What an English block should look like: Making second-half adjustments

The purpose of this post is to revisit this piece I wrote back in July and reflect on what worked well during the first semester and what needs to be tweaked as we get ready for the second half of the school year.

Going into the year, I had five priorities:

  1. Increase the volume of student reading and writing.
  2. Commit to 20-30 minutes of self-selected, independent reading every class period.
  3. Read and write poetry with students all the time, not just in one April unit.
  4. Implement the “Article of the Week” with fidelity.
  5. Design meaningful grammar/ACT prep.

Here’s how I fared in each area.

Goal #1: Increase the volume of reading and writing in my classroom.semester-i-reflection

How’d it go? I’m extremely proud of the quality and quantity of my students’ reading and writing. I’m a firm believer that students have to read and write a lot (and enjoy both) in order to improve, and they certainly did.

I’m proud that my sophomores were able to write three well-developed essays during the first semester — one explanatory, one argumentative (on the future of self-driving cars), and one narrative (an original short story) – in addition to their Article of the Week responses, poetry, independent reading tasks, and other smaller, less formal pieces.

Students also had multiple opportunities to write for authentic audiences, whether it was their persuasive letters to local businesses asking for their help to eliminate book deserts, or their heartfelt and informed letters to President Obama with their take on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Furthermore, students constantly evaluated and revised their own writing thanks to a) color-coding their work in Google Classroom, b) student-friendly checklists, and c) constant self-reflection.

One area I want to get better at in 2017: allowing students time and space to read one another’s work and offer meaningful peer-to-peer feedback.

Goal #2: Commit to 20-30 minutes of self-selected, independent reading every class period.

How’d it go? For my sophomores (many of whom I have now taught for two or three years), we hit the ground running and never looked back. I provided my students with comfortable seating, choice, and time, and they responded by reading an average of three novels apiece each quarter. (Here are 54 of the books that we enjoyed in 2016). books-read-2016

With my freshmen, the process of nurturing enthusiastic readers has taken a bit longer – as expected. Changing reading attitudes and mindsets doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a process that I love!

As I got to know my students better, it became easier to match students with just-right books. While we’re not at 100 percent engagement just yet, my students are beginning to embrace our reading routine, and I’m looking forward to seeing things “click” for even more freshmen this semester.

I’ve also had great success with informal book clubs, where groups of students have chosen to read and discuss the same novel. Over the past few years, I’ve been intentional about adding multiple copies of high-interest, diverse books to my classroom library.

Following independent reading, students completed short writing tasks related to their novels. For example, students enjoyed writing:

  • journal entries from the point of view of their favorite characters
  • critical book reviews that analyzed plot, conflict, theme, setting, etc.
  • letters to the author (that many were actually able to email to the authors)

I have found that creative writing tasks like the ones above, as opposed to reading logs or worksheets, are a great way to a) check for student comprehension, b) teach or re-teach important reading and writing standards, and c) increase engagement and appreciation for reading.

Goal #3: Read and write poetry all the time, not just in one unit.poem

How’d it go? This one was hit and miss. Again, the process of writing and sharing poetry with my sophomores was much easier. Each sophomore wrote at least seven original poems, and we plan to publish an anthology in the spring. I can’t wait to share them all with you – they’re outstanding.

As for my freshmen, I think I underestimated how much relationships matter when it comes to poetry. In order for students to open up and be vulnerable, they need to have complete trust in their teacher and classmates – and that takes time. I need to be better about creating that environment in the new year.

Here’s the first step: I plan to read Kwame Alexander’s Crossover with all of my classes in January as part of Project LIT Community’s first book club. I’m willing to bet that a number of students will love poetry by the end of the month.

Furthermore, I’m looking to dedicate at least 10-15 minutes each week to poetry – this will include sharing a “Poem of the Week” and giving students quiet time to write their own.

Goal #4: Implement “Article of the Week” with fidelity

How’d it go? Thank you, Kelly Gallagher! The AoW has been one of the best additions to my classroom, and I highly suggest all secondary English and History teachers find a way to make it work with their students.

