Teaching “Book – Head – Heart” using Current Events

I’m a coward.

I tend to shy away from controversial issues in my classroom. I like to stick to the standards, stick to the canon, stick to what’s safe.

That means I don’t talk enough about current events with my students. It takes us all out of our comfort zones, and like many people, I like to stay in mine.

I realize it’s not the best way. Students need a safe place where they can learn to explore issues, even to get into the habit of paying attention to the news, and to discover and strengthen their own ideas and beliefs. While it’s not my place to tell them what to feel or value, I can help them to discover it within themselves.

So today I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I pushed myself in order to allow my students to explore who they are as individuals, using current events and the Book Head Heart framework as the tools.

I think it’s important to realize that students need a framework when discussing current issues. My students are polite, care about each other, and generally want to be knowledgable and feel smart about things. While that is a great start, I think they need a bit more guidance, especially with tough issues, which is where the Book Head Heart framework from Disrupting Thinking comes in.

Today I introduced that framework using Kwame Alexander’s powerful piece, Take a Knee.

I had already made an anchor chart for the wall, and then put the same information on the white board. It’s straight out of Disrupting Thinking.

BHH Anchor Chart
Small Book Head Heart Anchor Chart…It’s not artistic, it’s not beautiful, and many people could do it better…
BHH Whiteboard
White Board Notes – BHH

I instructed my students to take notes so that they could refer to the framework later when they were involved in their own independent reading. I explained that it’s the rare occasion when I will ask them to all write the same thing at the same time, but this was one of those times when I thought it was important enough to do.

I also included the information on Google Classroom, so it is now easily available in their own notes, online, and on my classroom wall.

While they took notes, I tried to explain different aspects of the BHH framework.

I talked about the fact that the Book category can mean any text, including video, infographics, short stories, poetry, etc.

By the time we were done with the discussion, they had added one more question to the Book questions: What is the story? It definitely connects to the question What is the story about, but when they were answering the second question after watching Alexander’s piece, they had to define what the story was before they could decide who was telling it.

We worked through the rest of the ideas in the Book Head Heart questions before watching the video.

My students had a lot of questions about the piece. I teach in an international school, so a few of my students needed background knowledge about what is customary and traditional during the national anthem. Some didn’t know what it means to take a knee. Some of them didn’t recognize the faces and names listed in the video. Questions like Who was Trayvon? and What is Ferguson? were cautiously asked. I had to remind myself that in 2014, many of my students were eleven years old. In 2012 they were nine. To them, some current events stem from ancient history.

What they did recognize was the power of the poetry.


We talked, shared ideas, provided some background knowledge and context for one another, and offered opinions in a safe place before watching it a second time. That time, in addition to the content, I asked them to pay attention to the pacing, the repetition, and when the repetition pauses or stops. I asked my students to think about how those moves impact them while they experienced the piece for the second time.

After the second viewing, I invited students to watch again and again as needed, but this time using their own devices and earbuds. They were impacted and interested enough to continue engaging with the text, and they started to answer the B-H-H questions both in small group discussions and on paper.

I loved listening to their talk, and later, reading their responses.

We gave each other permission to not have a comprehensive answer for the question in the Head category about how their thinking had been changed, challenged, or confirmed. Many of them didn’t have opinions about what it means to take a knee, but they could comment and discuss how they felt about the power of poetry and it’s ability to inspire and move an audience.

One student said that while she hadn’t been paying attention enough to the news to have an opinion, this powerful piece made her feel something deep in her heart. Comments about how one person can give other people confidence to stand up for their beliefs were quietly posed, and many students agreed that no matter what their opinion is on taking a knee, it’s important to be able to talk about it and try to understand the other side.

So there it is — the Book Head Heart framework helped to organize my students’ thoughts about a current event, about a controversial topic. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t comprehensive. But it was a start. They learned a little bit about what’s going on in the world, and they learned about themselves. I learned more about who they are and how they think.

