Three Non traditional Titles for our Middle School Readers

I share new titles with my students every day in the form of book talks. Often, at least a couple of my students will put those titles on their next reads lists, and on great days a student will grab one of these titles and immediately begin reading it. However, there are still reluctant readers who aren’t yet sure what they love to read, and are nervous about taking risks with long or traditional books.

In the never-ending quest to find fun and high-interest titles for my reluctant middle school readers, I’m always on the lookout for something different yet relevant for them. Today I book talked three nontraditional titles, and they were well-received by my two groups of seventh graders.

three nontraditional titles

The first one is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s a beautiful book of black and white illustrations that are whimsical and fantastic. It inspires imagination and internal story telling. I’m sure it will be fantastic for inspiring quick-writes and other longer narrative writing, and today, a couple of my students enjoyed it during silent reading time.

 

I book talked Postcards From Camp next. It’s a heartwarming story told through correspondence between a boy who goes to summer camp, and his father, who is always encouraging. It was a huge hit in both of today’s middle school classes.

I’m fairly certain it is the first epistolary story many of my seventh grade students have read, so I’m happy to introduce this new form to them. It’s accessible and fun, as it has removable ghost stories and lists, and the story is told primarily through these postcards between father and son.

 

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Here there be Dragons is the last title I shared with my middle school students today. It’s a collection of stories and verse, and it has beautiful illustrations sprinkled throughout. It’s the kind of book that doesn’t have to be read in its entirety, so students can feel a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment even when they read only a couple of the sections out of the book.

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As far as I can tell, getting students to feel comfortable and confident with books in their hands is the first step in developing strong and healthy reading lives in our students. It’s okay with me if they start with small, or fun, or non traditional titles and work their way to other genres and authors.

Yes, it’s all about the books. But it’s also all about the students. After all, we don’t teach books, we teach kids. I think it’s important for teachers to meet students where they are instead of insisting that they reach up to intimidating expectations. After enjoying some non traditional titles, students will build confidence and enthusiasm they need for trying out new titles. And I think that’s the whole point.

How do you reach your dormant readers? I’d love to hear other strategies!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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Reading without Words

Too often, the purpose of reading in school is about grammar, vocabulary acquisition, organization, structure, mechanics, conventions, punctuation, figurative language, imagery, etc, etc, etc . . . There’s always a standard, a clear purpose, a takeaway for students when they read . . . but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

There is another important purpose for reading.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something on a page that tells our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves.

Reading is about stories, about discovering and creating our own identities, about realizing that others share in the same struggles as us. Reading is about being human, and being able to touch something that can tell our human experience when we are unable to find the words to tell it ourselves. 

Some of our students haven’t discovered this yet, and the reason is often because of the accessibility and relevance of books. We’ve all struggled with finding texts that are age and level appropriate for some of our students — readers who struggle don’t want to read what they deem to be “baby books” for a variety of reasons that are fair and legitimate. They need books that they can read and books that they want to read.

Recently I’ve discovered that there are some beautiful, poignant, relevant illustrated books that are decidedly not perceived as baby books, and which take a lot of thinking and reading in order to understand. But they are wordless, or at least almost wordless.

While I’m not giving up on teaching words and all of their beauty, I also know that wordless stories have a place in my classroom.

The book I’ve recently fallen in love with is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It’s a wordless graphic novel, and it tells the story of a person who leaves his family behind in order to create a better life for them all. arrival cover

It’s the kind of story all sorts of people can relate to: Character endures separation, loneliness, and heartache because of hope, optimism, and desperation.

It’s beautifully complex and requires some attention to detail, some hard thinking, and some rereading in order to really understand and analyze it.

I’ve book talked it to several of my classes, and I’ve gotten some puzzled looks when students try to understand how a book can be both complex and wordless.

They struggle to understand how they could find fiction signposts, discover characterization, etc, in a wordless book, that is, until they get the book in their hands.

Students who don’t always have easy access to complex texts have found success with finding the Beers/Probst Notice and Note Fiction Signposts in this complex and detailed story.

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For example, this Again and Again signpost is an easy one to spot – the main character carries a picture of his family as he travels from his home country to his new land, and the photo pops up in many of the frames. It’s significant because students realize quickly that this man’s family is the most important thing to him, which is why he carries the photo everywhere.

