Books, Reading

#bookaday No. 3

I think I am addicted to historical fiction. World War II, especially. I’m really going to have to work on this…

Bookaday4The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, New York:  HarperCollins, 2017. This is my new favorite book. I mean, look at the cover. The car, the font, the artwork. It’s just all gorgeous. Even the author’s name. And the book is about two World Wars, not just one. This is a book that I had to keep reading because I just couldn’t wait to see what happened. When I started the book, I just knew these spies were real people – that’s the best thing about this historical fiction. We get to learn about real events while reading an action-packed page turner. Two stories are told simultaneously, bouncing the reader from World War I to World War II, but connecting them beautifully. Eve and Charlotte take turns telling their stories in alternating chapters. The unknown creates mystery and suspense and exciting turns, and I couldn’t wait to see how the two stories connected and resolved. This is for adults, though; it is not for  adolescents, even advanced ones. The Alice Network is the perfect summer read. No beaches, but lots of beautiful European scenes. Definitely FIVE STARS.


Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, Aladdin, 2000. I abandoned this book! I’ve thought of reading it forever, but when I started, it just seemed slow. I have read all of Anderson’s YA books but none of her historical fiction. I just wasn’t getting into this one. I will probably try it again later. I can easily see what some our students experience – just the wrong book at that time. I want to like it because I also want to read Chains and Forge. And I want to like them, too. Another day…


bookaday3The Secret Place by Tana French, Viking Books, 2014. Murder at a boarding school filled with girls who love each other dearly and girls who  despise each other. The book is told in alternating chapters, which seems to be a popular format lately. Half of the chapters are devoted to two detectives who share their strategies with the reader. It is fascinating seeing how they go about solving this murder. The other chapters are told before the murder from the girls’ point of view. Slowly we build the stories of what was going on before a friend gets murdered, with the author dropping clues along the way. This is a great read! It is one of those books that I was dying to know what happens, but I didn’t want to get to the end because I didn’t want it to be over. In the beginning, the girls were confusing, but eventually I sorted them out. It’s. Just. Great. Another good book for summer reading. One thing about this book – if you decide to put it in  your classroom library –  is that all of the R-rated words are in Irish slang. If the kids want to know the difference, they will have to do some research. Makes me laugh just thinking about them looking up the bad words! You know they will.

bookaday2The Paris Spy by Susan Elia Macneal, New York: Bantam Books, 2017. And I’m back in World War II. I’m telling you, it is a bad habit… Just by looking at the cover, we can tell this book is set in Paris after the Nazi occupation. It is told in three parts: spy adventures in France, espionage agencies in England and the British government, including Winston Churchill, and the German secret police in Paris. Because of the cover, I expected this to be a simplified book about World War II – for kids. It definitely is not simple or for kids. Don’t put it in your classroom library unless you read it first. Explicit torture scenes, and an explicit attempted rape, male on male, makes it awfully mature reading. You be the judge. You will enjoy the adventure as MacNeal unravels the mysteries of this novel. Five stars except for the very last page. That one page gets just three.

So now I am ready for some beach reads. No more war…


Celebrations, In the Classroom, Writing

Celebrating the Writer’s Notebook

Walk with me down memory lane. We were getting our writer’s notebooks, and I wanted it to be special. I had read – probably on Twitter – about how some other teacher had made notebooks something her students were ready to receive, that they received them as a message that they were ready to become a writer. She spoke about the excitement in the room when her students were ready. Yes! Some excitement! That sounded fun, so a celebration was in order.

Here’s What We Did

I decided we would have a day called Presenting the Notebooks. It would become a ceremony. With music. And congratulations. And a guest speaker. A celebrity guest speaker. And toasts. Remember Toasting2the scene from The Freedom Writers? Erin Gruwell and her students toasted change. We could toast writing. Why not? So off I went to Hobby Lobby in search of champagne glasses. I found a coupon just in case they weren’t 50% off, and I bought plastic champagne glasses from the wedding department. For 130 students Look what Wedding Flutesthey have – flutes! I could buy 50 of them for $12.99, but with a coupon, they would only be $7.79. When I pulled out the second box, they were reduced to $9.99. I got three boxes for less than $20. That was my big splurge. We used Sprite. Yes, her champagne bottles looked cute, but I filled our glasses with .99 Sprite.