Here’s a look at what we’ve read and discussed this semester thanks to the AoW:

  • “A Survivor Remembers 9/11”
  • “Obama says Colin Kaepernick is exercising his constitutional right”
  • “Anne Frank is the new Syrian girl”
  • “The travesty of book deserts”
  • “The dark side of going for gold”
  • “An Ethiopian medalist just led a protest that could land him in jail”
  • “The significance of Simone Manuel’s swim is clear if you know Jim Crow”
  • “Too much TV and chill could reduce brain power over time”
  • “Here’s how much your HS grades predict your salary”
  • “NBA superstars give powerful speech at ESPY Awards”
  • “Reading books can help you live longer”
  • “Future of self-driving cars”
  • “Trump elected 45th president of United States”
  • “Cleveland’s Unthinking Racism”
  • “Teen pregnancy on the decline”kaep-1

Usually, I’ll have students read and annotate the article (usually between 600 and 1,000 words), and then write a 2-paragraph response. The first paragraph is a well-written, objective summary. The second is an opportunity for students to share their thoughts, make connections, and ask questions.

When the topic is particularly intriguing or controversial, we’ll extend the assignment further and engage in a class debate/discussion and conduct further research on the topic. I loved the fact that a few of these articles naturally evolved into 1-2 week mini-units.

Two other assignments that my students enjoyed related to the AoW:

  1. Our final essay of the first quarter asked students to identify a common theme in three of the texts we read. As a result, students ended up writing about the hypocrisy of America, the bravery and heroism of athletes, and the power of reading, among other topics.
  2. Recently, students summarized the top news stories of 2016 to write a “Year in Review” poem or rap. Highly recommend it.

Goal #5: Design meaningful grammar/ACT prep

How’d it go? This year, I tried to focus on one or two specific skills each week. As a result, by the end of the semester, my students were much more comfortable identifying dependent and independent clauses, combining sentences, fixing run-ons, using proper subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement, incorporating commas, semi-colons, and colons correctly, and citing quotes from the text.

By committing to 20-30 minutes per week of targeted grammar instruction and practice, my students’ writing and ACT English scores improved, and I plan to continue with this approach (with different skills) in 2017.

What changes do I plan to make this semester?

Based on student feedback from December, here’s what my classroom will look like in 2017:

  • Daily independent reading, including our monthly book club selection
  • Even more student choice and opportunities for creative writing, including poetry and short stories, and self-selected research assignments
  • Continue assigning Articles of the Week that expose students to current events, world problems, and technological debates
  • Additional opportunities for class debate and discussion
  • Better peer review protocols
  • Meaningful, targeted ACT/grammar practice

What am I missing? What does your English block look like? I’d love to hear your feedback. Wishing you and your students all the best in 2017!


The 54 books I read in 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, I wanted to revisit the 54 books I had the pleasure of reading (and then recommending to my students) over the past 52 weeks.

In short, all 54 are phenomenal. I have no problem quitting on a book  (life’s too short to read books we’re not into), and all of these kept me hooked from beginning to end.

Whether it was to help us empathize or escape or to allow us to better understand others or ourselves, my students and I are better people because of these books.

Perhaps the best part of putting together this list was thinking about the students that I now associate with each book. For example, I know that Selena loved Pax and that Jakaylia sprinted through Ghost, while Rodrea adored Full Cicada Moon and Zach devoured The Serpent King. Chelsea read everything by Kiera Cass, David loved Response, and Adrian and Sean read everything by Matt de la Pena. Lauren’s favorite was Copper Sun, Desiree enjoyed The Absolutely Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Jay flew through Boy 21, and Kiara is now a huge fan of Kwame Alexander.

