#FridayReads — A Book about Death to Teach Writing?

Last Saturday my niece and I attended the North TX Teen Book Festival.

Hundreds of teens stormed the book sales and stood in lines to get signatures from their favorite authors. Authors shared stories about their craft and their books while grouped in panels with interesting names like “‘Just a Small Town Girl’ Small towns — Big Stories,” and “‘The Book Boyfriend’ Sometimes Boys in Books are Better,” and “‘We’re Young and We’re Reckless, We’ll Take This Way Too Far’ Exploring mature situations in YA.

Raistlyn took notes. She is 14, a prolific poet, and is writing a novel.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 9.09.01 PM

New books added to by to read next list.

For our last event of the day, we crowded in an overflowing room to listen to Holly Black, James Dashner, Sarah Dessen, Gayle Forman, Ruta Sepetys, Margaret Stohl talk about what it is like when books become movies. We oohed and aahed and laughed as they told of their experiences. (Margaret Stohl is funny!)

School busses lined the streets, and I cheered that so many teachers thought to bring their students. I did not. We were out of school the day before, and thanks to my poor planning, I never got around to getting a field trip approved.

I kicked myself after.

But I got a lot of great book recommendations, and my TBR tower is now named Eiffel.

I only bought one book. (Don’t tell. My husband and I have a bet to see who can resist 18883231buying books the longest.) I bought Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin because I heard the author talk with such excited wonder about this story and his experience writing it.

It’s the story of a boy who knows the date of his death. He knows because that’s the way it goes in his world — everyone knows the day they will die. Morbid, you say? Maybe.

But this is a comedy.

Hooked me. I need more books with laughs in my classroom library, and so far, this one does not disappoint. Here’s the excerpt I will share when I book talk this book:

Excerpt from Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin p 66-67

I know different people and cultures have varying approaches to death, so in case you don’t know about the tradition of the Sitting, here’s the deal:  whilst waiting for death, you sit. You generally end up in a room of your house, probably the family room (ideally not the living room because the irony of that is too hilarious and stupid), where you’re joined by your immediate family and whoever else has been invited:  cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, girlfriends, best friends, and so on. Everybody communes and celebrates and waits for something to happen.

And something always happens.

Heart attack, stray bullet, seizure, fallen bookshelf or tree, stabbing, tornado, tumble down the stairs, strangling, drug overdose, fire, aneurysm. Not to mention the basics:  old age, cancer, pneumonia, other fatal illnesses. People have gone to great lengths to try and survive, but you just can’t. This guy, Lee Worshanks, in Pennsylvania, spent years working on what he called a Safety Room, the perfect place in which to spend his deathdate:  ideal temperature, rubber walls, dull-edged furniture, the works. When the Big Day rolled around, the room’s complicated security system somehow malfunctioned, and Lee found himself locked out. After hours of failed attempts to get inside his perfect room, he went a little nuts. He ended up electrocuted by some kind of circuit panel in the basement. So pretty much every possible variation on death in a house has happened to at least someone in the past few decades.

But you don’t know what the variation is, and you don’t know when in the day it will happen. That’s why the Sitting has always seemed insane to me. Who would ever want to be sitting in a room with their family for twenty-four hours straight? How is that anybody’s idea of a happy way to die?

Besides liking the narrator’s voice, I love how Rubin structures some of these sentences. This is a great passage to discuss syntax.  Look at that stand alone single sentence paragraph. Look at the lists and the use of the colon. And I love all those sentences that start with conjunctions. My students think that’s a grammatical error, and that leads to interesting discussions about why a writer might start a sentence with and or but or so.

I also love that example:  “This guy, Lee Worshanks, in Pennsylvania, spent years working on what he called a Safety Room, the perfect place in which to spend his deathdate. . .”

My students struggle with developing their ideas by using appropriate and convincing evidence. Here, right in a passage from a YA novel, is an example of an example I will use to illustrate examples with my writers. (My nerd factor is pretty high right now, isn’t it?)