Together, we proved that the quote I hang on my wall from Disrupting Thinking is true:

Ultimate goal of reading quote

We won’t always know how we will get better, or what we will get better at. It depends on the text and our purpose for reading it, but if we are thoughtful, we will undoubtedly be better.

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Teaching Parents about Workshop

When I was in high school, all of my classes read the same books at the same time. We wrote the same essays, gave the same speeches, and took the same notes. We barely had choices in the school cafeteria, let alone in our curriculum or classes. Student choice just wasn’t the focus.

During the first couple of weeks of this school year, it occurred to me that the parents of my students must have had similar experiences in school. They didn’t grow up with the workshop model, either. But unlike us teachers, they haven’t been reading about it, studying it, and living it. So it’s easy to see why not all parents feel familiar with it.

I posed this issue to my colleagues in my department, and we decided to address it at our school’s parent night.

We shared a couple of infographics which help to explain the power of reading. Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 11.05.23 AMScreen Shot 2017-06-12 at 9.03.33 AMI like both of these infographics because they blend the ideas and dispositions of the necessity and pleasure of having a healthy reading life with statistics and percentiles. They show actual growth and the ability for students to improve. I think this is the kind of information that parents respond well to.

We also included some information about the workshop model. We didn’t print a traditional syllabus or a list of school supplies students will need.

Instead, we tried to share some information about what workshop is. We created a department handout rather than handouts for our individual classes, which helps to solidify the message that workshop is what we do at our school.

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 5.36.05 PM

We also explained what kind of books “count” towards our classes. We explained that books of poetry, graphic novels, collections of short stories, along with novels, biographies, memoirs, etc are all “real books” and should be encouraged and allowed.

We explained that student choice is one of the foundational elements of workshop.

We explained that homework in our English classes will always include choice reading and notebook writing. That sometimes students will read shared texts, but most often the reading at home will be based on student choice.

We encouraged parents to support their students by asking often, What are you reading? because our students should always have a great answer, and it’s a great way to communicate with students about school and life.

It was a good reminder to me that parents are almost always interested in what’s going on in their students’ lives at school, and they appreciate learning about the details.

Communication with parents is always a good idea, and this particular issue is no exception.


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Reflections on a Deliberate Closing Activity

Getting into the daily habits and routines of the workshop model has been a rewarding challenge. Making the time for conferring, for book talks, and for mini lessons was my main focus last year, and this school year is no different. All of the elements of workshop are important, so I am working to keep the daily agenda transparent to my students, and I am constantly keeping an eye on my watch in order to time my classes just right. It’s not easy to get the rhythm just right, but with time and practice, it can only get better.


This fall I’ve been trying to follow the class agenda that is described in chapter four of Penny Kittle’s Book Love, and which is also described in Write Beside Them.

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One of the elements in her daily agenda is a closing activity, what I’ve heard her call Beautiful Words. So, I’m following suit. During the last few minutes of class, I ask students to share some beautiful words that either they read or wrote during the class period, and as we get more comfortable with our class discussions, I’ll add the category of beautiful words that they hear from each other.

It’s been a lovely way to end our classes. Students are learning that sharing out is low/no risk to them, and I think it eases them into feeling safe during the lengthier class discussions and debates.

They have shared words that they like hearing out loud. Yesterday a student talked about how she likes the way the word vinyl sounds.

We have shared first lines of books, and discussed how they hook the reader in right from the start. Yesterday we heard the first line from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Impromptu book talks have come out of this closing activity. When a phrase or sentence is especially intriguing, students want to know where it came from, and what’s that book about?

An interesting comment that came from our closing comments yesterday was about the book Girls Like Us by Gail Giles. Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 5.18.26 AMThe student who was reading it commented that her book is sometimes hard to understand because the characters don’t seem to be speaking “normally.” This comment took the class into a quick discussion about dialect, and strategies for understanding it. It was almost as though we had an impromptu mini lesson in the last three minutes of class. I’ll follow up and go into more detail later this week. We will talk not just about how to understand dialect, but what the purpose of it is, and why an author would choose to put it in a text.

