NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:


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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.

NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Two

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 3 and 4, and here are some ideas I tagged:

Because YA lit is accessible and because it puts so much value on existential wondering and the identity development that stirs, it serves as uniquely powerful material for drawing students into these conversations … They should also expect their thinking about the books to be deeper because of the interactions they have with their teachers and peers. They should expect that reading will allow them to reflect on their own lives, and they should expect the process of reading books in the company of others to enable them to discover more than they would on their own. (pg. 82)

When we think of books as avenues through which to access existential wondering and identity development, it elevates the very nature of the work we do in our reading workshop.  If we present YA lit as an invitation to this kind of collective deep thinking at a time in their lives when they are naturally inclined to want to do such thinking, our students cannot help but want to participate and respond.  Reading with this kind of intent  will foster engagement and make reading workshop a place to both grow as a reader and a person – truly meaningful, long lasting work.

(From “Portraits of Classrooms” – Carrie Melnychenko high school YA Lit class): “Collectively my students want to be able to analyze something. Author’s craft. Character analysis. Something. They want the chance to chew on it for a while and rethink their thoughts on things…I’m not here to tell them what’s in it, as if here I am, the guru of the book. No, I’m going to sit back in my chair and go, what do you think? What would you do? It becomes a big conversation…That’s what they will remember.” (pg.60)

I loved this acknowledgement that kids are prepared to do so much more than we often think they are once they know that they have the freedom to ruminate over the analysis of the literary elements in a text, that there is no one answer that we are asking them to arrive at (i.e. our answer).  For this to take place, we have to be willing to do what Carrie does – lay a foundation for meaningful analysis to take place, and then sit back and give our students the freedom to do the loud and messy work of articulating thoughts and shaping new thinking.

…it’s important to note that there is no one right … way of implementing YA pedagogy.  Each of us must personalize our work with these books and develop an approach that is right for our context…We need a vision for teaching YA lit – and we need to figure out what we want our own version of YA pedagogy to look like. The first step is to ask ourselves what our stance toward this literature will be. (pg. 70)

This section of the book reminded me that working with YA lit requires commitment: to read widely so that our classroom libraries reflect the interests and needs of  all our students, to get to know each year’s incoming class of students so that we can match them to books they will be drawn into, and to figure out that stance towards this literature that will help to shape the beginnings of  important conversations.

(About the value of readalikes): The important thing about readalikes is to base suggestions in specific things the reader says about his or her enjoyment of the original book.  The goal is to help the reader follow and cultivate a focused thread of connection. (pg. 77)

I loved this section of the book and the idea of “readalikes”.  I work towards creating book stacks for kids based on what they have read and liked, but this practice goes one step further in encouraging students to recognize “a focused thread of connection” and build a reading life around such a connection.

We should begin by thinking broadly and strategically about the books we bring into the classroom. We need to ask ourselves, what kind of textured reading experience do I want students to have as YA readers in my class?… Which books will stimulate discussions so spirited and passionate that students look around and say, “I want to read what they’re reading”? (pg.88)

Chapter 4 ended with this directive, which is a timely one.  As I begin to box up our classroom library for the summer, I hope to do an initial strategic assessment of the books we have and the books we need.  In this, Jennifer Buehler asking us to be just as intentional in the selecting and purchasing of our books as we are about the teaching and thinking that will take place because of them.  Perfect summer work!

Now, to this week’s NCTE book club task:

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 8.47.34 PMOur task this week was to take what we had gleaned from chapters three and four and contribute to the following:

This week we’ll build each others’ toolkits by sharing strategies we use in our own classrooms to build community. Please describe something you’ve found effective in build towards one or more of these “qualities of classroom community”
  • Belief that the work is important.
  • Discussions that blend personal response and literary analysis.
  • A sense of being known and valued.
  • Collective investment in a shared experience.

Belief that the work is important.  At the beginning of every year, I present five books that have been life changing.  These are books that I return to time after time because there were words of wisdom or humor that I needed to read again, savor again, and think about again.  I show my students marked up pages where I have written notes to myself: comments, questions, references to other texts.  Through this little exercise, I hope to demonstrate that reading is an active, life long enterprise. We read to know how the world works, and how we work.  Reading is, therefore, important work.

