Readers Choose: The Classroom Library

Classroom Library

by Lesley Roessing

Lesley Roessing
Ethical ELA Guest Blogger: Lesley Roessing

My students were expected to read every day. The only requirement for reading in my ELA class was that readers choose books they could read and in which they were interested— not only in the topic, but also the author’s writing style. The classroom library and how we tended it nurtured our readers-choose philosophy.

Sometimes we all read the same texts (whole-class, shared reading): poems, short stories, novels, and nonfiction articles and books; sometimes we read in book clubs (small-group, collaborative reading); and sometimes we all read different, self-selected books in the same genre (verse novels, graphic novels, nonfiction, memoir) or centered around a common theme or topic (the Holocaust or tolerance issues). But most times my classes all read self-selected, choice books in any genre and length and on any topic.

Roessing's LibraryBecause they were continually reading—during class reading workshop or at home for 25 minutes (plus writing a 5-minute daily Reading Journal response to what they had read), my readers increased their interest in reading, their quantity and quality of reading, and their reading comprehension skills.  I do not believe that readers themselves have a reading or Lexile level, but readers did increase their comprehension and interest in texts written at higher reading levels during the year. Readers get better by reading—not fake reading, not compliant reading, not SparkNotes reading, and not reading for testing—but reading for enjoyment and information.

And if teachers require, or reward, a certain number of books or pages to be read, readers will begin to choose shorter books at lower reading levels. Since my only requirement was that students read every day and write about what they read, there was no incentive to read books other than those that interested them. I remember when my reluctant readers tackled the Twilight series, books well over 400 pages, and others found authors such as Agatha Christie that they admitted were challenging for them (but worth the trouble)!

Some readers obtained their books from bookstores, some from the local or school library, but most students—especially the reluctant readers—chose books from my classroom library. How I stocked and organized my classroom library became pivotal to our reading experience.

Reading CornerOne year, as we studied the literary term “genre,” I pulled books off my library shelves and asked students in pairs to read the covers and skim through the books, agree on a genre designation, and label the books with sticky notes. When they returned the books, neatly labeled, I decided to re-shelve the books by genre. A library that had gone nearly untouched suddenly had books flying off the selves. I realized that those readers who were not familiar with authors or titles knew topics that interested them. Given a few skimming guidelines, they could narrow the books down to the ones they most likely could, and would, read.

It became important to have a balance of genres and topics on hand. I had to put aside my personal preferences and think of the tastes of my students, which varied from year to year. While I am not a fantasy enthusiast, several years, many of my students were fans. Luckily when I started teaching middle school, my own children—avid readers—were also adolescents and so, within a very few years, I had books I could add to the library.

I became creative—I went to book sales, wrote grants for certain genres (such as a picture book grant and a memoir book grant), and picked up a lot of books in conference exhibit floors, such as National Council of Teachers of English. Many times at the end of conferences, exhibitors give away books so they do not have to cart them home. I attended the ALAN conference and was given forty new Young Adult books each year. I requested that students donate books to our library that they had bought and read but were not planning to read again and parents to donate books in their children’s names for birthdays.

hoops Sones

I did find out many adolescents don’t like books that look old or worn, so I did avoid yard sales but some of the libraries had sales of books that looked barely used. Some of my students became interested in reading classics and books such as the Agatha Christie mysteries; soon I was bringing in appropriate books from my personal library.

I also borrowed books from our school library for weekly book passes and book talks to inspire students to check out these books on their own. In this way I was teaching the more reluctant readers to navigate a library that can seem overwhelming.

What were my criteria for choosing new books for our classroom library?

I looked for books that were well-written. This is not to say that we read Pulitzer-prize winning works, but one goal was to train reader-writers to read as writers. I wanted my readers to be able to notice good writing—especially devices and techniques we were discovering in writing workshop—to share examples with others and become more discriminating readers.

roessing readers

Other considerations:

  • issues that lead to discussions from multiple perspectives
  • contemporary issues that open readers’ worlds
  • books that serve as mirrors to the readers and their lives and issues they were experiencing since everyone should see themselves reflected in books
  • books that served as windows into other worlds as readers should also use books to learn about diverse peoples and issues
  • books that could serve as maps as my readers navigated though their adolescent lives and our contemporary world
  • a lack of inappropriate language or language that makes sense in context
  • a lack of focus on sex or a novels which relate the consequences of sex; even though I am not naïve about adolescent life, many novels encourage or commend sex
  • humor, if possible and appropriate, because readers should enjoy reading
  • most of all, books adolescents would read; sometimes adolescent readers’ standards were dissimilar from mine, but I had to remember that the only “bad” book is one that is not read

I usually did not spend money on series books that would fade quickly from fashion; however, at the time they were published, I invested in two copies of each of the Twilight books because so many of my reluctant female readers were devouring them. Therefore, it depended on my book, and personal, budget and how long books needed to last in popularity.

Readers Choose: Classroom Library

As readers discovered favorite authors—Woodson, Sones, Myers, Halse-Anderson, Lupica—and favorite genres—memoir, historical fiction, sports fiction—and talked more about books with their friends, I would find notes on my desk on Fridays, “Mrs. R, If you are going to the bookstore this weekend, we would like ….” The classroom library truly became the students’ library filled with books they cared about and valued—and read.


Lesley Roessing was a high school and middle level teacher in Pennsylvania for over 20 years before packing up, moving south, and becoming Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University, Savannah, Georgia. She has written four books for educators and students: The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin Press, 2009); No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011); a picture and song book, Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing, 2013), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

  Product Details

Review: The Wild Robot

The Wild Robot
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The audience for this book is upper elementary, but I can see middle schoolers enjoying this book. It is very much a storytelling experience; the narrator speaks directly to the reader, asking patience and compassion for the unraveling of the tale. For that reason, I enjoyed the experience of being told a story, knowing the narrator was taking me through the robot’s adventure of a year on an island. I felt like it was a know to story-time of elementary days, which junior high students really seem to enjoy. It is a story about community, belonging, survival, and, above all, what it means to be alive and co-exist, which is where I think the middle school readers come in. The intersection of natural and artificial intelligence in this narrative creates gaps for inquiry,which I think small group discussions can illuminate.

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Review: Unidentified Suburban Object

Unidentified Suburban Object
Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So this one is mostly a realistic ya novel of a girl trying to connect with her Korean heritage while her parents resist saying it’s “too hard” or “too painful” to think about the family’s past. I had a few students in mind as I read this and thought of my own grandfather from Italy, whom I never had the chance to talk to about his reasons for leaving Italia. All this is until there is a shift in the story line, and the realistic cultural quest becomes more sci-fi. I can see how this will appeal to some students because the shift was sort of fun, and I found Chloe’s resistance to her school and friend identity as believable; however, I am not sure that this plot twist worked or was necessary. I am interested to hear what student-readers think of this one.

