What Are You Passionate About? (Part I)


What are you passionate about? What do you want to learn more about? These two questions are the backbone of the research unit I recently began with my 82 English 9 students.

When I started thinking about research, I knew that I needed to grab my students’ attention from Day One. Without any interest, most of them wouldn’t be successful. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Students motivated by their grades could be, but I wanted more than that. I wanted my students to have a true curiosity about their topic. I wanted to see that desire to learn more. So, I began to scour the vast world of the internet to see what was out there. My search probably would have taken a lot longer had I not started with some trusted educators I follow.

My initial search led me to Jessica Lifshitz’s brilliant blog, Crawling Out of the Classroom. (Side note: If you haven’t read any of Jessica’s posts before, you’re missing out. Her creative ideas inspire her 5th grade students, as well as her blog readers like me.) When I went to her blog, I was thrilled to see that she was rethinking how she incorporates research in her classroom as well. Like she mentioned in this post, I knew my students needed ideas for topics they would want to learn more about.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 8.24.59 AM.png

Sheet used to gather ideas (based on Jessica Lifshitz’s document)

Two weeks ago, we began searching for topics of interest using some of Jessica’s slides. My students loved Google’s “years in review” as well as a lot of the images. I also added some of my own, based on what I’ve heard my students talk about. I was surprised to see how much my students didn’t know about current events, even though their classmates have discussed these issues before. We then shared what topics stood out to us in small groups, and some students found a new topic they were interested in after these discussions. By the end of the first week, students created inquiry questions about their topics to help guide their upcoming research.

Last week we started our search for articles, which was honestly difficult for some of my students. I wanted them to use our school’s databases to find reliable sources, but that also meant many of the articles would be written at a high level. We started with ProQuest SIRS Issues Researcher, but many of the articles students found were too difficult for them to read (Lexile levels were anywhere from 1100 to over 1400). Some students tried other databases, but many articles were still a struggle to get through.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 9.21.50 AM

5th Period’s Skimming Techniques Anchor Chart 

In order to make sure my students saved articles they could read and understand, we reviewed how to skim our articles first. Too often, I watched students just look at a title, and then print (or not print) based off of what it said. Once students began finding their helpful articles, I asked them to highlight and add annotations in the margins. The goal of this was to show evidence of close read, and I reminded them that their annotations would be needed later on for their papers.

The first day of searching went smoothly, but then I started to see some students putting their heads down or just getting off task. When I asked those students what was going on, they all said they just didn’t want to read their articles or “do research.” I was nervous at this point, for I thought the reading would happen on its own if my students were interested in their topics. What had happened? I started by going back to my students’ inquiry questions to make sure they were still interested in their topics. Most of them weren’t, or at least weren’t sure where to go with it. I encouraged these students to revisit their topics, and change them if needed. Some of them did revise, and then were back on track. Others were still frustrated and reluctant to try to revise. After talking with them, they seemed overwhelmed with the whole research process, for this was the first time they ever had to find multiple texts to write a “research paper.” I had various conversations about why we are doing research, how it will benefit them now and in the future, and even about the upcoming paper and presentation. I told them that yes, the reading and learning portion is often the hardest part, but if they become an “expert” on their topic, the writing and presentation could be a lot easier. Some students believed me, but I think others were still frustrated.

As I write this, I am currently in the middle of my Spring Break. I am hoping my students return to school next week rejuvenated and ready to continue with their research. The vast majority of my students are enjoying the process, which is a big success in my book. I am also, however, planning accordingly for those that may not be ready or willing. My 82 students should already be “experts” on their topic, since they should have read three articles about it. Some have not finished that reading yet, and one of my two goals is to spend additional time with them next week to help them get caught up. Some may already be caught up, and others may end up using a podcast for a source instead of an article. (I wish I would have encouraged other sources besides articles from the start, but it’s an option now.) My second goal is to begin encouraging my other students to start planning out an I-Search paper. I know not all students plan the same way, so I will have a few different tools to share. I will be writing a paper along with them, so I will have a constant model to display, and even work on right there in front of them. More to come in Part II!

How do you work research into your curriculum? Feel free to leave a comment below.


Be a Go-To Reading Source

Ever since my oldest was born, I’ve read to him. He fussed, cooed, and even cried at times, but I wanted that reading habit started early. By the time he was six months old, he would sit for any book. He loved the flip books and beautiful colors in our many Eric Carle titles, but he also just loved listening to his mother and father. The same went for my daughter. By the time she was born two years later, we were going to the library, buying all sorts of books, putting book titles on gift lists, and just creating our ever-growing reading lives.


My husband reading to our son at nine months old.

My children would be lost without books, but that’s because they grew up with them. They were surrounded by them, so they grew to love a wide variety. They also grew to trust their parents as go-to sources for great books.

Now, my six-year-old daughter, who’s in Kindergarten, enjoys sitting down to listen to chapter books with the family. She loved Matylda Bright and TenderWishtree, and every book by Kate DiCamillo. Why was she willing to listen to these books? Her mother picked them out. When children have trusted, go-to sources for books, they are that much more willing listen to a book, or attempt reading it.


