What Happened when My Students Analyzed a Profile of a Nazi

Notes from the Classroom


In late November, a reporter from
The New York Times wrote a little piece about a Nazi.

You may have heard about it or the backlash that quickly followed. Or you may have read one of the satirical takedowns, like this or this.

After the article was pubished, I watched the drama unfold. Readers quickly took the NYT to task for normalizing white supremacy, and the paper tried to respond. Amid this controversy, I knew that this was a lesson for my high school English classes, because it raised a knotty and important question.

Was the article as awful as most readers were claiming?

Much of the writing our students will encounter in their adult lives is like The New York Times piece: controversial and up for interpretation. And that’s important to recognize, because in many schools–mine included–aligning to the Common Core has pushed more and more of our writing toward argument that focuses on clear claims, evidence, and reasoning.

An unintended consequence of this shift, I think, has been students who are ill-equipped to read texts with muddier claims–like the NYT piece.

So, what do we do when the writer’s intent is up for debate? How do we evaluate an argument if we can’t say with certainty what the argument is?

In my classes, we asked these three questions about the NYT piece, as we worked toward reasoned conclusions.

1. What is the writer trying to do with this piece?

There are lots of ways to phrase that question or coax the answer out of students, like:

  • How do you think the writer wants you to feel?
  • What does the writer want you to know–or think, do, believe, or understand–once you’ve finished reading this?  

My students and I pretended we were the NYT writer and imagined what his purpose might have been. Was he trying to convince us that Nazis are real people just like us? Was he trying to normalize them? Was he trying to show us that they have already been normalized? Was he trying to sound an alarm bell? We weren’t sure.

The New York Times explained they had hoped to “shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them,” but they admitted that the piece “offended so many readers.”

So it was time for the second important question.

2. Did the writer accomplish what he intended? How?

I sent my students digging for evidence. What features of the text suggested the writer hoped to “shed more light” on the extremism?

In her book Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher suggests that you have students play the “Doubting and Believing Game” with a text, so we did a version of that here.

I asked students to suspend their frustration with the writer and believe positive intent. They went looking for examples of attempts to “shed some light.”  

Next, we doubted. We looked through the lens of those who were offended by the text. Which raised the question: How might these same examples read differently if considered from a different perspective?

Finally, we were left with the third–and most important–question.

3. Now what?

At this point, my students were a little frustrated. They wanted to know the answer. Is this awful?! Yes or no? The muddiness of it all made them uncomfortable.

Though it was tempting to tip back in my teacher chair and unleash my answer on them, I restrained myself. Instead, we generated more questions:

  • Which perspective is valued most in this piece? Why?
  • Which perspectives are missing in this piece? What does that suggest?
  • How much does intent matter?
  • Who decides which impact is most important?
  • How do I respond to a piece that offends me?

These are the types of questions we need our students to grapple with if we hope to help them engage in the complex, muddy arguments of today. It is easy to gasp in horror at an “awful thing” somebody says or writes. It is much more challenging to push back against that and look for an explanation or clarification.

We won’t always understand one another, of course. And sometimes further examination will reveal that something is, indeed, awful. Still, we can’t just leave awful things unexamined, and critical reading and conversation can help our students see that.

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.

How to Get the Most out of Education Conferences

Notes from the Classroom


It’s been a little over a month since I came home from this year’s NCTE convention, and I’ve reflected on and used my learning in new ways every single day. 

But over the past several years of going to professional conferences, that hasn’t always been the case.

I’m sure that a large part of the NCTE carryover can be attributed to the quality of the conference. But I also think that it’s due to some specific, strategic moves I’ve taken on as a participant. As I attend sessions and then again after I return home, there are three moves I make to ensure I bring home more than just books.  

When I encounter an uplifting or provocative idea, I make sure to spread it beyond the walls of the conference.

I attended more than one session after which friends and I would gush about how how it felt like “going to church.” Yes, of course, that’s a good thing because we felt a kind of spiritual revitalization, but it also got me thinking: Does this session just feel good, or is it actually doing some good? There was the worry that “going to church” might really be “preaching to the choir.”

