Books, Engagement, Reading, Technology

Revisiting Our Winter Reading Goals

Right after Christmas, we set our Winter Reading Goals. We each built a Google Slide with four books we wanted to have finished before Spring Break. Well, that happens next week. It is time to check in to see if we met our goals!


These were my goal books. Our slides were all put together into one very long slide show that was intended to serve as a resource for all of us when we are ready to start a new book. We were only partially successful – in two ways. First, not everyone finished the slide. Disappointment. I did only schedule one class period for this mini-project, but my hope was that those who didn’t finish would. I have not given up on the hope that students will finish their reading and writing because they want to. Some just finish for a grade. That misses the mark. The other miss was not taking time in class to go see what others were reading. We never pulled up the slide show after we finished it. Oops. I could have put it up on the screen as a reminder on our reading Mondays. I could have directed students to revisit it. I could have used it myself. All my fault.

So, here they come again! I won’t give up. We are headed back to those slides this week – for a couple of purposes. One is to see our reading progress. The other is to relight that fire before I send them off to a week of Spring Break. To do that, they are going to spend some time with their classmates’ recommendations. And then we will reset our Spring Break Goals. Excitement! ♥

Click here to see our original assignment. First we will go back to the slide show we built. Students will see which books they finished and which books they missed. They will spend just a little time with this task, but they need to see how close they got. Then they will t-a-l-k. To each other, to the class, and to me. Volunteers will share the books they read that were great. Recommendations to each other are powerful. Kids listen when their friends talk about the books they are loving to read. When I book-talked Goodbye Days, boys who don’t typically read were fighting over it. As soon as it comes back to my library, it is gone again. So voluntary book talks with book lists. Jot down the titles and head to the library.

Of my four Winter Goal books, I read three. I want my students to see that even their English teacher can miss meeting her reading goal. It’s okay.  So I created two new slides.


The first one is the covers of the books I finished on schedule, and the second is my updated goal books. The one book I missed on the first go around is on my new goal slide. I also have my two new books that were not on the original slide. A note: one book on each slide is an adult book. I want my students to see that I don’t just read for school. I read a lot of really good books to share with them, but some of what I read is not Young Adult. I tell them that so they won’t go looking for a book that is too old for them. They trust me to know what is too much.

 Then students make their own. One of their met goals and one of their new goals. This sets the expectation that we are going to be reading on our break. Just for pleasure on those long, glorious days. Exhale…

This little lesson won’t take long, but it will be a fun jump-start. I won’t be teaching. They will do the talking and the sharing.  I will show them the actual books from my Spring Break Goal slide and give them time to reset their own goals. If they see the books in my hands, they will understand the need to be prepared for the reading they will do. They will have time for exploration in our classroom library and the school library to check out their books.  They will want to read. I invite them to the reading. And I announce Book Show-and-Tell for when we come back.

Happy Spring Break! Happy Reading!

History, Reading, Units, Writing Workshop

Black History Month: Music, Poetry, Nonfiction, A Movie, Argumentative Writing

Each January we begin the new year with a look back. The unit pulls together research, music, informational writing, nonfiction historical texts – one a book and one an online article – three poems, a film, and a short video documentary. And we ‘read’ some photographs. We pretty much read one of everything! Well, not quite, but we do put a lot of variety in our Looking Back on America unit. The writing includes a Timeline Card, an argumentative essay, and one piece of choice creative writing. It falls over into February with a study of the Civil Rights movement and is full of valuable and interesting texts.

We started with “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to jump-start the unit. Read about it here. When our timeline is built, we go into Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman. We talk about images first. What is the power of a bus? Rosa ParksWhat was so bad about the back of the bus? What difference did it make if they walked? What was the message being sent? And we look at images from Freedman’s book – a hooded man riding with a noose hanging from his window. A college classroom filled with white students except for a lone African-American student seated in an anteroom.  And we keep asking. What message is being sent?  Then we read the book. It isn’t long and it isn’t difficult, but it lays out the events of the bus boycott. There are many photographs. We use the guiding question Who contributed to the success of the Montgomery Bus boycott? How?  The students learn how to take notes that stay with the guiding question. They learn not to retell the entire book, as eighth graders are wont to do. They wind up with thirteen entries in a graphic organizer that they build, and they move to the next informational source.


As we work through the texts in this unit, we continue to touch on the word ‘change’. How can we change the world? How can we change hearts and minds? What power do we have to make changes in our lives? This is a very empowering concept for students who are just coming to the point in their lives where they are able to see themselves making a difference.

We watch a movie! This isn’t something my students generally get to do, so they enjoy the experience. We watch a movie from the 70s that isn’t really around much anymore – Conrack, starring a very young Jon Voight.  It is the true story of author Pat Conroy’s experience as a


young white teacher on a small island off the coast of South Carolina, Daufuskie Island. It is available on YouTube and broken into three parts, each about 35 minutes long. We can watch one-third each day for a week and still read and gather information about the bus boycott. By Friday, we have finished both. As we watch, we look for answers to more questions. And we ask more questions. What do the children learn from Conroy and what does he learn from them? My students keep adding to their understanding of this period in our country’s history. The movie is sweet, funny, sad, and eye-opening. The most difficult part of this unit is to do what I call time-travel. We tend to look at history from our perspective in the twenty-first century and we take so much for granted. It is imperative for these young people to make a sincere effort to imagine the plight of those young people.

