Some IR Answers

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I am a teacher who believes in reading. I read what my students read, and I read educational research to learn how to better my teaching. I want to do what’s best for my students. Independent reading is what’s best for our students; however, ever since I started devoting class time for it, I have received questions about why. I get it. Take a peak in my classroom during that time, and all one would see is students with their heads in a book. One might wonder, what are they getting out of this? Why waste this kind of time? 

Before I go into what’s really happening during this reading time, we first need to dive into the research. Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, put together an extensive list on her blog of the many reports, professional books, and journal articles that back up the need for independent reading. It’s not a waste of time. If you don’t believe me, take a look. Each one is a credible piece of research. Each one is written by a reading expert. Each one proves the following:

  • Volume matters. The more reading students do, the more reading proficiency can improve. Increased volume begins with increased motivation on the part of the teacher and students.
  • Choice matters. ALL students are more willing to read what interests them. Struggling readers want books they can comprehend and enjoy. When we have a variety of reading levels in one class, there is no one-size-fits-all novel. We first need our students to fall in love with reading. Only then will they be more willing to venture outside of their comfort zones.
  • Time matters. Children need time to read every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. They need time to search through libraries, get recommendations, and share their books with one another. We teachers can tell students to read at home, but that will not start happening on a consistent basis until students find titles they love.
  • Access matters. Classroom libraries give students visible proof that reading is important in the eyes of their teachers. Our students cannot find the latest and greatest titles if they walk into a classroom without a library.
  • Knowledge matters. If we teachers do not have knowledge about the latest and greatest titles, we cannot recommend books to our students. We need to know a wide variety–all genres and levels–for we have a wide variety of readers. We need to be readers ourselves.

Knowing all of this, I make sure to give my students time to read in class every single day. Like I said above, if someone were to look into my classroom during this time, it may appear that students are simply reading and I, their teacher, am doing nothing. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

What am I doing while students are reading?

I am NOT reading while they read. My book talks and displays in my classroom prove that I read. Students don’t need to see me read to know that I am doing it.

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One of the many “book displays” in my classroom. 

I am collecting data. Each day I write down the titles students are reading, as well as they page they are on. I started out using the form in Penny Kittle’s Book Love, and then modified it to fit my needs. With the help of the technology integrator at my school, I now have a spreadsheet for each class that adds up the amount of pages students read, as well as organizes the notes I keep about each student. (See the image below.) Not only can I collect the amount of pages students read, but I can also find patterns in student behavior (“chronic abandoners” and avoiders, as well as what students love and dislike).

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A screenshot of one class spreadsheet. 

I am conferring with students. From Day 1, I begin to learn about my students as readers. I start with an initial survey about likes and dislikes, and go from there. While they are reading, I confer with students to see how their books are going (see “Comments” column above). This is where I can find out if they are comprehending what they read, whether or not they like their books, and make sure they are not fake reading. All of this takes a lot practice on my part, but I have learned a lot over the years. I know I still have more to learn. Within the first few weeks, many students see that they cannot “fake” these conversations. They do the majority of the talking, so if they are not reading, they have nothing authentic to say. If they tell me they don’t understand what they are reading, I can guide them toward a new title. If “I don’t understand” becomes a pattern, I do some more digging to figure out why. 

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The results from my 2017 end-of-the-year survey.

What happens after students finish reading? 

The reading students do at the beginning of my class is vital. Once students fall in love with that first book, they begin to believe that there are other books and stories out there that could interest them. To many, their teacher becomes trustworthy and a go-to source for books. That means when I pick out a harder excerpt to study, many are more willing to read it.

Besides reading, my students write every single day. Reading more helps their writing skills improve. They use their writing notebooks to think about what they read. They practice analyzing texts by thinking about what surprised them, what stood out to them, and how a text impacted them. They study the craft of their favorite writers, along with writers I choose for them, by logging favorite sentences and trying to imitate them (see below). They read mentor texts and use identified writing techniques to improve their own writing. Independent reading is truly the stepping stone in my classroom.

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An excerpt from my writing notebook. I write with my students, often sharing my writing with them.

An Important Reminder  

I know that independent reading is not in every classroom, and until it is, we teachers that incorporate it will continue to receive questions about it. Please continue to do so! Just like with our students, we need to encourage these questions, for they can lead to understanding. If you don’t believe independent reading is helpful, go read some of the research. If you want to know what is happening in the classroom, go watch a teacher. This is how we learn.

