Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers (List 3)

This is the third of four book lists: “Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers.” I asked my 7th-grade readers to tell me about a book they read this school year — a book they “loved” and worthy of recommending to other teen readers.

The book-I-most-loved-so-far-this-year lists are as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

Over the past two weeks, I have shared lists 1 and 2. (Next week, I will have the fourth and final list.) I share my seventh-grade students’ favorites along with their reviews in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 3:

  1. Michael Vey Series by Richard Paul Evan: Michael Vey is about an ordinary kid, but he has one secret. He’s electric. After you know Michael’s secret, you will want to read it. And if you start reading, you can’t put the book down. This book is filled with danger, excitement, and trust. It will teach you what a true friend is supposed to do. (Recommended by Naruto.)  A teenager named Micheal Vey knows about his special powers that involve electricity and his ability to ‘surge’ or to send electricity throughout his body, but when he finds out that someone near him has a similar power everything changes. (Recommended by Kurt.) Michael Vey is a 14 year old boy who lives in Meridian Idaho when his whole world gets turned upside down. Since he was 8, he knew he had special abilities, but only this year has he really unleashed what he has been able to do. (Recommended by David.)  This story was about a guy in high school named Michael Vey, and he along with 17 others have electric power. He and his friends try to save his mom and friend Taylor from a Company called Elgin. SO if you hate reading this is the book for you. There are 7 other books in this series and they will be hard to put down. Can Michael Save his mom and Taylor or will save them? Find out in Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25. (Recommended by Ben.)
  2. All We Have Left by Wendy Mills: This book is related to the 9-11 attacks. It is told from two perspectives with a 15 year difference between them. One of the characters, Alia, is trapped in the Twin Towers when the attacks were happening. The other character, Jesse, is 15 years after the attacks while her brother died in the Towers. No one knows why her brother, Travis, was there in the first place. It goes back and forth between Alia and Jesse’s experiences, putting together bits and pieces of information about Travis and the 9-11 attacks. (Recommended by Selina.) 
  3. The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan: This book is about two brothers stuck in a cacao plantation, where they are forced to work at a decent quality in bad conditions, or they get beaten. Then, one day, a girl with a strong heart comes, and lifts the brothers’ spirits to run away again. This was my favorite book so far because the story flowed so well, so it was really hard to put down. Also, when I finished reading this book, I was very shocked to learn that some of the chocolate I have been eating came from places like this, so I decided to never waste chocolate again. (Recommended by Yejee.) 
  4. Weregirl by C.D. Bell: Nessa, a girl on her track team, is always trying to get better at running. But one day, while running through the woods, she stops and finds a wolf in pain. She tries to free it, but is bit instead by another wolf. Now, Nessa is transforming into a half-human half-wolf creature. While transforming, she notices that her running times have gotten a lot faster. Although her running times are benefited, she still has to deal with her transformation. With the help of her friend Bree and many others, she finds out more about why she was chosen by the wolves to transform into a half-human half-wolf creature. (Recommended by Albert.)
  5.  Warcross by Marie Lu: This story is perfect for everyone no matter which genre they like. For all those realistic fiction readers and for all those fantasy and action/adventure readers, this is the perfect pick. It is a mixed adventure based in the near future that will blow your mind and send you dreaming forever. So, here’s the short summary about it. First of all, you should know all the characters. The main character is Emika and she is a bounty hunter ever since her dad died and her mom moved away. She lives with her friend in a tiny house that she has to pay a huge debt for. She is always worried until one day, when she goes into Warcross, the VR game made by a English-Japanese man who made the game, she hacks it during a Warcross match happening and she becomes famous in a bad way because nobody was able to hack the game like Emika did. (Recommended by Krish.) Let me tell a little something about this book and why I am recommending it. This book called Warcross is about a girl living in New York in a near-futuristic world where a game called Warcross has taken the whole world by storm. This game is where people get points by doing regular things and dueling in VR or virtual reality. Emika is the main character who is a bounty hunter in the game and hunts down people who illegally gamble on the game. She is also a hacker and knows a lot about coding. One day the Warcross championship is live and she decides to hack into and steal a rare power up while the professional player and playing and the whole crowd sees her. The next day she gets a call from the creator of the game to offer her a job to track down a player who has been trying to destroy his game. This really captures your attention and you will never want to put the book down. The details described in it are especially amazing with good narrations and characters you feel like you know. Also, it really shows a good hint of realism because of how advanced our world is today and many people can see things like this happening in the future as well. (Recommended by Marcin.)
  6. The Perfect Score by Rob Buyea: The story is basically about a group of kids whose school is about to have a Statewide Assessment Test. To make sure that the kids are ready for the tests, the school takes away many of the things that kids like to do. This includes recess, birthday parties, read aloud, and to top it all off, the PTA is probably going to ban the boys who get bad scores from trying out for the football team. These changes are so bad that even most of the teachers don’t like them. Then, one of the kids gets an idea about how to make sure that he and everyone else in his class pass the test. I recommend reading this story because it is a unique story with an interesting plot and a good ending. Have fun reading. (Recommended by Veer.)
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: One day, a pretty rich dude named Roger Ackroyd is MURDERED during a calm house party. Luckily, Hurcule Poirot, a Belgian detective, is on the case! With the help of main character James Sheppard, he tries to uncover the secret murderer. This book is so good mainly because of the surprising ending. But it also features unique characters, and the writing of Mystery Queen Agatha Christie. 5/5 stars. (Recommended by Noah.)
  8. Cracked by K.M. Walton: This book is about two kids one who gets bullied and the other kid who is the bully.The kid who gets bullied, Victor, belongs to a rich family, but his parents only use him to get their rank up in society, so if he gets a ninety-nine out of one hundred on a test, his parents scold him. Eventually, he gets sick of his parents when they go to Europe without him because he didn’t get a full score on the SAT test, so he takes twenty-five of his mom’s sleeping pills and gets taken to a hospital. Victor has to go to a suicide prevention group where he is forced to share his feelings. Bull is the bully who belongs to not so wealthy family. His mom says that he was an accident, and she hates him because she ruined her chance of being a yoga teacher after his birth.Bull’s grandpa is an alcoholic who physically abuses him. Bull tried to kill his grandpa when he got a hold of a gun, but his grandpa takes the gun and shoots his leg.Bull is taken to the hospital where he lies and says he tried to do suicide.Victor comes in after he does, and they both are stuck in the suicide group together with a few other kids — the bully and the bullied.I recommend this book to teenagers because suicide rates have been going up in teens. (Recommended by Zuhayr.)
  9. The Body in the Woods by April Henry: The Body in the Woods is about a search and rescue team who go out to find an autistic man in the woods. The main characters, Alexis, Nick and Ruby, are around 15 years old. They ask a dog walker, a bird watcher and many other people if they had seen him, but none had. While looking, they find a young girl’s body hid in the bushes. They all get called back to look for clues until they can find the killer. Meanwhile, other girls are getting murdered. But little do they know that the killer is closer than they think… I love this book because it makes you want to keep reading and reading and reading. (Recommended by Grace.)
  10. Monster by Walter Dean Myers: This book is great if you are into Realistic Fiction / Mystery. The writing in this book is dialogue, like a screenplay or script. This book is from the point of view of what the main character is seeing and experiencing. One thing you need to know is the main character is in jail and he really hates it there and wants to get out. For example the text states, ” I cant write it enough times to make it look the way I feel. I HATE, HATE, HATE this place!! ” Is he guilty? Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does anyone care or want justice for him?(Recommended by Colin.)

Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers (List 2)

This is the second of four lists of “Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers.” We began the school year in mid-August with a quest to uncover all the books can do for our lives with daily choice reading. In mid-November, I asked students to tell me about the book they most loved, one book worthy of recommending to others.

The book-I-most-loved list is as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

Over the next few weeks, I will share my seventh-grade students’ favorites along with their reviews in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 2:

1.All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely: Rashad Butler African American (16) Is at a store just buying chips, when he trips over a white lady. Moments later the store clerk thinks that he is stealing and the cops get called. Paul Galuzzo is a local cop who sees this and immediately rushes to the scene where he brutally beats him up and arrests him. Quinn is a white kid who is watching this all go down. While watching this he doesn’t have a clue of what to do. The reason for this is because the cop (Paul), is his best friends older brother. He knows that what Paul did was wrong but how could he report his best friends brother? Meanwhile Rashad is hospitalized and all of his family is depressed except Spoony who is just mad. This book explores racism and police brutality. Read on to learn more. (Recommended by Preeth.)  Rashad is a African Boy who lives an average life, but one day he goes to a store and trips over a white lady. It looks to be that he tried to steal something, but he’s not so a cop takes him and kicks him and throws him to the ground for a long amount of time.Topics in this book are racism and police brutality. This book is a good unique story. (Recommended by Phil.)2.Ghost: This story is about an African American kid, this boy lives only with his mom and they are poor. One thing that this boy loves to do is run, the track coach saw him running one day and asked him if he wanted to be on the team.This story keeps going through his life in sad and happy moments. I believe that this is an amazing story and I couldn’t put it down, some of the topics that it goes into is bullying, poverty, sports, and theft. It is at sometimes a very funny story and can be sad at times, all around this is an amazing book, and I think that everybody should read it. (Recommended by Alex.) 3.All in Pieces by Suzanne Young: All in Pieces is a great book to read because it doesn’t get boring. I don’t like having to go through multiple pages without anything happening, if this sounds like you this might be your book. This book explores Savannah a girl who is now in a special school after getting expelled for stabbing her old boyfriend with a pencil. But, she has a very good reason. Savvy is in high school, her Mom left her drunk Dad, and she has a little brother with disabilities she has to take care of. Then a boy named Cameron comes around and they end up falling in love. This book made me want to keep reading always, with many plot twists and cliffhangers. This is why I recommend All in Pieces. (Recommended by Brynn.)4.Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan: The Ship: You should read this book because it is a very funny book about Norse mythology but in the modern day. Magnus and his group of teen-aged einherjar have to try to stop Ragnarok, or the end of the world. Through the rough journey, Rick Riordan adds some great jokes along the way. It is a cleverly woven plot with some great variety between the different characters. Overall it is just a very funny, adventurous story that had me on my toes. Make sure to read the first two books in the series first: Magnus Chase: The Sword of Summer, Magnus Chase: The Hammer of Thor. (Recommended by Scott.)5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel is about a boy named Pi that has lived his whole life in a zoo, until he is told that they need to move to Canada along with their few remaining animals. After a storm sinks the ship that his family is on, Pi, the only survivor, is left on a raft, with an impatient Tiger, a ravenous Hyena, a helpless Zebra, and a confused Orangutan. This is the miraculous story of survival, trust, and instinct. (Recommended by Joey.)6. Refugee by Alan Gratz:

Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are all fleeing their home because of what was left of their home. For Josef, he is involved with the Holocaust and is trying to escape Hitler and the Nazis, so he and his family sail on a boat that SHOULD take them to freedom. For Isabel, she is from Cuba, and the Soviet Union has fallen down, which was her families, and most of Cuba’s main source of getting food, water, and money. So, she travels with her family on a custom-made boat to try and find America. Finally, for Mahmoud, he lives in Syria during the war, and his house got bombed. So, his family decides that they need to get out of Syria, and find safety, and a country that would actually let refugees in. But the question was… would they? I think you should read this book because it is always full of suspense because there are so many big events that happen throughout this book, and it just had a great plot and even better ending. (Recommended by Mark.)

This book, Refugee, is about three different main characters, in three different time periods. One during World War 2, one during the 1990’s, and one in present-day time. Even though these three characters are separated by time and location, they all have one thing in common: they are all refugee’s. Josef, a Jewish boy in late-1930’s Nazi Germany, is being pushed out of his country due to the Holocaust. Isabel, a girl living in Cuba in the 90’s, is leaving Cuba for the U.S. to avoid prosecution for basic rights. And, Mahmoud, a Syrian boy who leaves Syria to escape growing violence. I recommend this book to young readers because while it contains some historical fiction, which can help readers learn more about the past, it is still relevant, with a present-day timeline. I found it very innovative, and very interesting. While parts may be sad, it eventually ends up with a happy ending, one that is not cliche, but full of unexpected outcomes, and intertwined storylines. (Recommended by Matthew.)

Refugee by Alan Gratz is about three characters that have to leave their homes and pause their life to get away from the violence that is happening at the country they live in. Isabel, her family, and her neighbors go on a boat and sail off to find safety in America. Josef, (his sister) Ruthie, and Josefs mom go onto a train and they meet up with their father on the ship so that they can sail out of Germany to Cuba to get away from the Nazis. Mahmoud and his family try to travel in a car from Syria to Germany to get away from the violence and destruction that had ruined their home. (Recommended by Magda.)

7.Last Shot by John Feinstein: In this book, the main character Stevie Thomas wanted to peacefully watch the final 4 basketball games (since he won a contest to get tickets to the game), but something very fishy happens, so Stevie and his friend Susan have to figure out the mystery. One reason I really liked this book because you really get to know the main character as a friend. For example, the book talks about what Stevie is thinking, so you really know who he is as a character, and that’s why I REALLY liked this book. (Recommended by Nathan).

8.More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer is a book about two teenagers Rev and Emma who are struggling with their life. Rev starts to get letters from his biological father who abused him and he hasn’t seen for 10 years since his foster parents took him in. Meanwhile, Emma’s parents are always arguing and can never seem to get along, much less tolerate each other. So when they both try to run from their problems, they meet and try to help each other and figure out their lives. (Recommended by Rachel.) 

9. Girl, Stolen: A Novel by April Henry:  Cheyenne, a 16 year old blind girl, gets kidnapped in her own car. She is driven far away and kept wherever her kidnapper drove her. Griffin, her kidnapper, isn’t too bad, she might actually like him. On the other hand, there’s his dad and his two employees…they are cruel. Cheyenne misses her family and knows she needs to escape, but it’s not as easy as you’d think. Even if she managed to get outside, there are miles of woods and a vicious, bloodthirsty bulldog. Will she ever get back home? You should read this book because its impossible to put down. It is an amazing story that will leave you shocked and curious. (Recommended by Maddy.)

