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Building Bridges Between Reading and Writing

By Alicia Genchi and Sunday Cummins

Alicia

It never fails.

With some students, you can have the best time analyzing and talking about an informational source, but when they go to write a short response, they lose their grounding and start to fall.

How do we help students bridge the gap between reading and writing? In our practice, making a plan for a written response is an essential scaffold for bridge building.

The Value of a Plan
Sunday

Recently, Alicia, a reading specialist, worked with a group of fourth grade students who read a short book (28 pp) titled Under the Ice (Feely, 2014) about the first submarine voyage below the Arctic ice pack. There’s a lot of information in this book for a reader to digest, but the students had a clear purpose for reading, stated as a question: What were challenges the crew of the Nautilus had to overcome?

After reading and discussing the book, the students used the explode to explain strategy and Google’s Jamboard to unpack the meaning of a few key sentences that revealed the challenges the crew faced.

There were rich, eye popping discussions about water pressure squeezing submarines to the collapsing point and the magnetic North Pole making compasses unreliable.

Now the students needed to write a short response about what they had learned. This is when many students get overwhelmed.

How do they share all they learned? And looking back at their annotations, how do they make sense of so many notes? This is where planning for a written response can be invaluable.

A plan identifies the key details from the source or their annotations that a student wants to include in their response. This can be a few sticky notes with key words or phrases written on them or an abbreviated outline.

When planning, the students choose simple words and phrases that serve as triggers for what they need to remember to share when writing. If they need more information, they can always look back at their annotated sources for that additional information.

Model Creating a Plan with Visuals as Support

Creating a helpful plan is not always easy. Students have to look at annotated sources or notes and determine what’s important. They also have to figure out how to organize that information so their response is cohesive. Modeling for students how to do this is essential. This includes thinking aloud about the following:

  • What’s my purpose for writing?
  • What did I learn that helps me think about my purpose (from this part of the source – as revealed in my annotations)?
  • How do I decide what’s important to include when I write?
  • What do I need to write in my plan to help me remember this?

Alicia taught these lessons on a virtual platform during the COVID-19 pandemic when school buildings in her district were closed. For the lesson on creating a plan, she started by screen sharing a Google Jamboard with one of the excerpts from Under the Ice the group had annotated.
After reading aloud the excerpt, Alicia’s think aloud sounded like the following:

There’s a lot of information I need to think about right here. I need to start by remembering that I’m writing about the challenges the Nautilus faced. And the challenge revealed in this excerpt is that there was only a little bit of time (which I wrote in my annotation here) each year in which they could make this trip. That was in the summer.

I think before I share any other details from what I learned, I’m going to write down *summer* on a sticky note as the first part of my plan. That’s what I’ll write about first. [Alicia flips to a new slide in the Jamboard and types “summer” on a sticky note.] Now I need to go back and review my annotations again to think about what I want to include next. Anybody want to help me?

The image below is of the finished plan (based on the group’s review of two annotated excerpts). In a follow-up lesson, when students began to write a plan for a written response on their own, Alicia reinforced the process they had experienced together. She inserted the Jamboard slides of the annotated excerpts and the plan into a Google slides presentation for students to reference. She posted reminders on the slides like:

  • Remember to read your annotations.
  • Think about key words that you might want to include in your plan.
  • Write the key words on sticky notes!
Key Words or Phrases Only, Avoid Sentences

Notice there are not an abundance of details in the plan the students created with Alicia. If students include too many details, they may get overwhelmed with making sense of how to put the details into writing. Encourage students to choose key details that trigger a memory of what the student learned or that trigger just enough recall for the student to remember where to return to her notes for more information.

You’ll also notice that there are not any sentences. If students include sentences in their plans, they may be tempted to copy from a source. They may spend a lot of energy writing that sentence and may only want to copy it into their finished piece as well. This is problematic if they need to think about how to combine two or more details that are in their plan.

The key words or phrases are also in a particular order. Ideally, the order helps the students build or develop their ideas in their written response.

Return to the Plan Again and Again

Students may write from the plan you created together – or they may write from a plan they created on their own. You can even start a plan together and then have them finish on their own. Regardless, as they engage in writing a response, they need to return to that plan again and again.

When they finish developing an idea, then they need to return to the plan to look at the next sticky note. You can support this during writing conferences by reminding them to return to the plan.

Hopefully, over time, students will engage in this process of moving from reading to writing on their own. In the meantime, modeling how to write a plan for or with students, thinking aloud about how you decide what to put in a plan, creating anchor charts, and conferring with students can be powerful scaffolds for supporting them as they build the bridge.


Alicia Genchi is an intervention specialist at Terrell Elementary, part of San Jose (CA) Unified School District. She is a graduate of Santa Clara University and holds a master’s degree in Instructional Technology. She currently provides guided reading and writing instruction to students in grades K-5. 

Sunday Cummins is a literacy consultant and author and has been a teacher and literacy coach in public schools. Her work focuses on supporting teachers, schools and districts as they plan and implement assessment driven instruction with complex informational sources including traditional texts, video and infographics.

Sunday is the author of several professional books, including her latest releases, Close Reading of Informational Sources  (Guilford, 2019), and Nurturing Informed Thinking (Heinemann, 2018). Visit her website and read her regular blog posts on teaching information literacy. Follow her on Twitter @SundayCummins.

Active Literacy Strategies Across the Curriculum

Active Literacy Across the Curriculum: Strategies for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening
By Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2nd edition – Learn more)

Reviewed by Theresa Wood

About ten years ago, our principal at the time shared a video with the staff called “Shift Happens,” which led to a discussion about how our jobs as teachers are changing – without any follow-up to show us how to meet the demands of these changes.

We added computer labs and occasionally introduced different applications and software tools, but not much was done to help teachers integrate these tools meaningfully into their classrooms. Some teachers embraced it all on their own, while others clung to the analog (i.e., more comfortable) versions of their classrooms. Most teachers, like me, fell somewhere in between.

Working together amid systemic disruption

Before the pandemic, it was easy for teachers to lock themselves behind their classroom doors and teach their content in isolation. Now that so many courses have moved online, each teacher’s practice is more transparent than ever, and it is easier to evaluate students’ experiences throughout their school career.

What is being revealed is just how inconsistently literacy is taught across the grade levels and content areas. During this time of systemic disruption, it is imperative for teaching teams to work together and provide consistency in literacy strategies that will transfer from year to year. Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ Active Literacy Across the Curriculum provides the structure for us to do so.

In this second edition, Dr. Jacobs focuses on the crucial function of literacy as the foundation for all learning – regardless of age or content area. Jacobs begins by identifying the problem. She lists key criteria that are missing in education today: text interaction skills; an operational definition of new literacies (digital, media, global); consistent editing and revision strategies; consistent and on-going vertical planning; and intense and formal instruction in speaking and listening.

She issues a call for all teachers to see themselves as “contemporary communications teachers” and asks three critical questions to guide professional and curricular development:

  1. What do we get rid of?
  2. What do we keep?
  3. What do we create?

These questions can get the conversation started across grades and content areas, as well as define three levels of pedagogy:

  1. We get rid of anything “antiquated”
  2. We keep all that is “classic”
  3. We create what we need in this current, “contemporary” time

Jacobs outlines six more strategies for school leaders and teaching teams to bring all forms of literacy into all classrooms regardless of the subject area. Each strategy includes specific guidance for all grade levels and content areas; and in each strategy classic practices are blended with contemporary technologies.

