When Reading is Trash or Magic

A couple of years ago I asked my students to tell me why reading was amazing.  When Jack whispered to Michael that “Reading sucks…” the rest, they say, is history.  Inspired by Jack’s words of truth, I have asked students for years now to tell me their reading truths and not hold back.  I cannot be the kind of teacher I would like to be if I don’t get to know them.  The real them.  Not the school-primed, sanitized version.  Not the kid that knows how to play the game.  Not the kid that says whatever they think we want to hear so they start off on a good foot.

So on the third day of school this year, I told the story of Jack. Of how I had been doing that lesson where I talk about the magic of reading.  How he had dared to whisper those words.  Some of the students laughed, they remember the lesson I was referring to, as they have also head about how amazing reading is for years.  And then they got quiet as I asked them so when is reading not magical?  And when is it?

I wrote in big bold letters “Reading is magical” and then asked them what to write on the other side.  “Reading is trash!” they said as they chuckled, not quite sure, I am sure, of what to make of all of this.

They grabbed as many post-its as they could and then started to write their reasons.  Please tell me when reading is amazing.  Please tell me when reading is trash.  Tape your post-its to the board so they stay up.  Sign your name if you want.  And then step back, read the post-its.  What do you notice?


Over and over their words joined together to form the same patterns I see year after year.  The same things I have done to kids through the years.  The same things many of us educators are told to do every year by well-meaning administrators who are led by an expert curriculum that someone told them to purchase to raise test scores.

No choice!

Boring books!

Too much writing!


Forced reflections!

Sitting still!

Their words glared at us.


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But wait?  When is reading magical?  Again a pattern that we all know.

When I find the right book!

When I am given time to read!

When I find a great series or author!

When it is quiet!

When I am allowed to just read!

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Their words have carried us into our beginning reading conversations, into our analysis, into our very community.  They have guided us as we start to figure out where reading fits into our lives and whether we can protect or promote a strong and personal relationship with reading.  They have guided us as they have mentioned the amazing experiences they have had with their previous teachers, and the ones they wish that had not had.

We fret so much over what curriculum we should use, how we should teach, and how we should grade, yet sometimes the biggest impact we can have with kids is simply when we stop and ask them for their truths.  Do you know what your students would say?

PS:  This lesson and the others that surround it are all discussed in my new book, Passionate Readers.  Passionate Readers.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


On Authentic Reading Goals and Conversations

The silence envelops us a few minutes into class.  I look around and see one of my favorite sights in the world; kids reading.  Quietly I walk up to the first kid, grab a chair, sit next to them and ask; what is your goal for the year? And for the next few minutes, I get to know this child a little more, not just as a reader, but also as a human being.

Last week, I wrote about our the changes to our 7th- grade reading challenge and how this year we had decided to move away from just quantity to make it more authentic for students.  I was excited to roll it out but not sure how the students would react.  Were they even up for a challenge or would it just be another thing to get done just so the teacher would stop bugging them?  Only one way to find out; ask them.

This week, as I started my quick reading check-ins, asking about their goal, has been the main topic of conversation.  With a simple question, we are off and I am starting to get a feel for these kids and who they are as readers.

So what have I noticed?

That no goal fits all.  As an elementary teacher, I often provided my students with a specific goal for them to work on and while instructionally this makes sense, after all, I can see what they need to work on, there often was very little buy-in.  When students reflect on their own needs and set a goal, they immediately see the reason for it. Those goals that I also see for them?  We will work on them together in a small group.

That when we ask kids to really think about what they need to work on the answers are very varied.  This also means that the years I have pushed for more of a quality goal or other single-minded goals, that many kids have not bought into it because the goal has not mattered to them.  Some kids immediately had something come to mind, while others needed more support.  Most kids though have created a goal that is specific to not just their reading identities, but also their reading lives.

Those individual goals encourage more honesty.  I always operate under a policy of total honesty when it comes to reading and ask my students to also do so.  By starting our reading conversations early in the year and asking for them to tell me the good and the bad as far as their reading experiences, that judgment-free reading discussion follows us into their goal setting.  When I ask students why they chose that goal, many discuss how or when they read or when they don’t and why they need to change that.  Some kids also discuss how even with this goal they don’t think they will be successful because of various obstacles.  Rather than hiding these thoughts, they are willing to share them which means I can now note it and try to do something about it.

