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!


An Author Skype with Laurie Halse Anderson

This week turned into one of those memorable moments in our teaching careers. It was not because it was a Skype – we have done one before and it was great. But this one was special because of the people who came together to make it work. I believe that is one of the best parts of our profession. When people with a shared vision come together to accomplish something special for our students, we are doing it right.


It all started with a student being introduced to a book. One of my girls had just finished The Outsiders and was stuck on what to read next. You know these students; they can read but they just seem to never get into a book. They carry one around, open it when given the chance to read in class, keep it much longer than it would take them to finish it, but never have a word to say about it. Never share it with anyone else. Never react to the story they are reading. So this student really liked The Outsiders. That was my prototype for a suggestion. Realistic fiction, a little edgy, a lot hip. Do people use that word anymore? Anyone under 60…? 

Anyway, I thought of Speak, the Laurie Halse Anderson classic about the reaction of a school community to a girl who calls the police to an out-of-control party. They hate her. They bully her. They shun her completely. What these kids do not know is that the girl had been raped at the party. She cannot speak of it. She tells no one. So they shut her out. And the story is brutal.

But it also is funny because Anderson is funny. And she is real, writing like kids talk, even twenty years later. My student accepted the suggestion and the teacher light bulb went on in my head. Her BFF is in the same class and they are inseparable. What if they both read the same book and could talk to each other about it? And what am I going to do with my other non-readers in this class? What if we do some literature circles and they all get to talk about the book? From there it went on and on and on.

First we found the books. My Superwoman Library Media Specialist had enough copies of Speak for every girl in that class to have a copy and some extras for my classroom. Done. Then that pesky light bulb came back on. What if the girls in my other classes read it, too? They would like talking about the book. Where would we get enough books for THAT?  Can you guess? You should know this by now. Yes. My Superwoman Library Media Specialist said she had a source and a budget. Without my knowing, she had ordered thirty more copies. And, she said, have you ever looked at her website? I bet she Skypes.

It turned out that she does indeed Skype – for a fee. A much-more-than-I-had-money-for fee. But that light bulb would not go off. So I went to see my Buddy Instructional Facilitator to see where we could find some money. What could we sell? Chocolate? Candy canes? Body parts? She nixed the last one and offered to look into the chocolate. What she came back with was $300 from an unnamed source whom I will love and adore forever.  We were on! A date? The author had only two available before Christmas break and I wanted to do it before then. Okay. December 6. But our thirty more copies weren’t in and it was almost Thanksgiving break. So we were reading and checking in and checking out books like mad! Finished? Go turn it in! Follow her! Check it out! Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Not one to leave well enough along, my light bulb was back. What if we had lunch during the Skype – Lunch With an Author? We could make it a party! And what if we gave each of the girls a copy of one of Anderson’s other books? You know, as a party favor? 

This was inspirational, but exceptionally expensive. Seventy six copies of a book. Where would that money come from? Ah! The Gifted/Talented Coordinator had just made the mistake of coming to brainstorm with my students about some field trip options and mentioned that some of their ideas were not within her budget. That was the mistake part. Some of these girls were GT. Maybe her budget could cover the books. So I asked. You know, you won’t be told no if you don’t ask. I crossed my fingers and waiting to hear from her. She LOVED the idea and would ask the Person Holding the Purse Strings. One day later, I had half of the funds I needed for the books. Now my principal joined the party. She had offered money for the Skype which she didn’t have to spend because of our mysterious benefactor. I would tell you who it was – I would sing it from the rooftops, actually – but I don’t want to open the floodgates and my Buddy Instructional Facilitator didn’t tell me I could. Just know that there are people in your flow chart with money to spend if you are lucky enough to find them with the right project on the right day. We all know about being in the right place at the right time.

Because my Principal was still willing to part with some funds, I started book shopping. Now it was Thanksgiving break and Black Friday was all over my inbox. And Barnes and Noble would give me 25% off of my TOTAL ORDER and ship them for free. I could order the books online for about six dollars each and have them waiting for me when I got back to school from my week with family and friends. Perfect. Had the planets aligned in my favor? Yes. Do I work with the best people in the world? Yes. Were the books at school on Monday? Yes. Mrs. Hamilton, you have a delivery in the office. Yes! Did I wrap them and give them to the girls after the Skype? You bet I did. We did. My Superwoman Library Media Specialist, my Buddy Instructional Facilitator, and I did.