My daughter points to the cactus without arms, just like the main character.

Just yesterday, we just finished reading Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. This is a middle-grade novel about a determined, witty 8th grader with no arms, and it’s over 200 pages long. (If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to. It’s amazing in so many ways!) My daughter not only fell in love with the main character, but she also noticed things I never thought a six-year-old could pick up on: the cactus on the front without arms represents the main character of the book. How can it be that my daughter understands symbolism at this age? I believe it started with the consistent reading early on.

When it comes to my 9th graders, many haven’t had those same positive experiences with reading early on. Some of my 9th graders struggle with analyzing a text and noticing symbolism, but I am working with them to give them some wonderful reading experiences. It all starts with a go-to trusted source for books. Some have found that source in the past, but others have not. If I’m going to become a go-to source, I need to prove that I know my books. This means from Day One, I must book talk titles, create displays with popular titles, read intriguing excerpts, and share a wide range of titles that are in my classroom library. I must give them time to read in my classroom, and time to talk about what they love about their titles. I must create one positive reading experience after another.

Our students will gain so much from those positive reading interactions that we create. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve watched students go from sitting back and listening to group members discuss books, to being at the center of a discussion. I’ve seen students who struggled with remembering a basic plot start sharing their analysis of a book.  It’s not full proof, but many students leave as readers. We just need to build their reading confidence, and to do that they need at least one trusted individual who can first get them to pick up a book.

So now what happens when June rolls around? How do we keep the reading momentum going? I encourage my students to come in over the summer when I have my “summer library hours,” and some of them do. In September, at least one-third of them return to my classroom for new books. But then those visits start to dwindle. Why? Because those consistent positive reading experiences dwindle. They don’t have a go-to source each day who knows what they love to read and promotes those titles. How can we change this? Well, I invite you to visit a classroom where a teacher promotes books and independent reading. Learn from that teacher. That’s what I did to get started, and I’ve continued to learn from many educators since then. Also, find some trusted reading sources of your own. I found many of mine on social media. Once you have books to share, you can introduce them to your students. You’ll be a go-to source in no time!

My Top Titles of 2017

What a year for books! I’m pretty sure I said something similar at this time last year, but there really have been so many amazing titles that have come out, and many others I’m sure I have not even read yet. I had to make some tough decisions, and I know there are still a lot of titles I want to read (like Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu and Release by Patrick Ness). Based on what I did read, here are my favorites all rolled into three very general categories.

Top Young Adult Titles of 2017:

Screenshot 2017-12-31 at 11.48.25 PM.png

10. They Both Die At the End by Adam Silvera – Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and tells him he is going to die today. Death-Cast is never wrong, so Mateo knows he needs to get his life in order before it happens. He needs to simply venture outdoors and say goodbye to his comatose father, his best friend Lidia, and his goddaughter Penny. Mateo’s fear overwhelms him though, so he tries out the Last Friend app and meets Rufus Emeterio. Rufus also received a call from Death-Cast that day. The teens decide to spend their last day together, and end up helping one another in ways they could have never imagined.
Yet another unforgettable book by Adam Silvera, and just the first of two on this top ten list. I will officially read anything he writes, no matter the topic.

9. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green – Meet Aza Holmes. She’s not nearly as talkative as her best friend Daisy, but she certainly has a lot in her mind. She always has, for her mind consumes her. When local billionaire Russell Pickett disappears, Aza and Daisy decide they can find out information that could lead to a large monetary reward. Daisy is out for the money, but Aza uses the adventure to distract herself from what’s really going on in her head. When they meet Pickett’s oldest son Davis, a former childhood friend of Aza’s, things take a romantic turn that Aza never expected. She also doesn’t know if she can handle it, for what’s going on in her mind is an ever-tightening spiral. I cried reading this book, but not for my typical reasons. John Green’s own personal battle with mental illness makes Aza all too real, for he gave me a glimpse inside the head of so many different people I’ve come to know and love. Green’s writing is gorgeous and intense. I will be thinking about Aza, Davis, Daisy, and Noah for a long time.

8. Solo by Kwame Alexander – Many might think that Blade Morrison has it all. He lives a rich life in Hollywood, all due to his rockstar father, Rutherford Morrison. Except, Rutherford isn’t much of a star anymore. Now he’s an addict who can’t stay clean, no matter what rehab he checks into. Blade has his girlfriend, Chapel, to concentrate on, but his sister Storm knows that he is falling head over heels too quickly. But Blade needs Chapel. He wants to forget about his father, and doesn’t want any connection to him. When the cameras appear, he wants to disappear. Pretty soon, however, Blade is faced with a harsh reality that has him running to Ghana for some answers. Solo is another musical gem by Kwame Alexander. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself singing along with the music.

