Some Favorites from 2018’s Youth Media Awards

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I’ll let you in on a secret. My favorite holiday is not on any national calendars. It doesn’t coincide with a school break. And only a few people I know celebrate it too.

It’s the Youth Media Awards ceremony, which takes place during the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference each year.

The leaders of ALA’s youth and teen divisions host a live webcast as they announce the year’s finalists and winners in Youth Media Award categories like the Printz, Morris, and YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Awards. Like many other librarians, the announcement of the YMAs sends me into a frenzy–locating, reading, and purchasing these lauded titles for my students. I have been making my way through as many of them as possible over the past six weeks and have discovered some gems for my staff and students.

We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour (Printz Award winner)

The Michael L. Printz Award is given for excellence in literature written for young adults. It’s the big, all-encompassing award. I wanted to check out We Are Okay immediately because I think it came as a bit of surprise to many people.

The book follows the character Marin, as she prepares to spend her first winter break of her college career alone in her New York City dorm. Her grandfather, with whom she has always lived, has recently passed away, an event shrouded in sadness and a distinct sense of mystery. She is expecting her best friend, Mabel, to arrive to spend a few days, but the anticipation of this visit is also heavy with tension and complicated history.

The novel’s mood is soft, subtle, and often somber. Yet LaCour artfully builds suspense in her characters’ experiences, creating a novel about those parts of ourselves we share openly–and those that we keep hidden.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (Morris Award Winner, Coretta Scott King Author Finalist, Printz Finalist, and Odyssey Award Winner)

One of the books that received copious buzz in the YA book world this year, The Hate U Give follows 16-year-old Starr as she tries to find a balance between her modest home life, in a neighborhood full of other African American people from similar backgrounds, and her fancy suburban prep school, where she is always a racial minority and frequently subject to racist and tokenizing prejudices.

When Starr sees her childhood best friend, Khalil, shot by a police officer under the auspices of public safety, she finds herself in an entirely new internal battle. Does she remain quiet, knowing that what she witnessed was a horrible crime deserving of punishment? Or does she speak out publicly, putting herself in the spotlight for scrutiny and the always-disappointing public opinion?

No one in the book universe was surprised to see this title on so many lists. It’s a gripping, gritty statement about police brutality that our young people need to read.

Saints and Misfits, by S.K. Ali (Morris Finalist)

An equally welcome voice in the Morris race (the award for debut YA authors) is found in the character Janna, the Muslim Indian-American hijabi teenager at the center of Saints and Misfits. The sheer lack of representation of Muslim experiences in YA literature would make this book a necessary addition to the pool, but Janna’s voice is what caught my attention. She finds nuance while describing her strict adherence to a conservative religious lifestyle, while maintaining a teenage girl’s life.

Saints and Misfits is an honest, contemplative story with a surprising amount of humor–and tremendous heart.

The 57 Bus, by Dashka Slater (Stonewall Award, YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist)

You might have seen my colleague Megan Kortlandt’s post about giving this book away. She bumped it onto my radar, but when it popped up on two awards’ lists, it became a priority read. Totally worth it!

The 57 Bus is the story of two teens, one of whom set the other on fire while riding the bus across Oakland, California. It’s a story that captures people’s attention quickly because of the sheer horror of the event. My students want to read this book immediately after hearing the premise.

What makes this book incredible is the way that Slater writes about each kid with such detail and care. She delicately delves into two complicated worlds–those of non-binary gender identity and of violence-riddled life in a troubled neighborhood—allowing us to see the people who live in them.

Nonfiction can be challenging for many students, but this is an accessible piece in which everyone can find pieces of themselves or someone they know.

Have you read any of this year’s award-winners or finalists? I’d love to hear from you about your favorites!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.  Bethany is strangely fond of zombies in almost all forms of media, a fact which tends to surprise the people that know her.  She has two children below age five, and is grateful at the end of any day that involves the use of fewer than four baby wipes.

Aligning Spaces, Strategies, and Assessments for a Powerful Student Voice

Notes from the Classroom


Note: This post was originally published on April 11, 2018, on ASCD’s inService Blog.