Yes, the spiritual revitalization is good in its own right, but to move beyond preaching to the choir, I reflect on how to spread these ideas to people who aren’t already in “the choir.” I ask myself:

  • Who would benefit from hearing this? How would it benefit them?
  • Who else do I have in my building who would be part of “the choir”? How can I empower them to lead with me?
  • What are my entry points? Are there pieces of this session that are shareable? Quotes or statistics that were particularly resonant?

I also make sure to step out of my comfort zone with conference sessions.

Yes, those “going to church” sessions are awesome and empowering and revitalizing, but sometimes it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and go to the sessions where you might not know so much already. Sometimes these are exactly the sessions that can push your instruction forward. So, when you’re browsing the convention book, look for session descriptions that make you think:

  • That’s what so-and-so in my building is always talking about. I wonder if this would help me figure out what the fuss is about.
  • This issue keeps popping up, and I’ve been doing my best to avoid it. Maybe this is a good way to put it back on my to-do list.
  • I’ve never heard of this before, but it sounds like something that might complement what I’m already doing.

Remember to take notes–and then spend time reviewing them.

Sketching big takeaways on my airplane ride home helped me process pages of notes. Click the image to enlarge.

It probably goes without saying that you should take notes during a session. It doesn’t matter whether you use a trusty old paper-and-pen notebook like I do, or you have embraced digital note taking. Just make sure you’ve got a way to capture your thinking as it’s happening.

The same goes for cell phone cameras. Don’t be afraid to take pictures of slides and resources to save for later.

That saving it for later, though, is the most crucial part. After your last session has ended, make sure you take some time to go back through your notes, to start reflecting and synthesizing. I started to do this on the plane ride home, but found that I was just too wiped out to go too far with it. The next day, though, I returned and dug in a little further. It helped me to organize my reflection into a few categories:

  • Resources I can use and share right now
  • Big takeaways to remember forever
  • Opportunities for learning

To seize those opportunities for learning, I ordered a few professional books, started searching some journal subscriptions, and updated my Christmas wishlist. With so many doors for learning opened to me, I know that I’ll be able to carry my conference learning with me for years to come.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

It’s Hard to Teach Voice in Writing. These 4 Novels Help.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom


Teaching voice to teenagers can be a tricky business. Voice is so personal, so varying, so complex. 

To make the business even trickier, there are many powerful ways to teach the written voice–so many that it’s difficult to teach them all.

All of which explains why this task calls for examples from literature. But where to get started?

These four YA novels offer students beautiful expressions of voice. They also happen to be excellent books, which students may find that they are excited to read once they’ve had a taste of the story and the style.

1. Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

You probably heard about this one unless you’re strongly opposed to YA literature or you’ve been living under a rock. It’s the latest from the author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, who is known for his trademark wit and sincerity. Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifests in increasingly suffocating thought-spirals from which she cannot break away.  

Green’s wit is back in spades, and the lessons in voice come from his successful descriptions of Aza’s seemingly indescribable feelings: “Felt myself slipping, but even that’s a metaphor. Descending, but that is too. Can’t describe the feeling itself except to say that I’m not me. Forged in the smithy of someone else’s soul. Please just let me out. Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this.”

This novel offers a case study in how to express the things that seem to only make sense in one’s own mind. It’s a voice lesson for our students that is worth the price of this book.

2. Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

We’re currently riding a wave of excellent books dealing with race and police brutality (All American Boys, by Reynolds & Kiely, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, among others). Dear Martin separates itself from the others by offering heartfelt, introspective thoughts from its main character, Justyce, who is arrested inappropriately while trying to help a friend, and faces worse interactions with police and the media later in the novel. 

Justyce writes letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to process his feelings, in King’s nonviolent manner: “I know I’m a good dude, Martin. I thought if I made sure to be an upstanding member of society, I’d be exempt from the stuff THOSE black guys deal with, you know? Really hard to swallow that I was wrong.”

