Helping History Students Think for Themselves

Jennifer Ingold wants her history students to make the connection between primary-source research and preparation for informed and civil disagreements. Learn about her MLK historical scene investigation activity and a virtual History Symposium among students in New York and Florida.

By Jennifer Ingold

Can disagreements be dangerous?” I asked my 8th grade history students in one of our frequent polling sessions. The vast majority chose, “Sometimes. It depended on the circumstances.”

When I asked when or how, their open-ended answers ranged from “If a person or group disagrees with you, you can get shamed, canceled or in some cases, even could get physically hurt”  to a bit deeper, noting things like “disagreements between parents can even ruin their kids’ relationships.”

Then, changing gears, I asked: “Where do you get most of your information from?” Again, using a real-time student PearDeck poll, the most common answer was no surprise: social media and the internet. The most intriguing part came when the majority of the class agreed that neither one was a particularly reliable source of information.

When I asked “So why then do kids keep coming back?” the popular answers were “It’s too easy” and it’s “at your fingertips!”

“But,” I persisted, “doesn’t that keep us from doing the real work of finding things out for ourselves?” Nods and shrugs.

We continued to pursue the question of exactly what “disagreement” can look like.

“Ever see a toddler in a toy store who’s not getting their way?” I asked. They just laughed. On a more serious note, we talked how about the “follow the leader” mentality can sometimes lead to loud disagreement, even violence, when someone contradicts a favorite leader.

“if everyone in our crowd is doing it or saying it, it must be true, right? “ I inquired. Their expressions were priceless. While they all agreed that thinking for yourself was a much better option, it’s so much easier to follow the lead of others. Thinking for yourself can be tough, especially when you are a middle schooler.

Beyond the Text: Investigating Primary Sources

Disagreements often arise from misinformation or misleading interpretations, resulting in major differences of opinion. The reason for our classroom conversation about “finding out for ourselves” was simple. Our individual and constitutional rights can also be viewed as simply words we read on a textbook page – or what someone tells us they are in a social media post.

But there is a stark difference between just reading the words about “rights” and understanding the history behind them and how to apply them by taking informed action.

This is where thinking and exploring for ourselves becomes truly empowering. If we left the story of Angel Island up to the textbook, we’d learn on page 626, “Asian Immigrants entered through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay after 1910.” The end. The reality of Angel Island stays hidden unless we engage and discover.

Angel Island “functioned as both an immigration and deportation facility, at which some 175,000 Chinese and about 60,000 Japanese immigrants were detained under oppressive conditions, generally from two weeks to six months, before being allowed to enter the United States.” (Source)

History is peppered with policy missteps, half-told stories of disagreements gone wrong, from obvious abuse of power to forced isolation and extreme inequality. But, sometimes people get it right.

One such individual was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who dared to take on two of the most divisive, controversial issues of his time, extreme injustice and social inequality. He knew one thing that all great change agents know, that there needed to be congruence between his actions and his words.

On August 28,1963, a great many Americans watched Dr. King declare that “I Have A Dream.” The March on Washington brought an energy for social change that would transform a generation. “How are the life lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still relevant today?” I asked my students. To find the right answers, you need to ask the right questions. And often, go beyond the textbook.

Courtesy of J.Ingold, from materials for HSI: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Project, Historical Scene Investigation (14 January 2022)

MLK: An Historical Scene Investigation

Historical scene investigations introduce students to the idea of taking history “beyond the book” into the realm of the real world where students seek out primary sources, acquire information for themselves, examine diverse perspectives and learn to appreciate others’ world views.

When I asked the class what they knew about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., answers ranged from “a champion of Civil Rights” to “He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott” to “He was about non-violence, peaceful protest and was a preacher.”

Most had heard of him, but few understood how impactful his life really was to ordinary people, like Florida seamstress Georgia Reed. Although she was crippled by polio, Georgia Reed was inspired by Dr. King’s message of tolerance and love – enough to lead the cause for civil rights on her crutches, dressed in her best, to downtown St. Augustine, Florida in the 1960’s.

My students were also introduced to a more personal side of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by listening to his sister, Ms. Christine Ferris, who paid tribute to his life during 2013’s 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Students listened to respected African American historians’ views, which continued to build fresh perspectives and garnered within them a new appreciation for the meaning behind the man whose life and legacy transformed a nation. A life lived by faith, devoted to freedom and guided by principles of true democracy.

Finally, watching the original ABC newscast from November 2, 1983, students saw how history and the MLK holiday are irrevocably intertwined when a bill signed by President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday of January each year “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.”

They learned that even battling politicians had the capacity to put aside their differences and pay tribute to the man who knew how to fight such decisive battles so valiantly. They came to see how much we can learn from one another and to understand the value in having substantive, civil conversations about our disagreements.

Courtesy of J.Ingold, from materials for HSI: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Project, Historical Scene Investigation (14 January 2022)

Student Advocacy in Action: A History Connect Symposium

A Florida APUSH teacher – the former Brigadier General Vincent T. Buggs – and I share a common vision for student advocacy. A live virtual History Symposium between his AP U.S. History students at Newsome High School in Lithia, FL and my Bay Shore (NY) middle school students focused on further honoring Black History and helping all students to learn how to create community by first celebrating diversity.

Courtesy of J.Ingold, materials, Historical Symposium with Newsome High School

Some sample dialogue:

“A day or one month isn’t enough to celebrate a culture, not just Black History, culture should be celebrated or embraced everyday. … One month isn’t enough to describe everything a certain culture or ethnic group has gone through.” – Christopher, age 13. Bay Shore Student

Newsome High junior Matt M. added, ”Our school needs to do better in bringing awareness to the importance of Black History; as student government president this has been one of my goals this year.”

Bay Shore students grew the conversation. “We did a Black History Bento project, where we learned about other famous African Americans who are not in our history books,” commented Geneva. “I think you guys are honestly on a roll and I think our school could do better,” replied Newsome’s Kayla H.

“In the [symposium], the importance of inclusivity in school programs and history was discussed. Hearing other people’s perspectives on topics was thought-provoking and opened my eyes to many different issues I had previously overlooked.” – Lazina, age 13. Bay Shore Student

Black History is American History

Black History is part of “The Story of US” – the United States as a society, a nation and most of all, a humanity. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.

The Modern Equity Movement begins with student advocacy. What does it look like? Open conversations between schools, interaction with communities, and a passionate confidence students develop as they become authors of their own stories.

We have a responsibility to honor the vision of Dr. King’s dream by giving the next generation valuable access and opportunities to learn how to better write the next chapter as we continue, together, to tell our American story.

Why I Teach Students to “Respectfully Disagree”

Promoting diversity, inclusivity and tolerance for others – and the need to listen to their perspectives and worldviews – is part of the vision for what I do as a social studies teacher every day. It’s worth my time.

Daily and routine conversations on how to “respectfully disagree” can help build tolerance for the expression of all viewpoints. From simple “turn and talk” activities to more organic THINK. PAIR.SHARE.COMPARE group work, exercises in sharing alternate viewpoints should be practiced freely and often.

Students need to understand that real knowledge (and power) is often found when you go beyond the book to learn the “Art of Disagreement.” Varied student opinions can be used as tools that can promote thought and invoke change.

Celeste Headlee, author of “We Need to Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter,“ said it best :

“We must learn how to talk to one another and, more important, listen to one another. We must learn to talk to people that we disagree with, because you can’t unfriend everyone in real life.

Actions matter. Words matter. Change your words. Change your world. History has proven that “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right,” I tell my students. “Now it’s your turn.”

