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.

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.


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 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.