In addition to Donalyn’s invaluable list, here are some professional books that have shaped my thinking about independent reading:

The Class of 2020’s Favorite Books of the Year

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What do high school students want to read? This question is one that countless teachers ponder, for, as many of us know, a large percentage of high school students don’t like to read. I’d like to think my classroom is different. After polling my 88 students yesterday, all but 10 students said they enjoy reading more now than they did last September. Of those 10, only 2 of those students still rated reading as something they don’t like doing; the other 8 students were avid readers to begin with. That’s progress! This same poll asked students to chose a favorite book, or books, from this school year. After reviewing the list, what stood out more than anything else was the wide variety of genres, reading levels, and topics. (Only one student said I didn’t like any books, while another students said she loved them all.) Giving students choice in what they read matters.

The novel that received the most votes was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Many students chose to read this title because Jason and Brendan came to visit our school in April. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon came in second place, followed by Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. The list is organized by the author’s last name. Enjoy looking over the titles my students fell in love with.

NOTE: If a title received more than one vote, there is a bold number next to it stating the amount of times it was chosen.
  • Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
  • The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
  • Booked by Kwame Alexander
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • If at Birth You Don’t Succeed by Zach Anner
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Sometimes It Happens by Lauren Barnholdt (2X)
  • The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett
  • The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
  • Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
  • Forever by Judy Blume (4X)
  • Awkward by Svetlana Chmacova
  • Stolen by Lucy Christopher
  • Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
  • Armada by Ernest Cline
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2X)
  • Flower by Elizabeth Craft and Shea Olsen
  • The Living by Matt de la Pena
  • Gym Candy by Carl Deuker
  • The Devil You Know by Trish Doller
  • Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
  • Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller
  • Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
  • Life Uploaded by Sierra Furtado
  • The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
  • Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart
  • Under the Lights by Abbi Glines
  • Until Friday Night by Abbi Glines
  • Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green (2X)
  • No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
  • Nothing Bad Is Going to Happen by Kathleen Hale
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • The Enemy by Charlie Higson
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins (2X)
  • Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2X)
  • Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson (2X)
  • The Illuminae Files (whole series) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  • Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
  • Butter by Erin Jade Lange
  • No Easy Way Out by Dayna Lorentz
  • Fast Break by Mike Lupica
  • Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson
  • The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis (2X)
  • Wake by Lisa McMann
  • Heartless by Marissa Meyer
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  • Yummy by G. Neri
  • A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer
  • Wings by Aprilynne Pike
  • The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
  • The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner
  • All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (10X)
  • The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
  • Ghost by Jason Reynolds (5X)
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (whole series) by Ransom Riggs
  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
  • Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
  • Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (3X)
  • The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • Homeboyz by Alan Sitomer
  • The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
  • The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith (2X)
  • Winger by Andrew Smith (4X)
  • Bone (whole series) by Jeff Smith
  • Saving Red by Sonia Sones
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (4X)
  • Liv, Forever by Amy Talkington
  • Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (6X)
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany
  • What You Left Behind by Jessica Verdi
  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon (7X)
  • Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff
  • American Street by Ibi Zoboi

One of Those (Special) Days

Imagine watching each and every student walk into your room with a huge smile on their face. They sit down in a seat and immediately begin tapping their feet excitedly. Eager anticipation begins to bubble up as they imagine what will come in the next hour or so. For my students, today was one of those special days. My students got to meet the authors of All American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

My 9th graders have known about this author visit since the fall. We have been reading, planning, and preparing. The reading took place first. My students were hooked to the topic of the book before they read one page. Once they got to page 19, they literally couldn’t put it down. (Rashad Butler, one of the two main characters, reminds the readers, “Now, here’s what happened. Pay attention.”) Students had conversations about a tough topic, police brutality, but became better people because of it. Most importantly, this book got kids wanting to read. Once done with the book, we held a t-shirt contest to determine a design for a shirt students could buy. As the author visit neared, students that didn’t read the book earlier in the school year began reading it. Other students that did read it before started rereading it! They were ready.

Today I watched students truly enjoy what they were doing. Every single one of them was glued to the authors the moment they started speaking. They asked amazing questions that impressed the authors, and many of them stayed to get books and shirts signed, as well as take pictures. Below are just some of the many special moments they had. This post is not for me, but for my students. It will be their way to remember this special day.