Here’s the thing:  I loved attending that book festival with my niece. I loved listening to authors talk about their writing. I loved getting new ideas for books to share with my readers. And I really love that I found this one little passage in a pretty clever book about how we face and talk about death I can use with my students.

Reading is fun. Isn’t it?

*Note:  Did you know there’s a site that will predict the date you will die?

It Takes a Village by Jill Huber

guest post icon“It takes a village to raise a child.” –African Proverb

Being a mother and a teacher, this proverb speaks true to me on a daily basis. Would you ever make it through a day as a mother or a teacher without the help of one, ten, or even twenty people? No!

We can work every day to raise that child, but we should also focus on raising readers, as reading is imperative to a child’s success in life. It should and does take a village to raise a reader!

I’d like to share how I utilize the village as a developing reader, as a teacher, and as a parent. My “village” has been very important throughout my life in making me a reader and motivating my students to be readers.

read acrossFor myself, I think back to high school and to one of my favorite teachers. My favorite teacher  took my class to the library and he picked us each out a book that HE thought WE would like. Now, I loved to read, and I also did whatever I was told. He picked Silas Marner for me.

I read it. I loved it. I won’t ever forget the book.

He and my other high school English teacher are two of the main reasons why I do what I do on a daily basis. The motivation of “the village” made a difference, but I have learned a great deal about student readers in the last ten years… it is also about CHOICE.

I see this in my own kindergartener when he gets so excited about bringing home every spider book in the library and telling me I have to read it to him even though I hate spiders. He is ecstatic, so I read it as I cringe with the turn of each page. But then I look at the smile on his face and the wonder in his eyes and all of the information soaking into his brain and I know that it is worth it! I am raising readers at home. It is simple for me there. We read before bed. We read when we are bored.But it takes this portion of “the village” to understand choice. It is not so easy in the classroom.  With this, we have to keep relying on “the village”.

IMG_9655 (1)“The village” allows us to steal and share. Steal and share: the motto of a good teacher. I must say that I get a lot of my ideas from here at Three Teachers Talk. I also steal ideas from many virtual “villages” like the group I run on edCommunities,  Pinterest, and Twitter daily! This is a list of ways that I access “My Village.”

  1. For the Steal – What are you Reading?:  My colleagues share with me every time they see something I might like. I have taught them to steal for me. This colleague steal came to me today! My co-worker came in to me first thing today and said, “I found an idea you HAVE to do next year!” A school she just visited had a laminated paper on every door and the teacher wrote what they were reading at that time. Way to get teachers involved! Thanks for the steal!
  2. Get “The Village” Involved: Get your students, coworkers and community involved in days like “National Read Aloud Day” and the National Education Association’s  “Read Across America Day.” This year students, staff and board members read aloud all day long on National Read Aloud Day. Every year on Read Across America Day, 9th graders and 1st graders read a Dr. Seuss book and then write a paragraph about it. These are both learning experiences for both sets of students! I bring in authors and writers that will have an impact on our students for years to come. One of the best presentations this year was skyping with a Holocaust survivor about her book Facing The Lion after one of my student boys suggested I read the book that I bought at a reading conference to put on my shelf for a little more nonfiction.midsummer
  3. Display It: We display our favorite books above the book shelves so that more students can see great books right away. We also display great poetry during Poetry Month outside in the hallway to be involved in A Poem A Day. When my students start to love reading poetry, then I sneak in a way for them to love speaking poetry and hold a Poetry Out Loud Contest. Two of my students went to the state level in Illinois this year! My students display artwork about books we have read in the hallways as well. This means that more people see these and could spark an interest for them. Our “village” is visually decorated with the main idea-reading!
  4. Follow the Leaders: Our “village” is virtual. We can follow the greats like Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle and teaching blogs like this one. They inspire and make my creative brain go wild on a daily basis. Because of these women, our English Department has a successful Reading Program that is based on choice with guidelines. The students have to meet reading requirements and genres per semester, but they pick the books they want to read. We read silently every day; and I mean WE. I read with them. I cry in front of them over books. I get mad in front of them over books. I teach them how to fall into books on a daily basis.Then we all talk about what books we love. We do speed book dating with books, the kids talk about books when they tell me their page numbers that I track on a google sheet. This is the best informal and quickest way to let a whole class hear about a book. All of these ideas and more have come from Miller, Kittle and Three Teachers Talk.things
  5. Take Notice: My greatest finds and success stories come from the “village” (school) hallways. I teach 9th, 10th and some 12th graders, so I don’t see some students after they leave me their sophomore year. I see them in the hallway and don’t ever miss a chance to sneak a peek at their reading choices. I would have never picked up We Were Liars if I wouldn’t have stopped to chat with a junior boy this year about the book that I noticed he was flying through. I knew it had to be good!

