What are the kids reading?

I believe that students read more when they know what is available. Isn’t that what advertising is all about? Seeing what is available, and then being tempted by it? So I start each class with book talks. I advertise books. And then I pay attention to what students seem to like, so I can keep pushing the right books.

I do this every class, almost without exception, and when I might get ahead of myself and jump right into the lesson, my students remind me, asking why we aren’t starting with a book talk. It is part of our routine, and we like it.

I try to book talk a wide variety of books, from classics, to collections of poetry, to first titles in a series, to young adult fiction, to autobiographies and memoirs,  to brand new releases, and to the more hard-to-categorize books.

I often share more than one title with each class, and if a student wants one of the books, I give it out immediately and replace that title with a new one for the next class, so I go through a lot of titles.

Some titles are claimed by eager readers right away, while others go back to the shelf. But some titles rarely get the chance to go back to the shelves because they are passed around from student to student.

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One of those titles is Why We Broke Up, a Printz award nominee written by Daniel Handler. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated story that starts with the end, and the line “Every break up starts with a love story” gets potential readers interested right away. The rich illustrations are of the different mementos collected throughout the course of a relationship: ticket stubs, notes written on looseleaf paper, etc. They are little things that students can relate to, and the illustrations tug at their hearts. You might also recognize Handler’s pen name: Lemony Snicket.

Another title which got a lot of attention from my students this fall was PostSecret by Frank Warren. It’s a charming collection of postcards which reveal secrets from people all over the world, and my students love it. I had to hold a raffle for this one because so many students were clamoring for it. I like it because each page can serve as a inspiration for a quick write in their readers-writers notebooks, as the postcard confessions are raw and relatable. This one has what we call “spicy language” and many of the pages are for mature audiences, but I think it’s worth a look. I’m glad to have it in my classroom library.

The last one I’ll share in this post is Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan. It’s an updated version of the classic Snow White story, set in 1920s/1930s New York City. When I book talked this one to a ninth grade class, I couldn’t get through talking about it before I had students asking if they could have it first.

It looks like film-noir, which to my students, is all kinds of cool. Students respond to the pictures and to the familiar, updated, dark story. Graphic novel enthusiasts loved it, and then even passed it around to other students who hadn’t demonstrated an interest in graphic novels before. I called it a win.

Snow White Graphic Novel

I’ve noticed some students don’t think illustrated books “count” or are “real books.” They either shy away from them and limit themselves to more traditional books, or they don’t bring the graphic novels they are reading to class, and only read them at home.

So I’ve tried to make an effort to present more non-traditional, beautifully illustrated books intended for more mature, young adult audiences. I’ve tried to send the message that not only are they “real books,” but those of us who aren’t in the habit of reading them should branch out and try something new in the form of non-traditional looking books.

I believe it’s important to meet students where they are, especially when they are emerging readers. When teachers validate students natural preferences, we gain trust and credibility, which is important when we are recommending new genres and authors to them, helping them to build their reading lives.

It’s important when we are trying to teach them anything, when we are trying to build community in our classrooms. Talking about what matters to students is one of the most effective ways to build trust, and I’m happy to read and discuss these beautiful books with them.


Get to know your library through book talks

One of the very best ways to spark and fuel our students’ interests in reading is to ensure access to plenty of high interest books. My students are lucky enough to have an excellent collection in our school’s learning commons, and in addition this fall we were blessed with a brand new classroom library.

While both collections are full of amazing titles and are a rich resource for my students and me, it’s challenging to get to know all of the titles in the collections.


I want my students to know and love our classroom library and our school library. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to put the perfect book into the hands of a student right there in our classroom environment, or to walk up to the learning commons and select something together. But before we can get to that point, someone has to really know and appreciate the collections.

While our librarians know the collections well, I also felt that I had to figure out the most efficient way to get to know the library collections and to transfer that knowledge to my students. Because what does it matter that we have a lot of books if the students don’t know what’s there? If they don’t know that they want to read them?

I think book talks are a great way of getting to know our collections. I know it seems counterintuitive – the best book talks are delivered only after we’ve read the books, because then we can do things like choose our favorite passages and explain how we connect to the text. But if you, like me, are given, happen to inherit, or in some other manner are responsible for a large collection of books, and for getting them into the hands of students, you have to realize that reading all of them before the book talks isn’t realistic.

