When Your Thinking is at 85%: Getting the Final 15% or My “Duh” Moments from #NCTE17

I love attending NCTE’s Annual Convention. There is something about tens of thousands of English teachers going all “Hunger Games” over free books and swag that is as invogorating as it is frightening. What is more energizing than surviving the Exhibit Hall, however, is being part of the exchange of ideas and the larger community of educators who are there to hone our craft. I live for those moments when I am sitting in a session and it all just comes together, when what the presenter is saying “clicks,” and I find an immediate use for the materials or ideas in my classroom.

Many of those times, someone simply unites two ideas or materials that I had used separately. When this happens, I find myself thinking, “Well, duh. That makes so much sense! I should have seen this and done it earlier.” Then, I proceed to kick myself for not coming up with it first and being the one to present the idea.

So, here is a small sampling of three instances where this occurred over the course of #NCTE17, both for me, and for other presenters:

  1. The first “duh” moment that happened, surprisingly enough, is when I unknowingly pieced ideas together for someone else. I was listening to Sean Connors from the University of Arkansas talk about how he challenged his students in an assignment with dystopian literuate. His roundtable, entitled, “Becoming Mockingjays: Using Young Adult Literature to Foster Student Civic Engagement” was phenomenal. He explained how his students had studied YA dystopia novels, found a problem that existed within the books and society, unpacked the issue, explored and researched it, and then created a video on their findings. As an initial task, the students were encouraged to go into local bookstores or libraries and leave a notecard with the unpacked issue inside copies of the book. Then, they completed their research, analysis, and video. He said that students often wondered about the reactions of people who found their cards, and mused that it was something that they would never know. Considering what he had said, I asked if he had ever considered placing the cards into the books at the end of the project instead of at the start. This one simple change would allow students to print a QR code on their card that would link to the video they had created. That way, the students’ videos would gain a larger and more authentic audience, and would offer those indivuals who found and watched the videos an opportuntiy to provide feedback via commentary on YouTube if they felt so moved.
  2. Teaching rhetoric has been a big push in my district recently, as it has been written into our curricula for grades 9-11. So, I attended a morning round table session on Sunday (K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere) to gather ideas and materials to prepare to instruct on it. It was at my second round table where the “duh” moment struck: The College Essay as Rhetoric. Of course it’s rhetoric! How had I not seen this before! That essay is perhaps the most important writing teens will do in their lives up until that point – convincing a college or university to accept them for matriculation. Now, I can get them to see the importance of the rhetorical triangles of ethos-pathos-logos and speaker-audience-message in their writing and use it as a gateway for them to see the importance of those constructs in other writing as well.
  3. My last sesssion at NCTE was perhaps the most informative, althout I might be a bit biased. You see, I got to listen to some of my teaching heroes talk about best practices with writing in the #movingwriters panel. Each one of the speakers had fantastic ideas, but what stuck with me was what Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) had unpacked. We all have methods that we use to aid students with drafting. However, Maguire spoke of using physical movement in the writing process. Her idea was simply and spectacularly brilliant. Students are too often stuck in their desk or behind a screen while writing. Then, once they commit words onto the page, it’s hard to get them to change. Before students began to type, Maguire had students map out their argument on the floor and walk a partner through the progression of ideas. They took a stack of transition words and lay them on the floor along with their ideas to show the path of their argument. Once they had to move themselves and their partners through their ideas, they were able to troubleshoot imbalanced arguments, gaps in reasoning, and poorly ordered claims or evidence. This is absolutely perfect for everyone – it establishes that mind-body connection – but I couldn’t help but think of my “wiggly” students who would most likely be more focused on the task if it was framed this way. Again, simple brilliance. Macquire had given me the final 15% of the idea to make drafting fully engaging and productive.

When the convention hall empties, when I have recovered from drinking from the educational fire hydrant, when I have had a moment to process ideas and apply them to lessons, I walk away with this conclusion: teaching has and always will take a village.

Duh, right?


Let ’em Read!