Every student in every classroom has a voice. Students’ voices come from their understanding of who they are, in what they believe, and why they have these beliefs. Within the context of education, student voice can be broadly defined as individual perspectives and actions of learners.

We believe that bringing out student voice is not a one-time happening; rather, it is a process, in which we, educators, need to carefully guide our students. Student voice is deeply connected to children’s understanding of who they are as individual beings. Because of this, nurturing student voice requires adult attention on many levels, including personal, academic, and social. There are three main areas of teaching that need to align in order for students to feel empowered to discover and share their voices: learning spaces, teaching strategies, and assessments.

1. Creating Physical Spaces that Promote Student Voice

Student voice is increasingly being considered a vital component of shared decision-making in secondary classrooms. If we truly believe in the value of students as co-designers of their learning, we first have to listen to their voice through giving them choices within the physical environment of a classroom.

The layout of furniture and learning tools should be determined by the anticipated types of learning and individual students’ needs: room for collaboration, conferencing, small groups, anchor charts, norms, mentors/models, student charting, and even separate independent practice space.

As the year unfolds and students have experienced various seating arrangements, offer them the opportunity to choose their own settings.  For example, students understand that collaboration is an important aspect of our class so about half of the tables are arranged into groups of four to six students. Why only half? Because when asked, some students expressed that sitting in a collaborative group is distracting when working independently or during direct instruction. Students advocated for some of our tables to stay in a group of two or face toward our large window.

A growing population of students also seems to be performing better if afforded movement, including standing during the class period.  Thus, a standing table was incorporated into our classroom. In addition, a low table with legless swivel chairs is available to students who need room to stretch out and move without distracting others.

Not only does asking students to be co-designers of their physical environment promote shared decision-making, but it also invites them to reflect on themselves as learners.

2. Choosing Strategies and Projects that Help Students Find Their Voice

Creating learning experiences that connect to real life opportunities, student interests, and authentic audiences can ignite voice, choice, and ultimately, learning. There are endless ways to incorporate such experiences in our classrooms.

This year, instead of starting the new calendar year with drafting extensive New Year’s resolutions, students engaged in the #OneWord2018 project to express in one word what mattered to them in 2018: a single virtue, challenge to overcome, or passion. They viewed a clip from The Today Show about stamped washer bracelets created by jewelry maker Chris Pan, searched the trending hashtag, and considered how their #OneWord might impact their lives and lives of those around them. Students had the opportunity to craft a washer bracelet as a daily reminder of their goal; many of them added to the trending Twitter hashtag.

Another example of an assignment that promotes student voice and choice and can be used in a number of settings is the Storytelling project, originally done in a college freshman composition class. With the premise that every person has a story and can teach us a valuable lesson, students were to tell a compelling story about an average person in their life. They were given a choice to interview anyone they desired through the lenses of discovering one important experience that shaped this person in who she or he was today. Students had to create their own questions, schedule interviews, take notes or record their conversations, create a verbal sketch of their subject, and finally, write a profile featuring the person and his or her story. At the end, they were to share their stories with their subjects and receive feedback. This project gave students a lot of freedom to think and be creative with their own story. More importantly, it gave them an opportunity to figure out why their person matters and share their voices. This project was also impactful in the way that it created bonds between people and brought valuable perspectives to both interviewers and interviewees.

Any opportunity students have to share their ideas outside of our classroom walls grows their understanding that not only do their words matter, but that we, educators, believe that their words can make a difference. Encouraging students to submit writing to contests, newspapers, magazines and, when possible, inviting parents and community members in as an authentic audience are all ways to show the importance of student voice. Depending on the assignment, visitors may simply serve as listening ears; other times, they may be able to offer valuable feedback about students’ creative ideas, book recommendations, business plans, writing, presentation skills, and other aspects of student work.

3. Redesigning Grading and Assessments to Encourage Student Ownership of Their Work

How we approach grading student work tells them a lot about what matters in our classrooms. There are two areas that we need to consider if we wish to show students that their voice is important: making students part of their own assessments and shifting the focus from grading the final output to assessing the entire work that goes in a specific project or assignment.