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What the Research Can Teach Us

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Research. Saying this word to many high school students can make them groan. I hear it myself every year, so I am constantly revamping my research unit.  This year, I noticed that many of my students were struggling to find something to latch onto. Before 9th grade, they learned how search databases and use what they found to create projects, but they never wrote a paper. Because of this, my research unit is an introduction to many new skills. When we first got started, many students had already checked out. They followed the steps I gave them, but if you asked some of them what they would be doing with the research, many would have shrugged. The struggle was real. They were bored with the process not even one week in, so I tried to find something to hook them.

That “hook” ended up tying into the one aspect of my class that many students have latched on to: independent reading. We read in class every day, I share new titles in our classroom library, and I confer with them. I’m proud to say that almost all of my 9th graders are actively reading books of their choice. Well, almost all of them. One particular student, however, has been avoiding reading with as much determination as I put into promoting it. About two weeks ago, I noticed that, yet again, this student was refusing to read a book during our independent reading time. When I asked her why, she informed me that she didn’t need to read. She found it pointless. When I started mentioning some of the benefits, she replied with a snarky, “Says who?” That’s when my research topic was born.

What followed were multiple days of reading, sharing articles, organizing my ideas in outline, searching for more articles, and eventually creating a draft. I got frustrated at times, and my students saw that. They needed to see that, yes, teachers struggle too. I was also determined to change this one student’s mind about my topic, and that gave me a purpose for what I was doing. As I started sharing all the work I did with my students, they saw my determination to prove my point. I encouraged them to make sure they had that same desire, so some students immediately switched topics. They began seeing that becoming an expert on their topic would be a necessity if they wanted to write a strong paper.

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One portion of my graphic organizer that I showed my students while I was in the process of planning out my ideas.

Now, I’m not saying that just reading, planning, and writing along with my students was enough to get all students excited about research, but soon some of them began to see a purpose behind what they were doing. Many students began using my writing as a mentor text, which enabled them to make strides with their own. I also saw that my struggling readers and writers benefited from hearing me think aloud and share my own struggles in this process. Effort improved as well, for I started getting more questions from students about how I found an article that was useful, or what I did to find important information in my article (click here for more specific information about this topic). Most importantly, I found that many students were proud of all they learned about their topics, and they had the desire to share that knowledge with their audience.

Next week, my students will be finishing up their papers, and I must say I am quite proud of how well they are doing. I know I still have more revisions to make to this “unit,” but I have found that my students are much more successful than in years past. Many found that desire to acquire knowledge, they all learned necessary research skills, and yes one particular student even began to recognize why independent reading is so essential in her life.

Below is an excerpt from my “research paper draft” that I shared with my students:

One of the many reasons independent reading is beneficial to all students is because it improves vocabulary levels. Jerry Heverly, an English teacher at San Leandro High School in California, came to a realization that his own consistent independent reading helped him learn new words without even knowing it. Like other English teachers, he was always taught to teach vocabulary traditionally, meaning having students find dictionary definitions and complete word tests. With this traditional instruction, he found that “words ‘learned’ in September would be forgotten by December” (Heverly 98). After doing some research, Heverly came to the conclusion that “if you want a child to learn words, have him or her read” (99). He discovered that learning the meaning of words is a process, and that many children have vocabularies that contain many “partially-known words” (Heverly 99). Most importantly, he found that “readers learn words at more than twelve times the rate of those relying on direct instruction” (Heverly 99). This was all Heverly needed to change his way of teaching vocabulary, but other teachers aren’t as willing. Many educators believe that only they can teach vocabulary, and, therefore, it cannot be learned on its own. Independent reading provides an introduction to new vocabulary, as well as allows students to choose what they want to read so they are engaged. While reading on their own, they use context clues, pictures, and the structure of the text to help them decipher meaning (Heverly 100). Given these facts, it’s obvious that reading for enjoyment can be more beneficial to our students than direction instruction.

Like the direct instruction used to teach vocabulary, many schools require teachers to use reading programs that include scripted techniques to use when teaching reading. Although research proves that students are often engaged in the required activities, there was very little actual reading being done (Allington 57). Gail Ivey, who holds a PhD and Masters in reading education, states that “engagement, and thus more meaningful and productive reading, is most likely when readers feel a sense of autonomy (i.e., to choose what they read; to not be interrogated about their reading or monitored) and experience a sense of relevance in their reading.” In contrast, there is no proof that direct reading instruction can get students to that same level (Ivey). There is proof, however, that with direct interventions and strategies, many of the struggling readers did not show improvement (Allington 57). Why use these scripted programs is there is no proof that they work?