Discussions that blend personal response and literary analysis.  My sixth graders come to our reading workshop with many, many personal connections,  I suppose because this has been the way their elementary school teachers have most often asked them to respond to their reading.  I have to make it a deliberate practice (especially at the beginning of the school year) to find a way to loop that initial conversation around literary analysis and slowly draw that in through a series of verbal cues that might sound like this:

“that’s an interesting personal memory to connect to, let’s think though about how the author used flashbacks in these scenes. How did these flashbacks  of memory help us understand the character better?”

I think that a consistent repetition of cues like this help my students realize that our best book conversations are a blend of personal response and literary analysis. This is work we practice in all aspects of our reading workshop life, from independent reading to book clubs and whole class read alouds.

I’m looking forward to reading what other book club members have to say, and to assembling my own reading toolkit.

#IMWAYR-It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: A Perspectives Flip Book Series


It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Early in their brilliant new book, Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write:

“We would argue that in today’s world, learning to extract information is not enough.  It’s not enough to hold a reader’s interest and it’s not enough to solve our complex problems. We need students who can do more than answer questions; today’s complex world requires that our next generation of leaders be able to raise questions.  They need to be able to hold multiple ideas in their minds.  They need to be able to see a situation from multiple perspectives. They need to be flexible thinkers who recognize that there will rarely be one correct answer, but instead there will be multiple answers that must be weighed and evaluated.”  (pg.21)

Getting kids to think with this mindset requires being able to offer a wide variety of texts about topics with different points of view, which can be a time consuming task albeit a worthy one.  So it was with delight that I came upon this series: A Perspectives Flip Book.  Each book in the series centers on one topic, examined from two opposing points of view. Here is the one on School Lunches, for instance.  Side one examines the issue from the point of view of why changes should be made,and side two looks at whether these new dietary regulations are either necessary or even good for school aged children.

The bias and objective of the argument is thoughtfully considered from both perspectives, with informative side bars, statistics, and graphics.  The series covers a wide range of  topics, from animal testing to the Civil War, and is written in an informative yet engaging way.

This is a wonderful series for book clubs and for informational and argument writing, as well.  I know this series will  definitely be on my purchase order for next year.

#IMWAYR: Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

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As luck would have it, my copy of Ralph Fletcher’s  Joy Write: Cultivating High-impact, Low-Stakes Writing arrived the week we were getting ready for the PARCC test – i.e. low-impact, high-stakes writing.  I read it with relish and relief – relish because few people write with as much joy about writing workshop as does Ralph Fletcher, and relief because Ralph’s note of caution about current writing workshop practice is something I have been grappling with and needed to hear his voice of encouragement.

For some time now, Ralph Fletcher has been asking us to examine how we structure and prioritize student choice in our writing workshops.  In Making Things From Scratch, he introduced the exploratory notebook and new strategies to help our students move away from the sort of formulaic nonfiction writing they tend to write and towards writing that has authentic voice and creative energy.

In Joy Write, Fletcher expands the scope of his analysis to include all aspects of writing workshop.  Having been there from the very inception of the writing process movement, he brings the force of  his institutional knowledge to this task, and the questions he poses about the way we’ve come to run our classroom writing workshops are both insightful and timely.  In my own sixth grade classroom, for instance, we follow our school’s genre based writing curriculum: we move from one genre to the next through a predictable series of steps, beginning with mentor text studies and culminating in writing celebrations.   Although I see the value of predictable routines and scaffolds in moving my kids through a year of writing in which they grow as writers, I would be the first to agree with Fletcher that hewing only to a genre based workshop saps the creative energy and “buy in” of my young writers; or, as he puts it:

Today in many classrooms we find children being taught exacting writing formulas. When format dominates the writing, there’s little wiggle room or opportunity for kids to make writing their own…They are directed to write in a particular genre in a way that’s highly structured and externally imposed.  From a student’s point of view, the writing is less about me and more about what the teacher tells me to do. (p 22)

So, what’s a teacher to do? If we’ve gotten away from the essence of writing workshop in this age of high stakes, test-oriented writing, and want to find our way back to the joy of student-driven writing within the parameters of our curriculum and state mandates, what is our path forward?  Well, Ralph Fletcher has some ideas:

In this book I am proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing. Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated…I am talking about informal writing..I am talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulders.

