#bookaday, Books

Reading is for Grownups

It’s funny how my reading habits have changed since leaving the classroom. I do still browse the YA section of Barnes and Noble, but I’m buying books that aren’t written for teens.

39C1023B-F731-4066-8905-BDDD6E583ABAReese Witherspoon has a book club, and her September book pick was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I LOVED this novel about a swamp girl, abandoned as a child. I knew nothing in advance, so every part was an adventure. I hope they make a movie out of this gem. It is full of mystery – there’s a murder – and it is so rich in description and detail. Not for the classroom, though. Wonderful. Guess I need to check out some others on Reese’s list. Turns out I’ve read two others she recommends, one I loved and one I didn’t.6A33005D-4746-4F27-B535-BB73C64B514B Bookaday4

But this one looks interesting. Maybe next…



It I also discovered a new-to-me author, Anne Tyler. Loved, loved, loved A Spool of Blue Thread. EF2F26F6-3ACD-4733-9AFA-78C5215CFDF5Book covers have a way of drawing me in, and this one really did. I think I related way too much to the main character. Anne Tyler writes of family the way I feel about mine, full of love and humor. For some reason, that blue thread made the connection.

Then I started – but have interrupted – Back When We Were Grownups. I’ve only interrupted it and plan to finish it; it just didn’t seem as good as the crawdads. I have her newest, too, and look forward to starting it.

BE64E199-E05E-447B-B2C6-B6B9048BC29C 16EF90EC-FCBD-47A1-B2CE-A0314B92D9FB

Reading with my students was always a pleasure. Talking about and connecting through good books was really a favorite part of my teaching, but these novels are taking me back to when I was a grownup, before I was a teacher. Talking about books with grownups is fun, too. My grownup TBR stack is growing again.


Annotating Text, Engagement, Writing, Writing Workshop

Have You Tried Using Rick Bragg to Teach Voice and Style in Memoirs?

Several years ago I stopped teaching the five-paragraph essay. I used it only in test preparation. That was it. If my students were going to be with me for such a short time, I needed them to be doing real writing. Those essays became memoirs, articles, and narrative poetry.

B71EADD0-6941-4E26-955F-2ED1224AC8BDOne day my brain made a connection between what I was teaching and what I was reading. Rick Bragg! Each month when my Southern Living magazine arrived, I turned first to the very last page to read his memoir. Funny, full of voice and style. Just what I wanted my students to do! Aha. And so I added Bragg to my list of Distinguished Southern Writers – DSW – Harper Lee, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Pat Conroy, and now Rick Bragg.

I shared his writing with my students. We dug into it and made annotations. We found vivid vocabulary, Rules of Three and Four, allusions, short paragraphs, and sentence variety. His use of dialect is wonderful and led to a discussion of making dialogue real. And we analyzed it for what he did that made us laugh.

He writes of the SEC – that’s football, y’all – in “For the Love of the Game”  and growing up poor and country. Mama and Aunt Jo. Fairhope, Alabama. There’s Thanksgiving Dinner in “The Canned Stuff” where Mama is trying to get that tube of congealed cranberries to slide out of the can. Yes! You remember… 

Teach idioms and allusions? Are you old enough to get the allusion in here?

She would twist off the lid with her hand-cranked can opener—she did not trust the electric kind, which sounded faintly demonic, like a rock-and-roll record played backward—and aim the can at a clean plate. Then she went to town.

As we read about waiting for the prayer to end in “Can I Get an Amen?” we talk about double meanings and a play on words.

Of all our many blessings, we sure appreciate the short ones.

Want to convince your writers to be specific instead of general?

My mother’s turkey would already be out of the oven and resting on the stove-top, still steaming in a lake of butter and seasonings, the ancient, blackened roasting pan wedged in right next to a big pan of my Aunt Jo’s cornbread dressing. The biscuits were done, along with the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pinto beans and ham, creamed onions, and all the rest. The pound cakes and pecan pies waited on the sideboard.

