#SOL19 Day 22 – The Power of the Book Talk

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As my 9th graders walk in today, I greet them with a smile and friendly hello. A few students peak at what’s in my hands: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. It’s my book-talk title for the day, and they know it. When the bell rings, I begin.

“How many of you remember who Emmett Till is?” A bunch of hands go up and a few Ooh! Ooh! Oohs! are shared before I call on Kevin*.

“He’s that boy who was murdered by three men for whistling at a white woman,” Kevin replied.

“Yes. Thank you Kevin. Well, the 12-year-old main character in Ghost Boys, Jerome, meets the ghost of Emmett Till.” A few confused looks appear as I continue. “You see, Jerome was shot and killed by a police officer who believed that he was carrying a gun. Jerome was carrying a gun, but it was a toy gun. He was playing in an abandoned lot with it when the police showed up. After Jerome dies, he meets Emmett Till, who helps Jerome try to process what happened. Jerome also meets the police officer’s daughter, who is also trying to process what her father did.”

I open up the book and read the first three pages. The students are hooked. A few pens enter hands as they add the title to their to-read list.

“I like how this sounds a little like All American Boys, but also different,” says Kevin.

“You’re right, Kevin. There are some similarities, but Ghost Boys is it’s own story. Author Jewell Parker Rhodes was alive when Emmett Till was killed, so that event, and the much more recent death of Tamir Rice, were two events that inspired this book.”

A few more questions are asked, and then students begin picking up their own books to begin reading. Kevin, who doesn’t have his book today, asks, “Mrs. K, can I read Ghost Boys for today? It sounds amazing!”

I hand him the book and he quickly gets started. Another reader sucked in to reading by the power of a book talk.

*Student’s name was changed to protect his privacy.

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#SOL19 Day 21 – Apathy Comes from Somewhere

Today was a great day, but as I left school today, I still couldn’t help but think about a tougher, yet productive, moment at the end of the day.

My 9th graders are in the midst of their first research project. At first, I was met with a lot of resistance, but now that students have their sources and are starting to read them, they can see where all of this work is going.

By the last period of the day, I was really rolling, and then Jaden* walked in. Before he even entered my classroom he already had an apathetic look on his face. His shoulders were slumped over, and his head was down. Like always, I tried to engage him immediately.

“Hey, Jaden! Great to see you today!” I said with a big smile on my face. He mumbled a quiet hello and took his seat. He had his IR book, which was a great start, for he often came to class with nothing.

After our independent reading, quickwrite, and mini-lesson, I began dividing students up into what they would be doing for their work time. Some students would be heading to the library to work on getting more sources with the librarian. Others would be starting to read their sources, and still others would be start their letters to the principal.

As everyone got going, I noticed Jaden again. He was just staring off into space. “Hey Jaden. What can I help you with?” I asked him. He just shrugged his shoulders in response.

I looked around at his area and saw his two sources. One was quite large, at least 20 pages long, and the other was at least 5. This was a lot of reading for someone who didn’t enjoy reading most days, mainly because it was hard.

“Jaden, are you okay with these sources?” I asked him. When he looked up at me with a curious expression, I said, “Well, it just seems like this is a lot to read, and I know you only searched one of the databases. Let’s check out the other one.”

Five minutes later, Jaden had replaced that 20-page article with a 3-page one. I even saw a smile as I grabbed him a highlighter.

Sometimes knowing where the apathy comes from helps us keep it from showing up too much.

*Student’s name was changed to protect his privacy.

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#SOL19 Day 20 – Academic Writing

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a fellow educator that has been on my mind ever since. That conversation went something like this (as best as I can remember):

“Sarah, what type of academic writing do you assign in your classroom?”

“Well, isn’t all writing academic writing?” I reply.

“Oh no! Academic writing is any writing that helps students perform better on a state assessment.”

“But,” I counter. “Doesn’t practicing any type of writing make students better writers? It’s like I tell my students who play sports. You cannot improve as a player without practice. A coach can teach skills, but that does no good without the practice.”

“So, even creative writing? Even having students write, say, short stories can help students improve on the state test?” she asked.

“Of course! Writing stories still give students the chance to play around with language, punctuation, various styles, and their sentence fluency. Even though the writing is a work of fiction, it still helps our students make gains.” I saw an aha moment appearing slowly. Her mind was working overtime with all of these new ideas she may have never thought about.

“Oh yeah,” she finally said. “Those aspects of writing are on the state rubric too.”

We continued that conversation, even though my friend constantly veered back toward that state assessment. I get it. That’s where emphasis is placed in her district, and many other districts around the country. If only administrators in those districts read the latest research. If only students were given equal time to write in all genres of writing. If only more educators concentrated on getting books into kids’ hands, and thus showed students how reading and writing are intimately connected. If only, if only, if only. Then maybe, just maybe, our children will show those gains that districts want to see on those state assessments. Why? Because kids are reading and writing more, and that volume is what will help our students improve.

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#SOL19 Day 19 – Learning from Mentors

I have many writing mentors. I used to  think my mentors were just the authors of the above books (and more), but my writing mentors are everywhere.

Mentors are our fellow educators.

Mentors are the authors of young adult and middle grade novels.

Mentors are the authors and illustrators of graphic novels.

Mentors are the authors and illustrators of picture books.

Mentors are the journalists that appear in our favorite magazines, newspapers, and journals.

Writing mentors are truly everywhere. We learn from every piece we read, no matter if it’s a best-selling novel or a short story written by an aspiring student writer.

How do we create those aspiring student writers? We show them daily examples of excellent writing. We book talk titles to help them find interesting titles. We give them time in class to read what they love. It works. It really does.

Below are just a few of the many mentor texts that have worked their way into my classroom. What are some of your favorite mentor texts?