These five ideas have led to a bond in our “village” of readers. Giving them choices every day leads them to trust me and understand that I am aware of their interests. They trust me for advice on which book to read next because I know what they enjoy as readers. More importantly, it leads them to trust me as I teach them whole class lessons. They trust when I say they will love To Kill A Mockingbird, The poet girliesOdyssey, Shakespeare and Poe that I know what I am talking about and they buy into me and my love for the works. I can not raise readers on my own. I am constantly calling on my “village” of  colleagues, friends, students, community members, and administrators to help me raise a high school full of readers. It takes a village.

These five tips may help you think about the village you can access to develop lifelong readers. I would love to be a part of your “village.” Join me at mynea360.org in the Integrating Reading and Writing Group. We will steal and share from each other as we build a “village” of readers.

Jill Huber has been an English teacher for twelve years in middle school and high school. Reading is her main hobby and she tries to instill her passion for reading in all of her students. She also coaches Junior High Volleyball, is the High School Student Council sponsor, Director of the High School Play, and is a huddle coach for our Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Jill also runs the Integrating Reading and Writing 9th-12th Group on edCommunities. Her husband, Matt, is the Math teacher in the same high school and they have three energetic boys- Jaton (5), Paxon (3), Madon (2). 

Try it Tuesday: Thinking Outside the Bubble

Testing season is upon us. Heaven help us all.

ACT, SAT, AP – insert your high stakes, hive-inducing, pencil-sharpening acronym here.

As students sit down to demonstrate, in bubble form, their proficiency as scholars (and sometimes in their own estimation, as human beings), we as educational professionals hold our collective breath.

Have we balanced real world application of skills and test prep as we should?
Will students be able to develop their ideas in the limited time provided? 
Do they know the specific language necessary to decode the test? 
Will they demonstrate growth reflective of the hard work of both teacher and student? 
What will these scores mean for my daily practice? My salary? My job security? 

It can sometimes feel desperately difficult to maintain the freedom, choice, and empowerment that workshop affords in the face of district expectations for test performance. Afterall, students aren’t given choice when it comes to test prompts or format, or taking the test at all. However, at the end of the day, the skill focus of both readers and writers workshop speaks pointedly to preparing students for whatever they might encounter on such tests, as learner investment in choice materials in often much higher. So if we work to illustrate key skills in mini lessons and have students work with those concepts utilizing texts they are enthusiastic about, research would suggest a solid return on investment, both scholars and the tests used to measure their “proficiency.”

For example, Greene and Melton’s book  Test Talk: Integrating Test Preparation into Reading Workshop stresses that successful test takers must be smart readers.

Many test taking strategies are simply good reading strategies, so as we work to build student skills in close reading, we are also building their test-taking skills. In this way, test review isn’t an isolated unit, but rather a daily practice that teachers can refer students back to as test time approaches. And because better reading means better writing, the need to develop students as careful readers is paramount.

So while the beauty of workshop is choice, our world of standardized tests demands the development of specific reading and writing skills; however, those two worlds can have more in common than we might initially think.

To illustrate, I took my AP Language students through a prompt review that challenged them with timed writing, analysis of student samples, self-assessment of their work, peer-assessment of their work, and then collaboration to arrive at a final score.