Some Other Favorites

For teaching how to write setting paragraphs, “The Porch” is perfect.  The Rule of Three – those nail heads, the squealing rocker, and the Pall Mall nubs – another allusion to things of the past, specific rather than general. Or how about visualization of the tiny comets as they arc across the air?

But the porch, now…I still see the porch. The last time I stood upon it I was 6 years old, but I still see the nail heads in the weathered pine, still hear the squeal of the rocker pressing the planks, still see tiny comets arc across the air when somebody flicked the glowing nub of a Pall Mall over the rail and into the night.

Or maybe we were working on sentence variety. Teach a Rule of Three followed by a short, simple sentence.

I remember its scent, an ambrosia of black coffee mixing in the wind with the sweet smell of canned milk, and honeysuckle, and snuff. It made the babies sneeze.

Canned milk. honeysuckle, and snuff making the babies sneeze. See? Studying writer’s craft gives us specific techniques that improve our writing exponentially.

One year I got really carried away and used Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett singing “This Old Porch”, reading lyrics just jam-packed with Texas allusions. We dug around to find them all – Aqua Dulce, the LaSalle Hotel, Giant, walk-in movies, the Brazos. I mean, you just can’t listen to Lyle Lovett all day without felling mellow. We also listened to Elton John’s tribute to Elvis, “A Porch Swing in Tupelo” and did more searching for allusions. Guess I got a little carried away. But we used them in our writing! This is another great reason to read, right?

Our First Annotations

“A Homespun Ghost Story” came along at just the time we were learning annotations. Character description, literary devices, and figurative language were noted and appropriated to use in our memoirs.

Homer told me of a woman tall as a man in old-fashioned hook- and-eye shoes, with silver hair that hung to the hem of her black dress. Her face was like cut pine, and her eyes were like honey.

And here…

The place had always been haunted, old people said. Spirits swirled in the air white with cotton dust, and the machines seemed hungry.

Vocabulary? Wither, red-bricked monoliths, rabbit tobacco – think the Radley Place in To Kill a Mockingbird. They will see it again there. Bragg writes with rich language not aimed at eighth graders but not over their heads, either.

And we can even talk about the historical context of mill towns run by rich men who cared little about those who worked themselves to death to make the owners rich.

In a place where the company owned the doctor, being sick meant being fired, and the old woman made medicines for men with brown lung and picked herbs to help women with morning sickness, so they could keep their places at the machines. She protected them the best she could from the Yankee outsiders who had no respect for them or the magic of the mountains.

So Find the October Issue!


“I Ain’t Scared of You”, this month’s Southern Journal, recounts the movies of Halloween’s past EE7F924D-2691-4943-BDB0-7FBEC87F7FCFthat were scary to a little Rick Bragg. It has all the same treasures as the rest of his writing – “monsters on the Philco” –  and could prompt some interesting writing by our students. What frightened us in our childhood that doesn’t anymore? Scary movies. Books that keep us awake at night. Top Ten Lists. A poem filled with spooky allusions.

The Blog        Dracula


Or just read it to laugh at his description of The Mummy plodding after it’s victims. October is such a fun time of year. Just go with it. Take Rick Bragg along.




Annotating Text, Engagement, Reading

Engaging Readers in Complex Text

This is a repeat post. It was the first post I wrote when I started this blog. I am re-sharing it because it was such a fun exploration into challenging text. I would use it early, early in my year to ensnare my students. It will make them think. They will be engaged. That’s the buzz word these days. And they will love your class from the very beginning.