10.The McDavid Effect: Connor McDavid and the New Hope for Hockey by Marty Klinkenberg: This story is about the path of debate-ably the best hockey player in the world. This book is so unique, for example, its has experiences never that have never been heard about. I personally was not able to put this book down, it was so intriguing and so educational. Me being a hockey player I try to do some similar things as Connor because I want to be as good as him one day. (Recommended by Lucas.)

Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers (List 1)

In the last week, I’ve had texts, emails, and social media posts asking for book recommendations. My sister was looking for book ideas for a teen girl in a family she’s sponsoring for Christmas. A colleague was looking for ideas for her junior high daughter’s neighborhood book group.  A parent of one of my students was looking for ideas for her other son (not in my class).

It only takes me a few minutes to scroll through my Goodreads and “share” my recommendations. I am so glad that I am becoming a helpful resource for readers and those who love them.

Still, you may wonder if teens actually feel the same way I do about the books I recommend. Yes? Me, too. Just before fall break, I asked my seventh-grade students to look through their reading portfolio and select the “best” book they’d read since we began school in mid-August. Many of the books I’ve recommended are on this list, but there are a few surprises, too.

The “best” book list is as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

Over the next few weeks, I will share my seventh-grade students’ favorites along with their reviews in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 1:

  1. The Last Leopard by Lauren St. John: The plot twists were very good, and the characters try to save a leopard that has been the biggest leopard that lives, and his name is Khan. The characters are Martine, Ben, Thomas (Female and Grandmother), Sadie, Ngwenya, and Grace. Some of these characters only appear in few pages, but they are great characters. (Recommended by Byambatseren.)
  2. A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman is a good book, but also a wonderful lesson. A dancer, Veda, loved dancing and wanted to continue, but she got into a accident, which cost her leg. Many people said that they were sorry that she couldn’t dance any longer. Though, despite everyone’s discouragement toward her, Veda, strong and persistent didn’t let something like this get into the way of her dream. I’m recommending this book to people to tell them, never give up on your dream, no matter what it is, like being doctor or a singer. Always try your best, but f you can’t get it, try, try again. To me, after finishing the book, I felt a new hope inside me. Similar to Veda, I am a dancer. But every now and then, people will say I’m not that good, people are better that you and so on. But now after reading A Time to Dance, I feel like there is energy inside me and blocking all the negativity that were thrown at me. There are people that are rude and mean, but remember inside, you are the best at what you do and don’t let anyone try to take that confidence and talent out of you. (Recommended by Charlene.) 
  3. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard is wonderful book perfect for fantasy lovers. Mare wanted equality between normal Red blooded people and powerful Silver blooded people. Those gifted with Silver blood have supernatural powers like telepathy, and Reds spend their life serving Silvers. Mare is special. She bleeds Red but has Silver powers. Usually, I can’t find a book good enough to finish. This one, I finished in one day. The plot twist itself kept me up all night waiting in anticipation for the next book. Just remember, Maven is his mother’s son. (Recommended by Anya.) 
  4. Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson: Curzon and Isabel, two important characters along with Ruth fight through war torn areas to find their freedom in the Revolutionary War trying to barely survive and stick together. I would recommend it for my classmates because a unique an great writing/story it gives descriptive details about their journey across the states trying to escape the British making it seem so real. However, it’s historical fiction which is mind-blowing. (Recommended by Kyle.) 
  5. The  Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli  is a historical fiction book set in 1959 and is written by Jerry Spinelli. The main character, Cammie O’Reilly, is a girl who lost her mother at a young age. She is a warden’s daughter meaning that her father is a prison master. Her best friend is found wearing lipstick, a child killer is brought to the prison and Cammie is constantly fighting with her trustee, Eloda. Since Cammie’s mother died in an accident long time ago, she is looking for a motherly figure. The only place she’s got is the prison. She’s determined to work with what she’s got and find the right mother. Read this 352 page book, to find out. (Recommended by Kate.) 
  6. This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp. This book is about 4 different point of views with one situation and that situation is a hostage situation in a school shooting. This book was absolutely amazing and a good way to never put that book down until it’s done. If you like serious stories this is the story for you! For example, a lot of people die while others must be brave to save others, so it’s truly very serious. (Recommended by Joe.) 
  7. Burning Up by Caroline B. Cooney: This book is about a barn in which it burned in 1959 but strangely no one wants to answer questions that Macey needs in order for her to finish her school project. Why isn’t anyone answering her questions? Why doesn’t Macey’s grandparents want to tell her anything about the fire? I think people should read this book because the genre is a mystery that gives the readers a sense of the past.Also, the book has an awesome plot twist because………… (Recommended by Jaden.) 
  8. You Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina LaCour : The book You Know Me Well is about a gay teenage boy who is in love with his friend, but his friend likes a college boy, and a young teenage girl who is looking for love and meets a girl named Violet that after a few months finally gets to meet. Both the girl and the boy have a few friends towards the beginning but soon have a fight with them and maybe lose them; the way the book is written and how it describes the characters is just wonderful, and it just made me want to read more of the author’s stories, and you might also want to, too. This story sort of shares a lesson with it, but you must read to find out. (Recommended by Anthony.) 
  9. The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer is about a girl named Alexandra Bailey, Alex for short, who really had a lot going throughout her life. For example, their dad passed away when she and her twin brother, Connor, were only 10 years old. Connor started to do even worse in class, and Alex had no friends to talk to. One day, their grandmother came to their rented house to celebrate the twins 12th birthday, since their mom had to work double-shifts as a nurse. Their most amazing gift was their grandma’s old book called, The Land of Stories. That night Alex was reading the book for more than an hour, as silently fell asleep…but not for long. She woke up to the sudden sound of a hum. She looked at the book and was surprised to see the book was glowing. I recommend this book because this book has a lot of dialogue, it’s really funny, has a plot twist, and is a very unique story. For all you fantasy lovers out there, this is the perfect book for you! (Recommended by Shreya.)
  10. Solo by Kwame Alexander is about a teen named Blade who has a bad relationship with his father. Ever since his mother passed away, his dad has been acting up in numerous ways. He has to solve a lot of mental and physical problems with him and his family. It is a unique story with a lot of plot twists, and it is realistic fiction, which is nice because some people can relate to the main character. You should read this if you like books with lots of conflict, emotion, and adventure. (Recommended by Ronal.) 


Writers’ Workshop: The Symbolism in the First Snow

snow day

“I would like to compliment Johnny on an unexpected phrase that was, actually, kind of dark. When your narrator said, ‘I had this desire to kill,’ I was like disturbed but intrigued,” said Paul.

“Yeah, I  know. Dark. I like exploring the dark side in my fantasy stories. Thank you,” Johnny said to Paul.

“Darkness. Death. Like winter coming. Everything is dead and dying,” said Paul. “See? It’s snowing.”

Friday means Story Time in our seventh-grade writing class.  Every Friday five students share any piece of original writing they wish (something “finished” or in-progress) in front of the class surrounded by twinkle lights; two student-hosts facilitate the speaking roster and the post-speaking compliments like the one Paul gave to Johnny.

Our classroom has a wall of windows, and as Paul said “snowing,” 30 sets of eyes turned toward the windows to gaze at the white specks drifting toward us as if on cue. Today was the first snow of the year on this November tenth in the Chicagoland area. A week ago, I was opening windows to keep from sweating, and today, I opened a window to catch some snowflakes and smell winter.