That they do most of the talking.  While I start the conversation and also offer up follow-up conversations, I need to make sure that it is their response that guides the path.  Too often I have overtaken a conversation out of my own helpfulness, but now I try to listen and then respond to get them to elaborate.

Those relationships are built in small pieces.  One of the best benefits of these reading check-ins simply has to do with relationship building.  Every time I am able to devote a few minutes to just one child that is one child I know better.  While this might be a “Well duh” moment, I often think of how many conversations we don’t make time for especially in middle school and high school.  How often do we feel like we don’t have time for that check-in or small group because we have so much to cover?  The reading check-in is a foundation of my further instruction and I need to remember that when I feel like I am pulled in a different direction.

That quantity goals often mean that the child does not know themselves well as a reader.  While quantity goals used to be our norm, I have found in my conversations that often when a child now sets the minimum quantity goal it is often because they do not know what else to work on.  Our reading check-in then centers around what else they could focus on.  When they are not sure then that tells me a lot about their reading identity.

That reading check-ins offer me a chance to remind.  Those first few days of school are such a blur for all of us and I shudder to think of all of the information that these students have been presented within all of our classes.  So while I offer reminders in the beginning of class, I am also reminding them of reading rights as we speak.  It is important that kids know that they can book shop anytime they want, that they can abandon any book they need to, and that they need to plan for reading throughout their day.  How many times do we say things in those first few days that kids never hear?

That I write very little down.  Too often we get caught up in our conferring notes, rather than in the conversation itself.  I am intentionally limiting my notes just so I can focus on the child, so I can look them in the eye, react to what they are saying and then jot a few things down that can spark the next conversation.  (To see the form I use, go to our Facebook group).

As I think ahead to the coming week, I am excited.  Excited to have more conversations.  Excited to move further in our instruction.  Excited to learn more about these kids that have been entrusted to me every day.  All through one little goal and a few minutes of conversation.

PS:  If you would like to have more reading conversations or you have questions, come join our Passionate Readers Facebook group, 

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

The 7th Grade Book Challenge Revisited

33% of my 118 7th graders told me they had not read a single book last summer.  That books were just not their thing or they were simply too busy.  33%…Many of them told me they had read the book club books they had been assigned the year before but not that much else.  Some told me they had fake read most of their way through years prior, averaging 1 to 2 books a year if even.  Some told me how much they loved books, that their summers were spent with their nose in pages because what else would you do when you have all of the time in the world

Teaching 7th graders has taught me many things, but one of the biggest is the incredible need to inspire a larger love of reading in more of their lives.  Not because teachers before them haven’t, but because for some reason it hasn’t completely stuck for all of them. So that becomes our mission; for the students to fall in love with reading or at the very least hate it less.

When I read the Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, it significantly changed my reading instruction as a teacher.  Coupled with other landmark books for me such as The Daily Five by The Two Sisters, and also Mosaic of Thought by Elin Keene and Susan Zimmerman, I finally felt like I had a path I could follow when it came to the aspiration of reading.  It was as if I did not know how high of expectations I could hold my students to until after I read these books.  Donalyn’s 40 Book Challenge became a central tenet of my instruction, not as a requirement, but as a way for my students to challenge themselves.  While I made tweaks because that is what reflective teachers do, I stayed true to its original intent; to challenge my students to read voraciously, based on the research that Donalyn cites in her book that kids who score in the 90th percentile of reading tests read between 30-40 books a year.  I did not offer incentives.  I did not do logs.  I did not tell my less developed readers that their goals should be less because there was no way they could accomplish 40 books.  I asked them to shoot for 40 or more and then helped them reach their goals by giving them time to read, time to book shop, and support as they needed.  Some kids made their goals, others did not, but they all read more than they had before.

I knew that when I moved to 7th grade I wanted to do the 40 Book Challenge but I was also faced with the incredible limitation of 45-minute instructional blocks.  45 minutes to do everything.  45 minutes that only allowed me to give them 10 measly minutes of reading, rather than the 30 we had enjoyed in 5th grade.  After my first week with my 7th graders, I decided to change the language of the challenge in the beginning to 25 books rather than the 40, not because I did not believe that my 7th graders could not read 40 books, but because for some, simply saying 40 in the beginning seemed completely un-doable, especially because I could only give them 10 minutes of reading time every day.  However, if I had 60 minutes or more, I would still start with 40 books, after all with that amount of time kids should be given at least 20 minutes of reading every day.  But the idea remained; this was a challenge, something to strive for, something to work toward, and something that I believe all of my students can reach if we help them have successful reading experiences.