Courtesy of J.Ingold, from materials for HSI: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Project, Historical Scene Investigation (14 January 2022)

Jennifer Ingold (@msjingold) was chosen as both the NCSS and NYSCSS Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2019 and has received the Cohen-Jordan Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award from the Middle States Council for the Social Studies. In April 2022 the Organization of American Historians (OAH) named Jennifer the OAH’s 2022 Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Teacher of the Year.

Jennifer currently teaches eighth grade social studies at Bay Shore Middle School in Bay Shore, New York. She has been a speaker at local, state, regional and national conferences, is a lead blogger for, and has had her work featured in major publications such as Social Education, Middle Level Learning, and AMLE Magazine. And, of course, MiddleWeb. 

When the Math Anxiety Shifts to Math Boredom

A MiddleWeb Blog

As a math teacher, I have thought a lot about how to make math less stressful for my students. I know anxiety is something that can go hand in hand with learning math.

But lately instead of students talking about being anxious, I’m hearing a lot students talk about how boring math is.

It usually goes like this, “…no offense, Mrs. Russell, but math is so boring.” Usually they say this after I tell them how much fun we are about to have in math. Of course this is not the first time I have heard this, but I’m hearing it a lot this year.

How can anyone think math is boring? I talked with my family about it, and they agreed with my students that math is indeed boring.They really, really agreed.

They said the reason I don’t find it boring is because I’ve always been good at it. That’s not true. If I am good at it now, it’s because I thought it was interesting and kept going until I figured it out.

In fact, I would say I’m of average math ability at best. I remember studying “slope” for days until it clicked with me what it really meant. I understood the formula but couldn’t get the concept. But I enjoyed thinking about it, and puzzling over it. When I finally understood, it felt great.

It really bothers me that my students think math is so dull. I don’t want them to leave my math class with that opinion. I feel like part of my mission is showing my classes how wonderful and fun math can be. If they think math’s boring I need to do a better job showing them it’s not.

Why Students Think Math Is Boring

I think part of the problem is the amount of material we have to cover each year. There’s not time to let students just explore and understand on their own. I find myself spending so much time trying to address the course of study that there isn’t time for much else. At times I get in a rut or I’m not as enthusiastic as I should be, and that also has an impact on students.

Then there’s the fact that whether something is boring or interesting is very subjective. What some students find interesting others will find boring. There’s not time to personally tailor lessons for individual students.

What Can I Do to Make Math Interesting?

Here’s what I see when we as math teachers try to make math “fun.” We give students a few math problems and then let them do “fun” activities, like a scavenger hunt etc. Nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time.

But that’s not letting students see that math is fun: the scavenger hunt is the fun part, math is still the boring part. Same thing with the bingo and Jeopardy games I played with my students. I want them to see that the math IS the fun. I want them to enjoy working on the problems, struggling with problems, and then figuring them out.

Below are a few strategies and activities I’ve been using in my effort to fight the boredom:

► Whiteboards

Watching someone do math is not fun, but doing math yourself can be. There are times when direct instruction is needed, but lately I’ve been making an effort to put the math in my students’ hands as quickly as possible.

Whiteboards are very helpful in this regard. Students can quickly do math, and just as quickly erase mistakes. They can hold up their boards and get feedback, and I can see what they know. This year I taught multiplying binomials exclusively with whiteboards, and the students really liked it. A few even said that multiplying binomials was, yes, fun.

► Let the Students Be the Teacher

I have certain students who love to go in front of the class and be the teacher. I will assign them a problem to present to the class, and they will work it out on the SmartBoard and teach it to their peers. They enjoy explaining how to work the problem, and the other students enjoy learning from them.

► Let Students Create Their Own Data

I also teach AP Statistics, and I am finding that students love to create their own data. This “my data” idea can carry over into other math courses and grade levels.

It is much more fun and interesting to students if they can use data they create. This year I have had them time their heartbeats for one minute and check how long they could stand on one leg with their eyes closed (read about the Blind Stork Test here).

They have also tossed thumb tacks and tried to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind taste test. No matter how simple the activity is, students are more engaged when they are collecting and examining their own data.

► Don’t Stop Learning

It can be close to impossible for me to find time to learn something new related to math or to research new teaching strategies. But when I do find the time, it definitely pays off. Some of my colleagues recently went to a math convention and came back and shared the new things they learned, and I really felt excited about trying those ideas out in my classroom.

Looking Ahead

If you have activities or ideas about how to make math more intrinsically interesting for students, please share in the comments. Below I’ve listed some other resources I think might be useful. Some of them I have used in my classroom and some I haven’t tried “live” yet.

I needed the reminder from my students that not everyone thinks math is interesting. I plan to do better in the future to share my enthusiasm for math and explain why I am enthusiastic. It helps them and me!


Estimation 180

Would You Rather Math

Spurious Correlations

Classroom Challenges

Planning Our Lessons: Forest, Trees, Leaves

A MiddleWeb Blog

I just want to know how he plans his lessons… is what one participant anonymously wrote on one of my end-of-webinar surveys.

As helpful as delving into deep pedagogy can be, sometimes we just want to know what will help us in our everyday teaching lives.

If you are familiar with my work, then you know I love metaphors. One of my favorite metaphors for thinking about our work with multilingual learners (MLs) is the forest, trees, and leaves image.

This metaphor works naturally with Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design approach. The starting point of this instructional planning technique is the assessment (the forest) and all things follow from the assessment we create.

From the forest, we move to the trees. Trees have many branches just like lessons have many aspects such as the objectives, teaching materials, and comprehensible input. Finally, we think about the leaves, which symbolize the output MLs are supposed to produce.

I draw my approach to classroom planning from several key resources:

• Assessment-level planning: How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Tomlinson, 2017)
Lesson-level planning: Inquiry Design Model (Swan et al., 2018) and Talk, Read, Talk, Write (Motley, 2016)
Task-level planning: Building Academic Language (Zwiers, 2014)

This article is the super-condensed version of a full-day workshop. For teachers new to the field, you might feel overwhelmed by the speed with which I describe things. This compact post is meant more for teachers who have some experience planning lessons on a daily basis. Scholars have written volumes on each of these topics; my goal here is to show how we can stitch all of these pedagogical concepts together.

Forest (assessment planning)

I see the assessment as the forest – the most global view of the unit. I repurposed Carol Ann Tomlinson’s framework for differentiation (2017) as my framework for planning the assessment and asked myself these questions in this order:

1. What are the content and concepts students have to learn?
2. What is the product students have to produce (skills)?
3. What is the process for engaging with the assessment?

Here’s an example of the long-term assessment I designed for my 8th grade “From Exploration to Colonization” history unit.

1. Content: Students will research one individual from a list of explorers and colonizers.
2. Product: Students will create a historical fact-based diary written in the voice of the explorer/colonizer.
3. Process: Students will use a graphic organizer to scaffold their diaries.

Tree (lesson planning)

Now that I have my assessment, every lesson is rooted in it. In other words, the purpose of every lesson is to support students to be successful in the evaluation. There are many branches of a lesson, and the ones I use to plan my lessons come from Inquiry Design Model (Swan et al., 2018):

1. Topic: What is the topic students are learning about?
2. Guided question: What question should students be able to answer by the end of the lesson?
3. Resource: Will students learn from a hands-on activity, a text, or a video?
4. Combined objective: Write an objective that identifies the content and the language demand of the lesson. This can also include a cultural objective.
5. Formative data: What will students do to demonstrate learning?