7.  A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas – As this third book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series opens, Feyre is back with Tamlin in the Spring Court. Feyre must put on an act for Tamlin and his entourage so she can learn about his recent actions and future plans. The King of Hybern is ready to invade, and Feyre needs information to save her court and the people she loves. Will she get what she needs from Tamlin before returning to her mate, Rhysand? This is a tense, exhilarating third book in the series! It concludes like all is wrapped up, but I know more is coming! If you haven’t read any of Sarah Maas’s books yet, it’s time to start.

6. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera – Griffin doesn’t know how to live now that Theo is gone. He was told it was an accidental drowning, but Griffin can’t believe it. Theo promised him he would never die, and Griffin planned to make him keep his word. Ever since they fell in love, they planned to be one another’s end game. Except now that’s not possible. Now, Griffin must deal with not only losing his true love, but also playing host to Theo’s boyfriend Jackson. A truly realistic and heartbreaking story about love, loss, and never ending grief, and my favorite of the two Silvera books for this year. Anyone who has fallen in love will be able to connect with this story. Be prepared to shed a few tears.

5. American Street by Ibi Zoboi – Fabiola Toussaint and her mother want a better life. As the novel opens, they are flying from Haiti to Detroit to live with the mother’s sister. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and Fabiola’s mother is detained. Fabiola has to navigate the new world she lives in by watching her three cousins and aunt, who live on the corner of American Street and Joy Road. She sees the have a lot of money. How? Fabiola’s Aunt Jo doesn’t go to work, but instead stays in her room all day. Her one cousin, Donna, a true beauty, dates Dray, who gives her all the jewelry and clothes she wants. Donna’s twin Pri is the exactly opposite of Donna. She is the brawn. Then there is Chantal, who is the oldest, and the brains of the sisters. Together they are the Three Bees. They make sure no one messes with their cousin. At first, Fabiola just wants good grades and her mother back in her life, but soon she finds that she is getting into trouble on her own. So many people have compared this book to The Outsiders, and I think that does it a disservice. American Street is its own shocking, yet amazing, novel. The author does a wonderful job showing all that some people need to do to make it in life. I loved it, and felt for so many characters in it, even Dray.

4. Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner – Teenager Carver Briggs had a wonderful life, that is, until his three best friends–Mars, Blake, and Eli–were killed in a car crash. The worst part was that Carver thinks he was texting the driver around the time the accident happened. He blames himself, and so do many others, including Mars’s father and Eli’s twin sister Adair. Meanwhile, Mars’s father is encouraging the district attorney to bring charges against Carver, and Carver understands why. He blames himself more than anyone. Thankfully though, there are others that support him, like Eli’s girlfriend Jesmyn, his own family, and soon some of Eli’s and Blake’s family members. Carver spends one day with Blake’s grandmother, who wanted a “Goodbye Day” for Blake. They shared their favorite memories of him, giving him a proper goodbye on their terms. I found myself obsessed with Zentner’s first book The Serpent King, but I connected with this one more. Anyone who has lost a loved one can feel for Carver and the overwhelming pain he and other characters have.

3. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – In Will’s neighborhood, there are three rules that every follows: no crying, no snitching, and get revenge. Will knows these rules as well as anyone else, and therefore knows he must follow them. The night before, his older brother Shawn was shot and killed. Will knows who did it, and he knows where Shawn kept his gun. He grabs it, knowing, as he enters the elevator, what he plans to do with it. It’s a long way down though–seven floors to be exact–and Will has a lot to think about. I have read all of Jason Reynolds’s books, and I have loved every single one. This one is one of my favorites (if that’s possible)! Jason is such a talented storyteller and poet. I’ve also listened to the audio with Jason reading the book himself, and it’s even better! I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

2. The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater – This true story is about two Oakland teenagers and an afternoon that changed both their lives. One teen, Sasha, is a brilliant student at a private school who identifies as agender. Richard is black, lives in a low-income area of Oakland, and goes to a rough public school where he is just one of many. Each day, both Sasha and Richard take the 57 bus to get to and from school. One day while Sasha sleeps on the bus, Richard takes a lighter and sets their skirt on fire. Sasha ends up with second and third degree burns, and Richard is arrested and charged with a hate crime. Is it a hate crime though? As the events unfold, its clear that Sasha and Richard are both victims. To say that this book is impressive is an understatement. I couldn’t put it down and will be thinking about it for a while. I’m sharing this one with all of my classes.

1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – 16-year-old Starr Carter may live in the poor neighborhood called Garden Heights, but that doesn’t mean her classmates at Williamson prep need to know that side of her. Starr is one of the few black students at Williamson and does all she can to be “Williamson Starr” there. Then one night she sees one of her best friends, Khalil, at a party. The two end up leaving together after shots are fired, and Khalil offers to drive her home. Not more than a few minutes later a cop pulls them over, and before Starr knows what happened, Khalil is dead and he was unarmed. What follows is the aftermath, and Starr is right in the thick of it. She always said she would speak up in a situation like this, but can she now? Will it even make a difference?
What a truly remarkable and powerful story. Angie Thomas’s debut is a must-read that is needed in every classroom. Teachers need to read it with their students. Students need to bring it home and share it with their parents. Out of all the titles on this list, I didn’t second guess where this one belonged.

