The Sunday 7: Classroom libraries, advice for new teachers, book recs & more

Happy Sunday, everyone! Let’s get right into it…

1. The importance of classroom libraries

Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing Friday’s blog post, which included three classroom stories from the past week.

One of my friends, Brittany Gendron (@readwritethrive) said it best in a Twitter post earlier this morning: “There are no silver bullets, but there are golden books. Wanting students to read more, raise scores, increase achievement, and change lives? It is this simple. Fund real, recent, authentic books.”

I understand that there are a lot of complex issues in education, issues that will require years, decades to solve. This shouldn’t be one of them.

Every classroom (fine, let’s start with every English classroom) should have hundreds of great books, books that reflect and value all of its readers. Additionally, every student in that classroom should have daily time to select and read and discuss these books.

Will this immediately solve all of our literary challenges? Of course not. But, it’s a great place to start.

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2. Book of the Week: The Poet X

Wow, I haven’t stopped thinking and talking about this book since I finished it in class this week. I had about 20 pages left when our timer went off, signaling the end of our independent reading.

“Guys, let’s keep going for a few minutes.”

And so, as my students happily went back to their books, I raced to finish this beautiful novel in verse while simultaneously wishing that it would never end.

I usually have a hard time ranking books, but I have no problem saying this: The Poet X will be one of the books of the year, and I cannot wait get it into my students’ hands when it’s released in six weeks.

Poet X

3. Advice for pre-service teachers

This week, I had the opportunity to speak with 50 pre-service teachers at Lipscomb University. My advice? I tried to synthesize all of the advice friends and colleagues shared on Twitter, and because I’m a sucker for alliteration, settled on nine “Ps.”

Purpose – know your “why” so you can block out the noise

Passion – be passionate about your subject, your craft, and your students

Patience – with your students and yourself

People – surround yourself with positive people; seek out mentors

Pause – take time to reflect and journal

Practice – be open to feedback and don’t worry about being perfect, just getting better

Play – don’t forget to have fun and maintain a work-life balance

Plan – for every lesson and for your future

Persistence – don’t give up

teacher advice green4. As always, students know best

While I spent a few minutes sharing the above advice, the most important tips came from my students. When I asked them to write down what they’d tell new teachers, here’s what they had to say:

teacher advice blue5. Impromptu poetry contest

Looking for an engaging way to end a lesson?

It was fourth block on Friday, and we had about 10 minutes left before dismissal. Students were working in their writer’s notebooks when we decided to host an impromptu poetry contest.

How’d it work? Students wrote either “DEAR MARTIN” or “NO JUSTYCE” down the page and had five minutes to come up with their best acrostic poem. Here’s what we came up with:

Poetry DM6. Best thing I watched all week

What else can I say that hasn’t already been said? Thank you, Jason Reynolds.

7. Announcements

Nic, see you soon! We can’t wait.

DM Book Club 2

Wishing everyone a wonderful week. Don’t hesitate to reach out (jarred.amato@gmail.com) with any questions or comments! Thanks so much for reading.

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Friday Reflections: Why I Teach

As we close out the week, I wanted to share three quick stories from my classroom.

Let’s start with Tyasia, one of my wonderful freshmen. It was Thursday, and we had just finished our daily read aloud of Dear Martin when she pulled out her phone.

“Tyasia, put that away.”

“No, I want to show you something.”

And so, as the rest of the class took out their writer’s notebooks, I crouched down to check out her phone.

“What’s up?”

“Look at this email I sent.”

Tyasia had emailed Yale University. Even better, she had already received a response from one of their admissions officers, thanking her for expressing interest.

For those who have read Dear Martin, you’ve already made the connection. But, for those who haven’t, Justyce McAllister, the protagonist of Nic Stone’s phenomenal debut novel, is a high school senior bound for Yale. And because Tyasia can see herself in Justyce, she now sees Yale as an option.

In that moment – one of those moments that reminds me why I teach – I had to hold back tears. I’m still emotional now.

The good news? Tyasia’s story reminds us that books still matter, that they still have the power to change lives. That, this is what can happen when schools and teachers commit to building classroom libraries that value all students.

Bad news? There are thousands of Tyasias across our country who, through no fault of their own, cannot read and discuss books like Dear Martin, cannot see themselves in their classroom curriculum, and cannot attend their dream schools like Yale and Spelman.