Obviously, part of the written test is one’s ability to write an argument, but in the case of this synthesis prompt, if students aren’t careful readers of the materials provided, they struggle to effectively incorporate the evidence. This specific test prep went way beyond the test in terms of skill development and it went down like this:

  1. Students wrote an AP Language Synthesis essay in class. This required 15 minutes to look at sources and 40 minutes to write an argument essay utilizing those sources to support their claims. AP Synthesis essays ask students to write an argument and incorporate at least three of the provided sources. Students must quickly read through the source material to locate information they want to use in support of their claims and then plan, organize, and write their essay.
  2. The following class period, we looked at student samples and the AP scoring guide from the College Board website. This gave students an idea of what the prompt looked like in action and the actual scores those students received. I divided the class into groups, had each group look at one sample essay and its score. They then had to justify how AP scorers came up with that score. We shared as a class that lower essays lacked organization and analysis, middle scoring essays were adequate in all areas but could be improved with more specifics and developed analysis of included source material, and the top scoring essays blend style and content in a mature fashion.
  3. Students then pulled out a clean sheet of paper and self-assessed using the provided rubric by giving themselves a score and justifying it.
  4. Here’s where I tried something new. Students folded over the top of their assessments and handed their synthesis essays and the reflection (without their score visible) to the person next to them. Peers read through the essay, scored it, and wrote several suggestions for improvement. We went around our tables of four until each student had his or her essay back.
  5. We then unfurled their feedback and engaged in collaborative discussion. I asked students to talk about what they saw in each other’s essays and to arrive at a final score. I recorded this in the gradebook as their formative score for the exercise. Anyone that was dissatisfied with what the table decided, could come and share their concern with me, which I am pleased to report, did not happen.
  6. Students stapled their feedback form to the essay with a final score on top, along with their thoughts on the exercise.

In the end, students said it was hugely helpful to compare their work to that of others and in doing so, realize what they could do to improve their own responses on the actual test.

Eva said she found the activity, “Really, really helpful. It’s good to get perspective and to be able to reflect from that feedback. 10/10 :)”

Sam suggested that it was helpful because he finds it “hard to critique” his own work. Having published student samples from AP and peer samples from his group, he was able to compare and contrast against concrete scored examples and try his hand at assigning a score on his own, with his tablemates to help justify that score at the end.

And Daaman said she, “enjoyed this activity as we were able to see others’ interpretations of the prompt and also see ways we can improve.”

I’m glad they feel more prepared for the test, but beyond that I am most impressed that in just two class periods they demonstrated skills in both reading and writing, analysis, synthesis, reflection, and collaboration. By analyzing student samples as mentors and applying that knowledge to their own work, students walked away with several examples of what to do, what not to do, and where to take their writing for the next argument we write. No bubbles or number two pencils required.

How do you bring workshop and standardized testing together? Please leave your ideas and comments below! 

Lessons from the Classroom

Last Monday, Amy posted an excellent mini-lesson about personal reading challenges.  This Monday, I can’t seem to think of any lessons other than the new ones I’ve been frantically learning for the past seven days.  Like how to function on no more than two hours of sleep at a time.  Or the dire importance of burping a child after a feeding.  Or how to swaddle the most jazzercise-obsessed infant ever.

img_2189My little Ruthie Karnes–our first child–arrived on the scene last Monday at 10:20 am, forever altering my life in the most wonderful of ways.  Somehow, my entire world (and worldview) has shifted to center around her.

When we came home from the hospital, one of the first things I caught myself talking to Ruth about was which book I’d read to her first.  I cooed this while holding her in her nursery, perusing her already-full bookshelf, but also thinking about perhaps just reading aloud one of my grown-up favorites.  Reading aloud, after all, is a daily part, and an important part, of the way I teach my seniors–why not use that same method with an infant?

It was only natural that I began to wonder what other pedagogical routines I might bring into my budding relationship with Ruth.  Over this past (hectic? insane? life-changing?) week, I’ve drawn from at least three non-negotiables from my teaching as I try to navigate my new role as a mother.