Selecting new books off the shelf isn’t out of the question. Simply reading the inside flap or the back cover is okay. These book features are supposed to get a reader interested, and they do. Reading the first paragraph or page is also a great strategy. Think about Salt to the Sea or the Cirque du Freak series. Those first lines grab a reader and don’t let go.

“I’ve always been fascinated by spiders. I used to collect them when I was younger. I’d spend hours rooting through the dusty old shed at the bottom of our garden, hunting the cobwebs for lurking eight-legged predators. When I found one, I’d bring it in and let it loose in my bedroom.

From Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan

Guilt is a hunter.

My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.

It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.

From Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I book talk two or three books a day, depending on what classes I have scheduled and if the first class checks out the books I’ve promoted and I need to search for new titles to talk up.

I always list the titles of the books we’ve discussed on my wall so that we can go back to them and find them.

Last year I got to know our school library’s collection quickly by sharing books with my classes by theme. I grabbed multiple books that seemed to somehow connect to each other, and depending on the class, I would talk about a couple of them or many of them, but simply by talking about the theme and having them on display, often, even the ones I didn’t talk about would get some attention from a few students. It also ensured that within a few months, I had hit critical mass as far as knowing the books we had in our collections.

When I move on to a new school next year, I know it’s a strategy I’ll employ so that I get to know the new collection and make sure students know what resources are immediately available. I’ll miss knowing my library’s collection as well as I do currently, but I firmly believe that this strategy will allow me to get to know the new books pretty quickly, which means I’ll get to share them with my students in a way that makes sense.

As an aside, I think it’s also important to be public about what we are reading as teachers. I know that if I talk to my students about what I read, it’s more likely to come from my classroom library or from the school library, and when it comes to those books, I go beyond the inside flap when I talk about them with my students. Those are the books that are often checked out by students right away. But I can’t wait to read everything before I book talk it because it would just take too long.

And yes, I have had guest teachers come in to talk about books, and yes, students share what they are reading with each other. And yes, there is something special about a teacher sharing his or her reading life with students, and it must be fostered, nurtured, and encouraged.

I don’t think of this method as “cheating” – we teachers have a lot to do, and while I would love to spend all of my spare time reading YA literature and discovering new graphic novels, I have to be realistic. I give myself permission to talk about books I haven’t read. It means that students are exposed to more new books, develop better and better Next Reads lists. Eventually, they can book talk great titles to one another, taking me out of the loop all together, which leads to an independent and robust culture of reading in our schools.

Making thinking transparent: Annotating with Nonfiction Notice and Note Signposts

When my students read, they think. There’s no question. But as a teacher, I struggle trying to figure out what they are thinking about, what they wonder, what resonates, what is confusing, and what they reject. Because reading is a mostly solitary activity, it sometimes feels impossible to tap into their brains so that I can “read” my students’s thoughts.

One of the strategies I employ is reflective essays. Other times, instead of in writing, students reflect verbally, either through conferring or through class and small group discussions. But sometimes that’s not enough. I need a window into their brains and hearts, and annotating text in a close reading can help to serve as that window.

My grade eleven students are deep in an informational text unit. They are in book clubs, and in addition, I’m regularly assigning the Kelly Gallagher Article of the Week for them to work on at home. Because these weekly assignments are with a short text, I feel comfortable asking them to demonstrate a close reading in a way that I’m not asking them to do with their longer texts.

I spent quite a bit of time teaching the nonfiction signposts from Reading Nonfiction, and instructed my students to notice and note when they recognized the different signposts.

But when I heard repeated individual students asking clarifying questions about annotations, I realized it was to spend another significant chunk of class time going over an article that students had read and annotated as homework. In the end, I think that investment of class time was worth it.


I projected it on the white board, explaining that while I had skimmed the article before assigning it (teacher life is real!), I hadn’t become familiar with it, and my annotations and think-aloud were authentic and unrehearsed.