We’ve got to do better. (Which is why I’m so excited to work alongside dozens of passionate, persistent Project LIT Community chapter leaders who are committed to the same thing: increasing access to diverse books and promoting a love of reading in our schools and communities).

DM notebooks

The second story is about Adriana, another one of my freshmen. She walked into class today with a huge smile on her face.

“Mr. Amato, guess what?”

She pulled out a copy of Erika Sanchez’s I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter from her bag. She had taken it home Wednesday after spotting it in our classroom library (the beautiful cover – and title – caught her attention).

“I started this yesterday and I’m already on chapter six. Julia’s exactly like me. And her mom sounds just like mine.”

Adriana continued.

“I never used to like reading before this year.”

What’s the difference?

“You just have better books.”

The best part? Adriana returned at the end of the day with her friend, asking if she could borrow a copy, too.

“Of course.”

I am not

Story #3 is similar. On Wednesday, after our independent reading time, RK called me over to her seat as she held out a copy of Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down.

“Mr. Amato, I finished this book in two days! I’m so proud of myself.”

Again, I did my best to keep my emotions in check. As we talked a bit about the ending (of course, RK wanted to know if Jason was going to write a sequel), RK began to hype the book to the classmates around her.

It’s one thing for me to sell a book, but when a student does it? So much more powerful.

The next day a student knocked on my door.

“Can I have a copy? RK told me I had to read it.”

That’s all I’ve got for now. Have a great weekend, everyone! And be sure to check out this conversation between Jason Reynolds & Trevor Noah. I think I’ve watched it 10 times already…

RK

The Sunday Seven: Snow week reflections, independent reading, book club tips & more

Let’s get right into this week’s “Sunday Seven.”

1. “Snow” week reflections

What happens when Nashville schools are closed all week due to three inches of snow? Caring, committed educators take time to connect and collaborate online and in person.

On Wednesday, we organized a special edition of our #ProjectLITchat on Twitter, and dozens of teachers and education leaders, including Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candice McQueen, spent an hour sharing book recommendations and literacy strategies. On Friday, a group of Nashville educators met a local coffee shop to do more of the same, discussing ways we can work together to promote a love of reading.

When we talk about what it’s going to take to improve education, particularly literacy outcomes, I firmly believe that it’s little moments like these – educators working together to improve their practice – that matter most. Doing a little bit each day to improve one’s self and others. Sitting down at a table (or logging onto a Twitter chat) and engaging with other folks who are doing the work. Learning and growing together, borrowing/stealing best practices, and inspiring one another.

I recommend that other education leaders/policymakers follow Dr. McQueen’s example and join educators in these authentic conversations, and develop more ways to build community and promote collaboration at the school and district level.

2. Research supporting independent reading

Question for readers: What is the best research out there to support independent reading? I know that all students deserve daily time to read in school (and I’m sure you know that, too), but many teachers are forced to defend this practice. I’m planning to organize a list of articles/studies that support independent reading in the classroom, but I have a feeling it already exists…Any links would be greatly appreciated!

In the meantime, here are the results from my students’ end-of-year reading survey. Feel free to use any or all of the questions with your own readers!

End of Year Survey Project LIT 23. Book club tips

A few tips for those looking to start a classroom, school or community-wide book club:

  • Start small – whether it’s one class, a few students, or a group of teachers. It will grow naturally over time.
  • Determine your purpose & audience – Why are you doing it? What do you hope to accomplish? Who do you want to engage?
  • Work together to select the book(s) – be sure the readers are excited about the book(s) you’re reading, even if it’s throwing out three options and letting students pick their favorite.
  • Work together to secure enough copies – empower students to develop a fundraising campaign. Students can work together to create social media graphics and short video clips, apply for local grants, and write persuasive letters to community members.
  • Don’t be afraid to promote – it’s okay to remind folks of upcoming events and share ways they can support you and your students, whether that’s through Facebook & Twitter or email updates.
  • And finally, just do it! It doesn’t have to be fancy. Even if it’s just a few students discussing Dear Martin over donuts or a class enjoying pizza together as they discuss Long Way Down, it’s absolutely worth it.

Nic 1

4. What if…

What if we ensured that all students could see themselves on the shelves in all of our classroom libraries?

What if we guaranteed that every child, every day, in every school had the chance to read for at least 20 minutes in a quiet, comfortable environment?