2000px-Zone_of_proximal_development.svgLesson one: hard work and fun are not mutually exclusive.  When learning is difficult, it’s incredibly engaging, provided we are capable of achieving the skill with guidance, effort, and practice.  I challenge my students regularly to take risks, attempt new skills, and make a habit of pushing themselves.  Staying in the zone of proximal development is easy when learning is individualized and students have choice about what, how, and why they engage with a lesson, as they do in a workshop classroom.

This norm of hard work isn’t rigid or meaningless, though–it’s often rather enjoyable.  My students and I are able to laugh together even while tackling a complex theme in literature, a difficult craft move in a piece of writing, or a long-term assignment.  Engagement in our work together, when it’s authentic, is rewarding in a deeply satisfying way.  I love seeing students’ pride in themselves when they complete a reflection and realize their growth.

It’s definitely been the same for me this week with motherhood–while the lessons I’m learning are tough (and sleep-depriving), it’s incredibly satisfying when I see Ruthie peacefully sleeping after a successful feeding, diaper change, and swaddle.

Lesson two:  I am a model for my learners in so many ways.  So much of a teacher’s efficacy comes from just loving our work and being ourselves.  Our passions, whether purposely modeled, like Catherine did with her reading life this year, or reluctantly modeled, like mine were when teaching multigenre last year, are what must guide our teaching.  If you ask my students to imitate me, they’ll yell (in a high-pitched voice I hope is drastically unlike my own), “I love you! I love books!”

It’s accurate.  I’m effusive.

But that works for me.  I model enthusiasm all the time–for making mistakes, for trying new things, for revision, for any kind of reading, for hard work.  I’m authentic because I have no choice but to be authentic with my students–I am a huge fangirl and I have embraced that.  My free nerdiness, constant vulnerability, and frequent showcasing of my mistakes in reading, writing, or thinking are necessary to allowing my students to feel comfortable doing those things too.

Now I’m learning that it’s the same with motherhood.  I’m effusive, but also fairly calm.  It takes a lot to ruffle me, and it’s already apparent that Ruth is that way too.  She’ll sleep through anything (except hunger) and will stare calmly at whoever is holding her for as long as she can without passing out.  I know that as she gets older and learns skills of communication and literacy, the way my husband and I model those things will be integral to her development of those skills, too.

Lesson three:  use your resources.  Teaching can be incredibly solitary.  It’s easy to forget to leave your classroom to interact with other adults, or to engage in professional development, or to seek help from other practitioners.  But it’s when we seek to learn from others that we achieve growth, whether through the modern PLC, self-selected learning, or just reading pedagogical texts.  There are so many resources available for the curious, motivated educator–so we don’t have to be lonely.

“With a room full of authors to help us, teaching writing doesn’t have to be so lonely.” -Katie Wood Ray

We all have room to grow, and seeking help from others is the easiest and most effective way to do that.  I know that I wouldn’t have made it through this week if it weren’t for my mom, who’s staying with me until I figure this whole parenting thing out.  I asked friends and family and even students alike for help with whatever I knew they were good at, whether it was simply getting heavy things out of cabinets or teaching me how to feed a baby in a way that worked for me.

IMG_2273The biggest lesson I’ve learned this week, though, is that much like any school year, it’s all worth it.  The hard work and tears and sleep deprivation and laughter and constant conferring and feedback and trying to find missing library books all adds up into something beautiful–a community of real readers and writers who will leave my classroom with (I hope) a love of literacy and all that entails.  And it’s the same for motherhood–when I see Baby Ruth and her sweet smile (I know it’s not real yet, but it’s still really cute), I somehow don’t care about all the chaos that my life has become.  I just know that I’ll keep trying to grow–as a teacher and a mom.

#FridayReads: Poetry as a Gateway into Reading

Before I started reading novels in verse, I had no idea how important they would be to the readers in my classroom. So many of my students who say they hate reading will read these books of poems that tell a story. (Chasing Brooklyn is one of the girls’ favorites. The Crossover, of course, is one of the boys’.)