I use this framework because it makes instruction clear, focused, and intentional.  Everything we do drives us toward the guiding question, which is rooted in the content. For example, a particular lesson from the Explorers to Colonizers unit would look like this:

1. Topic: La encomienda system
2. Guided question: How did the encomienda system work?
3. Resource: An article about the encomienda shared on Google Doc
4. Combined objective: Describe how the encomienda system worked by annotating an article on Google Doc with a partner.
5. Formative data: Students annotations on the Google Doc + Harkness Discussion

Work on a Mission, Florián Paucke (1719-1789), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For this lesson to be successful, students have to be able to describe the encomienda system of colonization. In students’ annotations I will look for details that describe such things as who were the people involved, what they made other people do, how the colonized people were treated, and when did it start.

This is why the combined content and language objective is so important. It determines what students are going to do. The formative data is where we look to see how successful students were.

With these big blocks shaping the structure of my lesson, it’s now time to think about making the content comprehensible (Krashen, 1981). One way to do this is to apply the Talk, Read, Talk, Write (TRTW) framework to scaffold the instruction (Motley, 2016).

I use the TRTW structure as the sequencing for my lesson as it makes learning more engaging for students. However, I have modified it by combining the Talk 1 and Read as one step and the Talk 2 and Write as the second step.

1. Talk 1-Read: Students work in small groups to read the text. At the end of each paragraph, students pause and collaborate to synthesize the paragraph.

2. Talk 2-Write: Students write a concise annotation using the Noun Verb Detail structure to teach students to paraphrase without plagiarism.

Here’s a video of a group of 8th graders engaged in this very lesson. You will notice how engaged they are and the critical thinking required to write a concise NVD annotation.

I love this approach because students are actively engaged in learning the content. At the same time, they are developing literacy and language skills. Most of my students enjoy TRTW because it’s a fun way to learn content instead of passively listening to me lecture.

At the end of the day, the students are doing most of the work rather than me. Most of my work was planning and explaining the instructions. As students are working, I meet with groups that need extra support.

Leaf (task planning)

Content-based writing can be highly exacting in terms of how to speak and write about the content. For this reason it requires higher levels of scaffolding. To do that, I call on Zwiers’ framework for features of academic language (2014):

• Word level: What are the content-specific and Tier 2 words students need to write about?
• Sentence level: How is a sentence structured?
Discourse level: What is the sequencing of the ideas?

This framework helps me consider the words the students have to use, how to use them in a sentence, and the sequencing of the ideas. I attend to the language features of the language by using Zwiers’ model. Here’s how it looks when I scaffold the instructions for the historical non-fiction diaries:

  • The word-level scaffold reminds students to identify significant names, locations, and events as I am looking for specific historical details.
  • To scaffold the sentence level, I tell students they must use the past tense when describing an event, present tense when describing the person’s feelings and thoughts, and the future tense to link to the next diary.
  • I scaffold the sequencing of the ideas in a diary entry by telling students the ideas that need to go in the beginning, middle, and end.

Conclusion: It’s all about Intentionality

Yes, this article was intense! First and foremost you need to remember is that teaching language learners requires steadfast intentionality.

My greatest intention is to be clear. Like Brené Brown said, “Clear is kind.” Clarity is essential for language learners, and research suggests that clarity is one of the most impactful drivers of student achievement (Hattie, 2012) for all of our learners.

When our instructions are comprehensible, students know what to do. When students know what to do, they are more likely to achieve at the highest levels.

As we plan and teach lessons, everything we do has a purpose, and the purpose is always anchored to the assessment. Assessments are determined by the learning objectives, which are anchored in the standards.

I recommend that the next time you plan a new unit, pull this article out and let it guide you through each aspect of your planning. If you are a coach or new-teacher mentor, share it with your colleague and think through the steps with them.

I sure wish I’d had a mentor teacher who walked me through my first units the year I started teaching. I hope this article provides some of that guidance so that you (or your mentees) can become part of the forest instead of being lost in it.

Which aspect of this framework is already a strength in your practice?


Krashen, S. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Motley, N. (2016). Talk, read, talk, write (2nd edition). Canter Press.

Swan, K., Lee, J., & Grant, S. G. (2018). Inquiry design model: Building inquiries in Social Studies. National Council for the Social Studies and C3 Teachers.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms (3rd edition). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zwiers, J. (2014). Building academic language: Meeting Common Core Standards across disciplines, Grades 5-12 (2nd edition). Jossey-Bass.

How a Banned Book Bred Lifetime Readers

By Amber Chandler

Rebellion is a tired teenage trope, but as most tropes do, it holds up over time. I was discouraged to watch Maus, a classic graphic novel that I have taught many times, become a banned book in certain school districts recently. Then, beautifully, it rose to best selling status, as described here in Smithsonian Magazine.

There has been great alarm, and rightfully so, over books being banned by school boards and an increasingly invasive wave of parents who wish to know, in advance, everything we plan to teach in classrooms.

I’ll give these parents the benefit of the doubt, and believe that they are only interested in their child’s well-being. If so, perhaps they should take a tip from the story of Tina’s mom, below, and participate with their children in their child’s education. If not, there could be another wave of Risqué Reading – this time with the full force of the internet in middle graders’ pockets.

The Story of Tina and her Mom

About a decade ago, Tina, a girl on my 8th grade team, asked me my opinion of the frequently banned book Go Ask Alice. I answered honestly, “I really liked it. Lots of mature topics, but it is very compelling. I’d say more of a high school reading choice. Ask your mom or dad what they think.”

To my surprise, a few days later I got a call from her mom, asking for advice. Should she let Tina read it? The mom knew the content, but she wasn’t sure what to do. I was surprised that my student had actually discussed it with her parents. This was, of course, before students had access to absolutely everything via their cell phones, so it might play out differently nowadays.

Anyway, as I chatted with the mom, it occurred to me that I was really against limiting student choice in reading. My own children were little, six and three, so I hadn’t had this situation occur in my own family yet. As I was talking with Tina’s mom, it surprised me a bit to say that I wouldn’t limit her reading.

My mom was a voracious reader growing up, and I followed in her footsteps. I was hooked on the scandalous V.C. Andrews books from a ridiculously young age, so I guess my answer shouldn’t really have surprised me.

Tina’s mom agreed to let her daughter read Go Ask Alice as long as they talked about it after every other chapter. Tina pretended to be extremely put out by this, but I could tell that she was thrilled to be allowed to read the book, and she was happy her mom was taking the time to talk it over with her.

This event started what I later dubbed “The Year of Risqué Reading.” Tina devoured the book. It got passed around from girl to girl in 8th grade, some of whom reported that their parents “would kill them” if they knew.

Those girls were the ones I had to remind to put the book away while I was teaching. Those girls, the ones who were sneaking around, couldn’t get their hands on “risqué reading” fast enough. To be clear, they were simply reading books featuring content that they could see on daytime television. I know this because I also grew up on Days of Our Lives and Guiding Light. As for Tina, she seemed satiated by her experience with Go Ask Alice.

Readers for a lifetime

The fact is, and was, that telling anyone what not to read only makes it more intriguing. The best thing that could have happened to my students’ literacy that year did happen: a banned book was rebellion, and they were up for it.

Finding that they loved to read for pleasure was the result of “The Year of Risqué Reading,” and I loved to watch them become absorbed in books that I adored but would be discouraged from teaching.

They’d ask me my opinions, and we’d chat informally. At one point, I was having lunch with a group of girls to talk about all the books they were reading independently, for pleasure, that were above grade level. These were some kiddos who didn’t do the required reading for my class. I could see they were becoming readers for a lifetime.

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school teacher and author of The Flexible ELA Classroom (Routledge/MiddleWeb, 2017). A new edition of her second book The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8 will be published in March 2022.