It appears that some believe that because I have called this the 25 book challenge in the past that that means I want my students to only read 25 books.  That somehow the original 40 book challenge is too hard for kids.  Neither of these statements are true.  All kids should be challenged to read 40 books or more.  I believe all of my students can read more than 25 books, my job is often to help them believe it too.  But just as in the original, it is not really about reaching the quantity set, it is about having incredible reading experiences.

As the year goes on we, therefore, adjust our goal, some continue to focus on the quantity while others change their focus either to different genres, harder vocabulary or even formats that they have not dabbled in before.  While some kids continue to focus on quantity, and for them we do the following breakdown for how books count, for others the challenge morphs into figuring out how they can push themselves as readers beyond a quantity standpoint.  (To see more about this read about the reading identity challenge).

  • Books under 200 pages count as 1 book
  • Books over 200 pages count as 2 books
  • Books over 500 pages count as 3 books
  • Books more than 750 – see the teacher
  • Depending on its size a graphic novel may count as a whole, half or quarter of a book.
  • 10 of the books have to be chapter books
  • If this goal is not high enough for a learner, they set a higher goal
  • They write down their titles in a reader’s notebook we keep at school and update it every Monday or whenever needed.

To see the hand out I give my students, please go here 

I do not ask them to read certain genres but instead take this as an opportunity for them to explore themselves as readers and figure out what they love to read.  I constantly book talk books, as do they once we get rolling, and I am constantly sharing recommendations to individual students.  We practice free book abandonment, making sure that the books we read are books we actually want to read, and we book shop monthly if not more.  Our to-be-read lists are extensions of our reading life and are used weekly, if not daily.

After three years with 7th-grade book challenge, I can tell you, it works.  I am not surprised, after all, Donalyn Miller and her ideas have never let me down.  While not all kids reach their goals, many do, and many of those who did, never thought they would.  Yet the biggest success is not just the kids that reach their goal but within the kids that don’t.  As one child told me on his reading survey, “…I even read a book at home for fun, I had never done that before.”   That child’s number?  Five more than the year before.  Five more great books that he loved so much he book talked them to others.  Books that gave him such a great experience that he continues to chase that feeling again.

I will not pretend that it worked for everyone, there are always kids that issuing a challenge will not work for, where what we did together was not enough, but there are so many that it made a difference for.  Where the expectation to read every single day and reach a certain goal that mattered to them meant that they turned up their reading, that they selected their books more carefully, that they spent a longer stretch reading then they normally would have.

So for the 118 7th graders that I teach, I am so grateful that they believed me when I told then, “Yes, you can read more books.”  But do not take my word for it; let these pictures show you what it looks like when 7th graders read and become readers.  Let these pictures show you that yes we can get kids at this age to read, that just because a child is going through huge personal development reading does not have to become not lost.  What matters is the reading community we create.  And the high expectations we have for all of our kids.  27166703430_98b5a337ba_o26835817253_48478693c8_o27344117862_70e104318d_o27443368625_dc2b4b5b2b_o27344097252_2fe674e6bd_o

And in case you are wondering, that is 4,357.5 books.  Not bad for how many kids told me that reading was not something they felt like doing.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


My Favorite Reads Summer 2017

While it feels like my to-be-read pile has not shrunk, looking back at my Goodreads, I can see that I did manage to read quite a few books.  And while almost all were good, a few stood out.

My students have loved The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson for a long time and for some reason I had never cracked it open myself.  That was a mistake.  What a fun middle grade read this was!

From Goodreads:

Saving the school — one con at a time.

Jackson Greene has reformed. No, really he has. He became famous for the Shakedown at Shimmering Hills, and everyone still talks about the Blitz at the Fitz…. But after the disaster of the Mid-Day PDA, he swore off scheming and conning for good.

Then Keith Sinclair — loser of the Blitz — announces he’s running for school president, against Jackson’s former best friend Gaby de la Cruz. Gaby hasn’t talked to Jackson since the PDA, and he knows she won’t welcome his involvement. But he also knows Keith has “connections” to the principal, which could win him the election whatever the vote count.

So Jackson assembles a crack team to ensure the election is done right: Hashemi Larijani, tech genius. Victor Cho, bankroll. Megan Feldman, science goddess and cheerleader. Charlie de la Cruz, point man. Together they devise a plan that will bring Keith down once and for all. Yet as Jackson draws closer to Gaby again, he realizes the election isn’t the only thing he wants to win.