Writing About What They Are Learning

Our Writer’s Notebooks are a place for collecting the thinking of this unit. It is all about writing reflections. How do we feel about what we are seeing and hearing and reading?

And we pull out our Writer’s Notebooks.

As I planned this unit, I built in time for students to write their thinking and emotions. If you use this unit with your children, don’t cut their reflecting times. They have so much to say. They are engaged with the ideas and the injustices of the times. Let them vent. Write some poetry. Listen to the lyrics of the protest songs. We want to entangle their hearts.

They don’t need worksheets or pre-printed questions. They have the words to express their thinking, and their Writer’s Notebooks are the perfect place for this reflective talk.

Speaking of talk, there will be plenty! You cannot talk about race relations and segregation and lynchings and Emmett Till without commentary. At the beginning of the unit we discussed how we would talk with respect toward all. We talked about the n-word (banned) and the evolution of terminology in historical contexts. As a student in the 1970s, I lived through some of what we are studying and that makes me a primary source. I share my stories of the desegregation of the schools in Houston. If you are (probably!) younger than me, a guest speaker would be great for sharing their experience with your kids. They love hearing stories. What people said around me about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I was in 8th grade. About the busing of black students into my all-white high school. Robert E. Lee. Pause. The running of the Confederate flag down the sidelines at football games. Pause. Classifying Hispanic students as white so they could be counted toward integration to satisfy court mandates.

No one goes to sleep.

“The Power of Nonviolence” and Some Poetry

We also read a primary source text written by Congressman John Lewis that I found in a text book from many years back. It is now online. “The Power of Nonviolence”. He tells about the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville in which he participated as an organizer. He gives a first hand account of institutional southern racism and its dismantling with passive resistance. Our students see that we can make changes without burning and looting and bloodshed in the streets. I am able to make them aware of allusions, transition words and phrases, historical contexts and perspective, and give them lots and lots of factual information they will be able to use to support the claims they will lay out in their writing. Additionally we will have watched a piece on Emmett Till. It is very short but gives enough information that students can cite it in their arguments.

We read and analyze “Chicago”, “I Hear America Singing”, and “I, Too”, all of which tell more stories about the hardworking American men and women who built our country. Langston Hughes’ powerful call to be allowed ‘at the table’ connects to the ‘varied carols’ of Walt Whitman and the brawling youth of Carl Sandburg’s beloved Chicago. We spend one week of the unit reading about these poets and digging into their poems, reading them aloud and talking the talk of the language arts classroom.

An Addition: “Rise Up”

Spring Break happens here. Yessss…and we all need it. When we return, Day 1 we will spend in the library getting more books for our sprint through the end of the year. I will have a display of current reads by black authors or with true stories about African-Americans.  These are in addition to those already on the tables that our Media Specialist has had displayed for the past two months. Yes, I’m a Jason Reynolds fan. 


And playing as they enter will be “Rise Up” by Andra Day. Of course, it is on YouTube, but images in the official version are a little too mature for 8th grade. Be forewarned: Watch it first. Find one that fits your students.

I just found this idea on Twitter. Read what Travis Crowder @teachermantrav has to say in Arm Me With Books. We have always written letters at the end of this unit – to MLK or Rosa Parks or Mamie Till or Marilyn Monroe – think Timeline Cards here – or JFK/Jackie. These are from the student, or from another historical figure, or from someone imaginary. We have had a beautiful imaginary letter from Bernice King to her father, a frightening letter from the ‘true’ assassin of President Kennedy to his widow, and many letters thanking Rosa Parks or sending sympathy to Mamie Till. But Travis Crowder has a more powerful take on these letters, and I want to embrace it. We will still end the unit with this creative writing, but first we must take a little break to prepare for the TEST.  Now I can’t go all in, but I have formatted some questions to go with our texts so that kids can practice without reading about turtles or some random historical figure.

And Then We Write.

There is no avoiding that the ACT Aspire is right around the corner. Before we leave for Spring Break, we have front-loaded so much knowledge. When we return, we will write an argument that ties all this learning together. Students will select their own topics. We do a pre-writing activity that uses all the sources I have shared with you. I give each student a copy of a multi-columned chart containing every source we have used. We work as a whole class deciding the threads that connect these pieces. It is a giant brainstorming session. Under each source, we list the topics or themes present in the text. Courage, racism, pride, resistance, cruelty, fear, strength, change, brotherhood, protests, segregation. Everything the students can think of. They begin to see the common threads woven among the texts. They even have a bonus of using their Timeline Card topic if they can make it fit. They then choose the thread they want to prove.

I teach format. How to write a hook that leads to a provable thesis statement. Where that thesis statement must be in their introductory paragraph. How to develop and prove their claims. How to use facts instead of opinions. How to write a counterclaim and their choices for where to put it. How to write a conclusion. This writing is formulaic. It is the only practice they will get for the test. It is the only practice they will need. So to prepare them for that test, we did not spend a year writing argumentative essays. Instead we have been writing for all sorts of purposes. Now we have learned important life lessons and read and heard some great stories. We have talked our way through an extraordinary historical period. We have appreciated and analyzed classic American poetry. They won’t be groaning about writing another argumentative essay because it wasn’t necessary to beat them over the head. If they follow the formula, they will score at least a four on the test. If they write with clarity and flair and originality, they will score a six. Many, many will score a six. All of them will have a new perspective on our culture and their ability to change the world in which they live.