Jacobs focuses on some foundational literacy practices that should be taught consistently and systematically over the course of a student’s school career:

  • building vocabulary (not just Tier II and Tier III words, but personal vocabularies for each student);
  • note taking (or note making, using digital tools such as Sketchnote);
  • writing (including media production, editing and revision); and
  • discussing (using digital tools to capture each student’s contribution, as well as to teach listening skills).

She advocates the use of Curriculum Mapping for teachers to document what they are actually teaching across grade levels and content areas – and the need to share them with each other, looking for gaps and overlaps in a student’s experience.

The right book for right now

Over the course of my career, I have read many professional books and articles. Active Literacy Across the Curriculum ranks among the best. It offers an attainable vision of the future, and includes specific direct action teachers and administrators can take now to move ahead effectively.

This edition was published in 2017 and already some of the specific digital references are outdated (Google Wonder Wheel, I wish I knew ye), but most are functional and provide a springboard to exploring other tools with similar functions that teachers can use to help students become fluent in digital, media, and global literacies.

I found Dr. Jacobs’ call for a film canon to be added to our literary canon one of the most intriguing ideas in the book, and I am curious about current efforts to create this list.

Active Literacy Across the Curriculum by Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs is the right book for right now. The shift to virtual instruction has been overwhelming for a lot of teachers as we struggle to master all of the digital tools that we have been introduced to – in addition to our need to grasp new learning platforms within a relatively short period of time.

This book reminds us that creating truly literate students, in both the classical and contemporary sense of the word, is our most important task. Focusing on literacy offers a way forward that embraces all that is good about what we currently do and incorporates the best possibilities of digital, media, and global technologies available to us now.

Keeping what works, adding what matters

The ideas put forth by Dr. Jacobs provide the missing link in my professional development. The title itself – Active Literacy Across the Curriculum – suggests a literacy approach that is alive and adaptable to our needs.

I admit that this is a new way for me to conceptualize curriculum, which seems at times to have been chiseled in stone by powers that exist outside of the classroom. One of the most frustrating things about teaching is the way in which new ideas often seem to supplant the old and we only realize what we’ve lost in hindsight. One of the strengths of this book is the way in which the author ties together various approaches and connects the old with the new.

This book recognizes what works and shows us how to move our practice forward without losing what we value. Jacobs describes the power that could be harnessed if every teacher across a student’s school experience were using the same literacy strategies so that s/he could internalize and apply them more consistently rather than simply learning in each school year what each individual teacher requires of students for success. Imagine the power that could be had if we all moved in the same direction toward the same goal.

Theresa Wood, M.Ed. has been teaching for over twenty years in elementary and middle school classrooms. She currently teaches middle school English/Language Arts, where she has worked for fifteen years, and enjoys sharing her enthusiasm for literature and language. She is an unapologetic bibliophile, has served as department chair, team leader, and a mentor for new teachers, and is a graduate of the National Writing Project.

Helping Kids Develop Their Cognitive Immunity

By Gillian E. Mertens, Angela M. Kohnen and E. Wendy Saul

Gillian

What if we could vaccinate ourselves against misinformation?

Over the past year, vaccines have dominated the news, and many of us have learned more about the science behind vaccination and immunity than we ever thought we would.

But there’s another kind of immunity that is also relevant in our current situation: cognitive immunity.

Angela

Currently, two epidemics are endangering Americans: the COVID-19 epidemic and an infodemic the World Health Organization defines as an “overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that occurs during an epidemic. It can lead to confusion and ultimately mistrust in governments and public health response.”

Wendy

As teachers and citizens, we recognize and resonate with this notion of the infodemic. Surely it is/was evident as we watched scientists, government officials, journalists, and even celebrities offer conflicting information regarding treatments, vaccines, masks, and lockdowns.

But the idea of an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, is a worry which extends beyond the pandemic. Is there anything we might do in our classrooms to protect students against misinformation?

The Twitter Opinion Market

In a chillingly predictive vignette, cognitive psychologists Lewandowsky, Ecker, and Cook opened a 2017 article on misinformation with the following:

Imagine a world that has had enough of experts. That considers knowledge to be “elitist.” Imagine a world in which it is not expert knowledge but an opinion market on Twitter that determines whether a newly emergent strain of avian flu is really contagious to humans… In this world, experts are derided as untrustworthy or elitist whenever their reported facts threaten the rule of the well-financed or the prejudices of the uninformed. (p. 254)

While Lewandowsky and colleagues did not predict the precise information crisis wreaked by COVID-19, their insight speaks to how online environments enable the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

The information superhighway allows users to locate information at remarkable speeds – yet also facilitates the increasingly fast spread of misinformation and disinformation. Such an environment causes us to ask: what would a healthy cognitive immune system look like?

Cognitive Immunity

Cognitive immunity is not a new concept, and we certainly didn’t invent the term. For example, The Institute for the Future has created a detailed map of what a healthy cognitive immune system entails.

Click to download

Although many of their recommendations are beyond the control of individual educators, they note that education has an important role to play in immunity-building.

Behavioral scientists have been using the metaphors of immunity and vaccination since the 1960s. While there are multiple kinds of vaccines, the end result is largely the same: a vaccinated person’s body has the immune system “memory” to fight off the germ.

Extending the vaccination metaphor to misinformation, then, would involve equipping individuals with knowledge, experiences, and techniques that provide mental defenses against the battery of misinformation and digital noise that users encounter online daily.

Vaccines are often a proactive step in eliminating disease in both individuals and society. Ideally, you get a vaccination before you encounter a virus or infectious bacteria, and the vaccination prevents you from getting ill. Therapies and drug treatments are also important medical tools, yet they are reactive, used after you are sick—and often they are applied too late to keep an individual from passing the illness on to others.

Fact-checking and debunking misinformation are akin to therapies or drug treatments – potentially useful tools for an individual to identify and correct misinformation (and resultant misinformed beliefs) once encountered, but often of limited utility for the society at large.

Inoculation, though, may help control the spread of misinformation before it can run rampant across our communities.

Practical Steps to Cognitive Immunity

For a time, research on cognitive immunity focused on protecting against misinformation about specific topics, such as climate change science, rather than on the techniques that make misinformation more likely to spread. However, new research has shifted that attention.

The creators of the gamified cognitive immunity website “Bad News” (screenshot above) describe their efforts as “pre-emptively exposing people to weakened examples of common techniques that are used in the production of fake news [to] generate ‘mental antibodies’” (see more here). The same team of researchers recently created a game all about COVID-19 misinformation called Go Viral).

In both games, the player assumes the role of misinformation disseminator within the controlled game environment. Because of this, the games are recommended for those over age 14 (Bad News) and 15 (Go Viral), and we encourage teachers to visit the games and the information sheets before deciding to use them in the classroom.

Yet we believe the ideas behind these games can be applied in all middle school classrooms, especially when paired with other generalist literacy activities. As we have written previously at MiddleWeb, many times individuals are misled by bad information not because they can’t fact-check but because they choose not to.

We argue that the generalist identity (the identity of someone who is skeptical, committed to accuracy, curious, and persistent) can override other identities and affiliations when one is faced with new information. In other words, the generalist identity can serve as a proactive measure to protect against misinformation.

Scaffolding information evaluation

While putting students into the role of misinformation creator may be problematic for middle school, teachers can help students assume the active role of evaluator, with a supportive teacher to model how generalists think through information evaluation.