How do you tell others to read a book about child abuse knowing that it will probably make them cry?  You just do.  The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott comes out October 17th and is a must add for middle school classrooms and up.  While the topic may be harrowing this is one of those books that could actually save a life.

From Goodreads:

Owen and his best friend, Sean, are both eleven years old. They’ve lived on Cape Cod all their lives, and now that they’re a little older, they’ll finally be free to spend some time on their own. But Sean’s mother has a different idea–she hires a babysitter to look after Sean. Paul is in his twenties, and a well-liked guy from church.

Paul starts doing things that just feel wrong. Because they’ve always been as close as brothers, Sean tells Owen, and no one else. What’s not certain to Owen is what he should do. Sean warns him not to tell anyone what is happening. But if Owen doesn’t tell, could something even worse happen to Sean?

A page-turner that starts from the back and moves forward kept me riveted while on vacation.  While perhaps not the most original story, I know that Genuine Fraud will entice many of my students.  Middle school and up.

From Goodreads:

The story of a young woman whose diabolical smarts are her ticket into a charmed life. But how many times can someone reinvent themselves? You be the judge.

Imogen is a runaway heiress, an orphan, a cook, and a cheat.
Jule is a fighter, a social chameleon, and an athlete.
An intense friendship. A disappearance. A murder, or maybe two.
A bad romance, or maybe three.
Blunt objects, disguises, blood, and chocolate. The American dream, superheroes, spies, and villains.
A girl who refuses to give people what they want from her.
A girl who refuses to be the person she once was.

Elly Swartz is quickly becoming a trusted author for me.  Her first book, Finding Perfect, was a Global Read Aloud finalist and Smart Cookie is another amazing middle grade read.  Out in January, 2018.

From Goodreads:

Frankie knows she’ll be in big trouble if Dad discovers she secretly posted a dating profile for him online. But she’s determined to find him a wife, even if she ends up grounded for life. Frankie wants what she had before Mom died. A family of three. Two is a pair of socks or the wheels on a bicycle or a busy weekend at the B&B where Frankie and Dad live. Three is a family. And Frankie’s is missing a piece.

But Operation Mom is harder to pull off than Frankie expects. None of the Possibles are very momish, the B&B’s guests keep canceling, Frankie’s getting the silent treatment from her once best friend, and there’s a maybe-ghost hanging around. Worst of all, Gram and Dad are definitely hiding secrets of their own.

If a smart cookie like Frankie wants to save the B&B and find her missing piece, she’s going to have to figure out what secrets are worth keeping and when it’s time to let go.

I have tweeted repeatedly about Miles Morales, Jason Reynold’s foray into the Marvel universe.  Not only is it Spiderman, but it also has some pretty important messages for its readers about how we view others.  Middle Grade and up.

From Goodreads:

Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Dinner every Sunday with his parents, chilling out playing old-school video games with his best friend, Ganke, crushing on brainy, beautiful poet Alicia. He’s even got a scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy. Oh yeah, and he’s Spider Man.

But lately, Miles’s spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities. After all, his dad and uncle were Brooklyn jack-boys with criminal records. Maybe kids like Miles aren’t meant to be superheroes. Maybe Miles should take his dad’s advice and focus on saving himself.

As Miles tries to get his school life back on track, he can’t shake the vivid nightmares that continue to haunt him. Nor can he avoid the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense every day in history class, amidst his teacher’s lectures on the historical “benefits” of slavery and the importance of the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk.

It’s time for Miles to suit up.

A book about periods?  Yup!  Well written, humorous and very informational, how many girls wish we had books like this in our libraries when they first enter puberty? Helloflo, The Guide, Period is out October 17th.

From Goodreads:

Honest, funny, and unafraid of the messy, real-life facts about a girl’s changing body, this is definitely not your mother’s puberty book. HelloFlo founder Naama Bloom’s mission is to create informed, empowered young women who are unafraid to ask questions and make the best choices for themselves and their bodies. A celebration of women’s bodies and all the confusing, uncomfortable, silly, transformative, and powerful changes that occur during puberty.

Refugee by Alan Gratz is one of my three must-read books for 2017.  It was a bad idea reading this on an airplane, as this book kicks you right in the heart.  5th grade and up.

