The All Important Discussion

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Tomorrow begins my first “literature unit” of the year, and I am thrilled to be using more than one novel. Instead of just using Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, I will be pairing it with All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. This means my students will get to choose between two titles instead of being made to read one. I book talked both titles last week, and students completed an independent survey to share with me which titled best suited them, and why. Below is a description of this upcoming unit:

What would you see if you observed this unit in action? Let me start by saying that I do not use large question packets or study guides. Those can be easily copied, and more importantly, they would be showing students what I want them to notice in these novels. I want to see what my students notice on their own, so when it comes to my literature units, an observer would see independent reading with annotations, and then many cooperative group discussions using those annotations. Sure there would be additional activities, but they wouldn’t play as large of a role as the discussions.

Why are the discussions so vital to the success of the unit? Discussions allow students the opportunity to learn from one another. I sit back and listen, only piping in when needed. Here is an example from a few years back that shows the power a discussion can have:

A group of ten students were discussing the flashback scene in Speak where the reader finally finds out what really happened to Melinda. The group consisted of 7 girls and 3 boys. One of the boys truly did not believe that Melinda was raped. At first, some of the girls in the group unleashed their wrath on him, but then after overhearing the very loud conversation, I had them stop and think about how they could prove their point to him. Afterwards, I watched four students use their iPhones and a student computer to look up 1) the definition of rape; and 2) the role alcohol can play in rape. The rest of the students reread the scene in the book, and wrote new notes. After ten minutes of this “research,” they came back together to explain their findings. The one boy who was originally doubtful now understood. I commended the whole group for taking the time to prove their point, and most importantly, that they did it on their own.

So why use All American Boys with Speak? I added Speak to my curriculum because my students needed to talk about this topic (see above), and I feel the same way about All American Boys. Incidents of police brutality have been all over the news lately, and students deserve the opportunity to talk about it. (Click here for more information about All American Boys.) These talented authors give the reader two different perspectives to view the incident from: one boy is the victim, and the other is a witness. Both boys are struggling to deal with the repercussions, and soon the whole community is too. Last year when this book came out, more than 50% of my students chose to read this novel, so I knew that I had to work it in. It got more of my students reading last year, and I know it will have the same effect this year.

Are my new students really ready for discussions? I believe so, for I have already been preparing them for these all-important discussions. Since the first day of school, students have been completing short class building activities to get to know one another. They receive constant reminders about the behavior expectations for each activity we do. When we start cooperative discussions this week, there will be more reminders. It won’t be perfect right away, but I will continue with the reminders. No matter the grade, students need these constant reminders to properly participate. My co-teacher has been an asset with this, for she went to Kagan training over the summer. Just incorporating a few techniques at a time is slowly transforming our classes. I’ll be sure to share more as the unit progresses.

How do you organize your literature units? Please feel free to share below.

The Mural

Eight students. Ten weeks. Over 160 hours. The mural is finally done!

It all started with an idea. A truly wonderful idea! Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not one to just let an idea go. Favorite/Popular books were chosen, and students began planning and sketching. They spent a lot of their summer in my classroom when they could have been relaxing and hanging out with family and friends. What a group! They definitely surpassed all of my expectations. Not only was I impressed, but the authors of these books were as well! Thanks to a supportive principal and these artistic volunteers, I now have a truly unforgettable mural in my classroom.


A few more members of the mural team!


Five of the eight students who worked on the mural.

Now for some close-ups of some of the books:

The authors of the books loved their work too:


Better Writing Means More Reading

I can’t believe it, but school officially starts next week! Though the summer flew by, I’m proud of all the reading I did. I hoped to read 30 novels, but I might be at 40 by next weekend. I had also originally hoped to read more books to improve my teaching; however, instead of three titles, I only got through one. Thankfully, that one title, Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, gave me tons of ideas for my writing units.

1. Mentor texts hold all the power. Published writers are talented for a reason: they read a lot! I promote reading as a form of entertainment in my classroom, but there are times we need our students to study and analyze what they read too. We need our students to realize that they not only can learn content from what they read, but also how to become a better writer. Reading, analyzing, and discussing mentor texts can give our students strategies they can use now and in the future. Say a student wants to learn how to write a review of a product. It could be a book, restaurant, or even a video game. Sure a teacher could share a list of dos and don’ts, along with formula to follow, but the student could learn so much more from reading and studying 3-5 well-written reviews.

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My students read five reviews, and then looked for qualities they all had to fill out this chart together in a Google Doc.

