A Book to Spark a Conversation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

all-american-boysI recently read a knock-out YA novel. It happens to be one of the choices for the Global Read Aloud, and it sent me into a recommending and discussing orbit through both my school and personal life.

With the media flooded with police shootings, attacks on officers, and Black Lives Matter events nationwide, All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, offers parents, teachers, and teens a perfect opportunity to open the door to a difficult but hopefully fruitful conversation.

The Plot

Rashad and Quinn go to the same school. They know some of the same people, but they’re not really friends. They are both headed to the same Friday night party when everything changes.

Quinn sees Rashad lying on the ground outside a convenience store. He’s been accused of theft and beaten severely–by a police officer, who is a close friend of Quinn’s family.

Quinn hopes that the whole event will blow over and that he’ll be able to erase the horrible image of a beaten and bloody Rashad from his mind. But as the week goes on, the community starts to divide and a movement starts to build–#RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Now Quinn has to make a big decision. Which side is he on?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Adults who spends time with teenagers find themselves needing to have difficult conversations about the world around us. The interactions among high school students raise plenty of questions, not to mention the frequently unsettling events of the world at large.

As a worry-worst parent of two boys under four, the possibility of these complicated queries already keeps me up at night. (Is “Dad wanted to talk to you about that” an acceptable response?) As a teacher, I struggle to find the right balance between acknowledging concerns and encouraging students to seek understanding for themselves.

Enter a well-written, thought-provoking book like All-American Boys. Such a book puts the topic into play, eliminating the onus for an awkward introduction, and allowing all who partake to feel engaged in the global conversation.

This book moved me. It helped me clarify some feelings and ideas that, even as an adult, were difficult for me to summarize and express. It reminded me that good books have power–power to start a conversation, power to inspire change, power to foster empathy. I may soon start to annoy people because I won’t stop talking about this book, but this is a conversation that is worth starting.

Book Details:
Reading Level: AR = 4.9, Lexile = HL770L
ISBN: 9781481463331
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Awards/Accolades: 5 starred reviews & Jason Reynolds won the Coretta Scott King Author award in January, shortly after this book was published.

Bethany Bratney

Bethany 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.

Summer (Reading) Lovin’

Notes from the Classroom

tayrdgtentMy daughter, Taylor, just started her first grade year. She left kindergarten at grade level in reading, and at the end of the year, she was just starting to believe in herself as a reader.

But throughout the summer, Taylor showed no gains in reading, even though she’s surrounded by two parents who are teachers and who value reading, and a sister who values reading and offers lots (and lots!) of encouragement. Taylor offered eye rolls when met with reminders of using strategies or reading the picture; I’m sure to see more in the teenage years too! She stuck with easy books and passed off other books to the rest of us.

This was hard for me. Teaching students to read is–as I point out to my children–what I do. They have both expressed that they have no interest in my wearing my teaching hat at home. They want me in the Mom role. So I have to be subtle.

Which got me thinking about those households that don’t have teachers in them, or parents who don’t have the drive to spend each evening reading. We as teachers can’t change what happens at home. We can encourage and remind till we are blue in the face, but it doesn’t always work. The summer slide seems to be inevitable, until every school becomes year round.

The first week of school solidified this thought for me. Students need the learning environment all the time, and not just September to June. In her first week, Taylor came home, picked up a Mo Willems book, and started reading it. I tried not to let my chin hit the floor, but couldn’t stop the excitement I felt. She was reading, without even being asked to. And it was a brand new title for her!

Just being back in an environment with an expectation of learning and the encouragement of her classroom teacher had flipped the switch for her. 

Year-Round Reading

Since this can-read attitude is a goal for my own kindergarteners, I’ve already started thinking about how to maximize this mindset for them when summer arrives. Yes, I know we’ve just started school, but the thought is fresh in my mind and the problem is a big one!