Our school colors are black and gold, so I covered my large table with a black plastic tablecloth, set out the champagne flutes, hid the Sprite bottles, and stacked our writer’s notebooks on the table. That is what students would see when they entered the room. See? Sprite bubbles! Faux champagne…


Of course we needed special music, so a little Pomp and Circumstance was playing on the iPad, Bluetoothed to a speaker, as they entered the room. If you use the extended version from youtube, it lasts 11 minutes. By the time it ended, they were all seated and wondering what on earth we were doing today.

A Guest Speaker

Okay, you’re going to think I’m nuts on this one. Taylor Swift did a Diet Coke commercial, Taylor SwiftStay Extraordinaryin which she is seen writing music in her notebook. She was brainstorming her song 22. You can see the tabs poking out from the pages. So she became our guest speaker. Every ceremony has a guest speaker, right? She was cued on the Promethean board, and I introduced her like she was coming to us live. You’ve gotta have a sense of humor…

The Ceremony

The music for our ceremony was Paperback Writer by the Beatles. I looped it so it would keep playing, and I called them up one row at a time to receive their notebooks. I shook each hand and congratulated each student. Congratulations! You are a writer! Congratulations! Go forth and write! It was CEREMONIOUS! They laughed. They smiled. It was personal. It was fun. And then we toasted with our champagne. Well, I told them it was champagne. I told them not to tell their parents. They almost believed me. So we drank our champagne. And we became writers.

They loved shaking hands!

A production note. I buy my music and store it on my iPad. You can always get it free on YouTube, but sometimes it comes with commercials that I did not know how to control. For $1.29, I just buy it. To me, it’s worth not having the hassle.

The Notebooks

Oh, the drama of the notebooks. So I order these every year for the following year, and comp booksour district was going through a budget crunch. Someone decided that we could cut costs by ordering less expensive notebooks. I had boxes of them waiting – unopened – in my room. When I got them out to put on the table, they weren’t my marbled, hard backed notebooks. They were little, skinny, flimsy…I couldn’t use them! Not for our ceremony! And everything was set up, ready for first period tomorrow. I counted the leftovers from last year – the good ones – and headed for my principal. It was five o’clock and I was desperate to find some of these in the building. I barged into her office and with all the drama I could muster, told her of my EMERGENCY. We started looking through storage and found none. She said she could get some from another school. She promised. I headed to Walmart. They had fifty-cent notebooks. ANOTHER $20. I stopped at the Dollar Store. Another $10. I only needed forty more. They were waiting for me the next morning. My wonderful principal had gone to another Walmart and bought all that they had. ♥ 

I threw on my boa – we all have a boa, right? – and we had a party. I’ve told you I love teaching…


#bookaday, Reader’s Workshop, Reading

More #bookaday!

Two more books for a grand total of THREE so far this summer. Today is just June 3, so I guess I’m on track. Maybe instead of doing these one book at a time, I will wait for a clump of titles to share at once. Like maybe a week’s worth. On Sundays. That’s my plan.

#bookaday 2 and 3

Women in the CastleThe Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, HarperCollins: 2017. I love Holocaust novels and historical nonfiction. This is a rich telling of life in Germany during the post-war years. It was a horrific time for women and children lost or separated during the war, and only the very strongest, bravest among these survived. Uncommon and inexplicable kindnesses marked the many survival stories as those who lived through the inhumanities of the Nazis now had to survive the Red Army as well. And starvation. And disease. This book walks you through the secrets and suspense of three women and their fight to survive. It is a wonderful book that I hope will make a gorgeous movie someday. I give this book four stars only because it is not my favorite Holocaust novel, but it was certainly worth my while to read this illuminating book.


Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, LittleBrown, New York: 2018. This book was a gift from the author. She sent a box of her books as a giveaway at the end of May. These are books I look forward to getting into the hands of student readers. Ghost Boys is timely and realistic fiction. It tells the story of a young African-American boy who is playing in his rough, inner-city Chicago neighborhood with a toy gun. He is shot and killed by a police officer who believed him to be a threat. He remains in his neighborhood with his family as one of a group of ‘ghost boys’ which includes the ghost of Emmett Till. This is not an easy book to read because of the emotions it brings forth in the reader. Rhodes does not let her reader off the hook. This is a topic that must be addressed, and her writing is not subtle. Ghost Boys will force your thinking. It will stay with you after you finish the last words. Definitely five stars.