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War Fiction: Writing the stories that haven’t been told

by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, writer of war fiction

Ethical ELA Guest Blogger: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Ethical ELA Guest Blogger: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Because most of my 20 published books show war or genocide through the eyes of a young person, some of my author colleagues affectionately call me the Genocide Queen. I didn’t consciously choose to write about genocide, but I have a compulsion to give a voice to people whose stories are not told.

When I began writing genocide fiction, it was an intensely personal journey. For me, the act of writing is similar to the act of reading. I write the novels that can’t find in the bookstore. My hope is that readers pick up my books for a page-turning story, but that empathy for the victims and survivors stays with them.

Before I began writing books, I was freelance writer and my favorite thing was to interview local people about their family’s immigration experience. I did a story on my own Ukrainian grandfather’s journey to Canada in 1913 and how when WWI broke out he was interned in Canada as an “enemy alien”, another was about a Vietnamese Boat Person’s horrific journey to freedom, but the most memorable was when I interviewed the son of an Armenian Genocide survivor.

I wrote up the Armenian story as told by his son, but I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking of all the unanswered questions. The son only knew portions because his father wouldn’t talk much about what he had lived through and now he was dead. I tried to research the era, but hit upon a wall. This was the late 1980s, before the internet. The Armenian Genocide had not yet been acknowledged by the world and it was very difficult to find material. There were special interest groups devoted to ensuring that the information was suppressed. They’d buy up and destroy the books on the topic as quickly as they were published. My own library had only a single book on the Armenian Genocide, David Kherdian’s The Road From Home.

I became a document detective, sleuthing out scant primary sources with all the pre-internet tools available. I also reached out to Armenian scholars but they were understandably skeptical of my motives, so I wrote the initial draft of my first novel set during the Armenian Genocide in a vacuum. Once it was completed, I snail-mailed the entire manuscript to a number of Armenian scholars as proof of my sincerity, and asked for assistance. I especially wanted to interview genocide survivors. This time, a flood of assistance came.

I reached my next hurdle after polishing the manuscript and sending it out to publishers. Because there wasn’t a body of work on the Armenian Genocide, publishers felt there was no interest in the topic. That first manuscript got more than 100 rejections.

I tore it apart and tried again, this time writing a simpler narrative geared towards young adults, but again, no luck, for the same reason, even though by this time I’d had two other books published on different topics. So I went back to the drawing board and intertwined a single thread of my original 500 page genocide novel into the story of a contemporary anorexic teen who sees food as her enemy. She nearly dies from starvation, and in her near death experience, she steps into the shoes of her own great-grandmother on the banks of the Euphrates River as she and thousands of other Armenians are being starved to death.

The Hunger (war fiction)I sent that manuscript out to publishers in 1997, which was just when the revelation of Princess Diana’s anorexia was in the news. The manuscript was snapped up and published as The Hunger in 1999. That novel is still in print and is used in classrooms in Canada and the US. As far as I know, it was the first YA novel to be written on the Armenian Genocide in the English language.

The tragedy of 9/11 made readers suddenly interested in unfamiliar history. All at once, my writing was in demand. Nobody’s Child was published in the fall of 2003. It was widely read and critically acclaimed, and then In April 2004, Canada officially acknowledged the Armenian Genocide.Nobody's Child (war fiction)

Those two young adult novels were only a fraction of the Armenian Genocide story that I had written and researched. For many years I was anxious to find more about a group of 110 orphaned Armenian boys who had escaped Turkey and taken refuge in Corfu and eventually ended up in an orphanage-school-farm in Georgetown Ontario. I had located a set of taped interviews that the boys did among themselves at an archive in Toronto but the key interviews had been sealed until all of the Georgetown Boys had died. The last Boy died in 2005, so I went back and listened to the final tapes. These boys were eye witness survivors to an action in 1923 by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Only 15% of the Armenian population in Turkey had survived the genocide, and most of these were young children living as urchins on the streets, plus very old women, also homeless. In 1923, Ataturk expelled them, forcing thousands to walk across the continent to safety. They ended up in Greece, many of them without clothing or food, sleeping on beaches. Out of the thousands, Canada sponsored 110 of them, and one was the father of that interviewee. After listening to these freshly unsealed tapes, I was able to write two more books, set in 1923: Aram’s Choice and Call Me Aram. These are written in a simpler way than the YA novels and they’re meant to be read by 8 to 12 year olds – the same age as the original orphans.

Aram's Choice (war fiction)Call Me Aram (war fiction)

In 2008, Daughter of War was published. It’s a companion novel to Nobody’s Child and The Hunger. By this time there was a flood of primary material available and so the novel is richer in detail than my earlier ones. The deniers could no longer keep the genie in the bottle.

Daughter of War (war fiction)

I have received hate mail and death threats for writing about genocide, but ironically, it was for a 1600 word picture book (Enough) set during the Holodomor, not for the 200,000+ words I had written about the Armenian Genocide.

Enough (war fiction)

The Holodomor (which means death by hunger in Ukrainian) took place in 1933. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was angered by the people in Soviet Ukraine who refused to give up their religion and hand over their land to the communes. As retaliation, he sent in soldiers to remove all of their wheat and other foodstuffs, then sealed the borders so no one could escape. Any Ukrainian who was caught with a handful of wheat was shot as a traitor. Between five and ten million people starved to death – it’s hard to know exactly how many because the census takers were also shot. After the Ukrainians died, Stalin repopulated the area with Russians. Like in the case of the Armenian Genocide, there are interest groups determined that information about the Holodomor be suppressed, and these people not only burn books, they threaten the writers.

In 2000, my picture book Enough was published – about a young girl and her father who defy the dictator by hiding their grain in graves. It was the first commercial work of fiction to be published on the Holodomor. There had been academic works, but no fiction even for adults. In retrospect, it was pretty cheeky to write a picture book on the subject, but that’s how the story came to me.

When this book came out, I received threatening letters, emails and phone calls. For a time, I was required to advise police before I did a presentation. The threats went on for eight years, but by 2005, Ukraine democratically elected Victor Yushchenko as president despite extraordinary Russian interference which included the poisoning of Yushchenko. In 2008, Canada officially recognized the Holodomor as a genocide.  Yushchenko visited Canada and I was invited to meet him. He awarded me the Order of Princess Olha for writing Enough. (So I guess I’m a Genocide Princess, not a Queen!) That same year, I received my final piece of hate mail.

