The Mural

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

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


A few more members of the mural team!


Five of the eight students who worked on the mural.

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

The authors of the books loved their work too:


Better Writing Means More Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reading Art

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

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

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


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

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

Practice What You Preach

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

“Can I help you find a book?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

“They were assigned in English class.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



What My Students Need from Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pump Up the Volume!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IR Reflecting and Planning for 2016-2017

Recently, I tearfully watched the Class of 2016 walk across the stage. In some respects, I couldn’t believe they were graduating already. I just had them as freshmen! When I think back to how I instilled reading in their lives four years ago, I wish I could have done better. I didn’t know what I know now. I’m sure a lot of teachers think this way, for we are always revising and making changes each year. Below are some of my thoughts for what I plan to keep, as well as what I plan to implement.

Continuing with:

Independent reading time will be given EVERY DAY. This is a non-negotiable for me. I see my students 4 days in a 6-day cycle, and this year I will only have them 55 minutes on those 4 days (instead of 60 minutes like last year). Those 15 minutes of independent reading are vital. For most of my students, they will not receive independent reading time again after 9th grade, so I need to instill that love of reading as best I can.

Choice is allowed, and encouraged. I want my 9th graders to read what interests them, even if a title is below their reading level. Why? Students first need to gain confidence in their reading abilities. Only then will they be willing to try more challenging books. I’ve watched this happen year after year. A 9th grader may start in September with a book by Kate DiCamillo, and by June that same student is trying titles by Laurie Halse Anderson or Marissa Meyer. Also, I know the type of reader I am, and I enjoy books by DiCamillo, Anderson, and Meyer! Learning can always take place, even if the reading levels of the books vary from time to time.

Book talks will be part of our IR routine. I did more book talks last year than I ever have before. I also had more students read consistently than ever before. I know there is a link! So many students read titles this year that they never knew about. How could they? They need to be introduced to the titles available to them.

Book passes will be done at least once each marking period. Book talks are important, but I found that book passes worked wonders as well. They give students the opportunity to discover new, interesting titles on their own. Book passes are basically speed dating with books. In about 20-30 minutes, students review 20 or so books. Often times, to-read lists grow quite lengthy after a book pass.

Books will continue to be visible in my classroom. Last year, I worked quite hard to find ways to display books so students could see more than the bindings. I got two front-facing bookshelves, and I bought display stands for books so I could put some on top of bookshelves. I also started displaying every book I read throughout the year in an ever-growing display instead of just my current title. I can’t tell you the amount of times students would ask about the books I read, or the ones that were on display. I am already looking into adding to my displays for next year.

Staff Signs – Students need to know that they are not the only ones in the building reading. Teachers read too, and not just English teachers! Last year, I sent a template to teachers (see below) so they could display what they were reading on their doors, and some teachers decided to use it! I plan to send it out again in September, so any new teachers who want to use it can do so.

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New Changes for 2016-2017:

Student Book Talks – As mentioned above, book talks will take place every day, but I plan to make sure I am not the only one giving them. Last year, a few students (both current and former) were willing to go up in front of my classes and share their favorite books. If students view me, their teacher, as a trusted resource for great books, they will definitely trust their peers as well. I plan to designate certain days for student book talks, and sign-up sheets will be posted in the classroom.

Grading and Incentives – I am required to grade my students’ independent reading in some way. I don’t use Accelerated Reader or other testing programs though. Instead, it’s simply  based on if students are reading during their given class time. This is what I care about most. If students read consistently during class, they will likely start reading more often outside of class. Next year, I am looking to give an extra incentive of some sort. My plan is to email Study Hall teachers to get them to not only promote reading in their Study Halls (instead of listening to music or napping), but also send me names of students who read and/or share their book titles with others. I want to make this easy on Study Hall teachers, so I am still working how to implement this one. If you have suggestions, please feel free to let me know!

Conferences and Writing Notebooks – I hate to admit this, but I was quite inconsistent with my reading conferences last year. I know how important they are, but so much always seemed to get in the way. I planned to confer with students during their 15 minutes of IR time, but part of that time I used for keeping track of the titles and page numbers  of the books students were reading. Then students would need book recommendations, or someone would come in late, or a student would need redirection. Next year, I plan to confer more, but also add in writing notebooks. In the past, I always used notebooks for separate writing lessons and quick writes, not IR. This year I’d like to give students writing time at least one day each week so they can share how their independent reading is going. This way I can give them written feedback if they are struggling, and they can reference these notes in the future. I think this will help me get inside their heads more, but I know conversations are still vital. If you have conference or notebook suggestions, please share!

What does independent reading look like in your classroom? Please feel free to share a comment below.