And a Project I Found on Twitter

Even though I won’t be in a classroom in August, I still get excited about good ideas that I would use if I were. Today on Twitter I found a blog post by Jen Roberts. She shares an end-of-the-year digital project where her students created a slide that reviewed their favorite read of the year. She created a template for them to follow, and printed out the finished work for display in her hallway. This is her screenshot.

Jen Roberts

I love projects like this where our students are writing about something they have read. The writing is both explanatory and argumentative in that they are really convincing someone else to try the same book.

A couple of thoughts about her assignment. I think I would use the template only for students who are struggling with designing their own. Maybe give everyone a list of required elements and let them play with the layout. She mentioned in her post that she would try it done in landscape instead of portrait because the slides show better on the screen.

I love her idea of looping the slides on a public screen – maybe in the library or cafeteria. At the end of the year, I don’t know that I would want to use that much color toner to print them out. Shoot, I probably wouldn’t have any left, anyway! So I would probably have them print their slides in black and white on colored paper if I were planning to hang them.

The other thought I had was it might be an assignment that could happen quarterly instead of just the once at the year’s end. That would depend on a run-through with real students to see how much time this mini-project would take from other curriculum. Follow Jen on Twitter @JenRoberts1 and check out her blogging at I’m glad I found her!





Books, Reader’s Workshop, Reading

#bookaday Challenge

Book Whisperer.jpgYou may know Donalyn Miller. She wrote The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. She is a site manager at The Nerdy Book Club. She is all things reading. I first encountered The Book Whisperer as a middle school language arts teacher. She was preaching to this choir – I was a believer even before I knew what she was preaching. Reading and Reading in the WildWriting Workshops and student choice were staples in my classroom. I was a disciple of Nancie Atwell, author of In the Middle. I wanted to BE Nancie Atwell. I tried her stuff. Some of it worked – the workshop approach – and some of it failed – those blasted journal entries that I was supposed to answer. Dear me! I still remember that pile of notebooks sitting on a table, their entries unanswered, as one of my students asked if she could have hers back just long enough to write another entry.  I’ll put it right back… she pleaded. Well, Donalyn Miller came up with the 40 Book Challenge. Yes! We would do that! No more Accelerated Reader. We would challenge everyone to read 40 books instead. I’m laughing as I write this. Let’s just say I failed. But she did invent the Book-a-day Challenge. Summer reading for teachers. A great idea because it gets us reading. We NEED TO BE READING if we are going to be able to connect books to children. There. I said it. There is just no way around it. If we don’t read the books, we cannot vouch for them. We cannot find the perfect book to hand a child. We cannot find the perfect child to entrust with our books. We. Must. Read.

Book Stack
My first summer’s reading with the #bookaday Challenge. Please ignore the dust on that lampshade. I told you, I was reading!

And so I read. All summer. I kept my bookstack next to my bed. I read all sorts of young adult fiction. I read  teen romances and sports and mysteries. When I went back to school in August, I could talk about books as a reader, and my students bought in. They wanted to read those books that I book talked. I couldn’t keep The Summer I Turned Pretty on the shelf. Sarah Dessen was in high demand. Stupid Fast and 13 Reasons Why and Wonder. Chris Crutcher and Jenny Han and John Green. Great books. Good books. Mediocre books. But now I could tell my students which were which. And when one girl finished and loved That Summer, I knew to hand her My Life with the Walter Boys. And you have to read John Green before you hand him to anyone. Really.

Now I don’t have a class to look forward to sharing my reading expertise with. And yet I can’t give up the #bookaday Challenge. I plan to do it again this summer and share my titles on Twitter. Thus the hashtag #bookaday. That’s what we do – put them out there for other teachers to see and tell them if they are good. Five stars? Three? Always with the hashtag. And maybe someone else’s class will know about them through you and this blog. And maybe some of them won’t be for 8th graders anyway. Maybe some of them will be just for us – adult readers.

My #bookaday Challenge books will still be on Twitter, but they will also be on here. Book reviews for adults with more details than will fit on Twitter, complete with warnings if the book isn’t for young adults. I’m not comfortable with everything that goes onto our bookshelves in the name of Young Adult fiction, so I will share those with you, too.  So here we go! I hope you find some summer reading among the titles on these pages. Just look for #bookaday Challenge.

bookaday1The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook, Little-Brown, New York, 2018.