Making students part of their own assessments

Involving students in determining what skills should be assessed and how they should be measured is one way to promote student voice. In a 7th grade Language Arts classroom, students examined several versions of one particular assignment: some were exemplars, while others exhibited beginning and developing skills. Students determined how closely each example met the task, as well as strengths and shortcomings of each one. Based on these noticings, small groups brainstormed components and skills that should be present within the task and assessed on the rubric. Students came together as a whole class to compare drafted rubrics, make compromises, merge, revise and even delete some components. In the end, the process captured each student’s ideas, as well as deepened their understanding of a specific genre.

Students’ choices are also important in selecting how they can best communicate their understanding of the topic or task.  Giving students the option of a written task, constructing a piece of art, or creating a project using technology highlights student strengths and passions.

Assessing the entire work that goes in a specific projects

To continue the example of the Storytelling Project, the entire preparatory work that went into writing a profile was assessed along with the final essay. To put more emphasis on the process of voice discovery, students were to produce a Profile Portfolio, which consisted of interview questions and notes, sketch notes, first and final drafts, and students’ own input in their assessment–their end-of the-project reflection. Every component was worth a specific amount of points, and omitting one would mean a lower grade.

After sharing their writing with their profiled person, students reflected on the meaning of this project and writing process to them as writers. A quote from one student’s reflection captures the discovery: “My grandpa and I had a lot of fun doing this journalistic writing project. Yet, he did not help me write it sitting by the computer; he did help me write it in word. His words were powerful to me. We both learned a lot. He learned that his words can be sent down to other generations and then permeated throughout the world. No matter if it is on paper or not. I learned that a story isn’t just a story. It depends on what one wants to see in it.”

In a strategic environment, teachers afford students opportunities to choose where and how they work, interact with one another, share, reflect and document their thinking. As a result, students simultaneously develop their subject-specific know-how and form better knowledge of who they are as learners and individuals.

Arina Bokas, Ph.D., is the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine and a writing instructor at Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan. She is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From Schools to Communities. Connect with Bokas on Twitter.

Monica Phillips is a Language Arts teacher and ELA Department Chair at Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, Michigan. She also serves as a Professional Learning Community coordinator and facilitator for secondary teachers in her district. Connect with Phillips on Twitter.

 

5 Ways I Sneak Poetry into My Rhetoric Class

Notes from the Classroom


Full disclosure: I’ve never thought of myself as a poetry person. I taught a lot of Debate for the first half of my career and then I shifted into AP Language and Composition. I’m argument, research, rhetoric. Not poetry.

It’s not that I dislike poetry–I loved studying it in high school and college–but the way I studied it has never meshed with the curriculum I teach.

In the past few years, however, I’ve found poems popping up at just the right moment, providing exactly the messages or skill lessons my students need.  

Here are five ways I sneak poetry into a rhetoric class:

A Way to Begin Tough Conversations

Though I sometimes avoided hot topics as a young teacher, there is little today that I’m unwilling to discuss with my students. Still, I try very hard to reign in my own opinions because whether I like it or not, many students see me as the person who holds the position of power in the room. What I share with the class shows what I value, and I must be careful how I use my voice.  

For me, poems are often a good starting point because their arguments are less explicit than those you would find in an op-ed. Recently, my students read and responded to the poem “Playground Elegy,” by Clint Smith. The poem makes an argument, but it also gives students a way into the discussion that is less intimidating–relatable imagery of a common childhood experience. In my class, this shared imagery gave them some common ground to begin a discussion about race and violence.

A Way to Examine Writers’ Choices

Poetry also provides quick mentor texts for discussing a writer’s choices. In September, George Clooney wrote a poem about the take-a-knee movement. The poem is a simple one, but provided a quick study in analysis. Why a poem? Why repeat the word “pray”? What’s the impact of the final line?

We could accomplish a lot analytically in ten minutes. A longer piece might have taken the whole hour to wade through. Again, there was an argument, too. After our analysis of the discussion, we were able to shift naturally into a discussion of the argument Clooney was making.

