a frustratingly short amount of time, sets a great tone for the day’s lesson. Kid’s simply stroll in and, without much fanfare or noise, find a comfortable place to sit and read. (Side note: this is easier when there are comfortable places for kids to read: Sofas, beanbags and comfortable carpets are crucial in any room that is recite to reading.) I sometimes actually “treat” my kids to extra time and they love it. Your more confident readers will police the louder ones, as they see this time as precious reading time in school, while your weaker readers have no choice but to get with the program. They know they must have a book and have little choice but to hunker down and get to it, lest they get yelled out by the others. You will find your reluctant readers fake reading and this why you use this time to conference with kids about their reading. But before I get to the conferencing, I need to talk about Goodreads.


Because you must be thirteen years old to use Goodreads, (Goodreads, if you are reading this post, an educational account option would be great) we only use it with our grade eights. I will explain what we do with younger kids at the end of this section. Before I continue, let me say that I am obsessed with Goodreads as a teaching tool. Like I tell my kids, I use it to “stalk their reading lives!”

Our students create seven shelves to log their reading. Yes, I said the “L” word. We all know most students hate logging books. But we also know that logging what we read will help us gain stamina and confidence as a reader.  With Goodreads, students seem to be okay with building a personal catalog of books they have read. To keep track of their log, our students create these seven separate shelves:

  • To Read Comfort
  • To Read Just Right
  • To Read Stretch
  • Read Comfort
  • Read Just Right
  • Read Stretch
  • Abandoned

The To Read books are to help them build stacks of books they want to read. These may be books that they are excited about after a Book Talk, or from a friend’s recommendation. The three categories are pretty straight forward. One of the main learning goals for this reading program is for students to be able to self-select the right book at the right time. We encourage them to vary their reading lives. It is okay to pick a few comfort books that they can read in one or two sittings. We want students to always be reading, not getting mired in books they hate or ones that are too difficult. I would rather have a student read four comfort books, two just right books and a stretch book, rather than trying to read four stretch books back-to-back. Looks like I may need to write another post about these classifications. Back to Goodreads.

Beyond simply logging books at the proper levels, Goodreads also lets me know when, how long, and how often they are reading. With the update status feature, I can follow a student’s reading habits and comment in real time! If I notice that a student reader reads in small chunks throughout the week, but is able to sustain long marathon sessions on the weekends, I know that she is probably an avid reader who simply doesn’t have time during the week to read. I can say something like this on her profile:

Wow! Great job on such a long reading session. Let’s try and add another ten minutes to your reading during the week. Remember reading is your English homework and is expected, so do not treat it like a luxury. You love to read, so read during the week too.

Whereas the student who has not updated his/her status in days, will need a special in class conferencing to see where the problem is.

Goodreads also allows me to conference with readers live and at anytime. There were times when I would notice kids reading for an hour on a Saturday night, to which I could leave words of encouragement and support. What has been even better than me monitoring students’ reading is that they are recommending books to one other and using the site as a vibrant social networking site for books. Like anything of course, these success are not true for every student, but as I mentioned above the inactive users are often the reluctant readers and Goodreads allows the teacher to sort out who is who.

I had mid-level readers telling me that between the Book Talks and Goodreads they felt a sense of urgency and momentum that forced them to become involved and much more confident readers.

“It feels like everyone is always talking about and excited about books. I have never felt this way before, and with Goodreads I can see my reading life growing and share it with my friends. It also feels good to know you (talking about me the teacher) are paying attention and giving us support.”

Goodreads has been priceless in building excitement around our independent reading program. We still have work to do for sure and the influx of our classroom libraries next year will help move us to the next level for sure, but we had a great start in our last term. The formula is pretty simple:

  1. Empower yourself to be en expert by reading as many young adult books as you can.
  2. Be passionate and excited about what you read and share your enthusiasm with your class through consistent Book Talks.
  3. Give kids time to read in class and show that you value their reading. Reading is not a luxury. We do not read when we have to time or need to relax. We read because we love it. We value it as an activity and we want to build stamina. We read everyday!
  4. Although reading logs have a bad reputation, we can all agree that students and teachers need to know what and when kids are reading. Goodreads is a dynamic and fun way to gather much of the data teachers need, and students like using it.

The following is not verbatim, but a summary of many talks I have given kids in the last few months:

This reading program is not some cute initiative we, the English Department, are experimenting with, that will go away. We are here to prove to you that reading is fun and has value. It is not something you do on the side. Reading is a key tool to your learning. You need to know how to choose the right books and build your stamina. I am not telling you these things because I want you to read a few books this term. I want you, starting at this moment, to always be reading a book. When you finish one, you automatically pick the next one, because you have a stack of books waiting to go. I want reading to become an obsession for you. I want you to lay wake at night and worry about not being able to read every book you want to in your lifetime. I want you to panic when you go into a bookstore or a library because you want to grab every book off the shelf and read them all at once.