With so many teens realizing, like Justyce, that their expectations will not always be met by adults, society, or so-called friends, Justyce’s voice serves as a textbook example of internal dialogue.

american street3. American Street, by Ibi Zoboi

A National Book Award finalist, American Street shares the story of Fabiola Toussaint, an immigrant to Detroit from Haiti. Her voice perfectly expresses the feeling of being pulled between two cultures, two families, while struggling to belong to both worlds. Fabiola says, “My two paths meet at this corner, and it seems like I have to choose one. One street represents a future, the other leads to a different kind of life.” 

Ibi Zoboi, the novel’s author, also beautifully mixes Fabiola’s beliefs with moments of magical realism, allowing for the expression of spiritualism in a very poetic way. As so many of our students may be trying to express aspects of their cultural background in writing, the character of Fabiola provides a lovely yet accessible example.  

4. Rani Patel in Full Effect, by Sonia Patel

A 2016 Morris Award finalist, Rani Patel in Full Effect introduces us to Rani, an Indian-American teen poet and rapper living in Moloka’i, an island in Hawaii. Sonia Patel does a masterful job characterizing Rani, imbuing in her a strong connection to her heritage but also to Hawaiian and ’90s hip-hop culture.

We see this in every phrase that she utters, including one memorable, imagined encounter with the rapper LL Cool J: “If I ever met him, I’d probably give him a chin-up and say, ‘S’up LL.’ Naw. Let’s be real. I’d give him a big bear hug and say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for Mama Said Knock You Out. It’s cheaper than therapy, man.'”  The inclusion of Rani’s poems and lyrics only add to the strength of her voice, which tops my list of the most dynamic voices in YA literature.

These are just a few examples of outstanding YA novels that offer powerful examples of voice. I’d love to know if any readers have additional favorites. Email, tweet or share!

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.

How to Combine Service Learning and Persuasive Writing

Notes from the Classroom

In this season of giving, it can be challenging to get students to think beyond themselves and their list of wishes.

That’s why an Academic Service Learning project is one of my favorite things to do. This project, part of my district’s initiative to connect learning and community service, allows me to combine persuasive writing with student choice, in a way that produces lots of great ideas for a class project–and guarantees family involvement from the start.

Our Service Learning Begins with Reading

I start by reading students several books over the course of a week, asking them what they notice, and charting their thinking. At the end of the week, we start to look for common themes that emerge. This helps to launch the conversation about our project. Books I have used include:

Some other books that may be helpful are:

Students Propose Actual Service Projects, via Persuasive Essays

After we have read the books and discussed themes, I reveal the assignment to the students: they must come up with an idea for our class ASL project and write a persuasive essay about why we should do their project.

I send home a letter to families asking them to have a conversation with their child, and to help them come up with some ideas for our project. Students bring back their ideas and then they choose one to use as the basis for their persuasive essay.

This makes the writing so much more purposeful. Students know that they have to convince not only me, but also their classmates, in order to do their project.

Then We Vote

Once all essays have been submitted, I begin the task of choosing five to six for the students to vote on. (Side note: if you haven’t used Google Classroom before, you should try it for writing assignments! Life changing!) I try to find a nice variety of ideas as well as essays that are well written.

After this is done, I read the finalists out loud to the class. I always stress that they are not to tell who wrote what; this needs to be about the project and the writing, not a popularity contest. Once the votes are in, we begin the process of planning and implementing our ASL project.

And Finally, We Take Action  

This project has been a great way for me to get kids engaged, help them find passion, and get them to think outside of themselves. We have raised money for local animal shelters, sent money to WWF for elephants, made blankets and games for children in local hospitals, and purchased books for children in a nearby school. The reward of seeing my students feel so successful goes far beyond what I could have imagined. I will never teach persuasive writing any other way.

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.