I’ve also written books on little known aspects of WWII, WWI and Vietnamese refugees.

Novels by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch


My website is if you’d like to find out more.

Summer Book Club 2016: Let’s discover books together for the first time

Quiet Power

I am wrapping up my first year teaching with a classroom library. I’ve shared many great books on this blog and reviewed dozens more on my Goodreads feed (see the right column of this blog page).

I am now looking ahead to next year, knowing my classroom library needs new, great books to start the year.

I’ve read over one hundred books in search of that just-right book for each student, but I just cannot keep up with all the recommendations I’ve been getting from We Need Diverse Books, Nerdy Book Club, Goodreads, and Facebook friends. So this summer’s reading list is 25 books that I have NOT read but have been recommended, and I am inviting my junior high readers to vet these books with me.

Now I realize it is irresponsible to create a book list for junior high kids without having read the books, but I have a few explanations for this plan.

  1. These titles come from great sources that I have come to trust, having read so many books suggested by my teacher friends.
  2. All of these titles are categorized on Amazon as being for mid to upper middle school, with the exception of a few that are 9th grade and up (for students who are ready to stretch into more mature material).
  3. I want students to have a say in which books I buy for the classroom, so this is a genuine invitation to help me develop our classroom library.
  4. Readers read when they are not in school, and readers always have a to-read list. This list provides me and my student readers that to-read list in the hopes that they will find a new author, topic, or genre that will take them into new to-read paths.
  5. I want students to have some practice selecting books by reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, looking at the target audience for the title, and considering the authors –rather than depending on the teacher for their books. I hope students also find a bargain book store or visit their local book shop.
  6. I don’t want to be the authority on the books for my students. I am excited to read these books with the students and to hear what they think on Snapchat and our blog,

On the book list I sent to students and parents, I wrote this suggestion:

To choose the books, look at the summaries and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. On Amazon, if you scroll down, you can see the target audience (grades 5-9 or 9-12)if you are not sure if the books are appropriate (too mature or too elementary).  For most of these titles, you can also read parts of the first chapter. Consider the font style and if the chapters are titled. You can buy the books through Dr. Donovan by filling out this order form (Due May 23rd), check them out from your library, or order them on your own. We recommend you get together with a few friends and buy different titles to trade over the summer. Dr. Donovan will post reviews on Snapchat: dr.sjdonovan. We will also have a summer blog to share your reviews and discuss the books. There is no particular order and no rules, but Dr. Donovan plans to read ALL of them! Join with this code: bedufaw.

At the end of the summer, our summer book club will decide which titles to buy for the classroom and how many. Now, there are many other great titles that I have read and plan to buy for the next school year, but these look like promising additions and include nonfiction, fiction, verse, historical, fantasy, science fiction. I’ll share the results at the end of the summer, which for me is mid-August.

Summer Reading 2016

booklist summer 2016

How will you promote summer reading? What titles are you sharing?

Review: Apple and Rain

Apple and Rain
Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For middle and upper middle school students without hesitation. This is a story about family, parenting, sisters, friendship, loyalty, and crushes, but it is really a story about understanding the complexities of family. Apple’s mom left her with her Nana when Apple was just three years old. Apple’s mom returns when Apple is fourteen — a time of turmoil and hormones and friendships and, well, just figuring out stuff while all your friends are, too. It is a quick read without any deep complexities, but woven into the narrative are beautiful poems that help Apple (and readers) reflect on fears, disappointment, and our loves. I knew, right away, into which students’ hands and hearts I wanted to share this story.

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Coteachers Share Graphic and Verse Novels for 8th Grade Readers

By Laura Robinson and Anna Paprocki

Ethical ELA Guest Bloggers: Laura Robinson and Anna Paprocki
Ethical ELA Guest Bloggers: Laura Robinson and Anna Paprocki

We co-teach our eighth grade reading classes, and we focus on motivating readers and keeping the best books in their hands. Students are given choice in their novel selections, assigned or not. We booktalk the newest titles and watch book trailers to inspire our readers.

Thinking to the end of 8th grade, we wanted students reading a variety of narrative forms. Our 8th graders are curious, clever, and chatty creatures, and we thought our students could use a boost in their stamina as we got into the last quarter of junior high, so we created DonorsChoose projects for verse and graphic novels

Students love to talk with us about books, hot topics, and technology. Booktalks really inspire these students to read; once we show them a new or cool title, it is often off the shelf for weeks. People talk about middle schoolers being reluctant readers, but we do not see that in our students. They gobble up good books.

Here are 10 titles we received through Robinson’s DonorsChoose projects that were favorites in our co-taught reading classes this year. Some were chosen for their style, and others were chosen because they were just plain cool.  This organization facilitates teacher projects that need funding, and two of our ideas were fully funded this year by generous friends, family, and even complete strangers. Thanks to the generosity of others, our students were lucky enough to have some exciting titles in their hands this school year. 

Our Top Ten Titles

Coraline: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by P. Craig Russell

This is the story of a little girl Coraline, who is unhappy in her ordinary life. They live in a house, like a duplex, where her family occupies one half of the home. The other half is occupied by an exact replica of her family, except some strange differences. They have buttons for eyes, and the “new” family never wants Coraline to leave.  She explores this family and side of the house, but ends up getting trapped in a bad case of “the grass is always greener on the other side.”  

Our students loved this book because it’s kind of strange and sinister. The graphic novel adaptation gives them the visuals, but also makes them slow their pace down to really notice details in the images. The “other mother” is freaky looking and teenagers love it.  

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel by Ransom Riggs, illustrated by Cassandra Jean

This adaptation from the original book was a hit with students. It’s strange characters and weird pictures really intrigue students. The main character Jacob finds out his grandfather used to be a part of this strange house of children who all have special, secret powers and are watched over by a black bird. They live a life in hiding, but Jacob’s grandfather escapes to live a normal life, only to have parts of that former life haunt him. Jacob finds the house and the children and finds himself getting sucked into the loop of that world.

This version of the book was a hit with the students because the action kept them interested and turning pages! The graphics added even more visuals and details than its’ original format. They said they liked how it was mysterious and had cool images.

One by Sarah Crossan

This is a verse novel about a pair of twin sisters who are conjoined. They have been homeschooled their whole lives, but junior year, their parents face some financial trouble and they have to go to a regular school now. They face teasing, and whispers, and odd stares as they work their way through the new environment. Tippi and Grace make 2 new friends right away, Jon and Yazmin and they instantly form a bond. Grace develops a crush on Jon and Tippi starts to push the limits of their health by experimenting with alcohol and cigarettes. They experience some health issues, but neither of them discuss it, and it gets to a point where they have to decide whether or not to separate.  