While I know many of you are just scrolling down to the list, so you can add books to your “TBR” pile or classroom library (and I don’t blame you one bit), here are a few final takeaways:

  • By exposing my students to the books on this list (along with hundreds of others), they are now much more likely to see the lifelong joy and value of reading.
  • By giving my students TIME to read in class + CHOICE in what they read, I’ve seen their reading attitude & ability improve dramatically.
  • My passion for reading rubs off on students. My students know (and see) that I’m a reader, which makes it easier for me to sell them on it, too. They trust my recommendations and appreciate that I practice what I preach.
  • I love playing the role of matchmaker: connecting students with books that I know they’ll fall in love with.
  • Here’s a sequence that never gets old: Step 1. Student asks, “Mr. Amato, what should I read?” Step 2: Knowing that student, I suggest two or three books that I think he/she will enjoy. Step 3: Student picks one, and begins reading it (both in class and at home). Step 4: When student gives the book back a week or two later, I ask what he/she thought of it. “I loved it. Any recommendations for what should I read next?” Step 5: Repeat!
  • We have a responsibility to expose ALL of our children to diverse books. Our students need to see themselves in the books they read, and that can only happen if we give them the opportunity. The list below is a perfect place to start!


Books Read 2016 2.jpg


Books Read 2016 4.jpg

Books Read 2016 5.jpg

Before you go to Amazon or your local bookstore to order some of these books, I have two final requests:

1. Let me know what books my students and I need to read in 2017!

2. Order one (or more) of these books for Project LIT Community, an organization my students and I started this year to increase book access and spread a love of reading in Nashville. You can ship them to:

Maplewood High School (attn: Jarred Amato)

401 Walton Ln

Nashville, TN 37216

Happy holidays!

10 Things I Learned from my Students’ End-of-Semester Reflections

semester-i-reflectionAt the end of each semester, my students organize their writing into a portfolio in Google Classroom. The portfolio includes a table of contents page, all of their major writing assignments, and most importantly – a self-reflection.

After reviewing all of their writing from the semester, students answered the following questions:

  • How did your writing improve this semester?
  • What writing assignment was your favorite this semester, and why?
  • What writing assignment was your least favorite this semester, and why?
  • What kind of writing would you like to do more/less of next semester?
  • How can Mr. Amato help you improve your writing?

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Students love to argue. Shocker, I know. But, as teachers, why not capitalize on that?! Nearly all students said they enjoyed arguing for or against the use of self-driving cars. As one sophomore wrote, “I loved the topic and being able to give my opinion about what’s going to happen in the future.” Another added, “I feel like argumentative essays bring out the best in my writing.” You can bet that we’re going to continue reading, writing, and discussing relevant, controversial texts next semester.
  2. Students crave – and deserve – choice. Their favorite assignment from the semester, even more than the argumentative essay, was the original short story. Why? “Because we got to completely make up our own story with our own characters and events,” wrote one student. “I enjoy writing about topics of my own rather being told what to write,” reflected another. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Choice + support = engagement.
  3. To that end, we need to trust students. Confession: I almost didn’t assign the short story because of how open-ended it was (I gave my students some general requirements, but for the most part, left it entirely up to them). I was afraid that my students would get stuck, that they would need more structure or direction, that they would “fail.” I’m so glad that I overcame my own fears and desire for control and empowered my students to use their imagination. As one student wrote, “My favorite assignment this semester was the short story because it gave me a chance to be creative…It was the first story I ever wrote so it’s special to me and I’m really proud of my story.” And to think that I almost didn’t give her that opportunity…
  4. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. While this is a no-brainer for most English teachers, I loved that students made the connection between reading & writing in their reflections. In fact, one wise student wrote that “reading really helped me change the way I write.” YES, yes it did!
  5. Creative writing such as poetry and short stories has tremendous social/emotional value. A number of students asked for more time to read and write poems, while others enjoyed writing stories based on their own lives. As one student said, “I put my life into a story and writing it took some relief off my shoulders.” I firmly believe that an English classroom should be a safe, therapeutic place for students – where reading and writing are tools to help them through this crazy thing we call life.
  6. Volume matters. It wasn’t one particular essay that helped my students improve dramatically from August to December – it was the fact that we were always writing. As one student put it, “The more we wrote, the more my writing flowed.”
  7. Students appreciated outlines and graphic organizers. Writing is not about meeting a certain word count or number of paragraphs. It’s about being to organize your thoughts in a clear, logical manner. To that end, several students said they enjoyed having different outlines, depending on the task and purpose, to help them “sort out my thoughts before actually writing.”
  8. Authentic audiences matter. A number of students said they enjoyed writing letters to the authors of books they read this semester. Why? “Because I could tell them how I felt about their books,” wrote one student. “I enjoyed praising his book,” said another. Main takeaway: students need opportunities to write for real audiences – not just their teacher.
  9. Targeted grammar instruction that students can apply to their writing is still important. For example, one student wrote, “Learning subject-verb agreement gave me a leg up and it’s still improving by the minute,” while another added, “At first I only knew how to use commas, but now I know how to use semi-colons, too.” I spent 10-20 minutes per week on a few important skills – commas, semi-colons, subject-verb agreement, combining sentences, fragments/run-ons, etc. – and based on student feedback, will continue with a similar approach next semester.
  10. Their reflections will shape the writing we do next semester. You can bet that I’m going to take their suggestions into account as I sit down and plan over winter break. Here’s what my students said they’d like even more of next semester:
  • Creative writing, especially short stories
  • Poetry to read and write about
  • Writing that I can put my imagination into
  • Writing about things that I’m interested in
  • Essays on current events and problems in the world
  • New technology debates
  • Controversial topics and argumentative essays
  • ACT grammar practice