4 Ways Education Should Look More Like Google

Notes from the Classroom

Technology has certainly exploded between the time I started preparing to become a teacher and now, but lately I’ve been thinking about Google–and the ways that education can, and should, mirror the company’s ubiquitous technology.

We don’t need to focus on memorization.

We have to confront our fascination with facts and memorization: Why bother if you can Google it? In the age of information overload, we’re finding that it’s far more important to teach our students how to analyze multiple sources, determine credibility, and read around a topic to gain a deeper understanding of it.

That’s true for vocabulary, too. Vocabulary in English classes used to consist mostly of looking up definitions in dusty dictionaries and, if your teacher was really on top of things, using the word in a few different sentences or drawing a picture of it. Now, the standards call for students to flexibly use a variety of strategies to determine meaning when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary; the last strategy involves looking it up in reference materials (ahem, Googling it). 

Let’s prepare our students to collaborate.

There is inherent value in teaching the collaborative skills that will prepare our students for success beyond their high school walls. We design projects and lessons so that students will bounce ideas back and forth, develop questions, and seek answers together.

In many ways, this mirrors the Google Drive platform. On Google Drive, you don’t just create documents inside your own software, then print or attach to share. Instead, you have control over how and with whom you share your folders as you’re working. Sure, you can still choose to keep something private and then share it only once you’re ready for the work to get into others’ hands. But now we have the opportunity to collaborate on our work as we’re drafting–in real time–and it’s changing the face of how we work.

It’s been less than a year since I fully switched over to Google as my primary mode of doc creation, but I already have a hard time imagining drafting something without hitting that little comment button to get feedback from my colleagues.

Tech companies update their software. We should update our practices.

We all know that feeling when our favorite technology company updates something. It’s almost like we go through Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief each time our tech changes. But the thing is, we do reach acceptance and adapt to the changes–and we do it quickly. 

Part of this has to do with semantics. Google has been telling its users about some upcoming changes to its Drive services and apps. But they aren’t just adapting, changing, or revising: they’re upgrading.

I hear teachers say all the time that “X worked for me when I was in school…” If I applied that logic to my tech life, I’d have to accept being completely okay with only a house phone and a dial-up internet connection. Isn’t it only fair to our students that we upgrade our teaching like we upgrade our technology?

Employees in the tech industry feel valued. Shouldn’t teachers?

I’ve never been to Google’s headquarters myself, and I’m sure there’s more than meets the eye, but still: the company ranks at the top of employee satisfaction surveys year after year. In an interview with Fast Company, Karen May, Google’s VP of people development, explains that the company believes that focusing on their employees’ health and happiness is what ultimately determines their success.

I think we are all realists and know that our funding sources are vastly different from Google’s, so I don’t think too many teachers expect field trips to exotic locales. But in our current climate, I think we’d do well to take a step back and think about how we can support the health and happiness of our teachers, our administrators, and ultimately, our students.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

Still Looking for Holiday Gifts? These Books are Perfect for ELA Teachers.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

The holidays are upon us, but don’t despair! It’s not too late to find that perfect gift for an ELA colleague–or even yourself.

To help with your quest, our bloggers have put together an easy holiday-shopping list full of award winners. Now go get them!

If You’re Looking for Picture Books

With the holidays coming, teaching curriculum in any cohesive fashion can be challenging–at best. That’s why taking a break with a Mock Caldecott unit is the perfect way to have some really meaningful conversations about books, while exposing kids to some of the best picture books of the year. I did this last year and it was amazing. The kids really got into it and even my reluctant readers engaged because this was about the pictures, not the reading. (Sort of.) There are so many resources out there once you start to Google: book trailers, videos about the making of the books.