Here are a few ideas:

  • Have parents send videos of their child reading. The teacher could send a video clip back. This could be done through email, Instagram, a classroom Facebook page, a Google classroom hangout, or even Twitter, depending on parents’ comfort.
  • Start a book club. Send out books, and have a focus (visualizing, predicting, retelling, connecting, etc.) for the students when they read. Parents could respond again through the options listed above. You could also provide a bag of books for the summer, along with a reading list. Remind 101 is a quick, text-message-based tool to send assignment reminders.
  • Meet the previous class at the park or the school playground. Give them that reminder: You are a learner even over the summer!
  • Invite future students to a meet and greet. Get the ball rolling early.
  • Set up a book club at the local library, and have the kids meet you there. The library may even order extra copies of the books.
  • Have the kids do video book reports. These can serve as recommendations to friends, and kids can post using the same channels listed above.
  • Start a book chain mail with your class. Media mail is cheaper. You don’t have to use new books; kids can send out a favorite they would like to share.
  • Meet at a book store. Work with a local book or comic book shop and see if they’ll let you meet there–or donate books to the cause.
  • Trade used books. Have a used book trade a few times over the summer, and stay after to read them under the stars with flashlights.

I’m not sure which I am going to try or what will work best for my class this year. As I get to know my students and parents, I will try to figure out what would work best to keep that learning attitude over the summer.

Also, a lot of these ideas could be done during the school year too! Hopefully you’ll be able to try some of these ideas, or can share some of your own in the comments.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com/) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team and is part of starting a coding club at her school this year. She is in her eleventh year of teaching, with nine in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Creating a Culture of Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_123704254Each year, students tell me, “I don’t read” or “I haven’t read a whole book since the fourth grade.” I take those comments as a challenge. It’s part of who I am. If someone tells me that something can’t be done, I double down and whisper to myself, “Wanna bet?”

This attitude faltered this fall, though, when I moved to teach at a new school. My new building was recently designated by the state as a Shared Educational Entities school, which means that it draws nontraditional students from the other main high schools in our district. Students come here to recover credits, or if they have not otherwise found success in a traditional high school structure.

As I unloaded my boxes of books, people were quick to warn me that I wouldn’t be able to use those here. “You don’t have enough time,” they warned me. “These kids won’t read.”

Of course I’d had plenty of those kids in the past. But they were always among students who already identified as readers, so I relied somewhat on the readers to help establish a culture of reading. Even when I taught AARI (reading intervention) classes at the traditional high school, I built a reading culture with independent, choice reading.

But for some reason, facing what seemed like an entire building of “non-readers” in an alternative environment, I wondered if I could still do so.

The possibility scared me, but I dug in my heels. Could I establish enough of a reading culture that I could “trick” students into reading outside school, without thinking of it as homework or a requirement?

So far, I’m a month in, and this is what I’ve tried.

Book Talks

A few times a week, I take a minute or two to highlight a couple of books from my collection. I show students the cover, tell them a bit about the book, and sometimes read a page or two as a teaser.

I have the students collect these titles on a handout called “My Bookshelf,” on which they collect the books based on how interested they might be in reading them. They rank each on a scale of 0 to 10. When they are stuck, and unsure what to do next, I ask them if there are any books on their “bookshelf” that they might be interested in reading.

Classroom Library Scavenger Hunt

In the first week, as we’re establishing our norms and getting to know each other, the students complete a very quick survey that asks them to explore the library. They have to check out how the bins are organized, look for titles that they recognize, and decide which areas of the library they might gravitate toward.

This gives them lightly structured and non-threatening time to get the books in their hands. It also allows them to get comfortable looking through the space.41uzrunxtkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_


Sometimes I build a few pages of read-aloud into a book talk. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to include some read-alouds from choice books in my mini-lessons.

For example, when we did a lesson on making inferences about characters’ thoughts, I read from the first chapter of Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, which is one of the 2016 titles for the Global Read Aloud project.

Choice in Independent Practice

After our mini-lessons, I try to build in as many choices as possible. As we were establishing the norms for our classroom learning community, my students told me loud and clear that they hate when teachers tell them what they have to read. At the same time, they’ll do it if they can choose the readings. Sometimes they have a choice between a few different short stories, and sometimes I’m able to include independent-reading books as well.

I’m only a month in, so I don’t yet know how successful I’ll be, but I am hopeful. My students are talking about the books and asking questions about the read-alouds. One student asked, “Did this guy write anything else?” His eyes got wide as I showed him the section of my library that houses Walter Dean Myers’ books.