I had more help as well. Our cafeteria manager treated us like a field trip and made take out lunches. When I asked her not to sack them up but to put them on a tray, she agreed. She didn’t just make sandwiches; she made hoagies. We had chips, fruit, string cheese, and milk. I bought cookies and party goods, and set up a buffet table.

FullSizeRender (17)

So the girls wouldn’t miss any other classes, we scheduled our Skype during lunch and advisory. We had a full hour. They came in, got their food, and ate while Laurie Halse Anderson talked about Speak. She was wonderful. She shared her own experience which motivated her writing of this book. She talked about how she got the book published, how many times she needed to revise before her publisher would accept it (yes!), and she took questions. My students asked amazingly thoughtful and intelligent questions, and every one of them got a complete and interesting answer.  She talked about her other books and where they came from. In response to a question about who her favorite authors were, she book-talked All American Boys, and two girls checked it out that day. I plugged Twisted  as my new favorite of her books, and my girls were really trying to get it in the book gifting. The power of a book recommendation…

The set up. My Superwoman Library Media Specialist and I were pretty sure we could handle setting up the Skype. We were in our Model Classroom which is loaded with some great equipment. I am fortunate to work in a district that prioritizes technology. I also am fortunate that our District Tech Guy is the father of one of my students. I feel confident that he has a real title, but District Tech Guy he is. I think we got some special treatment. Remember those planets that aligned? He brought in equipment in addition to what we already had. He got an EAST student from our high school out of class to facilitate. Our author was on the big screen and all the small screens around the room. We had surround sound. We had two cameras filming the entire time. As each student came up to ask a question, she sat at a laptop in the front of the room, but Ms. Anderson could see most of us if we got close enough to the camera. The EAST student fixed any problem that occurred without any down time. We literally spoke to the author for a full hour. We had to tell her goodbye when it was time for us to go to our next-period classes.

FullSizeRender (20)

To say this was fabulous is an understatement. I immediately started looking for another author, knowing full well that my funds were spent. For the year. Warning: this next part is me on my soapbox. Should all students everywhere get to talk with a professional in their field of study? Of course they should. Should we have to beg, borrow, and steal to make this happen? *Full disclosure – I stole nothing…but you know what I mean. There should be money for these sorts of activities just sitting in a fund waiting for someone to ask for it. I don’t mean the federal government – they spend too much of our money anyway and mess most of that up. Bill Gates, spend your money on Special Events Funding instead of writing our curriculum and designing external assessments. Those athletes who want to make a difference – stand up and pay for Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas to speak to our kids. NFL Commissioner, spend your nine million dollars on our schools. Pay for trip to Civil Rights Museums and Holocaust Museums where our students can learn about how to treat other human beings. Let them hear from a woman who waited two decades before she spoke out about being assaulted so they will feel empowered to speak up themselves. You want to make a difference? Start here. Start now.

The end. Almost. There is money out there, but you can’t wait – like I did – until a month before to dream up your Skype. Plan one for next year now. Apply for a Walmart, Sam’s Club, or EZ Mart grant. Use Go Fund Me or Donors Choose. Think how cool it would be to hear from Kwame Alexander, Jenny Han, or Rick Riordan. Okay, maybe not them. I once asked Jenny Han if she Skyped and she never even responded. I took that as a no. I love her anyway.  But find a newbie author because they will Skype for free. I got Lynda Mulally Hunt for free before Fish in a Tree went ballistic. The author Kate Messner keeps a list of authors who will Skype. So does Penguin books. Lots of publishers have contact information on their websites.

So this is the story of one girl and one book that turned into 76 girls and 126 books. It is about reading and talking about things that really matter. Rape is real. Silence is real. Bullying is real. Books touch lives and empower the people who read them. We can be a part of that. Moreover, we are an integral part of that. Our girls need us. Our students need us. Gosh, I love being a teacher.

Writing Workshop

Writing Like Capote

Several years ago, I got really sick of the five-paragraph essay, personal narratives responding to a prompt in preparation for The Test. You know. The test that kills all love of literacy in our students. So I made a decision to teach my students real-world writing. It made sense to me that if students wrote really well, they would transfer that writing to whatever test they were required to take. We are now on our third one in Arkansas. But my students are prepared. And they do not do test-prep writing.  Instead we write memoirs. Thank you, Nancie Atwell.  And Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi.  Order these books. They will change how you teach writing.