I can’t wait to get started!

Proud to announce Project LIT Community

This post will explain:

  • The inspiration for Project LIT Community
  • How Maplewood students plan to increase book access in Nashville, so that all children can become lifelong readers
  • How you can help! (If you’re short on time, this video would be a great place to start)

    Growing up in a book desert significantly decreases a child’s chances of becoming an avid reader or writer.

Problem: Over the summer, I came across this article in The Atlantic, which described the immediate and longer-term effects of growing up in a “book desert,” or community with limited access to books.

According to childhood- and literacy-education researcher Susan Neuman, “when there are no books, or when there are so few that choice is not an option, book reading becomes an occasion and not a routine.” Consequently, the likelihood that children growing up in book deserts become avid readers and writers is slim.

Book deserts are a nationwide problem. Unfortunately, Nashville is no exception. While we are fortunate to have a wonderful public library system and several phenomenal non-profit organizations, the reality is that many students still struggle to find books outside of school.

Solution: Despite living in a book desert, my sophomores at Maplewood High School (many of whom I have now taught for two or three years) are voracious readers and deeply understand the joy and value of reading. Now, I have empowered them to ensure that more children in our community love reading, as well.

We recently launched an organization, Project LIT (Libraries in the) Community. Our mission is to inspire all Nashville children to become lifelong readers by making books more accessible and creating excitement about reading.

So, how are we going to do it?

Phase 1 – Research: Students began the year by researching book deserts and understanding their impact on communities, including their own. Students listed places in Nashville where they could currently purchase or check out books, and brainstormed other locations that would benefit from more books. From there, students wrote persuasive letters to community members and business leaders, which described Project LIT Community and how they could help.fundraiser goal.jpg

Phase 2 – Book Collection: We recently launched a book drive with the goal of collecting 5,000 new and used books to place in little libraries. Thanks to the generosity of community members like Shereen Cook, Liz Eskridge, Amy Phelan, and Matt Rubinstein, and foundations such as PENCIL and the Nashville Predators, we have already gathered more than 1,000 books, and a recent grant will soon allow us to double or triple that amount.

Phase 3 – Build and Design Little Libraries: Thanks to a generous donation from Gannett, the plan is to transform USA Today and Tennessean newspaper stands into little libraries. Once the stands are delivered to Maplewood next week, we will begin to paint and decorate them with the Project LIT Community brand. In addition to converting newspaper stands, we will also build little libraries with the help and support of the Nashville Public Library and Turnip Green Creative Reuse.

Phase 4 – Forming Library Partnerships: No one knows the community better than our students. Therefore, students have already begun to form partnerships with local businesses, churches, hospitals, community centers, barbershops, restaurants, daycares, etc. Once the little libraries are ready (painted and stocked with books), we will begin to place them inside these organizations.

Phase 5 – Sustainability of Libraries: Students will work with partners to ensure that the libraries remain functional. While the libraries will operate with the “take one, leave one” model, we recognize that we may need to deliver additional books to some locations where more individuals are checking out books than dropping them off.