… a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood  (p39)

Greenbelt writing, as described by Fletcher, encompasses everything from blogging to Slice of Life writing to…whatever our students feel moved to write about in the form they choose.  The most important factor in this kind of writing is the fact that we (i.e. teachers) have little to no presence or influence: it’s all about what our kids feel they have to say, in the way they want to.  I loved reading through all the varieties of inspired creativity such freedom invites, and the sense of empowerment it creates:

But many students – more than we might imagine – will find their stride through greenbelt writing.  That’s where they’ll (re)discover the passion of writing, the thrill of saying exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, savoring how it feels when you create every word, comma, exclamation point and can say with proud confidence: “This is what I wrote, and it’s all mine.”  (p.97)

In my own classroom, thanks in large part to Ralph’s words of caution every time he presents at conferences or takes to Twitter, I have found that making time for greenbelt writing has led to a much greater sense of writing partnership with my students, and (as a consequence) their own sense of personal investment.  Even when it comes to our weekly Slice of Life writing, for instance, “giving over” the platform to my students so that they can propose how they want to write changes the dynamic instantly.   Carving out the time for such endeavors is tricky, after all, do we even have time for the things we are mandated to do, let alone the things we would like to do?

Ralph Fletcher  believes we can:

What will kids remember about writing in school? I want them to remember … writing that is fun, passionate, and joyful, and reflects what matters to each student.  This is the best way I know to create writing classrooms where the student can develop the concept: I am a writer.  (p.40)

Each student as a joyful writer – now that’s something wonderful to consider and work towards.  So, even as we dive into testing season and all it brings, I would urge writing teachers everywhere to go get a copy of Joy Write, read it, and bring greenbelt writing into their classrooms. 

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Words With Wings

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Day dreamers have a special place in my teaching heart.  It is true that they need extra doses of reminding, and that one can never be sure if they are with us or hundreds of miles away even as their bodies are right there in our classroom.  And it is also true that sometimes the questions they ask and the answers they give bear little relevance to the material we happen to be studying at that very moment.  But the thoughts they share, they things they say and write, often take us to unusual places; daydreamers are special people.

In her verse novel Words With Wings, Nikki Grimes gives us Gabby –  a memorable daydreamer, who finds comfort and delight in words.

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Gabby’s world comes apart when her parents divorce: her daydreaming, word-spinning father moves across town, and her practical, take-care-of-everything mother has little time for Gabby’s daydreaming ways.  As she adjusts to a new school, and a new home, and now a deep hole in her heart where her father used to be, Gabby finds that her daydreams protect her and give her both solace and hope:

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But, buckling up for her word rides gets Gabby in trouble in school – it’s hard to pay attention to her teacher when her own thoughts beckon to magical places.  Her teacher is patient, to a point: “Dreams are great things, Gabby,”/he finally says…”Still, sometimes you have to/slide your daydreams/in a drawer/and let them wait until later…”.

So, Gabby tries to still her imagination and be the kind of student (and daughter) that everyone seems to prefer, even though stilling her imagination makes her feel sad and dull. She finds a daydreamer classmate who pins his flights of fancy down in drawings, and one day she puts her own words with wings down in writing.  Those words are snatched away by her teacher, but they become the key to how Gabby can keep her word dreams until later: he makes time every school day to daydream and write. Gabby’s notebook is soon “thick with daydreams”, with words taking flight:


Words With Wings covers just a year in Gabby’s life, an important year. But Nikki Grimes’ verse is packed with  a spare power – you feel the full range of Gabby’s experiences and emotions.  And, of course, I loved that her teacher found the perfect way for Gabby to let her imagination take flight during the school day – he made time to dream and write!