All misinformation is not malicious in its intent – sometimes it’s the result of an honest mistake or even a joke. Teachers can find age-appropriate examples of viral misinformation using Snopes or other fact checking sites, or even through their own social media experiences.

Importantly, we encourage teachers to guide students through their own evaluation process by highlighting some of the common characteristics of viral misinformation, including:

  • use of highly emotional language,
  • credentials (either real or impersonated), and
  • presence of conspiracy theories (or information that casts doubt on accepted narratives).

For example, Gillian created an activity that led 8th graders through an evaluation of a viral tweet from cricket star Faisal Iqbal (see the Snopes story here). The tweet (below) accompanied an image of an elephant carrying a lion cub in its trunk, declaring it a “photo of the century” and ending “and we call them wild animals.”

With Gillian’s guidance, students noticed their initial reactions – which ranged from “Awww, so cute!” to “Fake!” – and thought about why emotion leads tweets to go viral.
Her students noticed that the tweet came with the blue checkmark – verified user – and discussed whether that verification really mattered to the content of the tweet. They then practiced following the image back to its original source (where they determined it had been an April Fools joke) and discussed how the cricket star – who clearly didn’t realize the original tweet was a joke – was an unwitting spreader of disinformation.

The conversation in Gillian’s class also led to a discussion of why we often trust images so instinctively, even when our logical brain tells us they can’t be true.

The key to activities like this is to do more than simply debunk the misinformation – the goal is to help students recognize the reasons the information was believed by so many people. Teachers may wish to keep a classroom list of strategies that lead to viral misinformation. The Bad News teacher’s guide includes several common techniques and links for further reading.
By exposing students to these techniques in the safety of the classroom, teachers can promote development of students’ “mental antibodies” that will protect them when faced with the same techniques in everyday life, while also instilling the key generalist disposition of skepticism.

Vaccine Hesitancy

As with traditional vaccinations, some parents and students may be vaccine hesitant. In our experience, parents who learn of misinformation lessons at school are most concerned that students will be required to create social media accounts or engage on platforms that parents do not trust. And we’ve even seen stories where students have been asked to create misinformation as a learning experience—and the misinformation ends up going viral, with real consequences.

We stress that cognitive immunity activities, like current vaccinations, should not contain “live viruses.” In other words, the activities should be outside any actual social media platform, and students should never be asked to create harmful misinformation about real people as a learning activity.

And, in truth, this vaccine metaphor is for teachers, not for students. Learning this way doesn’t need to be framed as “inoculation” at all—in fact, it’s a lot more effective when it’s gentle and focused on discovery.

Also see
“Helping Our Students Identify as Generalists”
by Kohnen and Saul.


Gillian E. Mertens recently completed her doctorate in English Education at the University of Florida. Throughout her career as an English teacher, she’s loved exploring issues of credibility, curiosity, and metacognition with young learners. Gillian has taught 7th and 8th grade with experience teaching mainstream, gifted, ESE, and ELL students.

Angela M. Kohnen began her undergraduate years as an engineering major and graduated with a degree in English and American Literature. After working several years in a variety of jobs, she earned a teaching credential and master’s degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). She taught secondary Language Arts in the St. Louis area before returning to UMSL to pursue her PhD in Education, under the direction of Wendy Saul. Currently she works as an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Florida.

Wendy Saul received her teaching credentials from the University of Chicago and her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She taught middle school on the Lower East Side of New York City and reading, writing and children’s and adolescent literature at UMBC and UMSL. Saul’s interest in the world of science which her husband and friends occupy and explore resulted in a number of books and National Science Foundation grants, including Vital Connections: Children, Science and Books and Crossing Borders to Science and Literacy Instruction.

Angela and Wendy are the authors of Thinking Like a Generalist: Skills for Navigating a Complex World (Stenhouse, 2020).

It’s Time to Bring Back the Playful Classroom

The Playful Classroom: The Power of Play for All Ages 
By Jed Dearybury and Julie Jones
(Jossey-Bass, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Laura Von Staden

Somehow as we got older, play nearly became a bad word at school, both for us personally and for our students. If they were to meet the standardized expectations that now seem to rule education, there just wasn’t much time for play.

The authors of The Playful Classroom would call that poor pedagogy. They argue that play is an essential component to learning at all ages and point us to research that shows play increases dopamine and serotonin levels which increase our brain’s ability to make neural connections and to retain information.

Play is common across the animal kingdom and is vital to the growth and development of many mammals as they learn to survive and thrive.

Play in humans allows us to develop problem solving skills and decision making skills, to learn to work in groups, to share and resolve conflicts. In other words, play is the training ground for surviving and thriving in an ever-changing world.

Drawing on volumes of research showing the importance of play and a playful mindset, the authors provide us with a “startling finding: the average child spends less time outside than the average high security prisoner” (p.152).

In our grading-oriented, standardized testing and accountability educational system we have bred a culture of “checking off the boxes” to get the “A” and the test score. But in the future we will need individuals who are inquisitive, imaginative, creative problem solvers.

Enter the playful mindset

The playful mindset is a process to make learning meaningful and fun, to make students feel valued and appreciated, and to make failure a normal part of the learning process (without consequences).

The book is written in a playful style using lots of “southernisms” (for which there is a glossary in the back of the book), and providing lots of references to research, many useful websites (including their own) to check out, and people to follow on Twitter.

The book easily satisfies its goals of (1) providing research and best practices for a playful classroom; (2) challenging us to confront our instructional choices, and (3) being a resource when our own playfulness well runs dry (p. 240).

When it comes to resources, the authors provide references, TED talks, websites, and a list of other playful educators and how to follow them. They also provide a website of their own that has resources.

Throughout the book there are numerous examples of playfulness in action in the classroom. In addition, the entire last section of the book is filled with challenges to help us meet each of the components of the playful mindset. There are 20 challenges included as well as a reading guide in appendix B.

SO: a playful resource, written in a playful style, but with all the research and resources you need to convince your colleagues and administration to create playful classrooms where students will be filled with joy as their learning and “soft skills” skyrocket. If you decide to get playful, this will be a great book to have on your shelf for support.

Dr. Laura Von Staden is currently a Middle School Gifted Science teacher in Tampa, Florida. She serves on numerous committees in her school district, works closely with the local university, and writes curriculum. She is also a professional development consultant, and previously served as an Exceptional Student Education Specialist, and as a mentor.

Celebrate Poetry Month with 5 Fun Activities

By Marilyn Pryle

April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate, here are five fun poetry activities students can try. Each of these is not only skills-based, but creative and meaningful.

The first two work best as individual assignments, the third and fourth can be done either alone or in partners, and the last is a fun whole-class activity.

(If you’d like to see additional poetry activities I’ve written about on MiddleWeb, try the Concrete Found Poem or the Personal Ballad.) Enjoy!

1. Me in Metaphors

This descriptive poetry-writing activity asks students to think of personality traits and talents and translate those into metaphors. You could do a mini-lesson about metaphors if you’d like, but students will pick up on the idea pretty quickly.

Students should think of eight qualities about themselves (these could be physical, emotional, mental, and so on) or talents that they have. They should list these on this prewriting sheet. Then, students should think of an image (a sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture) that could represent each quality.

For example, if the quality is calm, then an image representing calmness could be stones at the bottom of a river. Encourage students to then expand the image to make it more interesting and descriptive – “stones at the bottom of a river” could become grey, white, and speckled stones lying below the rushing river waters. Students should do these for each of their eight qualities.