The Books…

These are some of the books we use during this unit. Our library is filled with displays of more books for students to choose when they want to read more. I have a class set of Freedom Walkers, but all the poetry and short texts are available online. Some Maya Angelou would fit beautifully as well.



Looking Back on America is a rich unit. It is definitely a tribute during Black History Month. And it is a love letter to our African American students.

Books, Engagement, Reading

A Culture of Reading: A Snow Day with Hot Cocoa and Good Books

It snowed in our room today. Books, quilts, hot chocolate and snow – a few of my favorite things. It made perfect sense. It was reading day  –  another of my favorite things – because we have short periods on Mondays. Valentine’s Day is on Wednesday. It seemed like a good time for a special event. Here’s what we did.

The Inspiration

It all started when I just happened across a classroom in Richardson, Texas who was having hot cocoa while they read. Thank you, Twitter and #richardsonreads. Doesn’t that sound fun? We could do that…some hot cocoa, some marshmallows. Um, books and chocolate! Maybe a bistro. Maybe a book store. My creative juices were flowing. It was almost Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping was looming. Those star shower-Santa-snowflake light show machines were all over TV. What if I put one in my room to make it look like snow was falling? That might be fun. So when?

We couldn’t do it before Christmas because our Skype visit with Laurie Halse Anderson valentines daywas on deck. It would still be cold in February, so Valentine’s week would be good for something chocolate. Monday is the only day of the week when I see all of my students because we block schedule Tuesday – Friday. Perfect.

On reading day, our students read self-selected texts and I have a conference with each child about the book choice and the progress being made by doing Status of the Class. I believe I first heard about Status of the Class when I read Nancie Atwell’s  In the Middle. This is when we check in with ourgoodbye days students to see what they are reading or writing. I do it every Monday. My students read, finish, and select new books. We talk about new reads. I unveil new books in our classroom library, and we update our Goodreads accounts. It is a calm, happy day.

Teacher Planning

I started to shop. Crystal snowflakes and a Let it Snow mug for decorating the tables. Giant cans of cocoa mix and candy canes for stir sticks. After Christmas, they are 25 cents a box! I got all I needed – thanks to my Facebook friends – for $3.00 at Dollar General. Three bags of mini-marshmallows and little white napkins. My daughter and private benefactor suggested personalized Styrofoam cups. Did you know you can order these with anything you want on them? It’s a good day for some hot cocoa! And a snowman, of course. I designed them and she bought them. I found mine at The Stationary Studio, but lots of places sell them. And you know, if I had planned ahead, I could have written a grant for all of the supplies. Hmm. Teacher planning.

I ordered a few snowflakes and some snowflake lights from Amazon. The snowflakes stick to the windows that line one side of the classroom. The lights were to add some twinkling sparkle to that side of the room. And I hunted all over for a little bistro table and chairs. I just didn’t want to buy them. I put the word out on Facebook for one to borrow. Nothing. I looked at some resale shops, but I just didn’t want to spend money for something that surely I could borrow. Or do without. I had just about given up when I mentioned it to a fellow teacher. Not only did she have one, but it folded up for transporting. Holy cow! 

Finally I gathered up the stuff I had at home. Quilts and tablecloths. My book snowman Book Snowman (of course!) from Christmas. Mugs with snowmen on them. Leftover peppermints to float in the cocoa. An apron. And lots of books!

You knew there would be books. 

snowy booksI found a Pinterest page of snowy books. I checked our school library and my classroom library for any we already had. I ordered Goodbye Days, After the Snow, and Together at Midnight. I already had They Both Die at the End and it looked snowy, so I saved it to share on our snowy day. I pulled together a cart of library books to decorate the tables and entice my students to read something they might not have noticed before. Winter Horses, The Sledding Hill, The Long Winter, Icefire, The Tragedy Paper – anything that looked wintery or had titles with cold, wintery words in them.




Setting up the room

I had help. Our Instructional Facilitator and Friend for Life helped me. We put snowflakes on the window and hung the twinkling lights. I plugged in two snowmen that had been stashed under our house from Christmases past. We covered our tables with quilts and snowy tablecloths. In the middle of each table, we displayed the books, stacking some and standing some upright. A snowman mug sat on each pile of books to hold the candy cane stirrers. Snow was sprinkled all around the books.  The little bistro table and chairs sat in the middle of the room to hold the cups, a crystal sleigh full of soft peppermints, and a glass jar filled with mini marshmallows. A copy of The Impossible Knife of Memory and a donut-scented candle finished off the table. We aimed the snow shower light at the wall so snowflakes would fall while my guys read their books.

It was charming.


And the day arrived.

Bright and early the wonderful ladies in our cafeteria started making hot cocoa. They rolled it in ready to serve in a large dispenser. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked GREAT. A spigot – no ladling. And they kept it coming all day long!