5. Our students are reading role models

In our #ProjectLITchat this week, I loved hearing educators discuss successful “reading buddies” programs at their schools.

We’ve got to make it easier for our high school students to read to/mentor local middle and elementary school students…the value for both groups (the older and younger students) is tremendous!

6. Book of the Week

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Beautiful, breathtaking novel full of sprawling sentences that I wanted to read over and over again. Shout out to Barack Obama for the recommendation!

Book Stack Exit West

7. Announcements

Join us tonight (1/21) for our next #ProjectLITchat!

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Nashville readers, here’s how you can discuss Dear Martin over the next few weeks. We’re organizing community discussions on 1/27 and 2/10 (10 AM at Frothy Monkey in the Nations).

We’re also hosting our student-run Project LIT Book Club, featuring best-selling author Nic Stone, on February 2 in the Maplewood HS library.

DM Book Club 2

Have a wonderful week, and thanks so much for reading! If there’s anything you’d like me to address in a future blog post, don’t hesitate to reach out via Twitter, email (jarred.amato@gmail.com), or in the comments below.

The Sunday 7: Author visit, independent reading, the need for diverse books & more

In case you missed last week’s post, one of my goals for 2018 is to get back to writing. The plan is to publish a weekly blog post, the “Sunday Seven,” where I share classroom strategies, book recommendations, Project LIT Community updates, and other literacy and education thoughts.

1.  Project LIT Book Club Announcement

It’s official: Best-selling author Nic Stone will be joining us for our next book club on February 2! Check out this announcement video and you’ll get a sense for how much this means to our students.

The video also highlights what Project LIT Community is all about – empowering students to increase book access (and access to diverse books, in particular) and promote a love of reading.

Give students daily time to read, discuss and celebrate books like Dear Martin, and this is what happens. Not only are our students becoming more passionate and proficient readers, they’re also gaining valuable real-world skills (event planning, social media and marketing, graphic design, communication, leadership, etc.) as they continue to transform our community.

2. Book recommendation: I Am Alfonso Jones

This book hit me hard. I’m going to be thinking about Alfonso for a long time, and plan to add multiple copies of Tony Medina’s graphic novel to my classroom library. (It also could make a wonderful #ProjectLITBookClub selection for 2018-19).

Alfonso Jones

3. Making the case for independent reading

Thanks to Tatiana DeWitt (@TatianaDeWitt) for posing this question on Twitter recently:  “Middle and high school ELA teachers: What are your thoughts on sustained silent reading? Do you use it in your classroom? Is it effective?”

It was wonderful to read through all of the responses and see one educator after another speak to the importance of giving students daily time to read.

As the amazing Lauren Deal (@lpdeal) tweeted: “If I tell students that reading is important but then say I don’t want to use valuable class time for it, I’m undermining my own message.” Exactly!

In my classroom, students spend the first 20 to 30 minutes of our block reading, and it’s a game-changer on so many levels. I shared more thoughts on this in a recent podcast with the wonderful Linda Dunnavant and Education Conversations.

book stack

4. Four takeaways from Kelly Gallagher’s workshop

I recently attended a full-day workshop with Kelly (thanks so much to Lipscomb Academy for organizing the event) and as I reviewed my notes, a few lines were worth repeating here:

“You can teach every single standard, but if students don’t read and write more, it won’t matter.”

“With the 4 x 4 approach – 4 big essays, 4 books (which students often fake read) per year – a student’s ability will stay the same, not improve.”

“Time is the currency of education, so we need to ask: How do we spend the limited time we are given? Is this the right lesson for these students right now? Is this learning experience worthy of the time it will cost? Is there another way to approach this that will be better?”

“To increase the volume of reading and writing, we have to change the structure of our class.”

Couldn’t agree more. Thankful, as always, for Kelly’s work!

5. We have to make it easier for teachers to add diverse books to their classroom

Project LIT Community is sending three copies of Dear Martin to a lucky Twitter follower. The fact that more than 400 educators have entered in the giveaway over the past two days reminded me that we have to make it easier for teachers to get these important books into students’ hands.

What’s it going to take? Two things: Funding and support!

Teachers should not have to purchase these books (or spend countless hours fundraising) for their classroom libraries. Additionally, teachers should not have to waste energy defending/justifying why their students are reading and discussing diverse books. Instead, they should be encouraged and supported.

