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!

How I approach the 90-minute English block

Every summer I reflect on the successes and challenges of the past year, and decide what’s worth continuing, abandoning, and adding. However, I always seem to run into the same problem: there’s not enough time to do it all!

In Nashville, our high schools run on a block schedule, which means that I teach my English I and II students for 90 minutes every other day (an average of 225 minutes per week). That number will drop to around 200 minutes per week if we incorporate a daily 45-minute intervention period as expected.

What, then, should an 80-to-90-minute English block look like at the high school or middle school level? In my opinion, that depends on two things: a) the purpose of your class, and b) the needs of your students. For me, the two go hand-in-hand.

My goal is to inspire my students to see the lifelong value of reading and writing, and to ensure that they have the literacy skills needed to choose any path upon graduation. Ultimately, there are no magic formulas or shortcuts to success.  I know that my students must read and write a lot (and enjoy both) in order to improve. They also need consistent feedback and encouragement from me, so here’s what I prioritize:

Daily Independent Reading Time: The first 20 to 30 minutes of my block is dedicated to independent reading of self-selected books, and my students and I wish it could be even longer. Students quickly learn to come in quietly with their book, find a comfortable place to sit, and begin reading. By providing my students with consistent time and choice, I have seen their reading attitude & ability improve dramaticallyMP read

This structure also helps minimize many of the challenges that my students face as readers, such as their cell phone addiction, short attention spans, and lack of interest or motivation, and inspires students to read more outside of school than they otherwise would.

During this time, I am conferencing with students about their books, making recommendations, giving short book talks, motivating reluctant readers, providing positive reinforcement, and often, simply finding a spot in the room to read alongside them. English teachers – heck, all teachers – need to be reading role models if we want to create a strong literacy culture in our schools.

Last year, I experienced some success with literature circles, where groups of students read the same novel & then came together to discuss it, and plan to implement them more consistently in 2016-17.

Independent Reading Response: Following their independent reading, students complete a short task (usually no more than five or 10 minutes) related to their novel. Whether it’s writing a poem or diary entry from the point of view of a character, penning a letter to the author (that students can actually send via email), illustrating a key scene or character, or writing an objective summary, the goal is to reinforce a particular literature or writing standard without “killing” the students’ love of their novel.

Poetry: I am not going to make the mistake of waiting until National Poetry Month to introduce poetry again. In fact, I think I am going to eliminate my “poetry unit” altogether. Instead, my goal is for students to read, perform, analyze, discuss and write poetry all the time.

Why poetry? This article provides five reasons for poetry: “1) It helps us know each other and build community, 2) It’s the most kinesthetic of all literature, activating our heart and soul, 3) Poetry opens venues for speaking and listening, which are often neglected, 4) Poetry is universal and can be easily scaffolded to reach all learners, and 5) Poetry fosters Social and Emotional Learning.” I’d add that poetry is a great way to teach important skills and concepts, such as theme, point of view, word choice, style, structure, mood, tone, and figurative language.

Article of the Week: I am huge fan of Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week,” and plan to continue assigning it this year. Here are the articles Mr. Gallagher assigned every Monday morning during the 2015-16 school year in order to broaden his students’ knowledge of the world.kelly g

My plan is to introduce the article during the first class of the week (usually Monday/Tuesday). Rather than simply assigning the AoW for homework, I will spend time during that period activating or building students’ prior knowledge and generating interest & curiosity about the topic. We will analyze & discuss images and/or video clips related to the article, and preview the text together (scanning the headline, sub-headings, photos/captions, 3-5 teacher-bolded vocabulary words, etc.).

During the first quarter, I will continually model the reading & annotation process, so students are clear about their expectations for the assignment. I will also scaffold the writing process, making sure that students can successfully summarize non-fiction texts (in a sentence and paragraph) before pushing them to write longer and more nuanced reflections. Then, after students have written about the AoW, we will spend 10 to 15 minutes later in the week (usually Thursday/Friday) looking at exemplar student responses and engaging in a spirited discussion/debate about the text.

While Gallagher’s AoWs cover a variety of topics, I plan to select texts that center on a similar theme. During the first semester, our focus will be on social justice and the upcoming presidential election (so feel free to pass along any articles that you think are worth reading!)