Amber was the AMLE 2018 Educator of the Year and a finalist for the 2022 New York State Teacher of the Year. She blogs for ShareMyLesson, Getting Smart and AMLE and wrote a blog The Flexible Classroom for MiddleWeb (2016-18). She is also a SEL consultant and adjunct professor.

Follow Amber on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and visit her website for practical tips and resources.

A Captivating Dive into Student Self-Motivation

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Raising and Teaching Self-Motivated Learners, K-12
By Debbie Silver
(Corwin, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Kathleen Palmieri

The last few years in education have been challenging for educators, learners and parents. Trying our best to navigate through different modes of teaching has left us feeling frustrated, many students feeling unmotivated with a “learned helplessness,” and parents desperate to find ways to help their child succeed.

Dr. Debbie Silver’s second edition of her groundbreaking book Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 truly speaks to these issues and more with her tell-it-like-it-is approach, creating a “handbook for adult advocates who want to help kids become self-motivated, continuous learners rather than dependent short-term thinkers who think the world owes them a free ride.” (Preface)

Self motivation, not extrinsic praise

The first chapter provides the catalyst for the idea of helping our children become self-motivated.

Self motivation is a learned skill and important in building lifelong learners. As Silver writes, “It is critical for students to become intrinsically driven and ready to pursue knowledge unconventionally through whatever resources they need to attain their goals.” (page 5)

As we read deeper into this first chapter, Silver hits the nail on the head as she delves into the popular belief that praise is needed in order to help kids feel good about themselves:

I am convinced that neither I nor anyone else can inspire a child to be successful long term through superficial praise, external rewards, or a reluctance to give them accurate feedback. Positivity is good, but it needs to be grounded in progress toward specific goals. (page 7).

Silver believes that with the proper feedback, children are “intrinsically motivated….they can learn all sorts of necessary skills and self-sustaining learning practices.” (page 15)

ZPD in the classroom

Chapter 2 revisits “The Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) and how this motivational theory can be used to help students learn to recover from failures and “encounter experiences that stretch them beyond their previous limits.”

Silver maintains that ZPD helps push the student just beyond their level of understanding, creating a “positive tension for learning.” (page 37) Then Chapter 3 dives into what can happen when learners get into that optimal state of learning.

In this chapter I found one of my biggest “yes” moments. Silver discusses the term “helicopter teachers” which is very much the same idea as “helicopter parents.” This is where teachers tend to take over the learning for the student, and – in the words of Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher –

Too often in trying to help students, teachers do too much of the thinking. Students come to rely on formula and standardization – and when formula and standardization take hold, the energy and intellectual rigor that comes from creation gets lost. Students become disengaged. (page 51)

Growth mindset plus gifted kids

As I am an avid reader of anything to do with “growth mindset,” I found Chapter 5 exceptional. It discusses Dr. Carol Dweck’s theory and how it helps kids “succeed in school.” This chapter also “explores the unique nature of children identified as gifted and talented and how parents and teachers can utilize growth mindset practices to keep G/T students moving forward.” (page 85)

The added resources in this chapter really resonated with me, such as the scenario “Elizabeth’s Dilemma,” various tables, and the continued discussion of “Fixed Mindset/Growth Mindset.”

Chapter 5 also offers a discussion of “Gifted Kids and Coping With Failure” and “Gifted Kids and Fixed Mindsets.” Silver writes:

“And once the student is labeled as gifted, there is often an added pressure to be superior in every aspect of life. Fixed mindset can lead to that killer of joy – perfectionism.” (page 103)

Growth mindset can therefore “inspire [gifted kids] to new heights,” but as Silver writes, this can lead to a situation where “…they can begin to doubt their ability” when they are put with “peers of equal or even superior ability.” (page 104)

Essential reading!

This book is captivating – it has so many parts that resonated with me. As I read, I found myself in that rare and wonderful place readers long for – feeling as though I was having a conversation with the author. The ideas and concepts Silver discussed were truly issues and thoughts I’ve had in and about my own classroom.

Throughout the book are interesting QR codes, such as the one found on page 47 which leads to a YouTube video of John Stossel on “Free Range Parenting” – or on page 105 “Rethinking Giftedness” which shares how kids feel about being labeled as “gifted.”

Each chapter offers reflection questions and a “Try This” section that I found to be a great resource. Finally, the glossary in the back of the book offers many educational “buzzwords” and their definitions.

I highly recommend Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 to any K-12 educator. In my opinion, this book would be a great pick for a professional development book group or a literacy committee book chat. And the cherry on top? A companion website that has video links and an abundance of other materials related to this book and Debbie Silver’s thinking.

Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews and writes regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, and math presentations. As a lifelong learner, she is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter @Kathie042500 and expanding her education adventures at are ongoing practices.

Try Multimodal Literacy Autobiographies Now!

By Erin Knauer and Kathryn Caprino


Many of us recognize that our students are part of a “digital native” generation, and we want to include assignments that reflect their presumed technological savvy.

Educators are also genuinely interested in learning about how our students engage with digital and non-digital literacy practices in both school and out-of-school spaces.


In this blog post, we (a future teacher and a literacy teacher educator) will share how:

  • we define multimodal literacy autobiographies;
  • why middle grades teachers should offer their students opportunities to compose these engaging texts;
  • ways these types of texts may help middle school students reflect on their literacy practices, and
  • five tips for implementing multimodal literacy autobiographies in your classrooms.

Click any of the slides to enlarge them for easier reading.

Multimodal Literacy Autobiographies

Multimodal literacy autobiographies allow individualized reflections upon one’s literacy development using creative media. Within the assignment students select important literacy moments in their lives and document them using print text and pictures.

For example, here is a slide from Erin’s own multimodal literacy autobiography, identifying an important literacy moment during her school days. On this slide, she selected an key academic period of her literacy growth that highlights what she was personally and academically reading in 7th grade. At that time, Erin was engaging with dystopian books which were above her grade reading level.

Figure 1. Dystopian Literature Slide by Erin Knauer

As we reflect on Erin’s love of dystopian literature, we see that she was interested in the idea of books as “sliding doors” (Bishop, 1990) because she was reading about young adults older than her. We also learn that she was able to read books higher than her reading level because she was interested in the subject matter.

Both of these reflections illuminate understandings that can come when students and their teachers create and analyze multimodal literacy autobiographies.

Adopting a Broadened View of Literacy

Another important component of literacy is understanding how it is presented in many different forms. In a broadened view of literacy, we understand that it is not limited to hard-copy books and academic literature but is also expressed through our use of technologies to convey meaning.

Below are snapshots from two multimodal literacy autobiographies that show glimpses of how students engage with digital literacies. The first sample demonstrates Erin’s experience after receiving a Nook, and the second sample shows the budding interest of another student (Brooke) in podcasts. The third sample showcases Brooke’s interest in TV shows.

Figure 2. Electronic Exposure Slide by Erin Knauer

Figure 3. Podcast Literacy Slide by Brooke Seislove

Figure 4. Television Literacy Slide by Brooke Seislove

The three figures above emphasize that as students create a road map of their own literacy journey, they can identify moments of personal significance that shaped their understanding of literacy through various digital media (music, television, books, podcasts). Teachers can then use this information to inform their practices.

Why Should We Ask Students to Do This?

Creating an multimodal literacy autobiography encourages students to reflect critically on their previous literacy experiences. Whether these experiences are subjectively “good” or “bad,” the assignment gives insight into how students picked up literacy habits and how they have grown from their literacy experiences. The definition of literacy is also broadened as we ask students to consider the myriad of literacy interactions they have had – from print to texts to podcasts, audiobooks, narrative gaming and more.

Because students are working to understand their literacy roots as they compose their multimodal literacy autobiographies, these assignments provide opportunities to reflect on past experiences and set new literacy goals.