2. Mentor texts get students away from formulaic writing. Every year I hear students share why certain writing genres scare them: “I can’t write a poem because I can never come up with rhyming words” and “I hate writing essays because I never know what to put in the third body paragraph.” I’m sure somewhere in their schooling they were told “You must have [insert requirement here],” but I aim to squash that belief in my room with mentor texts. Mentor texts allow our students an opportunity to see that there are many ways to write a great essay, poem, or review. Students can practice different techniques in their notebooks, and then when draft time arrives, they can write a piece they feel comfortable with. When students feel more comfortable with the task they are given, they will be more willing to take risks. No formulaic graphic organizer or outline required! Also, we teachers will enjoy reading our students’ writing again, for we will not have 100 5-paragraph essays about the exact same topic to grade.

3. Studying mentor texts helps ease frustration so students are more willing to experiment with language. Whether it is during a mini-lesson, notebook time, or even revision, students will have the chance to play around with language. For example, last year during a poetry unit,  I found that my students were very intimidated by poetry. I figured it might help them to have something to start with, so I showed them Terry Tempest Williams’s piece “Why I Write.” I then showed them the poem I created using the phrase “I write” at the beginning of each line. In my co-taught classes, my co-teacher shared her poem as well. Students then took to writing their own poems. Some depended on the “I write” sentence starter and either used it or inserted a different verb. Others took more risks, like combining ideas from two different poems we read together. So some played around with language, and some didn’t as much, but all felt comfortable trying.

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4. When using mentor texts, more opportunities arise for students to work cooperatively. I’ve always required my students to work on revising in small groups, but I found that many students didn’t know what to look for in their peers’ writing. Sure they may have been able to share when a piece lacked focus or if a sentence seems out of place, but they didn’t always know how to help one another with their sentence structure and word choice. Once I incorporated more mentor texts into my teaching, I heard phrases like “try using one-word lines like Jason Reynolds did in his” and “What about comparing this book to another popular one that’s similar?” Their feedback for one another became more specific, and I found that they enjoyed getting advice from one another.

Since reading Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I find myself eager to dive into a writing unit. I am now constantly looking for mentor texts whenever I read, and already have a folder full of them.  I’m excited to share these intriguing texts, images, and videos with students, and I think they will enjoy seeing their writing skills improve as they do. I look forward to sharing all that they accomplish!

How do you use mentor texts in your classroom? Do you have any favorites? Feel free to share below!

Summer Reading Art

This is the first summer that I spent time at school pretty much every week. While my own children were at camp, I was in my classroom with students. Some were adding to my mural above my left wall, and others were working on adding a little school spirit to our district’s two Little Free Libraries. The goal was simple: to encourage reading.

The mural came about from a conversation I had with one of my classes last year. I showed students a picture from a Mississippi school that added book bindings to their hallway lockers:

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My students loved the idea, but our district already has a locker project we do each first day of school: students paint their own locker magnets. If we wanted to add book bindings, we needed to come up with a new area to display them. One part of my classroom wall didn’t have anything on it, since it was above the door and thus an awkward spot. My students thought it would be perfect, and immediately began suggesting book titles. Now ten weeks later, here are some pictures of the almost-finished mural:


The Little Free Libraries came about through my own doing. I have been trying to get more students reading over the summer, and I was disappointed with the results I got last summer during my “summer library hours.” I just couldn’t seem to encourage more than 8-10 students to come into the building to check out books to read, so I figured I needed to get the books out to them. I bought a Little Free Library for my own home, and have had great success with it, so I thought my district would benefit from them too. We had a Jeans Day to raise money, and then the PTSA donated the rest. Now we have two Little Free Libraries painted with our school colors that will be housed in the district. District employees live at both homes, so I will receive updates on how the libraries are working out. The “Harry Potter” one that went up last week has already had many visitors! The “John Green” one will be picked up this week. I can only hope that these libraries will get books into the hands of children and their parents.

How does your district encourage reading? Feel free to share below in the “Comments” section.

Practice What You Preach

A student enters my classroom and turns almost a complete 365 degrees before saying anything. I watch him. He is intrigued, but intimidated.

“Can I help you find a book?” I ask.

“I don’t have one yet, so yeah,” he responds. “I don’t know where to start though.”

“Well, what are some of your favorite books from middle school?”

“I loved The Outsiders and Unbroken, but I don’t remember much else.” He looks down at his feet.

“Those are two very different books. Were they assigned or did you choose to read them?”

“They were assigned in English class.”