From Goodreads:

JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .

ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .

MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, their stories will tie together in the end.

A book about growing up in the 80’s with the threat of nuclear war hanging over you, about figuring out how two seemingly different cultures fit into you, about figuring out your friends and who you want to be.  I loved This is Just a Test, great for middle-grade and up.

From Goodreads:

David Da-Wei Horowitz has a lot on his plate. Preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah would be enough work even if it didn’t involve trying to please his Jewish and Chinese grandmothers, who argue about everything. But David just wants everyone to be happy.

That includes his friend Scott, who is determined to win their upcoming trivia tournament but doesn’t like their teammate — and David’s best friend — Hector. Scott and David begin digging a fallout shelter just in case this Cold War stuff with the Soviets turns south… but David’s not so convinced he wants to spend forever in an underground bunker with Scott. Maybe it would be better if Hector and Kelli Ann came with them. But that would mean David has to figure out how to stand up for Hector and talk to Kelli Ann. Some days, surviving nuclear war feels like the least of David’s problems.

I think we can all agree that Kwame Alexander is a living master when it comes to the free verse form and Solo, his newest book, is more proof.  Immerse yourself in the music as you read for a deeper reading experience. 7th grade and up.

From Goodreads:
Solo, a YA novel in poetic verse, tells the story of seventeen-year-old Blade Morrison, whose life is bombarded with scathing tabloids and a father struggling with just about every addiction under the sun—including a desperate desire to make a comeback. Haunted by memories of his mother and his family’s ruin, Blade’s only hope is in the forbidden love of his girlfriend. But when he discovers a deeply protected family secret, Blade sets out on a journey across the globe that will change everything he thought to be true.

A moving story of death, of friendship, of figuring out what is right, and also about one’s identity, All Three Stooges by Erica S. Perl comes out in January 2018 and is well-worth your pre-order.  4th or 5th grade and up.

From Goodreads:

Spoiler alert: This book is not about the Three Stooges. It’s about Noah and Dash, two seventh graders who are best friends and comedy junkies. That is, they were best friends, until Dash’s father died suddenly and Dash shut Noah out. Which Noah deserved, according to Noa, the girl who, annoyingly, shares both his name and his bar mitzvah day.

Now Noah’s confusion, frustration, and determination to get through to Dash are threatening to destroy more than just their friendship. But what choice does he have? As Noah sees it, sometimes you need to risk losing everything, even your sense of humor, to prove that gone doesn’t have to mean “gone for good.”

The much-anticipated release Wishtree from Katherine Applegate lives up to all of the hype.  Sparse, beautiful, and told from the perspective of the tree in the backyard, life around this tree unfolds in an unexpected way.  Out September 26th, 4th grade and up.

From Goodreads:

Trees can’t tell jokes, but they can certainly tell stories. . . .

Red is an oak tree who is many rings old. Red is the neighborhood “wishtree”—people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red’s branches. Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this “wishtree” watches over the neighborhood.

You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red’s experiences as a wishtree are more important than ever.

I don’t know how I have been a teacher and never read a Gordon Korman book before?  I am so glad that has now been remedied with Restart.  This middle-grade book is sure to pull in those kids who identify as not liking reading and is also a Global Read Aloud 2018 contender.

From Goodreads:

Chase’s memory just went out the window.

Chase doesn’t remember falling off the roof. He doesn’t remember hitting his head. He doesn’t, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name.

He knows he’s Chase. But who is Chase? When he gets back to school, he sees that different kids have very different reactions to his return.

Some kids treat him like a hero. Some kids are clearly afraid of him.

One girl in particular is so angry with him that she pours her frozen yogurt on his head the first chance she gets.

Pretty soon, it’s not only a question of who Chase is–it’s a question of who he was . . . and who he’s going to be.

But what if your dream is not to be adopted but instead to find your mother and make her see all that she is missing?  Three Pennies, Global Read Aloud 2018 contender, explores just that.  4th grade and up.

From Goodreads:

For a kid bouncing from foster home to foster home, The Book of Changes is the perfect companion. That’s why Marin carries three pennies and a pocket-sized I Ching with her everywhere she goes. Yet when everything in her life suddenly starts changing—when Marin lands in a foster home that feels like somewhere she could stay, maybe forever—the pennies don’t have any answers for her.

