Reading, Writing, & Religion

English Language Arts & Queer Christian Musings

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know REVIEW

This is the second Jeff Anderson book I’ve read. I enjoy how he shares the interactions he and his students have in his classroom. He uses dialogue to show how he teaches and how his students learn. In this bulky tome, he shares some great models, anti-models, lessons, activities, and handouts that can help move students from a first draft attempt to a polished, revised piece. The book is structured to move from the basics like generating ideas and using mentor texts to getting rid of clutter and choosing effective words. Although the back of this books says grades 3-9 will benefit, I think my 10th graders could benefit from quite a few of his teaching techniques and examples.

Anderson includes excerpts from many mentor texts that he uses to inspire his students. To give his students a contrasting “anti” example, he also rewrites some of these passages with redundant wordings, unfocused sentences, or lazy, unimaginative words. His rationale is grounded in Marzano’s research that says students learn from contrasts, and I have to say it seems very effective. I’ve shared good mentor texts with my students before, but I’ve yet to intentionally rewrite them poorly, so that students can easily see what works and what doesn’t in writing.

10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is filled catchy acronyms, mnemonic devices, charts, math connections, and like I already mentioned, handy mentor texts, many of which are informational. A bibliography collects all of these titles, and an appendix holds many pre-made handouts for mini-lesson activities.

My one complaint about this book is its physical size. The large pages have 2-inch margins that are occasionally peppered with a quote related to that chapter’s “thing” writers need to know. I would have preferred smaller pages and a list of those quotes at the end of the chapter. It was a chore to read such a bulky book. I started it in July and didn’t finish it until now, the end of September. I guess what’s good about that, is you can pick this book up, put down, and return to it without missing a beat. You could probably just skip around to whichever of the 10 things you are most interested in. I read the book in order, but that’s just my personality.

Epiphany in Seventh Hour

In class today I introduced action verbs through two poems from the American Life in Poetry website. I chose “My Father’s Left Hand” and “Spitwads.” Both poems have some excellent action verbs like catapult and waggle. I read the poems aloud and had volunteers come up to the SmartBoard and circle some of the action verbs that stood out to them. Their classmates shouted suggestions (some of which were not always correct, but that allowed us to discuss the differences), and then we identified the strongest action verbs in each poem. We also addressed any words that weren’t verbs (and said why) and words that didn’t convey much action. For example, some students thought splat was an action verb in “Spitwads,” but it’s actually functioning as a noun. After we examined these two poems, I showed my students photographs and had them write a sentence about each photo that included at least one action verb. For students who wanted a challenge and wanted to show off their English swag*, I told them they could include two or more action verbs. To end class, they wrote a sentence on an index card as their ticket out the door and underlined the action verb in their sentence.

I have four sections of Pre-AP English II, and to entertain myself I sometimes change up the lesson in my later hours. In sixth hour, I asked all my students to act out the motions of the father’s hand in the first poem I read aloud. Each time I read a new action verb, their motions changed, which helped to emphasize the difference between a “blah, vanilla” verb and an action verb. In seventh hour, I decided to have a drama student stand in front of the class and act out the hand motions. One student suggested we turn off the lights for dramatic effect, but I thought we wouldn’t be able to see him. “I’ll help!” one student announced, and he shined his iPhone like a spotlight on the drama student’s hand. He did a terrific job, and afterward, I thanked him and told the class “to give him a hand.” We laughed at my unintentional pun and clapped for him.

All this to say, it wasn’t until seventh hour that a student (actually, it was the spotlight-er) thought to ask what the father’s right hand was doing. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that the father had probably had a stroke. He couldn’t move his right hand at all! That’s why his left hand did so many actions like flutter, flap, and fall. At the end of the poem, the father’s hand trembles “until it’s still,” indicating he has fallen asleep. One student in sixth hour interpreted this lack of motion as death, but I disagreed with him.

What do you think?

My Father’s Left Hand by David Bottoms

Sometimes my old man’s hand flutters over his knee, flaps
in crazy circles, and falls back to his leg.

Sometimes it leans for an hour on that bony ledge.

And sometimes when my old man tries to speak, his hand waggles
in the air, chasing a word, then perches again

on the bar of his walker or the arm of a chair.

Sometimes when evening closes down his window and rain
blackens into ice on the sill, it trembles like a sparrow in a storm.

Then full dark falls, and it trembles less, and less, until it’s still.

*I use the word swag not to sound cool, but to make my students dislike this annoying term. If their 30-year-old teacher says swag enough, maybe they’ll stop using it themselves. Ha!