I am here to help build your reading life. You will not become one of those adults who just “doesn’t read!” There is no such thing. You will start reading one book after another this year. You want to know when you will stop? Summer? At the end of Middle School? High School? College? Nope. Never! You will NEVER stop. You will be reading one book after another till the day you die. This is the business we are involved in here in this classroom. We are readers and we are writers, so we read and we write because that is what we do.

Believe it or not, I was not able to fit everything I wanted into this post. So please stay tuned to this space for more info on conferencing,  videos of Book Talks and some student interviews. Please leave any questions you  have, and share ideas and strategies you have used that have been successful.


Well-Versed In Books

Note: This post was originally written for teachers, but applies to parents of middle school kids as well. 

I have an amazing talent for stating an obvious fact, one that everyone already knows, way after everyone has already talked about it. What’s worse is that I somehow fool myself into believing that this universal well-known idea was hatched in my brain and so it must also be deeply profound.

You have been warned. There is nothing new in this post. Nothing any English teacher, librarian or committed reader doesn’t already know, but what I am about to share with you has been an epiphany of sorts for me. It has sparked a thirst for books that I seem powerless to quench. Ya’ ready?

Read the books your students are reading.

Wow, I am actually a bit embarrassed when I see it written out like that. Let me explain. I have been teaching Middle School English  for over ten years. My name is Jabiz and I am a book snob. Until last week, I rarely if ever read any Young Adult literature. At any given time I could be found saying things like, “I found the writing mediocre at best, the characters shallow, the themes trite and the stories plot heavy.” I almost threw a copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go across the room, after the the protagonist was nearly caught for the 100th time!

I couldn’t be bothered to read YA Lit, because that genre didn’t scratch the intellectual itches I enjoy. How could I tear myself away from David Foster Wallace, or my new love– James Baldwin, to read whatever dystopian garbage the kids might be reading?

But here’s the thing, I have only just recently realized– My intellectual and literary needs should not always come first. I owe it to the kids I teach to be well-versed in both the books they love and the books that I can find for them to love. As their English teacher, I should be the main resource for what is good, bad, exciting, at their level, too hard, and a bit simple but fun. I should be able to tell a kid who just liked Wonder that Eleanor and Park is a bit darker but about similar themes.

What sparked this epiphanal moment, you might ask? It was a series of things I suppose– years of incurring guilt for my ignorance about YA Lit, news that we have been approved for classroom libraries (150 titles per room!), and my becoming tired of recommending the same books over and over.  We are currently in an eight-week reading unit, where we explored a shared class novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  After practicing a series of skills, we allowed the students to choose a novel of their choice to show transference of  skills. Like most text hungry teen-agers, they were looks for suggestions.

I began to realize that I couldn’t recommend many of the authors or books I love, because the content is not quite appropriate or interesting to fourteen year olds. As great as Jonathan Franzen may be, I am pretty sure no middle school student cares about mid-life crisises in the suburbs. So I did what I have always done. I recommended the books I know: Of Mice and Men, Lord of The Flies, and Catcher in the Rye. Don’t get me wrong. I love these books, and I have been blown away by the exploration and analysis of these texts by my current students. But I knew there had to be better titles. Better matches. I knew that I was short-changing my students for not helping them find the just-right book for each of them. And the only way to do that is to read more YA Lit– plot-heavy dystopian adventures be damned!

Guess what happened? I felt totally empowered after reading just four books. After each title, I could name several kids who would love that book. Or I knew that this book was just right for one or two more mature and advanced readers. I start every class now, pushing books. I tell them about what I am reading. I can sell these books with confidence. I am even emailing specific kids and saying, hey you! This book is perfect for you. What will be great is when I have a library of 150 titles, I know and love, so I can literally just grab the right book and hand it to the right kid.

My enthusiasm in class has already led to one girl asking if I have read Angel’s Fury, to which I said no. The next day she brought me her copy, which I am reading at the moment. I have put up a physical list for suggestions.  There is something magical about empowering students to feel like experts. Allowing them to feel that they can influence their teacher with their love of books.

I feel that by reading more YA Lit, English teachers are creating and fostering a more authentic community of readers. Hey parents, I did not forget about you! If you want to foster a love of reading, then read some of these YA titles as well. We cannot continue to discredit books that were written for young adults, while promoting an antiquated list of books that they “should” be reading.  There will always be a place for the classics we love, or the stretch books from our own libraries that might fit a few students, but we owe it to our students to be well-versed in books that they can access and explore and love. I would love to hear about some of your favorite YA titles, or about some of the strategies you have chosen to excite your students about books.

As for my intellectual itches? I have decided to read five YA titles for everyone of my own choices. Although, I have already checked out a few books that will put me past five. My collection of Foster Wallace essays can wait, I need to read Holes, so I can talk about the narrative perspective with my struggling readers, and maybe The House of Scorpions might be the book that gets Billy to “get” reading.