Last summer my PD was the Advanced Placement Summer Institute at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. The presenter shared some amazing resources and fired my Beginning of the Year.  I want to give her credit here. Jan Harris of Crosby, Texas. I can’t find her on Twitter or on Facebook – is that possible? – but she inspires good teaching. One book that I immediately needed was filled with short texts gathered by Harvey Smokey Daniels and Nancy Steineke, Texts and Lessons for Teaching Literature.  You need to just go ahead and order it now. Heinemann publishes it and order it straight from them. They give teacher discounts and it comes out just as cheap as it does anywhere else. And you have to love companies who publish just for teachers.  Most of what is in here also has copyright permission for use your students.  31 of the best $$ I have spent on educational materials.

smokey daniels

We started with “The Wallet” by Andrew McCuaig. My students Ate. This. Up.  The class discussion was so much fun to listen to. I didn’t even need to be there! They argued over who this woman was – an abused mother of two young children or a kidnapper. At the end of class, one student asked, “Did you just make us read this so we would think?” Yes, my teacher heart did a somersault. And he got to leave first. They kept wanting to know the end of the story. That’s what’s so great about this book. The stories leave the students wanting to know more AND these are stories they haven’t read in every other literacy class they have had.

Story #2 was even better. OMGoodness. They devoured “Rose” by John Biguenet. So did I. Wait, what happened here? He was kidnapped? He is dead? The husband killed the wife? The wife kidnapped the child? WHAT? And we had some extra fun with this one.  One of the great things about the book by Daniels and Steineke is that they provide plans for Common Core (if you do or if you don’t) lesson plan ideas. So I took one of those and added a twist.  We do annotations. I mean, I actually teach annotating text. Eighth graders are clueless about note-taking. They write everything. They cover the page in ink. You can’t read it. They can’t read it. Just a royal mess.

This is what we look for.

What did you notice? What do you think is important for us to discuss? We look for new or unusual vocabulary. We look for style and the words and phrases that create style because we are always reading as writers. We mark emotions and favorites and literary elements about which we have been learning. We mark confusing parts that we want to discuss and debate for clarification. And we mark keys to comprehension – what did we think was vital to unlock the meaning we are attempting to develop? We mark clues to understanding the characters – their development by the author and their metamorphosis in the text. What do they say and what are they thinking? And we learn to do it neatly so we are able to read it later when we join the discussion as a whole group or in small groups.

PensSo thanks to my PLN on Twitter, I bought the best gel pens in the world and shared them with my students as if they were pure gold. Everything is more fun in fuchsia, turquoise, or orange gel ink. These are Paper-Mate InkJoy Gel Pens. Spend the money. They are worth it.  And we wrote on the text. Ran copies. Used paper. I know.

What do you wonder?

Then, so they could wonder about this without any noise – well kind of – we passed notes. Silently. And to make it more fun, I Googled how to fold notes the way my daughter did in high school. Did you know there is a You-Tube video for everything? So I taught my kids how to fold notes, thinking they would think I was old and dumb and they already knew how to do this. Really, Mrs. Hamilton? But no! They had never done this! Just blew me away. I put the video on the Promethean board and they learned how to fold notes. FullSizeRender - CopyOn the note in their colored ink, they wrote one question about the story because that is my go-to question. What do you wonder? And then they folded the note back up, put their own name on the outside in their colored gel pen ink.

I turned on the music – “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” – of course. I used the You’ve Got Mail version  ($1.29 on iTunes) just because it’s so cheerful. It’s on my iPad  and I Bluetoothed it to a speaker. And they got up – yes! out of their seats! – and exchanged notes with other students. They kept going until the music stopped and sat down to write their answers to the question and add their own “wonder”.  They also added their names to the outside of the note after folding it back up, and we did it again. About three times was all I could stand, but they were having such f-u-n.

After class I sat down and read their notes, and at the beginning of the next class they were greeted with a list of their I wonder questions on the Promethean board. In small groups they discussed the list, trying to sort out possible explanations to what really happened in this story. By the way, the key to the entire story is one little question mark. Yet no one caught it. The power of punctuation.

Mrs. Hamilton, please!

This story drove the students nuts. They kept waiting for me to give them the end of the story.  They already had it. They begged me to tell them how it ended. The story told them what happened.  In the midst of all this, one of my girls came to parent conferences with her dad and pleaded with me to just tell her what happened because she just could not wait another day to know.

Total engagement. No discipline problems.  Fun teaching. Yes.