Some standouts from last year that I would give as gifts:

Shy, by Deborah Freedman

It Is Not Time for Sleeping, by Lisa Graff; illustrated by Lauren Castillo

The Airport Book, by Lisa Brown

The Night Gardener, by The Fan Brothers

They All Saw A Cat, by Brendan Wenzel

-Beth Rogers

If You’d Like Page-Turning Nonfiction that Deftly Tackles Social Issues

I’m not even finished reading The 57 Bus, by Dashka Slater, and I can’t wait to give it away. As each chapter passes, I see more and more power and potential in this engrossing nonfiction narrative, and I want to get it into the hands of students and teachers everywhere. Whether you give it to teens or teachers, there are a lot of reasons to put this book under the tree this year:

  • Its mentor text opportunities are endless. If nothing else, check out that first chapter. If that doesn’t model an engrossing strategy for hooking readers, I don’t know what will.
  • It tells stories of those whose voices often go unheard–because #representationmatters.
  • It honors the complex nature of social issues, and respects its audience’s ability to wrestle with them. It’s too easy to treat social issues as black and white and ignore the gray areas, in favor of teaching teens a lesson. One of the things I love most about the YA lit that’s been coming out lately is that it honors the gray areas. Slater respects her teen audience enough to let them grapple with multiple perspectives and difficult questions.
  • It uses the power of story to make an argument, allowing readers to explore issues that they now feel connected to.

-Megan Kortlandt

And if You’d Like a Page-Turning YA Novel That Deftly Tackles Social Issues

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, is the beautiful story of Starr, an African-American teen who’s caught between two communities: the community where she lives and the community where she goes to school. When I read the novel, I knew that it would be my first book talk of the school year, because I could see many of my students in Angie Thomas’ characters.

When I shared the book with a class, I explained how the title was inspired by Tupac. Later when I saw a student from the class, she asked to borrow the book. I can never turn down a student who’s asking to borrow a book–even if it is a crisp new hardcover edition. Even though I made her promise to return it, I had a quiet feeling that it just wasn’t my book anymore.  

My premonition was right. Recently, she withdrew from our school. But something tells me that the book is right where it belongs–with someone who may read it and see herself, her friends, and her family in the book. The Hate U Give was not my book to keep, but to give.

– Lauren Nizol

A Novel that Can do Double Duty in a History Unit about Katrina

Regulars on this blog are probably betting all the money in their bank accounts that I’m going to suggest a graphic novel (just kidding–what teacher has money saved up in a bank account?!). I’m going to branch out in a new direction, though, and recommend a tough but beautiful read by Jesmyn Ward called Salvage the Bones. It’s gorgeously written and tells a compelling story of a poor African American family struggling to prepare for the devastation that readers know Hurricane Katrina is going to visit upon their home and community in mere days.

The book is a tragic masterpiece, whose dramatic irony relies on our awareness of the storm, stacked against the doubt expressed by many of the story’s characters. But I also love sharing it with my classroom readers because of its beautifully rendered portrayals of the adolescent perspectives. It’s definitely a book for more advanced teen readers, but that’s exactly why I thought to highlight it here: I’m often so devoted to finding the next gripping story for my reluctant readers that I completely neglect to challenge (or even engage!) with my eager ones. This book offers readers not only a diversifying worldview, but a context that is at once modern and foreign to them; we don’t realize sometimes that events like Katrina that feel modern to us are somewhat distant (and meaningless!) to our current HS students.

And if you were REALLY betting on me to give the gift of graphic novel recommendations, check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reimagining of Black Panther ASAP. Happy Holidays!

– Mike Ziegler

Why We Should Cultivate a Growth Mindset in Our Students

Notes from the Classroom


A cynic might say that a “growth mindset” expects students to work with diligence in an area for which they are not genetically gifted, practicing something in which they will never gain excellence.  

My journey with growth mindsets has been different.

I’ve found that it’s not about motivating students to necessarily work harder. Instead, it’s an effort to propagate a way of thinking and talking. It’s helping high-achieving students realize that it’s normal to face challenges, and that being challenged is an opportunity to push forward and grow.

Why Our Learning Zones Should Be Risk Tolerant

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, tells us that “to get good, it’s helpful to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad.”

But what if I am a student who is not enthusiastic about learning from mistakes?