Writing Workshop: The rest of the block is usually dedicated to writing workshop, where students are writing for a variety of purposes and audiences, and I am modeling the writing process, presenting targeted mini-lessons and providing one-on-one and small group feedback.

Students are constantly evaluating and improving their own writing (color-coding their work and self-assessing according to student-friendly checklists and rubrics have been extremely effective strategies), although I definitely need to improve my peer editing protocols so that students can better help one another.

This year, I also want to incorporate more of Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, which identifies six major writing categories: express/reflect, inform/explain, evaluate/judge, inquire/explore, analyze/interpret, take a stand/propose a solution. I plan to provide students with multiple opportunities to write for each of these purposes over the course of the year.

What’s missing? What gets left out?

We know that student engagement and achievement increases when a) teachers spend less time lecturing or talking at students, and b) students spend more time actively engaged in learning. Therefore, I try to maximize the time students spend reading, writing, thinking and communicating.

Given that independent reading, poetry, AoWs, and our writing workshop takes up the majority of the block, I don’t have as much time as I would like to provide students with purposeful grammar and vocabulary instruction, although I try to embed both into our AoWs and writing workshop.

Additionally, I’d love to dedicate more time to the research process. While our students may be “digital natives,” the reality is that we need to teach them how to evaluate the credibility of sources, narrow a topic, cite evidence, and organize information.

Feedback

English teachers, I’d love your feedback: How do you structure your English block? What am I missing or forgetting? What do you prioritize? What questions or suggestions do you have? Thanks!

Reading can help us heal: 25 powerful books for teachers & students

I’ve had a hard time sleeping lately. Part of it, certainly, is the more relaxed nature of my summer schedule. But, mostly it’s because I’m scared. Scared for our country, and especially for our children.

Growing up is never easy, but when I imagine what it’s like being a kid today – regardless of race, gender, or class, but especially our black and brown children – my heart breaks.

I often find myself feeling powerless, wondering if love will ever win out over hate, or if we’re headed to a world that I thought only existed in dystopian novels.

However, I also have hope, and as an English teacher, I have at least one solution to help our students (and myself) attempt to make sense of this crazy world and our place in it, and that’s for us to read. And to read a lot.

We know that reading helps us grieve, heal, cope, and escape. We know that reading teaches us about empathy and compassion. We know that reading allows us to see the world and others from different perspectives. We know that reading helps us figure out who we are, and what we stand for. Put simply, we know that reading make us better.

Therefore, as educators and adults, we have a responsibility to expose our children to the wonderful world of literature. While reading alone won’t solve our problems, the real and important conversations we have with our students about what we’ve read is a certainly great place to start.

The good news is that there are many wonderful authors and books to choose from. The following is a list of 25 powerful books that I, along with many of my former middle and high school students, have read and discussed over the past few years.

Whether you are looking for more novels to add to your lit circles or book clubs, or simply need more books to hand to the student that says, “What should I read next?”, this list is a good place to start.

This list focuses on YA novels, both historical and realistic fiction and from a variety of perspectives, that address important universal themes such as prejudice and racism, inequality and injustice, overcoming obstacles, and standing up for what’s right.

Please let me know what books I should to this list (in the comments or on Twitter) because I know there are hundreds. Thanks!

 All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kielyall american boys.png

Amazon Summary: “In an unforgettable new novel from award-winning authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.”

Jarred’s Take: Read this last year thanks to a Twitter recommendation, and was absolutely blown away. The alternating narrator allows readers to better understand both points of view. In my opinion, this is one book that all high school students should read this year.

Anything by Matt de la Peña

Seriously, all six of Matt’s YA novels are tremendous. In fact, I reviewed all of them using a super-scientific 30-point scale, which you can read here. If you don’t feel like checking out the link, the six books are: Ball Don’t Lie, We Were Here, Mexican Whiteboy, The Hunted, The Living, and I Will Save You. Spoiler: you and your students will love them all.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Amazon Summary: “Narrated by two teenage boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of Burma’s many ethnic minorities, this coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family’s home and bamboo fields. Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion when the boys’ stories intersect.”

Jarred’s Take: The summary above says it all. Again, there is tremendous power in novels with multiple POVs, and I plan to get this book in the hands of more readers this year.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Amazon Summary: “Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life–until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father’s prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?”