Honestly, I would never had picked this book, but it was one that my son gifted me with when I retired. It is Texas history, an adventure story, and different from most of my reading choices. But it is good. And it is clean, so young adults could enjoy it and not be reading anything they shouldn’t. It is the story of teenaged orphans living in the Texas hill country in the 1800s. They are terrorized by a panther and decide to hunt it down. There are twists and turns in this book that you will not see coming. Benjamin and Samantha Shreve will win your heart and keep you reading to the end. If you know anything about South Texas, you will recognize Comfort and Kerrsville (it used to have the ‘s’ in there) and Bandera. And of course the river. This book was a great one to kick off my summer reading. I feel smarter for having read it.

Another Great Idea

The summer of my first #bookaday Challenge, I started a Goodreads page. If you have never seen Goodreads, it is a full color bookshelf where I could add each book that I had read during the challenge. You can set it up with whatever goal you hope to reach, and you can write book reviews and connect with your friends from other social media. I enjoyed it so much that when school started, I shared it with my students and they built one, too. It helped me to remember all the books I had read. It held me accountable for meeting my goal. And it was fun to do – as all things connected to books should be. I kept it up after that first summer, and now I have a running record of the books I have read for the past few years. This is what it looks like. It is just part of one page.

Screenshot (48)

So today, three recommendations: The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook, opening a Goodreads account for you and your students, and trying the #bookaday Challenge. You probably won’t really read a book per day, but Donalyn says it can be any kind of book. Children’s picture books, cookbooks, manga, graphic novels – everything counts! All three will definitely add to your summer and make you a better teacher when the new school year dawns.

Engagement, Getting Organized, MakerSpace

Things I Loved Doing

If you have read any of my blog posts, you know that I love books, quilts, music, writing, and just a little bit of arts, crafts, and technology.  Okay, lots of technology. But sometimes I have found ways to include the music, quilts, and art in my teaching. I once read a Donalyn Miller statement that we teach language arts, not language arts and crafts. My teammate and I have laughingly used the term whenever we headed off the deep end and started to plan a project. But this year I decided that with the reading and the writing, we needed a little bit of creativity and a touch of pretty. So here are just a few of my favorites.

The Suitcase

This was in the set up on the first day of school. I wanted to establish the mood. I wanted to let my students know a little bit about their new teacher. So I shared some of what I love as they entered class on day one.

First I took an old suitcase and covered it with anything literary – letters, crossword puzzles, quotes, images with text.  I decoupaged it and after it dried, I filled it with books. Specifically, the books that made up my Summer Reading.  I spread an old quilt on the table, set up the suitcase, and stacked the books. I turned on a little $8 Walmart lamp to help set the mood, and my students entered to that vignette.  The suitcase came out of my mother-in-law’s attic, but you could find one at a garage sale or resale shop.

Suitcase Open
This is it open for display.

The images and quotes came from old calendars that I just couldn’t throw away because the artwork was so adorable. And lots of of scrapbooking paper filled in the background. It did take a while to complete, but I LOVE the way it turned out. And I believe in the touch of the unexpected. 

My Door

This door was so much fun to create. It is inviting. It hints at what we are doing in our class this year. And it expresses my interests and personality – our students do want to know about us as people. I can’t tell you how many of my students asked about NYC. Had I been? No, sigh. Did I want to go? Oh, yes.  Did I want to hear about their trip? YES! Where did you go? What did you see? The Statue of Liberty? 9/11? Yankee Stadium? Broadway? Connection…

More paper – from Hobby Lobby, The Paper Source, and Michael’s. I wanted one of the cute banners that were everywhere this year,  so I made it. I bought the cardboard Door with Postcardsshapes, some colored twine, and lots of summer vacation-y scrapbook paper. I found the NYC poster which isn’t really a poster at The Paper Source in Dallas. It is a sheet of their gorgeous wrapping paper. They have a catalog if you aren’t near one of their stores. The die-cut letters are done with assorted papers, and there’s a road map somewhere. It was free! Drive from Arkansas into Texas, and they give them to you at the Visitor Center. On top of the banner pieces are some little orange tags from Hobby Lobby that are attached with wooden buttons tied with twine. Burlap press-on letters and a piece of burlap ribbon (under ADVENTURE). It was a labor of love, but went perfectly with the suitcase. In this picture you can see a row of postcards, but I took them down. I thought they were a little much. But they would make a great bulletin board. One year I had a Where In the World Have You Been? bulletin board. Get it? I bordered it with postcards from everywhere we went and everywhere my students went. They knew if they went somewhere, I wanted a postcard to add to the collection. It was cute, too. I should have done one this year! Darn it.