Nancie Atwell       Ralph Fletcher

What I have developed over the years is born of these two books. I am teaching the children that they are not writing a personal narrative, but are writing a memory that someone would want to read. And it has to be a tiny memory. Just a moment in time. Not even a day from their lives. Just a moment of that day. The change is dramatic. The first year we tried this method, one little guy who read only R.L. Stine wrote an introductory paragraph that beat anything Stine had ever written. Craft Lessons  was the source. Every year since, I have begun our narrative writing unit with a lesson from Craft Lessons. And for those of you who must have data-driven instructional strategies, my students scored in the 92nd percentile in writing on the ACT Aspire. That means that of all the eighth graders taking the ACT Aspire test – our state-mandated external assessment – only 8% of the eighth grade writers taking this test nationwide scored higher than we did. Individual students scored higher than that. I guess the scorers are tired of those old personal narratives, too.

Step One: Setting it all up

So what do we do?  First, I get a copy of A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before I read aloud the story, I share my version of Capote’s background, starting with In Cold  In Cold BloodBlood. I tell them about the murder of the Clutter family on their Kansas farm and how that book scared me to death when I was their age. I talk about the real life Capote. Watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the movie Capote for all the background you need. Then I share To Kill a Mockingbird and explain Harper Lee’s life in Monroeville, Alabama. We end by tying Capote’s childhood to that of Harper Lee as Dill and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbirdto kill a mockingbird By the time I have finished convincing them that Capote is Dill, I have convinced them to read both books. There may be a few inaccuracies in my telling, but I try to hold closely to the truth. I do all this to lead into A Christmas Memory. 

I know this isn’t necessary to the teaching of the memoir, but aren’t we always encouraging the connection between reading and writing? And this mish-mash of texts does just that. Some years – if time permits – I pull a great Southern Living article (excerpted below and linked here) celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mockingbird.  I want my students to get the connection between the two texts.

The museum offers a walking tour of Monroeville “as Harper Lee and Truman Capote knew it.” Much of the world they grew up in is gone. Nelle’s childhood home on South Alabama Avenue was torn down years ago. The site is now occupied by Mel’s Dairy Dream. The Faulk place next door, where Capote lived, was lost in a fire. All that’s left is a commemorative marker and the rough stone wall that stood between the childhood homes of two of America’s greatest authors.

Step Two: Just Setting

a christmas memory

I read aloud just the first paragraph of A Christmas Memory. If you look at it, it is just five sentences, contains only description of the setting, has no characters, and no personal pronouns. This is very important. The students then tell me what they saw as I read the paragraph to them. It takes three readings for them to get all of the details. Then I ask, “What was NOT in this paragraph?” Always someone will eventually give the correct answer – characters.  Eventually the students get a copy for their folders, but for the time being, I display it on the Promethean board until they get ready to write their own.

Now I share two setting paragraphs from To Kill a Mockingbird. Early in the text, Lee describes the town of Maycomb as an old town with streets of red dirt and grass growing on the sidewalks. Then she describes the Radley place. Both are excellent yet different setting descriptions that students can identify – a town and a house.  Again, there are no characters. This matters because students usually want to start by telling us what they are doing. They have not considered waiting a paragraph or two before they start with the plot. This is a definite shift in their thinking. Some will struggle with this no matter how well we teach it. But hang in there. They can do it.

Step Three – Practice!

Now we stop and talk about a story they could tell. Because we already have lists in our writing notebooks – Territory Lists and Questions for Memoirists (Nancie  Atwell), life maps (Ralph Fletcher), and Hands (Linda Rief and Penny Kittle) – the students just flip over and select a memory that would be a good one for this process. We will refine it later.  Then we use our model texts to write our own setting paragraphs. Please notice that I keep saying we and our. I am writing with them. On the Promethean board. They watch me struggle and revise as I write mine so that they have permission to do the same when they write theirs. Some students will struggle with putting down their words on the page. They will need to practically copy Harper Lee or Truman Capote. That is okay! They will get better each time they write one.  As they write – in a silent room – I walk around and read over their shoulders. Ever so often, I stop and read one aloud with such ENTHUSIASM – like this is soooooo good I just can’t wait for you all to hear it! It becomes a celebration of writing. It becomes – dare I say it? – FUN.

Another way to brainstorm for the narrative is to have the students make a list of people who have impacted their lives. Just four or five, more if they have them. Mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparents, guardians, family friend, coach, pastor…you get the idea. Then have them list memories shared with each person on the list. I model this first so that their memories begin to flow. As I tell stories from my childhood, they begin writing their own. It almost never fails. Some students will struggle with their memories, and when they do, I start asking questions. Did he ever teach you how to do something? What was your favorite thing to do with her? What is your earliest memory of him? For those who still can’t think of anything, I tell them to make. it. up. When they realize that I don’t remember anything won’t get them a pass, they will finally find a memory worth telling.

