The importance of text selection & how to incorporate social justice in an English classroom

This post will discuss the importance of text selection, and share advice for teachers looking to incorporate social justice and/or relevant content into their English classroom. You can also read my previous blog post on how I structure and approach a 90-minute block.

Confession: In eight years of teaching, I have never assigned work from a textbook. I don’t believe in test-prep passages or outdated texts that I know my students will struggle to relate to, connect with, or enjoy, either. My experience is that they generally do more harm than good.

Sure, I’ve had to spend more hours lesson planning, finding and formatting articles, and creating my own questions, but the increased student engagement and achievement has been well worth the sacrifice.

Given that my primary goal is to help students become confident and capable readers, writers, and thinkers, I know that text selection is critical (especially with limited instructional time). That’s why we begin each class period with 15 to 25 minutes of choice independent reading, and why we also read plenty of poetry and relevant non-fiction that almost always gets students thinking more deeply about the world and their place in it.

Don’t get me wrong; the texts we read are still challenging and appropriate. They’re just not curated by a million-dollar textbook company or approved by an English teacher who assigns the same four books every year because that’s what he read in school 30 years ago and because he believes it’s a crime that kids today don’t appreciate the classics.

So, here’s what the first four class periods (we’re on a A/B block schedule) have looked like in my classroom this year:back to school graphic.png

Homework assignment #1: Students wrote letters that introduced who they were, shared reflections from last school year, stated their goals and expectations, and described their action plan to make this year successful. This was a valuable pre-assessment that allowed me to a) build relationships quickly and b) learn exactly where my students were in their writing. It also let my students know that I value their story, and care about their success and well-being.

Day 1: Students read the NYT article “Read books, live longer?” before completing a 5 Ws and H graphic organizer and writing a concise 2-3 sentence summary as well as a one-paragraph reflection on the value of reading, their reasons for reading, and their thoughts on why I assigned the article.

Days 2-4: I began the year with a mini-unit centered on social justice. Here’s how it has unfolded:

Step 1: We analyzed powerful photos from the summer of 2016brazil

My students discussed and analyzed 10-15 powerful images from the summer, including photos from Brazil, France, Orlando, the DNC and RNC, LeBron James’ championship celebration, Louisiana, Dallas, and others. The last photo we looked at came from the ESPY Awards, where James and three other NBA superstars delivered a powerful call to action speech.

For many students, this was the first time hearing or learning about these events, while for others, it was a chance to educate their classmates. Either way, photos are a great way to activate or build background knowledge. We also practiced citing evidence (what students observed in the photos) and making claims (what students could infer or conclude from the photos).


Step 2: We watched this ESPYs speech from July

The last photo provided a natural transition into the athletes’ ESPYs speech, which I showed on the projector via YouTube. As students watched the speech, they focused on a) what the athletes said and b) how they said it.

Step 3: We re-read and annotated the ESPYS speech

I also made copies of the speech, so students now read through the text, annotating purposefully. I asked students to circle at least 10 words or phrases that had a significant impact on the speech, and make at least four meaningful comments in the margins.

Step 4: We completed the “What/How” graphic organizer

Since was the first time I had introduced the “What/How” graphic organizer, my students and I worked together to complete this assignment. On the top of the page, students identified the speakers, occasion, audience, and purpose before breaking down what each athlete said and how he said it.

Step 5: We created wordless and original poems based on the textpoem.jpg

Students then used the key words and themes from the speech to a) create a wordle or artistic representation, and b) write an original poem. This activity allowed students to demonstrate their creativity, and express their own feelings on the subject. They all took immense pride in their art and writing, and the quality of their work (especially the poetry) was phenomenal. Students were dying to share with one another, and it was clear that they had a much better understanding of our world and how we can all make it better.

Step 6: We wrote a mini-essay that analyzed the “what” and “how” of the speech

Students then utilized their graphic organizer to compose a mini-essay that summarized how each athlete contributed to the overall purpose of the speech, and analyzed how each speaker achieved his goal. I set my students up for success by providing them with plenty of models and think-alouds, and posting and reviewing my expectations clearly. Later this week, students will receive feedback on their first draft, and complete a final draft along with a writing checklist to ensure that it meets all requirements.