Engagement, Poetry

Dear Basketball

Two years ago, Kobe Bryant retired from the Los Angeles Lakers and chose to announce it by publishing a poem. Imagine that – one of the most popular athletes in the world choosing poetry to express his feelings about what had to have been one of the most important days in his lifetime. How often does an English teacher get handed such a gift? I had eighth grade athletes in my classes, boys and girls, and I really wanted them to know about the power of poetry. I wanted them to know that real people wrote poetry for real reasons. Gosh, I just wanted them to read a poem without groaning.

The Players’ Tribune

There’s a great website out there that was started by the New York Yankee shortstop, Derek Jeter. It was developed as a platform for publication of stories by athletes from all sports, and it is great for hooking young athletes sitting in our classrooms. I heard about it from a teacher on Twitter – Amber McMath. Follow her @mrsmcreading. She has a blog, I’m That Teacher,  aimed at the middle school language arts classroom, and I had used some of her innovative ideas before. I knew when I saw theplayerstribune.com that I had found a gold mine of reading material for those students who loved sports but not reading.

And then they published Kobe Bryant’s beautiful poem. It is moving because it is so emotional. I shared it with my students and it did work its magic. Now I had some students reading when they had not been willing to read before.

Fast Forward

So this year, I found a mention of “Dear Basketball” in one of McMath’s posts, but this time she was referencing the Oscar-winning video version narrated by Kobe Bryant. It was just wonderful, and her timing was perfect! It happened to be the beginning of a poetry unit we were doing post-testing, and again I needed someone as cool as Bryant to kick off the unit and pull in my sports-addicted students. So we watched the video, got goosebumps, and they loved it. 


Screenshot (49)

What We Did

Everyone got a hard copy of the poem so we could do annotations. We looked for what Bryant had done. Turns out his poem – being a letter – was epistolary. And because he was writing to an inanimate object, basketball, it was also apostrophe. I got to teach two literary terms that we would not have covered this year otherwise. We analyzed for emotions – all the love and sadness and excitement in the poem, and we marked it up with colored pens.  And we used this poem as the exemplar for the creation of one their own. They could choose absolutely anything to write their letter poems to as long as it was an inanimate object.

The Setting

We were doing poetry stations as our end of the year activity. Grades were due way too early. The deadline for turning in Chromebooks was looming. I needed my students to be doing something of value, but they needed to have some fun as well. So I set up poetry stations. Read about them here. I was reading the poetry my students were creating, and they believed I was grading it all. No way that was happening. They could talk a little, create a lot, and stay engaged until the last day. Perfect!

The Real Magic Happens

Here is what I did not see coming. Kids were writing to just anything – tennis shoes, video games, their dogs. But then something else started to appear: Dear Teddy Bear, Dear Earth, Dear Summer. They were starting to take the assignment seriously. And the poems were getting good! Then one afternoon as I was leaving the building, a parent pulled me aside to thank me for her daughter’s wonderful writing, especially the poem she had written. This sent me back to their poems, and I found the magic in their words.

These, written in Dear Stage.

Maybe that’s how I was. I was plain, waiting for something to make me wonderful… like you. Thank you for showing me who I am. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be true. Thank you for making me not just another schmuck. Thank you, stage. I love you.

These, written in Dear Dance.

I really did love you. But you made me hate you. Always too much pressure. Self conscious, unsure and afraid I questioned myself as a dancer. 

These, written to her new school.

I didn’t accept you without anxiety, but eventually you calmed my sea of fear. You encouraged me to love myself for who I am, not what everyone else was or wanted me to be. You taught me how to handle adversity with grace. You gave me life, purpose, and existence.

And these written to tennis from a gifted dancer.

I want a passion. I haven’t found my passion. I dance seventeen hours a week, but it’s not my passion. I play the Alto Saxophone and make honor bands, but it’s not my passion. I’ve done competitive gymnastics, but it wasn’t my passion.

I think you could be the one.


Just as Kobe Bryant  had done, my students were pouring out their hearts.