Then I let them write the setting paragraph. I just read them. When I read one that has birds tweeting or squirrels scampering or the leaves swaying in the breeze, I stop and hurry to the board like I have just remembered something very, very important. I forgot to tell you! There are no squirrels allowed. And no leaves or grass or trees swaying in the wind. And they groan. But they also laugh, and we start REVISING. If we don’t revise right then and there before they get too far along in the essay, they just won’t. Eighth graders have a firm belief that when they get to the end of their writing, they are finished.  Last paragraph? Done. No matter how many times Truman Capote rewrote In Cold Blood, they don’t believe me that they need to revise and edit. So before they move to another paragraph, they fix this one. By the way, if they are writing about birds and squirrels, they don’t really have a setting. What do you see?  What is around you? Where are you standing? What color is the house? Is there anything on the porch? Is anyone cooking something? 

Step  Four – Crafting Characters

I believe the most important part of this process is to continue showing great examples of memoir writing. They have studied the settings of A Christmas Memory and To Kill a Mockingbird. Those are some pretty lofty goals for fourteen-year-olds. So we return to Craft Lessons before we start the character paragraph. I read aloud the second paragraph from A Christmas Memory, and we analyze it for details just as we did the setting paragraph. It is all about how the main character looks. Then we use another great lesson from the Fletcher/Portalupi book using The Watsons Go to Birmingham. I read aloud the description of Mama and the gesture she is known for – she covers her mouth when she laughs because of a gap between her two front teeth. At the end of the book, she screams without covering her mouth at the sight of the Birmingham Church Bombing. Then we brainstorm gestures. Hair twirling. Knuckle popping. Gum chewing. Nail biting. Foot tapping. Whatever the students think of.  They begin to write the description of the ONE character who is in the story with them. This is so hard for them. Not the writing – they are feeling more confident and producing better writing. The hard part is to write just about the other person without writing about themselves. I list the personal pronouns on the board so they can remember not to use them. No I, me, my, mine, we, us, our. I keep saying, “You are not here yet! You don’t show up until paragraph 3…” More groans. And they go around the building telling other teachers that Mrs. Hamilton is so hard!  Read that with a whiny voice, please.

Step Five – Plot, Plot, Plot

Now before we go on to plot, I share another piece of writing. This one is a student example saved from a previous year. I have had many wonderful writers come through my class over the years. And I have saved some particularly good pieces. It is enough to share professional work by published authors, but I also like to share writing by another teenager who has sat where they sit. One piece of writing in particular is about jumping on a trampoline – a simple memory. I also share writing by Rick Bragg because is the king of simple memories. And he writes with such style and voice. A southern voice. He writes, as one of my students said, “like we talk.” On the last page of every issue of Southern Living magazine is an essay written by Bragg. And they are always entertaining and usually great for teaching style and voice. He uses allusions. He uses the Rule of Three and the Rule of Four, which I teach my students to notice and use. He writes with action verbs and wonderful vocabulary. And he writes about simple stuff.  Getting the cranberry sauce out of the can, pick-up trucks, Halloween, football in the south. He writes about life. So before they write plot, they read Rick Bragg.

As you can see, this is not a quick process. But we are using the Reading-Writing Workshop model, remember? So the students and I read and write and read and write. I teach a mini-lesson and they work. I circulate. I confer. We annotate the texts that we are using as our models, digging into them to look at writer’s craft. We play with our writing to see how we can incorporate the elements that these accomplished writers have mastered. We become real writers, the kind that write for a real public. Our goal is to craft writing that does not sound like it was written in an English classroom for the teacher. And what these young people create is astonishingly good.

They make me very proud. They make themselves very proud, too.

Books, History, Holocaust

Digital Breakouts


These summative assessments were a creative trip! Once again I relied on someone else’s brain to conceive this assignment. In a conversation with my Media Specialist, I had requested a cart of books for our Historical Reading Unit, and she shared a breakout she had made for the wonderful Ruta Sepetys historical novel, Salt to the Sea. That was all I needed. I wanted to see how my students had used their books to spur further learning. And I wanted to know if they had actually read them. But I didn’t want a bunch of book reports – do you want to read those? I also wanted the students who solved each breakout to learn something from it. Some background knowledge. Some really great or maybe not-so-great books. This is what we tried. They required both reading and writing! 