To write the poem, students simply list all the metaphors in a row, beginning with “I am…” They should not name the qualities themselves; they should let the metaphors do the work. Here are two examples of students’ finished poems:

Me
by Hayley

I am a thin branch, shaking in the wind.
I am a small pond rippling rapidly in the new spring air.
I am a sun-burned shoulder, tender to the touch.
I am a leaf torn in a storm.

I am a tiny blue flower budding in snow.
I am a stone smoothed by rough, rushing waters.
I am the first bike in the garage without training wheels.
I am a beam of light shining through deep waters.

Me
by Seth

I am a tree towering over a thriving forest.
I am a gracious gazelle prancing through the desert.
I am a bottle filled to the precise amount for flipping.
I am the “Enter” key on a calculator.
I am the single brush stroke against the grain.
I am the feeling of peeling plastic off a new cellular device.
I am the smell of abundant bacon begging to be bitten.
I am the fast crack of a thick whip.

As you can see, it’s not important for the reader to guess the “right” personality traits; that’s not how poetry works. Instead, students will create an impression of themselves, a feeling rooted in sensory details, that somehow holds more truth than a spelled-out list of traits.

2. Ode

Odes are free-verse poems praising something, and they can be about anything—an object, a place, or even a person. What makes an ode powerful is an attention to sensory detail.

I love to use Gary Soto’s Ode to Mi Gato as an example – it is full of everyday sights, sounds, and textures. All odes, by definition, have the same theme: an appreciation for their subject; Soto’s love for his cat shines through in the details.

Writing an ode is an especially important exercise for students during this difficult year. The practice of looking closely at something – especially some everyday object perhaps taken for granted – and feeling gratitude and appreciation for it, can be powerful and healing.

Once students choose a subject for their ode, they should brainstorm sensory details, and work in the figurative language as they go. Here’s a brainstorming sheet.

For more examples, look to Pablo Neruda’s many odes, especially “Ode to My Socks,” or additional poems from Soto’s Neighborhood Odes (2005).

3. Extended Metaphor Poem

For this activity, I like to use Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” as a mentor text. The main metaphor is actually a non-metaphor (“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”), but students can make inferences about what the converse meaning would be – something like “Life has been an old, beat-up, dangerous stair.” After reading, have students map out the “extensions” of the main metaphor.

This can be done with a mindmap or even a labeled drawing of the stairs themselves. The extended metaphoric details in Hughes’ poem would include tacks, splinters, torn boards, and worn-through carpet. They would also include landings, corners, and some darkness. All of these are symbolic, of course, and can be discussed or even incorporated into the students’ diagrams, perhaps in a different color writing alongside the literal extensions.

The mother’s advice (“Don’t you sit down” and “Don’t you fall now”) is symbolic, thematic, and an extension of the original metaphor as well.

Another effective mentor text is Rumi’s The Guest House. The original metaphor is that being human is a guest house – an old-fashioned inn. The extensions are that the guests are one’s emotions, and that the house includes furniture and a door. The metaphor is carried through to the end of the poem. Students could create a diagram of a house to illustrate the literal and deeper meanings.

Once students understand the idea of an extended metaphor, they can try their own. This activity works particularly well in pairs. Students should start with a basic metaphor, and then list some “extensions.” They can do this by picturing or drawing the original metaphoric image, and then studying the details for ideas of how to make it more symbolic.

Some original metaphors might be:

Friendship is a…
Learning is a…
High school is a …
The football field is a…
The stage is a …
Being a preteen (or teen) is a…

In my class, I ban “Life is a highway” since that is so well-known. (You could, of course, use the song as an example!) Additionally, you might want to avoid “Life is a rollercoaster” if you don’t want to read several of them.

I ask students to have at least three extensions to the original metaphor, sensory details with each extension, and a minimum of twelve lines overall. After working with extended metaphors from the inside-out, students will never miss them in texts again!

4. Google Autocomplete Found Poems

Found poetry is a fun way to explore the question, “What makes a poem?” And a fertile place to look for poems is the Google search bar. In this time of virtual learning, many students have access to this tool.

Students can think of basic ideas or sentences starters, such as “Books are…” or “Honesty is…” What comes up is the most searched-for endings to the thought – the coded wisdom of Google autocomplete. The above searches come up as such:

I encourage students to choose and rearrange what they find, so that it forms a poem to their liking. Of the searches above, final poems might be:

Books are fun.
Books are a summary of human knowledge.
Books are better than movies.
Books are a uniquely portable magic.
Books are door shaped.

——

Honesty is the best policy.
Honesty is a virtue.
Honesty is a very expensive gift.
Honesty is not synonymous with truth.

I usually set guidelines at a minimum of four lines, and let students work in pairs. You could instruct students to relate their Google searches to a book or unit’s theme in your class, to a certain character trait, or to an essential question. Or you could let students experiment with searches of their choosing.

Letting students play with the search stems and the phrases they find provokes thought and creativity. Adding a word to the search, or even a single letter, changes the trajectory of the results.

At the same time, what comes up in a Google search is also a barometer of society – the autocomplete suggestions are the most-searched-for ideas; this is what puts them on the list. Students’ findings could provide grounds for interesting class discussions.

5. Haiku Party

Haiku Party Day is, by far, the most fun day in my class. We study haiku in depth during the days leading up to it, including the terms caesura (the pause) and kigo (a seasonal word), and the use of a twist – the surprise or shift in perspective that comes at the end of a haiku.

Waves of summer grass:
All that remains of soldiers’
Impossible dreams.

My favorite haikus to teach include Basho’s “Summer grasses,” “The cuckoo,” and “The sun’s way,” as well as Issa’s “Far-off mountain peaks” and “With bland serenity.” These haikus all have a palpable surprise that the students enjoy experiencing. We go deeper than the 5–7–5 rule, although that parameter is important and fun too.

To conduct a Haiku Party, have students partner up and give each pair a blank piece of paper (this year, we did the activity on Google slides, with each pair’s work on their own slide, in a larger class slide presentation).

The pairs should write one haiku at the top of the page. You can set as many guidelines for this as you’d like – I require students to have a 5-7-5 format, as well as a caesura, kigo, and twist, since that’s what we study. This part might take a few minutes if students have never written haikus before.
When everyone is finished, I explain Part 2. I trace a path of the groups around the room, and tell students to pass their paper to the group after them. So, each group gets a paper with another group’s haiku written at the top.

They should read the other group’s haiku, skip a line on the page, and then rewrite the haiku’s last line. This is now their first new line. The group should finish the new haiku with a second line of 7 syllables and a final line of 5 syllables.

You will have to explain this a couple times for students to understand. They take the previous group’s last line, rewrite it on a new line, and use it as a first line for a new haiku.

When finished, the papers get passed again (following the same path) and the process is repeated. Fit in as many rounds of this as time allows. The class will quickly devolve into hilarity as students frantically count out syllables on their fingers, trying to finish the haiku formed from the last line of the most recent poem passed to them.

At the end, students can retrieve their original pages and read the haiku chain born from those first three lines. They love it.

I’ve witnessed students literally weeping with laughter during this activity. But while it’s happening, they’re practicing skills – poetic form, sensory details, and the twist, at the very least! Students also get a taste of how texts and writing can be fun and alive.

And isn’t this the true purpose of teaching poetry, and all literature: to give students that sense of connection, collaboration, and creativity as they express themselves and read the expressions of others?


Marilyn Pryle (@MPryle) is a National Board Certified Teacher in Clarks Summit, PA and the 2019-20 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. Marilyn has taught middle and high school English for over twenty years. She is the author of seven books about teaching reading and writing, including 50 Common Core Reading Response Activities and Writing Workshop in Middle School, both from Scholastic.