Students kneeled on their chairs to catch a glimpse and then glided closer to the window to gaze at the spectacle as if in a daze. I felt like this was a moment we were having, sharing the first snow of the year. I just glided among the students observing their expressions and listening in on their whispers. Then, I had a thought about Johnny’s piece and what Paul said.

“Glad we could share this first snow together,” I said working my way over to Johnny and Paul. “You know, Paul, you made a comment that is quite relevant to our work here — the connection between weather and characters’ internal struggles or secrets. Have you noticed in the stories you read how the authors set the darker parts of a story in winter? Winter tends to symbolize the death of plants, the ground hardening, the air chilling.  This is could be the part of the story when a character is depressed, sad, losing hope. Then, later, when the character gets better, realizes something profound, figures out how to deal with an issue — well, it is springtime. Seedlings poke their stems up from the now softer earth; the air has that fresh rain smell.  There is hope. But, I am wondering, is that interesting? What might be more interesting?”

“Something unexpected,” said Paul.

“Right. So, in your story, Johnny, I am not sure you mentioned the weather or time of year. One might expect it to be winter as your narrator is feeling dark, but if you set the story in spring, your character could either be coming alive as in discovering his true self or, something unexpected. He’s feeling dark inside as the world is coming alive. You could use setting to mirror the nature of your character or to reflect it back as a source of contrast.”

At this point, almost all thirty students were standing around me, in part because I was standing near the window with the beautiful snow framing my lesson. Essentially, Johnny, Paul, and I were having this writerly conversation, but I could see the stories being written behind the eyes of these writers gazing at the falling snowflakes wondering if these specks of white represent the ending, the beginning, or maybe just something beautiful.

Or maybe they are imagining a snow day in the near future.

Interpreting and/or Analyzing Language Demands with “Friends”

A highly scientific qualitative data analysis of a comment thread from Facebook.

It’s 5:35 on Tuesday night. I am in a room of pre-service English teachers — some a semester from student teaching, some two.  The class is the teaching of English: methods. I start class with a mid-term Google survey. I ask students to take a look at the syllabus and decide if what remains is what they need or if, in our final four weeks together, I can offer something else.

I just spent the three hours between my junior high job and my university job reading lesson plan commentaries. In my feedback, I wrote over and over that “all of this will make more sense when you are actually teaching these plans.” The purpose of this edTPA exercise was to orient students to the form/genre so that when they are actually student teaching, the edTPA process could be less overwhelming. I don’t want edTPA to take over the course, but I don’t want to send new teachers into the field without some grasp of how they’ll be assessed by the state.  Still, the language section (4a-d) and the dearth of explanation in the students’ commentaries in this part, struck me as important enough to address now. Language is, after all, our business.

I already have a plan for tonight that does not include direct instruction of language function, syntax, and discourse. Students are reading poems. Leaders are modeling Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop strategies. I walk around and listen, thinking about language demands. They are reading poems aloud and discussing, but their language has different functions: to interpret, to explain, to justify, to describe, to analyze, to synthesize. I hear arguing, asking, responding, expressing. These future teachers already have the academic vocabulary to do the work: noting the difference between author and speaker, tone and mood; asking about line and stanza breaks; identifying hyperbole, personification, simile. They know that poets play with syntax (sentence length, type, order) purposefully. These teachers know the discourse norms of a literary discussion for how to share an aesthetic response and what to say to a peer who shares a story of a loved one who died in response to W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.”

When the poem-reading sessions end, the future teachers note how prior knowledge of the poems, poets, context, allusions impacted the interpretations; they identify the advantages and disadvantages of frontloading vocabulary, poet biographies, and context. I listen. I feel good about the future of our profession.

It’s 8:35 now. I am closing class with a look at the comments from the Google survey.  Sure enough, language demands come up a few times but also some time for just Q and A, an opportunity to ask me questions about teaching more generally. I tell students that I will work on revising our syllabus to include a Q and A and, of course, language demands.

“Maybe you can help with the functions part especially?” one student asks. “I am sure there is something in the handbook, but that is hundreds of pages, and… their words are so vague and — analyze, interpret, explain.”

“Right, so they are asking you to design your lesson plan to teach how to do that. How would you teach interpreting versus analyzing?” I say, and as I am saying that, I realize how complicated the answer is, how the complex, strategic, and artful work teachers do defies easy ways of knowing and doing. I need more than four weeks. Geesh, I am still figuring this out, and I have been teaching fifteen years.

It’s 9:40 now. I have just parked my car in the condo garage.  I turn off Warcross by Marie Lu and realize I haven’t been listening. I’ve been thinking about interpreting and analyzing. I decide to take the question to my “friends” on Facebook, most English teachers, academics, and authors. I “know” lots of smart people.

Teacher-friends: What’s the difference between interpreting and analyzing a text? What skills, language are needed? How is the purpose different/similar? (Facebook, October 24, 2017, 9:40pm)