A digital breakout is a cousin of, the famous boxes locked with multiple locks. Students have to use some creative reasoning to secure the combinations to several locks in order to solve the puzzle provided. In the case of, the students are working with physical boxes and locks. Ours were digital, created in a Smore using a Google form. Basically, a form inside a webpage. We are a one-to-one school, meaning our students are each assigned a Chromebook for each class. They would need a platform that worked on Chrome, was easy to maneuver, and created a clean, attractive product. Smore was the winner. Go to and create a teacher account. This my Media Specialist took care of, so it was free for us to use. I think she spends $12/month. You might see if that is something your district will buy for you.

We scheduled a few days with her as well so she could teach us what to do. First we just set up a play day for the students to work a trio of digital breakouts that are plentiful online. I was so in love with this new gadget that I told my students that Mrs. Dixon had INVENTED THEM! I found out later that was not true, but I believed it when I said it. That was enough to whet their appetites and let them know in advance what they would be doing with their books.

I helped them to see the connections in fiction, nonfiction, and explanatory texts – mostly websites. One of my goals is for my readers to find topics in their books that lead them to do some independent research. The best example of this which I share with them is Beach Music by Pat Conroy. Now, I don’t have them read this book – it’s for adults. But I share with them how I became interested in the sea turtles laying their eggs on the beaches of the East Coast and what on earth was beach music anyway? And the shag. And Sherman’s march to the sea. And Russia’s role in World War II. See what I mean? I want my students to be inquisitive and develop a love of learning about new things. I just get so darned excited about this!

Then they all read their books. Well, I would love to believe that, but we know it isn’t true. There are always kids who won’t ever finish their reading or drag their feet to the point of despair. Mine, not theirs. I have one adorable girl who is still finishing up the 500+ page book she selected. And our projects are finished. She is persistent if not speedy. When it looked like almost everyone was within finishing distance, Mrs. Dixon returned to share with my students the original Salt to the Sea breakout that had wowed me in the beginning. And we started creating our own. Notice that I included myself in that. I sat down with a Chromebook and built mine, learning right along with my students. We worked together and I enjoyed the experience as much as my students did. They showed me how to do things and I showed them my ideas. One girl’s dad had helped her to hyperlink a slide in present mode and I wanted to do that, too. When she didn’t remember how, she gave me his email so I could ask him what to do. She loved that. When we finished, they tackled mine and celebrated when they solved it! More about that later.

This is what they look like.

We each joined the Smore classroom Mrs. Dixon had created and gave ourselves a four digit pass code. So simple. Then we inserted a Google Form where we would eventually put the answers to the locks we built. I set forth some requirements and the students added more. We built a working rubric which was later a final rubric. The students contributed the numbers of locks and puzzles required. I added content and writing requirements. A student came up with the idea of a book review, and we negotiated an either/or – find a high-quality book trailer and insert it in the Smore or write an original book review under an image of the book. This process fostered buy-in by the students. It really was their project built to meet their requirements.

The Smore looked fresh and new to us and contained a nice variety of themes and backgrounds. Not so many fonts and images to usurp the work time that should be spent on content and puzzles. Students picked themes that reflected the content of their books and did the same thing to their forms once they were built and inserted into the Smore. We learned as we worked and got better as we went along. We got used to going back to our drive to find our forms when we needed to edit – you can’t do that from the Smore. Inserting videos, images, and links was a very simple process.

I know I am making this sound so simple, and parts of it were. But I had a Media Specialist who is both tech savvy and inquisitive who led the instruction. If you work in Google products with your students, you know the challenge of having them each make a copy before proceeding.  It isn’t difficult, but there are always those who start to work on the template and get tangled up in that mess. Mrs. Dixon created a form that required the student to click on ‘Make a copy’ in order to proceed. She also created a Google Classroom page just for this project that contained links to the Smore classroom, gave directions for inserting the form, complete with hyperlinks, and a list of tricks and puzzle for students to choose from. She made it as simple as they (we) needed it to be.

The part I thought would be the most difficult turned out not to be. I didn’t think I would be able to come up with puzzles that provided clues to open the locks. I finished mine with one four-digit combination lock, one three-digit combination lock, one six-letter word lock, and one six-letter directional lock (UP-DOWN-LEFT-RIGHT). It helped that we had worked the sample breakouts before we tried to construct one of our own. Don’t skip that step. I like that my clues wound up fitting together to create a mental challenge to solve the word lock rather just finding a word in a text that fit.