We all have the students who know how “to do” school. They’re the ones that get straight A’s without much effort.

For these students, mistakes are not an opportunity to learn. Instead, they’re a stamp of disapproval. So, we need to be conscientious about our feedback–giving feedback on things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, and persistence.

This means feedback should also avoid praise for children’s “smartness.” At the same time, we can help students understand that effort is not simply doing something for a long time, or doing the same thing over and over; but that it is seeking out challenges, setting goals, making plans, and using creative strategies to achieve those goals.

Language Matters when We Give Feedback

We need to support our students with lots of growth-mindset language. Students need to be praised for taking risks. That might mean saying, “Thank you! You just stretched our learning today.”

In that way, we show that mistakes are building blocks to our learning. Students need to be praised for looking at situations in new and different ways, and thanked for giving the learning community the opportunity to explore their thinking.

Yes, We Need High Expectations

Grant Cardone, in The 10x Rule, reminds us that success is important to our self-identity. “It promotes confidence, imagination, and a sense of security and emphasizes the significance of making a contribution,” he writes.

It’s an important lesson, but one that has been twisted over the years.

So many of our students have a sense of entitlement. Many times “the target” is lowered in order to make the student feel “successful.” But is that success? I don’t think so.

Success is about setting goals, working hard–and then even harder–until you reach your target. It’s not enough to just play the game.

Perhaps most overarching is the idea that we are all unfinished human beings. There is always room for change. Even when you think you have reached the top of your game, a growth mindset person is continually looking to reach higher: not to please others but to just become a better human being.

Tina Luchow (@tluchow25) is a fifth grade teacher at Oakwood Elementary, in the Brandon School District. She is in her eleventh year teaching upper elementary students, fifth and sixth grade, in the areas of math, reading, writing, and language conventions. Tina has studied reading and writing workshop practice, conducted action research, and is a 2017 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant. Tina attended Baker College for her undergraduate degree in education, and Marygrove College for her Masters in the Art of Education with a focus in Reading. Unlike your average perfectionist, Tina understands that “good enough” falls around the 50th consecutive attempt to hang a poster completely level. How does she do it? An unwavering commitment to the sole source of her strength: yogurt, granola, and tea.

Want to Do a Staff Book Study? Here Are 4 Books to Get You Started.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom


I sometimes like to think that I am a fully developed, 100-percent-complete human.
I know who I am and what I stand for, both personally and professionally. This means my professional identity is fully formed and solid as a rock, right?  

The truth is that our identities, especially as professional educators, are always shifting. We’re confronted with new theories, technologies, and trends. And as I’ve found with a fellow group of teachers, who together are part of a professional book study, the drive for constant learning is a component of every great teacher’s professional identity.

Over these few years, we have read some thought-provoking, conversation-starting books. Here are four titles that can inspire a professional book study in your school.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character 

Our first book study, and probably my favorite to this day, How Children Succeed, got our group talking about non-cognitive skills. These are skills like grit and conscientiousness, and the kinds that impact classroom learning and the overall success of our students.

The book’s findings were eye-opening–yet also confirmed some mutual understanding that we felt we had gained after years of teaching teenagers. Author Paul Tough’s stories about students’ overcoming adversity with these traits were also hopeful and inspiring, feelings that are occasionally lacking in educational texts. And for me, reading this book with a 5-month-old baby at home not only changed my outlook on teaching, but on parenting too. 

How Children Succeed will remind you just how much our students go through as people, and of how resilient they can be.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got that Way

Amanda Ripley, in The Smartest Kids, conducts extensive interviews with three American high school students who study for one year in some of the world’s highest-performing countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. For our book study, Ripley’s research opened up passionate conversations about teacher preparation in the United States, and how additional opportunities, like sports and clubs, can be double-edged swords in our schools. As a bonus, this book works as a student text too, and has been adopted by some of our teacher participants into their classroom curriculum in courses like AP Language and IB Theory of Knowledge.  