Phase 6 – Spread Love of Reading: My students will also be charged with inspiring other children in their community to become avid readers. This will happen in formal and informal ways. We plan to partner with a local elementary school to create a reading buddies program, where our students will read to elementary students at least twice a month. We also plan to create reading “teams,” with my students serving as “reading captains.” The goal is for Maplewood students to get other children (family, friends, neighbors, etc.) to a) join Project LIT Community and then b) read, read, read! We will have lists of recommended reads (books that we know will hook even the most reluctant reader) and fun events such as our reading marathon to create a reading-going culture throughout the community. There is tremendous power in positive peer pressure!

Phase 7 – Share Successes: In May, we will present our year-one accomplishments (including a documentary), plan improvements for year two, and discuss ways to bring the project to scale (city, state, and nation-wide).

True Project-Based Learning project lit class pic.JPG

In addition to solving a serious problem in their community, students will gain valuable real-world experience in several areas. Every student will utilize his or her strengths and passions to make this project successful. ALL students will gain valuable skills while also receiving mentoring and support from adults in their desired professions. Possible work teams include:

  • Design & Engineering Team: D& E team members will be responsible for designing, constructing, and decorating the Little Free Libraries. Whether it’s creating a logo, brochure, or poster, these students will also utilize their art and graphic design skills to enhance the project.
  • Fundraising Team: These students will lead the fundraising efforts, coordinating the book drive and contacting potential partners for financial donations.
  • Logistics Team: These students will inventory and organize books upon collection, tag each book with a Project LIT Community sticker, and coordinate the distribution of books into the community.
  • Site Managers: These students will be responsible for identifying organizations that agree to display little libraries, and communicating with these partners to ensure sustainability of the libraries.
  • Marketing and Advertising Team: These students will be responsible for creating buzz and awareness about the project, and running the Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat accounts. They will create a social media campaign to generate buzz and awareness about the project. They will also create and run a website.
  • Media Team: These students will contact local and national media for press coverage, and conduct all interview requests. They are comfortable in front of and behind the camera.
  • Reading Team: These students will be responsible for reading to younger children in the community, formally in elementary schools, as well as informally their homes and communities.
  • Reading Captains: All students will be charged with spreading their love of reading and encouraging others to join Project LIT Community.

How can you help?logo

  • You can donate used or new books (for readers of all ages) to Maplewood High School (401 Walton Ln, Nashville, TN 37216). You can mail them or drop them during school hours.
  • Encourage friends and colleagues to donate, as well!
  • Let us know if you would like to place a little library in your business or organization.
  • Email Mr. Amato (jarred.amato@mnps.org) with any questions or suggestions!

Making the case for “Article of the Week” in an English classroom

It’s hard to believe that we’re already approaching the end of the first quarter of the school year in Nashville. As I reflect on the first six-and-a-half weeks, a few things stand out:

  1. There is tremendous value in looping. I’m teaching three sections of English I and three sections of English II, which means that I have the pleasure of working with many sophomores for a second year, and several students for a third (I previously taught eighth grade English in the same cluster).
  2. I’m proud to announce the launch of Project LIT (Libraries In The) Community, a student-run organization dedicated to increasing book access and eliminating book deserts in East Nashville. Follow our PBL journey by checking out the #ProjectLITCommunity hashtag on Twitter.
  3. The addition of the “Article of the Week” (inspired by Kelly Gallagher and Dave Stuart Jr.) to my classroom has been a game-changer. By exposing my students to relevant non-fiction articles every week, I’ve already seen tremendous growth in my students’ reading, writing, thinking, and communicating.

By assigning the AoW, my students and I have already been able to:aows

  • Compare and contrast the Holocaust with the Syrian refugee crisis, and write persuasive letters to President Obama
  • Analyze the effect of book deserts on our community, and write letters to potential partners of Project LIT Community
  • Use the speech given by LeBron James and fellow NBA superstars at the ESPY Awards as inspiration for our own poems on what it’s like growing up in America today
  • Understand the effects of excessive TV watching on the brain, and the importance of reading books for at least 20 minutes a day
  • Examine the significance of Simone Manuel’s Olympic victory and impact of Jim Crow on African American swimmers
  • Discuss the heroism of Ethiopian runner Fiyesa Lilesa, and whether we would have the courage to do the same
  • Explore the post-Olympic depression that many athletes suffer from, and the importance of having multiple goals and interests

In this post, I wanted to describe the process that I use for the Article of the Week.