The most fun was watching the students try to solve each others Breakouts. It got rowdy and noisy and fun. They started out silent and seated, but they sure didn’t end up that way! They got competitive and challenged each other. If mine was done too quickly, it just wasn’t hard enough! I especially loved watching them solve mine. It was on the big screen, so it naturally attracted a pair of students and then a group of students. I used a word scramble as one of my puzzles, and it definitely required a group effort. One lock that I thought would be hard turned out to be easy because one of the girls solving mine had done the same thing in hers. When they went to their next period class, they asked for permission from their teacher – without asking me –  to go to my room to finish solving it. I didn’t even know they were coming. Four of them worked for another period until they got it right.

Here’s mine. See if you can solve it. See how it works. See how gorgeous it is. I think you will want to build one with your students, too.

Continue reading “Digital Breakouts”


The Holocaust, Part 2

Now that we have a list of titles, let’s talk about how to use those books. In this post, we will talk about our Silent Write-Arounds, researching and building a Giant Hallway Timeline, Novel Memory Boxes, and the best yet, Digital Breakouts made with S’more. As one of my parents said today, sounds yummy!

Getting Started

I set up all the tables the day before with the help of my friend, Pam. It does take a while!

I wanted the introduction to this unit to be an event. I️ had read about Linda Rief’s 9/11 version of a Write-Around on Twitter (follow her! @LindaMRief) and was so impressed with its dignity that it seemed like the perfect venue for another solemn topic. The idea is to set up stations around a rather l-a-r-g-e classroom. If your room is on the smallish size, ask to use the library.  Your students will need room to spread out. I️ used six stations: Poetry, Lyrics, Informational Article, Images, Picture Books, and Literature Selection. In the middle of each table was a large sheet of chart paper and six pens, each a different color.  As students explored the contents of each table, they wrote silent reflections. Setting up the day before was onerous, but a true labor of love. And the planning was extensive. But since we are sharing the task here, your job should be streamlined.

The Tables

Picture books are beautifully written and illustrated, providing background knowledge for longer texts. Notice the reminders that this is a silent activity. Those were on every table.

#1 – Picture Books. I️ bought five of these (see previous post) with the intention of teaching strategies with them, but they were still tucked in a drawer. Our school has a collection in a resource center, and  – combined with my stash – we started with nine titles. The chart paper was in the center, six chairs were pulled around a table, and the books were arranged invitingly around the paper. The question for this table was “What is happening in this book that matters? What is the author really telling you? What is important for us to feel, know, and remember?

#2- Poetry.  The internet is a great source of Holocaust poetry, and many collections exist. One beautiful book is I️ Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of poetry and artwork from Thereisenstadt, a labor camp populated with many children and an amazing teacher.

I bought this at Holocaust Museum Houston, but it is available online at several booksellers.

I finally used two poems I️ found online, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car” and “Could Have”,  both beautiful but contrasting poems. “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car” allowed me to teach allusions in a later lesson because of its Biblical references to Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel.  It is just 25 words and haunting. Just the title alone is chock full of imagery. It was the students’ job to dig around and unearth their own meaning. “Could Have” is a wonderful study in structure with its contrasts and repeating lines. Also rich in meaning, it pulls at the heart and made us consider a wide range of possibilities as we talked through it. All of this discussion did not happen during the silent Write-Around because it truly was SILENT. The students read and reacted to the poems without saying a word.

When you search for your music videos, find the ones that don’t play a commercial first. Also be sure you have the entire song. In the case of “Hallelujah”  I searched for one that had just the verses I felt were appropriate for the assignment and for eighth graders.

#3 –  Lyrics. This was an interesting table. I set up six Chromebooks with headphones attached. Using Google Slides, I found six beautiful songs and asked for the connection. What do you think? is such a powerful question. On each slide I put the title, lyrics, an image, and a link to the YouTube video. Their instructions were to open the video and then go back to the lyrics. I wanted them reading the lyrics as they listened to the song. There are easier ways of accomplishing the same objective, but I am a believer that appearance matters. The moods of the songs were reflected in the moods of the slides, and that was important for me. I wanted the students to have a quality product because I wanted them to have a quality experience. Songs I used included “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen but sung by Matthew Schuler on The Voice, “The Sounds of Silence” by Paul Simon, “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill, and “Remember” by Harry Nilsson. This was my students’ favorite station. I loved it, too.