Both boys and girls have read this book, and I’ve overheard conversations about what it might be about as they wonder and struggle through their thinking. This is the kind of talk I love to hear.

This morning, I discovered four boys reading choice books on a bench: one was reading this wordless graphic novel, another was reading one of the Harry Potter books for the first time, another was reading The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and the last one was reading a humorous graphic novel. All different forms of books, but all legitimate books that “count.”

The point is, all of these students had texts that were accessible to them. They were curious about their own reading, and were enjoying their books. Their brains were engaged, they were talking to each other about what they were reading, and most importantly, they were fostering a community of reading as well as their own healthy reading lives.

Graphic novels, with or without words, can be excellent bridges between teacher, student, and healthy reading habits. Students can learn valuable reading skills and strategies with all kinds of books – even the “extreme” examples that don’t have words. It’s not a place where I want my students to “live” — but I don’t want my students to “live” in any one genre or form anyway. They should build skills, stretch their brains and habits, find familiar and easier books, and then stretch some more. The wordless book have a place in their learning, and will always have a place in my secondary language arts classroom.

A few wordless/nearly wordless books that are complex and relevant to secondary students:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The Marvels by David Selznick
  • Unspoken by Henry Cole

One final idea: It’s a bit like teaching reading strategies with the Pixar short films. My grade sevens practiced finding fiction signposts in the short film Partly Cloudy last week, and they were able to point out signposts even though the movie does not have dialogue.

Studying and reading wordless books and silent films can build confidence and skills in our readers who struggle with more complex texts, and while we can’t ignore their decoding skills, we can also allow them to grapple with the complexities of stories that are developmentally appropriate for their growing identities as readers and human beings.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Four Ideas for Starting a Workshop Classroom with the Right Momentum

Beginning the year is fun and intimidating, exciting and daunting, full of possibility and potential, and fraught with road bumps that we haven’t even foreseen. I find that if I can set my classroom up with the right atmosphere and environment, and my students with deliberate routines and habits, the school year will be better for it.

Below are a few things I’ve prioritized in the last couple of weeks in order to help ensure a smoother school year.

  1. Anchor Charts

I have a few posters I like to hang in my classroom for students to reference on a regular basis. The Book Head Heart poster comes from Disrupting Thinking, one of the most useful professional texts I own. Even though we are only five days into the school year, my students have already started to reference the questions that are listed for each of the three categories. As they have read different memoirs, I have asked students to respond to their reading by choosing the questions they find relevant, and responding in their reader’s/writer’s notebooks. It’s been great reading over their shoulders and listening in on their conversations as they decide which questions and categories are most relevant to respond to.

The fiction and nonfiction signposts are also essential in my classroom. These posters come from Notice & Note Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction, also by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. When I ask students to annotate texts, these are the best go-to ideas for students to annotate. After they have practice with these types of annotations, students start to personalize their annotations and figure out what works for them as individuals. But this is one of the best scaffolds I’ve found that helps students make their thinking transparent.

I also included a new anchor chart this year. It is inspired by Writing America, a book I picked up over the summer in preparation for teaching AP Lang. These particular questions refer to Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue, but I generalized the questions and I think they are probably good for all levels and a variety of texts.

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2. Reading Agreements

This is technically another poster, but I think the purpose is different enough that it deserves its own category. reading agreements

I had all of my students, grades 7, 11, and AP Lang, copy these agreements into their reading/writing notebooks on the first day of class. If they didn’t have a notebook, they wrote the agreements on paper, and then pasted that page into their notebooks later. It’s important for students to start to internalize these agreements right away so that we can get that good momentum rolling.

3. Book Talks

Students should feel like the reading agreements are realistic before they can internalize and believe in their ability to follow the agreements; it’s my job to ensure that students feel capable and confident. So on the second day of classes I took all of my students to the library, one class at a time.

I had been in the day before and pulled different stacks of books from the shelves, organizing my stacks roughly by grade level. I pulled some that specifically were geared toward middle school students, and then some for my regular eleventh grade class, and another stack for my AP Lang students. But some of the titles can move from stack to stack, class to class, student to student. I don’t worry about Lexile levels or AR levels or anything like that. I just look for high interest books for a wide range of readers. And then I talk to my students about them.

Students brought their reading/writing notebooks with them to the library and wrote their Next Reads Lists as I presented the books. The books were passed around so that each student got to hold, feel, peruse, read, and look at each one. After about thirty minutes of being inundated with a variety of genres, levels, topics, and types of books, students were instructed to check out at least one book they were willing to start reading.