Engagement, Technology

Pic Collage and MOLDIV

This week I fell in love with two new photo editing apps. You are going to laugh at me, but one is Pic Collage. I know. It isn’t new. It’s been on our Chromebooks forever, I just never have paid any attention to it. The other is MOLDIV. They are almost identical. Interchangeable. So if you decide to play with them, you will probably just pick one. Both are free downloads. If you want to spend money on them, you can order some of the fancier packages. But they are basically free. Look.


The source

I found them almost simultaneously. MOLDIV was on a really great website that I found on Twitter. I’m telling you, the best ideas come from other Twitter users. This one is Jeanie Cullip on a cool blog called Read, Write, Sparkle, Coffee. She is working toward becoming a teacher and was doing #bookaday. I shared that whole experience here. I noticed her #bookaday page on her blog after she followed me on Twitter. Check it out for yourself here.

This is what she did.

She used MOLDIV. I like it because she used that cute wood background – much like the shiplap all over HGTV. What if we did these as teachers for the books we read this summer and printed them in color to hang on our doors? Or on a bulletin board in our rooms? And I discovered that she was making these into a page on her blog. Be looking for that soon, ’cause I’m going to do the same. Love it!

Then I found more.

Apparently there is a contest going on between teachers with really great classroom libraries. I found this image, also on Twitter.


And look! More wood as a background! So I knew these guys were using something I needed to find. I checked with @AFranchak (Ariel Franchak) and she said she was using PicCollage. And she shared two more cute examples.

PicCollage4 Screenshot (70)

I was hooked!

So I started playing with them and made the two at the top of this post. It is so easy. They have grids and backgrounds from which to choose, some really cute fonts, and adding images is a snap.

And fun! You have heard of visual learners? Well, I’m a visual teacher. Colors, book covers, playful fonts – that’s all it takes to reel me in. And I started to think about our students. Wouldn’t they have fun building these?

My first thought was Books I Read This Summer, but, uhhh, some of our students don’t really read over the summer. Someone on Twitter was reminding us that summer is not the great extended playground that some of us view it as. Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on how we spent our summer vacation. So what if we instead did The Best Books I Read Last Year?

Or how about introducing ourselves to the class? Pictures of us as children, besties, music, books, hobbies, sports, family, favorite foods. Everyone has something to tell us about themselves. Maybe we could do those! Printed on the color printer while there is fresh toner and ink. Hanging in our hallway or around the classroom. I ♥ this idea. 


These are engaging and quick to make, so we don’t devote too much class time. They can be moved around the class changes and assemblies and general confusion of the first week(s) of school. They help us learn about our students. They are. not. class. rules. If students remember our class, they will remember doing something entertaining using technology, not sitting through the same boring rules conversation they have heard six other times today. They can talk to each other and to us, and they can relax a little. The beginning of school is stressful enough. Let’s don’t add to that stress.

My PicCollage

And you know this is all hypothetical because I will not be in the classroom this year. So…how about you share with me if you use them? Post your pictures in the comments or share a link so we can see them. Can you think of other ways to use them? As one-pagers after reading a short text, maybe? What else…?

Professional Development, Reading Workshop, Writing Workshop

Teacher PD

Our school district used to get professional development just right. Before that, they got it just wrong. I don’t understand the difficulty. Teachers know what they need to improve their teaching. I was always looking for new thinking – better ways to do what I was doing in my room. I knew that I wanted a Reading/Writing Workshop, so I needed to learn how to do that. I knew I wanted to use more technology in my teaching and with student devices, so I needed to learn to do that. And our district allowed us to find the best sources for learning what we needed to learn. And then they didn’t.