Marilyn’s most recent book is Reading with Presence: Crafting Meaningful, Evidenced-Based Reading Responses (Heinemann, 2018). Learn more about her at marilynpryle.com and read other articles she’s written for MiddleWeb.

Help Students Grasp Literacy’s Power & Hope

Forged by Reading: The Power of a Literate Life 
By Kylene Beers and Bob Probst
(Scholastic, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Katie Durkin

The attack on the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 stunned our nation. Teachers were called to action to help students understand, reflect, and grapple with this event.

If Kylene Beers and Bob Probst were still writing their new book, Forged by Reading: The Power of a Literate Life, I’m sure they would have discussed how these events, and those that preceded and followed it, were connected with the power of reading.

Dividing their book into three parts – Change, Power, and Hope, the widely respected literacy educators continue sharing their expertise with teachers about how reading and writing can mold students into their future selves.

Using examples from their past practices and school visits, Beers and Probst center their discussion on the power of reading and writing and how “…our discussion as a nation needs to be about how reading and writing can offer students the power to change themselves and perhaps the world around them” (p. 9).

Part One: Change focuses on how reading and writing bring about change in our world. By teaching students how we can use these “tools of literacy,” we are empowering them to change themselves, their communities and the world (p. 9). Beers and Probst ask teachers to think about the ways we can change our thinking on how we teach reading.

One chapter is dedicated to an anecdote about a school visit where they encountered a student, Lily, a beginning reader. Lily was able to demonstrate her ability to read well, even speaking aloud many of her internal thoughts about the story. But when she mispronounced a fictitious word, she was chastised by a coach, stating she was not ready to read the book.

Beers and Probst use this example, and others, to ask an important question: “What if our first vision of reading is that reading empowers children to become all they can be so they can forge a better life for themselves, their community, and their democracy?” (p. 54)

This one example shows how Beers and Probst saw the need for change within a system to rethink how the system views reading practices and skills. Change must start with the teacher, the school, and the community, recognizing the power of literacy and how we can support students to use their literacy skills to enact positive change.

Part Two: Power begins with examples from our nation’s history on how white people attempted to keep the power of literacy, and education, to themselves, denying Black Americans, First Nations people, and Latino-Americans the privilege of this power.

These conversations, and many others, may cause discomfort, but Beers and Probst argue this discomfort is necessary to understanding that a teacher’s goal should be “to help students think about significant issues, possibly change themselves, and perhaps even become activists who help others evolve and grow” (p.79).

Books are tools that can help students ask these tough questions in order to think about how they change themselves and their world, and we must push students to read rigorous texts and study issues that matter to them.

Part Three: Hope brings the ideas of the previous two sections together by providing strategies teachers can use to empower students to recognize how they can use the power of literacy to create positive change. This hope for the future also depends on whether and how teachers can change themselves.

Beers and Probst discuss independent readers, answering 10 important questions about how this reading functions for our students. These questions range from answering how many minutes students should read a day to how many books a teacher should have in his/her classroom.

The authors discuss choice, reluctant readers, censorship, and barriers that may exist for teachers when making time for independent reading, all while offering solutions for teachers to use when faced with these obstacles. They offer the revised “BHHD” strategy, first introduced in their book, Disrupting Thinking, where students are asked:

  1. “What’s in the book?
  2. What’s in your head?
  3. What’s in your heart?
  4. What will you do now?” (p. 178)

By adding the last question, this strategy asks students to think about how they are empowered by their reading and how this work may inspire them to change themselves and the world.

In the final chapter, Forging Ahead, Beers and Probst name young adults who have used literacy to create change and challenge inequities in both smaller and larger communities. They provide examples and models for students, but also for teachers, to begin to change how literacy functions within the microcosm of the classroom.

Beers and Probst end with a call to action: “You, our nation’s teachers, have the power to help students become empowered readers and thinkers. You can help each student forge his or her life through reading. And so again, dear teachers, we turn to you” (p. 193).

Reasons for reading Forged by Reading

I highly recommend this book for any teacher who would like to reflect upon and better understand the power of literacy. The many insights from these professionals, as well as ready-to-use strategies, can help teachers think about how reading and writing relate to change, power, and hope.

For me, this book affirmed much of my pedagogy and my teaching practices, but it also helped me to understand that the work of a teacher is never done. Similar to our students, we must continually learn and read and reflect in order to empower ourselves and the current and future young people in our professional care.

Through this book, I appreciate how I can be empowered by reading. I am empowered to make change for my students because of Beers and Probst’s words and continue to model and forge a future, using the tools of literacy, for myself and my students.

Katie Durkin (@kmerz610) has been teaching English Language Arts to middle school students for a decade and currently teaches 7th grade Reading Workshop at public Middlebrook School in Wilton, Connecticut.

Katie is a zealous reader of middle grades and young adult books and enjoys sharing her love and passion for reading with her students. She is a doctoral student at Northeastern University studying the impact of classroom libraries on middle school students’ reading engagement. She is the 2020 recipient of the Edwyna Wheadon Postgraduate Training Scholarship from the National Council of Teachers of English.

Freeing Students to Write What They Know

Writing to texts and prompts has silenced student voice.

All Mr. Fitz cartoon strips by David Lee Finkle – click to enlarge

By David Lee Finkle

As a teacher-cartoonist who writes about the classroom, I’ll admit I use a lot of hyperbole and caricature. The strip above, however, did not involve much exaggeration.

While many of my students appreciate the chance to be set free to write about whatever they desire, many of them find the freedom terrifying rather than liberating.

David

Part of the terror comes from the way school systems have emphasized grades and scores and GPAs over learning and risk taking. Part of the terror comes because, in the age of Common Core, many students have been taught to write under the “instructional shifts in writing” that ask teachers to do more “writing to text” – giving students content to read and then write about in a synthesis essay.

This kind of writing can be taught well, especially if students are allowed, as the standards suggest, to do their own research projects of various lengths. But what I hear from my students is that the only writing being taught is the kind Lily describes in the strip above.

Most students tell me that they are seldom allowed to write in any other mode. I suspect many, if not most, of their teachers would like to allow students to write in other modes, but school systems often demand a laser-like focus on standardized tests, which often demand the “writing to text” essay.

Students should be writing in multiple modes and genres; even the Common Core standards ask for narrative writing. But I’d like to set the issue of writing modes aside for a moment and look at a writing skill even more basic than choosing a genre to write in: having something to write about.

Adolescent life – that’s a built-in prompt!

This narrow approach to writing instruction has a long history. More than a decade ago, I wrote in my book Writing Extraordinary Essays: Every Middle Schooler Can! (Scholastic, 2008) that we were “prompting our students to death.” We – or the text book publisher or district or whoever – comes up with a prompt and focus for students to make their writing easy to score.

But one of the chief tasks of writing is choosing a topic, and we seldom allow students to choose. Many of our students suffer from the illusion they have nothing to write about – an illusion encouraged by a system that almost never permits them to find their own topics.

Early in my career – before my state of Florida even had standards or standardized tests! – I struggled to convince my reluctant writers that they did indeed have things to write about. I was re-reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing at the time, and in his essay “The Joy of Writing” I stumbled across his idea that writers write about what they love and what they hate. Powerful writing gets its power from the enthusiasms and frustrations of the writer.