Many students chose books that I had book talked, but many of them went to the shelves and found something else. By the end of each class period, my students were reading their new books, which was the goal, of course.

Now that they have had the “book talk jump start,” they can begin to authentically work on staying true to our reading commitments.

4. Classroom Library

I’m at a new school, teaching new classes, new students, in a new country this year. This means I’m also building a new classroom library. My new classroom was a blank slate when I walked in on the first day, which meant I got to get creative and have fun with it.

One of the first things I got to do was visit our school’s book room. Together, with colleagues and coworkers, we made a plan about how to respect what other teachers want to do with the books that are there as far as whole-class-novels and shared texts, but we also made a plan to distribute the underused books from the book room to our secondary English Language Arts classrooms. This quick process didn’t cost any additional dollars, respected the work of the teachers who have been here and had made plans for the school year, and also made it easier to get books into the hands of our students. classroom library

I placed the books on the edge of the shelves so they are easy to see and reach, and used small white boards to display titles more prominently. I’ll rotate these displays regularly. The captions I write on the white boards come right off of the books’ covers, so I don’t have to reinvent any wheels in order to try to drum up some interest in these titles.

None of these priorities will be a magic pill or a silver bullet; there is much more work to be done. However, I do believe that these four priorities work. They are strategies and tools that I have used in the past, that others have used, and that students have admitted themselves that they have benefitted from them.

What are some of your “must dos” in your classroom at the beginning of the year? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

Fitting It All In: The Think-Aloud Book Talk Combo

One of the questions I often hear about the workshop model (and truth: that I have often had myself) is how do I fit it all in?

We are “supposed to do” quick writes, independent reading, notebook work, small group discussion, whole-class discussion, think-alouds, read-alouds, writing along with students, conferring, anchor charts, building writing stamina . . . the list goes on.

Oh, and we need to do that while mastering assessment literacy, fostering positive relationships with students, offering timely and relevant feedback, developing units beginning with the end in mind, finding time to do our personal reading and writing, participating in our PLNs, developing collegiality with our coworkers, and staying current with our own professional development and practices.

It’s overwhelming to look at the list of “musts” and think that teachers are expected to do it all. The good part is that we don’t have to do it all every day. However, there are two things I find non-negotiable on a daily basis.

One of the non-negotiables is time in class for independent reading.

We do this every class period after the book talk. It’s predictable to my students that I will say “If either of these books sound like something you’d like to read, put them on your next reads list.” And then they start their silent reading.

book talk lists

The above exchange between teacher and students implies that we always have book talks, and that is in fact the case. But I find that book talks take more time than I want to take when I do them justice . . . three to five minutes can go by fast. I tried to speed them up, but I felt less engagement from my students, and fewer books were being checked out. So then I decided that instead of speeding it up, I’d try to incorporate some other “musts” into the book talk time, thereby getting “more bang for my buck” when I spend important class time.

I decided to try doing a cold read-aloud/think aloud as a book talk, sharing my thinking, questions, connections, and wonderings as I read the inside flap, discussed the cover, and read the first paragraph or so aloud.

I started with statements like, “I picked up this book because the cover caught my eye, and I don’t know anything about this book.” Or, “I am wondering about this book because I know it’s written by an award-winning author, and I’d like to know more.” Then I would deconstruct the cover, noting any awards and/or endorsements it might mention on the front or back cover, along with graphics, pictures, and blurbs.

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Then I opened to the title page, checked the publication date, talked about the implications of the time during which it was published, mentioned any dedications, forwards, prologues, and prefaces.

1421 mapCharacter lists, timelines, family trees, and maps are also useful to talk to students about, and I would share my thinking as I went through these pages. (This is where the document camera is handy – projecting a larger image of some of these pages is quite helpful.)

 

 

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I read the first few paragraphs of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brian recently. I was able to explain to my students that while I know the author, I am not familiar with this particular text. I talked about what I know about the National Book Award since it is mentioned on the cover. I essentially just talked about what I can learn from the title, author, and cover before I even open the book.