Marin is positive that all the wrongs in her life will be made right if only she can find her birth mother and convince her that they belong together. Marin is close, oh so close—until she gets some unwelcome news and her resolve, like the uneasy Earth far beneath the city of San Francisco, is shaken.

Thea and I devoured A Tale of Two Kitties in one day and then laughed for a long time.  Dav Pilkey is a master, enough said.

From Goodreads:

He was the best of dogs… He was the worst of dogs… It was the age of invention… It was the season of surprise… It was the eve of supa sadness… It was the dawn of hope… Dog Man, the newest hero from the creator of Captain Underpants, hasn’t always been a paws-itive addition to the police force. While he can muzzle miscreants, he tends to leave a slick of slobber in his wake! This time, Petey the cat’s dragged in a tiny bit of trouble — a double in the form of a super-cute kitten. Dog Man will have to work twice as hard to bust these furballs and remain top dog!

If this post was a list in order of favorites, Dear Martin by Nic Stone would be at the top.  In fact, this begs for a re-read as I want to continue to think about this book, another Global Read Aloud 2018 contender.  7th grade and up.

From Goodreads:

Justyce McAllister is top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. He is eventually released without charges (or an apology), but the incident has Justyce spooked. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood, he can’t seem to escape the scorn of his former peers or the attitude of his prep school classmates. The only exception: Sarah Jane, Justyce’s gorgeous—and white—debate partner he wishes he didn’t have a thing for.

Struggling to cope with it all, Justyce starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But do Dr. King’s teachings hold up in the modern world? Justyce isn’t so sure.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up. Way up. Much to the fury of the white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. And Justyce and Manny get caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack. The truth of what happened that night—some would kill to know. Justyce is dying to forget.

All’s Faire in Middle School hit on so many realistic middle school scenarios that I found myself cringing at times.  Oh to go back to that time of trying to fit in, of figuring out who you are, and all of the mistakes you make in the process. 4th grade and up.

From Goodreads:

Eleven-year-old Imogene (Impy) has grown up with two parents working at the Renaissance Faire, and she’s eager to begin her own training as a squire. First, though, she’ll need to prove her bravery. Luckily Impy has just the quest in mind–she’ll go to public school after a life of being homeschooled! But it’s not easy to act like a noble knight-in-training in middle school. Impy falls in with a group of girls who seem really nice (until they don’t) and starts to be embarrassed of her thrift shop apparel, her family’s unusual lifestyle, and their small, messy apartment. Impy has always thought of herself as a heroic knight, but when she does something really mean in order to fit in, she begins to wonder whether she might be more of a dragon after all.

A book about a boy who loves a skunk and will do anything in his power to keep it.  A book about a boy who just happens to seem different than others but without being about that.  A Boy Called Bat is another Global Read Aloud contender for 2018, 3rd grade and up.

From Goodreads:

For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.

But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.

Masterful, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and stays with you long after that last page.  Long Way Down is another absolute must-read of 2017.  Global Read Aloud contender 2018, 7th grade and up, out October 17th.

From Goodreads:

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Kate Messner is a master story-teller and she does not disappoint in her newest chapter book, The Exact Location of Home.  I ached for the longing of Zig as he searches for his father. 4th grade and up but definitely for middle school as well.

From Goodreads:

Kirby “Zig” Zigonski lives for the world of simple circuits, light bulbs, buzzers, and motors. Electronics are, after all, much more predictable than most people–especially his father, who he hasn’t seen in over a year. When his dad’s latest visit is canceled with no explanation and his mom seems to be hiding something, Zig turns to his best friend Gianna and a new gizmo–a garage sale GPS unit–for help. Convinced that his dad is leaving clues around town to explain his absence, Zig sets out to find him. Following one clue after another, logging mile after mile, Zig soon discovers that people aren’t always what they seem . . . and sometimes, there’s more than one set of coordinates for home.

There you have it, what a fantastic summer of reading it has been!

When We Make a Child a Level

Pardon my passion for a moment, but a few things need to be said.

When we make a child a level we diminish the entire child. Levels tell a child that they are not worth us getting to know them.  That we don’t have time to take the time we need to help them better.  That their entire reading identity is the same as every other child that is at that level.

When we make a child a level, a letter, or a number, we are telling them that that is all they need to know.  That that is all we need to know.  That they do not know how to shop for books, that they can rely only on outsiders who have determined what is best for them.  Thet their level speaks for them and that our conversations need to be about comprehension and skills, rather than who they are as readers.