This week, Sung, one of my quiet students from Myanmar, asked for a recommendation for her next book. She reads far below that of an 11th grader in an AP class, but she’s tenacious and determined to catch up to her peers. She and I have focused on her fluency since the beginning of the year when in our first conference I learned she could read all the words in a novel, but she understood little of the meaning. (Similar to my ELL student who read every word of The Great Gatsby last year without comprehending any of it. This was before I clued in to her need to save face with their peers.)

“I am reading,” Sung said, “but I don’t know what’s going on.”

I’ve heard this before, and I always celebrate when my readers let me in on this secret. (It takes guts to be vulnerable, especially at 16.) In talking with high school students who struggle with reading, I’ve learned they usually have no idea why. Most of them think they are slow or dumb — or they simply claim reading is boring or dumb because it’s easier to say that than admit reading is hard.

The hard part for me is teaching them to read. My degree is in literature after all, and my Masters in Secondary Ed did little to prepare me for the adolescent reading crisis I face every day. So I teach reading by getting students to read. I talk to them about their reading and get them talking to me about their thinking.

8537327Sung had just finished her 8th novel in verse, her favorite so far, Inside Out and Back Again. As I conferred with this reader, she told me she wanted to try something more challenging that was a ‘real’ novel. What she meant was a story with more words on the page. (Last year I caught one of my ELL students at the book shelf flipping through books. When I asked him why, he said he could tell if he could understand it depending on the “thickness of the words.”)

I walked to my “Explore: It’s Your World shelf” and pulled a few books I thought Sung might like:  Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, In Darkness by Nick Lake, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, a book of short writings by various authors about human rights, published in association with Amnesty International, and several other titles I cannot remember now.

Then, I gave her time to explore.

A few minutes later, Sung held two books in her hands and quietly told me she wanted to read them both. She left the room with Karen Hesse’s award-winning book and the anthology of stories by writers like these: Paulo Coelho, Yann Martel,  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ishmael Beah, and more. These are not difficult books. They are not complex. They are way too easy by most high school standards. But they are exactly what this young woman needs to not only grow in confidence as a reader, but to grow as a citizen of her world.

And an interesting insight? Quite often it takes more inferencing skills to understand the story in a novel in verse than it does with a story written in prose.


For a list of other novels and verse, see this post.

Here’s a highlight from my most recently read novel in verse, Audacity by Melanie Crowder. I think it will make a nice quickwrite at the beginning of the year as we build a reading community:

alight  22521938

I passed my Spelling

and Mathematics exams!


I hurry after work

to the free school

to check the schedule

for the next round:



And Trigonometry.


The thing that separates

rich from poor

in this world

is knowledge.

A person can rise up


if she can read

if she can think

if she can speak.


I cannot attend

every class

every lecture

but if I share what I learn

with the girls in my shop

in between bites

during lunch


ff Pauline shares

with the girl in her shop

in between bites

during lunch

it is as if we all

Were there together.


I see

these lunchtime lessons

spreading like fire

skipping from one box of tinder

to the next

across the shops

through the slums

until the entire city is alight

with small

fierce-burning flames.

#3TTWorkshop — Some Thinking on Feedback and How We Use It


Did you know there are 167 synonyms for feedback? reaction, response, answer, reply, assessment, comeback . . . criticism . . .

By definition, feedback in the business world means: Process in which the effect or output of an action is ‘returned’ (fed-back) to modify the next action.

In the mini-lesson I posted Monday, I mentioned that I’d asked my students to write for five minutes in response to this:  Think about your reading growth and improvement this year. Can you honestly say you are better now than you when you walked in the classroom in the fall?

TTT reader Leigh Anne commented:  “I love this idea. . . I do wonder though, what were some of their responses to how they grew as readers this year. I only teach 6th grade, but answering this question seems to be a struggle for them. I can’t image how junior AP students would answer it.”

So I took snapshots of four students’ writer’s notebooks and transcribed what they wrote.

notebook response

For quickwrites, I ask students to write as much as they can as fast as they can as well as they can. Then, we always read over our writing and try to revise.