  1. Yvette Pompa, freelance writer/literacy teacher: “Interpreting is from what you bring to the content. Analyzing is more clinical/data driven.”
  2. Gary Anderson, professional development designer and presenter/adjunct and writing center specialist at Harper College: “I think of interpreting as moving beyond the text to generate some new meaning, while analyzing is more like deconstructing, identifying components and possibly considering how they relate to one another but not necessarily arriving at new meaning.”
  3. Alisha White, Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University: “I think of analyzing as thinking through literary theory, while interpretation is more the readers’ take on the text.”
  4. Laura Jewett, Doctoral Coordinator Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: “Meaning-making vs distilling.”
  5. Angela Der Ramos, Instructional Leadership Corp at California Teachers Association: “Damn. You have smart friends.”
  6. Amy Hayden, freelance writer and former instructor at the University of Chicago: “Interpreting is finding the meaning of the text; analyzing looks to explore its strengths and weaknesses, implications, applications to other theories/areas of inquiry, arguments, underlying assumptions, etc.”
  7. Sabrina Anfonssi Kareem, high school English teacher: ” Hmmm. I think interpreting a text is a part or step in the process of analyzing. I use the phrase “interpret” when I want students to tell me what something means in their own words. I guess one skill involved in interpreting might be decoding or translating the author’s words into simpler terms without losing meaning. Additionally, skills involved in that endeavor would be summarizing and paraphrasing as well as using context to define challenging words. Once an author’s words have been interpreted, I would ask students to analyze various statements across a text which they have interpreted in order to piece together a deeper meaning. This would require the ability to use interpreted statements to synthesize a message or theme or claim being made. It would also require the ability to select proper evidence to support that meaning.”
  8. Omar Sangiovanni, artists/art teacher at Miami Dade County Public Schools: “In art school we are taught to analyze the work of art (the elements of art and principles of design used) before coming up with an interpretation of what the artist was trying to create.”
  9. Antonio Garcia, caseworker and adjunct professor at East Carolina University: “Evaluation v. Endorsement. Interpreting the text is to endorse a particular view or understanding. Evaluating a text is to analyze the “evidentiary” components as separate items and then as a connected whole to be able to understand the multiple “angles” that could be gleaned under the endorsement/interpretation. Linguistic inquiry and research must look at the evaluation first then review the interpretations for discrepancies. Semiotics and understanding the signified and it’s signified are crucial. Pedagogically take a simple elementary story and replace certain words and then evaluate the impact. “Switched” is replaced with “juxtaposed.” “To get Better” is replaced with “ameliorate.” “Muffin” is replaced with “pastry.” The words chosen in original form say a lot about the intent and “position/ality” of the writer.”
  10. Sophia Sarigianides, current work not available/worked at Teachers College, Columbia University: ” I’m following a UbD-influenced line of thinking to align with Amy, above, and a lot of Sabrina’s comments. Interpreting is bringing in a text to the reader to show what it “says” in the reader’s words. There is a transformation that happens at this level that works to shape meaning, to “summarize” but with something of a reader’s spin. In literary analysis, larger structural tools may be used to show author’s craft, to discuss the likely audience and the text’s “hoped for” effects on that audience, as well as resistant readings shaped by various critical lenses. Great question, Sarah.”
  11. Kim McCollum-Clark, Associate Professor of English at Millersville University:  “I think it’s very important in “analysis” to identify your critical lens. You could “analyze” the frequency of the letter “e” in these replies. It wouldn’t “mean” anything, per se, but you could do it. I often press my teacher babies to explain their analytic lens and the rationale behind it.”
  12. Jennifer Horton Isgitt, no workplace/studied secondary education at the University of North Texas: “‘Analysis’ means to break something into its constituent parts to see how each contributes to the whole. Analysis of a car engine would mean seeing how each part makes the engine run. Analysis of a sports game tape would mean seeing how each individual play led to the outcome of the game. ‘Interpretation’ is the synthesis. What is, in the end, the overall effect of the writing? What purpose did it achieve (if rhetoric) or what observations about life (themes) did it evoke (if fiction) or what longings does it express (if poetry) or even what further questions does it raise?”
  13. Donald Tinney, English teacher at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vermont: “Thanks for asking this question. I am analyzing and interpreting the answers.”
  14. Doug Hesse, Director of Writing and Professor of English at University of Denver: “I’d say interpreting gets at ‘what it means,’ while analyzing gets at ‘how it works.'”
  15. Mark Letcher, Assistant Professor of English at Lewis University: “I tend to look at interpretation as the reader coming to the text, and moving it forward in some manner (connections to other texts, world, etc.). In analysis, I usually think of looking back at what the author has crafted/intended in her work, which lends itself to critical lenses. In looking over earlier posts, I think my response is more aligned to what Sophia said, and she said it better.  Great question, Sarah!”
  16. Tim Duggan, Northeastern Illinois University: “Nice question. I think of analysis similarly to how Jennifer described it, and we use analysis in the service of developing an interpretation, or a range of possible interpretations. It reminds me of Robert Scholes and the reading/interpretation/criticism construct: What does it say?, What does it mean?, What does it matter?”

It’s now 1:54 pm on Saturday. I was right that the answer is complex, defies easy knowing, certainly complicates application or transfer to classroom practice.  And I was right that I know lots of smart people. (I include a workplace according to the Facebook profiles I could access, which may not be up-to-date.)

I started to synthesize the data but resorted to the highly reliable and artful word cloud to capture the complexity. The most frequent word is “text” and also “meaning.” Maybe that’s what happens when we talk about teaching in the context of language and not language users. Maybe that’s the problem with mechanisms to assess teaching. The syntax and discourse matter not because our teaching license depends on it but because meaning and understanding depend on it. 

The syntax and discourse Facebook communication permit a certain kinds of meaning making. I bet that if my students and teacher “friends” could gather in a beautiful space to talk about teaching English and the language of our practice that the word that would come up the most is “student.” I have actually met, in person, a few of the people quoted above, and I can assure you that when they teach and write and speak out, they do so for our students. The syntax would be more complex and the discourse would be more dynamic.

What would have to change in education for discussions about teaching to always position students at the heart of every discussion’s word cloud? What would that lesson plan commentary look like?

A Learning Conference

The first quarter of seventh grade has ended. Final grades are due. Students are checking the portal, comparing grades, bartering with teachers for a few more points to bump up this grade or that.

I don’t want to talk about grades, but it is part of school culture.  I’ve written about what I call “the ghosts of gradings past” and how so much of our learning mindset is wrapped up in past grading experiences. So, I am trying ways to change the evaluation process by including learning conversations around the mandatory grading periods. In this post, I share a few of those conversations.

The end of a term should be, in my view, a time to celebrate learning, reflect on growth, and give thanks, so I set aside a couple days at the end of the quarter to talk to students one-on-one and try to do all of “that” (celebrate, reflect, and give thanks) in under five minutes. It may seem like an inconsequently length of time, but I think it makes all the difference in our learning relationships.

Prior to conferences, students prepare portfolios in the form of parent-letters and portfolios. I read, view, and listen to these culminating projects throughout the last week of the quarter, and then on the last day of our term, I begin class by asking students to journal for about ten minutes on any or all of these questions:

Then, students work on an alternate project– silent reading, blogging, research, or even writing a novel–while I meet with students one-on-one for our conference. In the three videos offered here with parent permission, I follow a similar format. We talk about their reflection; we decide on a final grade; and I thank them for their contributions to our learning community. Each student offers something unique to our class, and the conference is an opportunity for me to share my observations and gratitude.

Students tell me that they struggled to find time to read but figured out a routine that worked for them. They tell me they are noticing authorial choices in the books they read. They tell me they are learning how to make their stories come alive. They tell me they are writing because they love it and not because it’s an assignment. They tell me that they know they are writers because their classmates laugh at their stories, compliment their word choice, and ask them to write a sequel.

A conference should be a conversation to uncover how students see themselves as readers and writer through and beyond the artifacts or evidence. I want insight into their thinking and self-perception, and I want to share with them what I am learning about who they are and are becoming as readers, writers, and class members so that we can build on those experiences.

Below are two more learning conferences.  The first minute or so are the most important for me as a teacher.  The next two minutes, I do more talking than I’d like, but I think the last 30 seconds may be the most important to students because it’s when I tell students how fortunate I feel to be their teacher. For many, this is the first time they’ve heard a teacher express such gratitude.


Nurturing the Being and Becoming of a Reading Life

On September 30th, Kylene Beers posted a memo to teachers on Facebook with advice on how we can talk to administrators about the value of independent reading programs.  She includes three research articles that teachers could share with principals. Then, she goes on to say this:

And then remind your principal that you aren’t building an entire curriculum around students reading choice novels each and every day for each and every minute. Instead, independent reading is a part of your day; it’s when they practice independently — with books they choose — the reading skills and strategies you’ve been teaching them.

After reading Mrs. Beers’s post, I felt so relieved, so validated to have a scholar-researcher-teacher, whom I respect and follow, to support the spirit of the independent reading program that I have developed for my junior high students.

However, the dark history of independent reading programs like AR, choice-by-Lexile/letter, and reading logs looms. I feel like any independent reading that is part of the curriculum is doomed because of the measurement discourse that consumes education. Thus, whispers of doubt about what I am doing haunt me. Am I nurturing/reviving reading lives or am I committing readicide (Gallagher) when I make choice-reading integral to what we do in our class?