In the snapshot below (click to enlarge), Erin summed up her experiences and highlighted ways she might broaden and deepen her literacy explorations.

Figure 5. Reflection Slide by Erin Knauer

Ultimately, a project like this can help middle graders develop an individual voice doing something enjoyable and personally meaningful – a task that also contributes to their understanding of literacy and sets the stage for students and teachers to establish literacy goals for the semester.

Five Tips for Teachers

Consider your own literacy journey. In order to be responsive and reflective in our own teaching, it’s important to revisit our own literacy background. Reflect on your literacy experiences growing up and create a mentor text for students to consider. This is a great way to show yourself as a reader and writer to your students at the beginning of the year.

Provide student examples. Although we want autobiographies to be personal so students can build off their own understandings and experiences, we also want to scaffold students’ work. Whole project examples or sample slides may be helpful.

Make the project engaging. Give students creative freedom and invite them to use multiple avenues of interaction with academic and non-academic content. Encourage them to think broadly about literacy practices. A self-identified “non-reader” may spend multiple hours reading codes and watching YouTube “how-to” videos for digital games. This student is indeed a reader. Help students understand this.

Give specific thinking prompt examples. Students should understand that the literacy events they choose to highlight should have been meaningful to their growth. It may be important to give examples as to what ‘meaningful’ means in the context of the autobiography.

A good way to do this would be to offer prompts as students begin brainstorming. Below is a list of sample prompts from Step 1 of the assignment Erin completed as part of her language and literacy course with Katie:

Offer a variety of project mediums. Students are not limited to one medium but should have their choice of digital tools to create their autobiography. Some examples that students could use are Google SlidesPrezi, or Glogster.

We are hopeful that you can have your students engage in multimodal literacy autobiographies! Please share with us all their good work!

(The authors thank Brooke Seislove for her contributions to this blog post.)

Erin Knauer is a junior Early Childhood Education Major and Music Minor at Elizabethtown College. She excitedly looks forward to having her own classroom and continuing to keep up with the latest educational research. 

Katie Caprino is an Assistant Professor of PK-12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She taught middle and high school English in Virginia and North Carolina. She holds a BA from the University of Virginia, a MA from the College of William and Mary, a MA from Old Dominion University, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Katie researches and presents on children’s, middle grades, and young adult literature; the teaching of writing, and incorporating technology into the literacy classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @KCapLiteracy and visit her book blog at

Student-Created PSAs Ignite Critical Thinking

Which of the following is not a topic covered by one of the “non-commercial” TV commercials known as PSAs?

Texting While Driving. Childhood Hunger. Bullying. Climate Change. Seatbelts. Forest Fires. Drug Abuse. Ocean Pollution. Autism. STEM. Retirement. Alzheimer’s. Coronavirus. Drunk Driving.

As you probably guessed, they’re all subjects of public service announcements (PSAs).

One of the largest producers of PSAs in the US is the Ad Council. More than likely you’ve seen their logo embedded in a print or internet ad or on television. On their website you can find many examples of their campaigns. To see the latest, check the Ad Council YouTube channel. Here’s one about Women in STEM.


I started to incorporate PSAs into my media literacy workshops after seeing one of the national TRUTH anti-tobacco spots. The TRUTH campaign, aimed at young people, was a result of the 1998 federal tobacco settlement in which millions of dollars flowed into states. The TRUTH site is still going strong with a current focus on avoiding or giving up vaping.

Soon after seeing these professional produced spots, many educators had their students create their own. A colleague sent me this—his student’s anti-tobacco PSA—in the style of Animal Planet’s Crocodile Hunter.

Why PSAs Are Important

More than likely you have seen, heard or read a PSA on television, on the radio, or in a newspaper or magazine. But what about your students? Would they know what these unique messages are designed to do?

The organization Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) reminds us: “PSAs encourage students to create messages of action and raise awareness of social issues. This task moves students from passive forms of social action (‘liking’ something on Facebook or commenting on YouTube) into active use of multimedia to effect change.” (Source)

The Ad Council has its roots in the public service “war ads” created during World War II, with messaging like Loose Lips Sink Ships and Women in War Jobs.

Smokey Bear ads, credited with saving millions of forest acres, first appeared in 1944.  Read the history.

I was recently invited by a middle school teacher to introduce her students to Public Service Announcements. As a media educator, my goal is always to engage my audience (teachers and students) in both analyzing AND making media messages.

Working with their teacher, we agreed that I would introduce the topic during one class period. The students would work for a week, and I would return a week later to view their finished productions.

Their teacher admitted that her students knew little, if anything, about the subject so I suggested some background articles for them to read prior to my arrival. Here are two for your consideration:

After being introduced to the students, I decided to start from scratch—and I began with this definition:

PSAs are “a message in the public interest disseminated without charge, with the objective of raising awareness of, and changing public attitudes and behavior towards, a social issue.”

I explained that PSAs are ads but they’re not selling a product.

Next, I defined “social issue,” thinking these students might need clarification:

“A social issue or problem is an issue that has been recognized by society as a problem that is preventing society from functioning at an optimal level. It’s important to understand that not all things that occur in society are raised to the level of social problems. Four factors have been outlined that seem to characterize a social issue or problem.“ (Source)

Next, I reviewed the four factors:

  1. The public must recognize the situation as a problem.
  2. The situation is against the general values accepted by the society.
  3. A large segment of the population recognizes the problem as a valid concern.
  4. The problem can be rectified or alleviated through the joint action of citizens and/or community resources. (Source)

I went around the room asking students to brainstorm and then name a “social issue.” Some had answers right away, others struggled. One student said the “pot holes” in his neighborhood was a social issue. I referred to the “four factors,” and we discussed whether pot holes were something a large segment of the population recognizes as a valid concern or was it more a local issue in your neighborhood? 

Teaching With and By Example

I brought with me a PSA addressing childhood hunger, narrated by actor Jeff Bridges. I often find it’s helpful to show one or more media examples to provide students with a frame of reference and a sense of scope.

First I advised the students to “simply close your eyes and listen,” after which I asked them: “what did you hear”? My goal here is to emphasize that sounds (including music) are important elements in these spots.

With that, I held up a blank 8 X 11 sheet of paper with two columns: one labeled audio, the other labeled video. I explained that PSAs are first written before a minute of video is produced. I explained to them that it would be their job to not only write a description of the ad, including dialogue, but also time it so that it is exactly 30 seconds long. I urged them to ignore the video column for the time being and simply concentrate on writing.

[Here is a student-produced PSA about “Global Warming”. Before you see their production, they take time to show you the steps they used to create the message.]


With students seated in groups at tables, I challenged them to come to a consensus about one issue they would work on for that week. Once they did, I gave them the script template for their 30-second commercial. Next, I helped them focus by asking questions like:

  • what do you already know about your issue?
  • what do you want your audience to know?
  • where will you go to research it?
  • what important information does your audience need to know?
  • what will be your “call to action”?

Because of time limitations, I did not introduce the idea of storyboards, but I recommend teachers include this next step. Storyboards are where artists create visual representations of what is on a script. Storyboards include “frames” which represent camera shots. I use a 6-frame storyboard. (After writing their scripts, creating a storyboard would be the next step.) In real life, producers use both the script AND the storyboard as the basis for how the final PSA will look.


Storyboards are used extensively in advertising, television and film production. Often students will tell me: “I can’t draw.” I remind them that creating storyboards is not about artistic ability, but rather it involves thinking critically about what this (something on the page) might look like. When students draw, they’re using a different part of their brains. But perhaps more importantly, they’re beginning to formulate an idea of how a “shot” in the commercial might appear. Often their camera shots will resemble the original storyboard drawing.

