The Next Hunger Games?

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

testingWhen teens go crazy for a book or a book series, it’s a school librarian’s dream come true. But with the success of one series, next comes the pressure of finding something similar to keep the reading momentum going. For the last few years, I’ve been chasing The Hunger Games and Divergent, digging through dystopian lit in search of the next epic YA page-turner. Well, dystopian fans and those who love them: look no further than The Testing series, by Joelle Charbonneau.

The Plot (Book One, No Spoilers)

Malencia (Cia) Vale is thrilled to learn that she has been chosen for The Testing, the rigorous process that candidates endure to qualify for the one remaining University. She has longed to follow in her father’s footsteps, and to leave her small, quiet Five Lakes Colony to see Tosu City, as well as the wider world that an education from The University can bring. But as she leaves, her father warns her to be extremely cautious. The Testing and the people who run it are not always as they seem. When the extreme and potentially dangerous Testing process begins, Cia sees that the stakes are much higher than she thought–and that her father might have been trying to protect her from hidden evil.

The Answer to Your “Hunger Games problem”

shutterstock_145222582The Testing series has many similarities to both The Hunger Games and Divergent. Yet it is different enough to hold even a reluctant reader’s interest.

Readers will find a similarly powerful female protagonist, one with a specialized set of skills that makes her particularly exceptional in her new environment. Governmental corruption and conspiracy drive the action to continually new heights. Readers experience plot twists that drive the story at moments that otherwise would be routine. Hints of romance bloom between Cia and her old Five Lakes friend, Tomas, but never distract from the primary story. The books have similarly high levels of violence as The Hunger Games. The book covers even bear some resemblance to their dystopian predecessors.

With this series, teachers and parents will once again find their students reading for fun and asking for books as gifts. And with the film rights optioned by Paramount, the odds of seeing this trilogy become a movie series are high. I’ve field-tested the series with the students at my high school, and it has been a huge success. All of my copies are currently flying through the 9th grade at rapid speed.

Book Details

Interest Level: Grades 7-12 (violence is prevalent, making it questionable for younger readers)
Reading Level: Accelerated Reader 5.6; Lexile 830L
ISBN: 9780547959108
Format: hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
Awards: YALSA Quick Pick Top Ten 2014, Anthony Award 2014

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School. 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.

Teaching Outside the Literary Canon

Critical Literacy Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_267444602Years ago, in a jaded moment of teaching frustration, I purchased a book entitled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). I know, the subheading alone should’ve told me to save my money. The argument is pretty self-evident, but the details of the book—at the time—spoke to some of the frustrations I was feeling with my students.

At one point the author, Mark Bauerlein, shares an anecdote wherein some ex-student doesn’t show sufficient love for The Great Gatsby. Bauerlein’s diagnosis, then, goes like this: modern teens are possessed of a “brazen disregard for books and reading.”

“Yes!” I thought to myself then. “Finally, someone has given voice to the frustration of all of us English teachers!”

He is perhaps not wrong in that observation—save for the presumption that such an attitude is somehow unique to modern students. As English teachers, we fancy ourselves to be keepers of the culture, in addition to instructors of reading and writing. We imagine that the empathetic, essentially human part of society will wither and fall from the rose, one heartbreaking petal at a time, if we don’t help teenagers learn to appreciate Gatsby and Hemingway and Fahrenheit and Shakespeare—and Shakespeare and then poetry and then a little more Shakespeare. In other words, we don’t just want them to love reading; we want them to love reading the right things.

And we aren’t wrong. Cultural literacy is an important thing and kids get precious little of it. But pushing the classic canon and teaching kids to become more culturally enriched are not necessarily symbiotic. In fact, I want to propose that they are often antithetical (an argument which is not mine so much as Kelly Gallagher’s, in the indispensable Readicide).

Misguided Values

Students need to learn to love reading and the idea of literature before they can be expected to love literature independently.

shutterstock_182159027In that sense, the focus of English classrooms has been off for a long time. We build our units around a core canonical text, and make everything else more or less in service of that text. Is our concern whether kids learn to love reading, or do we press them to love this book at this moment, because it’s what we believe people who love reading should value?

I can feel some of you dusting off your old “In Defense of the Literary Canon” speeches for me, so I’ll use your ally from earlier. Bauerlein, in Dumbest Generation, offers another “measure” of proof that today’s youth are culturally bankrupt. He cites the fact that almost none of them has ever attended a jazz concert. Almost none! Imagine that!

Maybe some of you attend jazz performances regularly. They aren’t my cup of tea—nor are live stage plays, to be honest—and yet I don’t consider myself culturally bankrupt. But according to Bauerlein, if you don’t go to jazz concerts at least a couple times a year, you’re an agent of the cultural apocalypse.

But any reasonable person would agree that a distaste for jazz does not determine or define cultural literacy. We know this in our hearts, and yet we often refuse to allow the same benefit of the doubt to students.