I feel that with an authentic model think-aloud, the teacher should be mostly or entirely unfamiliar with the text that is being considered. We can’t be perfect in front of our students; how else will they understand that the struggle to learn and understand is messy, and that it is rare that a person understands difficult text during the first read? That it requires multi-draft reading in order to reach sincere understanding, the kind of understanding we have when we can not only discover main idea, but describe the nuance and ambiguity we often find in complex texts?

So I demonstrated by talking my way through the article, using a purple marker to show my initial confusion, and a red marker to demonstrate my second-draft reading.

This is what the white board looked like after the think-aloud. I wish I would have taken a photo while the text was projected, but so it goes…

I showed my students where I noticed the signposts, why I thought they were important to notice, and generally talked and walked them through my thinking. I made a point to show my confusion, highlighted words I wasn’t sure about, and I told them what I wondered.

I tried to show them that I don’t have all of the answers, but that I am willing to try to connect to text and find a deeper understanding of it.

I believe that teachers not only must model reading for pleasure – novels and narrative nonfiction should be a part of who we are – but we must also show the productive struggle that even mature readers often experience with shorter texts, and then show our students that the energy and effort that go into the process of understanding are worth it. And that most importantly, our students can do it too.

I think the moment of struggle is when when a lot of learning can happen. I don’t always time it perfectly; sometimes my students struggle too long, and sometimes I’m too eager to offer “the answer,” but I try to be aware of it. I think that’s all we teachers can do – pay attention to our students and act responsively.

Annotations start off sounding simple (just show your thinking!), but I think when students have different purposes for annotations in different classes and for different types of texts, they can get a bit confused. The purpose of demonstrating thinking is different from what might be the purpose in other classes, and this time, taking more time for more explicit teaching and modeling seemed to be the right call.

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This is a picture from very early in the year when the anchor chart looked a little different. I realize it needs to be updated for each unit, and I’ll get better about that.

I was also reminded that I should update my “sample annotations” anchor chart with each unit, and be more explicit about how students can discover the purpose of annotations. I think I will ask my students if they don’t mind putting some of their own annotations up on our walls, as student work feels like a more authentic way to model the task. It is a good reminder that anchor charts should be dynamic instead of static. They aren’t meant to be handmade posters.

Annotations aren’t revolutionary, they aren’t high-tech, and they shouldn’t be used for every text. But they do have a place, and when done well, they can serve as a window or snapshot into how a student thinks and connects to text. I’ll keep teaching annotation and using this simple activity in my classroom. It’s one of the best ways I know for students to be transparent about their thinking.


Allowing Student Choice through Book Clubs

Getting students to read nonfiction can be a challenge, but I believe that it’s important to get kids reading all kinds of texts, challenging or not. So when we started this nonfiction unit, instead of assigning one title or telling students to find their own individual titles, I decided to offer them some choice in what they read, but not total choice. And I did it through book clubs.

About a week before the official roll-out, I book talked the titles I had chosen, and asked my students write down the titles that they would be interested in reading. I included a variety of topics and structures, and I think there was something for everyone.

Some of the titles offered were Marx for Beginners, Proofiness, In Defense of Food, The Happiness Project, Eyes Wide Open, An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and Guitar Zero.

Putting the book clubs together was a puzzling challenge. I’m not sure what the best way is – it’s all about how many copies of each book are available, and which combination of students prefers which title. It wasn’t easy, and on the day of the roll-out there were some last-minute changes, but it ended up working out.

I gave the books out during the next class period and asked students to really dig in and read for a while. This way they were able to build motivation and momentum for their at-home reading. I asked them to individually check their reading rates with their books, and then to set some realistic individual goals around how much they could and should read per week. Then I asked them to take their books home and read some more, coming to the next class ready to at least talk and think a little bit about their new books.

During the next class, I still didn’t seat them with their book group members. For their quick write, they brainstormed a list of ideas about what it means to be in a  functional book group. What kinds of agreements to group members adhere to? What sort of behaviors do book group members exhibit? Then, at their table groups, which were still not their book groups, I asked them to come to consensus about these points.

Each table group had a small white board and dry erase marker, and before they could put any ideas on the white boards, their table group members had to come to consensus that the idea was worth sticking to, and worth writing down. Once each group had a functional list of book group expectations, they could take their lists to the bigger chart that would become our book group norms.