Armed with this idea, I borrowed from the master and created two of my favorite, most useful teaching ideas ever: the Enthusiasm Map and the Frustration Map.

These twin ideas are very simple, and almost every student is willing to give them a try.

Enthusiasm maps. Some students, it turns out, have a very limited supply of enthusiasms – at least enthusiasms they are willing to share. But even that lack of enthusiasm is valuable information about that student. Many other students, once they get going, will have a lot to put on their maps.

The map below is my own son’s map from when he had me for 7th grade Language Arts. He is now in his twenties and has added and subtracted some items, but a high level of enthusiasm remains. Knowing what your students are enthused about gives you a point of reference to relate to them better.

Frustration Maps are easier for some students and more difficult for others. Lily Tomlin is quoted as saying that “Language evolved out of man’s deep inner need to complain,” and some students seem to embody that idea. Coming up with frustrations is no problem for them – even if they sometimes choose to complain about your class…

Other frustrations touch on real issues the students are dealing with, and since I’ve given them the freedom to express themselves here, I let them vent.

I have at least a couple of students every year who tell me that nothing frustrates them. I don’t get frustrated myself – I take a “wait and see” approach.

The Worry and Wonder maps

The Enthusiasm and Frustration Maps have served me well for many years. There have been times with I “looped” with classes and taught the same students for up to three years. With so many familiar faces, I wanted new sources for student writing topics.

In my study of sequential art (i.e., comics) I came across Scott McCloud’s book Making Comics, and in it, he introduced me to the idea of the six basic emotions. These emotions – joy, sadness, anger, worry, surprise, and fear – work like the primary colors, and by combining them, you can get slightly different shades of emotion.

The concept is popular in both psychological and artistic circles – Disney/Pixar’s movie Inside-Out is probably the best known take on the concept. What struck me is that I had two of the basic emotions covered – joy and anger (enthusiasm and frustration), but I hadn’t touched on the others.

A surprise map seemed unlikely, and a sadness map seemed – a bit sadistic. I wasn’t quite ready for an entire class of students weeping over their composition notebooks. But worry and fear might work together… and then another strong sense of emotion struck me: Wonder. So I added two more maps.

The Worry Map

The Worry Map can be touchy. I tell students that I know that it is very personal, and that if they don’t want me to read it, they can write “DON’T READ!” in very large letters across the top of the page, and I won’t read it – I will simply check to see that they attempted it.

What kind of writing could come from a Worry Map? Having done these maps with students for a few years now, I can tell you that an awful lot of speculative science fiction comes from authors’ worries: can’t you almost see the worry maps that George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, and Lois Lowry had in their heads as they wrote 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and The Giver. A Worry Map also gives you a lot to argue about in a persuasive essay.

But of course, there is one genre many of our students are enthusiastic about that is almost always based on worries…

I have even based some comic strips on my own worries…

The Wonder Map

The last map I currently do with students is my favorite of all – the Wonder Map. If there is one thing I think we need more of in schools, it’s things to wonder about, and things that give us a sense of wonder. So those are the things a Wonder Map asks students to ponder.

… or quite non-trivial…

Doing a Wonder Map sometimes helps my “A” students get over the idea that they get good grades so they “know” everything.

As for what gives students a sense of wonder, their ideas may astound you. When I introduce the Wonder Map, I ask them, “How many of you know that you think really big thoughts a lot of the time, but no adult would take them seriously?” Generally speaking, every hand in the room goes up.

My students write about the night time sky, about pondering who made God, about watching a sunset and imagining the earth rotating away from the sun. Some of them don’t know what I mean when I say “a sense of wonder.” Talking to their classmates about their Wonder Maps might be the thing that opens their minds to having a sense of wonder for the first time.

What can we do with maps and topics?

I often follow up on the maps by having students create a grid like this one:

I ask students to choose one topic from each of their maps – a topic they know they could write about – and brainstorm five different ways to write about it. I tell them, for instance that if I choose cartooning as my Enthusiasm Topic, I could write about it the following ways:

  • Narrative – Write about how I developed my love for cartooning as a kid and about my first cartooning studio – established in the Christmas decorations closet when I was 8.
  • Explain why – Explain why Peanuts was one of the best comic strips ever drawn. (I actually wrote this piece for the Orlando Sentinel when Charles Schulz died.)
  • Explain how – Explain the process of creating a strip, from idea to turning it in to the newspaper.
  • Comparison-contrast – Compare two of my favorite comic strips: Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes.
  • Argumentative – Argue that hand-drawn animation should remain a viable art form in an age of 3D computer animation. (I have also written this piece for the Sentinel.)

If students can fill out even part of the chart, they will have learned something about playing with topic and genre, but they will also have several viable essay ideas they can begin to develop. If they fill out the entire chart, they will have 20 viable essay ideas.

Taking the possibilities further, if they have 10 ideas per map, and five ways to write about each of those ideas, they have 200 potential essays. If they have 20 ideas per map, they now have 400 essay ideas! So much for “I don’t have anything to write about.”

Ideas. Engagement. Self-knowledge!

This is about more than having ideas. Students will learn to write better if they are engaged in their own writing, and most students will be more engaged by their own enthusiasms, frustrations, worries, and wonders than they will be by answering a prompt after reading three essays about tofu.

The value of these maps goes beyond engagement. The maps help students get to know themselves better – an essential part of the social emotional learning that has become so important in schools. The maps also help them chart a course into the future. I have seen students become aware of their passions and turn something from their enthusiasm map into a career.

Yes, we may have to give them practices for the writing test, but why not let them practice their writing skills by finding something they are actually interested in to write about? Why not set them free to find their own topics? It can make all the difference in their engagement, their writing, and their lives.


David Lee Finkle has been teaching secondary students in Florida for almost 30 years. He currently teaches Creative Writing and English I. He also teaches fiction writing at Stetson University’s HATS program, leading students to write collaborative novels in a week.

He is the author of two professional books for Scholastic, and for 20 years has been drawing Mr. Fitz, his wonderful comic strip about teaching, online and for local newspapers (become a Patreon supporter here). This post draws on Writing Extraordinary Essays: Every Middle Schooler Can! (Scholastic, 2008) with the addition of a dozen more years of teacher wisdom.

Use Text Sets to Benefit Bilingual Students

By Elizabeth Hagan, Dr. Lisa Friesen, Casi Hodge and Sunday Cummins

Elizabeth

Let’s say you are asked to learn how to juggle, a skill you do not already have. You get one 30-minute lesson. You start with two balls and then three. It’s a little chaotic but with some coaching you start to get the hang of it. Then the balls disappear.

Lisa

Now you are asked to learn how to ride a unicycle. You get one lesson. It’s a little crazy. You start to gain balance. Then the unicycle disappears.

Now you are asked to learn how to rollerblade. You know what’s coming next!

Casi

BIG QUESTION: Are you exhausted? Most likely. And do you know how to juggle, ride a unicycle, or rollerblade well enough to share your learning with others? Probably not. The cognitive load of “unfamiliar” is too much. There’s a lot of new material and not enough time to master any of it.

Sunday

Now imagine you are an emergent bilingual. Perhaps you speak Arabic or Amharic at home and you are learning English at school. You’re at the expanding level on the WIDA standards for language proficiency which means you understand a lot of English but you’re not completely proficient.

Every day in school, there’s a reading lesson. Every day there’s a new text on a new unfamiliar topic. Bees. Simple machines. Harriet Tubman.

Are you exhausted? Probably. And can you talk about any topic in depth? Probably not very well. Again, there’s that cognitive overload.

