Improving Research Skills with New Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



If You Promote Them, They Will Read

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




If I Had My Own School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

We Need Diverse Classroom Libraries

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Books have taught me so much over the years. I walked through the lives of characters living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and others that are struggling with their sexuality. I experienced life confined to a wheelchair, and cried for children who couldn’t escape broken homes. As I continue to reflect on 2016 and make resolutions for 2017, I know I must make room for more diverse books. I will never know what many of my students are going through when they walk through my door. Yes, some may confide in me, but others are too scared to confide in anyone. Where can these children turn to? In my classroom, I give them the opportunity to turn to books. Who knows what they may find in them. A student could turn to page 10 and find another transgender teen just like herself. Another might meet a young boy with bipolar disorder that reminds him a lot of his older brother. Book teach us. Book inspire us. Book can help heal us.


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Top 10 Titles of 2016

What a year! There have been so many amazing titles that have come out, and many I have not even read yet. So please know that this list is skewed, being only based on titles I have read.


Top Young Adult Titles of 2016:

10. The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle – Quinn Roberts hasn’t been to school since December 20th. That was the day his sister, and best friend, Annabeth died in a car accident while texting HIM. Quinn feels he cannot forgive himself, let alone finish the screenplay he was writing when she died. Quinn’s mother is struggling as well, so it’s his best friend Geoff that decides it’s time for Quinn to get out again. They go to a college party, and that’s where Quinn meets Amir. Now Quinn is confronted with more than just the death of his sister, and soon things are changing quite quickly for him. After reading that author Tim Federle wrote this book about an accident his own high school, I understood why it seemed so real. This book is from the heart. I experienced all that Quinn, Geoff, Amir, and even Annabeth did right along with them. What an amazing book!

9. The Last True Love Story by Brendan Kiely – Teddy Hendrix is a good kid, but a bit lost. He doesn’t really have any true family except his paternal grandfather Gpa, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. His mother is always away for work, so Hendrix is the one who sees his Gpa losing his mind more each day. He chooses this, for he loves Gpa and the stories he tells about his grandmother. Gma was the love of his life, and one thing Hendrix does know is that he wants to write all these stories down before Gpa’s mind goes and they loses them forever. One day, however, good, sweet, Hendrix does the unthinkable. He asks Corrina, the girl he has a crush on, to help him spring Gpa from the facility he’s living in. Corrina, who is just looking for a reason to leave, takes him up on it. They steal his mother’s car, and decide to drive across country to Ithaca, NY, where Gpa and Gma first began their love story. I made so many different connections with this book. From the grandfather with Alzheimer’s to the many impressive classic rock references. In Chapter 18, when Hendrix and Corrina were “looking for a miracle” I thought I was back at a Phish or Dead show! I’ll definitely be thinking about this book for a long time.

8. March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – A beautiful end to an important trilogy. John Lewis’s narration of his involvement in the fight for equal rights is amazing, and the art work brings it all to life for this generation. I can only hope that this trilogy makes it into classrooms and households all over the world. I know I’ll be doing a lot to promote it in my classroom!

7. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – Rainbow Rowell finally brings her popular characters from her novel Fangirl back in their own story. Simon and Baz have hated each other ever since they were made to room together at Watford School of Magicks. Simon has always though Baz wanted him dead, and Baz has his own secrets to hide from “the Chosen One.” In Carry On, Rowell finally brings their story to life, and in the exact way fans had been hoping she would. What a read!

6. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Yoon has a knack for creating memorable characters. This latest novel made me fall in love with main characters Daniel and Natasha. Both are teens struggling with very different family issues when they meet one day in New York City. At first, I liked them for different reasons. Daniel was full of optimism and had a strong belief in fate, despite what it made Natasha think of him. He believed the universe brought them together. Natasha, who loved her grunge music and science, had a tough time believing in fate, but she saw something in Daniel that made her trust him. They were so different, but as their love began to grow, I began routing for them too. Though Natasha and her family were being deported that very day, I began having that same hope that Daniel always believed in: I wanted them to find a way. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say this is a must read!

5. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk – Annabelle is a good daughter to her parents, and she seems content with the friends she has in the small little town of Wolf Hollow. Even Toby, who is dubbed the town weirdo by many, is a quiet friend of Annabelle’s. She is happy, this is, until a new girl named Betty joins her class. From the moment I was introduced to Betty, I just knew she had no good in her. She was not just a bully, but pure evil. Annabelle soon realizes her safe town is not so safe anymore. Everywhere she turns, Betty is doing something unspeakable to her or someone else. Even Toby is not safe from Betty’s wrath. This book teaches so many important lessons, but most of all the importance of being open minded.

4. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King – Sarah is 16 years old, and she’s having an existential crisis. She sees her 10-year-old self, her 23-year-old self, and eventually her 40-year-old self. She follows around a homeless man named Earl, and she dreams of seeing her older brother Bruce who she hasn’t seen since the family trip to Mexico when she was ten. After witnessing something at school, she starts skipping, not able to handle it anymore. Sarah is dealing with more than just what she witnessed at school, for she is living with a tornado. A.S. King is, without a doubt, one of my favorite authors. On the back flap of this book is a quote that reads, “The New York Times called her ‘one of the best YA writers working today.'” I couldn’t agree more.

3. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – It’s winter in 1945. Four teenagers, unknown to one another, must fight to survive and get to the sea as the Soviets get closer to them each day. Joana, a nurse, fight to save whomever she can, but her guilty conscience haunts her. Florian, a Prussian wish his own secrets, meets Emilia, with a bulging secret of her own. Together the three of them, and a large group of other refugees, work together to survive constant horrors. The fourth teen, a wannabe soldier named Alfred, already left his mind a while ago. This remarkable story is based on real life events during World War II that few people know about. This is definitely one book I will be sure to share again and again.

2. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo – Kaz and his crew are back in the truly remarkable sequel to Six of Crows. I loved Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, but this duology is even better! I got sucked into this book as much as the first one. I think Bardugo not only has a knack for creating memorable, likable characters, but also for fantastic storytelling.

1.  The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner – I honestly didn’t know what to expect with this book, but oh I’m SO glad I read it! I immediately fell in love with main characters Dill, Travis, and Lydia. All three of them are teens dealing with hardships, some worse than the others. Dill is the son of a preacher who is now in jail after the police find inappropriate pictures of children on his computer. Travis is the son of a drunk father who can’t get over the death of his oldest son. Lydia may have a normal family, but deals with bullying at school for dressing different than the other teens in their small Tennessee town. How can they cope? Thankfully, they have one another, but is that enough? What amazing debut by Jeff Zentner! I’ve already read his next book Goodbye Days, and I’m sure it will be on my 2017 list. I’m a forever Zentner fan now!



Top Middle Grade Titles of 2016:

10. Pax by Sara Pennypacker – Pax the fox is just a young kit when Peter rescues him. Peter becomes his boy, and the two are inseparable. Unfortunately, they live during a time of war, and Peter’s father must fight. Peter is sent away to his grandfather’s and must leave Pax behind. From then on, the boy and his fox resolve to find each other. Both go through hardships and meet others along the way, but they refuse to give up. This is a truly beautiful story, and a memorable one.

9. The Wild Robot by Peter Brown – A story about Roz the robot, who has a heart of gold. She may be new to the wilderness and to the animals in it, but none of that stops her. The book has a lot of important themes that young children can relate to. I immediately thought my son and I would enjoy this one together, for it takes place out in the wild.

8. Ghosts by Raina Telegemeier – Loved Raina Telgemeier’s latest! She does a wonderful job weaving together a special story that deals with the Day of the Dead, illness, courage, and, of course, ghosts! I think this is my favorite one yet!

7. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson – Ms. Bixby is one of the good ones. You know the ones. A teacher who is memorable, remarkable, and someone you enjoy coming to school to see each day. Sure, she’s not perfect, but she is special. Brand, Topher, and Steve all know this, and they are proud to tell others they have Ms. Bixby. It is because of their adoration for her that they decide to hatch a plan to skip school and go on an adventure. For Ms. Bixby is sick. Too sick to finish out the school year. These three boys decide they will do anything to make sure Ms. Bixby knows what she means to them. I had Ms. Bixby’s in my life, and I can only hope all children do. They are desperately needed by so many more children than we could ever imagine. Thank you John David Anderson, for a true treasure.

6. Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – I picked up this book after reading some amazing reviews, and I was not disappointed! The main character, Carol, is stuck spending the summer before 7th grade in the New Mexico desert. She has to help her parents move her grandfather Serge, who she is meeting for the first time, from his ranch into an assisted living facility. Carol is dreading it all, but instead she is surprised by her desire to be with her grandfather and hear his stories about his past and her grandmother Rosa. Lindsay Eager’s first novel is original and magical. I eagerly awaited Serge’s stories about Rosa, the bees, their land, and the tree. Definitely a must-read!

5. Raymie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo – Oh, this book! Kate DiCamillo did it again! Raymie is determined to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest. She must win. When she does, her picture will be in the paper. That means her father will have to see her picture and come home. He will want to see his famous daughter and not with the dental hygienist he ran off with. Raymie meets Louisiana Elefante and Beverly Tapinski at her first baton lesson, and it is there that the adventures of the Three Rancheros begin! What a beautiful book. Just like DiCamillo’s other books, she created a truly memorable cast of characters.

4. Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart – What an amazing tale of love, friendship, loyalty, and determination! Joseph doesn’t have much anymore. His parents and sister are gone, so the only family he has left is his horse Sarah. Unfortunately for Joseph, the old man that was supposed to care for him sold Sarah behind Joseph’s back. But Joseph is determined. He plans to get Sarah back, no matter the cost, so he takes off on his own. I fell in love with this book from page one, just like I did with The Honest Truth. I will forever read any book that Dan Gemeinhart writes.

3. Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart – Lily Jo McGrother has a wonderful, loving mother and sister. They don’t see how the kids at school–especially the group of Neanderthals– pick on Lily though. She doesn’t want them to know about the bullying, for then people besides her family may find out her secret that she’s just not ready to share yet. You see, Lily was born in a boy’s body and named Tim. She goes by Tim at school, for it could be so much worse if she didn’t. Since she can remember, she has never felt comfortable as a boy, and her mother and sister get that. Her father is a different story. He struggles with Lily’s decision, and is embarrassed by it. At least Lily has one friend who understands: Dare. She calls her Lily and supports her. Soon Lily meets Dunkin, a new student at school. They have a strong bond, but Dunkin cares more about what others think of him and won’t be seen with Lily at school. Dunkin desperately needs Lily though, for he is struggling with his own problems. This is a story for everyone: parents, teachers, and students. I truly loved it, and plan to share it with students right away. Lily is a spectacular child, and does not let the fact that she is a transgender 8th grader stop her. Dunkin’s mental health issues are all too real for so many people today. All readers will fall in love with Lily and Dunkin just as I did.

2. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill – What a beautifully written fantasy novel! Each year in the town of Protectorate, the people sacrifice one baby to a supposed witch that lives in the forest near by. There is really a witch in the forest, not one that the people need protecting from. Xan is a sweet, gentle soul who each year rescues the baby and brings it to a family on the other side of the forest. One the novel opens, Xan is on that journey with a child, and she accidentally feeds it moonlight instead of the starlight she usually uses. She decides to keep this child, and name her Luna. Luna gains powers as she gets older, and it soon she will need to use them. What a truly amazing, gorgeously-written book! Kelly Barnhill’s words flow throughout this book in a way I have never seen before! The tale she weaved is beautiful, breathtaking, and downright impressive. I look forward to the day I begin to read this book again, for I know I will.

1.  Ghost by Jason Reynolds – 7th grader Castle Crenshaw can’t seem to make it more than 17 straight hours without getting into some kind of trouble. He feels he can’t help it, for he has so much anger built up inside of him. Three years before, his drunk father chased his mother and him out of their house with a loaded gun. Now he’s in jail, but Castle can’t move past it. One thing that this awful incident did teach him was how to run. He’s like a Ghost; lightning fast! When a coach for a league called the Defenders sees him run one day, Castle, now called Ghost, decided to join. Will running be what he needs to get away from the awful memories he has? Another masterful piece of writing by Jason Reynolds! Loved it and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

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Top Picture Books of 2016:

10. Be a Friend by Salina Yoon – Dennis is an extraordinary boy who is not understood by the other children around him. He’s lonely, until he meets Joy. A sweet, heart-warming story about the importance of accepting others, no matter how different.

9. The Night Gardener by Terry Fan – Something is going on in William’s town. Each day, a new topiary appears, each one more creative than the previous one. Seeing how his town is transforming, William decides to investigate. Beautiful illustrations!