Problem Essays

My team of fellow sophomore English teachers and I have designed the formal essays we assign this year to center around problems. We wanted to move from easiest to hardest, so we’re starting the year with a narrative essay. Our students will write about a problem they’ve experienced and also explain a solution they tried that may or may not have worked.

In addition to relating this personal story, students will also be expected to incorporate two sources: one of them will be an interview they conduct with someone who could share some insight into the problem (a family member, a friend, an expert, etc.) and the other source is not stipulated. More than likely, students will select a news article or magazine story about their problem, but they could also use a book or a documentary–anything, really, as long as it’s reliable.

After the narrative essay, students will move onto an informational / explanatory essay in which they will explain a local problem that affects our school, school district, community, city, or state. They’ll have to incorporate three sources instead of two, and the length of the paper will increase as well.

Those are the two big essays of the fall semester, but my students will do plenty of everyday writing in my class as well. In the spring semester, we will shift gears to argument writing. Our third paper of the year will deal with a national problem along with a proposed solution, backed up by research. The source requirement will now by four, and the page length increases again.

The fourth and final problem essay of the year focuses on a global issue. On top of proposing a solution, I’m thinking I might have students research a couple causes of the problem as well. We’ll see. Regardless, the source requirement will now be five, and the page length, yet again, increases. Students will also be expected to present their findings to the class through a presentation for which they can use a PowerPoint or a Prezi or some other approved presentation tool.

We designed the essays in this way to have mini bursts of research spread throughout the year, so that students have plenty of time to practice those research and synthesis skills that are all too often zoomed through in one dreadful, cram-packed, month-long, research-paper unit.

Today in class, my sophomores brainstormed problems encountered by Americans teens in 2012. We are starting broad, but we’ll zoom in on their own personal problems soon. I know for a fact that some of my students deal with some of the problems on this list.

American Teen Problems: 2012 Edition

  • Abuse (physical, verbal, sexual, etc.)
  • Acne
  • Addictions (technology, pornography, etc.)
  • Balancing life: school, sports, activities, job, etc.)
  • Braces
  • Breaking an iPhone
  • Bullying
  • Car wrecks
  • Choosing a college
  • Clogged school hallways
  • Depression
  • Divorced parents
  • Drama with friends
  • Dress code issues
  • Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, obesity, etc.)
  • Faith being tested
  • Friends with different beliefs (religious, political)
  • Getting a car
  • Getting a driver’s license
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting into a good college
  • Health problems (illness, broken bones, etc.)
  • Height
  • Helicopter parents (swoop in, hover, and don’t cut the metaphorical umbilical cord)
  • Homework
  • Illegal substances (cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, etc.)
  • Impulsiveness
  • Job
  • Money
  • Peer pressure
  • Popularity
  • Poverty
  • Pregnancy
  • Pressure to succeed
  • Procrastination
  • Puberty
  • Rebellion
  • Relationships (family, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend)
  • School lunches
  • Self esteem issues
  • Sex
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual identity
  • Shaving
  • Stealing / shoplifting
  • Stress
  • Suicide (When this was mentioned, a student asked if I had heard about the suicide that occurred today at a junior high in our state.)
  • Texting & driving

Charting Book Chats

In my last post I talked about how I use book chats in my high school English classroom. In this post, I’d like to share how I keep track of the required books that my students read.

I have required my students to read 20 books this school year, which I have divided into 10 books per semester. Of these 10, my students choose 7 of them. The other 3 are mandated by our school’s curriculum. I created a chart in Microsoft Excel listing the seven genres my students need to read by the end of the school year.

As you can see, I listed the three required titles as well as the seven genres across the top row. I realize now I really didn’t need to include the required titles. When we finish each of those units, I’m going to automatically give each student credit for that particular book unless I have a strong belief that the student did not do the outside reading. If that’s the case, I’ll hold a book chat with that student to see if he or she read it. I’m thinking specifically about To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s the longest book, and in the past I’ve had students admit (or brag!) afterward that they didn’t actually read it. We will read all of Antigone in class, so I know each student will get credit for that play.

The focus here is on the different genres. When I hold a book chat with a student, I record a title or a portion of the title in the appropriate genre box along with the month the conference was held. Looking at the picture above, I realize I got so used to recording AUG that I never switched over to SEPT for all the September book talks I’ve held so far. Oops! Ha ha. I’ll make sure and change to SEPT on this coming Monday.

