The Classic – Contemporary Literature Mash-Up, and Taking Risks

My ninth grade students have all of the voice and choice that they need when it comes to choosing their independent reading books. Our focus has been on narrative reading and writing as we have launched the school year, so as you can guess, finding narratives that students want to read is pretty easy. The choices are really wide-open.

The choices that students don’t have as much voice in are the mentor texts. Those short, whole-class texts that we all read together, and that we use for so many different purposes.

Our curriculum suggests that we read James Thurber’s classic short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty , originally published in 1939 in The New Yorker, during this launching unit. It’s a great story, and once the students understand that Walter Mitty isn’t actually an airplane pilot or a surgeon, they can relate to him and his daydreams. We’ve all been there, daydreaming about being somewhere other than our current reality.

We read the story in class; I did a think-aloud with the first section, reading the dialogue with different voices and inflection. For example, I stopped and talked to my students about how the punctuation clues me in to shifts in setting, and how the use of “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” brings me right into the scene. I can hear the noise of the airplane, and can see how the sound intensifies in the story through the use of italics.

I asked my students to read and annotate – always read with a pencil in your hand! – using the Book Head Heart framework we have practiced several times. While some of my students “got it” right away, I didn’t feel the engagement in the room that I was hoping to feel. They weren’t relating to Walter Mitty like I was hoping they would.

A about the same time I was teaching Walter Mitty, our department received our new classroom libraries (more on that later! So exciting!) and I picked up our new copy of Kwame Alexander’s Booked, a book I had looked forward to reading since I had read Crossover for the Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club. As soon as I brought it home, my ten-year-old son spotted it and then read it in one sitting, hooked because it has a soccer ball on the cover, and of course because the story is engaging and powerful. It is an absolutely beautiful book, and it reaches kids.

Hanging right outside my classroom door, this sign helps me to be public about my reading life.

After I got the book back from my son, I keyed in to the scene when our main character, Nick Hall, has a daydream sequence. Let me set the scene… he’s in his boring English class, and his mind starts to wander… he’s about to score the “winning kick of [his] Barcelona debut” when his English teacher interrupts the daydream and prevents him from winning the imaginary game.

This sounds suspiciously similar to when Walter Mitty is about to save the imaginary crew of his imaginary plane from dying in an imaginary hurricane, and his wife tells him “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” and jolts him back to the reality of driving to town. I realized that Walter Mitty and Nick Hall have some things in common, and that maybe Nick Hall is more relatable to my ninth grade students. An excerpt from Booked could help my students access Walter Mitty.

I also realized that we hadn’t talked about the use of verse for telling a narrative story. It seemed like the perfect time to introduce Nick Hall to my students and to show them that there are multiple ways to write a narrative.

So the following day I asked my students to narrate a story from Walter Mitty’s point of view, but write it as though they are Kwame Alexander writing about Nick Hall. To mash up a classic story with a contemporary one. This was a great exercise in character study, in word choice, in voice. It was a way for my students to be creative while exploring and playing with these characters. There were beautiful “lightbulb” moments in those thirty minutes of class, and students started to understand who Walter Mitty is, and what his motivations are. They discovered who Walter Mitty is because they could understand Nick Hall. Like Nick, they have all been bored in class before, and they all know soccer. It clicked with them.

I used my R/W notebook as a model for mimicking the Thurber-Alexander mashup.

Before class, I worked on my own Booked-Walter Mitty mash-up.

I copied the first part of our excerpt from Booked:

Mrs. Hardwick’s Honors English class

is one boring

required read

after another.

Here’s what I wrote in that same style:

Mrs. Mitty’s Weekly Trips to Town

are one boring

stupid stop

after another.

I shared my own writing with my students, letting them know that it was far from perfect, but I was having fun playing with words and form.