Homework #2: Students had a choice for this week’s Article of the Week. My freshmen read “How your GPA predicts your income,” while my sophomores chose between the moving column on Simone Manuel and the effects of Jim Crow and the effects of too much TV and chill.

In summary, I know that I need to increase the volume of reading and writing my students do, so here’s a look at what we have already accomplished during the first week and a half of school:

  • Checked out a book of their choice from our school library, and read for 15 (freshmen) to 25 minutes (sophomores) each class period.
  • A two-page letter outlining their goals and action plan for the year
  • A concise article summary and personal reflection on the importance of reading
  • At least one original poem (many students were inspired to write more) on the state of America in 2016 from their perspective
  • A wordle/artistic representation of an important speech
  • A graphic organizer and mini-essay analyzing what the athletes said in their speech and how they said it
  • A one-page reflection on a high-interest article of their choice (GPA and income, Simone Manuel and Jim Crow, or Effects of Too Much TV and Chill)

Thanks for reading! As always, feedback welcome!


Ten tips for creating a culture of reading in your classroom

NOTE: This post was originally published on the TN Department of Education’s Classroom Chronicles.

As we arrange our classrooms, finalize lesson plans, and reluctantly re-set our alarms in preparation for another school year, I wanted to offer advice to teachers who are hoping to instill a love of reading in all of their students, whether they’re in first grade or twelfth. As I enter my eighth year in the classroom, I firmly believe that the best solutions are often the simplest, especially when it comes to reading.

If teachers and leaders commit to creating a culture of reading in our classrooms and schools, the results will follow. And by results, I’m not just talking test scores, although those will certainly improve, too. Research shows that students who identify as readers are significantly happier, less stressed, more empathetic, and ultimately far more prepared to succeed in this crazy thing we call life.

There’s no question that selling today’s students (and adults, for that matter) on reading is harder than it’s ever been. Books face a number of formidable opponents, most notably the smartphone. However, rather than admitting defeat to the likes of Instagram and Pokémon Go, we have a responsibility to help all students realize that reading can be far more enjoyable, and beneficial, than any iPhone app or video game. We know the unfortunate reality if we don’t.

Here are 10 tips to keep in mind as we begin another successful school year:

1. Instill a growth mindset in your students. I constantly remind my students that reading is just like exercising. The more you work out, the stronger you become. The more you run, the faster you get. The same is true with reading. Good things happen when you read all the time, and it’s nearly impossible to improve when you don’t.

Amatoreading12. Give students consistent time to read. I dedicate the first 20 to 30 minutes of every block to independent reading of self-selected books, and my students and I wish it could be even longer. Students crave routine, and by providing them with consistent time and choice, I have seen their reading attitude, stamina and ability improve dramatically. In the beginning of the year, start with 10 minutes (the same way you would start by running a mile before trying to run a marathon), and then add time as students’ stamina increases.

3. Give students choice. I’d have a much harder time selling students on the joy and value of reading if I forced all of them to read the same book at the same pace in the same place, regardless of their interests or ability level. But, by introducing them to novels by the likes of Kwame Alexander, Sherman Alexie, Kiera Cass, Suzanne Collins, Walter Dean Myers, Matt de la Peña, Sharon Draper, John Green, Khaled Hosseini, Marie Lu, Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling, Veronica Roth, Rainbow Rowell, Gary Schmidt, Paul Volponi, Jacqueline Woodson, and Markus Zusak, my students end up reading more than they ever had before.

4. Be a reading role model. How can we expect students to love and appreciate reading if we don’t? Our passion and excitement for reading is contagious, so be sure that your students know you’re a reader and book fanatic. During independent reading time, I conference with students about their books, make recommendations, give book talks, motivate reluctant readers, provide positive reinforcement, and often, simply find a spot in the room to read alongside them. Amatoreading2

5. Create a nurturing reading environment in your classroom. Start with an accessible and inviting library, appropriate lighting, and comfortable seating. If students read better on the floor or standing up, let them. Another non-negotiable is absolute silence. If we treat reading time as sacred, students will too.

