Book Talking the Newbery Honors and Winners with our Middle School Readers

Living in Nicaragua is amazing – it’s a beautiful country full of stunning volcanoes, unique wildlife, and lovely people. While there are many fantastic reasons to live here, it’s still sometimes a challenge to find new books for my classroom library. Luckily, my parents recently came for a visit, and before they travelled, they hit up some local second-hand shops and library sales. They ended up filling extra suitcases with 95 “new” books for our classroom library!

As I was shelving and organizing our new books, I noticed that there are several Newbery Honor and Winning books in our collection.

Newbery books
Brown Girl Dreaming, 2015; The Voice that Changed a Nation, 2005; Because of Winn-Dixie, 2001; The Ear the Eye and the Arm, 1995; The Thief, 1997; The Bronze Bow, 1962; The Egypt Game, 1968; Anpao, 1978; Miracles on Maple Hill, 1957; The Witch of Blackbird Pond, 1959; Hitty Her First Hundred Years, 1930; The Door in the Wall, 1950; Savvy, 2009; Walk Two Moons, 1995; The Giver, 1994; The Westing Game, 1979; The Dark Frigate, 1924; Indian Captive, 1942; Al Capone Does My Shirts, 2005; Dear Mr. Henshaw, 1984; The Crossover, 2015; The Trumpeter of Krakow, 1929; The Wanderer, 2001; The Road From Home, 1980

I also realized that I needed a quick way to get my seventh grade students familiar with the new titles.

I decided to pull all of the Newbery books and set them out on my students’ desks before they got to class. Between what I already had, and what was new, I had more than enough copies for every student to have at least one to learn about!

Instead of a book talk from me, I asked my students to get to know the book that was in front of them. After a few minutes with the book, they would pass it to the next person, and repeat the process a couple of times.

Anticipation had already been built for the new books before they even arrived, so when my students walked in to see new books on the desks, they were eager to get started.

I reminded my students what I include when I share our daily book talk:

  • I take a look at the cover and look for title, author, medals, and endorsements.
  • I read the inside flap or the back of the book.
  • I read the first sentence, paragraph, or page.
  • I check the publication date.
  • I read “about the author” if the option is there.
  • I look to see what the original language is, and if the book has been translated.

They jumped in, eager to look for the items we usually include in a book talk, but finding these items on their own, quietly. After a minute or two, they rotated books, and then repeated the process a couple of times.

After they had gotten to know three or four books, they partnered up with someone in the room who hadn’t had any of their same titles. That meant that with each partnership, there were six to eight titles they could discuss. I directed them to choose a partner A and a partner B, and that they would continue with a knee to knee conversation about the new titles in our classroom library.

By the time they were done with their conversations, they had each added a title or two to their Next Reads Lists, and some had even picked up a new book to start reading immediately.

While I love sharing nontraditional books with my seventh-grade students, I also think it’s important to share some of the classics and soon-to-be classics with them. This was a fun, quick, method for sharing several new, high-quality titles in an efficient way.

How do you ensure that you present a variety of titles to your students? I’d love to hear about it 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

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Popular Titles for Middle School Students

Lately I’ve seen several twitter and facebook posts asking for “must-purchase” titles for classroom libraries and book clubs. It’s that time of year – the time when we order for next year and cross our fingers that it all arrives by the first day of school.

Ordering titles for our classroom libraries is no joke, so I love seeing how thoughtful people are about it.

I thought I’d check in with my students to find out how they might answer that question, so I asked them what their best books of the year have been so far. They wrote about it and talked about it, and then I had them publicly post their titles so that other students could get inspired to read new titles, add to their next reads lists, or think about new titles for summer reading.

Here’s what we came up with:

Block A Best Books
Bad Kitty, Norse Mythology, Pugs of the Frozen North, A Wrinkle in Time, Hitler Youth, The Martian Chronicles, To the Field of Stars, All Fall Down, Echo, Auggie and Me, Our Surprising Love Story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Long Way Down, The House of the Scorpion

All Fall Down by Ally Carter has been a big hit with several of my seventh grade girls. All Fall Down Cover

It’s the first in a mystery series, and three of my seventh-grade girls have read all three of the books in the series since I added it to my classroom library in January. It’s led one of them to read some of Ally Carter’s other books, and they have had some fun and authentic discussions about these books, which is always fun to witness.

Block C Best Books
The Fault in our Stars, Twilight, Long Way Down, Memoirs of a Geisha, Turtles All the Way Down, Sarah’s Key, Everything Everything, Big Foot, Looking for Alaska, American Sniper, Smile, Booked, Guinness Book of World Records, Anne of Green Gables, Perfect, Out of My Mind, Insurgent, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe moved one of my readers to tears.

Aristotle and Dante cover

This student literally hugged her copy when she was done with it, and while she is a prolific reader, this one made it to her “top book” award. If this student recommends it, then I’m sold.