After this quick interaction yesterday, I’m more firmly a believer in this particular closing activity. It’s going to drive one of our mini lessons this week, and it seems particularly relevant to my students. I wasn’t necessarily planning a lesson about dialect with them right away, but now that I know I have a class full of students who are curious about it, it’s a no-brainer. Of course we’ll study it.

The closing activity Beautiful Words is a great way to get to know my students as learners and as people, and it’s going to help drive the direction of our mini lessons. It serves more of a purpose than I expected, and I encourage others to make it a habit. It’s worth our time.

On the Purpose(s) of Reading Conferences

I love conferring with my students; I find that it’s a great way to get to know them as people, as learners, and as readers. This year, I look forward to getting to know them better as writers, too. But it’s not easy.

There’s much to consider and so little time in which to do it. For example, we have many students, some of whom are reluctant to confer, and we have to make a bigger effort in order to ensure we confer with them regularly. We have others who are eager to confer all of the time, and we have to gracefully prioritize everyone. Conferences should be meaningful while lasting between two and four minutes. The list of conferring challenges goes on… I’m sure we can all make our own lists of struggles.

Last year when I started teaching with the reader’s workshop model, I did my best to follow the advice and directions given in chapter six of Book Love. It’s invaluable, and if you haven’t read it, do.

In that chapter, Kittle organizes reading conferences into three different types:

  1. Monitoring the student’s reading life.
  2. Teaching strategic reading.
  3. Helping the student plan the complexity and challenge of her reading.

I like this organization and approach, and I found it to be a big challenge to do it exactly as described.

At the core, what I do with my students is what is described in Book Love. I only slightly modified it, and I like how it works. Below, I’ll share my thinking on the different purposes of the conference that are described in chapter six.

To me, the monitor feels like a check-in. It can be done in an official conference, but it often unofficially happens in the hallways, the library, at the beginning of class, and when I read the words they’ve written about their reading lives. I overhear student conversations, I participate in class discussions, and I ask the question “What are you reading?” all the time.

So when I need to check in with a student, I’ll ask some basic questions like How’s this book going for you? or Why did you choose it? What do you like about it? Does it feel like a challenge? too easy? or just right?

If I’ve already had that hallway conversation or have recently read a written response from this student, there’s a good chance I’ll know already which direction the conference needs to go in, so instead of asking those questions, I’ll move into either a help conference or a push conference.

Before I get to those two types, let me just point out that sometimes the conference stays in that first category – it is simply a check-in, and if the student is fine, reading something that seems on point considering all I know about the student, then I move on. I don’t linger; I let that student get back to the healthy reading life that she has.

However, if an answer to one or more of the questions (depending on how many I ask) seems like something is amiss, I quickly decide if the student needs help or a push.

If the student is struggling, then I try to determine if he needs some new reading strategies, or some help. Then I do my best to deliver. The goal is to help the student create meaning and to make the difficult text accessible, especially when the student is motivated and excited about the book he’s reading.

Over time, when students have found success with challenging books, have learned new reading strategies and skills, and have read more words and pages than ever before, previously challenging books become easy. In this case, we move into the push category of conferences.

This is a good time to ask about next reads lists, talk about the progression of the students’ reading over the course of the school year (reading ladders), and challenge students to expand their comfort zones and to read more challenging books. Challenging can mean many things: new genres, new forms, or higher Lexile levels, to name a few. It’s a time for long- and/or short-term goal-setting, and to remind students of how far they’ve progressed. The reminder and celebration of the personal accomplishments can inspire challenging reading goals that the students believe they can accomplish.

When I was doing some thinking and processing about student conferences last year, I came up with a mini-anchor chart for teachers, or a placemat, I guess, which can be used when conferring with students.

It’s still hand-written, and I’m sure at some point I’ll digitize it. But at this point it represents my thinking about reader’s workshop conferring, and it works for me. I’ve pasted a copy in the front cover of the notebook I use when conferring with students, and it serves as a gentle reminder to me when I talk to students about their reading lives.