It seems to  come in cycles. The cycle right now is to telling teachers what to attend – auuuugh – and then whole-day, whole-school, whole-district, where we could choose which sessions we wanted to attend. Meh. The keynote speakers and sessions are generally mediocre to bad. At least the district is saving money and meeting the state mandate. And sending a group of teachers to a conference meant to change the climate and culture of the school? Okay. They keep doing this every summer. Maybe it works. Sending gung-ho teachers to learn to be gung-ho seems like a waste of money. And the ones who need to be gung-ho won’t go. My recommendation (if asked) would be to save that money and give it to classroom teachers to pay for books – classroom library books in particular. But that’s a whole new topic. So, what works for ME?

Let me use social media. Let me read books. Let me decide where to go.

I have been to hear Penny Kittle – Book Love, Write Beside Them – Cris Tovani, I Read It But I Don’t Get It and What Do They Really Know? and Janet Allen, Yellow Brick Roads and There’s Room for Me Here. Ron Clark was incredibly motivational and fun, fun, fun to listen to. Same with Debbie Silver, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8. I also attended state conferences of the Arkansas Reading Association where I heard from Steven Layne, Igniting a Passion for Reading, and Kate DiCamello, Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux.

But I chose these. And I used what I learned in my classroom. 

The good news is that my district paid for all of these, but I found them and asked to go. So ask! My motto is if I don’t ask, they won’t say yes. Here’s another distinction: I used my own time. I drove to hear these people because I knew they were good. I almost always used my summer days for these guys. We need to be willing to do that. Summer is to recharge, but the best professional development is offered in the summer. Either before the summer really gets going or after I’ve rested up, I’m ready to amp up my game.

There is great information on social media. Free stuff? Twitter and blogs. Teachers share the great ideas they have tested in their classrooms. The generosity of teachers is amazing. If Linda Rief or Penny Kittle speaks, I pay attention. I’ve gotten great ideas from Amber McMath @mrsmcreading, book titles from Leigh Anne Eck @Teachr4 and Amy Rasmussen @3TeachersTalk and writing ideas from Ruth Ayres @ruth_ayres. Almost all of these people are teachers and writers who have blogs as well. Find them and learn from them.

And I Buy Books

In The Middle1. My first PD book was In the Middle by Nancie Atwell. It inspired my teaching. Completely. I read this book every summer of my teaching life to renew my beliefs and revive my passion. She just gets it exactly right. This is the first book on my list of teacher pd books. She is in her third edition where she has eliminated and revised and renewed her ideas. It is just the right book for teachers who need a guide for building workshops as the models in their classrooms.  2. Add to that Nancie AtwellLessons That Change Writers. This is the best, most practical book for teaching writing. Handouts, transparencies, and scripts. This is mini-lesson heaven! 3. Speaking of writing, Penny Kittle is masterful. Write Beside Them is Write Beside Themindispensable if you are building writing workshops. Kittle’s resources are excellent. She teaches high school, but her ideas work for middle school as well. This comes with a DVD with resources. If you teach with tech, you will save  yourself some time by using her technology instead. 4. Day by Day by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz give us a run down of how to set up writing workshop. It is an extremely practical 180 day handbook of what to do every day. I didn’t use their exact scheduling, but I did use lots of this book to plan my lessons. If you are new to writing workshop, and you want a guide, this is it! 5. Notebook Know-How by Aimee Buckner is a good book to help you plan the contents and practice when you introduce writer’s notebooks to your students. As with all PD books, I don’t use everything she lays out here, but it is a wonderful guide for those wondering how to start. 


So now I was going to continue as if these were my top ten, but I have to start over with a second set of my top five! 1. The number one book that added F-U-N to my classroom reading this year was Texts and Lessons for Teaching Literature by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke. In fact, if you are looking for a great way to kick off your reading instruction for this year – and by that I mean close reading of engaging complex texts, this is your book.  