#4 – Informational Text. Just while I was in the middle of planning this event, an article fell into my lap – well, it showed up on Facebook, but that’s kind of the same thing. It told the horrible story about how children were removed from European ghettos, ripped from their parents, and sent to their death. Babies. Toddlers. Adorables. I wanted my students to KNOW. If nothing else, I wanted them to know about the inhumanity of the Nazis. At the exact same moment, neo-Nazis were marching  Holocaust9around the streets of America! I was furious and decided this was happening because people just didn’t KNOW. So now my students KNOW. And I have done my job. So I placed several copies of this article around the table and my students read and reacted just as I had hoped they would on the chart paper. In different colored ink.

#5 – Images. This table was beautiful. I covered it with a really old quilt. In the center of the table I arranged a group of Novel Memory Boxes, a project from earlier years. These my students had made and I couldn’t part with them. They are displayed on the tops of my bookshelves in our classroom library. The reflection here was What would you take with you if you had to leave? You probably will never return. You may never see your family again. And you will not have electricity. I didn’t want to read about cell phone chargers and video games.

#6 – Literature Selection. In the middle of this table, I stacked some old books, teddy bears, and my daughter’s rag doll, Elizabeth. I was still trying to pull at their heart strings. Also there was a stack of book selection sheets, run off on an assortment of pastel papers and cut apart. I also was still trying to convince my students that today was a big deal and they know how important things are if they are run on colored paper! These could just as easily be on white, but gosh, I just wanted to impress them. The students were to pick up a selection sheet and a pencil and head over to tables 7-9. There they would find THE BOOKS!

#7-9  THE BOOKS! So I had been book talking these books for days. I had created a slide show of approximately 35 different book titles (see previous post) and every day we would talk about a few of them. The slides contained a link to a video book trailer, or I talked about the ones I had read. The students had sat through these, filling out a Books to Read list as they listened. Now it was their turn to see the books in person. I didn’t want them to see the physical books until they were hooked on them because I didn’t want them scared away by the thickness of the books. Some are very long. These are pre-AP students. I knew they could handle them, but first I had to convince them to try.  So these guys were primed and ready to get to the books. They were displayed around the room on book stands. It looked like a book store! It was AWESOME. And they shopped with their lists and ranked their books 1-10. If they really, really wanted a book, they were to indicate that with stars or exclamation marks, or cash. Just kidding. I don’t take bribes. Often.

The Process

As the children entered the room, they were handed note cards with their names and a table number on them. Assigned seats. Carefully planned for minimal temptation to talk.  Instructions were printed on several sheets of paper and detailed the task for each table. Reminders that THIS IS A SILENT ACTIVITY were also printed and lying on the tables. Students competed a task and then moved silently to any empty chair they could find at a table they hadn’t yet visited. It went very smoothly. Anyone who finished early could return to the picture books or sit and read a book from the Literature Selection tables. And it worked! In a class of 31 gifted (insert talkative) students.

Let’s talk numbers. My largest class is the 31 gifted students. That required six tables of six seats because the 31st student had to have a spot at all tables. That means we needed an activity for six tables and six pens and six (at least) picture books, six copies of two poems, and six copies of the non-fiction text, and six Chromebooks or iPads with six sets of headphones. And 40 Literature Selection forms because someone will lose his or someone will forget to turn hers in. And someone will mess his up so badly that he just has to start over. And you will need a moving van to get it all to the room. We even needed a new classroom! But do not be deterred. You will be exhausted at the end of the day. And while you are planning and preparing, you will want to quit. Don’t give up! Don’t quit! You will be so glad you did this. I still look back and feel the wonder of the day. And when I start dreaming up my next event, I remember this one and soldier on. Because I want my students to expect something different and memorable when they come through my door. Oh! That is my Professional Growth Plan goal for this year.

Just do it.

Clearly I will not be adding Memory Boxes or the Timeline on this post. If our Write-Around took this much room, the Breakouts will, too. So expect parts 3 & 4 of Teaching the Holocaust in upcoming posts.

Books, Holocaust, Uncategorized, Units

Teaching the Holocaust

For at least 15 of the last 20 years, I’ve taught The Holocaust. It is still one of the most valuable units I teach. Our children need to know the stories of the genocide wrought by Adolph Hitler, and if we don’t teach them, they will not know. I started the first year of my teaching – 7th grade – and my units have evolved over the years. For just a few years, what I call through clenched teach the Common Core years, Bill Gates decided that 7th graders would hear and read these stories, and I am an 8th grade teacher. But this year I am back and glad to be. Don’t misunderstand. I did not feel put upon by Common Core; I just objected to having someone else teach The Holocaust! So in the next two posts, I will share my Holocaust lessons from the past. It will be more than you could ever put in one unit. Think of it as a treasure chest. Use what inspires you. But please teach The Holocaust. Our world needs to know.