Top Middle Grade Titles of 2017:

Screenshot 2018-01-01 at 8.50.02 AM.png


10. Midnight without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson – Rosa Lee Carter is only 13 years old, but she knows she needs to leave the South. Her grandmother, Ma Pearl, treats Rosa so much worse that her siblings, Queen and Fred Lee. Rosa knows it’s because of her darker skin; Ma Pearl says she looks like “midnight without a moon,” and this embarrasses Rosa. She struggles to find her way during the beginning of the civil rights movement. When a 14-year-old African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for whistling at a white woman, Rosa’s world is rocked. Instead of fighting, she feels the need to escape and move north like her mother and aunt did. It’s only because of her best friend, Hallelujah, that she starts seeing why others want to fight for change. Rosa wants to see change come about, but she doesn’t know if she can be a part of it. A beautifully written story with an important message. It was inspired by actual historical events.

9. Flying Lessons by various authors and edited by Ellen Oh – A truly wonderful collection of short stories that will hook the most reluctant readers. Popular authors like Matt de la Peña, Kwame Alexander, Tim Federle, and Meg Medina make this collection a must-have!

8. A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold – Bixby Alexander Tam, or Bat for short, is thrilled when his veterinarian mother brings home a skunk kit one day. The very moment Bat meets this young kit—who he names Thor—he knows that he was meant to care for it. Thor gives Bat a chance to concentrate on something he loves, instead of worrying about tough situations at school, or “every other Fridays” with his father. He decides to prove to his mother that Thor belongs with him by aiming to be the best caretaker possible. His sister Janie sees him as a nuisance most of the time, but there are a few heartwarming moments that show how much they care for one another. Bat’s story is a lovable one. 

7. Matylda, Bright and Tender by Holly M. McGhee – Sussy and Guy are best friends, and Sussy knows that their friendship is a special one. Guy is the type of best friend who is willing to miss the bus to school to run to her house and grab her jacket on a cold day. One day, Sussy and Guy decide to buy a pet together. They choose a leopard gecko and name her Matylda, for Guy says she is unqiue so her name should be too. Guy and Sussy enjoy their new pet, until one day when a tragic accident occurs. Then all of a sudden Sussy is left without the one person who meant the most to her. This book is beautifully written, and definitely a tear-jerker. Everyone deserves a friendship like the one Sussy and Guy have.

6. Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk Crow is not your typical 12-year-old. Left in a boat as a newborn, she was found by Osh, the man who found her and raised her on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Crow doesn’t have any other companions besides Osh and Miss Maggie, a grumpy older woman who is a neighbor of sorts. Crow has always been curious, wanting to see what’s out there, but she doesn’t realize what she is really in for. The mystery elements of Lauren Wolk’s first book, Wolf Hollow, show up in this novel as well. The only reason Beyond the Bright Sea is lower on my list is because I am not quite done with it yet. (I may be changing the order of these titles up soon.) I know an amazing book when I see it though. Lauren Wolk is the real deal. First Wolf Hollow, and now Beyond the Bright Sea. I look forward to sharing this mystery with my students.

5. The Shadow Cipher (York #1) by Laura Ruby – The Morningstarr twins were the geniuses behind the City of York. Back in the late 1700s, they came and created it all: the tall, gorgeous buildings, the futuristic machines, and the train system. Years later, they disappeared, but not without first leaving their city with the Old York Cipher. This gigantic puzzle was hidden within the city itself and has a treasure at the end, but no one had ever been able to solve it. There was even the Old Cipher Society for those that were devoted to solving it. Years later, Tess and Theo Biedermann live in one of the few remaining Morningstarr buildings, 354 W. 73rd Street. They know about the Cipher, and it’s history, like everyone else in York. When wealthy Darnell Slant decides to buy their home, Tess and Theo team up with Jaime Cruz, a neighbor down the hall, to save their building. Unfortunately, the only way they think they can do so is by solving the Cipher. What follows is a truly epic adventure. The Shadow Cipher may be a middle grade novel, but YA fans will love the intricate layers found within. Just like when reading Ready Player One, I found myself excited to watch the puzzle unfold as Tess, Theo, and Jaime discovered new pieces. I loved The Shadow Cipher, and I’m anxious to read the rest of the series.

4. Patina by Jason Reynolds – Patina “Patty” Jones is the female newbie on the Defenders track team. She also happens to be the fastest. Like Ghost, she runs for a reason. Ever since her mother got “the sugar” and lost her legs, Patty has cared for her little sister Maddy. Maddy looks to her big sister for guidance and support, so Patty has had to grow up a lot quicker than most girls her age. She has a loving aunt and uncle who take care of them and their mother, who is on dialysis. It’s a lot to handle, so Patty runs. She runs for her mother, her sister, and even the fake girls at school. Patty wants to do it all, but sometimes even a tough girl like her needs support. All of Jason Reynolds’s books impress me, but Patina is something special. This is his first novel with a female protagonist, and he nailed it. Patina is a book for all the girls out there who need a little extra inspiration, for “Patina Jones ain’t no junk.”