Only after they had individually thought about what it means to be in a book club, then discussed it in a small group that wasn’t their actual book club, and then agreed as a class on these ideas, did I let them get into their new book clubs.

The reason for this was that I didn’t want anyone to start book clubs without any real thought as to what it means. I also didn’t want to tell my students how to be in a book club because I don’t think it would have “stuck” as well as when they came up with their own norms. And I didn’t want one book club member to start by dominating, or to have any new book club members sitting too quietly. I wanted to offer them as much voice and choice as I could.

The group chart paper ended up looking like this:

It’s not a complete list of book club expectations, but it’s a great start and it represents both individual and group thinking.

Once the book clubs got together, I asked them to set up their own due dates, expectations, and group norms. I asked them to think about how they want to be held accountable and how to hold each other accountable. As I rotated around the room they did not need redirection or any pushing. They had done the thinking required in order to start off on the right foot.

Class ended too soon, as usual. We will finish working on our norms next class, but they all agreed that they knew what they needed to do to get started, and were comfortable with it. Some closing comments from a few of them were about how they liked having a hand in making their own assignments and timelines, and thankfully they even look forward to reading their books.

I look forward to hearing their rich talk in the next few weeks, especially since we are starting to use the nonfiction Notice and Note signposts. 

I wonder how other teachers introduce book clubs, and how much students help in creating the learning situations surrounding book clubs. I’m sure there are other elements I haven’t considered, but I’m looking forward to the coming weeks of student learning with nonfiction.

I believe the learning experience will be richer because we started together, not with the teacher tells students what to do model, but rather in a model where students do the real thinking and planning, which creates the buy-in that is essential to learning. I can’t be the only expert in the room, and I want my students to feel empowered to listen to their own and each other’s voices, and to trust that we all have expert opinions, and that we can all learn together.

Workshop Model: Introducing Notice and Note Signposts with Nonfiction Picture Books

As I started planning the move of my grade elevens from a unit focusing on narrative nonfiction into a reading unit on informational text, I debated on how to start. I had done a soft introduction the week before with Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week, but I hadn’t talked to my students about specific strategies when approaching informational text. I had simply told them to read the articles, annotate the text, and to write a one-page response to the articles.

The Article of the Week is a great resource. The topics are current and give my international students an opportunity to pay attention to the news. The task is straight-forward and the text provides a challenge, but it’s not overwhelming because the length of the articles is manageable. The articles are thought-provoking and I look forward to some deep discussion as we get further along in this unit. Also, it’s a great resource for busy teachers, and for that I am quite thankful!

I started a small book club at my school recently. We are reading Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, and are discovering the power in the signposts for fiction. (There are only three of us in our book club, and we meet only every eight days, but because of that, it’s not difficult to keep up with. I think all teachers should be in this practice with professional publication book clubs!) While I knew that the fiction signposts aren’t exactly what I needed to share with my students, my book club led me to thinking about the Reading Nonfiction signposts.

The five nonfiction signposts are:

Contrasts and Contradictions

Extreme or Absolute Language

Numbers and Stats

Quoted Words

Word Gaps


These are the signposts my grade eleven students need to know and understand, I realized. Soon they are starting book clubs of their own with some informational texts, and these signposts will be perfect for discussion starters, and to keep the conversation going as they work on their sustained, deliberate talk.

I decided to introduce the signposts using children’s books. It’s National Picture Book Month, so why not? The text is accessible, and because students are learning new strategies, I don’t need to complicate things further. So I went to our fantastic learning commons, and pulled lots and lots of books from the shelves.

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My students sit in small table groups, so I gave a few books to each group, a handout with the signposts listed with short decsriptions to each student, and provided some sticky notes for them to use.

I had put posters around the room with individual signposts as titles, and instructed my students to find examples of signposts in their picture books and then put the sticky notes on the charts. They got right to it.

They worked together, had fun reading the books – both text and pictures are important – and discovered the signposts in the different books.

Thankfully, there weren’t too many word gaps for students in these elementary level picture books!

This activity took about thirty minutes. My students had some fun and learned a new strategy in a way that was pretty low-risk. They helped each other, worked together, and indicated that they will be able to apply these strategies when they read the next Article of the Week and even when they get into their longer texts in book clubs.