A little over 25 percent of my students have actually checked books out of my library, and one boy even took two. And every student (EVERY! STUDENT!) has been able to identify at least one book that they want to read.

To say that this hasn’t been easy is an understatement. On days when the kids act like all they want is a worksheet and to check out of thinking, I worry that I can’t keep it up. But I’d say that with a start like this, it’s well worth trying.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

A YA Novel Takes On Mental Health

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

highly-illogical-behaviorYoung adult (YA) literature often gets a bad rap. As a high school librarian, I hear the worst of the stereotypes often. One of the most common is that YA literature is too “dark” or “heavy” or “moody.” I find this perspective perplexing.

“Dark” murder mysteries and spy thrillers dominate adult best-seller lists. The independent novels that seem to thrive and become blockbuster films are often “heavy” (e.g., Roomby Emma Donoghue; Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline; and Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes). Many assume that teenagers want to read about serious, unappealing life issues like death, addiction, and mental health concerns because teenagers are “moody.” They don’t imagine that teenagers would search for literature featuring characters their age, dealing with legitimate life events in a realistic and not-always-happy way.

Over the summer, I read John Corey Whaley’s latest book, Highly Illogical Behavior, and found what might be the perfect book about a serious issue for both teenagers and the people who love them.

The Plot

High school senior Lisa desperately wants to get into a top psychology program and leave her former life in the past. But she is stumped by her entrance essay, which requires her to write about a “personal experience with mental health.”

Then she remembers Solomon, the boy from eighth grade who had a panic attack, jumped in a fountain on campus, and never came back to school. He’s the boy that she believes no longer leaves his house–ever. If she can find him, and “fix” him, she can write the perfect entrance essay, complete with a neat and tidy solution. But getting to know Solomon, and letting him into her life, changes them both in ways that neither could ever have predicted, which makes it pretty hard for Lisa to come clean about why she befriended him in the first place. Can their newfound friendship survive if it is based on a lie?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is most definitely some hard-hitting reality in this book. Agoraphobia is not a frequently discussed mental health issue, especially as it pertains to teenagers. Lisa’s relationships with Solomon and her boyfriend, Clark, are incredibly complex and not always pretty.

But John Corey Whaley’s characteristic writing style is also filled with humor, sarcasm, and enough levity to make this book seem like less of a downer than some of its companions. I found myself chuckling at Solomon and Clark’s conversations, or at nearly everything that Solomon’s dad utters. It’s a “serious issue” book that teens can enjoy and adults can embrace.

And while the story was predictable at a few points, I found myself compelled to read it–while I was brushing my teeth every night, for example, because I just couldn’t wait two more minutes to get started. I think it’s because Whaley writes supremely believable, realistic, honest characters. They’re characters that remind you of people you know in real life. He makes you care about them and what’s going to happen to them, even if you think you probably already know where they are headed.

That’s what made this book appealing and kept me reading as I drooled toothpaste down my shirt. Grab a copy and spend a couple of minutes reading Highly Illogical Behavior while you brush your teeth. I guarantee you won’t want to stop.

Book Details

Reading Level: Lexile = HL700L
ISBN: 9780525428183
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: May 10,2016
Awards/Accolades: Four starred reviews in four months. Watch this one during award season–Whaley has already won a Printz, a Moris, and been a National Book Award finalist.
Source: Penguin First To Read (I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 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.


What’s Your Vision?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_193135235I am lucky to have a new job this year as a Curriculum Coordinator for English Language Arts and Social Studies in a new school district. Since I am new to the district, I found myself at New Teacher Orientation. At these sessions, the upper administration focuses on the district’s vision, and how the new teachers are going to be a part of that vision. Having progressed through the ranks with a lot of time in classrooms, administrators tend to share anecdotes about times when they helped to develop this vision, or instances in which they found satisfaction in keeping this vision.

Subsequently, I buy in.

They say good things, they’ve done good things, and I nod along as I listen. I know that this is what’s good for kids, and that I can be a part of this work.

In these initial days, I have also worked with several groups of teachers. Here, I have had the opportunity to learn about their visions and what their classrooms look like on a daily basis. I see the beginning-of-the-year excitement and the true belief that they can do good things for kids. I believe in these teachers too.