3. Me and Marvin Gardens by A. S. King – Obe Devlin is a loner, but he’s okay with that. He spends his free time by Devlin Creek, which is on a little patch of land that his family still owns. His family used to have acres and acres, but Obe’s great-grandfather had to sell it to pay for his drinking problem. Now developers are moving in, but Obe still has his creek. This is where he meets a new “friend” that he eventually names Marvin Gardens. Marvin is part dog, pig, and who knows what else. Obe has never seen anything like him before, but he grows to care for him. Soon a former friend of Obe’s, Tommy, meets Marvin too, but Obe doesn’t trust Tommy anymore. Tommy left their friendship a while back for another group of kids, and now Obe is worried that Marvin could be in danger. I loved this book just as much as Amy’s other novels. I look forward to sharing this one with my students, and someday my son, who is a true scientist at heart.

2. Wishtree by Katherine Applegate – Red is a giant red oak who has lived to see a lot in its 216 years. It has accrued many animal families, and is famous throughout the neighborhood. Why? Red is a wishtree. Every May 1st, people come see Red and leave a wish on a piece of fabric or scrap of paper. Red and the animals have always sat back and watched this tradition, but this year it’s different. This year Samar’s family has joined the neighborhood, and not everyone is welcoming. It’s only when Samar leaves her own wish for Red that it decides it’s time to become more of a buttinsky than it already is. Wishtree is such an important story. When I closed this book, I made sure to open it again soon after, reading it to my own children. I won’t stop there.\

1. Refugee by Alan Gratz – Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are all refugees seeking hope in a new world. In 1939, Josef and his family board the MS St. Louis, in hopes to make a new life away from Hitler’s regime. Josef must be the man in his family, for his father has not been the same since he returned from Dachau. In 1994, Isabel and her family board a small rowboat in Havana, Cuba in hopes of making it to Miami. Her family, and some of their friends, want to escape the riots that plague their country. Finally, in 2015, there is Mahmoud, who is trying to escape war-torn Syria and make it to Germany with his family. All of these families know they are against great odds, but they’re determined to make it to a new land where they have the freedom they deserve. Oh, what a book! I had many moments while reading it where I just broke down sobbing. The stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud will connect with all readers. This is the first book I have read by Alan Gratz, but it will not be the last.

Top Picture Books of 2017:
Screenshot 2018-01-01 at 12.50.26 AM.png

10. Claymates by Dev Petty and Lauren Eldridge – A gorgeous tale with clay sculptures that move. Lots of action and emotion from these characters, and a new favorite with my 6 and 8 year olds as home.

9. Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins – The hilarious mice from Hotel Bruce are back for their own adventure. All Rupert wants from his friends are for them to be quiet for the wordless picture book he wants to make. What follows is laugh-out-loud funny!

8. Life by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel – A gorgeous book that explores all the wonderful things about life. A true treasure.

7. Miguel and the Grand Harmony by Matt de la Peña and Ana Ramírez – Matt de la Peña is a genius when it comes to picture books! La Música is the main character who ends up finding a boy who has no music in his home. She decides she will help this boy find his passion. What a gorgeous and musical story!

6. Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris – This nonfiction picture book is about how the United States came to have the Statue of Liberty. My children and I loved this book so much! It’s definitely a must read for all, especially now. I think I need to send this book to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

5. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers – My children and I are big fans of Oliver Jeffers, but my son especially loved this one. The illustrations are gorgeous, and there is something new to notice every time you read it. A gorgeous book that is a perfect gift for new parents.

4. The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt and Adam Rex – Drew Daywalt creates some hilarious dialogue for three characters that are in search of someone who can beat them. Talk about amazing! I think my kids and I have read this one at least 20-25 times, and that was just in the first week we had it! My son even took it to his 1st grade classroom to read last year.

3. It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk and Edwardian Taylor – Another hilarious take on a popular tale that will hook all readers (and listeners). Jack does not want to be a part of his narrator’s story, so this new tale will surely get laughs as he reluctantly goes through an adventure.

2. The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy and Eugene Yelchin – A loud town becomes a quiet one when a new mayor named Don Pepe comes in and promises to bring change. But soon the town loses more than just their voice, and it’s up to a noisy little rooster to stand up everyone. An important story that reminds all readers we need to find our inner voice. Share this one with young and old alike.

1. After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat – A truly remarkable take on what happens to Humpty Dumpty after his fall off the wall. Dan Santat just impresses me more with every book he makes.

Encouraging Reading in High School with Book Clubs – Part II

In my previous post about book clubs, I was only halfway through the first one of the school year. I was optimistic at the time, and why not? I saw students reading, and, more importantly, I saw them enjoying it. Now that the first book club is over, I can honestly say I was quite impressed with the results. Did every student finish their book? No. Did some students dislike their book? Yes. I do, however, believe the positives far outweigh the negatives.