I showed them that later in my writing I used the word slow deliberately in my mash-up – I tried to play with Alexander’s use of font choices as I was writing from Walter Mitty’s point of view. I wrote s  l  o  w  in my own notebook, stretching out the letters, trying to slow the pace of the reader, looking for effect, similar to when Nick Hall’s friend whispers to him in tiny, italicized font, and we know it’s a quiet voice. I capitalized all of the letters in HITS in my own writing, trying to copy the effect of SLAMS from the Nick Hall excerpt.

Then I let them loose to do the same. To have fun with words, to play in their readers-writers notebooks, and to start to understand the characters and forms better.

Our class had some great discussion; we talked about author’s purpose, which translated to their own purpose in writing. We talked about the effect on the reader, and how authors’ choices are deliberate, but that it takes time to write exactly what we mean.

We played with words, with language, with character, and we deepened our understanding of all of them.

As I informally debriefed this lesson with our school’s teacher-librarian/high school literacy coach @jtlevitt (I’m often at her desk, pondering something that happened in class and asking her for her thoughts on how to sharpen my workshop skills), she directed me to chapter six in Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. Kittle writes:

How do I choose mentor texts? I look for the best writing in the genre we’re studying while we’re studying it. That way I find fresh work I can read with students for the first time discovering a writer’s craft. Most model texts used again and again become dull for me, so I’m always seeking the surprise of new ideas.

My friend and literacy coach showed me that I also was finding the freshest, best writing in the genre we are studying: narrative. That new ideas are powerful, and not only keep students engaged, but excite the teacher as well.

I look forward to finding more pieces of literature that I can use to help my students’ understanding of story, of words, of form. I like this mash-up of literature, and the mimicking and discovery that comes with it.

Update: I’m adding an exemplar piece from one of my students. She and I are both very proud.

Follow Julie on Twitter: @SwinehartJulie


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.

IMG_2679 2

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!

On Being Public Regarding My Reading Life

Summer is the best time.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the fall. Really. The beginning of the school year is so full of potential and possibilities, how could a teacher not love it?

But summer is traditionally my time for reading. And I get to read whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want. That is glorious.

Before I started teaching reader’s workshop, I didn’t worry about what I was reading. I read a ton of brainless detective fiction and thrillers all summer long, and I loved it. And I won’t apologize for it.

But no one was asking me what I was reading, and I didn’t have my students in mind. It wasn’t expected that I would talk to my students about my reading life, and even rarer that a student would ask about it. It’s wild to think about now; I don’t understand that as an English teacher, as a person who loves literature, I wasn’t a book pusher. I was an assignment giver. Erg. 

Things are different now. Better.

I’m a book pusher, and boy does it feel good.

Now that I’m teaching workshop, I can’t help but think about my students as I pick up a book and begin to read. Is it a great first sentence? Could I book talk this one? How about putting it on a themed list?

Which means no more mindless thrillers… nothing too gruesome, nothing that I wouldn’t want to go public about.

A year ago I might have balked at the idea of this – that I was supposed to report back to teenagers regarding my reading life.

But now, I can’t wait to share it!

I’ve read thirteen books so far this summer, and it’s only July. I could have read more, I’m sure, but some summers I’ve read less. I call it a win, especially because I can talk to my students about (nearly) all of the books I have read.

I started with Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton. My husband had read it and recommended it to me, and when I got to my parents’ house in Oregon, my mother recommended it to me. How could I not with these two recommendations?

I know I’ve got some students who will enjoy it based on the fact that they loved Jurassic Park and Sphere, and it’s nice to have that “in” with some historical fiction, which can be a hard sell.

IMG_1405Next I read All the Light We Cannot See. It was a book club selection more than a year ago, and I somehow skipped it. How glad I am that I picked it up and tried it this summer. This time, I recommended it to my husband, and he loved it too. I look forward to sharing this title with students – watching the different stories converge was both fun and tense.

After that, I listened to Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. It was glorious. I was on a five hour solo drive in my convertible, driving through Oregon’s forests and high desert. I know that under these circumstances, any book would be fantastic, but honestly,  this title is a winner. I’m more likely to recommend it to colleagues than teenagers, but I’ll happily talk about it with students. It made me laugh out loud, and it often hit way too close to home. It has one of the best first paragraphs I’ve heard in a while.