I then have to transfer the book chat into my online grade book. At first I tried to use sheer memory to update the book chat grades, but then I wised up and whipped out a highlighter. I highlight the books that I have added to a student’s grade. I try to update these grades once or twice a week. I probably get way too much satisfaction out of getting to highlight those books afterwards. It’s the little things, people.

The chart gives me lots of quick data: Which genres are my students reading? Which genres are my students avoiding? Do I need to do some book talks for that genre? Which students are reading the most? The least? During which month are my students reading the most? (Of course, I’ll need to update my months from now on. Ha ha.)

Let’s do a quick little case study of the class below. I’ve removed my students’ last names, so I think I’m not breaking any laws here.

Lauren has yet to read any books. She sits right by my desk, so she hears book chats taking place on most days. She’s currently reading a Nicholas Sparks book, and she told me on Friday she plans to finish it this weekend. “Can we have a book talk on Monday?” she asked me yesterday. I told her she could go first. She will need to read much faster the rest of the semester is to reach the 10-book goal.

Michelle is an avid reader. In fact, I decided to let her put some books in the bank for next semester. Since The Perks of Being a Wallflower is historical fiction and that genre is not required until the spring, I’m letting her count it now. She still has to read all seven choice genres for the fall semester, though.

Gunnar has only read one genre so far, but it was a lengthy nonfiction piece (Stiff by Mary Roach) that required more time than most other books. I’ve also discovered that he volunteers at a fire station on the weekends, so he doesn’t have as much time as other students to read. I wonder how he will fit in all the books for this semester. I need to talk to him about that.

Brett has read three books, but they have all been fairly short. Frindle is not in my class library, and I doubt it is in our high school library. It’s  more of an elementary or middle school book. I remember listening to it on tape my first year of teaching middle school reading. For his fantasy/sci fi, he selected J. K. Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard, which is in my library. This collection of short stories is very tiny, but I count this book the same as the much-longer, much-more-complex Feed that Michelle read. Brett’s third book is the graphic novel of Frankenstein, and glancing at the chart, I see that he is the only student from this page to have read a graphic novel. I have to commend him on that. I also have to wonder why so few students have tried a graphic novel. I should probably do more book talks about them, and perhaps enlist the help of our librarian. For Brett’s final books of the semester, I want him to read longer, more complex books. I know he can handle it, but maybe he wanted to get ahead on his genre requirements early in the year. He’s a cross country runner, so he’s fairly busy.

For the spring chart, I won’t include Fast Food Nation or Julius Caesar, two required whole-class pieces. Students get to choose a multicultural novel from a list of four, for the third curriculum-required book, so I will include that on the chart. I will probably do book chats for that book.

There might be better or easier ways for me to keep track of the books my students read, but this is what works for me. Any thoughts out of there? What works in your classroom?

Book Chat Evolution

Note: In this post, I’ll be using some terms that are sometimes seen as synonymous. To aid clarity, I’ll use book talk to refer to a teacher or student giving a trailer for a book and book chat or book conference to refer to a conversation about a book held between a teacher and a student.

*     *     *

My English students know our routine. Each day we begin class with ten minutes of silent reading on any book. No homework, no texting, just reading. They might choose to read our current novel of study, but the majority of them read a title they themselves have selected. I ground my basis for such a silent sustained reading program in the research and real-life practices of Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Nancie Atwell, and other teacher-leaders. In this century of rigorous standards, a daily reading routine remains one of the most effective ways to grow students as readers, writers, and thinkers.

Since students are tested around every corner, the inevitable question from my Pre-AP sophomores at the start of the year is How are we going to be graded on all these books? In the past when I taught middle school, the required answer was through a multiple-choice Accelerated Reader test. At the high school level, I could devise my own assessments.

I tried a number of methods. Two years ago, I had students fill out a handwritten book reflection sheet inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. After the students completed reading their book and filling out their sheet, they scheduled a book chat with me before or after school. (At the time, I was reading with my students during our silent reading time because I wanted to be a model reader for them.) Since I required students to read a book every four weeks, I also built in one day at the end of the month for marathon book chats. Most students waited until the last possible minute to finish their books, and consequently, the book chat marathon days felt rushed, inauthentic, and downright frustrating. As I tried to carry on book conferences with my students, the rest of them were supposed to be reading for the full class period. This quickly devolved into whispers and chatter, and though I reminded students they needed to be reading, some pockets of talkers remained. I ignored them and focused on the students ready to book chat with me. On those marathon days, some students even had to come by my room after school because, as fast as I talked with students, I still couldn’t get to everyone in the 50-minute class period. I was committed to the monthly book chat, so I continued the routine through the year, telling myself I would never do it again.