The Positives

The Vast Majority Finished On Time or Early – I was so pleased to see that the vast majority of my students finished their book club titles. Many even finished before the completion date! How do I know they finished? They shared their thoughts in the various one-on-one conferences we had. They participated in multiple small group discussions to share their thoughts about characters, plot twists, conflicts, themes, and so much more. They wrote in their notebooks about their own thoughts and emotions as they experienced new worlds and situations.

Thoughtful Discussions – More than anything else, I was so impressed with the discussion topics I heard throughout the book clubs. Students looked forward to the discussions, and had a lot to share. Some students were much more talkative than others, but the vast majority were engaged. They explained their own ideas and listened to one another. The next time around, I look forward to trying Padlet and Flipgrid to add new elements to their discussions.

Enjoyment – By the end of this book club unit, students were actually telling me they enjoyed this new reading experience. Because the majority enjoyed the titles they chose, some that didn’t voiced their hope of finding a better book next time. Over 95% of my students shared they’d much rather participate in a book club than have me choose one title for all of them. I was thrilled to hear this, but also worried, for I knew I had to teach at least one whole-class novel. I will, however, make sure to include similar reading, writing, and speaking activities into the unit.

The Negatives

As I sat down to write about the negative aspects of book clubs, I had a lot of trouble coming up with any. Even though some students didn’t enjoy their books, and some didn’t finish, I honestly feel that this was WAY better than any whole-class novel unit. In a whole-class unit, copying was far easier, and students could fake their way through a book. With book clubs, I could tell which students finished and which ones didn’t. I saw more participation, more writing, and more reading. So many students enjoyed their book club titles that they have now found an author they like, and maybe, just maybe, are turning into readers. That sounds like success to me!

Encouraging Reading in High School with Book Clubs – Part I

If you were to take a peak in my classroom during 5th period yesterday, you may have been quite nervous with the sight in front of you. You’d see one female student, Student A, with her hood up, trying to conceal something beneath her sweatshirt, as she paced the front of the classroom. A boy, Student B, seated near her got up, grabbed her arm, moved it closer to her other arm, and then they appeared to argue. Don’t worry. I was watching the whole time from the back of the room, and I couldn’t help but grin. This is some of what I heard:

Student A: No! You have to believe me. Tariq wasn’t some little punk, and he didn’t steal any milk.

Student B: I thought he stole the milk from the store. That’s what Brian said he did! That’s why he stopped him because he heard someone yell “Stop thief!”

Student A: Did you meet Rocky yet, who worked at the store? Tariq didn’t steal any milk, and Edwin proves it. [Student A opens her book to page 23 and shows a line to Student B.]

Yep, a book. This conversation was all about a book, which was How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon. I listened to some animated conversations about whether or not Tariq was a good kid, or if he was getting pulled into a gang. One student couldn’t remember who was who–there are a lot of characters in that book–so other students in the group were helping him out. At the same time this was going on, another group of students was arguing over whether or not Rachel Bruin–from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak–could be a good friend to anyone after the way she treated Melinda on the first day of high school. These conversations are the ones teachers dream of, and they are happening in my classroom. My students are actively reading and then talking about the content and characters with their group members. These are book clubs.

I first heard about book clubs after reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. Penny’s book came out in late 2012, and at the time I loved the idea of book clubs, but I was hesitant to try them. 5-6 titles at once? Where would I get the titles? What kind of chaos would I see in my classroom? Just a few weeks ago, I saw Penny speak in Rochester, NY, and she shared the impact book clubs had in her classroom. After hearing all that her students accomplished, I knew I had to try them. I pushed aside my fears, and the results blew me away.

Choosing titles – Let me begin by saying that book clubs are centered around choice. Yes, I may be choosing the 5-6 titles my students choose from, but I make those choices based on what I have seen them reading during our independent reading time. I started with a long search to see what titles I could get. I wanted well-written, high-interest titles. I have a large classroom library, but I don’t have a lot of multiple copies of titles. This meant I would need to use different books in each of my five classes. Thankfully, I have an amazing librarian who helped me with my search. She got books on loan from other districts, so this way I didn’t have to purchase more than a few myself.

Book talks – Before all the titles came in, I book talked each one that my students could choose from. I gave them short summaries of each one, and read short excerpts. Students wrote down their reactions and used them to vote for their favorites. I promised that they would get one of their top two choices.

Screenshot 2017-10-28 at 9.30.14 PM

Discussions Preparation – I teach 9th graders, so I knew it would be important to practice what a proper discussion looks like before the book clubs met. To do this, we practiced with picture books. This way, I could also have them practice analyzing a text using the reading strategies I recently taught them.


Thought Logs – Once students got their books and began reading, I knew they needed a way to record their thinking so they had something to share in discussions. In Book Love, Penny Kittle used thought logs with her students. They wrote her letters in their writing notebooks about different aspects of the book, and then used them during discussions. I loved that idea, but I was worried that my students wouldn’t bring their notebooks back to the room. (I currently have them keep their notebooks in class, since some students misplace everything they leave with.) Instead, I created my thought logs on one piece of paper (per reading section), and students worked on them as they read. They folded the Screenshot 2017-10-28 at 9.46.49 PM.pngpaper up so it fit right in their book, and this way they always had it with them when they read. Students have four book club meetings, and have a thought log due for each one. Each one is a little different, since students are at different parts of the story each time.