My students liked the vulnerability I showed because I honestly didn’t know everything I should know about the book. But the exercise helped them to understand that they don’t need to know everything when picking out books, and that it’s okay to ask questions, be unsure, and to take risks.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 6.17.12 PMAnother title I picked up was In the Long Run by Jim Axelrod. No one had picked it from the shelf all year, and it still sat there as a brand new book. I asked students what the cover could tell us, and we started to guess that it could be about marathons, cross-country running, or anything else. They didn’t realize that Axelrod is a journalist, but as we read the back cover together, we learned a lot. I had a student take it and read it that day.

Developing lesson plans has to be prioritized because the reality is that the kids will show up every day. When we prioritize book talks, we usually think we need to get ready for them, to prepare for them in advance. I assert that it’s not necessarily true each time we share books with our students.

It’s why I think the cold read-aloud/book talk combo is useful. Students have a window into the thinking of a “master reader” as we choose books and talk about them authentically.

***My one caution is that as teachers, we have to know a little bit about the book we are reading from (being careful not to learn too much in advance in order to stay authentic). But I will admit I recently had a small embarrassing mishap when reading the first few paragraphs of So Anyway . . . by John Cleese. Be forewarned.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the world to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Three (very) Short Videos that Inspire Students to Read

One of the key components of the workshop model is the book talk. There are many different ways of organizing and presenting the daily book talk, but the main idea is that high interest books are presented to kids each and every day. It’s our job to make sure that the books we present are relevant, challenging, and fun to read.

I’ve had students tell me in the past that the reason they became better readers was because they found out that there were so many different options for reading in our library. That the daily book talks really work!Why book talk

This is the kind of feedback that keeps me investing in book talks. It’s an investment in the reading lives of my students.

One strategy I use when giving book talks is to let someone else do the talking. Media plays such an important role with today’s students that I think utilizing it in class is a great way to meet my students where they are. So I occasionally choose to show videos instead of simply talking about the books.

Last week I shared the trailer for HBO’s Fahrenheit 451. It wasn’t a book that was flying off of my shelves, but we have several copies from our department’s book room, and no one is teaching it as a whole-class text, so it’s fair game for our classroom libraries.

After showing the trailer for the new film, four students (in one class!) took it off the shelf and started reading it. And they like it.

Fahrenheit 451 Classroom Library

I loved that I had so many available copies. My students were able to experience the “instant gratification” of getting the book into their hands immediately.

That’s not always the case with our books, even though we have an amazing, robust selection of high interest books in both our classroom libraries and in the school collection.

One of those books that is now unexpectedly in high demand is A Wrinkle in Time. The movie comes out this weekend, so I showed the trailer in order to generate interest in the book and series. I don’t think a single one of my students had picked up that book so far this year, but after showing the trailer for the movie, I now have a waiting list of four for the book, and some others who had read the book in previous years have put the rest of the series on their next reads list.

A Wrinkle in Time Book Cover

The video that created the most hype (by far!) in my classroom so far this year is this interview with Jason Reynolds. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I shared the video with my students before I had an actual copy of the book available for students. One of the complications of living internationally can be the ability to have things shipped right to our door, so it took me a while to get a physical copy of the book. I had students asking for Long Way Down for months before I got my hands on one, and there was an immediate waiting list.

Long Way Down Book Cover

So far, about a dozen of my ninth grade students have read it, and they love debating the ending of this book. It’s been a great success.

While I don’t recommend movie trailers as book talks every day, I do think they have a place in the rotation. They can be used in place of the teacher recommendation on days when teachers are out sick or when a student who has signed up for a book talk isn’t ready for some reason.

Movies can make challenging books more accessible by creating background knowledge, and interviews with the author (like the Jason Reynolds interview) create an energy that might be beyond my ability.

Encouraging and motivating my students to read high quality literature is the name of the game, and I believe that film can be a powerful gateway to a healthy reading life. If we want our students to work their way up their reading ladders, then it’s important to meet them on the steps where they currently are, and not to expect them to make immediate major leaps up to where we think they should be.

Being willing to meet kids at their level and interest empowers them to feel validated about their current reading lives, and to grow as readers, stepping up to the next rung of the ladder at the pace that makes sense for them. I believe that’s how we grow authentic, healthy, life long readers, and that using videos and film can be a useful tool in that journey.

How do you use videos in your classroom to motivate readers? I’d love to read about your strategies in the comments below.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family will be moving across the agua to Managua, Nicaragua next year, where a new adventure will begin.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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.
PostSecret

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.

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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. Continue reading “Get to know your library through book talks”