A Way to Process Big Emotions

Sometimes poems aren’t for arguing or analyzing, though. The day after the Parkland shooting, I knew I needed to address it with my students. Tricia Ebarvia of the Moving Writers blog encouraged me to just write with my students, and suggested several poems as a prompt. We ended up writing in response to “The Way It Is” by William Stafford and my students considered what it means to hold onto a thread and keep going when things are difficult. The notebook writing they did that day helped them process a lot of emotions and fears that they hadn’t had a chance to work through.

A Way to Spark Research Questions

In addition to argumentation, my students also do a lot of research. Poems can serve as perfect sparks for research questions because they often leave things unanswered. Students are used to having research topics, but when they have research questions, I find their thinking, researching, and writing becomes much more complex.

For example, after reading “Gate A4,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, and “Broken English,” by Rupi Kaur, students had all kinds of questions about the extent to which language impacts our daily lives and the way we interact with one another. Had I just asked them to research, for example, whether or not the United States should have a national language, many would have never examined the murkier, more complex areas of the topic.

A Way to Blow Off Steam

Last week, following the SAT test, my juniors were burned out. I shared a funny tweet I’d seen riffing on the William Carlos Williams poem “This is Just to Say” and explained how that had become a meme. To give our brains a break, we wrote our own poems. Though I had only intended to give their brains a little break, this, too, turned into an easy (and fun!) lesson about a writer’s choices. What’s the impact of that giant long line? What was the writer trying to accomplish and why is it successful?

In the introduction to her book Poems Are Teachers, Amy Ludwig Vanderwater explains that “poems wake us up, keep us company, remind us that our world is big and small. And, too, poems teach us to write. Anything.” Regardless of the course you teach, there is a space for poetry. I’ve found lots of spaces in my course and I’d argue (see? It’s my thing) that you can, too.

Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.

Launching into Poetry with “Love That Dog”

Notes from the Classroom

As a 5th grade teacher, I would always have students moan, eyeroll, and state either dramatically or smugly, “I’ve read that book,” when I would pull out Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech.

“Yes, I’m sure you have,” I would reply sweetly. “But never the way you are going to read it with me.”

An Adventure in Reading and Writing

I always tried to carve out two weeks in the spring for this text, and use it as a reading and writing experience.

As readers, we were able to infer quite a bit about our main character, Jack, and his teacher, Miss Stretchberry. We could easily select character traits and defend them with evidence from the text. We were able to think deeply about Jack and the changes we saw in him as a learner and a person.

We also got to experience poetry in multiple ways: from our own experience and Jack’s experience, and using poems as mentor texts for writing. I will tell you this: No matter if they had read the story before, or even heard it before, my students always ended up loving this experience.

How It Works: Reading

If you are not familiar with this story, it is a must read. But please, please read it this way:

When Jack first mentions a poem within the text, stop immediately and read the poem. (As a teacher, I would project the poem at the beginning of our Language Arts time, read it aloud, and then immediately go into the text to hear what Jack had to say about it.) Then process as readers what is happening in the story and the poem. I had post-its throughout my text about the poems, as well as the stopping points where I wanted students to reflect.

Surprise–Writing!

After each day that we read a new poem, my students would be tasked with using the poem as a mentor text. We would spend some time talking about the structure and meaning, and because I taught students with a wide range of abilities, I would always have scaffolds in place to make these structures were accessible for all students.

The kids loved this. We would write multiple versions using the same mentor text and they were excited to publish and share their writing. Many would ask to publish theirs on their blog pages or to hang theirs in the hallways. This excitement was contagious and carried throughout the month.

A Springboard

This text was a great springboard into exploring a variety of poetry styles. I also used A Kick In The Head, An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms  and A Poke in the I, A Collection of Concrete Poems to further our study and writing. There is a little something for everyone in these books so it is easy to bump things up for students who need a challenge.

Spring is a great time to explore Haiku as well. Take a walk, notice some things in nature, and write! The structure is a good way to talk about word choice as well. (It doesn’t hurt to review syllables either!) There are many examples of haiku out there. I stuck to making them about nature but you can do what works for your students!

There are so many resources out there to explore poetry with your students in April. Check out 30 ways to celebrate, the Poetry Foundation, Scholastic Poetry Resources, and listen to ordinary Americans reading poetry at the Favorite Poem Project. (Be sure to preview first.)