Snowy winter window scenes were playing on each of the screens in the classroom. They look like flat screen televisions but play from a computer. I found winter snow scenes on Youtube that play for hours at a time. On the big Promethean board I put a roaring fire, also from Youtube. The sound of blowing wind and snow filled the room. The fire crackled. We sipped hot cocoa. And I did my favorite Status of the Class of the year.


And the students said:

“Did you do all this yourself?”

“This is so cute! It’s so cute!”

“Can we have seconds?”

“Thank you! Thank you!”

“Is this real snow?”

“You’ve just made me love Mondays!”

“We’ve had an accident over here…”


Let it snow.






Engagement, History, Technology, Writing Workshop

And Now We Start the Fire!

After Christmas, we generally need a boost – something to re-ignite the enthusiasm of our class during the cold winter months. Billy Joel is just the ticket. We use this song and video of images to kick off our Unit 3, “Looking Back on America.” I have used this video for years, and it never fails to get the students smiling and happy and ready to do a little research.

If you haven’t heard the song or watched the video, do it! Billy Joel lined up over one hundred historical events that begin in 1949 and run through the 80s. They rhyme, they go fast, and the kids cannot understand a word he is saying. It is so much fun! The students clean off their desks except for a piece of paper and a pen. I play the song with just one bit of instruction – listen and write down every topic you hear. Ready? Get set. Go! And I play just the music – no images yet. They can’t do it to save their lives. I act shocked – What? You seriously can’t hear ANY of them? – knowing full well that they will not hear them. Not even Marilyn Monroe. I play it again. Usually someone eventually gets JFK Blown Away. They get better with each hearing. We count to see who has the most and then we mark off all the ones that are wrong. No, there is no YouTube. No trouble in the sewer. They argue. They bet me. They lose. After they listen three times, we watch the video. I use the version because it is the most correct. I have seen others that include the wrong Sugar Ray – it is Robinson, not Leonard. I play it on our Promethean board with the music blasting. Warn your neighbors. It will drive them nuts. 8th graders leave humming and singing, they listen to it in other classes, and – even though they promised not to – they talk about it at lunch. Everyone knows what we are up to. And even the most reticent are engaged.  

Teacher Preparation

I create a handout, an exemplar, a sign-up sheet, and a scoring rubric. I print the sign up sheet – one for hanging on the classroom door on sign-up day. I write out the entire assignment and put it in Google Classroom with a couple of attachments – the link to the Scott Allsop version of the song video from youtube or teachertube, and a link to an interview in which Billy JoelBilly Joel explains why he wrote the song.  We listen to the interview so the students can begin to solve the puzzles of the song – why did he write it and what does it all mean? Students can easily search for the topics in the song and even can find why Joel wrote the song. Harder for them will be the THINKING they must do to justify the inclusion of each topic in the song as a means of expressing the theme. This thinking is what challenges the students and sets this assignment apart. 

Let me add this note. This assignment is mine – I dreamed it up and developed it over the years. I have had no contact with Billy Joel and may be adding into the song more than he ever intended. I personally think he was brilliant and did exactly what I have sold to my students as fact. This might all be news to Mr. Joel if he ever heard about it. But the crux of the assignment is this. Each topic is a controversy. It caused a change in our culture. For example, Princess Grace is not just a beautiful actress who gave it all up to marry her Prince Charming because he was not, as it turns out, so charming. He was abusive and chauvinist, married her to save his country and monarchy, and threatened to take her children from her if she tried to leave him. That was the controversy. The change was the impetus for women’s rights. His cruelty fueled a desire for women to be their own people rather than appendages for their male superiors. See? Joel’s generation didn’t start the fire – it was always burning. It was just a mess left for his generation to clean up.

Now, that’s the fun of it. And they have to be detectives to figure them out. Each year that I used this assignment, I learned more and more. Give Dacron some thought! Joe DiMaggio? Oh, yes. Moneyball. California Baseball? Yep. Why did the Brooklyn Dodgers leave NY? Jackie RobinsonDid it have anything at all to do with all those fans coming in to see Jackie Robinson play ball? Maybe all those white ticket holders weren’t so pleased to share the stadium with the new African-American fans…it was always burning.

Students Sign Up

On my door is the sign up sheet that I found on the internet. You are welcome to use my version – I added some dates and changed the directions. I mark television and The Catcher in the Rye as unavailable. Television is too easy, and I create an exemplar for the students using The Catcher In the Rye. I let them know the list will be up on Monday morning when they get to school, and the sign up is first come-first served. Every student must select a different topic. This morning there was a flock of students waiting for my arrival. Well,  really they were just wanting the sign up sheet, but it did make me happy to see their enthusiasm for something we were starting. Sign Up Sheet

By the end of the day, everyone had signed up – coming by between classes or during classes to beat everyone to the topic they wanted. Some were disappointed, but with a pep talk, everyone seemed interested in what they signed up for. Then they began to read all about it. The point is for them to read, read, read until they know enough about the topic to write about it without any notes. If they write from notes, they will be writing from the computer screen. This is supposed to be a lesson in learning about a topic and writing about what they have learned without plagiarizing. Plagiarized work receives an AUTOMATIC zero.

The Assignment

At the beginning of Day 2, I share an exemplar. I selected a topic from the list that I didn’t think they would be inclined to research – The Catcher in the Rye.  Because I had read it and found it to contain entirely too much profanity for my students, it was the best choice. I wrote it, printed it, glued it together, and hung on a bulletin board in my room for the students to see. It was the prototype. Of course, they all wanted to read the book after hearing about the profanity and the hooker and Holden Caulfield.