Block E Best Books
Eleanor and Park, Everything Everything, The DaVinci Code, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, 3:59, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Crossover, The Maze Runner, Out of My Mind, The Hunger Games, The Perfectionist, Taste Test, Love that Dog, The Alchemist, Slappy New Year, Between Shades of Gray, Star Wars, The Popularity Papers

Out of My Mind seems to be a game changer for a few of my seventh grade readers.

Out of my Mind cover

Somehow, this sweet story of an eleven-year-old girl who is drastically underestimated has reached some students who I never would have pegged as liking “this kind of book.” One boy in particular has said it’s the best book he’s ever read, and if I could translate the look on his face into words, you wouldn’t doubt it.

Hopefully these titles my students shared will help with some of your purchasing choices this spring.

One thing to notice is that these titles aren’t the latest or newest publications, but they are fairly recently published, for the most part.

I think the important piece is not that we have the newest and hottest titles (not that it doesn’t help!), but that we realize that variety and availability are what matter. To illustrate this point, I’ll share an example: I purchased about 150 “new” books for my classroom library over the winter break, brought them back to Nicaragua in my suitcases, book talked them daily, and made them available to all of my students.

Variety and availability have made a significant difference in the reading habits and attitudes of many of my students. I didn’t spend a lot of money – some of the books I purchased second or third hand for fifty-cents apiece. I’ve reinforced the paperback covers with packing tape, and it helps. The point is that the books are readily available, and I know what I have in my library, I know my readers, and I can do my best to play matchmaker between book and reader.

How do you choose books for your classroom library? What are some of your must-haves?

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.

Knee to Knee Book Talking

This year, I’ve been consistent with a framework for each day’s classes. I follow the Penny Kittle model of Read – Write – Study – Create – Share which is described in both Write Beside Them and Book Love.

A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that while my students do talk during the “study” and “create” part of class, I could still incorporate more deliberate academic conversation. I was inspired by Buffy J. Hamilton’s twitter post about “knee to knee” conversation in her own classroom.

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Her post inspired me to do some “knee to knee” work in my classroom, too.

Instead of the “write” portion of our schedule, I changed it to “talk” and we had some deliberate, structured, academic talk.

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It didn’t take long, and the directions went like this:

  1. Partner up (for some classes, I chose the partners. For others, I let them choose. It was based on class dynamics).
  2. Take one minute to think about this: What’s worth talking about in your book? What do you notice? What matters?
  3. Partner A begins by talking about their independent reading book while partner B listens. Nonverbal communication is all that partner B can offer during this two minute section.
  4. Partner B responds with paraphrasing and offering their own opinion.
  5. Partner B continues by talking about their independent reading book while partner A listens. Nonverbal communication is all that partner A can offer during this two minute section.
  6. Partner A responds with paraphrasing and offering their own opinion.
  7. The class debriefs the experience together, and shares out their partner’s books when they think the class would be interested in adding these titles to the Next Reads Lists.

During the conversation, students should be “knee to knee” and not allow their backs to touch the backs of their chairs. This ensures that they are “leaning in” toward one another, and focused on communication with each other. It minimizes distractions and “noise” and encourages eye contact.

My seventh grade students enjoyed this structured conversation. They commented on the fact that it was difficult to sustain two minutes of talking sometimes, but that they also enjoyed sharing and listening when it comes to independent reading books.

They made connections with each other – for example, one set of partners discovered similarities with their books, as one student was reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and another was reading a nonfiction book about WWII.

 

Overall, the feedback from this activity was positive from students. It was good practice, getting over the “awkward” part of the conversation pushed them, and they were able to add to their next reads lists. They’ve asked if they can do it again, more often.

This simple activity doesn’t take much class time, and it doesn’t require any time to plan it in advance in the form of copies, accessing resources, etc. It’s something that can even be done on the spur of the moment.

I encourage teachers to put this simple strategy into their “back pockets” and pull it out and modify it on the fly. It’s fun, and kids learn.

How do you encourage “talk” in your classroom? I’d love to hear about it 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

Helping our Students Develop a Reader’s Identity through Reflection and Goal Setting

It’s the time of year when it’s important for students to reflect on their identities as readers. There is so much growth to celebrate – whether it be in disposition, habits, knowledge, fluency, or attitude.

Even though I see their growth, it’s important for our students to own it themselves, and to develop their own sense of identity instead of relying on my impression of who they are.

So we spent a little class time thinking and reflecting.

I asked them some questions to get them started. Who were we as readers when we started the year? How do we identify as readers now, and where do we want to be as readers at the end of the school year? What might that look like?

Now remember, I live in Nicaragua, the land of lakes and volcanoes.

We have lake and volcano views from our school. It’s stunning, and it’s part of our daily landscape. It’s what we know.

 

As we discussed what it means to have a reader’s identity, some of my seventh grade students struggled. They weren’t sure how to describe themselves, and they weren’t seeing their growth over the first half of the year.

Somehow (some moments in teaching defy description) we got to the idea of volcanoes. That we can all be a different type of volcano, and that it can describe who we are as readers.

We discussed four types of volcanoes: extinct, dormant, active, and exploding NOW. We soon decided to toss out the extinct volcano as a possibility, because there is no one in the class who never reads.