A few weeks into independent reading, I ask my students to tell me how it’s going for them. The notebook entry, not surprisingly, is called “How’s it going?” and asks them to reflect upon the following:

What has your experience with Independent Reading been like so far? You can include (but are not limited to) a discussion of your thoughts and feelings about:

    1. getting to choose what you read
    2. the books you have finished
    3. the current book you are reading
    4. what you have noticed about your:
      • reading rate
      • reading ability
      • reading preferences
    5. the 10 minutes of in-class reading time
    6. having a weekly time and page number goal

I didn’t really know what their repsonses would contain, and what they said was truly englightening.

  • It was no surprise that all of my students said they absolutely love being able to choose the books they read. Many of them said that it has allowed them to rediscover their love for reading:
  • Each and every one of my students appreciate the 10 minutes each day in class. In addition to it helping them meet their 2 hour weekly reading goal, they say that they find those ten minutes to be relaxing. It allows them to escape into a book for a brief moment and it helps them reduces stress.  They also love how this helped to create a culture of reading:
  • What I did not see coming was a request made by multiple students to have independent reading in each of their classes, not just English. Students were asking for the possibility of beginning their science, history, and even math classes with some type of focused, topical reading:
  • Although the responses were overwhelmingly positive in favor of self-selecting text and independent reading, the one area that divided students was reading logs. Some view the logs as a great way to challenge themselves to surpass their weekly page goal. Others don’t like the idea of logging their pleasure reading – they said it made it seem like work. For students who are resenting the logs, I went over ways to alleviate the “work” aspect of it, offering that instead of writing down their reading each day, they could calculate their goal on Monday, reach that page number by Sunday, and be confident that they had read for two hours. They could simply document the end page on their logs and it would suffice.

When it’s all said and done, the weekly logs echo the students’ sentiments in the notebook entry, so I know they didn’t make stand alone comments to impress me. I watch them burn through books each week in all of my classes. In fact, when given a goal of 120 minutes a week, many go far beyond it because they want to read. And, what’s better than getting credit for doing what you love? I say, let em’ read!

4 hours, 20 minutes of reading in one week!
290 minutes of reading in one week!
638 minutes of reading! In one week! And she did all of her other homework!


The Single Best Thing I’ve Done This Year: The Personal User Manual.

I follow a number of educational blogs regularly (Tricia Ebarvia, Moving Writers, and Three Teachers Talk just to name a few) and have gained phenomenal ideas, fantastic models, and vetted best practices that I employ with success. Most recently, Amy Rasmussen of Three Teachers Talk authored a post that absolutely changed my classroom and my first day activities. She described having students write a Personal User Manual: precisely the writing that establishes classroom community. I share a piece of myself with students, and they share pieces of themselves with me.

I created this quick set of directions, using the mentor text Rasmussen referenced: Abby Falik’s Personal User Manual on LinkedIn. Since I have students complete a Reading History at another point in the year, I remained faithful to Falik’s categories, saving questions about favorite books and reading habits for later. I asked students to write about:

  1. Their style
  2. What they value
  3. What they don’t have patience for
  4. What they do in their spare time
  5. Qualities they look for in a teacher
  6. What they’re passionate about
  7. One BIG question they have for this year
  8. Their strengths
  9. What success at the end of the year looks like for them
  10. How to best communicate with them
  11. What people misunderstand about them
  12. How to help them

I gave them a copy of my Personal User Manual to refer to both as an example and so they would learn a bit about me. Then, I gave students the weekend to collect their ideas and commit them to paper. The responses were enlightening.

This student chose to place small sketches in the margins of her work (an artist!) and asked a question that absolutely floored me: “What does it mean to grow up and how do you do it without letting go of childhood?” 

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.36.13 PM

Wow. This is where I began to feel really inadequate.