I gave out a hard copy of the scoring rubric because I wanted them to write on them – take notes about how to complete the Timeline Card and write down due dates. Pretty much we do it all in two weeks. One day they read and remember. They find an image for the first page and write what they know about the topic – around 200 words. That is their first daily grade – complete or incomplete, 100 or 0. Then two days later the second page is due – another 200-ish words explaining the inclusion in the song and the impact on the culture of that decade. How did we all change as a result of that person or event or thing? Again, completion grade. Content is scored when the whole thing is turned in. The final product is a test grade worth 180 points. They also must turn in a Works Cited page containing at least three URLs – the third daily grade.

The rules for producing the card are quite strict because it must all fit on two pages and be similar to everyone else’s so they will build an actual timeline in the hall. The rubric outlines all these requirements – size 14 font, 1.15 line spacing, not less than 350 and not more than 400 words. No. Not 349 and not 401. The title is size 28 and centered on the first page just under an illustration. The date is size 140 and on the bottom of page two. A second image must be inserted into the text on page two. We print on a color printer and glue to construction paper. It looks like this when it is finished.

FullSizeRender (24)

And then we sort them by date and begin hanging them in the hallway. I am extremely picky about what I hang in my hallway. No mistakes. No wrinkles. No torn paper. Just gorgeous, well-written explanatory and persuasive writing all in one neat little package. They look awesome when they are all hung. Three rows of them in a good year. Less than that some years. This year should be outstanding. I will share the finished presentation with you when it is up. In the meantime, go ahead a strike a match.

Some Music!

Well, piffle. I knew I forgot something. Suggestion for adding atmosphere to the research time is MUSIC! A colleague/history teacher/friend with whom I worked for years shared with me a list of protest songs from the 60s. Bob Dylan, The Beatles and the Stones, Peter, Paul and Mary. “One Tin Soldier” and “War” and “Give Peace a Chance”. “Abraham, Martin and John”. “Revolution”. So many, many more. Some are protesting the Vietnam War and some are Civil Rights protest songs. My students love them. So do I. It is just one wonderful way to spend the day – listening to music from the past and challenging the kids with “No! Look some more! You will figure it out!” I love giving hints and watching the wheels turn in their minds.

Gosh, teaching fourteen-year-olds is the best.


Keeping Reading Alive: Book Lists

This quarter, my students are focusing on non-fiction texts – historical non-fiction. They are reading to learn, writing to explain, and  learning how to write without plagiarizing. It is a fun unit, but it is also a lot of hard work. I feel challenged to keep their independent reading alive, so I began to think of ways to add a little sparkle to the reading parts of language arts. This one is super simple.

It starts with just a pile of colored paper and some really good books.  The goal is to have students recommending books to other students.  So we are starting Top Ten Lists for the books we have read. I’m calling them Class Favorites because I wouldn’t want to limit their lists to just ten.  I have a sheet of colored construction paper with a genre written across the top. See, I told you it was simple. And I made one for each genre or category we read most – realistic fiction, fantasy, dystopian, sports, poetry, romance, mystery and historical fiction. Anything that my students will read gets a sheet. And the sheets are hung around my room. If a student has a favorite book, the title goes onto the list for all to see. And read. I anticipate adding sheets to sheets to sheets. I certainly hope I do.

I went first. I will share with you those book titles because aren’t we always looking for a reader to share titles with us? My absolutely best source is Twitter. There are teachers in our grade levels talking about great books all the time. When a book shows up over and over, I research it a little before I buy it. I try to be diverse in my selections as in I try to choose different genres. I try to think boys/girls. I know that is sexist, but I have boys who will not read anything but football. And some years I have no boys who will read baseball. And they just don’t read a lot of romance. So I need to pay attention to the trends and really THINK about what my boys are reading. Girls are easier. I’m a girl. Go figure. So here we go.

Reading Goals Slide

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I read this book on our Snow Day because I had included it in my Winter Reading Goal slide from my earlier post. And I could not wait to read it. It did not disappoint. It is gooood.  This was one of those books that just kept showing up on Twitter. I read it to be sure it was clean enough. There is just practically nothing clean anymore, so I have to settle for clean enough. It is. Kids are more mature these days. I keep telling myself that, anyway. And I remind you – I teach eighth grade. Many are GT eighth grade and they choose things like Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Sherlock Holmes. Those are just the current ones. My girls just read Speak. Sold is in my classroom library for a literature circle. So when I talk books with them, I often look toward high school books more than middle school books. We just need to know our kids.

Anyway, back to One of Us is Lying. This is the story of four students who get put into detention and claim they were framed. While they are there, one of them dies. They all become suspects in the murder. It is AWESOME! There is the young adult connection – your students can connect with these kids. They are these kids. Or they know these kids. So the book is very realistic fiction. And it is mysterious – we don’t know who is lying and who isn’t. Secrets are continuing to be revealed. You really won’t see them coming. There’s some teenage romance and lots of drama. There is bullying. Your kids will love it. Warning: there is a sex scene, but it is short and not detailed. There is one other thing, too, but I can’t tell you what it is because I want it to be a surprise. This book is full of surprises. Go for it.


