Inspiration: You Don’t Have To Do Everything Yourself

Get a partner in crime. Mine is our Library/Media Specialist. And she is a Specialist with a capital S. Our brains just seem to mesh. If I come up with an idea, she comes up with the perfect complement. Or she comes up with a great idea and I steal it. Awesome! Guest speakers are free. They know and see things we have not seen and cannot know. Use them to enrich your lessons.

My ally is Jana Dixon. She is National Board Certified AND Renewed. She is on enough different boards and in enough organizations to keep me connected with movers and shakers in the world of literacy. And we have this one thing in common. Books. And kids. Okay, that’s more than one. But she is amazing. Sometimes she is my guest teacher. She presents to my students so I don’t have to be the expert. This year she has already teased Digital Breakouts and will be helping us build our own (more about those later). She gathers books so my students and I don’t have to.  I don’t read dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi books, but she does. So when my students start talking about interplanetary travel and the Lord of Zarbo, I know where to send them. Follow her on Twitter @readingdiva.

And she knows the Young-Adult Librarian at the Garland County Library. Expert #2.  She comes to share new books with our students, bringing a slide show with her. She book talks an assortment of books that I may not have read yet. And she is younger than I am, which automatically makes her cooler. That’s a win-win. She was here Thursday with spooky, Halloween-y books.  She will be back.

This week our district GT Coordinator will be presenting to my students. This awesome woman travels every summer and teaches history. The perfect combination for my purposes. She has been to the concentration camps in Poland and the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. She is bringing a slide show and drone video. She will tell about walking in the footsteps of Holocaust victims.  Up close. Personal. It’s REAL.

Social Media is a game-changer. Our students can connect to authors and poets on the internet. We Skyped with Lynda Mullaly-Hunt. She talked with my students about her characters and how she came up with the stories she tells. I had students in that class whose goal in life is to be a writer. Priceless.  Oh, and she then sent us a box of autographed books, bookmarks, bracelets, and a t-shirt. I believe she called it swag. Use Twitter to connect to authors.  Kwame Alexander, Jenny Han, and John Green have all replied to tweets about their books.  It’s FREE.

We have managed to have three guest speakers so far. It’s October. We are just getting warmed up. Bring the community into your school.  If you ask, they will say yes. You will be glad you did.



This year I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by retiring. I decided to title this year My Greatest Hits. I am pulling out all the great ideas from the last twenty years to share with an amazing group of eighth graders. I’ve also decided to share them with you.  And with my administrators. You see, Arkansas has something called PGP Plans – professional growth plans. Your state probably has something similar. Because I was going to be the greatest show on earth, one of my PGP goals was to replace a discipline plan with total engagement. My students are going to be so WOWED with what we are doing that I won’t have discipline problems. Yes. That’s my plan. I will let you know how that turns out. In the mean time, I’m using my blog as my documentation. You know. If you don’t have documentation, it didn’t happen. Heard that before? Here we go. My honest intention is to have something every week that is an event. At least blog-worthy.

Week 1

This summer my PD was Pre-AP training 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.

I 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. So 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. On 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 little girl 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.



Ahh! Summer Reading

Imagine reading a book every day this summer. Yep, a whole book, cover-to-cover, every day.  That is the premise behind the Nerdy Book Club’s #bookaday reading challenge.  Picture books maybe.  A really engrossing novel if it’s not too long.  I tried last summer but didn’t make it.  Life just kept getting in the way, no matter how devoted I was to the cause.

But I did read a lot more than if I hadn’t accepted the challenge.  I found and fell in love with Wonder and 13 Reasons Why.  I rushed on to The Future of Us because it was also by Jay Asher.  It was good, but not as powerful as 13 Reasons Why.  I decided that cookbooks count.  Donalyn said so! And I read professional literature.  Barry Lane’s highly entertaining suggestions on what my students should do to write in But How Do You Teach Writing? and then revise in After the End. I played with research ideas in his Wacky We-Search Reports.  I really did read.  I even jumped into Common Core exemplars for next year, Travels with Charley (which left me so grateful for Steinbeck’s return – finally – to his home in New York) and The Catcher in the Rye (which left me wondering which eighth graders are ready for that literary work!)  I couldn’t make myself start The Last of the Mohicans, with apologizes to James Fenimore Cooper and the architects of the Common Core reading lists.