Judging the PSAs

Before returning, I sent their teacher a rubric for how to judge their productions. I planned to use it but decided instead to challenge the class to offer a critique of their peer’s PSAs.

After watching each PSA, I prodded them with this question: what were the strengths and weaknesses of the PSA you just watched? Rather than me playing the role of judge, they provided excellent feedback the creators could use to improve their production.

Why teach with and about PSAs?

I have thought long and hard about why an educator should devote the time to doing this project with their students. It is clear that our students are watching and learning from new platforms like TIkTok and the popularity of videos they see on YouTube. They’re being exposed to many messages, some of which may not be positive and may even be deceptive or false.

Today’s students also have unprecedented opportunities to use smartphone cameras to shoot and edit video and upload it to a streaming platform for others to see.

When I first began incorporating PSAs into my workshops, it was also clear that students do this best when they work collaboratively. And that’s valuable whether they one day become involved in collaborative enterprises like video production or simply need to be able to function well as part of a team.

The skills? They have to come to a consensus about a topic. They have to conduct research into real world problems. They have to decide if a source is reliable or not. They have to write for a purpose and they must consider questions like “What information am I going to include, and what am I going to exclude?” and “How can my words and images have the most impact on the PSA audience?”

Have you ever engaged your students in creating PSAs? What was the result? I’d appreciate hearing from you about the experience. And if you haven’t tried out this idea before but decide to dive in, let me know how it goes.

Resources for PSA Projects

Student PSAs Create Connection to Critical Issues

Public Service Announcement Rubric (International Literacy Association)

How to Create the Perfect Public Service Announcement

PSAs: A How-To Guide for Teachers

Public Service Announcement Lesson Plan (Scholastic)

YouTube: Changing the World with Video PSAs (lesson plan)

The Ad Council

Create a Public Service Announcement (Common Sense Media)

Frank W Baker has been writing about media literacy here at MiddleWeb since 2012. He regularly leads workshops for teachers and students. (Learn more.) His most recent book, published by Routledge/Eye On Education is “Close Reading The Media” and includes ideas for lessons and projects throughout the school year. Frank curates the popular Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and shares daily tips and media literacy lesson ideas on Twitter @fbaker.

Novels in Verse! The Why, Which and How

By Kasey Short

Novels in verse have always been a classroom favorite for me and my students. Surprised?

Initially many middle school readers think a book written entirely in poetry will be difficult or boring or both. But I am able to quickly counter that misconception by reading the first poem or two out loud and then (during a quick book talk) showing them how few words are on each page.

My students and I appreciate that novels in verse offer opportunities for quicker reads, almost instantly draw the reader into the heart of the characters, invoke emotional responses, have vivid imagery, dig deeply into complex issues, and tell inspiring stories.

I recommend novels in verse throughout the year and then ask all students to choose a novel in verse for their independent reading during our spring poetry unit. During these weeks, I read a poem each day with the students, and most often I select a poem from a novel in verse to expose them to many different options for their independent reading.

Verse novels are great read-alouds

During the year I also read aloud one novel in verse cover to cover. I spend around five minutes of class each day reading from the book, and they look forward to it.

Novels in verse are my favorite type of book to read aloud because the nature of poetry allows me to give it as much or as little time as I have within a class period with many natural stopping points to choose from.

This year I read aloud Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac to my English classes. Joseph Bruchac is visiting my school in the spring, and sharing this book with them has gotten students very excited about this visit.

Suggested questions for novels in verse

Why do you think the author choose to write this story in verse?
How would writing this story in a different format – prose or graphic novel – change the story?
While reading, mark poems that stand out to you. Choose one to share with the class.
Which was your favorite poem from the book? Why?
Choose a time in the story where you wish there were additional details. Write a poem of your own that provides those details.
Choose a poem that evokes strong emotions and explain how it made you feel. Use specific lines from the poem in your explanation.
After reading the novel in verse, what do you still wonder?
Would you want to be friends with the main character in the book? Explain why or why not.
Choose a poem that captures the essence of the main character’s personality. Use specific lines from the poem to explain why.
What does the author teach you about humanity through the novel? Give specific examples from the text to support your answer.

Writing poetry with novels in verse

My Edutopia article, Every Student Can Be a Poet, provides more specific details about writing some of the types of poems listed here:

Create a found poem using the words in the novel that encompass the theme of the novel.
Write a “Word-Scramble” poem using different words within a few poems in the book.
Choose a specific emotion that the character felt and write your own to poem that highlights that emotion.
Make a copy of one or two poems from the book and then create a “Black Out” poem from the words in the poem.
Write a “My Life in __ Words” poem from the point of view of one of the characters in the book.
Use the character’s age to determine how many words your poem should have.
Write a “My Worst Poem” from the perspective of a character in the book.

Middle Grade/YA Novel in Verse Suggestions

Alone by Megan E. Freeman. This story of survival captivates the reader through the experiences of a 12-year-old girl who wakes up to find herself completely alone in her town without electricity or a way to communicate with the outside world. She struggles to meet her basic needs, befriends a dog, worries about the fate of her family, and tries to figure out how to live without any contact with other humans.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps. This story shows the reader the raw feelings of an adolescent girl who is bullied and humiliated by her peers and her family because of her weight, as she learns how to stand up for herself and believe in her own self-worth.



Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac.  This timely story shows the reader the experience of a Wabanaki girl who is staying with her grandparents on their native reservation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The poetry takes the reader through her experiences making friends with a local dog, missing her parents, struggling to attend school remotely, and gaining valuable experiences spending time with her grandparents.


Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt.  This funny and authentic story shows the experience of a 7th grade bully who writes found poetry and showcases the power of words. It is a great book for all adolescents to read and addresses what it is to bully others, be bullied, and be a bystander. It also includes engaging found poetry throughout the book.

Rebound, Crossover and Booked by Kwame Alexander.  Each of these books in the Crossover Series draws readers in with current, engaging stories about sports, family, friendship, and adolescent experiences. The books can be read independently, but most students seek out all three books after reading one of them.

Red, White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca. These heartfelt poems tell the story of an Indian American girl who feels pulled between wanting to be like the other students at her school and respecting her family. Then her life becomes even more complex when she finds out her mother has leukemia.



Your Heart, My Sky: Love in a Time of Hunger by Margarita Engle. These deeply moving poems tell the story of two young people and a dog living in Cuba in the early 1990’s during a time of hunger and humanitarian crisis. The poems illustrate their love, bravery, hope, fear, and the impact of hunger.



Unsettled by Reem Faruqi.  This coming of age story brings the reader into the heart and mind of a young girl who moves from Pakistan to Georgia. The book is engaging and expores complex family dynamics, immigration, belonging, identity, assimilation, and bullying.



Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson. This book uses poetry to tell the story of a young boy whose father was once a successful pro football player and is now dealing with severe side effects of concussions such as memory loss and personality changes.



The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling. This powerful novel tells the story of a young girl who is dealing with loss after her mother was murdered and then finds herself alone and without any supplies in the desert. This is a story of physical and emotional survival and will captivate readers as they follow her journey of real and imagined nightmares.


The Lost Language by Claudia Mills. This heartfelt story shows the perspective of a 6th grader who is struggling to maintain boundaries with her best friend, trying to develop her own identity, and then is suddenly confronted with the difficult truth that her mother attempted suicide.



Moo: A Novel by Sharon Creech. This book tells the humorous story of a girl who moves from the city to a rural community in Maine where her parents volunteer her to work on an eccentric farm nearby. Through this experience she befriends an obstinate cow and learns about friendship and kindness.



Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. This story is based on the experiences of Artemisia Gentileschi, a female artist in the early 1600’s, and weaves in the biblical stories of Judith and Susanna. The book is filled with raw emotions and shows Artemisia’s struggles and trauma as she works to become a painter and find her voice in a society built to deny her those opportunities.

Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar. The story follows the experiences of a young Latinx girl whose father is deported by ICE and then she is sent to a detention center with her mother who is pregnant. She uses poetry to help her cope and connect with others in the detention center.



Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe. This profound historical fiction novel is written entirely in Haiku poems. It tells the story of a teenager in 1968 who is navigating his pro-war father and anti-war mother as he experiences the tense political climate, falls in love, and is forced to make difficult choices.



Everywhere Blue by Joanne Rossmassler Fritz. This novel tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whose brother has disappeared from college and the devastating impact his disappearance has on her and her family. The book skillfully addresses the climate crisis, mental health, friendship, and a family in crisis.



The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. This insightful coming-of-age story shows how Michael finds belonging at the Drag Society after navigating his identity as a mixed-race, gay teen growing up in London. This young adult book sends readers messages of self-love, empowerment, and the value of being true to yourself.


Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo. This book alternates between the perspective of two girls who lose their dad in a plane crash and then discover they are sisters. Their lives very different with one growing up in Puerto Rico and the other in New York City, but they come together to grieve, navigate family secrets, and find connections.


October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman. This deeply moving story was written in remembrance of Matthew Shepard, a gay teen who was murdered in 1998. The poems are written from many different perspectives including objects, animals, and family members and show insight into this horrific tragedy.









Love That Dog: A Novel and Hate That Cat: A Novel by Sharon Creech. These books are a perfect introduction to novels in verse. They engage readers with humor, animals, and relatable stories about a middle school boy who is navigating school and finding out how to express himself through poetry.

Also see Katie Caprino’s article:
A Trio of New YA Books Written in Verse Form

Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an eighth grade ELA teacher and English Department chair at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School.

Empower Refugee Kids with Reading Support

Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children Through the Power of Reading
By Don Vu
(Scholastic, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Beth Hassinger

I happened upon this book while virtually attending NerdcampCT this past summer. Don Vu was one of the speakers asked to give a “Nerd Talk” that morning. After hearing him talk, I immediately knew I needed to read his book.

The Book Whisperer herself, Donalyn Miller, provides the foreword for this book. Her description of Barrett Ranch Elementary School sounds like the type of place that I am dreaming to work.

At Barrett Ranch, Don Vu was the principal looking to change the reading culture. He noticed that most students had the “fundamentals” mastered, but their progress was stagnating because they weren’t reading any more than they had to. His school’s situation sounds very similar to the school where I am currently working and eerily similar to those that where I have worked previously.

For years I have worked to more meaningful literacy opportunities to students and their teachers in my role as a reading specialist. As a once former non-reader turned avid reader, I am continually looking for ways to show other non-readers what books have to offer.

My professional interest also has me considering ways to ensure that I provide multiple perspectives in my classroom. This book’s title suggested that two areas of interest for me would come together in a powerful way.

With so much focus on literacy standards that are tied to standardized testing, I believe we have short-changed students, who deserve a reading experience that includes more time, flexibility and choice. We need reading programs that emphasize engagement and help students grow  strategies and skills they need to make voluntary reading a lifelong endeavor.

Don Vu is raising this issue in his book and challenging educators and school systems to consider that if education is the way to freedom and the “pursuit of happiness,” we need to recommit ourselves to the idea that reading is the heart of learning.

What’s in the book

The book is broken into three parts: Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Within those three parts, Vu goes into great depth about six conditions to create a culture of literacy for all: commitment, clock, conversation, collection, connection, and celebration.

Part 1: Life

In this section of the book, Vu discusses the need for:

► Books in which students see themselves reflected both in the characters and the experiences.
► All students, regardless of ability, having time in their day for independent reading.
► Creating a culture of reading, with books everywhere, from Little Free Libraries to books in the office.
► Getting teachers, and students and parents to partner in this work.

I appreciate when authors mention other authors who have influenced their thinking. For Don Vu this includes Donalyn Miller, Steven Layne, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Richard Allington, and others. These are names that I have seen repeatedly and whose work I also turn to, so I find his endorsements reassuring – and it brings credibility to the work educators at Barrett Ranch are doing.

What was new to me, and the essence of this book, was taking this work further and considering how creating a culture of reading can have an impact on the lives of immigrants and refugees. Vu starts each chapter with a memory of his own experience as an immigrant to this country and a refugee. This makes the work personal to him as it is rooted in his lived experience.

While his personal experiences could only be a window for me, the book underscores how important it is for me to create a reading culture. I have seen in my own life – going from non-reader to avid reader – how much influence engaged reading has on individual lives.

Part 2: Literacy

This part of the book goes into the first four conditions for creating a culture of literacy for all. In the chapter on commitment, Vu discusses not only committing to a vision for literacy, but also committing to valuing our students’ backgrounds and cultures.

Particularly eye opening for me was the reference to a study done at the University of Oregon and the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information Education. In this study they looked at the impacts of using the term “English learner.” They found that this classification can have a “direct and negative effect on teachers’ perceptions of students’ academic skills.” (Some language specialists are suggesting the term “Multilingual learner.”)

When it comes to time, we often feel that we are up against the clock. In this chapter, Vu discusses how important it is to prioritize making time for reading within the school day, but also how we partner with parents to make sure that reading is carried over into students’ home lives. You’ll also find in this chapter clear guidance on what independent reading is and isn’t and how libraries can support these efforts.

The chapter on conversation was one of my favorites. Learning is a social construct. Vu offers lots of ways to get students talking about books. Many of these suggestions, such as book clubs, book talks, and watching book trailers, are ways that I engage with books every day. It is in my opinion that schools should be focusing their efforts here when it comes to reading rather than performance on standardized tests. I believe that if educators focus their efforts on the conversational aspects of reading, we will see the outcomes reflected in standardized tests.

An essential consideration for creating a culture of reading for all would be the collections of books that are made available to students. Again, the information in this chapter wasn’t new for me, but schools that need to further diversify their book collections will find lots of ideas for teachers or schools to curate a selection in which all students can see themselves and see value in their full humanity.

Part 3: Pursuit of Happiness

In this last section of the book Vu discusses connection, celebration, and compassion. Keys to connection are that children are exposed to multiple perspectives with opportunities to examine their own biases, that they build background knowledge through books to make connections to the world at large, and that as educators we are making connections with students that help us learn more about their experiences and interests.

At Barrett Ranch, Vu talks about the various ways they celebrated reading, offering ideas for connecting with authors and how families can support the school’s efforts throughout the school  year and in the summer.

He goes into detail about how Barrett Ranch partnered with IKEA to create reading lounges. Each reading lounge had its own theme, and Vu offers ideas for how you can replicate these reading lounges without an IKEA grant. This is a project that I want to undertake at some point in my career!

While compassion wasn’t considered as one of the six conditions, in this last chapter Vu  connects compassion to each of the conditions.

My favorite things about the book

Overall, some of the information throughout the book was not new to me, but the stance of thinking about these conditions from the standpoint of how they can help our immigrant and refugee students was refreshing. I would recommend this book for any K-12 school looking to prioritize a reading culture.

There are ideas here that are not specific to an age group. Rather they are specific to creating readers who will read as a matter of choice instead of reading as a condition of compliance.

Other features of this book that I greatly appreciated:

► It was under 150 pages. I’m so happy to see publishers who honor teacher time when they make decisions about length. When you are managing so many things that sometimes feel insurmountable, you appreciate a book with a length that you know you can finish.