This student’s idea of success is something that we can all learn from:Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.34.25 PM.png

This student’s touching response talks about the importance of family and her love for her brother:

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.40.38 PM.png

I can’t help but smile at the voice that shines through here (and is strong throughout the rest of her piece):

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.43.50 PM

This student was so open and honest from the start – this is his opening from the “My Style” section – and we had been acquainted with each other for a total of an hour and half when he turned this is:

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.48.00 PM.pngBut my favorite of all would have to be this response – both for the voice and the witty way in which this student conveyed ideas. This is from the “What I don’t have patience for” section:

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.52.02 PM.png

This student took creative risks that paid off because the assignment allowed for and encouraged it. The informal tone allowed her to express herself fully and I learned more about my students from this one assignment than I have from any assignment EVER over the course of my teaching career.

If you think those examples are good – wait for this “mind-blown” moment I’m about to drop on you: every one of my students turned the Personal User Manual in on time.  You read that right. That sentence above was not a series of typos in italics. I will repeat: EVERY SINGLE STUDENT TURNED THE ASSIGNMENT IN ON TIME. They WANTED to write this!

I know it’s past the beginning of the year for most of us, and we’ve moved past introductory activities. However, this assignment is so revealing that it may be the single best thing you do this year. In fact, you probably want to stop whatever you’re doing and plan this in for next week.

It’s worth it. I promise.




That’s a Wrap! Success Stories and Book Stack Shots from 2017

emmajumpIf time flies when you’re having fun, then I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my reading life in 2017 since I have no idea where this year went! This was the third year with Independent Reading in my classroom and I think it has been one of the best. From freshmen rekindling the love of reading that they remember having in elementary school, to seniors begging “Please! Just five more minutes!” when the timer buzzed, students have been exploring and engaged with titles of their choice.

One of the unforseen bonuses of Independent Reading this year was the success of poetry in all of my classes. I give all of the credit to books like Milk and Honey and Whiskey, Words and a Shovel. They served as “gateway verse” to other collections such as There Are More Beautiful Things Than BeyoncéThe Princess Saves Herself in This OneFile_001, The Chaos of Longing, Forgive Me My Salt, New American Best Friend, and Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Not only were students reading poetry, but their reading choices encouraged one junior to add a third English class to his schedule – a poetry elective – when he is required to take only two. How cool is that? My English teacher heart is just about exploding.

File_000Another awesome moment happened with my seniors who are searching out topics and genres of interest as they transition from teen to adult. One student loved Lab Girl so much that she purchased a copy for her current science teacher. I don’t know if this is the sentiment that Penny Kittle wanted to reflect when she titled her text Book Love, but seeing how this student is sharing what touched her with others definitely “gives me all the feels” as my students would say.

Finally, students self-reported how many books and pages they consumed over the course of 2017. Their numbers are phenomenal. Top performers include:

  • ACP juniors who read
    • 27 books 7,953 pages (Christine)
    • 27 books 7,686 pages (Brandon)
    • 24 books 7,862 pages (Abby)
    • 21 books 6,874 pages (Krisha)
  • 9th grade honors who read
    • 49 books 13,204 pages (Nancy)
    • 44 books 12,681 pages (Piper)
    • 43 books 13,527 pages (Helen)
    • 38 books 12,224 pages (Natalie)
  • Honors World Literature students – 2nd semester seniors – who read
    • 22 books 5,934 pages (Eleni)
    • 15 books 4,183 pages (Olivia)
    • 13 books 4,123 pages (Conner)
    • 15 books 4,094 pages (Maddie)

On average, my freshmen read 21 books and 6,000 pages, juniors read 16.5 books and 4,250 pages and my seniors – who should have been partaking in the infamous Senior Slump – read an average of 14 books 3,400 pages each between February and the end of May! With that accomplishment alone, I could retire tomorrow fully satisfied.

But, I can’t end this post without sharing pictures from one of my favorite days all year: the class period when students helped each other take their end-of-year Book Stack Shots. In a noisy atmosphere that can best be described as organized chaos, students helped each other locate, stack, and document all that they had read this year. They weren’t afraid to let their personalities show.  I hope you enjoy the photos and maybe even glean some titles for your To Be Read list. Special thanks to the Trumbull High School Media Center for letting us raid the shelves during the last week of school!