The Hallway

In our hall, we have lots display space. A ginormus bulletin board is provided for each core teacher. We are expected to keep it interesting and current. There is also a small display case that I inherited. And we have three rows of cork strips for hanging student work. In recent years, it has become harder to keep work on display because so much of our writing has become digital, but I tried to plan something for those spaces that we could print out.

Bulletin Board

This has been my bulletin board for two years. I stole the idea from some clever teacher on the internet. Scrabble letters! I made them, of course. I found a good font, checked Scrabble to see how much each letter was worth, and used some creamy beige tag board to print out the tiles. Then I cut them into squares, and voila! I already had the books border because I ordered it online. We don’t have a school supply store in town anymore, but you can find it all online. The final addition with the 8th that I cut out freehand from 8th Gradea Dr. Seuss book that was falling apart. I found illustrated pages that had black and red on them to match my theme. I think they are just adorable. And the black paper goes with everything! Here’s a close up. It’s pretty cute.

For Open House night, 8th Grade Reads was covered with tiny book reviews done on Thought Bubbles. Yes, I know. Language Arts & Crafts.

Thought Bubble Book Reviews

So we had been working very hard on writing narrative essays and doing independent reading. I thought our brains could use a break. Book reviews were the perfect fit. It was writing about reading. It was short. It was real world writing. It was colorful and playful and engaging.

I set up a table near the printer and filled it with materials. Colored card stock, glue, and scissors. I searched for clip art thought bubbles that I just enlarged to size of a sheet of copy paper and then put the templates into Google Classroom for each student to access. That way they could type the text, change the font to something fun, and add some stars for rating their books. All of this was waiting for the students throughout the week, ready when they were.

As students published their narratives, they went off to read their books. We do reader’s workshop where their independent reading is self-selected. Student reading is based on the interests of the reader rather than the teacher. We do not have a ‘reading curriculum’ other than poetry, short stories, and informational articles. There is only one whole-class read that is in chapters, and that is for research purposes and learning to take notes on nonfiction, informational text. So my students are reading at their personal rates in books that are personal choices. As they finished their books, they were going to write some book reviews.

Exemplars of good book reviews from Nancie Atwell’s students at the Center for Teaching and Learning were the models for our writing. These were also in Google Classroom. We learn to write by reading and analyzing good writing, so this student writing was what we analyzed for the components necessary for our own book reviews. All of this was independent and self-paced. Our workshop at this time included students reading, students finishing their essays, students reading and analyzing the book review exemplars, students writing their own book reviews on their Chromebooks, and students at the Make It-Take It table. See how I did that? Just by renaming the table, it is no longer language arts and crafts. And don’t think I didn’t put that in my lesson plans, too!

Here are the templates we used. And some students found others they liked better. We pasted them onto a Google Slide so we could fit the text to the images.

We changed the fonts to suit our moods and our books. We found stars in clip art and inserted them and resized them to fit. Then we awarded our books 1-5 stars depending on how good we thought the books were. Then we explained why. Evaluation? Justification? Can you spell Bloom’s? Yes, those are higher order thinking skills.  You will notice that  I keep saying ‘we’ because you know I made one first. I did Deadline by Chris Crutcher. A really g-r-e-a-t book. I gave it five stars.

In addition to everything else we are learning, now we are learning to manipulate text to fit these shapes and formatting some different documents. We are inserting symbols and clip art, resizing them, and using fill colors. And we are learning to turn that silly rectangle horizontally.

After the review is written and fitted into the thought bubbles, we proofread for mistakes. Mistakes do not go on the bulletin board in the hallway. Perfect does. Then we print it and glue it to a piece of tag board. We cut around the shape, leaving a skinny border of the color so that they look cute. Cute is always important. If we are going to send something out into the world (hallway) to be seen by the viewing public (parents), it needs to be really good stuff. Eighth graders make fun of other eighth graders. We aren’t here to embarrass our students by displaying messy work for the world to see. Only the best goes up. Those are also real world standards.