Discussion Time – When it came time for the small group meetings, I was so impressed with what I heard. I heard students correcting others’ confusion, and others discussing what they hoped would come in the next few chapters. I heard “animated discussions,” like the one at the beginning of this post. Most importantly, the majority of students were actively reading, and enjoying their books. The few students that weren’t reading left the first discussion apologizing to their group members and promising to catch up for the next one. This first initial discussion was more comprehension-based, but future discussions will be where students dive in deeper. The thought logs will guide them toward that higher level thinking.

There’s More – Book club meetings aren’t every single day during this three-week period, so there is a lot more that I do with my students. For one, we learn new writing techniques and practice using them. We study the writing in their books, share what we notice about the way stories are written, and even attempt to imitate style. We also keep a list of “cool and interesting words” that we hope to use in our writing. (I got this idea from Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg’s The Author’s Apprentice.) I have still found time to make sure my students write every single day.

After witnessing so much book love in my classroom over the past few weeks, I think it’s safe to say that book clubs are here to stay. Now to find new titles for the next round of book clubs for a little later in the school year.

Have you tried book clubs, or something similar, in your classroom? If so, how did they go? I’d love to hear what works in your classroom!

My Hope For You

Tomorrow is my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten. She is my youngest, so tomorrow will be bittersweet for me. As I reflect on our summer, I can’t help but think about my hopes for her year(s) to come.

Dear Daughter,

Where has the time gone? Just yesterday I was cradling you in my arms, and now I will be sending you off on a bus. You are ready for Kindergarten though. You have been ready for a while now. That fact doesn’t make this any easier though. As you embark on this new educational journey, I have so many hopes and dreams for you.

My hope is that you will create a vision for your future. Right now, you just want to be a kite flyer, but that will change once you start discovering the world. If not, be the best kite flyer that you can be. Maybe you will participate in kite-flying races, which could lead to falling in love with flying and become a pilot. Run with that dream, and don’t let anyone stop you.ValKF.jpeg

My hope is that you will be a learner. Be a sponge that just sucks up every ounce of information you receive. Enjoy it. Ask questions. Don’t settle for a mediocre answer.

My hope is that you will push through the struggle, and end up being better for it. Solve your own problems, and take pleasure in doing so. Yes ask questions, but not before you attempt something yourself.

My hope is that you will find a passion. Maybe you will fall in love with stories, like I eventually did. Maybe it will be geography, history, or science. Whatever it is, take that passion and run with it. Passion leads to discovery, and that’s what makes learning so much fun.

My hope is that you take advantage of your education. Education is a privilege that many people in this world do not have access to. Learn all that you can, and let it impact you.

Tomorrow is only the beginning of your public education. You are one determined, adventurous young lady, and I cannot wait to see all that you accomplish. Enjoy Year One!




Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 7.19.31 AM.png

Rules created by Amy Fast (@fastcranny)

NOTE: My hopes stem from a poster I saw on Twitter yesterday. Thank you to Amy Fast (@fastcranny) for creating such inspiring rules, and Meagan Wood (@mswood33) for sharing your poster! I will be making a similar poster for my classroom, for I have these same hopes for my students.

Time to Disrupt Everyone’s Thinking

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 9.40.07 AM

Each summer, I aim to read at least 2-3 professional titles to improve my teaching. These titles always get me to reflect on what I do in my classroom, and then I decide if what I am doing is in the best interest of my students. The first title I finished this summer was Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, and I am so glad it was my first choice. I found myself pumping my fist in agreement quite often. I loved their blunt wording, for I know their proven views will not be lost on any reader. Below are some of my takeaways from this essential title.

  1. If we want our children to read, it cannot be a chore. Mountains of packets, study guides, sticky notes, vocabulary worksheets, and other tasks like these can make reading downright boring for our kids. Reading needs to be more than just extracting information from the text. Yes, we need to teach students this skill, however, we need much more. As Beers and Probst state, “We have, while racing to the top, lowered our students’ vision of all that reading can be” (47). Instead of task after task, our students need time to simply read. We need to change their assumption that reading is always a chore (99). Let them find a book they are interested in. If they cannot find one, teach them how. Allow them to get sucked into a new world. Let them fall in love with a main character. We teachers must be willing to embrace this change. Giving students time to read is far from wasting time. It’s opening our students’ eyes to what’s going on in the world. When students fall in love with books, they are more willing to try those challenging texts they may have once dreaded.
  2. Reading inspires positive change in our students. Once our students begin to fall in love with new titles, they become more empathetic. We are disrupting their thinking. They begin to consider the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and make connections to the people in their lives. As Beers and Probst say, “…if we can convince our students to read with compassion, perhaps they will begin to act with compassion” (51). It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve watched a student come into my classroom and throw Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt on my desk with tears in her eyes as she asks me, “Why didn’t you tell me that THAT happened to Joseph?” This student saw the good in a character that supposedly tried to kill one of his teachers. What a wonderful discussion we had that day! There are so many amazing titles out there, and more are coming out every week. We teachers need to get those titles into the hands of our students to inspire that change. Change equals learning, and learning equals growth.
  3. Students need a framework to work with while reading. The BHH framework that Beers and
    Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 10.16.10 AM

    The BHH poster from page 63 in Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst.