Jarred’s Take: Fortunately, author Ruta Sepetys resides in Tennessee, so I’m hoping to invite her to Maplewood High School this fall to discuss her moving novel (and soon-to-be movie) with our students.

Black & White by Paul Volpini

Amazon Summary: “Marcus and Eddie are best friends who found the strength to break through the racial barrier. Marcus is black; Eddie is white. Stars of their school basketball team, they are true leaders who look past the stereotypes and come out on top. They are inseparable, watching each other’s backs, both on and off the basketball court. But one night—and one wrong decision—will change their lives forever. Will their mistake cost them their friendship . . . and their future?”

Jarred’s Take: All readers have enjoyed this one, but especially our male athletes. Hoping to secure more copies of it this fall.

Call Me by My Name by John Ed Bradley

Amazon Summary: “Growing up in Louisiana in the late 1960s, Tater Henry has experienced a lot of prejudice. His town is slow to desegregate and slower still to leave behind deep-seated prejudice. Despite the town’s sensibilities, Rodney Boulett and his twin sister Angie befriend Tater, and as their friendship grows stronger, Tater and Rodney become an unstoppable force on the football field. That is, until Rodney sees Tater and Angie growing closer, too, and Rodney’s world is turned upside down. Teammates, best friends—Rodney’s world is threatened by a hate he did not know was inside of him. As the town learns to accept notions like a black quarterback, some changes may be too difficult to accept.”

Jarred’s Take: Stumbled upon this gem in our school library, and immediately began recommending it to students. As relevant as ever.

Copper Sun by Sharon Draper 

Amazon Summary“Copper Sun is the epic story of a young girl torn from her African village, sold into slavery, and stripped of everything she has ever known—except hope.”

Jarred’s Take: You can’t go wrong reading anything by the wonderful Sharon Draper, although this one may be my favorite.

Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Summary: Darius and Twig are an unlikely pair: Darius is a writer whose only escape is his alter ego, a peregrine falcon named Fury, and Twig is a middle-distance runner striving for athletic success. But they are drawn together in the struggle to overcome the obstacles that life in Harlem throws at them. The two friends must face down bullies, an abusive uncle, and the idea that they’ll be stuck in the same place forever.”

Jarred’s Take: Like Draper, it’s hard to go wrong with anything by Walter Dean Myers, and this one was no exception.

Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draperreading pic outside

Amazon Summary: “Sylvia is shocked and confused when she is asked to be one of the first black students to attend Central High School, which is scheduled to be integrated in the fall of 1957, whether people like it or not. Before Sylvia makes her final decision, smoldering racial tension in the town ignites into flame. When the smoke clears, she sees clearly that nothing is going to stop the change from coming. It is up to her generation to make it happen, in as many different ways as there are colors in the world.”

Jarred’s Take: Readers will find themselves rooting for Sylvia from start to finish, and by the end, have a much deeper and rich understanding of what it was like to live through the Civil Rights Movement.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Summary: “This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.”

Jarred’s Take: I have never taught a student who didn’t enjoy this classic, which has also been written as a graphic novel.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Amazon Summary: “Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps.”

Jarred’s Take: I still remember reading this book as an eighth-grader, and the impact that it had on me. Re-reading as an adult was just as difficult.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Amazon Summary: “As the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.”

Jarred’s Take: This was a class favorite when I taught seventh grader, although readers all of ages can certainly love and learn from it.

Response by Paul Volponi

Amazon Summary: “Noah and his friends go to a predominantly all-white neighborhood with a plan: steal a car, sell it to a chop shop, and make some fast cash. But that never happens. Instead, Noah, a teen father, becomes the victim of a vicious beating that leaves him with a fractured skull. The question is, was the attacker protecting his turf, or did he target Noah just because he’s black?”

Jarred’s Take: This book will make you angry, and that’s precisely the point. Like All-American Boys, this one is a must-read.

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper

Amazon Summary: “In one horrifying night, Andy’s life changed forever… Andy Jackson was driving the car that crashed one night after a game, killing Robert Washington, his best friend and the captain of the Hazelwood High Tigers. It was late, and they’d been drinking, and now, months later, Andy can’t stop blaming himself. As he turns away from family, friends, and even his girlfriend, he finds he’s losing the most precious thing of all — his ability to face the future.”