Shout out to all of the educators who are making it happen despite the obstacles. Our students are thankful!

DM copies

6. Nothing better than talking to students about books

One of last week’s highlights: Rodrea, upon finishing Jason Reynolds’ masterpiece, Long Way Down, calls me over to her desk and says: “How Reynolds gonna do me like that?!” My thoughts exactly…

Another highlight: Olivia coming by my classroom in the morning to talk about Tiffany Jackson’s Allegedly. She’s been reading it at home and wanted to know if Mary was innocent or guilty. I told her there was no I way I was going to spoil it for her (or you, if you haven’t read it yet), while adding that the ending will leave her speechless!

olivia allegedly

7. ICYMI: Last week’s #ProjectLITchat

Check out all of the resources and strategies shared during last week’s amazing Twitter chat. (We’re hosting our next chat on January 21 — 7 ET/6 CT).

ProjectLITchat 1-7 SUMMARY 1

Inspired by a suggestion from all-star teacher and Project LIT site leader Kimiko Pettis (@kcpteachertips), I had students create mind maps for Justyce, the protagonist of Dear Martin. Great way for students to demonstrate understanding of characters in any novel…

mind maps

Wishing everyone a wonderful week, and as always, happy reading! And if there’s anything you’d like me to address in a future blog post, don’t hesitate to reach out via Twitter, email (jarred.amato@gmail.com), or in the comments below. Thanks!

Jarred

The Sunday 7: #OneWord2018, Dear Martin, #BookSnaps, Quick Writes, Mentor Sentences & more

My One Word for 2018? It’s simple: Write.

So, here we go. The goal is to publish a weekly blog post, “The Sunday 7,” where I share seven reflections/strategies/activities/book recommendations that I hope educators will find helpful as they head into their classroom Monday morning.

1. What’s your #OneWord2018?

I know there are lots of outstanding #OneWord2018 lesson plans out there, but I kept it pretty simple with my high school students. We brainstormed for a few minutes and helped students decide on just one word. The key is to make sure that these words remain visible for students, and that we take time to revisit our words and goals throughout the semester. Otherwise, these words end up just like most of our resolutions – useless.

OneWord182. Another easy & engaging writing activity is the six-word memoir.

Students had fun capturing their mindset/approach to 2018 in exactly six words.

The six-word memoir also works great as a warm-up (Sum up your weekend in six words) or exit ticket (summarize today’s lesson in six words) or independent reading response (describe the main character or central conflict in six words) in any lesson.

6word183. Don’t underestimate the power of a shared text

I’m obviously a huge fan of choice, but we decided to start the second semester with a shared text – Nic Stone’s Dear Martin – and it has been incredible! Here are a few of the comments I overheard this week as we read aloud the first four chapters:

“I’m gonna finish this book tonight!”

“Wow, I didn’t realize how much we read because we were so into it!” “ I wanna read the next chapter so bad.”

“Can we keep reading?”

“I didn’t think it’d be so much fun to read it together.”

Priceless. (Side note: This is what happens when you let students read books that matter, books that they can see themselves in, books that are relevant and realistic, books that make them laugh and cry and question.)

We also were able to have awesome discussions re: this question: “What makes a good story?

Elements of Story

4. #BookSnaps are a game-changer!

Seriously, check out what students came up with in a matter of minutes. After we finished reading, I had students go back through the text and find a page that spoke to them and “annotate” it. Some were so excited with their #BookSnap they went ahead and shared it on their personal Instagram and Snapchat accounts (which has the added benefit of getting their friends excited about reading). NOTE: Since I don’t have Snapchat, students send them to me via email.

5. Another 2018 goal: 10-minute quick writes every class period

With lots of choice and lots of sharing. For example, this week, after reading Dear Martin, I listed the following options on the board:

-Write a “Dear Martin” or “Dear ______” letter

-Write a letter to the author, Nic Stone

-Write your own short story or script

-Write a poem from the point of view of Justyce or one that explores similar themes

-Anything else that you feel like writing!

I then set a timer for 10 minutes and let students go. I sat at an open seat in the middle of the room and joined them. When the timer went off, we stopped and shared. The result? Page after page of INCREDIBLE writing (I’ll be sure to share examples throughout the week on Twitter).