#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: The Boy In The Black Suit

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Yes, even though it’s the March Slice of Life Challenge and I am a writing maniac this month, I managed to read this fabulous book:

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Jason Reynolds’ The Boy In The Black Suit is a brilliant book about coming to terms with death and grief.  Matt Miller begins eleventh grade weighed down with sorrow: his mother, the rock of  his young life, has just died, and his father seems to be drifting away in a grief cloud of his own.  Unmoored and feeling very alone, Matt is at first conflicted when he is offered a part time job at  the funeral home where his mother’s service had been held. Mr. Ray, its suave but kindly director takes Matt under his wing, stepping into the role of surrogate father when Matt’s own father stumbles into the street in a drunken stupor and is badly hurt.

At first, Matt is embarrassed about his new job and having to wear the black suit necessary for work to school every day.  Matt is secretly drawn to funerals – some deep and unknown part of his soul seems to need to see how others grieve, how others cope with their grief, since he himself is struggling so much with it.  Then he meets Lovey, who speaks at her grandmother’s funeral and seems to know the secret of how to handle grief and how to to be strong.  

Reynolds does a beautiful job of writing this story from Matt’s perspective in such a real way: he misses his mother, he mourns the way his father seems to be falling apart, he appreciates the stability and support of Mr. Ray, and he enjoys strategizing about flirting with Lovey.  He embodies all the deep feelings, confusions and contradictions of young adulthood.  I especially loved the character of Mr. Ray – the embodiment of that one adult who can make a difference at a crucial time in a young person’s life.  At one point early in the book, Mr. Ray senses that Matt is lost and searching for answers to his loss: why his mother? why now? how to keep going on?  Mr. Ray compares life to  the card game ‘I Declare War’: “I can lose and lose and lose and I don’t know why. But there’s nothing I can do but just keep flipping the cards. Eventually, I’ll win again. As long as you got cards to keep turning, you’re fine. Now, that’s life.”

This is definitely a book for 8th. grade and up – Matt is in high school, and some of the language and references in the story reflects that.  It is a hopeful story, one of the resilience of youth, and the healing power of community and love.

Here’s the author speaking about The Boy in the Black Suit:













#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: The Crane Girl

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

I love picture books for a variety of reasons, but I especially love picture books when I am so crazy busy that finding time to dive into a chapter book is both impossible (time? where to find time?!) and frustrating (how to carve enough time to dive back into a thought provoking novel when you have 15 to 20 minutes of time to spare?).  Besides,these days, picture books are such rich and joyous pleasure.  Here ‘s one I managed to read:


Curtis Manley’s The Crane Girl is a reimagining of a Japanese folktale with a twist. Yasuhiro comes upon a wounded crane who he rescues and treats with great kindness until it is able to fly away. The next day, a young girl arrives at the hut Yasuhiro shares with his father – she has nothing in the world, not even a home, and asks if she could stay with them.  Although father and son are struggling to eke out an existence, they agree to take in Hiroko out of the kindness of their hearts. But, the girl notices the father’s difficulty in finding work, and she offers to spin silk if they promise not to open the door when she is busy at the loom. Hiroko’s silk proves to be of the finest quality, and soon the father grows greedy for more – so greedy that he breaks his promise.  When the door is opened, father and son discover that Hiroko is the crane Yasuhiro had once saved, but she can no longer remain with the boy she has come to love and must return to her own people. Yasuhiro refuses to let her go without him, through the power of their love he is transformed into a beautiful crane as well.

Lyrical haiku are woven throughout the story, which is a lovely way to move the narrative and add to its emotional weight. Lin Wang’s gorgeous paintings are a feast for the eyes, as well:


The “twist” in this story? Here’s what Curtis Manley has to say:

I have loved these tales for many years but wanted to create a version in which it is a young boy who saves the crane and befriends and loves the crane girl, but who is not greedy or at fault when the girl’s true identity is revealed. Although the crane must leave, she is able to keep her connection with the boy who rescued her.

I loved this twist!  So often in these folktales, there is tragedy and loss at the end, brought about because of the betrayal of a character the reader has come to like.  Manley’s twist was a happy one – Yasuhiro does not fail the test, his kindness is rewarded, and he is able to be with Hiroko, the one he so truly loves:


her wingbeats –

my heart soars

A beautiful ending to a beautiful book…