► As a reader, I am also partial to authors who point to other titles where I can learn more about ideas they may have briefly touched upon.

► Vu did my favorite thing when I’m reading most books: he included wonderful quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Words are important, so to capture the important words of others makes this reader’s heart happy.

If you are going to focus on changing the culture of your building to make reading engagement a top priority, Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children Through the Power of Reading needs to be included among your resources as you move forward.

Beth Hassinger works as a reading specialist at a K-5 building in a suburb north of Chicago, IL. She is currently working on a second Master’s in Educational Leadership. Having not read much as a child, she is continually looking for ways to engage readers and invite them to see the wonder that lifelong reading is. You can find her on Twitter @SL_Reader.

Using Google Sheets to Track Student Data

By Kathleen Palmieri

Using Google Sheets is an efficient way to keep track of student data, as well as to meet other progress monitoring needs.

Once the initial set up and formatting are completed, you will find many uses for this quick data check that will more than justify your time investment. This can include creating groups, scheduling student conferences, identifying intervention or acceleration needs, and parent communication.

There are many ways to individualize this resource to your needs simply by following a series of steps. Once you create a Google Sheet and begin using it, you will most likely find other ways to use this method for other tracking purposes.

Decide what you want to track

First, decide on what you will be tracking. Create a header that includes a column for student names, and then columns for the various assessments or areas you want to track. Simply type across the sheet in each of the cells.

Once this is done, you can make aesthetic changes such as font by clicking the “Select All” box, which is the white box (upper left corner) above the numbers column. This will ensure that any items made will now appear on the sheet. You can also make sure the text in each cell is easily read by clicking the “Select All” box so when you make an adjustment to one cell using the dragline to adjust the column size, it will apply to all. This creates a pleasing presentation across the sheet.

To align the text in each cell, click on the whole row. Go up to the toolbar and click on the “Text Alignment” option. Next, choose “Center Align.” All cells will now show each heading centered. To make the header space bigger, drag the border line under the number column down. This causes the text to be on the bottom of the cell.

To center the text in the cell, you can go up to the toolbar and choose the “Vertically Align” button, which will give you some choices. Choose the center align button. Once this is done, all text will be centered in the cell.

Another option is to make your text vertically aligned rather than horizontally aligned. This can be done by clicking on the row again, then going to the “text rotation” button in the toolbar above. Select “Rotate Up.” Doing this step will create the need to drag down the border line to ensure all text is easily read in the cell.

Student names will be entered in column A, and it is important that you can still read the header with column names when scrolling down. In order to keep the header from moving, click on the header row, click on “View,” then “Freeze” and click on “1 row.” Now the header will stay fixed in place when moving from student to student.

Think about how you’ll input data

In my example, I have decided to create a drop down box for the cells that contain assessment data. To do this, click on the cell, go up to the toolbar and select “Data”and scroll down to “Data Validation.” Then change data validation from “List from a range” to “List of items.” Then type in the different assessment results that you want, such as “Above, On, Below” – referring to grade level progress.

Be careful not to use the same words in different descriptors as later this could be problematic when formatting with color. I chose not to include the words “grade level” in my descriptors as it created a problem in formatting later.

Once done, click “save” and you will see that a drop down menu has been created in that cell. To be able to use through the entire column, drag down the edge of the cell which will copy and paste the formatting down that column, and then drag to the right across and down again to copy and paste the formatting across all the cells where you want to input this data point on the sheet.

Colorizing your data

Once you have input all of your data, I have found this sheet to be easier to read and much more efficient when I colorize the data points from the drop down menu. Colorizing helps to show at a glance which students may need acceleration, intervention, or help to create groups for optimal peer to peer learning.

To do this, simply highlight all of the cells containing data, go to the toolbar and select “Format.” Next, scroll down the format menu and select “Conditional Formatting” where a conditional format rules menu will open up on the right side of your screen. Then, scroll down to “Formatting Rules” and using the drop down menu, select “Text Contains.” Type in the first assessment result title you chose to use (ex: Above, On, Below, etc.) and then click on the fill color option icon (the tilted cup) to change to your selected color.

Now you should see all of the assessment results in your chosen color on your sheet. Continue changing the other results by clicking on “add new rule” until you are done. Below is a mock example of using colored data points:

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The remaining two areas on my spreadsheet, “Student Conference” and “Contact Parents,” need another quick way to make a notation. Again, this sheet is an “at a glance” resource to provide necessary data and information.

I have found creating a quick check box to be the optimal way to keep track of these two areas. To do this, highlight the cells in the two columns, go to “insert,” go down to “Checkbox,” and click. Checkboxes will automatically be inserted into the highlighted cells. Now I simply check if I’ve had a student conference and/or have contacted the parents.

Adding color increases functionality

I like to make my spreadsheets visually appealing and as easy to read as possible. While at a meeting or in a conference, I find using alternate colors for rows helps me locate student information quickly.

To do this, first click on the “Select All Box” (the white box above the number column) so that the sheet is completely highlighted. Then, go to the toolbar and select “Format,” then scroll down to “Alternating Colors.”

A menu comes up on the right side of the screen where you can choose color combinations that will change both the header and alternate the color of the rows.

Download larger version

To make the information on the header stand out more, simply click on the header row to highlight all the information and select “B” from the toolbar to make all of the text appear bold. Another nice option is to go to the toolbar and select the “Border” option. You can choose the color as well as the thickness of the border line. By simply selecting the “Names” column, you can follow the same instructions to bold the text and add a border.

There are also options for how you would like to organize the “Names” column. You can simply type in the first and last name of each student. To create a separate column for first and last name, right click on that column (most likely column A) and choose “Insert 1 right.”

Then, click on the column with student names, go to the toolbar, and click on “Data.” Scroll down to “Split Text To Columns.” Next, a separator menu will show up and you’ll change from “Detect Automatically” to “Space.” Once this is done, the sheet will automatically detect the space and split the names into the right column. Simply go back and type in First name and last name on the header rather than “Student Names.”

A few final Google Sheet tips

If you are looking to see how students did with a certain assessment, this can easily be sorted. Click on the assessment column, scroll down to “Sort A-Z.” When looking at a particular assessment, you can sort the results to show on the sheet by clicking on the column, then click on “Sort column from A-Z,” and now you can see what group.

If you would like to share this sheet with another colleague, you can do so without anyone changing your data. What you will actually be sharing is the format and setup of the sheet, not your data. Scroll down to the “Sheet 1” tab at the bottom of the sheet. Label it with your name, then click “duplicate.” Now, go into the copy of your sheet and delete all of your data. The sheet can now be shared as well as used by another person with the formatting still in place.

Finally, to share a copy of your original sheet as a reference for a colleague, right click on the Google Sheet tab with your name, click on the drop-down symbol, select “protect sheet,” and click on the “Green Set Permissions” button. By default this automatically restricts to “Only I can edit this range.” You will notice once this is done a lock symbol will appear on your tab. This signifies that you can safely share your sheet with the data.

Data is powerful

Using a Google Sheet saves a lot of paperwork and makes data extremely accessible at a meeting or conference simply by using a Chromebook or smartphone. This is definitely a time saver as well as a great way to track student progress.

I will be teaching my students how to create their own Data Trackers, which will share some responsibility to my students for tracking their progress as well as taking ownership of their learning. Data is powerful and can help us in our teaching as well as help our students continue to grow as learners.

Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews and contributes regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, new teacher induction development, and math presentations.

As a lifelong learner, she is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter @Kathie042500 and expanding her education adventures at are her ongoing practices.