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Happy Summer Reading, folks!

A Call for Ideas: Writing the Reading into the Curriculum

Dear fellow teachers:

When we began our Independent Reading journey in 2014, we had three classroom libraries and three willing (okay – crazy) teachers who decided to experiment with a program we found as a result of attending Mamaroneck High School’s 2014 NCTE Convention Presentation.  Three years later, we have expanded to nine classroom libraries. After presenting professional development to more than 200 educators across 11 Connecticut districts, we have arrived at a point where the administration wants to ensure that each student has an equitable experience with the Independent Reading program. They want it written into the 9th grade curriculum, which will be revised this summer.

This seems spectacular, right? We get to continue our program and to have the district fund classroom libraries for all 9th grade English teachers. However, in our department of 22, 9 teachers are currently employing Rigorous Independent Reading daily using the method that Penny Kittle outlines in Book Love. We have one more teacher practicing “Reading Fridays” where Monday through Thursday are regular instruction days and on Fridays, the classes read for a full 45 minute period. Finally, a number of other teachers use literature circles or engage the students in Independent Reading over one quarter or one semester of the year.  So, about half of the department has not elected to try the practice of Independent Reading, while others are trying various alternate methods to have students engage in some form of self-selecting and reading texts. So, here lies the rub: is it possible to assure an equitable experience for students across classrooms while maintaining the comfort level and current practices of our colleagues?

We have had many department meetings discussing the concerns our department has as well as the progress and positive improvement our students have made, but we still haven’t come to a consensus and have been told that “Independent Reading will happen in all 9th grade classes in the fall.” Our task is to figure out what that should look like and write it into the curriculum.

Based on my own students’ success over the past few years, I have some pretty strong opinions about what I think an Independent Reading program should look like (read here and here).  However, as someone who started Independent Reading during my 14th year of teaching, I understand what completely revamping instruction looks like and it’s unsettling. I understand how and why my colleagues have a healthy fear of change. So, I am left with more questions than answers as we begin to embark upon this journey of changing the curriculum to reflect our current practices:

  1. What does curriculum reveal about a community’s beliefs about literacy? What do we value? What do we want our students be able to do and carry with them as they graduate high school?
  2. How do (or should) we define Independent Reading?
  3. How much instructional time should be spent on engaging students in reading texts of their own choosing?
  4. What balance should there be between whole class texts and independent books?
  5. How do we support teachers as they embark on the journey of changing their classroom structure and culture, and their own instruction?
  6. What should be taught in the 9th grade English classroom?
  7. Can the skills we value be addressed via an Independent Reading program?
  8. What is the difference between offering instruction on skills and offering instruction on a text?
  9. If one teacher has students read for 10 minutes each day and another has students read for a 50 minute block of time, are they getting the same experience at the end of the week? Are these two different practices the same program? Is this equitable?
  10. Does one quarter of Literature Circles = Independent Reading solely outside of class for one semester = engaging in Independent Reading daily?
  11. What does the fact that Independent Reading has to be written in to the curriculum say about the culture of the school and community?
  12. What type of growth mindset should we have as educators? As a school? As a community?

I have been grappling with these queries for some time now and would love ideas and feedback.  What are your answers to the above pedagogical questions? How does your district’s curricula reflect your Independent Reading practice? Please let us know in the comments!


The THS Reading (R)evolution

Top Ten Books That Will Let You Explore the World

There are moments when you just need to escape to another place or another time.  The following ten titles will do just that as they send you on a journey around the globe. Sometimes a book that takes you to a far corner of the world teaches you more about yourself than you would expect.  Happy traveling. 

the-god-of-small-thingsThe God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

With prose that borders on poetry, Roy takes you to India through the story of twins Estha and Rahel.  They traverse a series of childhood tragedies, including the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol, who does a “secret cartwheel in her coffin” that only Rahel sees. The God of Small Things is raw and beautiful at the same time as the narration circles upon itself. At the last word, I found myself turning immediately back to the first page, and I appreciated it all even more.  