Step 1: Assign Article of the Week

Last week, we read “Obama Says Colin Kaepernick is ‘Exercising his Constitutional Right’” from The New York Times.

First, I had students demonstrate a close reading by annotating the text and making notes in the margins. Then, they answered the following questions:

  1. Complete a 5W & H graphic organizer.
  2. Use the graphic organizer to write a 2-3 sentence summary of the article.
  3. How did President Obama react to Kaepernick’s protest? Be sure to cite evidence from the text in your response.
  4. According to paragraph 7, what was the purpose of Kaepernick’s protest?
  5. Americans had very different reactions to Kaepernick’s protest. Summarize each person’s response (Megan Rapinoe, Jeremy Lane, Santa Clara police officers, etc.) in the graphic organizer below.
  6. YOUR TURN: In your opinion, did Colin Kaepernick make the right decision to protest? Why, or why not? What consequences has/will Kaepernick face because of his decision? What effect will his protest have on America? Would you have done the same thing? Why, or why not?

Step 2: Provide specific feedback on the AoW assignmentKaep 1.jpg

For each AoW assignment, I focus on specific questions to review and offer feedback. In this case, I paid close attention to the students’ summaries (question #2) since it’s a skill we have been practicing all year, as well as their reflections (question #6). I wanted to let students know that I valued and appreciated their thoughts on the topic, so that they would feel confident and comfortable sharing in our upcoming class discussion.

Step 3: Show & discuss short video to provide more background on topic

Students wrote down at least five important facts or comments they heard during this video. We then shared out & engaged in a brief discussion.

Step 4: Respect and understand both sides of the issue.

Before stating on our own thoughts on the topic, we made a T-chart of valid reasons to agree and disagree with Colin Kaepernick. We also looked at YouTube and Instagram comments as examples of what unproductive and hateful discourse looks like.

Step 5: Write one powerful sentence that states your opinion on the topic.

Before sharing our opinions aloud, each student wrote one strong claim (essentially a thesis statement) about Colin Kaepernick. I circulated the room, providing individual feedback/affirmation for each student upon completion.

Step 6: Students share their responses aloud with the class.

For this discussion, I simply asked each student to read what he or she had written. I loved this approach because it a) allowed everyone’s voice to be heard and valued, b) ensured that no person(s) could dominate the discussion, c) eliminated any fear of being attacked for having a different opinion, and d) kept the conversation focused.

As students read their statements, I had students fill out a chart with their classmates’ names and a summary of their response, which helped them be attentive listeners.

Step 7: Reflect on the discussion

The final step is perhaps the most important. After everyone had shared, we revisited our initial statements and reflected on the following questions:

  • What did you learn from your classmates during the discussion?
  • What did you hear that was interesting?
  • Did your opinion change at all? Why, or why not?

Here’s what some students had to say:

“After the discussion, I am kind of on the fence. I don’t really know which side I stand. There were a lot of good points, and it definitely changed my view.”

“Everybody was positive and expressed their opinion. It was interesting to hear what people said. I didn’t change my opinion because I like where I stand on the issue and I feel where he’s coming from.”

“I got a better understanding of the other side of Kaepernick’ s protest. I noticed people were against him due to the disrespect towards veterans, which is fair. However, my opinion didn’t change because I still believe that we need to bring attention to the problems in America.”

“My opinion did not change, but I did get to listen to other opinions from my peers. I liked how CLASSMATE said that Kaepernick is brave for putting his career in jeopardy.”

“I liked both sides of the discussion. Some opinions made me get into a neutral position because I agree with both sides. I think everyone proved their points well. I think CLASSMATE’S claim was interesting because she stated the fact that it would get Kaepernick’s career in trouble.”

As I tweeted the other day, our responsibility as educators is not to force all students to agree. Rather, it is to teach them to defend their beliefs while respecting those with different ones. Through this AoW process, I am able to do that.

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.