Even with all the research, some reading experts still do not agree that independent reading is effective. They feel that if children are reading silently, it will be difficult for a teacher to determine if they are comprehending what they read. To remedy this, teachers need to hold their students accountable. Tim Pruzinsky, an English teacher who teaches at the International School Bangkok in Thailand, states, “a thoughtful, strategic, and carefully implemented plan of action” (26) needs to be put in place. To start, a teacher must devote class time to independent reading. According to Richard Allington, “few poor readers remain at such slow rates when given the opportunity to practice reading in context daily” (57). In other words, practice is necessary for improvement. During that reading time, teachers should confer with students so they “get to know them as readers” (Pruzinsky 28). Students also need to be “hit with advertisements every day” (Przunisky 27), so book talks and read alouds are a must. They send an obvious message that reading matters. Finally, throughout the school year, students should complete reading-based projects where they assess their own reading growth. Pruzinsky decided to have his students rank their books in order of how difficult they were after reading Teri Lesesne’s book Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Then to Be. By holding students accountable, teachers can easily determine whether or not students are comprehending what they read and showing growth.

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How do you teach research skills in your classroom? Feel free to add your comment below.

Improving Research Skills with New Strategies

I agonize over planning my argument research unit each year. I know learning research skills is not a favorite of students, and I always blame myself for this. This means every year I am always trying to revise my unit. I constantly think about:

  • How can I add more choice into my research unit?
  • What skills are needed to be successful in the research process?
  • How can I make research a more student-centered process?

This year, my biggest concern of the three questions above is helping my students be successful during the research process. Many of my students’ reading skills are well below grade level, so I started by adding a lot of practice with skills such as maneuvering through databases, search terms for databases, and using Boolean operators. When it comes to comprehending the information in their sources, I knew my students would struggle with what information was important, as well as what to write for their annotations. For help with this, I looked to two trusted literacy specialists: Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst. Their book, Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies, gave me a lot to think about, as well as some excellent ways to show students what to look for while reading. I did not think to introduce the signposts earlier in the school year, so I decided to create a chart that combined some of the signposts. (I am already thinking about how to add this in earlier next year.) We started with what students should highlight:

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Students learned that extreme language, numbers and statistics, and quotes from experts are all specific information that could help prove their side of an argument. When it comes time for students to annotate, which will be in their next class, I know they will need this chart:

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By giving students the above questions to think about, I believe they will be able to write annotations that will not only get them thinking about their research topics, but also be helpful down the road for writing a well-developed paper.

I will know how truly useful these charts are as we get further into this unit. I am pleased that the students using the first chart are already making progress. Tomorrow I will begin to see how they do with their annotations. For now, I need to watch and see what works, and continue to modify as needed.

What has worked for you, in terms of teaching research skills, in your classroom? Please feel free to share below.

 

If You Promote Them, They Will Read

Today was an amazing day at school, and no, it was not because it was the last day before my February Break. I was in awe of my students today. I watched them barge into my classroom before school, between classes, during their lunches, and even after school when they could be heading home. They were on a mission. A mission to get more books! Here are just some of the many wonderful conversations I had throughout the day:

BEFORE SCHOOL:

10th Grader: Mrs. K, did you know Everything Everything is going to be a movie? Have you seen the trailer?

Me: Yes! I can’t wait to see it. Did you know that Nicola Yoon came out with another book, The Sun Is Also a Star?

10th Grader: Wait what? There’s another one? Can I read it over break?

DURING THE SCHOOL DAY:

9th Grader: Mrs. K, you have to help me find another book. I am almost done with The Devil You Know.

Me: Wow! You just started it two days ago!

9th Grader: I know, and it’s SO good! It’s so amazing, and one of the boys in the love triangle is CRAZY.

9th Grader’s Friend: Oh yeah, I need a new book too. I am almost done with Tease, and it’s so intense! [Grabs Before I Fall and checks it out.]

Me: Wow you two. Who do you think will read more?

[They look at each other and smile as they point to themselves.]

AFTER SCHOOL:

9th Grader: I think I will finish Blood for Blood over break. Do you have Ready Player One?

Me: Yes, but it was saved for another student who wanted to start it after break.