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – Lisa See1103

At seven years of age, Lily undergoes foot binding one year later than most girls as the diviner sees “something special in Lily.”  Because of Lily’s exceptionally small and beautiful bound feet, her family procures her a laotong –  a girl from another village to correspond with – a step up from the sworn sisterhood usually secured for women of Lily’s social status. Lily and Snow Flower, her laotong, share their hopes, dreams, successes and failures in the women’s secret language of nu shu. It’s not only the foot binding that left a knot in my stomach; when their friendship is tested by a misunderstanding, Lily finally comes to see the dark truth behind the beautiful characters in Snow Flower’s nu shu writing.  

81gudkysk8lThe Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson

In North Korea, Pak Jun Do helps his father in a work camp for orphans. The quick instincts that allow him to survive in that scenario do not go unnoticed by government officials and soon he is forced to work for the state, kidnapping others, while navigating the treacherous underground he has become a part of. Because of their strong resemblance, Jun Do he is forced to assume the persona of Comrade Buc, opponent of Kim Jong Il, when Buc is killed. In his role as “Comrade Buc,” Jun Do meets a famous singer from Pongyan, falls in love and makes it his goal to secure her safety. This thrilling story of espionage, torture, duplicity and survival kept me on the edge of my seat as it provided a fictional glimpse into one of the most secretive nations on earth.  

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez61o-ltkjb9l-_sx330_bo1204203200_

One of my favorite books of all time, Marquez’s magical realism delights and astounds. Wars, torrid love triangles, and a band of roving gypsies are all a part of the Buendia family history, told to the reader in segments over the course of the novel. Insomnia plagues, floods, and an overly zealous religious daughter in law cannot shake the Buendia clan. The story takes place in Macondo, a fictional city in Colombia, where Ursula, the matriarch of the family, holds her brood together for more than one hundred years.   

the-tigers-wife-tpThe Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

Tea Obreht was only 26 when The Tiger’s Wife was published, yet it has a perspective and wisdom far beyond those years.  Natalia has a special bond with her grandfather, who encourages her in her profession as a physician.  But when her grandfather dies, Natalia travels through the Balkan region looking for answers about the strange circumstances of his death.  I love how this story is narrated through the legends Natalia’s grandfather told her in her childhood including tales of “the deathless man” and, finally, “the tiger’s wife.”  It’s greatest gift is leaving you to wonder if there really is a clean line between myth and reality.    

The History of Love – Nicole Krauss26078ab0-ab24-0133-a05b-0e7c926a42af

In Poland, Leo Gursky falls in love with the girl next door, but she is sent to American for a better life.  Gursky never relinquishes his love over the years, coming to new York as soon as he is able, and spends decades searching for the woman he loves. As his emotions run deep, Gursky’s writes a book about her, stating: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” At the same time, as Alma Singer, fourteen, watches her mother lovingly translate a book from Spanish to English, she sets out to find the author whose words have touched her mother so deeply. I think this might be one of the greatest love stories ever written as paths intersect and hearts meet again across the oceans.

PulitzersThe Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Sympathizer is a complex and layered tale of a man who escapes Viet Nam only to act as a double agent in America, reporting on his fellow Vietnamese refugees.  Remaining anonymous throughout the novel, he describes himself as a “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces” and “a man of two minds.” It is gripping and suspenseful, telling of love and betrayal.  Nguyen’s words lured me into this double-sided  world and kept me hooked on every syllable.  

A Long Way Gone – Ishmael Beah


Ishmael Beah tells the true story of his life as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. This moving memoir is tragic and shocking as Beah recounts gruesome details of what he, and other children, were forced to do at the hands of the government army. The descriptions haunt the reader, as they must haunt Beah, but there is hope; he writes this book from his “second lifetime” that he has been granted in the United States. I found this to be a quick but heavy read.