Jarred’s Take: I don’t usually read whole-class novels, but reading this book aloud with my eighth graders a couple of years ago was one of the best experiences I’ve had as an English teacher. It’s that good.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Amazon Summary: “Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.”

Jarred’s Take: Put simply, this book gets students laughing, talking, and seeing the world in a different way. I read this with 15 freshmen last year as part of an optional book club, and the discussion that followed was one of the most special things I have ever witnessed.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Amazon Summary: “It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.”

Jarred’s Take: Just wonderful. Using death as the narrator was a genius move by Zusak, and characters don’t come any better than Liesel and her friends.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeTo_Kill_a_Mockingbird

Amazon Summary: “A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father-a crusading local lawyer-risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.”

Jarred’s Take: In my opinion, the best book of all-time. Thinking of using it as the anchor text for my first unit this fall. Would love any ideas for those who have taught it in the past.

 

Note: The following books are ones that I have not read but have added to my “TBR” Pile.

Boy 21 by Matthew Quick

Amazon Summary: Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights, and Finley is left to take care of his disabled grandfather alone. He’s always dreamed of getting out someday, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay. Russ has just moved to the neighborhood, and the life of this teen basketball phenom has been turned upside down by tragedy. Cut off from everyone he knows, he won’t pick up a basketball, but answers only to the name Boy21–taken from his former jersey number. As their final year of high school brings these two boys together, a unique friendship may turn out to be the answer they both need.”

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Summary: “A coming-of-age tale for young adults set in the trenches of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, this is the story of Perry, a Harlem teenager who volunteers for the service when his dream of attending college falls through. Sent to the front lines, Perry and his platoon come face-to-face with the Vietcong and the real horror of warfare. But violence and death aren’t the only hardships. As Perry struggles to find virtue in himself and his comrades, he questions why black troops are given the most dangerous assignments, and why the U.S. is even there at all.”

How it Went Down by Kekla Magooon

Amazon Summary: “When sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds, his community is thrown into an uproar. Tariq was black. The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white. In the aftermath of Tariq’s death, everyone has something to say, but no two accounts of the events line up. Day by day, new twists further obscure the truth. Tariq’s friends, family, and community struggle to make sense of the tragedy, and to cope with the hole left behind when a life is cut short. In their own words, they grapple for a way to say with certainty: This is how it went down.”

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Amazon Summary: “In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever. Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily. Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.” Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and the fact that they may be falling for one another. Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.”

Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe

Amazon Summary: “At first Hiram is excited to visit his hometown in Mississippi. But soon after he arrives, he crosses paths with Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who is also visiting for the summer, and Hiram sees firsthand how the local whites mistreat blacks who refuse to “know their place.” When Emmett’s tortured dead body is found floating in a river, Hiram is determined to find out who could do such a thing. But what will it cost him to know? Mississippi Trial, 1955 is a gripping read, based on true events that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.”

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

Amazon Summary: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?” New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive. Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.”

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

Amazon Summary: “Stella lives in the segregated South—in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community—her world—is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end.”

Trouble by Gary Schmidt

Amazon Summary: “Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you. But Trouble comes careening down the road one night in the form of a pickup truck that strikes Henry’s older brother, Franklin. In the truck is Chay Chouan, a young Cambodian from Franklin’s preparatory school, and the accident sparks racial tensions in the school—and in the well-established town where Henry’s family has lived for generations. Caught between anger and grief, Henry sets out to do the only thing he can think of: climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, which he and Franklin were going to climb together. Along with Black Dog, whom Henry has rescued from drowning, and a friend, Henry leaves without his parents’ knowledge. The journey, both exhilarating and dangerous, turns into an odyssey of discovery about himself, his older sister, Louisa, his ancestry, and why one can never escape from Trouble.”

My Reading Journey: Reflecting on why I read (and why I teach)

Growing up, I moved a lot. First, it was from Rhode Island to Massachusetts in the middle of Kindergarten. Then, it was off to Vernon Street in first grade and Austin Street in third before settling in on Jasset Street in fourth.

Despite the constant transition, I always felt at home with books. bears_on_wheels

The first book I remember reading on my own was Bears on Wheels by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I couldn’t tell you what it was about, or exactly how old I was when I read it, but I’ll never forget the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt when I finished it.