smokey daniels

We loved the work we did with the stories in this grand resource. See here to read about a memorable set of lessons based on this book. The texts are already in here – you don’t have to round them up. The teaching ideas are already in here. You don’t have to dream them up. It’s the BEST. 2. Book Love by Penny Kittle. If Nancie Atwell didn’t convince you to do reading workshop, surely Penny Kittle will. After reading her book, you will understand why her students love reading. Shoot, you will wish you were in her class! I buy lots of the books that Penny Kittle talks about using with her students. She is so motivational and makes you BELIEVE you can do this with your students, too. She also talks about the Book Love Foundation that gives away books to teachers across the country to build classroom libraries. Read her book, follow her on Twitter, write a grant. Her passion is palpable and contagious. 3. Seeking Diversity by Linda Rief was required reading in my graduate reading classes. It was the right book at the right time. It is practical and motivational. It fueled my passion to teach. Linda Rief is on par with Nancie Atwell as far as being the consummate Language Arts teacher. From her book Read, Write, Teach, I got this great way to introduce a unit of study, what I call a Silent Write-Around. I used it to introduce The Holocaust to my students.


I have not read her newest book – The Quickwrite Handbook – but I can’t imagine that it is not wonderful as well. If I were going to buy just one new book to help teach writing, this is the one I would buy. 4. Three of the most motivational books I have read are from the Ron Clark Academy. The story of his school stirs the hearts of teachers everywhere. He came to Hot Springs to speak at our tech conference, HSTI. He was out of this world! He made us laugh and cry. He walked on the backs of the chairs in our high school’s auditorium. And he told the story of how he became the teacher he is today. His philosophies on teaching are also in his books, The Essential 55 and The Excellent 11. He has a wonderful woman as the co-founder and English teacher at the Ron Clark Academy who has published two books. I have used Crash Course by Kim Bearden to inspire fun teaching and learning in my classes. I have built Pinterest boards off of her ideas! She is innovative and apparently boundless in energy. Check out her ideas for the -ing diner, fishing for parts of speech, and sentence surgery. Her classes just sound like fun places to learn.


5. The last book on my PD list is just going to have to be a tie. For practical use, I go with Craft Lessons by Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi. It is such a smart idea to use Ralph Fletchermentor texts to teach our students to write well. Fletcher and Portalupi were the first I found that espoused this thinking, and I used their book to teach writing. And to read like writers. There is a newer version out, but this one is still my favorite. It takes specific writing skills and assigns published works as the mentor texts. Character development, setting description, dialogue, and so much more, and it is broken up by grade levels, too. This book is a great resource for the writing teacher. 5. Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer will convince you that all children will read if you just give them good books and the time to read. You will use this book to give yourself the words to explain to those who don’t get it why reading workshop is so darned valuable as a method for creating readers in our classrooms. With her evidence-based discussion and the vision for building a culture of reading in our schools, I was empowered to follow a road through reading workshop. Her second book is a good backup; both are filled with great ideas.



So, yes, I know this is more than just ten books. And I know this is more than you will want to buy in a year. Unless you find a garage sale or a retiring teacher who will part with hers. But I truly believe these are the best. And there are so many more in my book stacks that I could have shared today. I guess my message today is just to START. Somewhere. With a stack of sticky notes and your laptop/iPad. And a glass – better make that a pitcher – of sweet tea. 

Engagement, Writing

Opinion Journals

As the year ended, some of my students were helping me clean out my room when one of the girls held up a spiral notebook to see if I wanted to keep the stack it came from. It was an opinion journal from several years earlier. I watched the girls as they started to look through them, and then as they opened them and began to read. I had forgotten all about them! I wish I had used them this year. They were fun.

This is a simple project and cost me about $5.00 to implement. I went to Walmart long after the back-to-school sales were over and the prices had been marked back up. I spiral notebookswanted single-subject spiral notebooks, but I wasn’t going to spend $.49 each for them. I explained to the manager what I was up to, and he sold them to me for $.17 a piece. For a total of $5.10, I bought thirty notebooks. Not bad! They should be about ten cents right about now as the Back-to-School – gasp – sales are starting. Maybe a nickel.

On the front of each notebook I wrote with Magic Marker a topic – bullying, dating, grades, cliques, homework, driver’s licenses. Anything of interest to eighth graders. These were now their Opinion Journals. On these blank pages they could write anything they wanted to about the topic on the front cover. The only catch was that they were not able to choose which topic they got.