An Independent Reading Program

For the first five weeks of school, students read choice novels in class, and I asked them to apply/transfer strategies and concepts we practiced together to their own reading experiences. I watched them do this in class to offer support and feedback in their own reading progress forms, which they created and personalized in a Google form. The next four weeks, we read a shared text in class to learn a few more strategies, and I asked students to transfer/apply these strategies to their reading at home in their form. I envisioned this Google form as a site where readers track their own progress for the entire school year. 36 weeks of reading choices and comprehension/analysis practice in one place that they own and manage (and share with me). Titles, authors, genres, forms, reading highs, reading slumps, mirrors, windows, sliding doors — an artifact of a reading life being and becoming.  Here’s what it looks like after 9 weeks or 43 days of school, which is pretty close to what I envisioned:

This reader is using Notice and Note to make claims about her reading and practice text citation.

Imagine the infamous “data digs” with this beauty, but, even better, imagine students doing the data analysis — reflecting on their choices, experiences, and discoveries about themselves and reading and the world. That’s what we do every four weeks. The reflection helps us celebrate and tweak our practice so that we can continue to stretch into new reading experiences.

The data will change as students’ lives and needs change. Why they read–pleasure, escape, interest, research, insight–will change. The Google form is one way to track, monitor, and reflect on all that real readers do over time.

Now for the Whispers of Doubt

For students with established reading lives, I am asking them to slow down a little bit — a break from voraciously devouring book after book — to notice something. By no means do I  suggest that every time students read that they have to write a response. No. As a reader, I don’t do this, but I do write notes on Goodreads or Instagram a few times a week after I read — to reflect, share, process, to track my books. This form is their space for all of that. Still, this shift was/is uncomfortable for some readers. I am asking them to stretch, even disrupt,  their comfy independent reading routine.

In conferring with students, I hear that they are discovering that they can still get lost in a book AND use their readerly voice to interact with the text, to practice the thinking and analytical skills we are doing in class.

To be fair, however, many of the established readers are also conscientious students who just do what the teacher says (so I check in with them often to talk about what they love about the books).  Still, there are a few who are just now trusting me enough to try something new because they didn’t buy that the tracking, reflecting, conferring could help them become stronger readers. Reading was already part of their identity, and the test scores proved that they were “good” readers. What could a reading program that asked them to stretch into new genres, forms, topics, cultures, and ways of responding possibly offer them?

The whispers of doubt are a little louder with the less-established readers; the dissonance is especially unsettling in the form of student voices asking me this: “Next quarter, do we have to keep doing the responses?”  This sentiment mostly comes from readers still licking wounds from the days when they’d have to stare at a book waiting for the timer to go off or assuaging their conscience from the days when they’d forge their parent’s signature on a reading log; the reading progress form is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. I get that. Some readers haven’t felt the beauty of the reading flow. They haven’t learned the difference between liking a book and gleaning value from a book (Readicide, 57). They think this form is something to endure; IR is not essential to a reading education; and, if they keep refusing that it/I would go away.

If I truly believe that a reading life is something we have to nurture within and beyond the classroom, I have to help every reader find the joy, appreciate the value, experience satisfaction.  It’s nurturing a reading “life” not a reading grade.

Book groups are next, and I hope the reading groups will do what I could not for our reading resistors. We are diving into contemporary issues in America and beyond. Students will compare a book representation to research-based representations. The purpose will still be to stretch our reading lives, but it will also be more project-based and collaborative.


Inevitably, any sort of curriculum that values independent reading leads to questions of evaluation: How many books should I read? How many minutes should I read? How many days a week do I have to read? How teachers handle this is, in my view, what shifts nurturing a reading life toward readicide.

I know students just want to know how they’ll be evaluated, but some while some are really asking how little they have to do or trying to figure out if they can fake their way through, others are asking how they should organize their time. I don’t want independent reading to be about holding readers accountable or about a good grade. I want something fundamentally different. A reading life. And a rich one at that. A life that comes with deliberate choices.

I tell students this: “What, when, and how much depends on you; it depends on the book; it depends on your schedule; it depends on how you like to read — so much depends.” I try to undermine the measurement discourse with conversatipns about places to read, snacks, times of day. We actually talk about this in class so that we can try on different routines.

Instead of reading homework in the form of worksheets or projects, I just ask that students make some time to read each day understanding that it might not always be possible. I also ask that, a few times a week, readers write a short response in their progress forms to 1) document their progress (title, author, genre, form) and 2) to practice some of the skills we do in class, to see what they notice in their own books.

I encourage page or chapter goals instead of time because so many students have been trained to put in 10 or 15 minutes only to have never actually read. Some students have said that when they have a chapter goal that they often read further because, well, chapters have mini-cliffhangers.

Essentially, nurturing a reading life is complex, but I want to stretch students from their being to their becoming. Their personal progress sheets help me to do that, but I am all-to-aware that my intentions can be misinterpreted and that I am fighting the ghosts of readings past, so I really try to personalize the assessment process.

Once a week, I check the reading form for insight into their choices, experiences, patterns, and application of our work together. I look for patterns across responses and use that to inform my teaching and conferences with students. I know who I have to spend more time with and who needs a new book.

I don’t “grade” this, per se. I assess. I give feedback each week about what I am noticing, then I meet with certain students who are struggling with finding time to read or who need help in their responses transitioning from retelling to entering a conversation about or commenting on what their books are doing and saying. If students are not reading, not responding then they will not have evidence to point to of how they are developing in their independent practice, how their reading life within and beyond the classroom is growing.

When it comes to the end of the term (when we confer about final grades), students who are not reading beyond the classroom will simply not have evidence of reading growth, which will impact their grade. This will also show me, them, and their parents that we have to do some problem-solving. I just cannot accept the death of a reading life.

I am committed to reading in class. It’s an environment in which I can set the tone. I cannot control what happens at home, but I know that what we do in school has to transfer beyond those walls. Otherwise, we are just doing school and not educating.

For hope and sustenance, I have Kylene Beers and these words from Kelly Gallagher:

Student-Led Text-Based Discussions


Seven seventh grade readers are sitting together at the center of the classroom revisiting the scene in The Outsiders where the greasers are getting ready for the rumble.  It’s their first fishbowl, and they are the fishes. As the fishes reread and formulate their responses, twenty-two students outside the circle are already blogging their thoughts.

“Um, I think Ponyboy is happy because he was just told that he was allowed to go to the rumble,” one student says.

“I agree with that because, um, for example, Soda and Steve were doing cartwheels off of the front porch showing excitement,” another student says.

“But before that, the greasers were all getting ready for the rumble. Why were they worried about what they looked like?” one student asks.

One boy flips over his paper looking for a note he made. Then, he jumps into the conversation: “Yeah, that’s where there was a word I wanted to ask about. What is ‘spruced up’?”

“They’re preparing for the fight, the rumble. ‘Sprucing’ means extra grease in their hair to show they are greasers,” the girl sitting next to him answers.

“Maybe they want to show the Socs that they can look cleaner so the Socs can’t judge them,” he responds.