From that moment forward, I was hooked. From the Boxcar Children and Hardy Boys to everything by RL Stine and Matt Christopher, I devoured one book after another. With no smart phone or computer to distract me, most of my early childhood was spent either on a field or court, or curled up somewhere with a book, newspaper, or magazine.

Sundays were always my favorite because it was my mom’s day off from work. She would usually grab breakfast from Dunkin Donuts along with a copy of the Boston Globe, and I would spend the rest of the morning pouring through the sports section, reading every article and memorizing the league leaders in batting average, home runs, and RBIs.beach pic.JPG

During the summer, we would pack a cooler and make the hour drive to the beach, where I’d lay on the blanket with a book mom had recommended, stopping only for some body surfing, whiffle ball or a trip to the ice cream truck.

I also have fond memories of the public library, where I’d walk down one aisle after another in search of books to add to my stack before finding a cozy spot to hide for the day, and the local Barnes and Noble, where instead of buying a book, I’d take it off the shelf and read it in the store before putting it back.

Sometimes I wonder: Why did I read so much?

Maybe it was because books took me places, real and imaginary, that I knew I’d never be able to visit in person. Maybe it was because I found characters that I could root for and identify with. Maybe it was because reading helped me relax when I was upset, and allowed me to escape without actually running away (although I tried that too, but never for more than a few hours).

Maybe it was because reading was something that my mom and I could do together. Maybe it was because it helped me realize that I wasn’t alone, and that my problems weren’t so bad after all. Maybe it was because I saw books as the great equalizer. Maybe it was just because I was bored, and didn’t have anything better to do.

But, I think that the main reason I loved reading was that it made me feel smart. And as someone who grew up in a neighborhood where most kids didn’t go to college, that mattered a great deal to me.

It’s no surprise, then, that I always loved school. Yes, I was that kid who enjoyed homework and cried if I didn’t earn all “S+”s or “As” on my report card. As I look back on my elementary experience, a few things stand out:

One was that I had some pretty amazing teachers, who not only believed in me, but were also experts in their craft. Two, my teachers never told me my reading level or assigned me a test-prep worksheet, but because I read all the time and received great instruction from them day in and day out, I always breezed through the MCAS, Massachusetts’ standardized test. Three, reading and writing were always linked.

For example, I remember publishing my first book in third grade. In fact, I can still recall one of the lines (“I jumped as high as a kangaroo”) because Mrs. Madsen was so proud that I had used a simile. The fact that my teacher believed that a scrawny eight-year-old with a bowl cut could be a serious author, I started to believe it, too.

One more thing I appreciated about elementary school: we always had choice. Sure, teachers made recommendations, and I participated in lit groups with classics such as Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Shiloh, Tuck Everlasting, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but for the most part, I read what I wanted to read. And I loved it.To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

That changed in middle school, and certainly in high school. To be sure, there are many books I’m thankful my teachers made me read: To Kill a Mockingbird, Night, Of Mice and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The House on Mango Street, and The Great Gatsby, to name a few.

But, I’m also certain that I would have read more often, and enjoyed reading more, if I was given choice. Instead, as my schedule became busier – sports practice, homework, TRL, and the emergence of AOL Instant Messenger — I learned how to BS my way through English class. With the help of Sparknotes, I was able to write killer essays on symbolism in The Scarlet Letter and the role of women in The Odyssey without ever opening the books.

While my love of reading faded in high school, Mrs. Smith’s Journalism 101 class inspired me to keep writing. As an athlete, I appreciated Mrs. Smith’s no-nonsense approach and tough love; she had extremely high expectations and had no problem letting you know when you failed to reach them.

It was under her wing, as a member of the school newspaper staff, that I learned how to write a lead, conduct interviews, take notes, check facts, and meet deadlines. I’m still convinced that the college essay I wrote – about balancing my time as sports editor and student-athlete, while trying to give back to my mom, who had sacrificed everything to raise my brother and me – was the main reason I got into Vanderbilt University.Savage Inequalities.jpg

In college, I quickly realized that I was much better at reading and writing essays than I was at memorizing formulas in Calculus (I think my only “F” ever) and Econ. However, it wasn’t until I read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in a course on educational inequity in America that I knew I wanted to become a teacher.

Upon graduation, I said “yes” to the first school that offered me a job and haven’t looked back since. As a middle school – and now high school – English teacher, I have had the privilege of falling in love with reading all over again. Even more rewarding is the opportunity to share that love and passion for reading with my students.