The Tragedy Paper  by Elizabeth Laban

This was a student recommendation at the end of school last year, and I kept putting it off. I picked it up right before school started and finished it just before I met my new students. I book talked it and they read it. A lot. It has many of the elements of One of Us Is Lying that made it so good. A young man goes off to boarding school to complete his last two years of high school. The twist here is that he is an albino. So he deals with fitting in, making friends, and surviving school. The book begins with a mystery. Something happened that everyone in the book knows about, but we don’t. There is romance, the cool kids, rule breaking –  the lives of teenagers. And then there is the title. It is an assignment. Think The Outsiders. Read this one. I think it was clean…

E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

And while we are talking about boarding schools, read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks! I have had this book for a few years, so it isn’t new. Available in paperback.  This one is about a girl at boarding school who hacks into the boys’ private society and takes it over. But they don’t know who she is. More importantly, they don’t know she is a she. She directs their actions using a computer and sends them out to do her bidding. Again, we have mystery, romance, and drama. But the fun of this girl outsmarting the boys who feel superior to her intelligence due to their gender is just a great read. E. Lockhart is one of my favorite YA authors – We Were Liars is hers, too.


The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

I have to laugh at myself on this one. I heard about The Serpent King on Twitter.  Everyone was raving about it. I thought they were fantasy freaks. You know – a reptile comes to life with super-human powers and rules over a make-believe kingdom.

Really.  That’s what I thought.

So, it’s not. Its about a teenage boy whose father is a fundamentalist, serpent-handling preacher. His flock believes that if you handle the deadly snake and it bites you but the venom doesn’t kill you, you are a child of God. Only he had a very un-preacherly problem with a young girl and was hauled off to prison. He is an embarrassment to his son, and he has left his wife and son with no means of support.

But that is just the background. The book is the story of the main character, Dill, and his friendships with two very interesting characters who march to the beat of different drums. One girl and one boy. They move around the fringes of their high school, outcasts to many of the in-crowd. They want a future, though – one that does not include the little town where they are living. And they want to live their dreams. The Serpent King reminds me a little of John Green’s Paper Towns. This book is sad and sweet and funny. It will play with your emotions. And you will remember these characters and recognize them in your students. An added bonus is the strong girl role model found in Lydia, Dill’s best friend.  Zentner has also written Goodbye Days. I need to remember to order that book…it looks really good, too.


Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

I have had this book in my classroom library for years. I thought it was about drug abuse and all sorts of creepiness that did not appeal to me. I thought it was twisted. LOL. I am living proof of the adage Don’t judge a book by its cover, aren’t I? I gave away several copies of this book when we Skyped with the author, and thought before I handed it out, I should see how much twisted stuff was really in there. Turns out it was the funny story of a teenage boy and his angst over a beautiful classmate. The edginess is that Tyler spends an awful lot of time with mentions of his awakening sexuality. Laurie Halse Anderson takes on serious subjects – rape, suicide, PTSD, bullying – but she is just funny. Her writing is real. Her dialogue is authentic. Her own humor comes through and creates lovable characters. I loved Tyler. There is a scene where the family shows up at the boss’s house for a party that will make you laugh and cringe at the same time. Definitely for eighth grade and up.

The Burn for Burn Trilogy by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian

I am a huge Jenny Han fanHer books have been hits with my girls for the past few years. She is really a favorite and knows how to write for her YA audience. The Summer I Turned Pretty – also a trilogy – is chic lit meant for eighth grade girls. Summer love. Coming of Age. Romance.  Burn for Burn is more complex.  My super-duper Media Specialist recommended this book to me. Han and Siobhan Vivian wrote this trilogy together, and it has an extra edge. More mystery. And some great surprises. The premise is three girls united by a desire for revenge against the friends who have wronged them. There is still romance. And the characters are so likable. And beautiful. And rich. Kat, Lillia, Rennie, Reeve – even their names are beautiful and rich. They all live on an island which is – you guessed it – beautiful and rich. And it is connected only by ferry to the mainland. What could go wrong? If you have read Vivian’s The List, you will feel her edgy contributions to Han’s romance. You will not see what is coming. Be sure your girls don’t read them out of order! Secrets must remain secret until their time has come. Oh, you are going to love these books.

Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

I couldn’t write about books for young adult readers without a couple of sports books. These are two of my personal favorites.


Stupid Fast is football. It is about a boy who is not an athlete who grows over the summer. He gets really big and can run really fast. He starts to get a lot of attention. From the football coach, players on the team, and girls. He decides this is not a bad turn of events. The book is funny and realistic. He has choices to make. He has a crazy mother and a little brother who likes to set things on fire. The boys in my classes who won’t read much will read this. Girls like it, too.


The Crossover is basketball. And it is Kwame Alexander. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I had heard about it – who has not? – on Twitter. I read it and went out to buy twenty copies of it. In hardback because I could not wait for it to come out in paperback. I talked my daughter into buying half of them because I had to have them.