And it looks like this. Not Language Arts & Crafts. MakerSpace. Ta da!

Thought Bubbles


Engagement, Writing, Writing Workshop

Ending Where We Began: Writers’ Notebooks

As we neared the end of this school year, I had decisions to make. What was the most valuable use of our last few days together? What did I want my students to remember from our work this year? What could we do that would be entertaining enough to keep the groaning to a minimum? You mean we have to work? Can’t we just have a free day? 

And I’m thinking Free day? I need at least two more weeks with you guys! I had more poetry for them to try. We had not read “A Rose for Emily”. I had planned it for Halloween and had to move it. Luckily it turned up in their summer reading assignment for ninth grade. I wanted to do some more speed dating. And I have all the goodies for a book tasting – Welcome to Summer Reading! Piffle. Does this happen to anyone else? We are just out of time. 

But I chose to devote our post-graded work time to our notebooks. Every year I promise to do a better job with our writing notebooks. I read everything I can about best practices from expert teachers and authors – Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres, Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi, Aimee Buckner. 

And we start out strong. Then I find us on the Chromebooks more than in our notebooks and I am disappointed. Again. But this year we did much better! And at the end of the year, I knew I could not bear to see these collections dropped into the trash can in the hallway. I wanted the notebooks to be something my students would want to keep. To take home with them. To treasure. 

What We Did

Well, we printed out everything. We started with their B-O-Y – Beginning of the Year essays. These are tangible evidence of where they started the year. They could compare their first essays to their last argumentative essay about Civil Rights and see how very far they have come. Their growth as writers was impossible to miss when they had this benchmark from August. Their narratives – which in our class were memoirs, a story of a moment in their lives worth remembering. They had read and researched topics, so those finished pieces needed publication. They had read and written about literature in a variety of ways. Their arguments for what happened to the child in The Rose and who the woman was in The Wallet.  Those went in there. And of course there was our poetry.  Where I’m From from George Ella Lyon. Holocaust poetry and Remember When? which we had written as part of our Christmas gifts of writing. Everything written during our Poetry Stations: color poems, two-word sentence poems, epistolary poems. Graphic poetry in the style of Mari Andrew and word lists in the style of Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. It all went in there. One of my girls moaned “I can’t fold  it! It’s too pretty to fold!”

When they added their epistolary poems that we had modeled after Dear Basketball by Kobe Bryant, I thought they needed the original, so we went back to include the poems we had filled with annotations. And since we had followed that practice for all of our Literary Responses, we had to go get those. Now we had the stories that we had read and annotated before we wrote. Gosh, their notebooks weren’t flat anymore!

We dug through their folders for other treasures to include. Their Tired Word Lists were taped into the section we had named Anchor Charts. Surely they would need those in high school and throughout their writing lives. We even built a storage pocket for their folded notes from our reading of “The Rose” by John Biguenet. I wanted them to have every memory of our adventures in reading and writing. I tucked in a bookmark so they would remember to keep reading this summer. 

Oh! Their Reading Autobiographies! We printed these in color because they were so glorious and put them just in front of the two we had studied before we crafted our own.  We used up all the ink in the color printer. The rest I printed at home. They were just too beautiful to print in black and white. 

It was then that I realized they were taking home their entire year in my class. Their writer’s notebooks had become scrapbooks. I know that isn’t what I intended when our year began, but these little black marbled composition books really had turned into something very special. Some still had their beautiful covers from last fall and some were looking pretty ragged. But the insides? They were full of wonderful words and measurable growth and great ideas for future writing.

The last addition was the Penny Kittle Writing Beside Poetry lesson with which we ended our year, Hahandsnds. We watched Sarah Kay’s TED Talk where she recited her original poem about her own hands. We thought of those things which we have touched in our lives that matter to us – the people and memories that we hold dear. Our creativity and those things for which we use our hands  –  swinging a tennis racket or dribbling a basketball, holding a baby brother or sister or the hand of a dying grandparent. Painting, writing, building, loving, taking hold and letting go. More for them to write about when they were ready.