When we make a child a level, we can teach more.  We can do more.  We can match kids up more easily.  We can rely on others to do the hard work of getting to know the very child that is in front of us and help them discover who they are as readers, as human beings.  And we can go home, lulling ourselves into thinking that we actually helped that child by telling them to only pick from certain levels of books because that is what the research told us to do.

But that is not what our reading instruction is only about.  It was never JUST about matching kids to text.  It was never JUST about finding the right fit book.  It was never JUST about 99% comprehension rates, good fit books, or the five finger rule.  It was never just about the quick solution or the short-term fix.  In our obsession with getting things done, we have forgotten that it takes time to develop a reader, it takes time to become a reader, it talkes trial and error, and it takes discovery.  Levels can take that away from us all.

It is about discovering why reading matters.  Why reading makes us better human beings.  Why they should leave our classrooms, our schools, and find more books so that they can continue to wonder, to search, and to feel something.

So when we make a child a level, ask yourself this; who is that level really helping because it sure isn’t the child in the long run.

PS:  I was quoted today in a discussion piece in School LIbrary Journal, about how leveling disempowers children, other smarter people are quoted as well.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


Are They Reading At Home?

But how do you know they are reading?  How do you know they read at home?  How do you know that what they are reading is worth their time?  Is challenging them?  Is what they should be reading?

These are the questions I am asked a lot.  These are also the questions I juggle myself.  Once those kids leave our classrooms, how do we know what they do at home?

We are so focused on data.  On proof.  And I get it; without proof of further reading, how will they ever get better?  And yet, the things we implement often lead to less reading, to less enjoyment, to future damage.  So why spend our time now, thinking of ways to hold kids accountable for their outside reading when we don’t even know the kids yet?  Why search for the one perfect way when choice and figuring out how we want to share our reading is vital for our reading identity development.

I used to use reading logs, after all, that parent signature certainly meant compliance.  Then I had kids of my own and I realized that I pretty much sign whatever it is that is sent home from school.  I also realized that the minute my kids had a log attached to it, the last thing they wanted to do was reading.  I gave up the reading logs to the cheers of my students who told me that they had been instrumental in wanting to read less.

So then I turned to reader’s notebooks.  Forced reflection after every read.  Five minutes of writing about your thoughts, your feelings, or one of the questions I had posed.  Five minutes to digest your reading, in silence.  Five minutes every day, until I heard the groans of my students.  Until they begged me to please stop.  So I stopped.  And I wondered, how then do I foster accountability in their outside reading lives when I know how important it is for kids to read?

And then I realized, that I can’t.  That there is truly little I can do the moment they leave room 235D.  That instead of worrying about how I will keep them accountable when they are not with me, that what I needed to focus on was what they were doing with me.  That the biggest component of our reading instruction has to be to foster the love or lessen the dislike of reading so that it might inspire further reading once they left the classroom.

Because as adults, we figure out how we want to reflect on our reading.  We read our books and then we make a choice; what do I want to do now?  The book itself seems to guide our decisions; there are some books that I have to write about because they change me in such a fundamental way.  There are some books I have to hand to others because I want them to have the same experience as I just did.  There are some books that I cannot wait to book talk, knowing that they will inspire more kids to read.  There are some I share on Instagram hoping that others will place them in their classroom.  And then are some that I read and I put aside and then do nothing with.

Sometimes when we read we do nothing.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t read, it just means that we had an experience we didn’t want to share.  Why not offer that as an option to our students too?

So I ask my students now to explore.  I give them time to discuss, more time is needed for sure, to book talk, to recommend.  Sometimes we write.  This year we will look at Flipgrid (I think) and use Instagram, and any other things that my students think may work for them.  And there will also be times where we do nothing.  Where the experience with the book was enough.  And for some kids their reading will incerase at home because they finally fid some books to love, while for others it will be a whole year goal.  Some will fight me on it, they do every year, and others will just need gentle nudging.

So perhaps our discussion should not be how do we hold kids accountable for their outside reading, but instead how do we create passionate reading environments in our schools?  How do we foster a need to read?  An interest that will carry through their days?

I am in this quest to create readers for a lifetime, not just for this year, and so I don’t need the false accountability that will end the moment they leave on the final day of school.  I do not need tools like AR quizzes, reading logs, or forced nightly reflections that they do not change their habits long-term.  I do not need to create more hoops for my students to jump through when it comes to reading; I need them to want to read.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.