Another student raises his hand briefly and then just jumps into the conversation: “Getting ‘spruced up’ means to make them look cooler because the Socs are the nicer dressed ones, and the greasers have to have their own identities to represent themselves.”

The final word on this questions comes from one girl who was observing the conversation up until now: “Or like people get dressed up to go to a dance? Maybe the rumble is like their dance — only there everybody hates each other and somebody might die. Can I ask the next question?”

Student-Led Discussions

Bringing teen readers to the point where they can facilitate their own discussions is a process. While the above conversation may seem magical, I assure you, it took careful planning and time to bring students to the point where they could really get into interpretation and meaning-making without a teacher (and in front of their peers).

Within a week of meeting each other, we were having low-stakes discussions about our reading experiences.  The first week of school, I got books into the hands of students — their choice — and made time each day to read. And then that Friday, they were having very informal conversations about their books. The first week, I gave students a list of topics: talk about the subjects in your book (friends, family, grief, war, love, power); talk about the character’s  personality. The second week, I asked them to come up with some questions: would you be friends with your character, do you like your book, what’s your favorite part.  I also introduced students to Word PEACE — to help them be more conscious of the discussion process. I wrote about this here: Small Group Discussions and Self-Assessment.

When we were ready to move into our shared text, The Outsiders, I knew students had a good foundation for discussion and now just had to add the text-based questions and responses, which we couldn’t really do when everyone was reading a different book.

Text-Based Notes

For the first six chapters of The Outsiders, I did what Kelly Gallagher calls a “guided tour,” which means that we read the book one chapter at a time and practiced specific skills: writing a concise summary, analyzing denotation and connotation, tracking the development of classism.

By chapter seven, most students were ready for a “budget tour,” so for chapters seven through ten, I was more hands-off and went into observer-mode. I created a very basic form to guide their independent reading:  Text-Based Notes and Questions. I wanted to see how students practiced the skills on their own. During quiet reading time, I conferred with students about their notes and checked for their summarizing, vocab meaning-making, and questioning related to classism.

This student used the guide to 1) write a summary statement, 2) write questions that came up as she read with page numbers for easy reference, and 3) note words to unpack for connotation.

Text-Based Questions

A fishbowl discussion is, essentially, a group of students having a discussion while the other class members listen in and observe but do not interject.  By rotating the “fish in the bowl,” every voice can be heard without any one individual or group carrying the responsibility of meaning-making; this makes space for more and diverse ideas to come to the surface.

To prepare for the fishbowl discussion, I divided the class into four groups — one group for each chapter. Then, I modeled how to write text-based questions using sentence stems (Text-Based Notes and Questions). I explained that when posing questions about a text, we have to help our group members go to the page, understand what’s going on, and grasp the question we are asking before a deep discussion can happen. The templates on the reference sheet help students to meet the three parts of an effective text-based question for discussion.

As you may have noticed in the discussion excerpt at the beginning of this post, students were posing questions related to the skills/thinking we practiced when we read chapters 1-6 together. They asked questions to work through the denotation and connotation of “spruced up” in a pretty sophisticated way. They were also tracking how tensions related to class were heightening at this point of the story.

Students used their during reading notes to write text-based questions in preparation for the fishbowl discussions.

Text-Based Discussion

I organized the discussion into four rounds of seven minutes. For example, round one was chapter seven, so students who wrote questions for that chapter jumped into the fishbowl. There was only time for each student to ask one question, and follow-up questions developed to take the place of the pre-written ones. Students were pulling in features of Word PEACE by clarifying responses, building on ideas, attending to the speaker, and using academic language to discuss the scenes (e.g., character, conflict, class, simile, author’s purpose). No fish was going to drown in this fishbowl.

While the fish were talking, the students outside of the fishbowl needed something to do to engage them and help them process the meaning of the chapter. In the past, I had discussion partners, whereby a student on the inside was paired with a student on the outside to observe their discussion skills. However, because each student has a Chromebook, I thought we could set up a discussion thread on our blog and have students respond virtually to the fishbowl questions using a Twitter format, e.g., “7@Julie” would indicate a student was responding to Julie’s question from chapter 7.

This is magical, right? Yes, but not magic. It is just what teachers do every day. A lot has to be in place so that teachers can get out of the way for students to grapple, discover, lead, learn without the teacher. And on days like this, when no fish drowns because all the fish are working together to make meaning and encourage one another, well, we see what’s possible in education and life. (Okay, maybe there is a little magic.)

Writing Assessment is a Personal Process

“Hi, how are you?” I ask as a student takes a seat beside me.

“Fine. You?” he says averting my eyes and looking at his biography narrative lit brightly on my computer screen.

We’re sitting in a dark corner of the classroom to discuss the student’s biography posted on his blog while the other twenty-nine seventh grade writers are working on the upcoming teacher-for-a-day project. (Each student is researching a grammar topic or literary device to present to the class during writing workshop time. They are mostly quiet knowing their dedicated time with me is coming up.) I’ve been meeting with students for four days now trying to give each one some personalized feedback and, in some cases, instruction on some strategies or conventions.

“Well, I am happy because this story you wrote about your partner is so beautifully written. I can tell you took great care in getting the sequence of events just right, and this part right here? This dialogue you wrote captures the attitude your partner is giving his mom with just the right bit of humor.”

“Thanks. He is really funny but sneaky, so I wanted to capture that by writing ‘he rolled his eyes.'”

“Yep, you did it. Now, remember when we practiced punctuating dialogue? It looks to me like you know how to do it here, but then below, the punctuation is erratic. The inconsistency makes me wonder if you understand it.”

“Oh, I get it. I just want to add a comma here, before the quotation mark.”

“Right. Okay, so that is just about proofreading. I do want to suggest one part for revision. Are you ready?” I ask. “Because this will make the story ready for publication on Monday.”

“Yes. Show me.”

“So, tell me what this story is really about. I get that it is about taking risks and mother-son tension, but what about that? What about after the argument? What did your partner realize or get about his mom?”

“Well, after the argument, he sort of had a better understanding of where his mom was coming from? Like her perspective? Like thinking about her point of view?”

“I think that might be it, too, but it is your story — well, you are doing the work of showing us your partner’s story. Your job as the author is to bring your readers along — us — me and your classmates. At the end here, do you think you can make that perspective idea come through?” I ask writing “1” next to punctuating dialogue and “2” next to theme on his biography checklist document.

“Yeah, yes. I can do that right now.”

“Great. Here is your checklist. Just spend some time on these two parts, and you’ll be ready to publish on Monday. And thank you for taking such good care of your partner’s story.”

“Thank you,” he says.

As he walks away, I get up to invite Julia to confer.

A writing assessment process (never-ending)

Just like the writing is a process, so, too, is writing assessment. As students work on a piece of writing, we are there to support his or her process — brainstorming, drafting, revising with new strategies or techniques, proofreading, resting, coming back to, revising, and on. This is really assessment. What’s working? What’s not? How can we make improvements or try something new? What do we need to workshop in a new way? However, when we come to the end, when a piece needs to stand on its own for an audience on a particular day, well, we might be ready for evaluation: at this point in time, what do you know and what can you do? Writing teachers must embrace the assessment process for an ethical evaluation.