#SOL19 Day 18 – Sometimes Finding that Joy is Hard

It was one of those days today. You know exactly what I mean. It was one of those days.

My first class of the day started out well, but then I heard complaining. Lots of complaining. “I can’t find a source. Will you find one for me?” and “I don’t want to read this article! It’s four pages long!” I smiled and suggested as many helpful strategies as I could.

My second class was the same way, but there was more than just complaining. Heads began going down when students didn’t get their way (i.e. me reading for them or find a source for them). Again, I just smiled, gave suggestions, and reminded students of their helpful group members when I was busy with someone else.

The next two classes struggled to stay focused as well. When the last class left, I immediately sighed and took a long deep breath.

What we are doing is not easy. I know that. My students and I are in the middle of an argument writing unit that incorporates research. They will soon be writing business letters to our principal about a change they’d like to see at our school, and they must share research that supports it. I’m asking students to find sources, which means a lot of reading. They are using databases they haven’t used in a while, or ever. It’s a lot of new(ish) skills in a short amount of time.

I’m not making excuses; I’m just trying to understand where they’re coming from. I must remind myself that when anyone tries something new and challenging, frustration often comes with it.

This day is over, and tomorrow is a brand new one.

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#SOL19 Day 17 – Adding a Little Joy

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from Dictionary.com

This morning, I saw a Facebook post by the fabulous Dr. Mary Howard about joy. It’s something that is so powerful, for often it’s contagious. When I think about joy in my life, images of my children, husband, family members, friends, and teaching come to mind. I know those first real Spring days will bring me joy, as well as just some warm weather. I  was also reminded of a quickwrite I did with my students about one month ago where I asked them to list people, things, and situations that bring them joy and happiness. Their responses shocked me. Many students couldn’t come up with anything, or only had 1-2 items. So, I asked them to share why their lists were so short. Those that were willing to share all mentioned that school was part of the problem.

A Few Ways I Try to Bring Joy Into My Classroom:

  1. Get to know each and every child. I believe that creating a strong relationship with each student is vital to their success in my classroom. Some relationships take quite a bit of time to create, but I don’t give up. I greet them with a smile. During our daily independent reading time, I confer with some of them. Sometimes, those questions I ask bring our conversation back to what’s going on in their day. Students need to know that we care.
  2. Incorporate choice whenever possible. When students have the freedom to read, write, and speak about topics they love, joy is palpable on their faces and in their actions. Choice also assists in building those all-important relationships.
  3. Make the classroom look inviting. I remember what it was like to walk into those classrooms with bare walls. It said a lot about my teacher, and I didn’t want that for my students. Want to change what your classroom looks like? Ask your students! Over the years, my students have given me great suggestions, and have even helped me change the appearance of my classroom.
  4. Shake things up a bit. It’s March, and my students are ready for this Buffalo winter to be over. Once the weather improves, I am going to take them outside to read and write. Next month, we are doing a form of March Madness, but with poetry. When it’s time to read Romeo & Juliet, we will be down on the auditorium stage. Sometimes kids just need the chance to get up and move around.
  5. Take care of ourselves. I’ve learned from past experiences that I cannot forget about self-care. A happy teacher usually creates more happy students. That means I sometimes leave work at school, and make time for something I love at home. I go out with my family. I read. I meditate. I draw with my daughter. We need that ME time.

I know that these modifications may not work with every child, but why not try? I’ve certainly noticed a lot of positive changes in many of my kiddos. How do you add a little joy in your classroom?

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#SOL19 Day 16 – Sarah and How She Got Her Name

Throughout my years as a high school English teacher, there have been certain teaching techniques I’ve used that have raised a few eyebrows. Anything that didn’t appear “rigorous enough” was discouraged, no matter what skills were being taught.

Independent reading didn’t include direct instruction. The kids weren’t doing enough during that time. (Doesn’t reading itself count!?) Never mind the one-on-one conferences that took place, where I was doing short mini-lessons to help students improve their collection of reading strategies.

Book clubs weren’t “rigorous enough” because they weren’t whole-class novels. How could you possibly teach 4-5 books at once?! Never mind that more students were willing to read and analyze these books because they had the freedom to choose a title that interested them.

Using picture books in my classroom were not even close to “rigorous enough.” How could a high school English teacher possibly challenge our students with a picture book? Never mind that writing techniques in picture books are incorporated in YA and adult novels too. Just take a peak inside my classroom and see how:

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal is one of my current favorites. I’ve used it for quickwrites, as well as imitating style. If you don’t know the book, Alma is a young girl who finds her long name, Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela, to be way too long. She tells this to her father, only to learn why she got that name in response.


My picture book inspiration.

For a quickwrite, my students shared the history of their name. They described all they knew about it with as much detail as they could. If they didn’t know a lot about their name, they were encouraged to ask that night. The following day, I read them Alma and How She Got Her Name, and then started writing my own draft called Sarah and How She Got Her Name using my name, Sarah Helene. Here is the draft I wrote right in front of my students:

Sarah was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. In the Jewish religion, names are given based on someone who passed away. Sarah also fit because my mother, an elementary school teacher, had a student named Sarah she adored.  

Helene came from my father’s mother, Helen, who passed away when he was 13. My parents didn’t like the name Helen for me, so they added the “e” to the end.

What followed was a mini-lesson on style. I put the book under the document camera, and student shared what they noticed about the way it was written. An anchor chart was created, and students used it to create their own piece.

Their final drafts were gorgeous. Elements of style–purposeful repetition, dialogue, formatting, and sentence structure–were modeled and learned through this picture book. Just because picture books often have young characters and images doesn’t mean they can’t be models for high schoolers; they are models of great writing for any age.

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