“Have you ever enjoyed a book you chose yourself?” I asked.

“I think so. I don’t remember which ones though.”

“Well, let me show you what I do when I need a new book.” I went to a shelf with at least 4-5 titles that I read, and then began sharing how I determined if they would work for me or not. I described the plot and characters of one title I loved, and then explained how I knew the book next it was not for me.


This was the first conversation I had with one particular student last year during the second week of school. I had many other similar conversations with other students. Too often, my students enter 9th grade struggling to find a book on their own that they might enjoy. They don’t trust their own abilities. These students read independently before my class though. In middle school they were given choice and time to read, but they were also required to take Accelerated Reader tests every two weeks. This limited their time to finish a book, so they rarely chose a long one. Instead, they chose “short .5 books” (according to many of them), and they rarely chose a title based on interest. Instead, they selected books based on the amount of pages. I don’t use Accelerated Reader for this very reason. Instead, I challenge students to meet weekly page goals, and if it takes them six weeks to finish a 320-page book, so be it. Once students figure out they don’t have to finish a book by a certain due date–they don’t always believe me the first time I tell them this–they are more willing to dig through the books in my classroom library.

My classroom library has over 2,500 titles, but I know about, or have read, a large majority of them. I love to read, as anyone who knows me will tell you, but I also consider my own reading vital to my students’ success. I cannot just encourage students to read without modeling for them what a great reader looks like. I must model every step of the process. I think out loud to show students how I search for a new book. I preview books in front of them, search Goodreads in front of them, and book talk favorite titles. I share new books I read, and keep an ever-growing display of all the titles I have finished since the first day of school. I confer with students to give them strategies they may need to become a more consistent reader. I know a lot of these strategies would not be as authentic if I didn’t read a lot myself.

When teachers love to read, they are always searching for the next new title to add to their libraries. I am no exception. I have trusted friends and educators who recommend titles, and I follow other teachers, literacy specialists, and librarians on social media who read as much, or more than I do. Yes, it takes time to build a classroom library my students will love. Yes, it takes time to read independently myself. It’s all worth it though, for I see the countless success stories each year in my classroom.

The same student that spoke with me above was a different reader by the end of the school year. He finished seven books, and understood the importance of reading in his life (see some of his end-of-the-year survey responses below). I don’t think this would have been possible if I didn’t share the strategies I use as a reader. Giving students choice and time to read is important, but that is not all that students need. We must also show them what great readers look like day in and day out.



What My Students Need from Me

When I was a first-year teacher, I thought my job was simply to present content to my students and help them learn it. This is what I learned in college, after all. If you were to ask my students what my classroom was like that year, you would most likely receive responses with the word “lecture” in them. They did SO much listening, and when I think back, I think my passion for my content got in the way. If you were to ask me how much they learned, I honestly couldn’t tell you. All that talking left me little time for formative assessment, reflection, feedback, reading, and writing. Now, as I am about to start my 15th year of teaching, I know that my job contains so much more.

Today, talking is still visible in my classroom, but I am not usually the one doing it. I’m more often than not, the listener. My students share ideas and what they notice in a book. They share their thoughts with their peers around them. When I do talk, I notice that I am usually asking questions to further their thinking. At the very beginning of a school year, I often find myself participating in small talk to get to know my students. As they share their likes and dislikes, I do as well. Those short conversations create a sense of comfort and trust, and make the class easier to manage.

Once that trust in me is created, I begin trying to help my students trust themselves. This is one of the most difficult tasks I have with my 9th graders. Every year, I hear the same phrases: “What do I do now?” or “Can you tell me how to get started?” They have this learned behavior that the teacher will do the work for them. I’m sure somewhere along the line this happened, but not this year. They want me to tell them what to do, or even give them the answer, and when I don’t it frustrates them. Instead I teach them strategies to figure it out on their own. For starters, reading the directions always helps, but what about when they aren’t given? For something requiring a bit more creativity, student choice is involved. Some students view choice as a gift, but many struggle with it at first, for it means that there is not one right answer. This is where modeling comes in. When students don’t know how to share their own thinking about a chapter in a novel, I model what I would do as I read aloud. When they feel they  can’t write a proper hook if it isn’t in the form of a question, I show them samples from other students, and then model how to get started. I tell them what I’m thinking as I go, even when I’m struggling with what to write. I ask for their suggestions, and sometimes even get a few. I try to modify those learned behaviors to create more independent new ones.