This raises a question for all teachers: As the year progresses, and demands increase, and yes, you get a little tired, what visions of your classroom will you support no matter what comes your way? What will you fight for because it’s good for kids?

A Vision for Literacy Instruction

I’d like to promise that I will uphold these beliefs in my new role:

shutterstock_115746919Kids should be given an opportunity to write consistently. This writing should be varied and open to student choice. This choice may be in the strategy they use to produce writing, the length of the writing, the topic of the writing, or even the genre of the writing. Why is this important? Students who write and make choices about writing develop critical thinking skills needed in our world.

Kids should be given the opportunity to read every day. Reading can be a collaborative process. It doesn’t have to be silent and individual. As teachers, we have to expose kids to texts they may not have chosen on their own. This can look like strong mentor texts that guide writing and reading, as well as genre-specific texts that mirror student interests. This is important because students who read consistently and with variety do better in school.

Reading, writing, word study, and grammar are not separate entities in literacy instruction. They interact together and should be taught together. Students who can make connections between these topics are exposed to more real-life opportunities and will be better able to transfer these skills outside the Language Arts classroom.

The most effective tool for developing the reading and writing abilities of kids is feedback. Feedback or conferencing should be connected to standards, and should offer skills to increase the depth of the work produced. Feedback should guide students toward mentor texts and class materials that will assist them in high-quality achievement. As with all of my vision statements, students should have a choice in the feedback they take and the action-steps they enact after feedback.

These are a few of the beliefs that I will fight for in literacy instruction. What are yours?

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.


Reading and Writing Apps: K-5

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_305346137Thanks to a generous grant from the Walled Lake Foundation for Excellence, I was able to get five iPad minis for my classroom. We have been working out the way to best incorporate them into our kindergarten classroom, and we found that they fit in best during our literacy centers, small groups that allow for focused interventions. This way, small groups can use the iPads to enhance skills in an exciting way.

We use the iPads at other times throughout the day as well; literacy centers were just a natural fit. Because the world of educational apps can be a bit overwhelming at first, I hope to help guide you toward some apps we’ve had success with and that my students have enjoyed engaging with in the classroom. Everything below represents my own opinions.

Reading and Writing

With the grant we were also able to obtain a subscription to a service called Raz-Kids, on the website Reading A to Z. This is both a website and an app, and it’s wonderful! You are able to set up logins for each student and assign books at their reading level. At the end of each book, students are asked comprehension questions to earn points. The students are motivated because these points help them create a robot to interact with. Teachers are also able to log in and check students’ progress and comprehension of the texts.

A Tell About This video

A Tell About This video

Another app we just downloaded–and the students are enjoying–is called Tell About This. In this app, students are offered choices of pictures, and then are able to record themselves as they tell a story related to the picture. We first implemented it into the classroom with students taking a picture of the animal diorama they had created for the culmination of our research project. Then they recorded what they learned. They were so excited! (Here’s a link to download a sample of one student’s video.)

A companion to this app is called Write About This. We have not used this in my classroom, but my 2nd Grade daughter enjoys it.

My students’ newest favorite is Vocabulary Spelling City. While it isn’t sight-word practice, it is great practice when working on spelling, helping to motivate students during writing time. To practice, they can play hangman, alphabetize words, and unscramble a word’s letters, among several other choices.

Teach Me Kindergarten is another go-to app. This app, which covers multiple subjects, is in quiz form. Students earn coins as they correctly answer questions, and they are able to use these coins to buy virtual prizes like a fish tank and accessories. As the students start to show mastery, the questions start to become harder automatically. You can also choose a level at which your students start.

Lakeshore also has several learning apps. We have been using Sound Sorting and Phonics Tic Tac Toe. The students like the instant feedback when they get answers correct, as well as the ability to try again.


A new way that students are learning to write is through coding. This is a whole new language, one I can admit I don’t quite have a handle on, but I am trying. We are only using the iPad apps for coding, but all these apps have desktop applications too.

Currently my students are in love with an app called The Foos. With The Foos, they are learning to code by creating their own games. My students love creating levels for their friends to play.