9th Grader: Don’t worry. I’ll be done by then.

[I hand him the book. As I am doing this, another student rushes in, plops Charlie Higson’s The Hunted on my desk, grabs The End, and rushes out.]

There were many other amazing conversations like these throughout the school day, and many of the students who stopped in didn’t even see me for class. (I see students 4 times during a 6-day cycle.) Others picked up a book yesterday to have an extra title for break. I’m so proud of them. They are reading, and they are enjoying it! All it took was dedication to the routine: daily reading time, weekly IR journals, conferences, book talks, and read alouds. It’s a lot, but as you can see above, it’s SO worth it.

 

 

 

If I Had My Own School

Too often, I read about schools that base all that they do on state-created modules and think Test! Test! Test! all year. I’m thankful I don’t work in a building like that, but too many educators do. They do not have the freedom to choose what they teach and how to present it to students. When freedom is taken away from teachers, they can get frustrated and even burn out, eventually leaving the profession altogether. If only we could stop this from happening. But wait! Maybe we can! What would a school look like if every educator had the freedom to do what is best for their students?! Here is what I imagine at my dream school:

1. A focus on literacy would be the “theme” each year. I know it sounds like I am contradicting myself by saying the theme would be provided for teachers, but study after study proves that literacy is the foundation that ALL children need to be successful in school, and later in life. (If you would like some of the hundreds of articles and books that support independent reading, click here to view an amazing list that the Book Whisperer herself, Donalyn Miller, put together.) Administrators could work with the reading “experts” in the school to constantly remind their staff members about this all-important theme.IMG_0499

2. All teachers would promote books. Is this possible? I think so. Staff development would be provided–again by the “experts”–on how to talk about books and promote them in a variety of ways. Some teachers and administrators may start small with just putting up an “I am currently reading…” sign, and others may feel more comfortable to keep track of all the books they are reading for the school year, or present book talks to their classes. Principals would share their favorite books on the morning announcements. The possibilities are endless!

3. Students would read EVERY DAY. Schools could go about this in many different ways. A set period of time could be worked into the school day, certain subjects could devote time to it, or maybe 1st period is just 20-30 minutes longer and students read there. No matter where this time is provided, it needs to be consistent and non-negotiable. We’ve all seen the sign below about why we cannot skip reading, so at my dream school, we would make sure kids didn’t skip it!

4. Students would have the freedom to read what interests them. If we want our students to be successful in the classroom, and just in life, we need to get them to not only read, but become lifelong readers. It all starts with falling in love with reading, and that won’t happen unless we let them read books that interest them. It’s that simple.

5. All classrooms would have libraries. Sure, this might be tough on the budget for one year, but it would be worth it! If schools can’t find the money, administrators could give teachers time to create their own DonorsChoose projects. (I just got my tenth one funded, so they are not hard to create.) Some libraries would, of course, be bigger than others, but all classrooms would have some books. This way, students would see books wherever they went, and not just in the school library or an English classroom.

6. Teachers and other staff members would share what they read. If we want to get our students reading, we need to set a good example. Teachers need to read too, for how else would we be able to recommend books? Administrators could get teachers started with book clubs that meet once a month, each time about a different book. Like students, once teachers start finding a bunch of books they enjoy, they will become readers themselves!

7. Students would have the freedom to just read. This means no reading logs, Accelerated Reader tests, book reports, or essay assignments attached to reading. Students would take as long as they needed to finish a book, which means they wouldn’t be under the pressure of a deadline. All students read at different rates, so deadlines don’t work. When they finished, students would share what they thought through a one-on-one conference with a teacher, in small groups with other students, or even with the whole class. All this sharing just strengthens the school reading community.

8. Students would see books, and recommendations, everywhere! Bulletin boards and displays are everywhere in schools, and in my school they would promote books. Lockers in middle and high schools could be painted like book bindings. In my classroom, 8-10 students spent last summer painting a book binding mural of some favorite titles. I’m sure art teachers would love to get on board with something like that! The library media specialist at my school tapes up book recommendations all over the place (above drinking fountains, on doors, in the stairwells, etc.). There are countless ways to promote books.

I’m sure I could go on and on, but it all starts with dedication on the part of the staff at the school. If everyone is willing to try, students would surely reap the rewards. I’ve seen the power of reading in my own classroom, and let me tell you it’s magical!

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My 6th period class at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. Proud readers right here!