This summer I vow to do better! My stack is never-ending.  I’m now in Cris Tovani’s  I Read It But I Don’t Get It.  I got to see her in summer PD and understand – for the first time – what close reading really means and how it is probably the only way my struggling readers will make it through the Common Core texts that I have been dreading.  You see, I wholeheartedly believe in student C-H-O-I-C-E, and Common Core does not.  This word exemplar I have come to despise.

And tomorrow I spend with Penny Kittle.  I don’t care if she talks about reading or writing, I plan to just soak it all up! Then I dive into the stack next to my chair.  Code Name Verity, a Holocaust thriller which the New York Times claims I will have to read twice, is first.  I do love books set during this horrible period of history.  Then I will finish The Berlin Boxing Club because one of my eighth grade boys told me at the end of the school year that I really needed to finish it.  I had shared it with him because he is a gifted reader who would rather play sports.  I thought it might connect with his interest in sports, and it did.  He told me it was his favorite book of all time.  He knew I had started it but was repulsed by an incident in the opening chapter.  His words to me sounded very familiar, “You really should finish it.”  So I will.

Then the story of a young runner who loses her leg in a tragic accident, The Running Dream, and Girl, Stolen, about a wealthy blind girl who is accidentally kidnapped in a carjacking.  The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is the last one in this stack, but I am sure there will be more.  I might even force myself to read The Hunger Games trilogy, even though it is not my choice genre.  If not, then Chains because I love historical fiction and never have read that one.  And this is just the stack by my chair.  There’s one on the piano, the nightstand, in a corner by the door to the deck.  Oh my.  This could take all summer.  Doesn’t that sound just wonderful?


I remember discovering Nancie Atwell. For the very first time I felt like I understood where I was heading in my career. She opened my eyes to the workshop model and its power to unlock student readers and writers from the boxes I was kept in when I was in school. She explained to me the uniqueness of middle school, how it was not just a prep school for high school. I could see how vital the middle years were, and my passion for igniting a love of books found a home in the workshop model. So I kept reading.

Janet Allen convinced me that struggling readers needed books. Books that interested them. We call that engagement today. Are your students engaged? How many of your students are engaged? Are your lessons designed to engage the learner? Janet Allen got that. She understood that a well-crafted story could hook the most challenging students. All we had to do was match the right book to the right student. We would know our students well enough and our books well enough to know which ones to put together.

Donalynn Miller whispered of turning non-readers into readers by letting them choose what they read. I told a colleague that she claims her kids are reading by November! What a concept! But English teachers teach books, don’t they? What, we are supposed to let them explore and discard and self-monitor, and L-O-V-E books? No sticky notes? No two-column response logs? No teacher-selected, everybody reads the same book, write a journal entry at the end of each chapter reading assignments? Just read and love it? Just love reading for the beauty of the book?

In the Middle, The Reading Zone, It’s Never Too Late, Yellow Brick Roads, The Book Whisperer, Readercide, Igniting a Passion for Reading – these books changed my thinking, my teaching, and my students. We jumped in. We built a classroom library. We talked about books, good ones and bad ones, and I bought the books they asked for. We made top-ten lists and a purple passion bookcase. We blogged about what we were reading and made electronic book reports and wrote book reviews. We immersed ourselves in loving books. And students left my classroom reading. They came back from the high school asking for books. They emailed for suggestions for their next good read. Their parents kept saying thank you, thank you!

So now I say thank you to the foresighted teachers who pioneered the use of self-selected YA literature in the classroom. I say thank you to those who first experimented and then refined the reading workshop model. I say thank you to those who affirmed what I was fighting to implement, who kept me from giving in and giving up. I say thank you to those students who sat in my room and proved that young people will read if we connect them to the right books. These teacher-writers and these students are my inspiration. They are the source of the joy of my teaching and my passionate belief in reading workshop. Thank you all for making it possible for me to share with you the love of books and the adventure of reading.