IMG_1490My next book was a YA, Openly Straight, recommended to me by my son. I’d wanted to read this one for a few months, and was happy to have a book to discuss with him. It is a great story about a teenager trying to figure out who he is and who he wants the world to see him as. Any teenager, any human, can relate to this struggle. It’s a beautiful book. I can’t wait to recommend it to my students.

IMG_1507Next was The Crossover, part of the Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club. I have to admit that I don’t always love books about sports, nor do I usually pick up books written in verse. This book pushed my thinking, and I look forward to sharing and discussing it with my students next year. Now I understand why a few of my ninth grade boys loved it last year.


I read The Silver Star by Jeanette Wells next, a book I didn’t even know existed until I found it on the shelves of a used book store. It reminds me of The Death of Santini and The Great Santini, and I think it will make a nice bridge of a book for some of my students who loved The Glass Castle, and might be able to get into some of Pat Conroy’s heavier novels. What I love about these books is that I can talk to my students about the power of writing. These children grew up in wildly difficult circumstances, and through writing, they found success, they found their own paths, and are now respected authors, and most importantly, respected and loved humans.


Since The Silver Star, I finished In The Woods by Tana French. I had read and book talked The Secret Place last year, and one of my freshman girls put in a ton of effort to get through it. I was proud of her and she was thrilled that she finished it. I look forward to talking to her about the rest of the series, and I think other students who love detective fiction will like this set of books.

IMG_1933After In the Woods I read Tigers in Red Weather, which was a really fun, quick read, and had some great nods towards The Great Gatsby. I also read spy novel Legends by Robert Littlel. One of my favorite summer reads is The Company, so I thought I’d try something new by the same author. I wasn’t disappointed. I also re-read A Prayer for Owen Meany. This is another title from the Book Love Foundation Book Club, and it shouldn’t need much introduction. If you haven’t read it, drop everything and read it. It’s that good. It also has a great first sentence.


Orphan Train is a book I finished today and can’t wait to book talk. It references Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre, it’s a quick read, and super-compelling. The main character feels alone, alienated, and wants to find a safe place in this world. I think all of us have felt that way in one sense or another, so it will be an easy “sell” to my students.

I’m still reading The Liar’s Club. For some reason it’s a slower read for me, so I keep going back to it between books. Maybe it’s the thread that will tie my summer reading together, I’m not sure. I like it, and it reminds me of The Glass Castle. I think I have some tenth grade girls who love a good memoir, so this will be a great match.

The last book on my list is the one I probably won’t talk to students about. It’s Find Her by Lisa Gardner. I like the author, and I’ve read several of her books over the last few summers. I’ll keep reading her books, no doubt. But reading it also made me realize that I don’t want to read the gruesome, serial killer thriller type of book as much I used to. I like detective D. D. Warren. I like her back story, and I generally really like detective fiction. It’s just that I don’t feel as comfortable talking to students about it as I do the other books I’ve read this summer.

Here’s the hopeful takeaway from this blog post: As I’ve chosen books to read this summer, I’ve felt that I would be a bit more public about my choices than I was in the past.

I think the same is true for students who are in a reader’s workshop class, and that’s the really important part. Maybe it’s too obvious, but when people – students, teachers, whoever – feel that they are going to talk about what they are doing, when they feel that someone else cares, they are likely to do better.

Last year, I watched my students stretch from middle school level books to young adult books to contemporary fiction. It’s not simply because they felt a sense of confidence. They also felt compelled to share with others, and that brings its own internal push.

I’m feeling that internal push to go public with my reading life.

I think the workshop model does that to all of us, and it makes us better readers. It makes us better thinkers. By being better thinkers, we become better readers.

I think going “public” is going to be really important. I’ll be careful, respectful of my students’ privacy, of course, but talk is what it’s going to be all about next year. Talk about books, about what we are reading.

I think we should all go as public as possible, because our next reads lists will become phenomenal.