I will encourage my students to share these with their parents as evidence of their hard work this year. I have already seen them proudly showing them to each other. I will suggest they hide their notebooks away and forget about them. One day they will find them again and marvel at what they wrote at fourteen. My hope is that they will cherish their Writer’s Notebooks for the stories they tell about who these wonderful young people were during their eighth grade year. And that they will continue to write their lives – for themselves and those they love.


Books, Engagement, Reading, Technology, Writing

Literary Autobiographies Celebrate Reading Lives

Each May for the past three or four years, my students have spent time remembering where their reading lives began. They look back to their earliest memories of books – Where the Wild Things AreNo David!, Rainbow Fish. It is a quick writing assignment, lasting only two or three class periods, but the results are beautiful.

The Genesis

Velveteen RabbitThese autobiographies were born after I read the preface to Falling in Love With Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Donalyn Miller had written in the preface about her childhood memories of book love and The Velveteen Rabbit.  It was charming, and it made me think about my own reading history and what my students could say about theirs.

Then I stumbled across one by James Patterson and one by Dan Gemeinhart, both authors of YA fiction. About the same time, Jennifer Schwanke, a contributor to Choice Literacy, an excellent source for materials for teaching, told a story about her reading life. It’s funny how that happens. Things just come from nowhere to gestate in our brains until they form into a lesson for writing in the real world. That’s what happened here.

So I wrote one. I always do that so I can know what my students will learn, experience, and face as they do theirs. What I discovered was that this writing would not really interest anyone but the writer. It was a memoir, but it needed jazzing up. That’s when I remembered a blog that I was following – Her blog mixes writing, her original artwork and lettering, photographs, quotes, and book covers. It is charming. What if we added some of what she does to our text? Some clip art, some book covers, Screenshot (41) some quotes, some photographs…it might just work! So here’s my exemplar. Adding the embellishments not only improved the looks of the finished document, but also made the process a lot more fun. I hunted for the photograph of the little library from my earliest childhood memory and the Raggedy Anne and Andy images. I played with the Coca-Cola logo to make it fit, and searched through many, many book covers. Finally I played with the font style and color to design an attractive document. Yep. My students would have fun with this now. All I needed to do was develop a lesson plan that would lead my students through some introspection, some writing, and some publishing skills.

Here’s what we did…

Reading to write. My students know that is our model for writing – it is what we have done all year. We had read Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Rick Bragg to write memoirs with style and voice. We had read poetry as models for writing our own. Of course we would read these essays that I had gathered to dig for what elements these writers had included.

We read and annotated Miller’s and Schwanke’s examples and discovered the following:  book titles, book characters, childhood memories, stories, quotes from books, quotes from famous people, and emotions such as love, sadness, happiness, and joy. We also found that these writers had told what they learned from reading – about the world and about themselves. Now our writing toolboxes were full. Next we started to have a little fun.


I asked a simple question. What is your earliest memory of books? And we did a Google search for images of children’s book covers. The room began to buzz. What is the one with the caterpillar?  Clifford! I loved Clifford! You know, the one with the colored fish? We talked about parents and grandparents who had read to them as children. Kindergarten teachers who gathered them on the rug to listen to Big Books on an easel. Trips to the library with brothers and sisters. We did this for the rest of the period as they gathered images of book covers and characters. And it took the rest of the period because someone spotted Dr. Seuss. Is there anyone who has not read Green Eggs and Ham?Green EggsRainbow Fish

They are so hooked. They want to work on them at home. They groan when the period is up. They are talking about books as they walk out the door.

Oh, one word of warning. It is a shame this is even necessary, and I truly do not understand what motivates some people to do the things they do. When my students begin searching for their book covers, they found some really ugly titles. There are people who apparently find humor in taking If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and turning it into something vulgar. And these hijacked book covers are mixed in with the real things, so there is no avoiding them. I warned my students and told them to just move on to the real deal, but eighth grade boys just love this stuff. So I ignored it and we continued with the hunt. They eventually got past them.

Here’s what they write…

Every year I get what I think are the most beautiful pieces of text. My students write beautiful retrospectives and tell the sweetest stories. Many name favorite teachers. Some tell sad stories of never having been read to as preschoolers. And some cannot write about what has turned them into readers, so they write instead about what has kept them from reading.

My parents never read books. They told us to watch television.

My kindergarten teacher was mean. 

Video games…video games…video games.

But I also get these!