It’s hard to imagine a life joined at the hip with your sister, but this book is written in a way that brings the reader in and makes them feel as if they are right along side Tippi and Grace. The struggles they face are real and heart-wrenching. Students loved the emotions of the characters and the drama that evolves with their family, friendships, and sisterhood.

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated Randy Duburke

Yummy is a based on a true story of an 11-year-old boy from the southside of Chicago. Robert “Yummy” Sandifer grew up without the family that a child needs. His dad was in jail for selling drugs and his mom was in and out of jail for various reasons. Yummy lived in group homes, foster homes, and with his Granny. At a young age, Yummy started getting involved with the Black Disciples. Yummy’s sad story drew the attention of the entire nation, as youth violence changes his life forever.

The students were very engaged in Yummy’s story because you see both sides of his life: he is torn between being a child and running with the Black Disciples. Robert “Yummy” is just looking for acceptance and a place to belong. Students feel their heart strings tugged by this compelling story of gang life and violence at a young age and they love urban stories.

House Arrest by K.A. Holt

Timothy is put on house arrest and has mandated counseling due to a crime he committed. His parents are split, his 1 year old brother is very ill, and they constantly live on edge, wondering if they can get by. The novel is actually Tim’s journal of thoughts, feelings, and reactions from his life as he goes through his year of house arrest. Students liked the way Tim gave attitude to his counselor and his funny way of responding to adults. It intrigued them how he would not tell his counselor how he felt even though he was feeling so much. Also, they enjoyed how the protagonist went through changes as the story unfolded. It’s an easy read and a good one to catch students.

Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

Written in verse, this emotional tale of a teenager named Brendan, who is struggling with his gender identity. The book varies between three different points of view: Brendan, Vanessa (his girlfriend), and Angel, who is a transgender volunteer at a youth center. Students appreciate the raw way Brendan expresses his struggles as he moves through his experience with transgender and transexualism. Clark writes an engaging and tasteful narrative to share the inner struggle of a teenager and his search for identity. This is quite a page-turner for teenage readers!

The City of Ember: The Graphic Novel by Jeanne DuPrau, adapted by Dallas Middaugh, illustrated by Niklas Asker

Ember is a city built beneath the surface and runs on a limited amount of energy, which seems to be running out. When children turn 12, they chose a job for their future. Lina and Doon both get jobs they don’t want, so they switch. Doon knows the power is starting to fail and thinks he can fix the generator. Lina finds crucial information in her messenger job that could change the future of Ember. Together they work to find a solution to Ember’s power trouble and look for a way out.  Students enjoyed the suspense of this novel because the action really builds. The antagonist is extremely dislikable and makes readers want to stand up and fight. The images in this graphic novel take away the wondering of what this setting is really like, as it’s hard to imagine a life permanently underground.

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel: Volume I by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by P. Craig Russell

A graphic novel adaptation of The Graveyard Book is a visually appealing and engaging experience for students. Part I of this tale begins with Nobody Owens finding a family, a place to belong in a graveyard with the ghosts that inhabit the place. Nobody “Bod” crawled into the graveyard after escaping his family’s and inevitably his own murder.  Students enjoy the story with haunting gothic illustrations and an engaging beginning to Bod’s story that will leave them excited to read Volume II.

Because I Am Furniture  by Thalia Chaltas

A heart-breaking story, written in verse, of a girl, Anke, who is a freshman in high school. Anke’s dad is extremely abusive to her sister and brother; Anke is ignored, treated like “furniture” in her house. Chaltas addresses the sensitive, heavy topics of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and parental infidelity through Anke’s story. It is written in a way that appeals to students and allows the safety of identifying with her struggles. A teenager wanting a parent to love and care in a healthy way, and the emotional burden when a parent is abusive and uncaring. The verse novel format is a powerful  tool for opening up the discussion about a dark world within a family’s secrets and sheds hope as Anke finds her voice and learns to speak up for herself.

Up From the Sea by Leza Lowitz

This is a beautiful story, tying 2 major historical events: the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 and 9/11 Terrorist attacks. Kai lives with his mother and grandparents in Japan, and his dad, an American, has no contact with them anymore. The tsunami hits and Kai gets separated from his family, and the damage from the disaster is more than most can bear. Kai and the other refugee children start playing soccer as a way to soak up time, and an opportunity comes up where tsunami victims can go to New York to meet victims or family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks for the 10 year anniversary of that tragedy. The story weaves together these events and tells a tale of hardship, growth, and overcoming obstacles.

Students love the soccer connection, and the background knowledge on the tsunami given in the book. They were present for that, as opposed to being newborns during 9/11. Kai is relatable and facing some major issues as he learns about his father. He has to face reality and the best way he can do that is by organizing this soccer game and helping to rebuild his town.

Next Time

After going through the units we created for both graphic novels and verse novels, we realized some things we could tweak for next time.  First, for verse novels, it would be best to go through one as a whole class to get the feel for how they are set up and what is different about reading a verse novel.  Once a whole class selection is done, students would then move into another of their own choice and repeat some of the same activities, reactions, and responses independently.  A few of our titles were more involved and took more inferring than others, so taking the time to go through a title together first would be beneficial.

As for graphic novels, there is no good way to read one together as a class, but what we did was talk about what graphic novels do for us that other reading doesn’t. We looked at samples ahead of time, walked through the steps of how to read left to right, top to bottom, and we also discussed the various types of frames a reader can encounter in a graphic novel. We talked about how reading a GN can speed up your overall reading time, but can actually slow down your reading rate because you are slowing down your reading to look at the pictures.  Students often plow through reading, but both GNs and VNs bring a different approach to reading for them, which is a good variation to what they are used to. Overall, they liked both novel studies, even if they didn’t love all of the titles. It was a great change of pace for them.

What are some of your favorite novels in verse and graphic novels? Please share.

Rhetoric in Spoken Word: Analysis, Response, Writing, and Speaking for Change

two voiceOur seventh grade class began the final quarter of our year together with a closer look at rhetoric, specifically how a speaker earns the audience’s attention and trust (ethos), how a speaker moves an audience to feel (pathos), and how the speaker persuades and teaches the audience with jargon, facts, examples in the hopes that those who listen will consider the issue in a new way or be moved to act (logos).