*Personal opinion alert. I believe that eighth grade is the year for these lessons. I watched my 7th graders listen to the moving survivor testimonies at the Holocaust Museum Houston, and they sobbed. It was too much. They were too young. To really learn this material, the students should be at least in the eighth grade.

*Personal opinion alert #2. Boys and girls in the eighth grade are entirely different creatures. I always warned my boys that they would be seeing nakedness and hearing terrible stories of abuse. The warning keeps these guys from giggling. That is their natural reaction to embarrassment that the girls generally speaking  do not share. It’s a maturity issue and a grossly broad generalization. But you might want to warn them and give the very stern warning that “there is nothing funny about The Holocaust.” That seemed to be enough to calm them down.


The Books

I am not a fan of whole-class novels and rarely use them. I started buying books to share with my students. The first one I used as a read-aloud, largely because I only had one book. I was teaching in Texas and our Reading and English departments went to training one summer at the museum in Houston. The training was excellent, and we decided to make our unit school wide. Each grade chose a book to use and we read aloud to our students. It worked very well; the children were enthralled. If you are teaching The Holocaust, you don’t need a hook. The students are automatically hooked.  My students heard Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams. This is a perfect introductory novel. I remember stopping one day’s reading just before the students found out what exactly was behind that wall. I didn’t think they would survive. And we had every-other-day block scheduling! If you choose a read-aloud, I recommend this one. It is not too rough, the chapters are short enough to finish and still allow you to continue with your curriculum, and it has a good plot with an optimistic ending.

behind the bedroom wall


If you would like to do a whole-class novel, the Holocaust Museum Houston will ship you a trunk filled with books and materials.  For free! I have used it twice, once in Houston and once in Arkansas. They included class sets of Daniel’s Story and Night plus an assortment of posters and newspaper reproductions. A few years ago they converted the trunk to a digital format and, again, it is free. On a first-come, first-serve basis, they will loan a class set (30) of pre-loaded iPad minis filled with amazing materials and an assortment of books. They can be geared to your students by grade/reading levels, and lesson plans are available as well. Your responsibility is to return it on time and in the same condition in which you receive it.

After moving to Arkansas, I added more book titles. My goal was to have each student read a different book, but that took a few years. I taught two classes of advanced eighth graders those early years, so I relied on our school library for titles. And then I bought some. And my school bought some.  And other teachers heard about our unit and gave me some. I bought bagfuls – at FIVE DOLLARS PER BAG! – at the American Association of University Women’s annual book sale. The year Sarah’s Key was hot, I got enough in my book sale bag for a literature circle. Don’t forget your personal partners in crime. Our Media Specialist has been stocking the library with Holocaust materials while I wasn’t looking. She never ceases to amaze me.

There are so many wonderful books from which to choose, and you need to match the book choices to your students. Some students can handle more difficult material, and others cannot. Be prepared for shifting choices. One year I had my copy of The Upstairs Room returned for exchange by parental request. It had been highlighted with yellow highlighter. Every hell and damn. By the parent. Make it clear to your students that these books are subject to parental approval. That is the only book ever to come back for exchange, and it is a good book. But it taught me an important lesson. Be sensitive to the standards of your students’ families.

Books with G-Ratings

Some More Difficult and Mature

World War II

This year I added books about World War II beyond The Holocaust. Our book choices included the War in the Pacific and Russia. That allowed for a broader understanding of the conflict, brought in additional titles, and appealed to boys who enjoy reading about war in general.

And Don’t Forget Picture Books…

Picture books deliver several options. If your students read at many different levels as most of ours do, a picture book provides scaffolding for children with special needs. Students learning English and those who need images to boost their comprehension will benefit from these rich stories filled with beautiful language. I used a selection of amazing picture books with gifted students as an introduction to our unit. Thought Logs, graphic organizers, small groups or partner shares, Reflection Journals, and writing prompts all fit into lesson planning with picture books.  These shorter, less-intimidating books also provide valuable background information that will assist your students as they read the literature they select; they also contain thought-provoking themes for large and small group discussions.

And there is so much more.

In the next post, I will share projects, enrichment activities, videos, poetry, guest speakers, field trips, and more. Well, everything I can remember from these years. Everything we need to get our students reading, writing, thinking, and questioning.