I hope that you will dive in and explore this month–there is so much to discover. You’ll be amazed what you find.

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

Books to Bust Your Reading Slump

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom


Surprising librarian fact: many people assume that I love every book that I try to read. I wish that were the case. In fact, somewhat regularly, I find myself in the midst of a reading slump, reading several books in a row with which I just don’t connect.

Reading slumps can be deadly. They kill your desire to read, making you feel that any other pursuit might be more fun or productive.

But with time and practice, I have found a few techniques that can help me to break out of a reading slump. I find they also work pretty well on reluctant readers, who themselves may be in the middle of an epic, life-long reading slump that they now consider the status quo. Here are some slump-busters to try with your students (or yourself):

1. Try a book in a new format, preferably one that reads quickly.

Verse novels are becoming more common and have been quite popular with my students. The sheer amount of white space on any given page, combined with text that addresses topics in a more direct way, makes verse novels fast paced. This appeals to all kinds of readers.

One excellent verse novel that has been very popular with students across reading levels is The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. It’s a coming-of-age verse novel that involves sibling rivalry, parental relationships, school drama, and grief. The main character, Josh and his twin, Jacob, are talented basketball players, so there are some excellent basketball scenes that could be read out of context. It’s also quick, engaging, and touching. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student dislike it.

 2. Go back to a topic or genre that you’ve been neglecting.

I found myself caught in a mini-slump last year, during a period of heavy realistic fiction and professional reading. I didn’t necessarily dislike these, but I needed to refresh myself with something I hadn’t tried in a while.

Enter Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. This fantasy novella is filled with tremendous characters, fascinating backstory, and heaps of whimsy. I had been so caught up in big, heavy doses of reality that this little fantasy novel was a breath of fresh air.

Don’t get me wrong here: trying something totally new that you’ve never tried before is not a good strategy for sloughing off a slump. But returning to something that I had been missing was just what I needed to get back on my reading game.

3. Choose something funny.

It’s only been a few years since I realized that sometimes my slumps are not really about reading at all.

There have been many times in my life when the book that I was reading hit a little too close to home. I enjoy books about social movements, but sometimes the issues in my books pile on to the issues in real life, and that brings me down. I find that I’m not eager to get back to my book because it’s upsetting me or making me anxious.

This is the moment for a funny book. The playful tone in The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli, really gave me a boost. The characters are all people I wish I knew in real life, and I found myself rooting for them. There is a sense of hopefulness imbued in the story, and the main character, Molly, has a charming, slightly self-deprecating voice that made me snort-laugh on at least one occasion. A funny book may not solve the world’s problems, but this one reinvigorated my spirit and fed my inner reader a hearty portion of comfort food.

4. Pick something that everyone else has LOVED

There is a risk of ending up with something that disappoints because it’s been over-hyped. Yet it can be very satisfying to pick up a book that everyone’s been talking about, and then to become part of the conversation.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere has been weaving its way through my high school (and the country) since the fall. It’s an adult novel, but the inclusion of five teenage main characters grappling with familial and community expectations has made it of great interest to my students.

In the end, even the most avid reader is bound to hit a slump occasionally. I’d love to know about readers’ favorite books that have helped them break out of a reading rut!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.  Bethany is strangely fond of zombies in almost all forms of media, a fact which tends to surprise the people that know her.  She has two children below age five, and is grateful at the end of any day that involves the use of fewer than four baby wipes.

Lit Circles Unleashed

Notes from the Classroom


Ironically, I often find that by the time
Reading Month rolls around in my classroom, the kids who most need to engage more deeply (and more often) with good books are the ones starting to burn out. I’ve got a pretty good independent reading game going on in my classroom–tons of graphic novels, crazy variety (thanks to room sharing with fellow blogger Hattie Maguire), a wonderful librarian (also a blogger!) who book talks whenever we’re looking for some new titles, and lots and lots of encouragement.

Yet I can always sense the slow death of reading growth in some of my students this time of year. Their resolve and eagerness are withering and turning to dust just as the first buds are pushing up through the thawing earth.

It’s a bummer.