Rhetorical Analysis and Response

We began with spoken word pieces using the rhetorical triangle as a way of analyzing the text and the speaker. Students drew a triangle in their notebooks to capture details of ethos, pathos, logos, and then they wrote responses on our class blog:

Rhetorical Triangle:


One student’s response to “Touchscreen”:

Marshall explores the social issue of technology. He says it is making us less human and I mostly agree with him. He says,”doubled over we used to sit in tree tops til we swung down and stood upright, then someone slipped a disc; and now we are doubled over at desktops.” This is strong but I do not agree with him on this statement. I believe that nature and being outside is still something kids with all forms of technology do. I spent days in the Summer outside from 12:00 to 8:00 playing basketball with my friends. This is something that will never be lost in humans. However I agree when he says, “I update my status…to prove I am still breathing” This is true to some people. Just being on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat is a way that they want people to realize that they exist and they still are here. That is another issue that should be talked about. The influence to be on social media is the real problem in most cases.

This poem gives me very mixed emotions. While I believe that technology has a very big part in todays society and some people rely on it for everything. I still don’t believe the issue has become crucial. It will be a big problem later but right now I believe that I am still human and I don’t always sit, “doubled over at desktops.” So the world is relying more on technology than before but is that really a bad thing? We can interact with family from across states. We can get information that can save lives. We can live longer! Most importantly I think technology itself is improving the human race. Medicine, Security, Money managing. All of these things are the backbone of our entire life and technology is improving them. So maybe it isn’t that bad after all. Marshall did do a great job on this poem and it does make myself think if I rely on technology as much as he says. He is making the issue talked about.

Rhetorical Triangle:

Rhetorical Analysis, "Knock, Knock"

One student’s response:

This poem is an example of what racism can do, and what racism did to families. Took a father from his son, and a son from his father. I’m inferring that the reason his father was put in jail had to do with the fact that he was African American,  “knock,knock down doors of opportunity for the lost brilliance of the black men that crowd these cells.” In another part he also says “knock knock, down doors of racism and poverty that I could not.” and “knock, knock with diligence for the sake of your children.” These are not his father’s words, yet they explain clearly what every parent wants for their child. To stand tall against those who push you down, and change what they could not, so they do not have to suffer as their parents did. This was the desire of many African Americans during times when racism was at a peak, and I think Daniel Beaty’s explanation of it was very good.

This poem made me appreciate the age I was born in even more, that no longer is racism a extreme as it was in that time, although sadly, it still exists. It also made me realize that as the poem said, “…we are our fathers’ sons and daughters, but we are not their choices. But despite their absences, we are still here still alive, still breathing with the power to change the world…” We may not all have our parents. We may not all have completed families. But we can still make a difference. And that is a powerful thing.

Rhetorical Triangle:

Rhetorical Triangle, "Hir"

One student’s response:

I think the narrator feels that they are not accepted in this world, and I feel bad for this person, because they do not have the courage to speak up, and say they are present in the classroom. I also feel that this person is being dehumanized for being transgendered. I feel this way, because it says, ” Sometimes she wishes she could rip the skin off her back.” Also because of the line, ” Every moment of everyday feels trapped in the flesh of a stranger.” Which leads me to believe that this person hates themself.

At one point, the narrator says, ” And God combined the two genders and put me in this body transgendered, I’m here so quit talking about me like I’m not here.” This shows that the narrator started to feel courage to show that they’re present in the class.

What I think about this question as it relates to the poem, is ” What do transgendered people really go through emotionally?” Because I feel that the authors made this, because they want the audience to acknowledge others, and actually try to understand what they are feeling inside.

Lastly, the poem is a window for me, because even though I, myself, is not transgendered, I think that people should treat others the way they want to be treated, and to be kind to others. I also feel that this shows that people can be hurting emotionally, and no one would notice.

One student’s response:

I want to talk about is “what quality is most used  in the spoken word piece: pathos, ethos or logos?” My response to this is that it is definitely pathos. This poem evoked a lot of emotion to me, and even by reading a single paragraph, you get that sense of powerful emotion. At one point, the big brother says, ” You see my pain bursts through my soul like an open sore, and I can’t escape my thoughts because there’s no more open doors.” This shows that the big brother was depressed and caught between himself and his conscience. It is also a good example of a very powerful use of pathos.

What I think about this question as it relates to the spoken word piece is that it is a meaningful question because the spoken word piece has both pathos and ethos incorporated, but it is pretty definite that the stronger quality is pathos.

The spoken word piece is a window to me because I have not experienced something like this that has been personal. I can kind of  relate because it was in Chicago and that is part of our community in a way. I was really affected by this poem because I thought a lot about how the little boy was affected by the issue surrounding violence. This piece is definitely not cliche because it has an originality when it comes to pathos, and because of that, I would not change anything about it.

We read the text. We listened to the voices performing the words. We watched the performances. Students knew that these texts were powerful on the page, but the speaker mattered even more so. And as we moved from the single- voiced pieces to the multi-voiced pieces, students realized that the additional voices impacted the message. This rhetorical strategy evoked empathy in the speaker, which the audience felt, and in considering points of view, the speaker showed attention to the different experiences and implications of the issue.

Writing and Speaking for Change

Students sharing poetry.
Students sharing poetry.

The next step was for students to select a current event issue of concern to them –animal rights, health, body image,restorative justice, immigration, environment, marriage equality, refugees — and write a multi-voiced poem. To begin, students partnered up to do a rhetorical analysis of news article (we used articles from NEWs ELA), identifying the jargon and logos used in that article. Then, students collaborated to create a multi-voiced poem using the jargon and logos but to do so in the voice of stakeholders in the issue. By considering the points of view of those affected in the issue, students exposed points of view as a method to convey the dimensions of the issue and evoke pathos in the audience.  Capturing how different stakeholders would use the jargon and logos illuminates the complexity of the issue and evokes pathos (and hopefully consciousness). Finally, we held a performance day where students performed their multi-voiced piece. The audience took notes on the jargon that showed ethos in the speaker, the logos that was most convincing, and the pathos or the aspects of the piece that most appealed to their hearts.

Two seventh grade students read an article from News ELA, “Supreme Court’s order expands same sex marriage.” Here is what they wrote. You can hear their reading of this piece above in the audio title, “Marriage for All: Imagining a Wedding.”

The information that the author emphasized in the article, was the information on what the Supreme Court had decided on whether gay marriage should be allowed in states. It also had a lot of information on the people supporting gay marriage, like Evan Wolfson, and people opposing gay marriage, like Ed Whelan. In contrast, the information that we emphasized in this poem, was about what it is like to be gay and imagining a wedding when it is not an idea accepted by society or one’s parents, so it contributes to the main idea of the article relating same sex marriage but goes into a more personal story consider other points of view.