Why? Reading Dear Martin gave students the confidence to write openly about issues they care about (yet another reason reading and writing should always go hand-in-hand). The 10 minutes of complete silence, along with the opportunity to then share their words with others, provided students with the structure, environment and community they crave.

Dear Martin Nic Letter

Also, for the teachers out there who spend too much time lesson planning, here’s the first 35 minutes of my block EVERY day: 20 minutes of reading, 10 minutes of writing, 5 minutes of sharing.

6. Mentor sentences are magical

One of the major takeaways from Kelly Gallagher’s workshop earlier this week – “revision should happen at the sentence level first, not the essay level.”

He’s exactly right! And so, we’re going to spend time analyzing mentor sentences, particularly great lines from some of our favorite books. (Shout out to Jared Reck for sharing this idea on Twitter!)

For example, in our analysis of this opening sentence from Dear Martin, we were able to discuss colons, commas/appositive phrases, and vivid words in a matter of minutes. Much more engaging – and effective – than a grammar worksheet…

Mentor Text DM7. Let high school students sleep!

In our Nashville high schools, the doors open at 6:45. First period starts at 7:05. Due to the cold temperatures this week, we had a couple of two-hour delays, and wow, what a difference it made! My first block, which started at a reasonable 9:05, was livelier than it’s been all year. You could even argue that students were just as productive in five hours (9-2) than the normal seven (we shortened classes and eliminated our RTI block).

All of the research says teenagers need more sleep – let’s make that happen.

Thanks to all of you for reading and sharing! Hope you can join us tonight for our #ProjectLITchat on Twitter. Have a great week!

Jarred

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Best books of 2017 and 8 hopes for 2018

Happy New Year, everyone. One of my goals for 2018 is to get back to writing, so here it goes!

Best books of 2017

2017 was an incredible year of reading! While I have a hard time ranking books (it’s like ranking ice cream flavors), here are some of my favorites:

2017 Reads Amato

Several are 2017-18 Project LIT Book Club selections – All American Boys, The Hate U Give, A Long Walk to Water, Solo, Dear Martin, March, Refugee, Long Way Down, Wonder, and Patina – and I have a feeling others may end up on next year’s list…

Three tips I have for educators looking to read more in 2018:

  1. Give students daily time to read in class. They’ll crave the routine, and so will you! Although I spend some of our independent reading time circulating the classroom and checking in with students, most of my time is spent reading alongside them. Modeling matters!
  2. Read what your students are reading. Looking build relationships with your students? Talk to them about what they’re reading and then grab yourself a copy. (Side note: Teachers can’t be “selfish” readers. If you’re not reading what your students are reading, or worse, you’re judging/criticizing students’ selections, you’re doing it wrong.)
  3. Start or join a book club: Because we all need a little peer pressure and accountability! Also, if you’re a K-12 educator, complete this form if you’re interested in learning more about Project LIT Community.

Project LIT Community

Happy New Year

Thanks to everyone who has supported Project LIT Community over the past year, particularly the 50+ educators across the country who have launched their own Project LIT chapters! Cannot wait to see what 2018 has in store for us…

It’s pretty surreal to re-read this blog post, and see how much we have already accomplished. More thoughts on this later, but in the meantime, here are some of our 2017 highlights:

Mr. Amato receives Penguin Random House Teacher Award for Literacy

First Book Blog Post: Seeding Book Deserts with Diverse Books

Tennessean: ‘Project Lit’ takes aim at Nashville’s book deserts

There’s a (Project)LIT Movement Spreading Like Wildfire and I’m Here For It

The Horn Book: Reading Is LIT: How a Classroom Project Can Impact an Entire Community

8 hopes for 2018

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  1. That all students have daily time to read high-quality, culturally relevant books in school.
  2. That all students have daily opportunities to discuss these books with caring peers and adults.
  3. That all communities commit to increasing access to diverse books.
  4. That all schools commit to creating a positive reading culture, and that all leaders take time to be readers.
  5. That more adults and community members spend time reading and talking about books with our young people.
  6. That we listen more to teachers and students, particularly when it comes to literacy.
  7. That we spend more money on what matters – great books for our students.
  8. That we refuse to take shortcuts or search for quick fixes, and instead focus on doing the little things day in and day out that it takes to build lifelong readers.

What are your hopes for 2018? Share them in the comments or on Twitter using the #ProjectLITchat hashtag!

Happy New Year, and as always, happy reading!

Jarred