Lit Circles without Required Texts

This burnout is why I gave up a whole-class text this unit, and replaced it with some unusual lit circles. Last year, we blew things wide open and made the lit circles for the unit completely free choice, as long as everyone in the group got hold of the same book. It worked nicely, but it felt like a disconnected activity while we were otherwise neck-deep in a very challenging narrative-journalism unit.

So this year I decided to point the kids at the genre we were focused on, but completely abandon the notion of common titles. Even within a lit circle.

In the past, John Krakauer’s excellent Into the Wild was our central mentor text for the unit. While it certainly spoke to some of our students, it definitely left others out in the cold (with apologies to Chris McCandless).

So this time, aside from the requirement to stick to the genre, the options were wide open: Other Krakauer titles (he’s truly an excellent writer), Freakanomics, Picking Cotton, explorations of unsolved crimes. The list went on and on.

And yes, in many of my groups there were students reading several different titles while still conversing together.

Freedom Opens Up Rich Discussions

Was this crazy?

Maybe. But . . . it kinda worked. The conversations between students reading the same title were definitely more detail-oriented. But with a bit of guidance, it turns out my kids were fairly good at (and interested in) having more meta-level conversations about the genre itself.

What is there in common between a book about a false imprisonment, and another about pop culture? Not much content-wise, but tons when it comes to narrative-journalism structure.

The kids spent their lit circle time talking about structural elements of the text: the way one book interposed a lot of primary sources in exploring its subject matter, while another seemed almost entirely subjective in its take on the subject matter (Ben Mezrich of Bringing Down the House fame is known for that almost-novelistic style).

Some of the conversations were clumsier: Did your author use levity? Mine didn’t. And: Did you find a lot of anecdotes? Because that’s all my author seems to use. And so on.

But the conversations could be rich. They compared whether setting mattered to their book. They compared how much bias there was in the authors’ characterizations of real humans. Sometimes they just compared favorite parts or frustrations. It was lovely.

Students Were Reading

They were all reading–at their own paces, but all of them arriving to their meetings having advanced through their chosen book and ready to share.

There’s definitely no perfect solution to the problem of reader burnout this time of year. Part of it is about school burnout more than any animosity toward reading itself.

When the unit and time allow, though, you can certainly inspire your page turners to stick it out for a few more chapters, using the power of student choice.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

3 Books that Boys Love—from the Boys Who Read Them

Notes from the Classroom

“I don’t read books.”

“Why are we reading this [To Kill a Mockingbird] anyway?”

“Reading is so boring to me.”

*Sigh* “I’m not a good reader.”

These are some of the comments I’ve heard over the years from boy readers. But, for every boy who makes remarks like these, there is a book that will save reading.

*Cue superhero overture.*

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

When I asked one of my students why he likes this book so much, he told me that “I guess I just like how they sound like people I know.” Students need to hear their voices in books. And for your students who don’t read because they don’t see themselves in books–this is a game-changer.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is the perfect book to give a boy who is easily turned off by long books. It’s written in verse, rather than prose, which readers like, since it allows them to move through the text easily. For readers who are easily distracted, the extra white space on the page helps them to focus on the text.

The plot helps, too. Alexander’s sharp verse tells the story of Joshua and his twin brother, Jordan. When Jordan gets a girlfriend, Joshua fights back jealousy as he vies for Jordan’s time. Add an ex-pro baller as their father in the midst, plus a little brotherly rivalry, and readers are easily hooked to the drama.

This book seriously glues readers, and warning–you might actually have to ask your student to stop reading it while you are teaching.

Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Over the years, Halse Anderson’s novel about a quiet kid turned school rebel, Tyler, has won over many readers. Halse Anderson is a master at capturing the voices of vulnerable teenagers who are at the crossroads of childhood and young adulthood. And she keeps her chapters short, which is great for readers who are building stamina.

Many of my students have liked this book for both its humor and relatability. The character Tyler deals with issues such as verbal abuse, alcoholism, and social media, yet Halse Anderson also places her characters in familiar teenage moments: dealing with a crush, confronting popularity, and enduring bodily changes in adolescence.

Being a teenage boy is hard. This book shows them that they aren’t alone in that struggle.