“Marriage for All: Imagining a Wedding”

SKYLER: I can feel myself hyperventilating, closer and closer to entering my panic zone.  I approached the kitchen unwillingly. I am afraid to tell my mother who I really am, a gay girl in ninth grade. Mom, Mom?

JANET: I turn around, as calm as the weather outdoors. What is it Skyler? If you have something to say, it’s best to tell me now. I study her facial expression, which is the opposite of mine.

SKYLER: I know I have something to say, but my mouth doesn’t cooperate. Instead, my whole body malfunctions like a broken computer. My hands are shaking and my heart is pounding. She doesn’t know I’m gay. I wanted to tell you something you need to know about Me.

JANET: I already know what you’re going to say. I saw your diary on the ground, and I picked it up because I was sweeping.

SKYLER: My eyes start to get teary and salty teardrops began to flow down my cheeks like waterfalls. PLEASE! Please don’t think differently of me Mom!

JANET: Since it was open, I began to flip through some pages, and I came across a list of crushes. I also noticed they were all females.I know that you’re gay Skyler, and that you wanted to marry one of these ladies when you’re older. I won’t allow this to go on any longer! I don’t want to hear it! This is exactly the kind of thing that I would want to avoid.

SKYLER: I flinch and recoil like a spanked puppy at the word,gay. I start to wail loudly, and I believe that my mother doesn’t accept me, and thinks I’m the most disgusting thing she’s ever heard.I run out of the kitchen and into my room, and I slam it shut behind me.

JANET: I know that you’re gay Skyler.

SKYLER: I put my hands on my face and dig my fingernails into my cheeks, screaming and wishing that my conscience would stop tormenting me with those horrible words. I grab my diary off my bed and rip out every page and I tear them apart. I’m disgusting! Horrid!

JANET: I know that you’re gay Skyler.

SKYLER: Mom! It’s not my fault! I was made this way! I didn’t choose to be gay! I just like the girls at my school!

JANET: I know that you’re gay Skyler.

SKYLER: I rock back and forth on my bed, my eyes red and puffy, my cheeks wrecked from the marks I had imprinted into them, saggy like deflated balloons. 

JANET: I know that you’re gay Skyler.

SKYLER: I whimper and my heart says to apologize to her. To apologize for even being gay in the first place.I cry because our state forbids gay marriage, even though I was planning to get married. I long to say sorry..

JANET: I long to say sorry to my only daughter. A mother should always love and accept their children, no matter who they are, whether they are an accurate mistake or a fine mess, like Skyler. I long to say sorry.

SKYLER: I long to say sorry.

JANET: I long to say sorry.

SKYLER: I long to say sorry.

JANET: I rush out of the kitchen, my heart guiding me towards the path of cleanliness and forgiveness.

SKYLER: I rush out of my room, my heart guiding me towards the path of hope and acceptance.

BOTH: I’m sorry! I love you!


After all the students shared their multi-voiced pieces, I asked them what they learned about rhetoric. The students knew that jargon and logos were the foundation of rhetoric. The speaker has to use the words of the issue and include facts, details, and stories that persuade the listeners to consider the logic of the cause and its impact on our world. But the people saying the words, the points of view of the words matter, too.  Students recognized that a piece strong in pathos can go far to make the audience feel outrage or sadness and forget about the logos and ethos. (Several students noted Trump is strong on the pathos but lacks in logos.) Still, a piece strong in ethos and logos can fail to move people if the speaker does not attend to pathos. The importance of rhetoric, however, is the cause. How can we best persuade people to think, believe, and act? And, as the audience, how might we be manipulated?

I am not sure if the spoken word piece or multi-voiced poems will change how students act in their lives, but I think they will remember the voices that were not recorded in the new articles but spoken in our seventh grade classroom that day we spoke our multi-voiced pieces.

Next up, political speech analyses.

Top Ten Books to Start a Classroom Library (Plus Ten More)

By Julie Lucash and Sarah Donovan

As junior high English teachers, we see the implications of elementary programs like Accelerated Reader and practices like reading logs on students’ reading habits. Kids who once raced to the school library to read piles of picture books, who were once so proud to read those chapter books now, as young teenagers, have lost their faith in books.

As junior high English teachers, we see how the push to standardize curriculum and prepare for tests has us spending more time in meetings and reviewing data than reading the latest young adult novels. We ask students to be “readers,” but are we even keeping up with the latest titles or up-and-coming authors? This school year, we wanted to do something for our students and ourselves to make reading class, well, about the power and joy of reading again. We wanted students to find their way back to books this year. We wanted to find our way back to books this year — to be readers again.

The first step was for us to read– to find great books. The second step was to bring new titles into our classroom library, which meant finding deals, applying for grants, and, quite honestly, spending our own money. The third step was to make time in class for students to read. At first, it wasn’t easy. Students were not used to selecting books for themselves, to asking teachers and peers for recommendations, to reading for any length of time. Gradually, however, students began to look forward to that quiet time in class to read, and on the days when new books would arrive, you’d think it was Christmas.

We became readers again– real readers who knew when new books were coming out, who knew which titles should go to which students, who had to-read lists going of our own, who found pockets of time in our busy lives to read – a lot. This post is to share the best of what we read this year. So if you want to bring your middle school readers back to those days when they’d ask for reading time or say I loved this book, we recommend starting with these ten books (plus ten more). (Please, please read these books before you put them in the hands of your students.) We hope you will share some of your favorites with us, which we will add to our summer reading list!

Julie’s Top Five

Every reading teacher begins the school year with the same common goal– to make his or her students better readers. As we all know, this is no easy task, especially when faced with students who would much rather pick up their PS4 consoles than a book.  I realized that the best way to improve their skills was to first improve their attitude toward reading with my primary goal being  that they would end the year liking reading even a tiny bit more than they did at the beginning.  To do so, I knew I needed to build up my somewhat weak classroom library without breaking the bank.  In the past year, I have added over 400 books to my personal library thanks to the bargain bin at Reading Warehouse where I have come across some fantastic titles at unbeatable prices.  My top five are all books that both my students and I have loved — all discovered in the bargain bin, all purchased for under $3 each.

see you at harrys

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Any teenager who has ever felt like the outcast in his or her family will immediately relate to this novel. While everyone in her family is wrapped up in their own lives, 12-year-old Fern often feels alone and resents that she must constantly take care of Charlie, her 3-year-old brother.  When tragedy strikes, her family is torn even further apart, making Fern feel more alone than ever. This is one of those rare YA books that found myself unable to “get over” quickly. I actually wanted to abandon it in the middle because it touched me so deeply, but I am glad that I continued because the way that Knowles tied it all up at the end was beautiful, and my students agreed. They loved it and every single one of them said she cried.