I know what the research says: that today’s teens are texting and snapchatting more, and reading less. There is no question that reading faces more competition than at any point in history.

But, in many ways, that’s what makes my job so fun, and so fulfilling. The competitor in me revels in the opportunity to prove to students that reading can, in fact, be more enjoyable than Instagram or YouTube.

The fact that there are so many phenomenal Young Adult authors out there writing books that have a way of affecting all students (and adults) certainly makes my job of creating confident and capable lifelong readers easier.top reads 15-16 2

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, 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 Pena, 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, I’ve got a chance.

Offering my students choice in what they read is only one piece of the puzzle. I must give them consistent time to read in a calm and comfortable environment. It’s also my responsibility to provide my students with the same love, support and encouragement that my mother and my teachers gave me.

This year, I got a bit emotional when one of my ninth-graders, beaming ear to ear, revealed to me that he had just finished a chapter book on his own for the first time. I could see in him that same sense of pride and accomplishment that I felt reading Bears on Wheels twenty-something years ago.

And I knew, from that moment forward, he was hooked. 

20 Tips for Teaching on the Block

As I plan a “Teaching on the Block” PD session for new teachers later this month, I decided to offer some advice to educators who may be wondering, “How the heck am I going to keep high school students engaged for 90 minutes?”

However, I feel like many of these tips apply to all teachers, even those who do not teach on the block. I’m sure I’m missing plenty, so if you have other suggestions or pieces of advice for new teachers, please share them in the comments!

Mr. Amato’s Tips for Teaching on the Block

  1. Always ask yourself: Would I enjoy being a student in this class?
  2. It is always better to over-plan than to under-plan; you don’t win when you “wing it.”
  3. If you don’t have a plan for how students will move, they will make one for you. Be proactive!
  4. The best classroom management is an engaging, well-planned lesson.
  5. When considering an activity, ask yourself: what’s the purpose of it? If it’s not helping students understand the lesson’s objective, you can probably scratch it.
  6. Structure and routine is good, but every day shouldn’t feel the same.
  7. Transitions are a must, so be sure they are smooth, logical, and clear to students. Otherwise, you will lose valuable instructional time.
  8. Student movement doesn’t need to be complicated – sometimes it’s just letting students walk and grab an assignment or turn one in.
  9. While student engagement is essential, there is still time for direct instruction, independent practice, and yes, even silence.
  10. Always have a plan for when a student says, “I’m finished.”
  11. Start and end class strong. Make sure your entrance & exit procedures are on point.
  12. Don’t think that “90 minutes is a long time so we don’t have to get started right away.”
  13. Make time in every lesson to check in with every student. Whether it’s by greeting students at the door, walking around as students complete their bellringer, or catching students on the way out, there are ways to ensure that no student ever feels invisible.
  14. Take time to reflect after every lesson, and ask yourself: What could I have done differently? Encourage your students to do the same.
  15. Stock up on index cards, sticky notes, markers, colored pencils, highlighters, scissors, tape, and glue.
  16. Use a timer. You can use your cell phone, or any of the timers from here:       http://www.online-stopwatch.com/countdown-timer/ (my students love the bomb timer).
  17. Be intentional about reaching every type of learner (visual, kinesthetic, interpersonal, etc.), but don’t try to hit all seven in every lesson.
  18. Group work should serve a purpose beyond “it looks good on an observation.”
  19. Make your directions/instructions visible, so you don’t need to respond every time a student asks, “What are we supposed to do again?”
  20. Even if you’re not an English teacher, have books accessible in your classroom, and talk to students about what you (and they) are reading.

What did I miss? What other advice would you offer a new teacher? Let me know!

End-of-Year Reading Report

Now that final grades have been entered, the classroom library is back in order, and students are officially on break for the next two months, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the 2015-16 school year.