Before you read (in their own quickwrite language), I’d like to suggest that while this simple writing exercise served as self-evaluation for students and set up the personal reading challenge activity, more importantly, it served as valuable feedback for me. We spend an awful lot of time self-selecting books and reading them. One way I know if the investment in time is worth it is to ask my readers. As a result, I now know how my students feel about their progress, and I have ideas on how to “modify the next action.”

“This AP English is being challenging to me. When I entered the classroom, I felt like I was about to collapse. But as I continued to take the challenge and accept it, I am now way better than the beginning of the class. I might not improve like everyone but I improve in my own way. My improvement might not reach advance level but I beat my lowest level. I used to read children’s book, fairytale with 10 pages , still it was hard for me to notice what is going on. Compare to those days, I have now understand almost all the chapter books. This class had helped me more than I could imagine, but my improvement right now isn’t enough, I still have long way to go.” ~Sui

Next action:  Sui said she now understands “almost all the chapter books.” I’ll talk to Sui and find out what she thinks might help her understand all the chapter books. She may be able to tell me where she gets confused. If she does, I will be able to offer strategies and support so she will continue to improve.

“I haven’t done all the required reading in a timely manner, however, I have grown slightly as a reader. My pace has increased with some books, but also slowed down due to difficulty of certain books. That happens to everyone, hopefully, because it could just be me. I still have a focus issue with reading, but it has improved within the time frame of this year. I’m not where I should be as a junior in high school, but it could be worse.” ~ Cerin

Next action:  I’m curious to know if Cerin truly believes she might be the only one who has to slow down when reading more complex books — and I didn’t know she has “a focus issue.” I need to talk with Cerin and find out what she means by this and determine how I might help. I know she’s abandoned several books this year. Maybe she’s one of those expert fake readers, or maybe she still hasn’t found any books she likes enough to finish.

“Honestly, I can say that my reading has improved since the beginning of the school year. I can say this because before I lacked motivation when it came to picking up a novel. It might have had something to do with lack of interest with the topic. Also, I found myself skimming through the text and not critically annotating the pages, but now looking forward this semester my book is tattooed with my thoughts, and each word read one after another.” ~Unity

Next action:  First, I must tell this girl how much I love that “tattooed” bit! I know Unity spent a lot of time reading and annotating the non-fiction book she chose for our research mentors. She shows me here how proud she is of that, and I need to recognize and celebrate her efforts. Our next one-on-one conference may turn into a discussion on the notes she made in her book and why. I need to see her critical annotations.

“I can honestly say that I got so much better at my reading in English classroom. When I enter this year I could not tell if the book is non-fiction or fiction, but after Mrs. Rasmussen talked to me one on one I can tell which one is non-fiction and fiction. I am currently reading the book that is challenge on me but I really want to catch up with my classmate on reading skill and level. I improve so much this year and like reading now. I never like reading in my freshman year or sophomore because I thought reading is useless and it take all of my time. But now I like reading fiction book because I see myself in the book and it get into my head.” ~Siang

Next action:  Siang’s challenged herself for a while now. I need to be sure she is not stuck reading a book that bogs her down too much. She’s been frustrated with reading in the past, and she finally found success with some fairly easy reads. Fluency means comprehension, and that is where the story is. By saying she likes to read fiction, Siang is really saying she likes good stories. I need to make sure she finds another one.


Were all student responses quite so encouraging? No. These are juniors in high school after all. I’ll say this for them though: they are usually brutally honest when I ask them for this kind of response.

One student wrote that he has not improved as a reader this year, and he does not think he needs to. He feels like he’s as good as he ever needs to be. (I wish this was satire — we are in the middle of that right now.) Alas, it is not. This young man does the bare bones minimum to show he’s learning anything — just keeps his head above passing, goes through the motions. But his response is valuable feedback, too.

“Hey, kid, we have about seven more weeks of school. I’m not done with you yet.”

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? They enter our rooms, and we give them our all. In my case, my all gets charged by the hope I have. I hope my students will grow as competent, confident, intelligent, and compassionate citizens. They can energize the world.

I believe reading more and reading well is the fast track to all of that.

Please share your ideas on getting  — and giving feedback.