I really want my students to cycle through the help and the push category of conferences, because that’s when I know they are learning. They need help with difficult texts until those texts become independently manageable. Then they need a push, into more difficult texts, and the cycle repeats.


I love Penny Kittle’s work. I have been able to take her ideas and use them directly in my classroom. They are practical and simply make sense. They also push my thinking and my practice, and are adaptable, as I’ve described above. I would suggest that Book Love should be required reading for all teachers who teach using the workshop model, even though I believe in the power of choice reading.

I wish that all teachers find success with conferring. I know it’s sometimes intimidating and can seem unmanageable, but it’s so worth the time and effort. Getting to know our students as readers is essential, and conferring might just be the best way of doing it.


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On Being Vulnerable in the First Days of School

Tomorrow is my first day of school with students for the upcoming school year. My own children are entering the 5th and 9th grades, and it feels like a big milestone year. One more year with a child in elementary school, and the beginning of high school for the other. It’s a big deal.

As much as I’m thinking about how quickly their childhoods are going by, I’m realizing that parents all over the world are feeling the same way about their own children. That I have two groups of ninth graders starting high school tomorrow, and their parents are feeling that same combination of whimsy and excitement and “how am I old enough to have a child in high school” and “when did my baby grow taller than me” that I am feeling. Or at least something similar.

I’m thinking about how I’m going to connect with these students, how I’m going to convince them that they can trust me with their writing and thinking this year, and most importantly, how they will learn to trust each other in a reading and writing community of their peers. How will I ensure that they find my class relevant? How will I ensure that they become people who like to read, and who look forward to writing? And the ones that already do? How will I challenge them, nurture them, and help them to become more independent?

Last year was my first year of teaching within the workshop model, and my classes were focused on reading. The students had separate writing classes last year, but now we are combining them. I’m looking forward to this change; it will be a new challenge for me, and I’ll get to know students in a way I didn’t last year.

The change also means I’m studying Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, taking lots of notes, watching the videos that come with the digital resources, and maybe I’m overthinking the first day or two of classes.

Better to overthink than under-plan, I suppose.

One of the things I’ve noticed is the vulnerability Kittle displays with her students. She writes about sharing her process, and not her final product. In her videos, she demonstrates asking students for advice about structure and craft in her own writing, and in doing so, models exactly the vulnerability and openness she wants her students to learn. Her students follow her lead, and they produce beautiful writing.

I’m going to be deliberate about following her lead.

I’m originally from Oregon, and for the fifteen years before I moved to Amman, I lived in the center of the state: in Prineville, a town of fewer than 10,000 people. Today happens to be the day of the total eclipse of the sun, and there are significantly more people than that in the area for this event.

Suffice it to say that I would love to be there to witness the spectacle of the crowds, to observe this once-in-a-lifetime event (I know there have been others, and there will be others, but right above my house?), and to generally feel the energy that comes with something like this. But I’m also glad to miss the crowds, not worry about running out of gas, and to avoid the traffic gridlock that has accompanied the scene.

Why does this matter? It matters because I will share my feelings and experience with my students. I’ll talk to them about the eclipse, which even across the planet they are certain to know about. But I won’t talk to them about the science or math or physics of it. I’ll talk to them about what it means to me. About how I hope my parents, who live in the middle of town, won’t go out and get caught in an hours-long traffic jam. About how I hope all of these visitors will respect the cleanliness and beauty that is in small-town-Central-Oregon. About how I am glad I am here for the first day of school, but in another lifetime, I’d be there in the center of the chaos.

I will be vulnerable.

I’ll share about what I read over the summer, and I’ll specifically book talk the YA novel I deliberately read about a solar eclipse: Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass. It’s a sweet story about three teenagers who are looking for their personal identities and might not even realize it. It’s relatable and relevant to the topic of the solar eclipse, and I’ve looked forward to sharing it with students since I finished reading it.