In addition, one beautiful book that I noticed to be especially helpful with a few of the signposts is Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. I’ll share some pictures with the signpost in the caption below.

separate is never equal
Even the title has a signpost: Extreme/Absolute Language
About the text
This signpost is Quoted Words and is found at the end of the book.
The Quoted Words on this page come from the court transcripts: “Segregation tends to give an aura of inferiority. In order to have the people of the United States understand one another it is necessary for them to live together, and the public school is the one mechanism where all the children of all the people go.”
The glossary at the end helps students to fill in some of the Word Gaps.

Most school libraries will have plenty of nonfiction picture books to pull from the shelves, so the resources necessary for this quick introduction are easily accessible and quite flexible. I’d love to hear how others introduce these nonfiction signposts, and how the students respond!

Follow Julie on Twitter: @SwinehartJulie

The Power of Talk and Class Discussion

One of my professional goals this year is to provide my students with as many high quality opportunities to talk to each other as I can. To allow them to engage in deliberate, academic conversations. To show their thinking through discussion and purposeful talk.

I always feel like it’s a risk because I never know what they are going to say. It’s a matter of letting go of control, and trusting and teaching my students to speak thoughtfully.

Easier said than done (for me to let go of control – not for them to engage in thoughtful discussion), but I continue to try.

I first saw this new Burger King commercial when it lit up my twitter feed a few days ago. It’s gotten a lot of press and interest because its anti-bullying message resonates with kids and adults, and it’s impossible to argue that bullying is anything but bad.

I wanted to show the ad to my high school juniors because I thought the message is spot on. It’s a funny, heartwarming, and in moments, tense commercial with a clear, positive message. Plus, it compares high school juniors to Whopper juniors. That’s funny.

I started class with an excerpt by Eric Luper from an NPR book review of the book Dear Bully by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones. I first read aloud the excerpt which describes a fifth grade boy who is blindfolded with his hoodie by some “cool kids,” and then tied to a fence inside some tennis courts. He first allows the hazing ritual because he wants to become a part of the in group, but soon realizes that he has signed up for more than he wants.Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 6.43.39 PM

The narrator had remembered what it was like when he was recently the targeted victim of this group, and keeps reminding his audience that he is glad that it’s not himself who is the target anymore.

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There was a noticeable silence and inhale of breath in my classroom when I was reading the tense moment towards the end, when we don’t know if our narrator is going to rescue the helpless victim or not.

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This short piece set the tone for viewing the Burger King commercial. We watched it together and students responded predictably and appropriately. They laughed when the man in the kitchen “bullied” the Whopper Jr by smashing it, and then at the confused customer responses.

They were tense when the bigger boy poured soda on the smaller boy’s tray, and there was a small sigh of relief when the nice lady in the booth intervened and tried to make the bullied boy feel better about himself.

In the end, my students thought it was a nice commercial with a thoughtful message, and many of them felt they could relate to it.

I asked them to respond using the Book Head Heart framework we’ve employed a few times, the one that is found in Disrupting Thinking.

There were some thoughtful table discussions, and then some thoughtful whole class discussion. This framework is one of the best discussion starters I have ever used in my classroom. Many of my students focused on the heart portion of the framework, which totally makes sense. There is a lot of emotion in the ad.

When I asked them to think about the three modes of persuasion/rhetoric: logo, pathos, and ethos, they increased their level of thoughtful discourse, and participated in some deliberate talk.

As I circulated the room, I heard some conversations about the comparison that was being made in the commercial. There was some confusion, and while students generally liked the message of the ad, they had some questions about its method. Some rumblings about burgers not being the same as people.

But then class was coming to a close, and the clock prevented us from furthering our discussions.

However, it got me thinking about the ad. At first, I had accepted it at face value – I had appreciated the message, and wanted to talk to my students about methods of advertising, along with providing a quick and relevant reminder of the definitions and application of logos, pathos, and ethos.

But this power of classroom talk, the value of student voice, empowered my students to ask questions that I hadn’t considered.

It led me to teaching points during our next class that I didn’t anticipate when I first introduced the two texts. We talked about logical fallacies, and specifically, false analogies.