On the contrary, when we come across something like the infamous TED Talk about Shakespeare and hip-hop, we use it to push kids even harder to appreciate The Canon: “See! If these rappers sound like Shakespeare, how can you not like the famous bard’s rhymed couplets?”

How often do we stop to consider the implicit corollary? If they’re close enough to confuse, then either Shakespeare isn’t so unique, or a few voices in hip hop are.

Next Steps

Some kids will love the classics from the moment they get their hands on them. And many of them will learn to love them in the classroom—because of you! But we do a disservice to our students when we imply that these are the only books that matter.

We don’t generally have the freedom to rewrite our curriculum. But a few minutes of students’-choice reading every day, or an assignment that asks students to select something for the New Canon, can have a huge impact on how your students exit your classroom and enter into the world of popular culture. To deny them the breadth of cultural richness is to send them into the world with their eyes wide shut.

In future posts I’ll share the joys of letting students read whatever they please. In the meantime, go read a good book by an author you’ve never heard of. See if it doesn’t turn out to have its own universal truths.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler 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.  

Reading in the Sunshine

Notes from the Classroom

So…this happened the other day at my house.  My kindergartner couldn’t put his book down long enough to go get the mail:charlie reading

Oh, be still my English-teacher-Mama heart.

He had a phenomenal first year of school this year, and I’ll never be able to thank his teacher, Irene Settle from Salem Elementary in South Lyon, enough. He’ll read all summer; I’m sure of it.

The next day, this happened in my own classroom:


This young man has been actively fake-reading all year long. He expends more energy figuring out ways to trick me into thinking he is reading than it would take to Just.Read.A.Book. He will not read at all this summer; I’m sure of it.

How do I change that? How do I capture some of my son’s new reader wonder and share it with my teenage students who still view reading as something to be avoided?

This year has been a journey in independent reading for me. I started the year ready to train up an Army of Book Nerds. By November, we were a little battle-worn and I reflected on some of the challenges I was facing.  Then the year got really hairy (doesn’t it always), and I stopped blogging about my journey.  Had I continued, I would have shared this:  It stayed messy. It stayed imperfect.

I asked my students for year-end thoughts about independent reading and they said things like this:

“This class has definitely reignited my passion for reading; before this year, I had only read books that were assigned in school. This year I read countless other books like The Kite Runner and Inferno.”

“I look forward to silent reading. My schedule is pretty busy so knowing that I get at least a few minutes to read everyday makes me happy and relieved.”

“It cheers me up and helps clear my brain.”

I wish I could just swoon a little, pat myself on the back and be done with it.

But my fake reader is still there with his phone in his book. And some of his classmates tell me things like this:

“Reading is still a struggle. I can’t find books I like. If I do, I just can’t drag myself into it.”

“Reading every day is just too much.”


Can I make a  last ditch effort to encourage summer reading with students who feel like this?

There is a long established tradition in high schools of assigning summer reading.  Some schools require it every year. Some have extensive lists. I, myself, assign it in my AP Language class. And it is so, so important that kids read over the summer. Here’s what the research says:

  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).
  • The achievement gap in reading scores between higher and lower income students increases over summer vacation. The research shows that achievement for both middle-and lower-income students improves at a similar rate during the school year. (Alexander & Entwisle, 1996).
  • Reading just 4-5 books during the summer can prevent a decline in a child’s fall reading scores. (Kim, Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap, 2004)

But I’m not sure assigning summer reading works. *small, timid, true voice* I know it doesn’t work for some.

So what’s a girl to do?

  1. Don’t give up–not on any of them. That kid who fake read all year? He’s getting a special list from me. And I emailed it to his mom. He might not read, but no one is going to accuse me of not trying.
  2. Take them outside to read in the sunshine. All they want to do is GET OUT OF SCHOOL. So scrap your lesson one day this week, take ‘em outside and let them read. Most of my kids have independent novels they’re reading, but for those that don’t, I’m going to copy the first 5-10 pages of some different, high interest books and have them read those. Maybe someone will get hooked.shutterstock_13180411
  3. Enlist the parents.  Having a kindergartner has been eye-opening for me. I’ve always thought I’m pretty good with communication, but I never really thought about how rarely I ask my parents for help.  I drafted a letter home offering suggestions for summer reading and offering my suggestions for books that might hook their students.
  4. Give students lots of suggestions. I’m planning an end of the year reading party in the last week of school. Teachers from other departments are coming in to give a quick “You have to read this” book talk for the kids, our librarian is doing the same, and I’ve got a few students in each class ready to make their pitches. All the kids will leave with a bookmark of the titles and authors discussed so they can look them up over the summer.
  5. Connect with the local library. I’ve been pushing Novi Public Library’s summer reading program  for a few weeks now and we’ve invited them to stop by our reading celebration.
  6. Share what YOU are reading this summer. I have a list a mile long and I want them to see it. I want them to see that I’m deliberate about my reading. I’m busy just like they are so I plan out what I’m going to read over the summer. I picked my top ten books that I’m planning to read and I’ll be sharing that list with them over the coming days.