See, I had this class of mainly boys. African-American boys who lived for basketball. But they didn’t live for reading. I could not get them to read anything. I needed something to build a reading community for these guys. When God gave me The Crossover, I knew what to do with it. So I book-talked it and explained the story. They gave me the look. The you-know-I’m-not-going-to-read-this look. The have you lost your mind? look. But they did hear the one word I needed them to hear. Basketball. I did not use the other word. Poetry. I’m not stupid…

This book is the story of twin, junior-high school, basketball phenoms. One has dreads. One has a girlfriend named Miss Sweet Tea. They have a mother who is the assistant principal at their school and a father who was an amazing, basketball-playing athlete until his health cost him a professional career. He has taught his boys everything he knows and they are taking their team to state. They are a family that loves each other. The father is my favorite character. He is beyond adorable.

I cannot tell you everything this book is. It is written in poetry. Alexander raps. His poetry plays down the pages of the book. There are charming pages of definitions. There are play-by-play basketball games. The book is divided into quarters – like a basketball game. There is the girlfriend. And laugh out loud humor. And dramatic moments that you will not be expecting. My boys didn’t stand a chance. I read it aloud as they followed in the book. They needed to hear it because kids who do not read need to hear good reading out loud. And this book begs to be read aloud. The poetry just dances. I told them I couldn’t read the rap. They believed me. So in a group, they got up in the front of the room and rapped the rap pages. They laughed and we cried and they did not dread reading. I cannot tell you that I turned them into a group of avid readers. But they will always remember reading The Crossover in eighth grade.

P.S. I forgot to tell you that the girls loved it, too. Some of them were also basketball players – and for the rest I pointed out that I was white, didn’t play basketball, a girl, and I loved it. They were an easy sell.

That’s all for now. I will come back with more. And please leave some of your favorite titles in the comments. So many books, so little time…



Setting Mini-Goals for Reading

We came back from our Christmas Break to four days – at least – of NWEA testing. Talk about killing the Welcome Back to the New Year mood! So I had to do something before we jumped into forty-two mind-numbing multiple choice reading questions. Reading is F-U-N; it is not mind-numbing or multiple choice. So we set goals. We looked at book reviews on Goodreads, we checked out the 2017 award-winners from our own media-center website, and we looked to Nancie Atwell’s students at the Center for Teaching and Learning. Her students write lists and book reviews. One list is 7-8th grade girls suggesting books for 7-8th grade girls. One is the same thing, but geared to boys. And one is the You’ve Got To Read This! book reviews that her students write. They have book covers and  come student-recommended.

First, I created this assignment in Google Classroom.

Book Goal

The first link is Books, and it is my slide. I ALWAYS do a project before my students do. I need to know how long it takes to finish, how much direction the students need to complete the task, and if there is any value or engagement in the task. So this is mine.

Reading Goals Slide

Rationale:  I don’t need a work of art. I don’t need a load of text. I need for my students to explore books that would be great for them to read. And I need to share with them my thinking as I chose the four books to include in my Winter Goal.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter was my first choice. It came from the Barnes and Noble Book Club selection and is a genre my students know interests me. We had earlier in the year done a Holocaust Unit and the students know of my love for the topic, so this selection shows the students how to connect a new book to their current interests. It also shows them how to find a book recommended by people in the business of selling books.

To Be Where You Are by Jan Karon is an example of my reading books in a series. Yes, teachers do that, too. I tell them how I started this series because a group of my – gasp! – teacher friends were all reading these books. As one teacher finished one of the Mitford Series books, she passed it to the next teacher waiting for it. We went through as many as were published in 2000, and I was hooked on Father Tim and his friends and neighbors. Students can relate to this. They do the same thing. They are just SO SURPRISED that teachers have friends. And we do normal human things like sharing books with our friends. And that we read series books. See, that means it is okay for them to read series books. I have validated their reading habits.

They Both Die in the End by Adam Silvera is the third book on my slide and YA fiction I had heard about on Twitter. This book is important because it is a stretch for me as a reader. I have told my kiddoes that I do not have a taste for futuristic, fantasy, dystopian novels. But this one sounds interesting, and I am willing to give it a try. I don’t need to explain my message here, do I? I leave it with I will let you know how it goes…

Finally, I have included One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus. It is all over Twitter, too. It’s about four high school students sent to detention, and one of them dies. In detention. He is MURDERED IN DETENTION. That’s pretty much all I have to say. Oh, except that there is just ONE copy in our library, but it is still being processed and I get first dibs on it. Insert smiley face here.

By this time in the presentation of the project – my mini-lesson – they are itching to get onto the internet. So I assign it to their Classroom page and turn them loose. Just a couple of words of warning. If you don’t wait to post the assignment until after you have explained it, they won’t wait to start. If they don’t wait to start, they will miss your brilliant strategies for selecting your four books. Those messages are important for you to share with them.

They can easily finish in one class period. This one is forty-five minutes. They were encouraged to copy and paste my text boxes and edit them to fit their own needs. They could even steal my book covers off my slide if they wanted to. Some of them did both. And many more headed to Goodreads and the book lists that I linked to the assignment.

In the end, the students copied their slide and pasted it into a common Google Slides presentation so that we would wind up with a giant, visual, book recommendation list that they each contributed to. A warning about that. I started the slides as ‘Students can edit’ so that each student could add one. As soon as we started in first period, some little yahoo started changing backgrounds and playing in other people’s slides. Not cool. So we changed the procedure in the other classes. I made the slides ‘Students can view’ and they worked on their own slide on their own tab. When they were starting to finish, I changed it back to ‘Students can edit’ so they could copy and paste in their slides. I did have to teach that process to some, and they also taught each other how to do the slide transfer. That worked much better.