The takeaway: The Smartest Kids in the World will help demystify some of the chatter about education in other countries, and will reinforce the extent to which a system of education is influenced by culture.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Make It Stick focuses on the phases of learning and memory-making, and the necessary steps and strategies to move information from short-term to long-term memory, and then to keep it there. In our book study, a particularly hearty, and still ongoing, conversation formed around the “illusion of mastery” concept. We touched on the importance of revisiting key concepts, and how understanding can be measured in a standards-based grading model. Of the books we have read so far, this one had the most obvious and direct applications for classrooms, and has revolutionized the way one of my colleagues teaches.

The takeaway: Make It Stick will send you straight to your desk to start revamping lesson plans in order to revisit content.

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

The Teenage Brain brought us heavily into the world of brain science. The book looks at how the teenage brain responds to stress, intoxicants, digital devices, and mental illness, subjects that have given our cohort conversational fodder that will last for years. I’m also finding strange comfort in knowing well in advance some of the strategies that I can apply when my own children become teenagers, the thought of which already keeps me awake at night even though neither of them is school-aged.

The takeaway: The Teenage Brain was a great reminder that while it is easy to think of our teens as mini-adults, they have not developed to the point that we can expect to see consistent adult behavior.

Blogger’s Note: I may never have gotten around to reading these books if they hadn’t been recommended by my colleagues and friends, Brian Langley & Lauren Nizol, and if I didn’t work, read, and discuss with such a wonderful & curious group of teachers. Thanks to all!

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.

How We Can Help Students Transcend Social Groups, and Share Risky Ideas with Each Other

Notes from the Classroom

When I showed up to the hotel, I wasn’t prepared for the motley crew I’d encounter.

It was two weekends ago, and I was at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. There, scarf-wearing English teachers bustled through the lobby, toting bags of YA novels, and tripping over tattoo-covered attendees of another conference: the Old School Tattoo Expo. It was a crowded space, to say the least.

And then the cheerleading competition showed up.

Though I never got to see a love connection, I did experience some predictably awkward elevator rides of groups who seemingly had nothing in common. A week later, I’m still thinking about those awkward rides, and the lesson they offer us:

Our classrooms can mirror those awkward elevator rides if we aren’t careful.

How often do we accept that same awkwardness from our students? We provide a topic or text for discussion, and we get crickets. Or, a few loud voices engage in debate while others avoid eye contact.

As English teachers, we have an opportunity to tackle controversial topics and help our students listen to one another. Those rich exchanges can’t happen, though, if our students make assumptions about one another based on the things that mark them as part of certain groups–their scarves, tattoos, and JoJo bows (figuratively speaking, of course).

Many of our students are hesitant and guarded, and it makes sense why: it’s not easy to share ideas if you’re certain no one gets you.

If we truly want to move from politely awkward conversations to challenging ones, we need to create spaces where our students can connect with one another and practice pushing themselves past hesitation. They don’t need to be kumbaya-singing besties. But deliberate work is necessary if we want them to authentically communicate with one another.

Here are five ways we can help students engage each other in conversation.

1. Show students, by example, how to share risky ideas.

Last year, when discussing a police shooting with students, I shared my struggles: my deep concern for the incidents of police brutality in our nation, and that I’m also married to a police officer. Sharing my conflict opened the door for students to share theirs as well. And though not everyone agreed, we moved past assumptions and into productive conversation.

2. Do–and share–lots of low-stakes writing.

Many students haven’t had opportunities to develop their thinking about controversial issues. Notebook writing can give them a low-stakes opportunity to do just that. Students need to test ideas in notebooks, and puzzle through their answers to questions. And then they need to share–sometimes with a partner, and sometimes with a group.

3. Move students’ seats. And do it often.

I think students are young adults who can choose their own seats, but moving them around, and pushing them to work with new people, can help break down barriers. They can return to seats they choose, but it is good for them to move for part of the period.