I also plan to talk to my students about the reader’s and writer’s notebook, and when I do that, I’ll use the question in chapter four of Write Beside Them which says, “What’s in a writer’s notebook?” and includes the following quote from Sylvia Plath:



I’ll ask students to respond to the quote on the chart, and to realize that they are full of experiences and ideas worth writing about. Worth reading about. Missed experiences might be just as valuable as the first-hand. That we all have self doubt, but together, we can find the guts to get past it and write.

I’ll ask them to contribute phrases from their own writing and brainstorming on the anchor chart so that we can refer to it and remember that we are all full of good ideas. We just need to be brave enough to try.

What’s different for me in this particular part of the class is that I’ll be writing and revising with them (beside them!), and I’ll write about the eclipse that I’m not witnessing, but that still somehow has an impact on me. I’ll try to link my writing to the idea that “everything in life is writable,” even including things that we don’t actually experience (like my eclipse!), because we are unique, have our own thoughts and feelings, and we matter.

I’ll write publicly, show my quick revisions, and deliberately model vulnerability.

I will try to validate their ideas through my vulnerability.

Hopefully this first class will set the tone for the rest of the year. We’ll do a quick practice of writing, revising, and sharing. We will ask each other for input, critiques, and help. We’ll celebrate each other’s victories and vulnerabilities, and we’ll learn to be better readers, writers, and thinkers.

Wish us luck!

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda, DID!

I sit here in the sunshine, smelling freshly cut grass and sipping my coffee slowly, back home in Oregon after finishing my third year teaching abroad.

I am reflecting on the school year. I think about the things I didn’t do, about what my students didn’t learn. It’s not the best mental space.

I don’t think I’m the only one with these thoughts. Some of us teachers sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome. We imagine we could have squeezed in more conferences, or if it hadn’t been for some extenuating circumstances beyond our control, we would have taught one more unit, and of course, whatever we did, we should have done it better.

I often feel this way. I wish I’d been better at assessment this year. I wish I would have held a few of my students more accountable, and sooner. I wish I could go back and have some “do-overs,” but of course that’s not realistic.

I think a lot of us teachers have these moments of self-doubt, and in these moments we forget about the successes we have shared with our students.

Instead of wishing for things I can’t have, I am going to try something new this June. I am going to think of the successes, the celebrations, and the improvements. My students grew, and I think instead of questioning this concept, I should attempt to validate it.

I think that’s what all of us educators should do in the month of June. Celebrations, small and large, should be spoken out loud, written about, discussed, and high-fived over coffee. We’ve all faced challenges over the course of the school year, and we have overcome. We’ve won.

Let’s talk about it.

I’ll start with some of mine.

Many of my students now remember what it’s like to be readers. They rediscovered that love within themselves, and they can articulate it. They smile about it. And they are grateful. It’s good energy to be a part of.

Many of my students have increased their text complexity comfort zone. I had one student who started the year saying his favorite book was from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Our teacher-librarian then recommended The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to him, which he read. It was his first book of the school year. He was in grade eleven.

Some time after Part-Time Indian, he picked up A Thousand Splendid Suns, because it was a book that I book talked to the class. He then read The Kite Runner, and didn’t stop there. His text complexity band and comfort zone expanded far beyond what he or I had hoped, and it didn’t take too long. He now says that he likes reading, but before this year he hated it, and never considered himself a reader. That’s a big deal.

I have several anecdotal stories like his. One girl reflected that she is now a competent, confident reader because of the daily book talks. She hadn’t realized how many great books were out there, and she didn’t know how to choose books on her own. Now she does. She’s a better student and is grateful to have rediscovered her love of reading.


Another student has already emailed me about her summer reading. She chose 13 Reasons Why off of the Summer Reading Suggestions board pictured below, and listened to it on her flight home. She took the time to send me a picture of her progress and let me know that she is enjoying it. It my sound like a small thing, but I’m not so sure it is. She’s someone I haven’t had in class before, but our school culture has changed to one that expects reading from everyone, and she knows that her new English teacher thinks it’s just as important as the teacher she had this year did.