Three examples of some good results.








Accomplished: we had fun. The first day back was not dreary or predictable or complicated. The students were successful and found new books to read. We talked books. Welcome to a new year of reading, 8th graders!

Units, Writing Gifts, Writing Workshop

The Gift of Writing

Just before Thanksgiving, we begin a writing unit that is based in memories from childhood with the idea that it will be a gift for a loved one. We brainstorm memories and people who have been important in our lives. Then we brainstorm memories for each of those people, choose one memory that would make a good memoir, and read examples of good writing in this genre. We write three pieces – one memoir and two poems – with one person in mind.

The writing we do in my class, we do at school. I want to see my students write as part of our writing and reading community. My parents often mention to me the writing that their children are doing because they are hearing about it. But we print very little in our building, and writing is housed in a cloud that some parents aren’t able to access. This writing gift is a way for my parents to see the writing they have been hearing about.

This unit is a natural progression from our memoir writing as I laid out in “Writing Like Capote”.  We read two pieces from Rick Bragg – “The Canned Stuff” and “Can I Get an Amen?” We talk about rules of three, allusions, idiom, and  voice and style as only Rick Bragg can deliver. We look at his humor and his word choices. This is all writer’s craft. How do we improve our own writing by studying the writing of published authors? How much better is it to include “pound cake and pecan pies” sitting on the counter so that we can appeal to the reader’s senses with our description and get some alliteration to boot. We also talk about the fact that this man gets paid to write essays. I show them his books and his column in Southern Living. They can see that writing is a real-world skill.

We read and annotate, digging for every little jewel Bragg has buried in his writing. We make a point of including some of his techniques in the three pieces we are writing. And I write one of each so I have an exemplar to share with them.  I do this for other reasons, too. If I give an assignment or a project, I want to know how hard it is to finish. I want to know how long it will take. And I want to know if anything valuable comes from doing the work. The two poems – “Remember When” and “Where I’m From” – are formulaic and uncomplicated. They do not rhyme. They fill one page and follow a general pattern of memories. “Where I’m From” is the work of poet George Ella Lyon, Kentucky’s Poet Laureate in 2015 and 2016. She wrote and created a video of her poem, then began a collection project for the state of Kentucky. I share her video with my students as inspiration for their poems. Then I share the one I wrote. And I give them what I call a cheat sheet. I got it – probably from that teacher who dreamed up this project – on the Internet. You can find it here.


The entire project I presented as our writing workshop for the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Students could work on whichever assignment they were in the mood to write. Or they could read. Mini-lessons were on Rick Bragg, George Ella Lyon, annotation marks and anchor charts, Setting-Character-Plot-Plot-Plot (the memoir format), idioms, allusions, and rule of three. I played Christmas music from my iPad. We came in every day and they got busy. It was fun and stress-free. Well, until we get to the last week, but that can’t be helped. Students know that if they miss class because of caroling, dancing, field trips, band concerts, sickness, or leaving early for Christmas break, they have these three pieces of writing due before we leave on Friday. Semester over. Can’t add any more days. Done. They are there to write; I am there to help. We are happy. I get the urge to bake Christmas cookies and bring decorating supplies.  Sprinkles. Icing. I suppress that urge and return to sanity.

I am confident that I got this idea from a teacher – I wish I could remember where. She submitted to We Are Teachers, I thought, the idea of writing and gifting the writing to a family member as a wrapped package.  We did that part, too, one year.  I thought I would lose my mind. I swore we would never do that again. And here we are. Doing that again. Secretly I am hoping that Friday gets here before we have time to wrap them, but the enthusiasm I am seeing is worth it, even if we do have time to wrap. One student confided that when she started the assignment, it wasn’t to her taste. Those were her exact words. Wasn’t to her taste? But – she said – she was really liking it now! Again, her exact words. A parent this morning shared that her daughter was really enjoying the writing she was doing in my class. Insert smiley face and a heart here. That meant she had gone home talking about the work in a positive light! Another student told me that she loved my class and my spirit. I’m still trying to figure out that spirit part, but she did ask if her poem could go from happy to sad to happy.  Yes. It. Can.

If you get the urge to do this – and I hope you do – I will share what the final gift pack looked like. The memoir and two poems were sandwiched between two sheets of Christmas wrapping paper cut just a hair larger than copy paper.  We hole-punched the stack with a two-hole punch at the top center of the packet and threaded curly ribbon through the holes. We tied a bow and added a gift tag. I had tons of this left from previous Christmases, so this project cost nothing. I also brought some non-Christmas themed paper and tags for students who did not celebrate Christmas.  A good idea was to cut a bunch of the paper and let students select from the pre-cut sheets. Ribbon, too. Have it all pre-cut and the students can grab-and-go. They took them home in a manila folder so they wouldn’t get ruined between school and home. That last day, kids were coming from all over the building to get theirs printed and wrapped. It was chaos. The Christmas music was not playing. We couldn’t have heard it over the noise of excited children and their crazy teacher calling Paper! Ribbon! Hurry! Get back to class! I love you! Merry Christmas!