4. Study texts that contain multiple perspectives.

Providing credible, quality texts with multiple perspectives gives students mentors for their discussions. A hesitant student might chime in, too, if you add a text from a voice that might not be present in the discussion otherwise. It is tricky when I have a strong opinion (and it’s rare that I don’t), but by providing students with several texts that look at an issue through different lenses, we are opening the door for richer, more inclusive conversation.

5. Provide a space for many different types–and sizes–of discussion.

The easiest way to get more comfortable talking is with practice: pairs, small groups, whole groups, rotating groups. Sometimes those discussions need to be teacher guided, and sometimes student led. Sometimes they need discussion protocols, and sometimes they need to be free form. Different students will respond better to different types of experiences, but all need to practice talking often–daily!–about topics that matter to them if we expect them to engage fully.

It’s not easy to help students find and use their voices. But we can start by creating classrooms that give them chances to practice. By understanding their differences, and learning to see that each unique experience is valuable, students can move beyond awkward, Holiday-Inn elevator conversations toward, engaged and complex ones.

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.

Why Students Benefit When You Take Professional Risks

Notes from the Classroom

There’s a lot of groupthink in education.

It’s an obvious side effect of our nature as teachers.  We’re team builders and supporters, nurturers and cooperators.

Those are all wonderful traits, but they also make us reluctant to press into new or unknown territory. We even give each other the stink eye when somebody in our department goes rogue on a writing assignment.

It’s like ambition and risk-taking are betrayals of some unwritten teacherly pact.

But risk-taking is important for our students.

The last few years, I’ve learned that not only does a little boundary pushing lead to better outcomes for students–it also helps the professionals coming up behind you to trust their instincts.

My first venture into unknown territory came a few years ago when I started to explore graphic novels for my lowest readers. It felt strange to give these pleasure readings to kids, in a medium that few other people (at least in my building or immediate professional group) were engaging with.

I kept second guessing myself. People would nod their heads when I explained my thinking, but nobody else jumped on board immediately, aside from the comfort-zone books that had already been accepted into the canon of “okay” English texts (think Maus and…well, that’s about it…).  

I remember thinking constantly that at some point–if I kept on with this “weird” idea I was exploring–that someone was going to step out from behind a tree in this woods I’d wandered into, and tell me to get back on the path and stop taking risks that could impact students.  Here’s what actually happened.

Nobody ever told me to quit exploring.  

In fact, special education teachers in my building were incredibly supportive and started helping to spread the word. I also discovered quite quickly that I wasn’t the only one who was using graphic novels for high-interest pleasure reading. Several colleagues had multiple titles in their classroom libraries.  

While I was utilizing them in different ways, it became evident quite quickly that my idea wasn’t as “out there” as I’d originally thought. Then something else became evident.

The Risky experiment started to work.

It was the great graphic novel experiment. And it worked.

I found titles that really resonated with kids–and I even blogged about the titles that were big hits.

What’s more, my school librarian (whom you might know from this very blog!) turned out to be way ahead of me in terms of graphic novels, and helped build up our media center’s collection while I worked on my classroom one!

Over time, students I’d had in previous years started returning to my room, looking for new titles–which also helped other teachers find titles that these struggling-but-eager readers would latch onto.

Then this year, when I attended NCTE’s big annual conference, I was elated to see multiple sessions explaining the effectiveness of graphic novels. The sessions even looked at the novels’ complexities–which actually rival many traditional classroom texts.

The topic blew up on Twitter for the next couple days, and suddenly there was a shift.

My graphic novel experiment was getting validation.

I wasn’t in the woods anymore. What I thought was a (pun intended) novel idea a few years ago, turned out to be the same idea lots and lots of teachers were having. It just took us a while to spot each other.

I probably would’ve listened to those two great presentations at the conference and started using graphic novels anyway. But I think about all the students I’ve had, students who never saw themselves as readers until the right graphic novels were in their hands.

And I’m glad that I took a professional risk, instead of waiting for someone else to tell me what good ideas the group had pre-approved of.

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.