Before I display my students’ end-of-year reading results, here are a few thoughts I wanted to share:

  • We need to improve students’ reading attitudes before we can improve reading outcomes. Our first goal, then, has to be to help students see the lifelong value of reading, and understand that the only way they can get better at reading is to read more.
  • We need to be patient and remember that it’s never too late for someone to become a reader. I had several students tell me this year that this was the first time they had read an entire chapter book on their own, and they (and I) couldn’t have been more proud. So, if we’re able to convince high school freshmen that reading is cool, there’s no reason we can’t instill a love of reading in all of our middle school and elementary students, too.
  • We need to be consistent and give students daily time to read in school. Although Nashville’s high schools run on a block schedule, which means that I only get to teach my English students every other day for 90 minutes (and that’s a blog post for another day), I dedicate the first 20 to 30 minutes of every class period to silent, independent reading. It has been a game-changer in my classroom.
  • If we want students to become lifelong readers (and we absolutely should), we have to give students choice in what they read. One of the best parts of my job is handing a book to a student and knowing that he or she won’t be able to put it down.
  • Therefore, it’s important that English teachers a) read a lot themselves, and from a wide variety of genres, and b) truly know their students by talking to them constantly about their interests, likes, dislikes, favorite authors, challenges, goals, etc.
  • We need to remember that creating skilled, confident readers is a marathon, not a sprint. Therefore, instead of looking for shortcuts or quick fixes, we have to trust the process and accept that students will grow and improve at different rates. At the end of the day, if students are reading constantly from elementary school through high school and receive high-quality literacy instruction and support along the way, I am confident that they will graduate as confident and capable readers and writers.
  • Finally, while I believe in patience, we also need to have a sense of urgency about this work. We all know that if students cannot read well, their options in life are severely limited. The reality, however, is that our schools have failed to create enthusiastic or skilled readers. That’s 100 percent on us as educators. We can and must do better.

With that said, here’s a look at how my students at Maplewood High School performed this year. While there is certainly a lot of room for improvement, I am proud of what my ninth-graders accomplished and proved possible. The following chart displays my students’ attitude towards reading, based on 11 Likert-scale questions that I administered via Google Forms:

Reading Attitude Survey Results

How do my students feel about reading?

Put simply, these results suggests that the majority of my students have a positive attitude towards reading, read more often than they did in the past, exhibit more confidence as readers, see the value of reading, and are on the path to becoming lifelong readers.

But, are my students getting better at reading?

The short answer is: yes.

Because the majority of my students were invested in their reading growth and read all the time (both in school and at home), their reading levels also increased significantly this year. One hundred ninth-graders were assessed in early October and then again in May, and here are the results: STAR reading growth 1

Here are the results in a slightly different format:

STAR growth 2

A few of the positives from the results (I will focus on shortcomings and areas for growth in a later post):

  • We started the year with zero out of 100 students reading at or above the ninth-grade level, and ended the year with eight.
  • We started the year with eight out of 100 students reading at or above the eighth-grade level, and ended the year with 19.
  • We started the year with 17 out of 100 students reading at or above the seventh-grade level, and ended the year with 37.
  • We started the year with 40 out of 100 students reading below a fifth-grade level, and saw that number drop to 27 by the end of the year.

There was also a huge correlation between the number of books a student read and how much his or her reading level increased. Consider these numbers:

  • 36 out of 100 students showed exceptional reading growth (their reading level increased by more than 1 year). These students combined to read more than 200 books (of their choice and of an appropriate level), for an average of approximately six books per student.
  • 44 out of 100 students showed slight reading growth (their reading grew by 0.1 to 1.0 grade levels). They read an average of 3.5 books per student.
  • 20 out of 100 students did not show reading growth (their reading level stayed the same or decreased by 0.1 to 1.0 grade levels). They read an average of 1.5 books per student. In chart form, those numbers look like this:

more books you read chart

While I do not find the results particularly shocking, I do believe they are important for a number of reasons. For starters, this data supports the countless studies that have found that the more time students spend engaged in independent reading, the better they perform on reading assessments.

Additionally, here are four final takeaways:

  1. The results show that good things tend to happen when you read all the time, and that it’s hard to improve when you don’t.
  2. Even just 20 to 30 minutes of independent reading every other day is enough to help most students (thought not all) become invested and engaged in reading, and I’m confident that students’ performance would be even higher if they were given time to read independently at school every day.
  3. We need to have better interventions in place for our extremely reluctant readers.
  4. The results remind me that we have a lot of work to do, but that it can be done.

Lastly, thanks for reading! If you’re a teacher (or just a fan of teachers), I hope that you have a wonderful summer. We deserve it!