Tynker and Scratch Jr. are also coding and programming apps my class (and daughters!) are enjoying. With Tynker, kids learn to code different characters to complete missions. With Scratch Jr., students are able to code a character to move around and entertain them. Kids can also change the background and animate things like letters.


While I can lay no claim to being a technology or iPad expert, I will say I have enjoyed having them in my classroom. The students enjoy learning while having fun, and the technologies give them another outlet to show what they can do. I am excited to spend the summer checking out new ways to use them; my daughters will get to be my guinea pigs.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com/) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team. She recently won a technology grant from the Walled Lake Foundation for Excellence. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Lit Hot American Summer

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_374832541This summer, my Theory of Knowledge students will read two independent books in preparation for the second semester of the course. Down the hall, my colleague Hattie (you know her from her fantastic blog posts!), will be handing out her lists for AP summer reading as well. These are all students who excel at school–reading a couple extra books over the summer might elicit some grumbling, but for most of them it really just means setting aside a couple of Nicholas Sparks titles in favor of some Toni Morrison or Ishmael.

Meanwhile, for my Co-Departmental English students who made great gains all year reading graphic novels and expanding their ability to work with grade-level texts; for my English 11 students who have signed up for 12th Grade English next fall; for my incoming class of English 11 students–for all of these students, there are no assigned summer readings.

Why is that, exactly?

There is robust research showing that this damages at-risk learners. It’s so robust, in fact, that the effect has earned a nickname: “The Summer Slide.” The estimate is that students lose the equivalent of one full month of instruction by not engaging in regular reading over the summer.

And that’s just an instructional measure. Imagine how much ground is lost when we cut kids loose for summer, having just begun to foster a love of reading in them.

If You Can’t Make ‘em . . . Make ‘em WANT to

The problem is, most of us have perhaps a couple weeks left, so getting administrative approval for a mandatory summer reading program for all students just isn’t going to happen this year.

But here’s what I’m thinking: Most of us can’t create something all kids must do, but we certainly have time to create opportunities that might encourage kids to read on their own over the summer. Towards that ambitious goal I humbly submit a few imperfect solutions.

51mASzxex8L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_-1The Comic Book Flood
If you tried the graphic novel approach to struggling readers, this could be your best option for those same readers. Amazon has a $5.99 a month Netflix-style subscription program that allows digital access to thousands of back issues of popular comic book titles. The first 30 days are free–your graphic novel enthusiasts could absorb an endlessly graphic summer for only 12 bucks!

Blockbuster Reading
Most of our kids are going to spend a good chunk of the summer at the movies. And when they get home from the latest summer blockbuster, they’re going to play video games or watch TV. You can shake your head (and your cane) at these young whippersnappers and their bad habits–or you can embrace these habits and use them to get your kids reading.

Challenge your incoming students (a quick letter home or an email blast) to get some pop-culture criticism under their belts. One starting place is the website Metacritic, which compiles professional critics’ reviews of films, TV shows, video games, and music.

Metacritic is a far cry from books, but in terms of minutes spent reading, vocabulary absorbed, etc., it’s leaps and bounds ahead of their default option of doing “not anything.” Imagine if every student entered your room in the fall having read five or six critical reviews of pop culture. Sounds like your first writing assessment just created itself!

Shared Spaces
I would imagine that for some students, summer reading simply doesn’t occur as an option. You can create a Google Classroom page or some other blog site that would email recommendations each week for great summer reads (articles would work as well as books!). You can also create another shared space where the students are encouraged to talk to each other about what they’re reading.

Any sort of sharing is good. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, this seems like just the sort of goofy, non-invasive reading encouragement that would get some reluctant readers on board. Sell it as a fun thing–create your own hashtag and get the kids to try and make it “go viral.”

Next Year’s Big Thing

There’s no reason our average-to-low level readers should “take the summer off” from reading when the expectation for our highest achievers is that they’ll spend the summer engaged with text. That is immoral on its face. This summer, consider taking some small aim at the problem with the time you have left.

But start thinking now about next summer, too. Perhaps you can push for that change in your department’s policy. In an age of increasing accountability, I’d imagine administrators would be more than open to a conversation that would improve the performance of the school’s lowest-performing populations.

Hollywood is already teasing the Big Summer Movies of 2017. Is it really too early to start a conversation about how we can better serve our students next year?