On the last day of classes, I asked my eleventh grade students to do an impromptu book talk. I asked them to recommend a highlight from the school year, and to share it with the class for summer reading suggestions. I gave them a few minutes to prepare, and then let them start.

Each student immediately had a book in mind.

If I’d asked them to do this at the beginning of the year, I think only a few of them would have felt as confident with the titles they chose. As a class they organized the time and presentation order, asked each other thoughtful questions, and even referred to our anchor charts about what makes a good book talk. It was a fun and useful end of year wrap-up.


Anecdotal evidence is good, but it’s also nice to look at the numbers. This was the first year our school tried the readers workshop model. By mid-autumn, all of the teachers in our department were all-in, pushing reading hard. It paid off. The circulation numbers in our learning commons went up by 76%.


The teachers and students in our school should be proud. We should celebrate.

Students are using the library more than ever, selecting books, recommending titles, and best of all, they are reading.

There’s a lot to celebrate, and I’m going to do my best to focus on the celebrations rather than the regrets or the things I wish I’d done better. I’ll give myself permission to celebrate what’s good, and not mourn what wasn’t perfect. I’ll of course think about how I could improve the things that need improvement, but unlike other years, I’ll try to commit to myself that it won’t be my main focus.

I know that the school year wasn’t perfect, but the myth of the perfect teacher, the perfect school year, is just that: a myth.

We grow by reflecting on our mistakes, failures, and regrets, but we also grow by reflecting on what goes well, and what we want to repeat with other students and in new classes. 

So, as you reflect on your own school year and your own practice, I encourage you to remember the successes large, small, and all the sizes in-between. By focusing on them, we will gain momentum in planning for future school years, lessons, and interactions with our students. We all have stories like or better than the ones I’ve shared in this post.

Let’s focus on the positives, give ourselves credit, and share with each other.

Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Book Talks for Summer Reading

I wish I had another couple of weeks with my students.

I know that’s counterintuitive – often teachers are counting down the days until that first glorious lazy summer morning. We dream of sipping our coffee slowly, while it’s still hot, and of eating breakfast at an actual table instead of during the drive to school or even during the break between our first and second classes of the day.

I look forward to those things, too, but I still wish I had a few more days with my students to really get them geared up for their summer reading.

In a way, we’ve been preparing for summer all year. They have been developing healthy reading lives, learning to read independently, to choose their own books, and to have rich discussions about what they’ve read.

But I know summertime is when some good habits slide, when schedules change from week to week, and when routines can be scarce.

It’s when fragile reading lives can falter, and I want to encourage my students for just a few more days, reminding them that they, too, are readers.

We’ve focused on creating robust next reads lists, most often through daily book talks. We’ve book talked titles that can be found in our school’s library and in my classroom library. Books that students can have in their hands before the end of the class period.

But for the last few weeks I’ve tried something a little different. I’ve chosen books that we don’t have in our school library collection, and that I don’t have in my classroom library. (One unique aspect of teaching internationally is that we get shipments once per year. I can’t wait for next fall when we will get tons of new titles in both our school library and our classroom libraries! Waiting is the hardest part… but it will be so worth it!) For these booktalks, though, I’ve chosen titles that can be found in airport bookstores, in county libraries back in the States, and of course, online.

I have booktalked new-to-us titles that many students have never seen before, and they are adding these titles to their next reads lists, which they keep in the notes app on their phones. This way, when they are traveling, out of their normal routines this summer, and they find themselves needing a book, they can reach into their pockets and find those lists of books they knew they would like.

I’ve encouraged my classes to download the kindle app onto their phones and other devices so they can access books and read anywhere. I’ve told them that if they are traveling to the US, their local libraries will have many, if not all, of these titles. If they don’t have access to a library or bookstore, downloading the titles is pretty simple. It’s exciting to think that their healthy reading lives can and will extend into the summer months.

Continue reading “Book Talks for Summer Reading”