We described the three remaining possibilities, connecting reading identities to types of volcanoes:

  1. Dormant — Rarely reads, but lots of reading potential. Might remember what it was like to be active and erupt (in other words, be excited and enthusiastic about books and reading), but it might have been a long time ago…

  2. Active — Sometimes/often reads in spare time, enjoys reading, and has preferences about books, authors, genres, topics, forms, etc…

  3. Erupting NOW (we first used the word exploding, but switched to erupting because it’s more of a “volcano word”) — So excited about a topic, series, author, or genre… can’t get enough and won’t stop talking about it! We realized this category isn’t sustainable – we should actually move between the active and the erupting categories often.

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This illustration helped student visualize who they are and where they want to be as readers. They started to reflect and set goals, and realizing that they have identities as readers, and that those identities can improve and evolve.

Some of the initial reflections looked like this:img_2716-2.jpg

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I took our class ideas and created a simple reading volcano infographic that now hangs in our classroom library:

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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.

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

Teaching Strategies and Building Confidence when Deciphering Difficult Text — using an X-Ray!

I recently started playing ultimate frisbee on a somewhat regular basis. It’s been twice a week for about two months, and over the Thanksgiving weekend we added a Thanksgiving morning bonus match. The field has the occasional divot, and my body isn’t used to the start-stop-turn-reach-jump moves that are required in a friendly frisbee game.

After the bonus Thanksgiving match, my family traveled to Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua. It’s stunning, as it was created by two volcanos.

We went on a short hike the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we climbed to the top of one of the volcanos on Saturday, where we had an elevation gain of about 1200 meters in about ten kilometers.

I share this not so that anyone gets the mistaken impression that I’m always exercising, but instead to explain why I needed an X-ray on my poor worn-out foot the following week! And trust me, I’m getting to the reading connection shortly…

Reading difficulty can be measured and categorized in many ways: number of hours, number of pages, titles, genres, Lexiles, text bands, grade levels, content, topic, interest… I’m sure there are many more methods of measurement. Students are challenged by texts for any number of reasons, and sometimes they get stumped. They hit a wall, they run out of strategies and/or confidence for handling a text.

Back to the foot… Because I am in Nicaragua, I had the X-ray taken and then brought it to the doctor to decipher and diagnose the next day, so I had 24 hours to wonder about what I was looking at, or reading. But, when I looked at the X-ray of my foot, like some of my students, I hit a wall. It turns out, I don’t know how to read an X-ray.

foot xray

I realized that some of my students might feel the same way about texts they encounter as I felt about the X-ray – how can they possibly make meaning or find the answers?

So the next day, during the mini-lesson portion of one of my seventh grade English classes, I shared it the X-ray. I didn’t tell them anything before posting it. I didn’t tell them it was mine, or that it was a foot, etc. No information. I just asked if they had ever seen an X-ray and if they knew how to read one.

students with xray

I taped it to the window and invited them to read it. At first, they were a bit baffled. It’s difficult text!

However, with a little time and collaborative conversation, they started to make some sense of it. Some realizations they made as a group:

  • It’s a foot. (Hands have shorter bones)
  • It’s not both feet, but two views of the same left foot. (IZQ is one of the codes – short for izquierda, which is left in Spanish)
  • It belongs to me. (My name was in the lower corner)
  • The date the X-ray was taken. (Very small font, but still there!)
  • My birthday. (Lower corner)
  • Where the X-ray was taken (the name of the hospital is on the bottom)

The conversation was fun, and it felt like we were investigating something together. At this point I didn’t have the answer about whether or not anything was broken as I hadn’t seen the doctor yet, so we got to wonder together, and they knew I couldn’t give them the “right answer” just yet.

What we could do, was find some answers because we did have some knowledge. We simply realized that even with some knowledge, we didn’t have enough expertise, and that sometimes reading difficult stories and articles can make us feel the same way.

Which led us to the lesson, or the connection that the X-ray had to their own reading.

While none of us are orthopedic surgeons, we could still make sense of some of the more obvious pieces of information.

We built some confidence and realized that we could rely on context and background knowledge. We all know where the big toe is on a foot, and could tell where it was on the X-ray, for example.

In the same way, if we don’t learn how to read other texts, we will only be able to make sense of the most obvious things. But texts go beyond the obvious and into the beautiful, the debatable, and the inferential. That’s why we learn signposts, for example. So we can know the important things to notice and we can ask ourselves why. Why do these things matter.

We realized that with proper training and a deliberate education, in time, we could all learn how to read this X-ray, just like we can all learn to read difficult texts, just like we are learning to read challenging texts now.

My students enjoyed the activity, which took only about 15 minutes. They could see that no one is an expert in all kinds of texts, and that I, too, have my limitations. Being vulnerable and honest with students always seems to pay off.

Oh, and as for the final answer? Yes, it was broken, but no, I can’t blame frisbee or volcanoes. Turns out it was an injury from the summer, and the four consecutive days of exercise with no time for rest wasn’t so good for it… I’d been walking on a broken foot for five months… but that’s another story.

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

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.