By the end of the school year, I hope my students are more confident in their abilities as thinkers, readers, and writers. My time with them is done, and I can only hope their next teacher stresses that same independence. If not, they will go backward. We cannot let our students take the ease way out. Instead of those specific study guide questions, or the one essay question, or even the one novel, we need to do more. Yes it’s more work on our parts, but by encouraging that independence, we are doing what’s in the best interest of our students.

The images above show students’ reflections on their year with me in an end-of-the-year survey. 

NOTE: This post was inspired by the recent Kelly Gallagher workshop I went to. Gallagher encourages that same independence, and the strategies he uses can be found in his books.

Pump Up the Volume!

Choice. Time. Freedom. These three words were not uttered by any teacher I had in high school. I could go into great detail about what NOT to do based on my own high school experiences, but instead I used them to make myself a better teacher. I am by no means perfect, but I pride myself on being a strong advocate for my students. I plow through countless articles, books, trusted blogs, and other forms of research to look for new strategies I can utilize. I go to conference after conference, hoping to find ways to continue to improve.

Today, I found some amazing new strategies to incorporate while at a Genesee Valley BOCES workshop. Our speaker was none other than the brilliant Kelly Gallagher! Gallagher is a high school English teacher in Anaheim, California who has been teaching for over 30 years. He has published numerous books about the art of teaching reading and writing, including his most recent one, In the Best Interest of Students. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, now is the time to start! I have read almost all of them, and have successfully incorporated a lot of his ideas into my  9th grade curriculum. I did, however, find that there is a lot more I can still change. Below are my four most important “takeaways” from my day with Kelly Gallagher:

1. Volume matters! Today’s students are simply not writing enough. Period. Gallagher stated multiple times that students should be writing way more than we could ever grade. He shared that in his classroom, he gives students ten minutes of writing time every day, with two of those ten minutes being revision time. My students write a lot, but not that much. Now that I think about it, I have always incorporated independent reading time, for I know  that the more consistently students read, the more they will show improvement. I’ve seen it happen! I also know that reading and writing are intimately connected. I wish that it dawned on me to do the same thing with writing. Next year, my goal is to do just as Gallagher stated: write for 8-10 minutes every day.

2. Motivate with freedom, choice, and TONS of models! We all know how students feel about writing. They dread it and avoid it whenever possible. Gallagher argues that there are countless ways to motivate our students, with the most important strategy being to write with them. Gallagher writes along with his students, and then shares his own work, thinking aloud as he goes. I share my own work as well, but I don’t always create it right in front of my students. Students need to see their English teachers struggle too! They honestly think we write one perfect paper and are done. Not true! They need to see us in action, and this can ease their worries. Grading also plays a role too. Most of those quick writes will never be read by a teacher, and that’s okay. We want students to have time to experiment and play around with language and writing techniques. Since we cannot possibly grade all that, we can allow students to choose, say, which one of the seven quick writes they want us to read and grade. Students will appreciate that.

3. Use book clubs in literature units. Whether teaching a whole-class novel or allowing students to choose one of four, book clubs can be utilized with great success! Book clubs allow students to create and share their own thinking, instead of simply answering a bunch of teacher-generated questions. Students will meet once each week in their small groups to discuss their books using the the reading schedule they created (based on the amount of time I gave them). They will come prepared with their “thought logs,” which could include drawings, summaries, questions, and anything else they may be thinking about. I just want proof that they were thinking while they were reading. The goal is to then share and discuss their thoughts about the book, and then come back together as a class to share again. One student will be randomly picked to share what his/her group discussed with the entire class. What a wonderful way to see what students are noticing!

4. Conferences must be done during independent reading time. I plan to continue giving students 15 minutes of reading time at the beginning of each class. During this time, I write down their page numbers, which shouldn’t take more than five minutes. That leaves about ten minutes for conferences. I hate to admit this, but in past years I slacked with conferences. I wasn’t consistent, and my students knew it. Plus, I also tried to do too much. I felt I needed to ask a certain amount of my own questions, when really all I needed to ask was, “How’s it going?” With this one question, I can meet with 2-3 students in ten minutes, and I’ll be able to learn if a student is reading, and if they are comprehending that text. This is also vital 1:1 time; it’s my chance to create a strong reading relationship with that student. I might recommend a new title if it appears the student doesn’t like his/her current book, or I might simply learn about my students’ interests. No matter what, that conference time is necessary.

What a rewarding experience! I left feeling quite excited about the coming school year. What have you gotten out of Kelly Gallagher’s books, or one of his workshops? Feel free to share below!

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