Last year I abandoned student-teacher book conferences. I was worn out from always coming to school early or staying late for book chats, and I wanted to focus exclusively on being a reading role model for my students. During the ten minutes of silent reading at the start of each class, I would quickly take roll, and then dive into my book. Sometimes I would chuckle or gasp and accidentally grab my students’ attention away from their own books. Of course, I occasionally monitored the room to make sure everyone was reading. In the syllabus, students were told to read 20 books during the school year, but I never even tied a grade to these books. Students kept wondering aloud from time to time what would happen if they didn’t read all 20 books, and I just kept avoiding the question, saying, “You better read them!” I felt like creating a reading culture was more important than any sort of grading. Sometimes at the start or end of the ten-minute reading block, I would give book talks over some new or favorite books, and I even completed a read-aloud of Patrick Ness’s wonderful A Monster Calls with three of my four classes. (Don’t ask about seventh hour.) Looking back on this year, I regret not having held book conferences with my students. I missed getting to know them through their reading choices, and I realized too late that I had spoken with my more introverted students far fewer times than the previous year.

This school year, I tried to strive for a better balance in giving students time to read and carving out time to talk with my students about their reading choices. I kept the 20 book requirement, but I actually gave it weight in the grade book at 10%. This means students would have to get perfect on all other grades in order to obtain an A in my class. This 10% weight gave the reading program some teeth. I divided the 20 books, so students would have to read 10 books per semester, with each book essentially adding a point to their overall average in my class. This fall semester, three books are required by my school’s curriculum: Night by Elie Wiesel (a memoir), Antigone by Sophocles (a play), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (historical fiction). The other seven books are designated by a genre: realistic fiction, fantasy/science fiction, mystery/thriller, novel in verse, graphic novel, nonfiction, and choice. Inspired by Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, I selected the genre requirement to push my students to discover new authors and genres they have never tried or abandoned years ago. (Side note: If a book is especially long, I’ll give students 1.5 or 2 credits. For example, at 656 pages the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson will earn one of my readers credit for both the nonfiction and choice categories.)

This year, I’ve also reinstituted student-teacher book chats. In order to avoid the hassle of before-school, after-school, or marathon chats, I now hold them every day during silent reading time. When a student finishes a book, he or she quietly visits with me at my desk while the rest of the class continues to read. The table of students nearest my desk is sometimes distracted, but the tradeoff is that they get to glean ideas for future books. At the beginning of a book conference, a student might launch into the plot of her book before I can even ask her if she enjoyed reading it. Some of my students are still learning that I trust they’ve completed their book if they’ve come over for a conference. The book chat is a time for conversation, not interrogation. I try to ask questions real-world readers would talk about.

  • Did you like the book? Why / Why not?
  • Who was your favorite character?
  • Have you ever read a book like this before?
  • If this book got turned into a movie, what would the director need to get right?
  • Who would you recommend this book to?
  • What’s the next book you’re going to read?

In just a couple minutes’ time, I can gauge a student’s understanding and appreciation of the book they’ve read. Most days, I hold anywhere from one to four book talks during silent reading time. A few students have visited with me out in the hallway before the bell even rings, so I’ve created even more time to talk books with my students. I sometimes get my lunch in the cafeteria, and last week I happened to be in line by one of my students who had heard me talk about A. S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz. She had downloaded it from the local library and devoured it. We shared our reading experiences while we waited for meatloaf. Later, I marked on my chart that she had completed a mystery book for the semester.

In addition to the daily routine of ten minutes of silent reading, we have a special routine at the end of the week: the Friday Checkup. Students enter the following information on a chart they keep in their class binder or folder:

  • Date
  • Book currently reading
  • Current page number out of total pages
  • Total number of books read so far this year

I give students an extra minute to record this information, and then they proceed as normal. I can squeeze in maybe one book chat, but then I grab my calculator and start to make my way around the classroom to check on my students’ progress.

How many pages have they read since last week? I see that Taylor has only read 30 pages, and that includes the 50 minutes of class time we’ve had since the last Friday Checkup. I urge her to carve out more time for reading, and she smiles and agrees, saying, “I know I haven’t been reading much.” (The next week, Taylor’s friend Kennedy brags on her to me, saying, “Guess what, Mr. Stephenson? Taylor read last night!”)