Small as an Elephant

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

My students say that there must be something wrong with me because I always choose stories and books that are sad, and the foundation of this narrative is no exception.  As one of my students incredulously asked, “What kind of mother just leaves her son at a campground!?”  However, Jack’s attitude and determination are uplifting, and you find yourself rooting attached to and rooting for this boy to find his way home. Students shared that they found this book a quick read because there was a lot of action and they couldn’t put it down; they HAD to know what was going to happen to Jack. I find the majority of YA novels to be quite predictable, but there was a significant twist in the ending that I found surprising and satisfying.

A Monster

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

After reading review after review praising this book, I took a chance and ordered a class set. I am so glad that I did.  I have read many young adult books that depict the protagonist dealing with loss and grief, but the creative mix of fantasy and reality brings the character’s struggles to life in a way that is unique to this type of novel. The beautiful and heartbreaking story will engage readers of varying levels and interests. There is both an illustrated version (covered depicted above) and a non-illustrated version. I highly recommend purchasing the illustrated if you have the option as it really brings the story to life for the reader.

When I Was

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

I know that students judge books by their covers, so when purchasing books, this is the first thing I consider. Luckily, the merits of this novel extend beyond its cover art. This book tells the story of Ali, a teenaged boy who is trying to stay on the right path and avoid the negative influences of his neighborhood. This is one of the few books for which I have actually had to create a waitlist at different points this year.  While many were first drawn in by the cover image, students stuck with the book because of the humor and story of friendship. This book also features one of the most younique characters I have ever come across in a YA novel– Needles, who learned to control his Tourette’s syndrome tics by knitting.

Little Fish

Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer

I was hesitant about purchasing a memoir of Beyer’s first year of college for my 7th graders but was pleasantly surprised to find an appropriate and relatable story about taking chances and creating your own identity. The story was visually appealing to students as it is told through a mix of comics, lists, letters, and diary entries.  Many students who have been slow to finish books this year finished it in just a few days and thoroughly enjoyed it, asking me if I had any other books with similar formats.

Sarah’s Top Five

I started this school year with a grant to bring in contemporary titles that were written by diverse authors and included diverse subjects and narrators. I consulted We Need Diverse Books authors and resources to develop the book list. I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisper and Penny Kittle’s Book Love for guidance in setting up our seventh grade classroom library and reading workshop. To keep it simple, I make time everyday for three activities:1) Students read every day selecting books they want to read alone or in a book group. 2) We write about what we read. 3) We talk about what we read reflecting on the ways these books work as mirrors to our own lives and windows into lives unfamiliar or distant from our own. These are some of the books students have loved.

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

This is a story about Maddy, a girl allergic to the world, and how her mother protects her from that world. It is also a story about Olly, the boy who moves in next door, who finds a way to be friends Maddy. It is a story about what we risk for those we love and how we find the courage to be in a world that just might hurt us. I have four copies of this in the classroom for book groups. The first book group finished this book in a week; the second book group did the same. Now the set is dispersed among other students who heard all the buzz. If you check out the review of this book on Disability KidLit, you can read about the reasons this book can be problematic, but read the book first (because the review has a spoiler).

A Time to Dance

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

I heard Venkatraman speak at NCTE, Minnesota this year and had to read the book. It is a book in verse, a story of a dancer who loses a leg in a an accident but finds a way to dance again. It is a story of resilience, but is also a story that reminds us what it means to be good at something and why we love what we love. Boys and girls read this book and enjoyed it. There is a cultural dimension of this that moved students to do inquiry into bharatanatyam dance and India. Some students even wanted to learn more about prosthetic design.

All American Boys

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

This is one book that I think everyone should read as it deals with the very serious of police brutality and the social conditions that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement. There are two narrators — one black, one white. Jason Reynolds writes from Rashad’s point of view, a boy hospitalized after an “incident” with a police officer. Brendan Kiely writes from Quinn’s point of view, a boy who witnesses the officer beating Rashad. Quinn is an outsider, an observer. This book explores race relations but it is also about basketball and team loyalty. One boy read it in one night and said it was the best book he read this year.

Words With Wings

Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes

After I read this book, I bought four copies for the classroom. Students can read this book in one or two class periods, so it was passed around a lot this year.  This is a verse novel about Gabby, a day-dreamer who gets in trouble for escaping into her dream world at home or at school. The day dreams began as a safe place to go when her parents argued, but when she moved to a new home and school (without her father), she also day-dreamed to assuage her worries about making friends. One teacher helps her turn those dreams into poetry. This book celebrates the dreamers in our world.

El Deafo

El Deafo  by Cece Bell

At first, I thought this book might be too elementary for my middle school students, but after the first student told me she loved it, I bought a few more copies (now they are all missing). This is a graphic memoir about Cece transitioning from an all deaf school to a school where she is the only one with a hearing aid strapped to her chest: the Phonic Ear that helps her hear her teachers. The hook with this book is the part where Cece discovers she can hear her teacher going to the bathroom — ah, the power to spy on teachers! But this book is really about making friends and figuring out the meaning of a true friend.

Ten More Tiles

And here’s ten more titles: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, All Rise for the Honorable Percy T. Cook by Leslie Connor, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1 by Willow Wilson, Make Lemonade (Trilogy) by Virginia Euwer Wolff, Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Where I Belong by Mary Downing Hahn, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.ten more titles


Bringing Joy-Reading Back

Before you start your summer break, think about how you might make time for reading in your classroom next year. Here are four tips for bringing reading back:

  1. Make time to read: Some people find it easiest to begin class each day with fifteen minutes of reading and then transition to whole class instruction.  Others might read a few days for longer periods of time. Find what works for you and your students and stick to it.
  2. Have book-release days: When new books arrive, it’s like Christmas morning. It’s a toss up of who is more excited- the students or us. When you get new books that you haven’t read, try to read a few quickly and then talk them up to students.  Maybe you had a student in mind when ordering a book. Tell that student (although they may not show it, students are touched by this) and then offer to read it along with him or her. When you get a lot of new titles, it’s impossible to read them all before releasing to students. Ask if any students want to preview it for the class and then share their thoughts. Students get excited to become a part of the process. We’ve have actually had students ask to stay in at lunch to help us label new books.
  3. Try exit slips: Start class with reading every day. After students read, have them complete an exit slip and set it aside as you move on to your lesson or activity for the day. On the way out, collect the exit slip making sure everyone wrote something. Before class the next day, read through the exit slips — 10 minute tops. The next day, while students are reading, use the exit slips as a starting point for conferences: “tell me more about what’s going on in your book,” “how might what you noticed yesterday change things for the character.” Another way to use exit slips is as tools to assess whether or not students are grasping concepts being explored in class lessons. Have students apply those skills to the books that they are reading. For example, for figurative language, ask the students to write a simile to describe a character or use hyperbole to exaggerate the conflict.
  4. Feature books in classroom: Prominently display books that relate to content being covered in class for students who wish to further extend their study into their independent reading. Have mini-book talks for some of these titles. During a poetry unit, create a section of your library featuring verse novels. If you read The Outsiders whole-class, display S.E. Hinton’s other titles like Rumblefish and That Was Then, This Is Now, along with other similar coming-of-age novels.