Teach grammar in context (and reteach)

Students write and write, and only when they have a solid draft do I start with mini-lessons on a few skills or techniques they can try. For the biographical sketch, I explicitly taught 2 skills: dialogue and complex sentences. The dialogue was essential in bringing alive the people in the stories, and complex sentences (starting sentences with subordinating conjunctions) help students illuminate time and place, cause and effect — important transition markers in a narrative piece. Students took notes and practiced in their journals, and then we went right into their drafts to find or revise-to-include these techniques.

For dialogue, we just had a conversation on paper:

“I’d like to know what you want to be when you grow up?” Dr. Donovan asked leaning in with a writing between her brows.

“Well, Dr. Donovan, I think I want to become __________________,” I replied _____________.

“And why is that?” she asked.

“Geesh, I guess it’s because______________,” I replied somewhat annoyed.

For complex sentences, we just practiced a few sentences together before moving into our drafts to revise or add this sentence structure.

Whole-class mini-lessons tend to work well for the majority of writers, especially writers who have some experience with these conventions, but some writers will need additional guidance, which is why the conferences are so important: I can personalize feedback and instruction.

Confer individually (personal-ized support)

Making time to confer with students one-on-one is so hard to do, especially when you have 30 plus students, but after students have drafted and revised their writing to try out new skills, this teacher-student (writer-writer) conference is the experience that can really make the difference to a writer. I meet with each writer to talk about the status of her piece, noticing what she does well while pushing her just a little further in her craft. I love to talk about how the piece is capturing humanity and offering something meaningful to the reader before suggesting one or two places to try something new or integrate a technique. This is where I can reteach the whole-class lesson or offer something new that I hadn’t yet introduced to the class but a particular student is ready to try.

Reflection before evaluation (current draft)

After the conference, students go back to their piece one more time with specific notes to inform their revisions. With a line-by-line read through and a few tweaks to wording or punctuation, the piece is ready to publish in its current form. A piece can always be tweaked or reworked, but this is our community-imposed deadline to publish and evaluate progress. 

On the day of publishing, I ask students color code the techniques I want to assess. I’ve already read their drafts and revisions, so this makes it easier for me to evaluate specific skills. In addition to the color coding, I ask students to write a little reflection at the end of their piece to honor writerly choices and reiterate the purpose of the particular form. For example, in this biography piece, I ask students to reflect on the following: 1) what they want readers to notice that is deliberate or innovative — anything that a reader might miss or misinterpret, 2) what they are most proud of or a favorite line,  and 3) what revisions they made after the teacher conference (as a way of seeing what they took away from meeting with me). Perhaps another question could illuminate which parts are still in development from the writer’s perspective. Here’s an example:

Have a publication party (and enjoy)

Every quarter, I set a date for publication to celebrate the work in its current state. I call it our “publication party” and bring some cookies. When students know there are real people reading their work, they will attend to the details that might interrupt a reader’s flow. 

Reading the finished pieces is an enjoyable experience with no need for feedback–it’s not the time. I celebrate alongside other writers. We’re nurturing our community by sharing one another’s writing and offering personal responses, which I guess is a form of feedback; we use 3-perspective responses. 

Evaluation (a judgment at one moment in time)

I use standards-based assessment, which means that I do not score the final piece with a single number or letter. I look at the standards I taught and assess whether or not students are competent in those standards at a specific moment in time.  I never evaluate creativity or judge how one writer’s use of dialogue is better than another. For the most part, if I’ve implemented the assessment process well, all students can demonstrate competency in the standards (and I don’t take home stacks of papers because we’ve used workshop time to assess and because those stories do not belong to me; I’m just part of the process).

Ongoing assessment (not an oxymoron)

The final step in the assessment process does not involve grades. As I read and enjoy the publications, I look for trends in strengths and needs for the next project. Assessment is an ongoing process of observing, feedback, learning, practice, observing, feedback, etc. 

Just like there is a writing process and not the writing process, there is an assessment process for each student not the assessment process. Make time to personalize the process and remember that any ending is arbitrary and temporary, for tomorrow we do not start anew, we continue.

Here are a few sample biographies for your enjoyment. Notice: I wrote one for my partner, Shreya.

Conversations Made Possible: Classism

“Why are the socs so mean to the greasers?” one student asks.

We just finished chapter two of The Outsiders. This is the required whole-class text for seventh grade at our school. We listened to chapter one together to hear the southern voice of Ponyboy, to listen for his narratorial voice, to notice how he tells us all about the people in his story right from the start — from his point of view. For chapter two, we listened and read (followed along). I asked students to use sticky note to mark page numbers and phrases they wanted to talk about when we finished. I told them I wouldn’t stop the audio, wouldn’t interrupt the chapter because, most of the time, authors answer our questions if we stay with the story a bit longer.

Now we’ve finished that chapter and have about seven minutes to chat before the bell rings. I am curious what they noticed, what they cared about enough to note, what they’d bring up for the discussion.

“Ideas?” I say inviting the class to respond to the student.

“The socs want to show their dominance over the greasers,” one says.

“Yeah, but they already have dominance; they’re the rich kids,” another says.

“It’s because they’re from different classes,” says another.

“Okay, but why, when Ponyboy and Cherry were getting snacks at the drive-in, didn’t the socs give Ponyboy a hard time there?” one student asks.

“Because Pony was with one of them – Cherry. Maybe the socs respect Cherry, so Pony was safe at that point,” a student suggests.

“It seems like that part at the movie was Cherry’s first interaction with a greaser and Ponyboy’s, too. He was saying things like ‘they are not our kind.’ And that girl Marcia was saying how Ponyboy and Johnny are not ‘dirty.’ I think that’s why the socs don’t like the greasers,” one student says coming back to the original question.

I am listening and deciding if my voice would enhance or disrupt the flow of this discussion, but I am hearing words like “them” and “our kind” at this point. I want to help them name what I think they are getting at: prejudice and classism. I know students know the word “racist,” and I want to extend it to classist, but I am not sure if interjecting here will take us on a tangent that will lose the powerful conversation happening without me. I give it a go because I want to emphasize what S.E. Hinton is asking about humanity with and through Ponyboy.

“Thanks for bringing us back to the initial question.  I can tell you are all improving on your literary conversation skills! We are getting at deeper meaning here, right? You are already uncovering what’s at the heart of this book: classism. You’ve heard the word “racism,” yes? What does that mean — racism?” I ask.

“Judging someone based on their race,” one student says.

“Not liking someone because of their skin color – like MLK said,” says another student.

I say, “Yeah, so you have the race part, but the judging part or prejudging someone based on appearance or preconceived ideas about whole groups of people — that’s prejudice. Think pre and judge. How is that different from racism?”

“It’s a belief that one race is better,” one student says.

“Right, part of that is prejudice, but it is a belief that one race is superior. What if we apply that to class and what’s happening between the greasers and socs?”

“The socs believe they are superior.”

“And the greasers? Ponyboy? Does he believe that? Does he believe the socs are better than the greasers?” I ask.

“Yeah,” says one student. “Like they have no change in winning against the socs. Even if the greasers won a fight or fought back, the socs would still have more money, be more respected.”

“So is Ponyboy a classist? Is he prejudice?” I ask. “What other questions is S.E. Hinton asking us to ponder?”

Bell rings.