Try it Tuesday: 15 Minutes to Make Time For Reading

My students don’t have time to read.  Just ask them. They’ll tell you.
In reflections, on their goal cards, to my face.

They’re sweet about it, mostly:
“I really wish I had more time to read, Mrs. Dennis. I’m just super busy.”
“The musical is just taking up all my time. I’ll get back at it soon. I promise.”
“AP tests are coming up and every time I sit down to read, I can’t stop thinking about the more important things I have to do.”

Ouch. That last one was like a swift kick to the shin. Or my soul.

But regardless of the reason, medium of delivery, or general sentiment, all of the excuses amount to the same end result: I need to keep reading at the forefront of every class period, or these kids are going to completely fall off the wagon.

As Amy alluded to yesterday in her post about personal reading challenges, we can’t always win the competition between getting our students reading and other homework, extracurriculars, or spring sunshine, but we can work to spark their interest and show them ways to make reading possible in their own lives.

Here’s what I tried at the end of last week and it took all of 15 minutes to create a buzz about setting goals, making time to read, and exploring a few new texts to capture student interest:

  1. I reminded my students how two hours of reading per week is the expectation, not just a cute suggestion. So, we started off a bit more serious. I reminded kids that I purposefully don’t give as much homework as I used to in order to help them have more time to read. We had an honest conversation (sort of one sided) about what it means to prioritize other things over reading and how it short changes their writing and their development as readers.I reminded them too that I’m busy, but I’m also a part of our classroom of readers. As specific examples can really help hit home a point (and including humor doesn’t hurt either), I shared with them that I read Columbine by Dave Cullen last week in six days (It’s honestly riveting. Unbelievably good), all while keeping my toddler entertained and alive, finding a few consecutive minutes to spend with my husband, trying to keep up with the recent release of Catastrophe on Amazon, preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning up the house, and continuing to change their lives with my teaching each and every day (chuckle, chuckle).

    Then we took a look at this brilliant graphic from Tricia Ebarvia2 hours of reading

    I think it really helped kids to see that 2 hours of reading can be accomplished in a variety of ways depending on how they can work it into their schedule. I see my kids every other day on the block schedule, so I asked them to imagine establishing their 35 minute base either in resource period or through the 10 minutes we get to read at the start of each class.

  2. We then did a modified version of speed dating with booksMy district has really come through in recent weeks with a surge of funding for classroom libraries and as a result, I have a delicious variety of new and enticing titles.

    Allison investigates Little Princes by Conor Grennan

    In place of our book talk, I asked students to take a “field trip” around the room and judge some books by their covers. Students were asked to take two or three books back to their seats based on interest in the title, a connection to the text (someone recommended it and curiosity was stirred), or any criteria that caught their attention. I asked students to spread the books out across the table and follow these simple steps:

    • Talk about the books! What do you know about any of the books on the table? Have you read it? Heard about it? Why did you bring a certain text to the table? Students chatted for 3 or 4 minutes and comments varied from “So many people are talking about this book” to “I picked it because the cover looked interesting.” Students were also making some great connections between authors. Several students picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Crane Wife  because of previous experiences with Patrick Ness and one student specifically said she chose a text because it had a recommendation from John Green on the front.
    • Next, I asked students to choose a book from the table and read it for four minutes with a directive to look over the cover, search out accolades, read the back, and flip open the book to get a sample of the author’s style. When I called time, students who were interested in their books were asked to raise the book up over their heads so others could get a look.
    • The next round of reading went the same way, with students choosing books from their tables (either something they brought over or a text a peer put overhead).
    • For the final round, students could go swipe books from other tables. I told them to keep their eyes out for texts that had been put in the air by more than one person.

I told them to act natural.

In 15 minutes we reconnected about making time for reading and explored our classroom library in search of a spark or two that could move us forward as readers. Students said they really enjoyed “shopping” for texts by looking at covers and then stealing books from other tables. They added to their “I Want to Read” lists, made some notes in their planners about scheduling time to read, and several books were checked out each class period.

15 minutes very well spent.




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