My students were able to push back on this well-received commercial, and apply academic vocabulary to their thoughts.

Some of them said that while they think the intended message of the commercial is anti-bullying, the ultimate goal of Burger King is to sell burgers. But that the goal of the commercial is to raise awareness and spread the idea that bullying is bad, that bystanders can intervene. They were torn.

What they could agree on is that the commercial made a faulty analogy. The people who stood up for the Whopper were actually standing up for themselves. They had purchased a specific product, and that product was faulty. They weren’t concerned about the well-being of the burger; instead, they were standing up for themselves. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just not the same thing.

Because of the workshop model, because talk is valued, because student voice is such an integral part of this framework, students led us to an entirely different conclusion than I had planned or anticipated. It was better, and it was deeper thinking.

No, a person isn’t analogous to a burger, even when the label “junior” is attached. But we all decided that the anti-bullying message is valuable, and we were all relieved when the woman with the glasses and the man in the red shirt intervened and made the victim feel validated.

We recognized the power in advertising. And I recognized the power of productive talk.

Follow Julie on Twitter @SwinehartJulie

A Simple Method for Teaching Voice and Characterization

A few weeks ago, at the end of class, one of my students asked a question about her book – about the way it sounds when she reads it. She was reading Girls Like Us by Gail Giles and was wondering about dialect used by two characters named Quincy and Biddy.

The novel is about two girls who have just graduated from a high school special education program. They are very different in personality, but end up rooming together in their first apartment. They help each other through some tough times, and ultimately discover that they are more similar than they realized. My students who have read it love it, and it has been shared among my ninth grade girls quite a bit.

Quincy’s opening line is “Most folk call me Quincy. I ain’t pretty but I got me a pretty name. My whole name be Sequencia.”

My student thought that maybe Quincy should be a little more grammatically correct, or speak properly, or something… she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

The question took us to a lesson about dialect, which ultimately led us to a discussion about voice.

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 5.18.26 AMI made copies of both characters’ first lines: both Biddy and Quincy have unique dialects, outlooks, and voices. I asked my students to annotate the excerpts, looking for examples of dialect and voice.


I have to admit that when I sat with them to annotate the Biddy section, I couldn’t help but get out my teacher pen and teacher attitude. I didn’t annotate; I edited.

I then read my corrections aloud. Imagine:

” My name is Biddy.

Some people call me other names.

Granny calls me Retard.

Quincy calls me White Trash sometimes and Fool most of the time…

I can’t read or write…

There are many things I cannot do.”

Imagine if Quincy had started with “Most people call me Quincy. I’m not considered conventionally pretty, but my name is pretty. My full name is Sequencia.” It does not have the same sound or impact. No question.

When I read Biddy’s “corrected” version aloud my students weren’t impressed. One even said something like “I don’t mean to offend you, but your version wasn’t as good.”

Exactly. That’s exactly what I wanted them to get at. That the dialect and the imperfections are an important part of what give a character voice and individuality.

Over the next few days, I went on to give them more examples. I started with a familiar one: img_3908.jpg

In chapter six of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hagrid introduces the hippogriff to Harry. Imagine if he had said instead,

Now class, the first thing you should know about hippogriffs is that they are proud creatures. They are easily offended, so refrain from insulting them. It could prove to be very dangerous.

After the easy, familiar text, I shared the first page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with these grade nine students. IMG_3914

Imagine if Huck Finn had started with:

“You don’t know who I am unless you have already read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain.”

Then think about the first book of the Harry Potter series. The famous scene when Harry learns that he’s a wizard.

IMG_3912Imagine if my teacher pen had corrected Hagrid into saying something like

“Of course you’re a wizard, Harry. Once you’ve had a decent education, you’ll be an excellent one. With heritage and genes like yours, what else could you possibly dream to be?”

Trust me, after hearing the “corrections,” students understood the power of dialect, and how it impacts voice and characterization. I really didn’t need to say much more.

I asked my students to include dialogue and dialect in the narratives they were writing, and to be purposeful. They were able to apply what they had learned, and to find their own voice.

Follow Julie on Twitter @SwinehartJulie