Michael Ziegler

Michael 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.  

Setting Individual Goals for Readers

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_171474932At my school, we had a reading goal of 20 books a year for each student. This goal was further broken down into page goals for grade levels — 400 pages each month for 6th graders, 500 for 7th graders, and 600 for 8th graders.

These goals were set for vertical consistency, and for my first few years, I heeded the expertise of my colleagues, and I did as they did. I kept my own reading log. I meticulously tallied student totals for books and pages. I helped kids choose books.

I realized, though, that page and book goals were not complementary. Many of my students’ favorite 8th-grade texts were 200 pages or less, so they were meeting the book total, but not the page total. Then there were texts that were far more that 200 pages, causing students to not meet the book goal.

There are many ways to finagle this information, but I was left questioning what this school-wide goal actually meant for my readers. Also, I saw my struggling learners feel defeat each month when they didn’t reach the goal, or their reading-level-appropriate books were much shorter than those of their peers. Additionally, I had to grade these reading logs, but the grading wasn’t aligned to any standard, except the arbitrary number that my colleagues set.

I couldn’t keep allowing students to fail in this task, so I changed my approach to reading logs.

Personalized Goals

I used the following strategies with students:

1. Students, working with me, set a personalized monthly reading goal.
2. I provided a variety of logs to choose from — monthly, daily, even yearly.
3. Conferences became about setting good goals and making good book choices.

The first month, we started with just a two-week goal. Students were eager to repeat their previous goals, but as I conferenced with them, many admitted that they didn’t often meet those goals. So I asked, What goal can we reach to be successful? They paused and breathed, and set a goal they thought they could achieve based on prior knowledge and experience.

As a result, more students than ever turned in their logs and reached their goals.

shutterstock_323492543As we continued, for many it was easy to double the two-week goal. For others who struggled to meet their goals, the common theme was that they didn’t make time to read daily. So we used a daily reading log, a visual tool that allowed students to see their amount of reading.

This wasn’t a punishment, though. It was a learning activity. Students who felt they established a good reading routine could switch logs at any time. One student, an avid athlete, found the daily log more beneficial because she could see her progress each day, just like her training. She has kept that log all year.

The types of goals also had to shift for students. Some kids set page goals, some set book goals, and some set goals based on the books they chose to read that month. Others have learned to look at the events going on in their lives, and to adjust their goals accordingly.

You may wonder whether students set purposely low goals. I didn’t see that. Each month as we revisit these goals, students who reach their goals set higher goals for themselves. One young woman started with 250 pages monthly and has successfully increased to 600 pages monthly. She wants to finish the year with 700 pages in a month. She says this is the most she’s ever read because she feels successful and in charge of the success.

Outcomes and Recommendations

This is just my experience with a new reading mindset in my classroom. But consider my students’ responses to an open-ended survey with two prompts. For the first prompt, students explained “what I like best about reading logs in this class.” The second prompt was, “What could be improved on in reading logs in this class?”

Student responses included:

  • “I like setting my own goals because it gives me motivation to read more.”
  • “I love that we can set our own goals because we can accomplish what we think is good. There are no easy or impossible standards.”
  • “Your goal is specific and achievable.”
  • “Goals make me feel accomplished.”
  • “We set honest goals.”

Now I know that these goals for my readers encourage their growth and commitment to reading. I recommend allowing kids to set such personal goals, which increase students’ engagement and lifelong skills.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Finding Joy in a “Free Day”

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_358897601It’s that time of year here in Michigan: the dreaded standardized testing window we now call M-STEP. My 5th graders just endured five days of this testing over a two-week period. The first two days were ELA tests–hours of online reading and writing. Needless to say, after the second afternoon my kiddos were in need of a break.

We did a little bit of our read aloud, which is something that even at 10, 11, or 12 years old my students still truly love. We had a conversation and then it was time for independent reading and writing.

They’d already had hours of it that day, so I decided to let them be in charge of their literacy that day. I told them they could read and/or write in whatever way they chose–they just had to be involved in literacy in some way. The result was not what I expected.

Questions came firing at me:

“Can I write poetry?”

“Can we write a story together?”

“Can I write fiction?”