As part of a professional inquiry, we began to ask ourselves how we can ease the cognitive load for emergent bilinguals so they can develop a depth of knowledge on a topic or issue while also learning how to become strategic readers.

Studying a particular topic while learning how to read strategically is powerful. Reading a second, third, and fourth source on a topic creates pathways for critical thinking.

There’s space for comparing and contrasting content, author’s craft and perspective, and developing one’s own perspective.

What emerged for us was the necessity of using sets of sources on the same topic or issue with these students. What follows are a few strategies we employ when curating these sets.

Pick High Interest and Sometimes Less Familiar Topics

The topics you choose need to be of high interest, but they don’t necessarily need to be a topic the students would come up with on their own. Many students may not be familiar with all of the rich options for topics that are available for their exploration and learning. Use what you know about your students to select new topics.

Elizabeth, our first author and a reading specialist, works closely with a group of fifth grade emergent bilinguals in a reading intervention setting. Their families are from places all over the globe. Elizabeth created a set of sources on Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education.

Her students had already enthusiastically studied a set of sources on how people give back to their communities so Elizabeth was pretty sure sources on Malala would be of interest to them.

Choose Sources that Complement Each Other

As students read each new source in a set, they need to notice connections between the content and ideas in that source and previously read sources. This supports students in recalling content and in thinking critically about what they are learning.

One way to make sure the sources you choose complement each other is to craft essential questions or questions that are thought provoking. As you consult different sources, these questions can act as a lens for whether the sources are relevant to the larger set.

Elizabeth crafted the following two questions to help her identify four key sources:

  • What are we learning about Malala?
  • Why should Malala’s story be shared and not forgotten?

The sources were in different formats including a video clip, Web pages, and traditional printed texts. Each offered at least one new nugget of information for students to ponder as they considered the essential questions.

Plan for “Transfer” with a Stack of Additional Sources

Learning about a topic or issue (and applying the strategies you have taught students) should not stop at the end of the text set you use to teach. Using knowledge they’ve developed during lessons with you, your students can continue learning without you.

Elizabeth visited the school library and checked out a stack of books on Malala. She also put together a list of digital sources including links to a video of Malala giving a speech, to the The Malala Fund website, and to books on related topics at Epic!

When she presented the students with these sources, she noticed how intentional they were in choosing sources they wanted to study. During the initial lessons, the students had asked a lot of questions that were not answered in the sources. This was a chance to do their own research.

They spent quality time looking through the sources. They used the table of contents, skim and scan strategies, and their partners to talk about which source they might be intrigued enough by to choose.

The lessons Elizabeth taught with the initial text set also included teaching a particular strategy for making sense of sources and key vocabulary. The students were able to focus more easily on learning how to be strategic readers because they were familiar in some way with the content of each source.

Elizabeth noticed as they became more confident in their learning. She also noticed them begin to use the knowledge they gained about Malala to help them think about other topics and issues.

The power of this was revealed one day, during a lesson, when a student noticed a quote by Nelson Mandela that Elizabeth has posted in her room: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The student pointed to the quote and said “This sounds like something Malala would agree with!”


Elizabeth Hagan is a reading specialist at Crestview Elementary, North Kansas City Schools. She is a graduate of Northwest Missouri State University and holds master’s degrees in Reading and in Teacher Leadership. In 2018 she achieved National Board Certification in Literacy: Reading- Language Arts/ Early and Middle Childhood.

Dr. Lisa Friesen is a District Instructional Coordinator for North Kansas City Schools, with a focus on coordinating MTSS – academic and behavior interventions. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education, Masters in Special Education and Doctorate in Teaching & Learning with an emphasis in Literacy.

Casi Hodge (casi.hodge@nkcschools.org) is currently a District Instructional Coordinator for the North Kansas City School District in Kansas City, MO. She holds a master’s degree in Administration and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. Casi spent 12 years as a classroom teacher teaching multiple grade levels before shifting into the role of reading teacher.

Sunday Cummins is a literacy consultant and author and has been a teacher and literacy coach in public schools. Her work focuses on supporting teachers, schools and districts as they plan and implement assessment driven instruction with complex informational sources including traditional texts, video and infographics.

Sunday is the author of several professional books, including her latest releases, Close Reading of Informational Sources  (Guilford, 2019), and Nurturing Informed Thinking (Heinemann, 2018). Visit her website and read her regular blog posts on teaching information literacy. Follow her on Twitter @SundayCummins.

Teaching Students When to Abandon a Book

By Lynne R. Dorfman

At the beginning of the year, it is important to teach our readers how to navigate the classroom and school library and how to choose books they want to read and are able to read.

We know our students choose books to read with different purposes in mind. Teaching readers how to make these choices is an important life-long skill.

But what about making the choice to abandon a book?

I remember the personal “reading rule” I lived by for years and years – if I chose a book and started it, then I had to finish it. There were books every year that I struggled with, bored with the content or struggling with the author’s style.

And then the day came . . .

There was this one book – a present from a friend – that was taking me a small eternity to read. I think I was about sixty pages into the book when I realized that my reading time had become drudgery. I had never hated a book before, but I hated this one.

It was really hard, but I took the book to school and placed it in the librarian’s office where Sue had created some shelves for teachers to share books with each other – kind of like the small lending libraries you see in neighborhoods.

In some small way I felt like a failure. I also felt bad about passing the book on to colleagues, but you never know – someone else might like it. Even though I felt guilty about breaking my rule, it felt good abandoning a read that just wasn’t a good fit for me.

And what about my students?

I had never told my students they had to finish reading a book that failed to engage them. At the same time, we had never discussed the possibility of abandonment. I wondered how many of my students believed that once they chose a book for independent reading time, they had to finish it, whether they were engaged with its content or not.

I decided we needed a readerly discussion, starting with my admission about the books I have let go in the past five years or so and how it makes me feel to have that control over my personal reading.

I told them that abandoning a book can be a good thing. Most of my students have several after-school activities, and some of them have part-time jobs. Their time is precious, and none of them can waste a single moment trying to finish a book that is unsatisfying, too difficult, or disappointing.

I told them that I wished a teacher had told me while I was in school that giving up was an okay option because it took me years after completing college to allow myself to abandon a book that had been a poor choice for me.

I also felt it was important for me to teach them when to give a book a second chance, and how to “book shop” carefully and thoughtfully to try to make the best choices so the act of abandoning a book does not happen often. Simply put: when students know how to choose wisely, they will likely read a book from cover to cover.

Choice belongs to the reader

We can offer suggestions, provide guidance, and even physically hand books we love to our readers, but if the book isn’t a good match for the reader, it won’t be read or enjoyed.

Choice means the reader also has the right to abandon a book. Providing guidelines for abandoning a book helps readers own their choices. In a conference, you can talk about abandoning the book and hear from the reader about their decision. I suggest creating an anchor chart on when to abandon a book with suggestions from the entire class along with suggestions from you.

A small caution: Watch for students who are abandoning books too often – this could be a red flag indicating these students are not making good first choices and may need more direct help in finding their next book.

During your kidwatching time, observe students who are finishing books too early, who are browsing but never making a final selection, or who never seem to read a book all the way through. Make some notes and have a quick conference to find out why. Even though these students may be middle schoolers, they still may need a demonstration or minilesson to explore strategies for choosing independent reads wisely.

Sample anchor chart:

When should I abandon a book?