YA author John Green says this is a book that boys will keep “under their beds for years, turning to it again and again for comfort and a sense of solidarity.”

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Most times when I book talk Jay-Z’s Decoded, I preface it by saying, “This is definitely for a mature reader. It’s raw, but amazing.”

One student told me that this book was different from other books he had been assigned to read for school. Unlike those books, it wasn’t boring or too slow. Decoded pulled him in because it was about intriguing contemporary issues.

Decoded is a mixed-media masterpiece filled with lush photographs tinged with nostalgia. And from a literacy angle: The images break up the text, crucial for readers who are overwhelmed by walls of text. Part social history, part memoir, Jay-Z cracks open his lyrics for readers with detailed footnotes and annotations.

Not only will students be gripped by the story behind the lyrics, but this is a solid model of literary analysis that challenges the cannon and shows readers that a writer’s past informs his or her craft.

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  When she’s not teaching, Lauren often runs for the woods with her husband and their three sons/Jedi in training and posts many stylized pictures of trees on Instagram.

Bringing Warmth into These Last Cold Weeks

Notes from the Classroom

Here in Michigan winters are long–seeming to last well into spring. And in the classroom winter can feel eternal. The grey outside is often reflected in the moods of the students, and to be honest, ours too.

How to combat the cold-month blahs? Here are a few ideas to help you through:

Pull Out Poetry

One book that I use all year long, but which is especially effective this time of year, is Red Sings from Treetops, by Joyce Sidman. This book is wonderful for teaching the power of language, and for inspiring kids to think outside the box.

I use Red Sings as a mentor text and have kids write poems inspired by it. We brainstorm, choose a color to focus on, do some quality writing, and then spend some time working on our illustrations. If you have time and patience, true collage is a fun way to go. We usually use colored pencils, and I am always pleased with the result. We hang these in the hall and it is so nice to be greeted by springtime images every morning.

Share Your Favorite Books

There are always books that I don’t have time to read to my students but want to share. So, it’s important to set aside a few minutes each day to book talk your favorites.

If you have them available, hold them until the end of the week and have students enter a lottery to check them out. Pull names and make a big deal out of it. Let students put their names on waiting lists too–they will badger their classmates, which just might inspire them to keep reading!

This is also a great time to talk about realistic time frames for finishing a text. I have a colleague who does this with new books from book orders. It generates a ton of excitement and puts some life into conversations about books.

Check Out “Breakout”!

If you are not familiar with Breakout EDU, the educational-gaming platform, you must check it out! Most people won’t have the resources to create actual breakout boxes, but you can use the concept and create a “breakout” with clues in envelopes, forcing students to solve clues in order to get to the end.

There are many breakouts already created that people have shared online. Students work in small groups, so we make six sets of clues for a classroom. You can create a breakout around any content: I have designed them around books, social studies content, and math. We are also creating them for March is Reading Month and Leader in Me. Students apply what they know to solve clues, and they love the challenge! This is a great way to extend the content and get kids excited again.

Whatever you do to get through the last cold weeks, remember to focus on what you love and what brings you joy. Your students will feel your enthusiasm and they will catch it too!

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

How to Avoid the Educational Rut

Notes from the Classroom


Getting over the drudgery of winter can be tough; even if you’re lucky enough to have a classroom with windows, the view outside is grody (you heard me) and the sunlight feels almost colder than the fluorescence of the room lights. For me, the best cure (besides squinting) to get through the cold white season has always been to bury myself in one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching:  

Innovation.  

My PLC likes to busy itself updating, modifying, and re-imagining everything in our curriculum.  Yes, we do this yearly. For fun. And because it’s best practice.

The Risk of the Rut

Routine can be good–for kids and for teachers–but it can also become a rut really quickly. Ruts in education sometimes get so deep that it isn’t just our wheels getting stuck in them. They can get so deep that we can’t even see over the edges to look for other possibilities.

When you devote some of your time each week to innovative thinking, you find that being creative and exploring new possible content and activities for your class are pretty good substitutes for sunshine. I mean…except for all the things sunshine actually does.  