    Probst introduce on page 62 is simple to remember, and really gets kids thinking. The “B” stands for what’s actually in the book. This is where students can summarize (using Somebody Wanted But So on page 64), but also use the signposts that Beers and Probst introduced in Notice & Note. Using these strategies, students can explain what they notice with specific detail, and it shows their thinking while reading instead of pinpointing what we want them to notice (like study guide questions can sometimes do). Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for giving students text-based questions, but I wholeheartedly believe that our time could be better spent on teaching students “fix-up strategies” to help them when they are struggling with the content. The first “H” stands for what’s in your head. This is where students can share what surprised them, what prior knowledge the author may have assumed they had, and what

    Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 10.28.25 AM.png

    Fix-up strategies from page 65 in Disrupting Thinking.

    changed or proved what they already knew (66). This is where teachers can really get a good look into what students are thinking about while reading, and thus differentiate instruction for struggling students, or challenge advanced readers. Finally, the second “H” stands for what’s in a student’s heart. This is where we can provide students with helpful questions to get them thinking about how topics or events in the book may have changed them. More than anything though, we need to remind students of the importance of enjoyment first (81). Let them enjoy the journey the book takes them on, only stopping when they really want to write something important. Otherwise, they can go back when done.

  4. Students need to be given time to talk about what they read. So often in English classrooms, students are asked to write about what they read (see #1 above), or a teacher leads a “discussion” that is really more of a quick question-answer session. During it, students could hunt and peck for the answer within the text, or just wait for another student to answer a tough question. The teacher is guiding the discussion, and thus determining what is important. Plus, a teacher cannot learn what students really understood about what they read. I used to do this myself. I thought it was my job to show students what was important within the text, but really I was just doing all the work for them. We need to have faith in our students. They realize a lot more than we give them credit for. There are many ways to incorporate discussions into our classroom. We could first do what Beers and Probst suggest that we doing while reading their book: turn and talk. I use this method a lot, as well as small group discussions. I used to be scared of them, for how would I know if they were staying focused during that given time? Well, there are ways. Last year, I used MicNote to record discussions. Students would have ten-minute discussions that I could then reference later on. Sometimes I had a student “recorder” who took notes. Other times, they participated in writing notebook conversations where they wrote down their thoughts in their writing notebooks, and then passed them to the next person so he/she could respond. There are many ways to hold our students accountable, and I found that these three methods told me more about what all students were thinking instead of just a few who were willing to raise their hands and answer for everyone.
  5. There are “best practices” for reading that definitely work. How do I know? I’ve
    Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 11.00.31 AM

    Chart F on page 103 of Disrupting Thinking.

    tried them. Anything new in our classroom takes time to get used to, but we can’t give up. Each year I am always revising, adding, and deleting what I do. Beers and Probst mention some “best practices” that show up in many other professional titles by Donald Graves, Richard Allington, Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, and many others. I could go on and on. They are best practices for a reason: they have been proven to work. I agree with every portion of the chart on the right, but I’ll admit some were harder to implement than others. As I mentioned above in #4, getting students to talk without leading the discussion myself was tough for me. I had to disrupt my own thinking, but it was worth it. I was willing to accept failure in attempt make positive changes for my students (107). It was a risk I needed to take, and I was pleased with the results.

  6. A change in our mindset is oh so necessary. We all know by now that tests have driven what’s in our curriculum and have take over our schools. Teachers feel the need to teach to tests. Administrators feel obligated to mandate modules. We need to disrupt the thinking that teaching to the test is a best practice. It’s not. There is no research that proves this to be true. What is proven to work is mentioned in chart F above. As Beers and Probst say on page 110, “When the purpose motive for school is to help kids become confident, passionate, lifelong learners…then the profit motive has less to do with high test scores and more to do with engaged students.” There are schools that have already started to change their mindset, and are reaping the rewards. Students enjoy school more because they enjoy learning. And, yes, focusing on these essentials in our schools while raise those all-important test scores too.

    Beers and Probst conclude with reminding the reader that “all children in every school deserve an education that inspires curiosity, encourages creativity, requires critical thinking, urges collaboration, and nurtures compassion” (159). We teachers need to remind ourselves of this, and let go a bit. Tests should not be the first thing we think of. Our students should be. So it’s time to share this book with your co-workers and administrators. Disrupt their thinking and inspire them to change. Only when we remember this will we truly put our students first.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 11.19.45 AM.png

Has your school made positive changes like those mentioned in Disrupting Thinking? If so, what did your school do, and how was it accomplished? Feel free to leave a comment below.