Do you have other tips for bringing back the joy of reading? Do you have sure-thing titles or favorites we should add to our summer reading lists? Please tell us about it.

Almost-free writing: topics, form, process, and publication without a teacher

“Good morning, ” I say. “I have some ideas for writing today. A word: assiduous. My husband is concerned that I may be too assiduous — but in the wrong areas of my life. I work really hard at reading and writing but not really hard on keep up our apartment. I leave dishes in the sink. Are you assiduous? In what areas of your life? Art. Art is another idea for today. I notice some students doodling during class, but sometimes that doodling is pretty amazing. What do you think? Is doodling art? You may have a story on your mind already, but if you’re in the mood for story-writing, how about this first line to start a story? A pram is like a baby-carriage. And I know you are studying the Indian Removal Act in history class. Do you want to try writing about this painting? Okay, those are a few things on my mind today. Maybe you’d like to write on these or maybe you have something on your mind you just have to get out — these next seven minutes are yours to write. Just remember, during this time: no walk, no talk. Let’s begin in five, four, three, two, one.”

I begin each class this way. As students write, I write. Then about four minutes in, I walk around. If a student hasn’t started, I kneel down and talk through some ideas until they go. I also watch for students who are finding the flow — getting into their writing — and students who are doing a combination of imagining on the page and in their minds. For those students, I can see in their eyes that they are working through a plot or argument. I see them going between these two worlds as they “compose for seven” (that’s what we call the first ten minutes of class). writing

By far, this time has proven to be the most effective and efficient way that I have “not-taught” writing this year. I offer ideas to nudge students into to different places for ideas. I offer ideas to encourage students to stretch into new genres. I offer ideas to challenge students to take risks. Is this teaching or being a writer?

“Do we have to write about one of those?” one student asks.

“No, write about anything you want. These are just suggestions,” another students calls out.

“Right,” I say.

Teacherless Writing

I started this blog because I wanted a place to regularly think about the ethics of my practice, the ethics of how we teach reading and writing. The more I think about the positions of “teacher” and “student,” the closer I get to admitting that these labels/positions create repression in the classroom: “the action or process of suppressing a thought or desire in oneself so that it remains unconscious.”  As long as students see me as “the teacher,” they will ask me permission to write. And this worries me.

Peter Elbow in Writing Without Teachers writes:

The teacherless writing class is a place where there is learning but no teaching. It is possible to learn something and not be taught. It is possible to be a student and not have a teacher. If the student’s function is to learn and the teacher’s to teach, then the student can function without the teacher, but the teacher cannot function without the student…I think teachers learn to be more useful when it is clearer that they are not necessary. The teacherless class has helped me as a teacher because it is an ideal laboratory for learning along with the students and being useful to them in that way. (viii)

By starting class with the “compose for seven,” I’ve tried to undo the history of repression in student writing by making conscious the thoughts and desires I have and by trying to make conscious in students their thoughts and desires. In the forty minutes we have together each day, I am actually trying to repress the teacher in me and make alive the writer in me — to be useful  to the students and not necessary. And the truth is that once they learn to listen to their own interests and desires to know, they don’t really need me to be a teacher; they just need me to be a writer talking about how I come up with ideas, take risks, solve problems, and write to both express and learn. The writing is almost free.

The Flow Chart

When the seven minutes are up, I ask students to add their writing to their flow charts, a spot in the back of the notebook where they document the date, topic, and experiences. Most students use smiley faces to indicate they found the flow or got into their writing, a straight mouth to indicate it was an “okay” writing experience, and a frown to indicate that writing was tough today.

This student found some inspiration in the “words.” On January 27th, she wrote about being “clairvoyant,” and on the 28th, she found the flow with “deleterious.”  She did not have a good time on February 25th with “assiduous.” Notice the sad face? As you look through her flowchart, you can see that she has made choices to write about her life on some days and to try out new topics on other days. Her notebook is hers. I’ve never read it, and this photo is the first time I’ve see her flow chart.

2016-04-15 17.08.43

The Standards

The other thirty minutes of class, the writers move from the compose for seven into process pieces. Students choose which pieces from their notebook they want to work through to publish or if they want to write something new for the process piece. I do this, too — writing along side them. We write narrative, informational, and argument pieces, but mostly the published pieces have bits of each of these forms.  When I teach a form like a news article or a how-to or a comparison, I am the “teacher.” I know I am deliberately pushing students into a form, but I try to make them conscious of how the form works rhetorically on the audience and how writers can make it their own with word choice, stories, examples, and tone. I usually fail at the free here. I’m working on how to not force form.

The Sharing

On Fridays, we don’t write at all. We listen. Students choose what they’d like to share — something from their notebook, something they are working on (that they’d like to try out on an audience), or something published. One girl wrote a rather formal argument piece on GMO’s and is anxious for her next sharing day because “this is something everyone should know.” A few weeks ago, one student shared a stand-up comedy piece. It bombed, and she reworked it this week — ready to try out her new material.

On Fridays, the audience listens for techniques to celebrate and keep notes so that they can compliment their fellow writers. Below is one student’s notebook on writing features she hopes to hear from her fellow writers: something fresh or unexpected, evidence, sensory language, personal stories, taking risks, and parts that are moving/emotional.

After students share, we hold a celebration forum where students compliment each other’s work and practice accepting praise.

“I would like to celebrate Jennifer’s evidence when she said Americans each a bathtub full of sugar each year. This is a powerful image, too,” says Julie looking at Jennifer across the room.

“Thank you,” says Jennifer.

This is our positive publication.


The Teacher Without Students

I admit that I need to be needed. Without students, I am not sure I’d have a reason to get out of bed each day. (A little part of me is worried that I may fall into a minor depression this summer — my first summer without students or classes or a book to write.) That said, I know the point of a writing class is so that students learn to write. And learning to write means recognizing the value of other writers in your writing life. I hope the value me. I value them. I learned to write from, with, and alongside these writers.