“Can I do more concrete poems?”

“May I quietly read in the hall?”

Yes, yes, and yes. Then I watched something I haven’t seen in a while: true joy.

Enjoying Literacy

My students were happily engaging in worthwhile activities throughout the room. Even those who are usually off task found this freedom liberating and inspiring. Books were being created (and are now several chapters long). Concrete poems have been published in large numbers and are hanging in the hallway.

shutterstock_344859035This day really got me thinking about workshop and curriculum. We power through what we need to teach: mini lessons, teaching points, big ideas. We give kids lots of independent practice within the unit we are teaching.

Yet there are always those kids who don’t like the genre, who don’t really engage during independent time, who are just going through the motions waiting for the time to be over. This “free day” was just that for my friends: freedom. They weren’t constrained by what they “had” to read or write or do. This freedom allowed them to enjoy literacy.

Clearly, this is something I need to build into my year, not just at M-STEP time, but all year long. Though I’m not sure how to make it happen, I will. The evidence is clear. This is the outcome we want for our students: to find joy in reading and writing.

Now, when my students ask if we are going to have a “free day” soon, I think back to those smiles and enthusiasm and answer, “Yes.”

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Book Review: Reading Nonfiction

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

519O713jxML._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_A few months back, I wrote about how great Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice & Note was. As soon as I got wind that Beers and Probst would be releasing a nonfiction version, Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies, I quickly headed over to Amazon and pre-ordered my copy—and I have not been disappointed!

As much as I loved Notice & Note and made it an integral part of how I teach reading, I think I love Reading Nonfiction even more. As I read, I kept finding myself nodding and, in my head, yelling, “Yes! Why didn’t I think of that before?!”

The Importance of Critical Reading

One of the concepts that struck me the most, and I really couldn’t believe that I had not thought about it before, was the idea that many times, we teach nonfiction as being simply not fiction, which is much too simple a definition and one that can lead inexperienced readers down the wrong path. If we say that fiction texts are not true, then we’re also implying that nonfiction texts are true, which can be a dangerous assumption to make.  

Beers and Probst complicate this true/not true definition, but also bring it closer to helping students understand that readers of nonfiction need to be critical, informed readers and not just passive ones being taken in by a story. They define nonfiction as a “body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief” (21).

Clearly, the key word in this definition is purports, which signals to students that what they are about to read is always going to be someone’s version of what is real, and that we cannot always take what we read at face value, a necessary skill students need to develop as they are bombarded with information on a daily basis.

The Book’s Elements

Notice & Note was broken down into six signposts, elements that the authors claim are common to the majority of YA novels, and which help to focus students’ thinking. Reading Nonfiction is set up a bit differently; it is broken down like this:

Big Questions

  • What surprised you?
  • What did the author think you already knew?
  • What changed, challenged, or confirmed what you already knew?


  • Contrasts and Contradictions
  • Extreme or Absolute Language
  • Numbers and Stats
  • Quoted Words
  • Word Gaps

Fix-Up Strategies

  • Possible Sentences
  • KWL 2.0
  • Somebody Wanted But So
  • Syntax Surgery
  • Sketch to Stretch
  • Genre Reformulation
  • Poster
Anchor chart for the Big Question, What did the author think I already knew?

Anchor chart for the Big Question, What did the author think I already knew?

The Big Questions are the kinds of questions that experienced readers of nonfiction keep in mind as they read, and help students read closely rather than have their eyes skim words on a page. The Signposts help students read closely for features and concepts often found in nonfiction. The Fix-Up Strategies are designed to help when students’ understanding has broken down and can be used before, during, and after reading.

So far, I have begun using the Big Questions with my struggling 6th grade readers. My students are surprising me with how much they are marking and are able to talk about, because they developed this questioning stance before reading. After we tried out the Big Questions, I asked them if they thought this helped them read and understand in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise, and they insightfully indicated how reading with these questions in mind helped them focus on the article and think about it differently.

What is maybe most amazing about this book is that it’s not made just for ELA teachers. As I was reading, I could picture how these concepts could be applied to all content areas, and I wished that every teacher in my building would read this book. This just may have to be our staff’s next book study!

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.  She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things.  She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  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.