  • I don’t know enough about the topic or setting to understand the ideas.
  • I’ve lost interest (I may return to it in the future).
  • I’ve changed my mind because it is too hard – I don’t know a lot of the words.
  • The book is too easy – I need more of a challenge.
  • The book is too long – I’ve been reading it all week, and I am nowhere near the end!
  • I don’t believe the author is an expert on this subject.
  • I don’t think the main character(s) is believable (or I simply don’t like them).
  • I cannot connect with or identify with any of the characters in the story.
  • I need a more recently published book to learn about ______ (for example, space travel).
  • It doesn’t feel like the story is going anywhere (very slow-moving plot).
  • I thought it was going to be about one thing, but it turned out to be about something else.
  • I want to join a book club, so I need to abandon this book for now.
  • I am super-excited to read something else! (A new book, for instance, in the school or classroom library or a book that is being passed around and it’s your turn to read it.)

So how do my students decide whether to keep reading or move on?

  • Read more than just the first few pages. In the classroom, I tell my chapter book readers that they should read about 50 pages before making a final decision to abandon. Sometimes books that start out slow turn out to be great reads!
  • Get to know other readers in your family and in your class who enjoy the same kind of books you do so you can get recommendations that will most likely help you find a book you’ll really enjoy!
  • Talk about the book with someone who has read it. Readers may need help clearing up early confusions about complex characters, unfamiliar settings, or plot twists. Once your students understand these elements, they may be more willing to continue reading it independently.
  • Stop and have a conversation about the book as you read! Readers are not alone. (Whenever possible, it’s great to have several copies of a book on your classroom library shelf. That way students can sometimes place a “Wanted” sticky note or poster on the bulletin board to request a partner(s) to read the same book they are choosing in order to have an ongoing conversation.)
  • Build reading stamina. Children must have structured reading time. Some readers choose lengthy books (think the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, often 400 pages plus) only to abandon them because they lose focus or don’t know how to pace themselves. Reading takes practice, and students who need more reading practice might start with a series of short, related high-interest books (like The Virginia Mysteries books by Steven K. Smith).

Encourage children to read a little more each day! Provide choice and variety and you will increase the readership in your community. Teach students when to abandon a book. It will give them a sense of ownership over their reading process and help them build a reading identity.

In a world where there is so much demanding our attention, it’s important to make the best use of our reading time!


Lynne R. Dorfman is a literacy consultant and the author of multiple books for Stenhouse, including Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works (with Stacey Shubitz); Grammar Matters; Mentor Texts; Poetry Mentor Texts; and Nonfiction Mentor Texts. Lynne has been a Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project fellow and is an adjunct professor at Arcadia University, her alma mater. She is currently collaborating on two book projects and preparing for conference presentations this summer and fall.

Redefining Rigor for ELA and Social Studies

Rigor in the K-5 ELA and Social Studies Classroom: A Teacher Toolkit
By Barbara R. Blackburn and Melissa Miles
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2020 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Linda Biondi

Education, as well as every other profession, has its share of buzzwords. “Rigor” and “Toolkit” are two buzzwords that are frequently used in educational conversations these days. Sometimes with good effect!

Barbara R. Blackburn and Melissa Miles, two veteran teachers with experience, know-how, and a desire to help teachers and students, have co-authored a book that will assist both ELA and social studies teachers to effectively add rigor to their teaching toolkit (without breaking into a nervous sweat!).

In this valuable book the authors dispel some myths about how rigor has been presented to educators. According to the authors, among the things that rigor isn’t:

  • It’s not doing more work,
  • or doing more homework,
  • or purchasing a new program or textbook,
  • or starting from the beginning, or
  • or totally changing your curriculum.

What is rigor? “Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels; each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels; and each student demonstrates learning a high level.” (Blackburn, 2012)

We need to increase rigor in our schools to prepare our students for life. It’s what exemplary teachers naturally do. As educators, we know how critical it is for students to feel safe and respected in the classroom environment. From the first time they set foot in the classroom as a preschooler or kindergartener, they want to learn. Blackburn and Miles provide research-based strategies to keep that desire for learning alive.

As I continued to read, I was reminded how important is for our students to develop questioning skills. I also thought about some of the social studies and ELA projects that I had given my own students. Did I give them a chance to think and investigate, or was it an “arts and craft project”? As you can see, this book prompts the reader to reflect on his/her teaching to help our students become more critical thinkers and citizens.

What you will find

The book is divided into four areas: environment, expectations, support, and demonstration of learning. Chapters 1-3 examine ways to increase rigor in the classroom with recommended strategies to ensure student success.

Chapter four (Support and Scaffolding) focuses on strategies that will support our students as they learn to become more complex thinkers and more confident as they begin to challenge themselves to approach more complex tasks.

Chapter five (Demonstration of Learning) provides a variety of resources and ways that students can demonstrate their learning at higher levels such as Jigsaw/Expert Groups, Literature Circles, and Virtual Reality.

Chapter six concentrates on assessment, both formative and summative. The authors request that you critically look at your current assessments to determine where you can make them more relevant and begin to develop student ownership. By applying these strategies, the students become aware of what is expected of them, but most importantly, feel ownership of their learning.

I found the book easy to read and reflective of current educational practices. I especially enjoyed learning more about Genius Hour and how to effectively integrate this liberating concept into the classroom.

The authors provide technology resources to supplement each section, such as technology resources to support Genius Hour: (Kiddle, Wonderopolis, Wizard School, Educurious, The Knowledge Compass).

How collaboration and rigor work together

There is no doubt in my mind that teaching is time consuming, often difficult, and sometimes overwhelming as new initiatives roll out. But teaching is the most rewarding profession around…especially when you have a chance to collaborate with others, sharing your joys, frustrations, and goals. The authors state it well. “An important part of raising the level of rigor in your classroom is collaborating with other teachers.” (p. 149)

One particular area in the final chapter, “Collaborating to Improve Rigor,” resonated with me. “Focus on Student Data.” At first, I thought…data! Enough of that. I’ve sat through enough faculty and Board of Education meetings where the focus of the meeting was to examine why we were doing “poorly” in specific curriculum areas.

But the authors focused on a different and more meaningful kind of data: examining and evaluating student work samples to discuss, think about, and reflect upon how we can best meet our students’ needs. “Is the work surface-level understanding or deeper level? What does the work of the student tell me about the assignment? What do I need to adjust for future assignments?”

Reimagining the buzzword

Blackburn and Miles provide a number of easily implemented ideas that can be used in the ELA and Social Studies Classroom to increase rigor. All through the book are examples, strategies, anecdotes, ideas, and research that will assist readers as they work to increase rigor in their daily teaching repertoire.

The authors are aware of the problems that teachers face and provide easily implemented solutions along with some thought provoking questions for the reader to ask himself/herself. Educators have the added benefit of being able to use this book to monitor their own progress as they add rigor to their teaching, and in turn make their instruction more relevant.

I definitely recommend this book for ELA teachers, Social Studies teachers, and administrators. Don’t be afraid to ask a colleague to read the book along with you or give you input into your lessons or curriculum. Don’t let the buzzword “Rigor” scare you! Once you begin reading the book, you won’t want to put it down (except to jot ideas to use in your teaching).

After teaching fourth and fifth graders for 41 years, Linda Biondi is supervising preservice and student teachers at The College of New Jersey and Rider University. She has co-facilitated summer writing institutes in conjunction with the National Writing Project and volunteers for two service organizations: Homefront and Dress for Success of Central New Jersey – with missions to end homelessness and empower women to achieve through economic independence.