When my students entered class, an Opinion Journal would be waiting on their desks. It was totally random. What they got was what they got – no switching allowed.  Oh, and they wanted to switch! But the interesting aspect of this assignment was seeing how each student approached a topic they had not ever thought to write about. So a non-athlete would approach the Sports journal with a dissertation on the over-hyped irrelevance of high school sports. Boys would share their views on the time girls spent on makeup. I liked to think they were expanding their thinking by exploring new territories.

Class Favorites

There were several journals that were bigger hits than others.

Gossip was always a hot topic. They didn’t spread gossip; they talked about the damage done by those who did. They talked about online gossip, back-stabbing gossip, and their former best friends’s gossip and how it ruined their friendship.

Sports was fought over mainly because non-writer boys find it is a safe, comfortable topic. This was my husband in school. I doubt his teachers ever got to read anything written by him that wasn’t about sports.

Dress code always stirred up strong opinions. Thoughts ranged from why we didn’t even need one to the short, short skirts that our cheerleaders wore on game days.

The most hysterical one was S-E-X.  That’s exactly how I wrote it on the cover, too. The reaction of fourteen-year- olds to seeing that word on the cover of an Opinion Journal being handed to them by me was priceless. Who was the lucky one to get it? Holding it up proudly for everyone to see. Um, can we say this outloud? Laughter. Always laughter.

??? was a free-write on any topic. Students could sound off on anything on their minds that day. Bad morning with Mom? It was in there. Had it with the science teacher and her pop quizzes? Yep. How short the art teacher’s skirt was? It was all in there. (Not really the art teacher – I’m protecting the not-so-innocent party here.)

So What We Did

These journals were used during our instruction on Facts vs. Opinions. I had taught the difference.

Opinions – Something you think, feel, or believe.

Facts – You can check it, you can test it, you can prove it to be true. We chanted the Facts definition to finger snapping. We read it, said it, heard it, and felt it – there are the learning styles all in one lesson. Snap your fingers on check, test, prove, and true.  Feel the rhythm?

The mind-blower here is that if you can check it, test it, and prove it to be true, what if you check it, test it, and prove it to be false? Isn’t it still a fact statement? Well, yes it is. So we talked about that. If I say This is Mrs. Hamilton’s room, that’s a fact statement. What if it’s not Mrs. Hamilton’s room? Does that change it to an opinion? No, it is still a fact statement – it just isn’t true.

You can check it, you can test it, you can prove it to be true.

You can check it, you can test it, you can prove it to be false.

So we play with these. I throw sentences at them; they throw them at each other. We identify them. It’s cold in here. Opinion. But you can look on the thermostat! Yes, but what if I live in Alaska? Is 65 degrees cold in Alaska? Of course not. It all relative. Besides, if three students think my room is cold, seven more are hot. No, hot and cold are definitely opinions. They really learn this. And it matters when they write argumentative essays. Opinions must be supported by facts.



Back to the Journals

So after we write, we sign and date our opinion entries. This is because someone else will be reading what we have written and adding their own opinions. Next period, someone else will pick up the journal and add their thoughts. Sometimes they agree, and sometimes they don’t. They can answer a previous entry or head off in a completely new direction.

One of these little spirals will hold many opinions – they last for years! Tell them before they start writing to skip a line or two on the same page. Starting a new page wastes pages and fails to encourage the reading of other entries. Students find opinion entries from older friends or brothers and sisters I have taught before them. They love that.

These Opinion Journals are a great change of pace. Sometimes they make a quick-write option as a starter or sponge activity at the beginning of class. Sometimes I passed them out as a transition from Reading Workshop to Writing Workshop. Sometimes students who have hit a wall in their writing can unblock themselves by spending a few minutes in a journal. And those days when your lesson has been destroyed by a fire drill or an unscheduled assembly can be salvaged by a few minutes of quiet writing.

One thing I know for certain is that eighth graders never run out of opinions!