How to Avoid the Rut

Here’s how my PLC tends to spend the cold months:

  • Read like crazy. If you don’t already do independent reading in class, add it!  Discovering new books to share with your students is a fantastic way to refresh your own interests and connect with your readers.
  • Look for connections in the world–and stay connected to it. Nothing freshens up a stale unit like some current reading. What are your favorite websites for pleasure reading? For keeping up on the news? Pop culture?
  • Use Twitter. If you haven’t already connected with the infinite treasure trove of fellow educators and resources on this social platform, now’s the time to get your feet wet.  While the site can take a few days to get used to, you can explore completely passively, unlike on sites like Facebook where you have to “friend” other people just to see their thoughts.  
  • Write. It doesn’t matter what, just get back into the practice you spend so much time teaching your students! If you’re feeling ambitious, reach out to a favorite blog or organization and see if you could write a guest-post for them. Maybe keep a journal–or better yet, write the assignments you’re giving your kids right alongside them (sounds almost like a book title I’m rather fond of).  
  • Try something crazy. Give one day in your unit to the sort of lesson that only those maniacs on Pinterest would ever actually try doing in their classroom! Make up a game, get the kids moving, let them decide how to approach the next day’s discussion–break out of the routine and see if the energy doesn’t change.

Spring is coming soon enough, and once the air smells like blossoms and freedom, we start to think more about summer than about our unit plans. That’s okay–so do the kids. But it’s all the more reason to dedicate some time to re-energizing yourself with a bit of classroom innovation to distract everybody from that muddy, melty view out the classroom windows.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

The Importance of Joy: Part 2

Notes from the Classroom


This is part 2 in a series.
Here’s part 1The Importance of Joy.

There is a video I like to play when I facilitate professional development. It’s about a blind man trying unsuccessfully to beg for money on a city street. Passersby rarely give him a coin and mostly ignore him. One woman walks past him, then thinks better of it and turns around. She proceeds to change what is written on his sign from “I’m blind, please help me,” to “It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t see it.”

Almost immediately, the people passing by are much more likely to give him a few coins. The woman comes back later, and the blind man asks her what she wrote. She responds with, “I wrote the same but in different words.”

Now, full disclosure, this video is an ad for a company, but the message is the same: the words we use are powerful and have the ability to change our worlds.

Part of What Stunts Change

Recently, we had the pleasure of bringing Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, to West Bloomfield as the keynote speaker for our district-wide professional development. Sheridan wrote a book called Joy, Inc., which details Menlo Innovations’ journey to build joy into every facet of their company culture. After reading Joy, Inc., we knew that Sheridan’s message would be a powerful one for our staff.

As Sheridan spoke, there were so many meaningful takeaways. But the one that resonated most with me and many others was his mantra to “Fight fear, embrace change: run the experiment!”

So often, fear paralyzes us, especially in education. As teachers, we’re so cautious to embrace change because we’ve had so many bad experiences with change: it’s not funded, we’re not trained, administrators don’t value it, we know it’s going to change again in a year–this list goes on endlessly. Sheridan encourages us to try new things anyway, maybe even in spite of our fear.

In West Bloomfield, we are in the middle of figuring out what 21st-century learning looks and feels like, and have had many conversations about flexible furnishing and spaces. David Stubbs, creator of Cultural Shift, an independent consulting company that stimulates design thinking, has been working with us on these endeavors.

In a meeting with him recently, we were lamenting the fact that many teachers say something to the effect of “that’s great, but…” and give myriad reasons why the idea wouldn’t work. Stubbs urged us to turn the conversation on its head, to ask another question instead:

But What Happens if We Do It?

In a time when we consider every possibility for why something won’t work, what happens if we run the experiment and do the thing we think will never work?

When we continually focus on why something won’t work, we never allow our minds to imagine that thing actually working, and thus limit our capacity for making change.

When I think about saying the same thing but with different words, like the woman in the video, I can’t help but think about how we can change our outlook with the change of one word. What if, instead of saying “but,” we said “and”? What if the teachers mentioned earlier said, “That’s great, and….” And rather than giving reasons why it wouldn’t work, they gave reasons why it would?

What would happen if we just did it?

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PM Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.