8. The Thank You Book (Elephant and Piggie) by Mo Willems – We are HUGE Mo Willems fans in my house, so this one had to be on my list. This book ends the series perfectly. My children loved seeing everyone again.

7. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers – I’m in love with this book! I don’t know if any book can explain my love of reading more than this one. Gorgeous illustrations.

6. The Water Princess by Susan Verde – What a gorgeous book, and I loved Gie Gie and her determination. My own children had a lot of questions about this book, and I think a lot of middle school teachers could pair it with A Long Walk to Water.

5. Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat – What an amazing book about how to make a long road trip a little more interesting with an active imagination! My children loved the QR codes and flipping the book over to see all that the boy came up with.

4. Giant Squid by Candace Fleming – Beautiful words! Beautiful pictures! My son loves anything about ocean animals, and I found myself enjoying this one just as much as he did!

3. Shy by Deborah Freedman – My children and I loved Shy! Because Shy is shy, they had to figure out who he was as he chased a bird he loved. Beautifully written and gorgeous illustrations.

2. Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie – Thunder Boy Jr. does not like that he has the same name as his father. He loves his father, but he wants something original for himself, not something that reminds him of how small he is. A great message, and beautiful writing!

1.  They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel – A gorgeous book about how different living things see one cat in so many different ways. A wonderful book about perspective that can be helpful in any classroom!







NOTE: These titles are ones that came out in 2016. I did not count any books I read from 2015 or earlier, as well as any ARCs. Also, all of the book descriptions come from my Goodreads reviews.


So How Did It Go? Literature Unit Results


This post has been a long time coming. I finished my literature unit in mid November, but I haven’t shared my results until now because I was at the NCTE conference in Atlanta and Thanksgiving immediately followed. So, after reviewing and reflecting on my students’ work, writing, and discussions, here is what I found:

1. Choice was vital to students’ success. This 9th grade literature unit was the first one that I allowed ALL students choice. In past whole-class literature units, I chose the novel, and students all had to read the same one. This time, I allowed students to choose between All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. When the unit concluded, I was thrilled with the amount of students that finished their books. In the past, in order to get all students to finish their books, I needed to read it aloud with them. For this unit, I did not have to. (Some students with IEPs received an audiobook.) Instead, students received a calendar that stated when pages had to be finished by (see sample below). They received reading time in class where I could also check in and confer with them. During these individual discussions, I found that most students were happy with their choices, and were enjoying their books. Because of this, they made time to read outside of class, when needed. The only requirement with the reading was five annotations per reading section. The annotations included literal, critical, and inferential thoughts of the students, and they gave me a starting point with the individual conferences. Yes, there were a few students that did not finish their books. After looking at this very short list, I realized that these students either missed a lot of class time, or did not use their in-class reading time wisely.


2. Students needed more practice with discussions. Though I incorporated activities at the beginning of the school year to prepare students for group discussions, I found that students were still not ready. I made conversation a large part of this unit, but my co-teacher and I decided to revise the discussion format for this unit to include more online ones. We used websites like TodaysMeet to begin. Early discussions on this website included more of a structure to follow. Students had new prompts every few minutes or so to guide their thinking. By the end of the unit, students had a bit more freedom. Because the majority of the discussions needed to be online, I think this unit would work better a little later on in the school year. Students did not participate in discussions all that much in middle school, and thus needed a lot more practice than I thought they would. The modifications I made helped though, so I think students will be ready for my group discussions in our end of the year literature unit.

3. Reading encouragement is always necessary. At the beginning of this school year, many students told me they were not readers. This is nothing new, so I am always looking for new ways to encourage students to read. When it came to this particular unit, I applied and received a grant to bring the authors of All American Boys to my school in April! My students are beyond excited! They haven’t met authors of books they read before, let alone two award winning authors like Jason and Brendan. Students that chose to read Speak in this unit are now reading All American Boys as a choice read to prepare for the visit. Many that read All American Boys in this unit are now reading other titles by the authors. I’m thrilled, for this unit got students interested in reading, and that is always a constant goal of mine.


Excited students in Period 3.


More excited students in Period 4.


Students in Period 2 who read AAB, and others who are just starting it as a choice read.


One of Jason and Brendan’s biggest fans.


I met Jason and Brendan at a promotion they were doing in Rochester, NY on November 9th. 

The All Important Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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