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetysbetween_shades_of_gray

Lina is fifteen when she is forced from her home in Lithuania in the dark of night.  The secret police take her and her family to a forced labor camp in Siberia, separating her from her father.  An artist, Lina draws pictures that she hopes will reach her father, her illustrations clues to where she and her family have been taken, hoping they will eventually reunited.  This historical fiction chilled me from the first line, “They took me in my nightgown,” through to the end as Lina fights for those she loves to survive.

Americanah – Chimamanda Adichieamericanah

If you haven’t yet read a novel by Chimamanda Adichie, I am jealous of you.  There is nothing quite like the first time you hear the sound of her words and the cadence of her language. In Americanah, Adichie tells the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who leaves her country, family, and boyfriend behind in search of a better university experience in America.  Adichie narrates the journey between continents, countries, races, and cultures. Nigeria and the United States are depicted, unapologetically, in all of their splendor and ugliness. The countries are vastly different and exactly the same all at once, showing that it is our humanity that unites us.



Slaying the Naysayers Part II: What the Research Says

In a wonderfully informative blog post, Russ Walsh documents a number of educational articles and academic research that demonstrate the positive impact that Independent Reading has on literacy and creating life long readers. The papers and studies that he cites prove that Independent Reading, “An instructional strategy which has been around since the 1970s” has met its goals to:

  1. “Provide students with time to practice the reading strategies they have learned through classroom instruction in a real reading situation and, therefore, improve reading achievement.

  2. Promote positive attitudes towards reading in the hopes of making reading a life-long habit for children.”

What I find most helpful is that Russ deconstructs the opposition, notably Tim Shanahan, who claims that there is “a lack of empirical research to support the practice for improving reading achievement” and that “Independent Reading violates what we know about motivational activities and, therefore, will not create lifelong readers.” Many naysayers like Shanahan often cite lack of evidence for their unwillingness to engage students in Independent Reading.  Show me the data, they say, and then we can talk about change.

Russ has sifted through the data, writes his post using a number of valid academic sources,  and reaches the following conclusions:

“The verdict seems clear. A well-planned, well-executed program of Independent Reading is an important part of sound literacy instruction. To be most successful teachers should follow a few guidelines from the research.

  1. Make every effort to ensure student engagement in reading during Independent Reading time. This includes making sure that students are in a book that they can read successfully on their own and monitoring the class during reading time.
  2. Guide student book choice for appropriateness and interest level by working beside them as they make selections.
  3. Confer with individual students regularly. Rather than quizzing their comprehension, start a conversation about the book. What stood out for you? is a good conversation starter.
  4. Provide regular opportunities for students to talk about their reading with other students in partnerships or small groups.
  5. Assist students in making goals for their reading and have them keep track of their progress toward the goals.
  6. Through modeling, teach students how to respond to their reading through a variety of written and oral formats including a response journal,in text post-it notes, letters to the teacher, quick writes, etc.
  7. Rather than set an arbitrary amount of time for Independent Reading from the start, work to build student stamina. Early on in establishing the routine for Independent Reading, stop the reading as soon as students begin to fidget, whether that is in 3 minutes or 15. The next day set a goal for Independent Reading that is a few minutes more than the previous day, until you have built the time spent engaged in reading to your desired length – 20, 30, 40 minutes depending on age and grade.
Shanahan says one of the reasons that Independent Reading fails is that ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him take a bath.’ That may be true, but I think you can lead a child to reading and set up conditions where she is most likely to engage in reading. And if we can get kids reading good books, the research would indicate they will improve their reading and be motivated to continue the reading habit. The best reading motivator is getting lost in a good book that speaks to you in some deeply personal way.”
It’s always good to be able to “prove with cold hard facts” what you are witnessing in your classroom.  I do agree with Shanahan in one regard: that conditions are important. Passionate teachers can and do create a classroom culture that values reading and literacy. 

The articles from Russ’s Works Cited are linked here:
Gambrell, L.B. et al. (2011). The Importance of Independent Reading. In Samuels, S.J. & Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.