I continue my room roaming and see that Anastasia finished a book last week, but she still hasn’t come over to have a book chat with me during SSR. I make a mental note to figure out why she hasn’t done so yet, and I tell her she can come over and talk any day.

“Look! I finished a book!” cries Aiden, pointing to his final column that no longer says 0. He has recently finished Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson, and is even willing to read the historical fiction book by Ruta Sepetys I recommended to him. I intentionally neglected to tell him the book had a female narrator, but I earned his trust with my Twisted book talk that sent him on a quest to find out what would happen to Tyler.

Ashley has already completed seven books, but she’s only had one book talk with me so far this semester. I see that we still have a little time left to read, and since she is at the last table, I squat down and ask her which of the books she’s recently completed has stuck with her. She tells me about a thriller called Frozen that I’ve never heard of. We finish up our chat, and I ask my students to begin finding a stopping point for the day.

All this time, I’m tallying totals on my calculator to see how many books this class has completed since the start of the school year. After three weeks of school, they’ve read an impressive 61 books.

On the back wall of the classroom, I devote a portion of the bulletin board to the number of books my students have read. I post the hour, the number of students in the class, and on a sticky note, I post the total number of books they’ve read so far. Each Friday, I swap out the sticky note totals after they’ve updated their Friday Checkup chart. The running class totals serve as a reminder and a motivator for my sophomores. Seventh hour leads the pack, mainly because they have a not-so-secret weapon, a voracious reader named Holly who is the envy of the other hours. “She should have to compete all by herself,” one second hour student suggests one Friday.

When I first posted the class totals, Ryan wanted to know if the winning class would get a party.

“No,” I told him. “The reward is reading in itself. I want you to read for the fun of it. And research shows that people who are readers go on to contribute to society in ways that nonreaders don’t.”

“Ah,” the class sighed.

“I know it sounds corny, but you guys know it’s true. Reading should be its own reward,” I continued. “You don’t want me assigning AR points to these books, do you?” I teased.

“No!” they said, horrified, the bad taste of AR still on their tongues.

Next to the class charts, I also post a week-by-week chart, so I can look for patterns and see the grand total. Just this week, four weeks into the school year, one of my various readers (whose parents told me that they ground him by taking away his Nook) finally realized that he needed to record his overall total in the final column of the Friday Checkup chart. He had been blazing through 5 or 6 books each week, but he had recorded the total on his chart as 5, 6, 7 instead of 5, 11, 18. Now that this misunderstanding has been cleared up, sixth hour’s totals have increased dramatically. On the above chart, it looks like sixth hour only added one book in a week’s time between August 31 and September 7, but I know that six of my students were absent on that Friday to a cross country meet. By asking my students to keep track of the books they’ve read, I hope to set them on a course to be reflective, lifelong readers.

In the end, the goal is not numbers. I want my students to become better readers. I’ve tried to create a classroom culture where reading is celebrated and talking about books is commonplace. Even though I’ve abandoned my participation in silent reading in exchange for book chats with my students during the first ten minutes of class, they know my love for reading. Many times I’ve already read their book, and I still squeeze in book talks at the end of silent reading time once or twice a week. On my classroom door, I post the books I’ve recently read, and on the front classroom wall, I hang the painting of my favorite books that my friend created for me. Over in the classroom library, one of the tubs has the title of “Mr. Stephenson’s Favorites.” One day at the start of the school year, it was almost empty. The books were in my students’ hands, and in a week or two, we could chat about them.


Gallagher, Kelly. Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can do about it. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2009.

Miller, Donalyn. The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.


The Bees

This newest collection from Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s current poet laureate, buzzes with possibility but ultimately falls flat. Duffy has fun with word play, rhyme, and alliteration, which makes some of the poems enjoyable to read. She lampoons English teachers in “Mrs Schofield’s GCSE” to humorous effect. Her poem “Rings,” written to memorialize Prince William and Kate’s wedding, is quite lovely, but I had already read it before buying this volume during my vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Too many of these poems left me scratching my head. Maybe I need to be Scottish (or just British) in order to understand them. References to towns, cities, and historical figures populate these poems, making them feel like homework assignments. Look up John Barleycorn, Moniack Mhor, Simon Powell, and Wiltshire, and then you might have a chance of understanding some of these poems.

I guess what I’m longing for is the passionate, beautiful verse in Duffy’s RAPTURE collection. There are a few wonderful poems in THE BEES like “Cold” and “Music,” but they are as rare as a queen bee in a hive.

P. S. A few bee poems are included in each section of this poetry book. I would have liked them all lumped together in one cohesive section.

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