6. Help students set personalized reading goals. Reading should not be a competition. However, most students respond well to a personal goal, whether it’s to read a certain of number books or words, improve their reading level by a certain number of grades, or finish an entire series by the same author. Help students set these goals, and then check in frequently with them about their progress.

Amatoreading47. Celebrate reading. We glorify athletes with pep rallies, yet our readers tend to walk through the halls virtually unnoticed. That needs to change. We have to be better about acknowledging and appreciating these students. Often times the only rewards that are needed are more books and more time to read. For example, last year, our school’s two reading marathons, where more than 40 students and teachers gathered in the library to read after school from 2:30 to 10:00 (with small breaks for snacks and prizes every hour) were a huge success.

8. Know your students and their books. Given that one of our primary tasks should be connecting students with books they don’t want to put down, it’s important that we a) read a lot ourselves, and from a wide variety of genres, and b) talk to our students constantly about their interests, hobbies, favorite authors, challenges, goals, etc.Amatoreading3

9. Encourage reflection. I believe there is tremendous power in having students reflect periodically on their reading progress. Sample questions include: In what ways have you improved as a reader this year? What do you like most about reading? What challenges do you still face as a reader, and what can you do to overcome them? What can Mr. Amato do to help you succeed as a reader? In your opinion, why is reading important?

10. Don’t give up. No, not even on the kid who picks up a new book from the shelf every day or goes out of his way to tell you that reading is boring. Be patient, look for small wins, and remember that it’s never too late for someone to become a reader.

9 questions to ask your students on the first day (or first week) of school

Day 1 Blog PostOn the first day of school, I have the privilege of spending approximately 15 minutes with each of my six classes. Rather than simply going over rules and procedures or passing out the syllabus, I use that time to accomplish three main things:

  1. I greet students one at a time at the door, checking their names off the roll (which makes entering attendance easier and more efficient) and welcoming them to my class.
  2. I make sure that my students learn a little about me as both a teacher and human being. I let them know how I excited I am to be their teacher and how much I am looking forward to the school year with all of them.
  3. I begin to build relationships by encouraging my students to express themselves through writing. It’s amazing how much I learn about them from just nine simple questions.

For example, as I read through their responses after school this week, I learned that:

  • Many students prefer to go by different names (but probably would’ve been too shy to correct me if I hadn’t asked).
  • My students are charming, kind, overprotective, crazy, laid back, hilarious, intelligent, lovable, special, loyal, respectful, persistent, creative, hard-working, competitive, and motivated.
  • My students are aspiring nurses, mechanics, business owners, journalists, engineers, real estate agents, lawyers, doctors, hair stylists, fashion designers, psychiatrists, social workers, accountants, and teachers.
  • My students love to eat delicious food, and have dreams of traveling to Paris, Rome, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Venezuela, Canada, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Dubai.
  • My students plan to attend colleges such as LSU, TSU, Belmont, Vanderbilt, Florida, Oregon, MTSU, NYU, Austin Peay, UCLA, Spellman, WKU, Harvard, Georgia Tech, Fisk, Lipscomb, and Stanford.
  • My students are talented dancers, pianists, singers, artists, boxers, writers, readers, photographers, soccer players, shoppers, texters, snap-chatters, chefs, and track stars.
  • One student said “I like to be pushed to my potential” while another said “I’m not very good at English.”
  • One student said “I love food and books (it’s my favorite combination)” while another said “I will work hard, but I will joke with you.”
  • One student let me know that “I don’t like to be called out in front of the class” while another said “I’m very shy, but once you get to know me, I’m very goofy and loud.”
  • One student reunited with his mother this summer, while another saw his mother pass away.

If you have any great first-day or first-week strategies or activities, feel free to share them in the comments or on Twitter!