I have 9 days left with these kids. Well, seven full days and two exam half days, but who’s counting?  I haven’t reached them all and this last ditch effort probably won’t pick up all my stragglers. But I might get a few more, and at the very least I’ll get an afternoon of reading in the sunshine.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fourteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, English 10, Debate, and Practical Public Speaking.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.


Water Buffalo-ing It: Supporting Student Revision

Notes from the Classroom

My AP Language students recently began a thematic unit on how work shapes and influences our lives. I knew they were struggling with seeing the theme’s relevance–few of them have jobs and they’re just not there yet. So, today I began class with a poem I thought they’d like: “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy. We talked about what it means to dive into something headfirst versus “dallying in the shallows” and why “the thing worth doing well done/ has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”

The part they seemed to like the most, though, or perhaps they were humoring me because it’s my favorite part, was the water buffalo.


The water buffalo–not a particularly glamorous animal–works through “the muck and the mud to move things forward.”

My students liked that concept, and we talked about the times when we have to “water buffalo it.” (We’re trying to make it catch on as a verb). I have to water buffalo my way through the stack of essays I don’t want to grade this weekend. They have to water buffalo through their swim practice, their homework, their babysitting jobs.

What they don’t know is that they’re about to water buffalo through the writing process.

These kids are highly grade motivated. That’s not to say they aren’t genuinely invested in becoming better writers–some are–but they’re high school kids. I’m going to grade the essay, so they only want my feedback. They want me to read and critique every word of their drafts.  Don’t get me wrong–I love writing workshop and I love giving my students tons of feedback, but it can’t just be about me and my feedback.  Avondale teacher Rick Kreinbring recently wrote a blog post about the importance of audience for student writers. He explained that when he “became their audience, they tried to write like students. But when their audience was other students, they wrote like writers. They had more confidence, took risks, and tried to engage each other. In short, they did what writers do.”

Writers struggle through “the muck and the mud” with other writers. I’ve given them their muck and mud–an essay assignment linked to our unit’s theme.  Now, my job is to figure out how to connect them with other students in genuine conversations to move their writing forward. This isn’t about me shirking my duties as a writing instructor; rather, it’s about helping them realize that there are many writers around them who can provide feedback. They need to ask. They need to trust their instincts. They need to struggle a little.

178470111Next week, we’ll spend a day in class where they’ll look at their past essays and really read my comments (a girl can dream, right?).  Then they’ll talk about those essays with each other and set some goals for this next piece. I’m hoping the goals will be more like “I will make sure my analysis in my body paragraphs directly relates to my thesis” and less like “I will get an A.” We’ll see.  One way I hope to get at this is some reflective journaling throughout the process.  We’ll set the goals at the beginning of the process, but then I’m going to ask the students to revisit those goals throughout the writing process. What have they done to achieve those goals? What struggles are they having? Hopefully, by asking them to articulate their progress, they’ll begin to realize that they are the ones in control of improving their writing.

After the goal-setting,  I’ll set the students loose to write on their own timeline. That’s going to be hard for me. I like to require rough drafts by a certain day. I often schedule students in slots for draft conferences on writing workshop days, and I’ve been known to require different types of peer editing. None of that is bad, but if my goal is to push them to value and engage in the writing process authentically and independently, those types of supports won’t get them there. I’ll model what my timeline would be if I were writing, but I won’t create hoops for them to jump through along the way.

Finally, I plan to offer lots of options to help them seek out the revision support they need.

  • Writing Workshop: We’ll still do writing workshop days, but I won’t be reading full drafts. Instead, I’ll encourage them to mine their reflective journal entries for specific questions they can ask me and their fellow writers.
  • Google Drive editing: Rather than the required online writing group revision I’ve required in the past, I’ll simply post a sign up sheet on the board. Sign your name; find some buddies who want to collaborate online. As much as I want to lurk and ask them to share their drafts with me, too, I’ll stay out of it.
  • 507243071 (1)Student-led modeling: I often write my own essay along with my students a la Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them.  I love that process; however, this time, I plan to focus on using my student writers to share pieces of their drafts as they go and talk about the choices they’ve made in their writing so far.
  • Peer to Peer mentoring: My former AP Language students are now seniors. I’ve spoken to them and many are willing to read drafts and give feedback. I’ll invite them to come to my Academic Advisory for the next two weeks and work with interested students.

Oh, my little water buffalos. This should be interesting.  Bring on the muck and the mud.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fourteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, English 10, Debate, and Practical Public Speaking.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.