K.M. Burrows

K.M. Burrows

K.M. Burrows

Educator, Learner, Creator

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Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 2: Collecting Books

May 17, 2019 3 Comments

Alternatively: How to Win Books and Influence Readers

In Part 1 of this series, I talked a bit about the immense value of having a personal library in your classroom, and I explored some ways to figure out what those crazy young whippersnappers are reading these days (*shakes cane*). So now that you’ve likely got a wishlist that’s five miles long, it’s time to start getting those books in your classroom and into the hands of your kids. Let’s explore a bunch of different ways you can do that without breaking the bank.

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A note before you start collecting: Have a discerning eye.

A minor regret from the beginning of my own classroom library was that I picked up any book that was in remotely decent condition, especially if it was free or inexpensive, without regard for whether my students were likely to actually read it. This left me with a basket-full, for example, of ancient-looking Fear Street trade paperbacks from the 1970’s or 80’s. My students, I reasoned, might be into horror, and they might recognize R.L. Stine from the Goosebumps series, and they’d been a free pass-down from the teacher whose position I took.

As you might expect, my students never touched them once. As much as we try to convince students not to judge a book by its cover, it happens anyway. At the end of my first year, I ended up clearing out and donating that basket and other titles I’d known deep-down my students would never touch so that I could make room for more high-interest books. Learn to evaluate whether your students are likely to actually read a book. Even if it is free, an unread book is just taking up shelf space and gathering dust. Only take or purchase books that will actually see use by students.

Alrighty, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about how to get ALL the books!

Head straight to the principal’s office. Do not pass ‘Go.’ Possibly collect $200.

Your first stop, if possible, should be your principal or the person in your building who knows how funding works. There may be money set aside for you to use to purchase books for your library. In my building there is not money for individual classroom teachers, but my teacher team can use our team account to purchase book club sets and titles that can be shared by all 70 of our students. Things are different in every district and building, and it absolutely never hurts to ask. Your Parent-Teacher Association may not be a bad place to ask, either.

Get to know retiring teachers.

If you are a new teacher these days, there’s a pretty decent chance you’re replacing a new retiree. Get ahold of that person’s contact info if you can, and see if they would be interested in donating (or selling) any of their classroom library to you. Teachers also change grade levels, and some don’t wish to hold onto books in storage. Most of the base of my middle school library came from my mother, an ex-fifth-grade teacher who moved down to third and no longer had use for her boxes upon boxes of higher-level chapter books.

Thrift stores are your BFF.

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Don’t assume that the books on the shelves at your local Goodwill are all musty romance novels from decades past. If you’re willing to put in the time and sweat equity to regularly pop by and peruse the stacks, there are plenty of excellent gently-used books waiting for your students, and at many stores they are only $0.50 – $1.99 each. You can also watch for sale days when certain colored tags are cheaper, or holiday sales (I’ve seen Goodwill do 50% off on holidays like Labor Day).

Another thrift store tip – If you’re willing to drive a bit, drive to the thrift stores in the more affluent neighborhoods around you. While most chains like Goodwill attempt to spread quality product between locations, most stuff that gets donated at a particular location gets sold at that location. More affluent stores (in my experience) tend to have a wider selection of quality texts to purchase.

Join Facebook sale groups.

If you are a Facebook user, make sure you are connected to the local garage sale groups in your area, as well as teacher resale groups. You can often find decent books at low prices, and this is a great way to find bundles of multiple books and collections of series that your students will enjoy! Whatever group you choose, make sure you take a moment to read the group rules and understand the buying and selling procedures. The last thing you want is to accidentally step on someone’s toes or get booted from a group!

Physical garage sales are still relevant, too!

Shop garage sales in neighborhoods with lots of school-aged families. Parents will sell books that their kids have outgrown. Church or organization sales are also a great place to hunt. You can find out about local garage sales in your area on sites like Facebook and Craigslist.

Friends of the library are friends of mine.

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Inquire at your local library- most libraries have some sort of ‘friends of the library’ organization that organizes annual or semi-annual book sales to clear out titles that are no longer in circulation and raise funds for new books. You can find all sorts of books at these sales for really great prices.

Check out the value books & make a wish at your school book fair.

Lean on your parents to donate one reasonably-priced book from your book fair wish list!
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Many book fair providers, especially Scholastic, will sell value titles, clearance books they are trying to purge from their inventory. At Scholastic sales, these books can usually be identified with a red circle sticker that tells you the bargain price. Don’t forget, too, that most school book fairs allow teachers to submit wishlists for parents to donate books to the classroom. Create a list of reasonably-priced high-interest books and ask your parents to purchase and donate just one.

These stickers are your best friends.
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Find your local Scholastic warehouse.

Scholastic, of book fair fame, hosts semi-annual BOGO sales on merchandise at their warehouses to clear inventory. Get on their email list and you’ll be among the first to know. These sales usually run for a couple weeks (the warehouse near me holds one in late November/ early December and one in May). Also, if you have some free time on your hands outside of the school day, you can sign up to work a few shifts at these warehouse sales and earn vouchers that can be spent on books at the sale. Either way, great prices abound.

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Look for bargain book sites online.

My two favorites are Book Outlet and Thrift Books. Both offer some titles at as little as $2-3, and both sites have points-based rewards programs. These sites sell books that are overstocked or marked as ‘damaged,’ but I have never received an unusable book in any of my orders- in fact, some of the books marked as damaged were actually autographed copies! Keep an eye out for sales around holidays and subscribe to emails for coupons, etc. Important tip: Always compare the price of a book between these bargain outlet sites and Amazon. For newer titles especially, Amazon’s ‘New’ or ‘Used-Excellent’ prices may still be cheaper!

Check out Half-Price Books.

Half-Price Books is a chain new-and-used bookstore all over the country and online. In addition to offering decent prices on books, HPB also partners with local communities to donate boxes of gently-used books to classroom teachers as part of their One Million Books donation project. Another useful tidbit is that HPB will buy used titles for store credit or cash- not a ton of money, but those books my students just aren’t reading can be turned into one or two titles I know they’ll love.

Got friends, family, & social connections? Try a GoFundMe.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of using fundraising sites like GoFundMe to finance their classroom libraries, but I firmly believe the mission of getting great books in students’ hands is a more-than-worthy cause to donate a few bucks for. Put in the time to really sell the need for books and how they will help your students. Include pictures of your students or your classroom if possible, as well as a bit of information about the types of students you teach (urban vs. rural, low-income, diverse, low-readers, etc.). You have to paint a strong picture to explain why people should donate money to you.

Networking is also key here- even if friends and family can’t contribute much, they may have some sort of business or community connection that might be willing to help you out. Share, share, share on social media and ask friends to do the same. Remind everyone that donations are tax-deductible! Something I also like to do is put a sticker or written inscription inside books purchased with donated funds to honor the people or organizations who donated (i.e., “This book was donated by…”). This not only honors the people who were kind enough to donate, but it shows your students that people care enough about their education to invest in it.

Are all your friends also broke college graduates? Try outside funding from DonorsChoose.

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DonorsChoose is an especially great place to start if you’re working in a low-income or Title I school, but this classroom fundraising platform is open to any teachers. Be prepared to put in some work- DonorsChoose requires a lot of information from you about your students and school, your project, photos of your students and classroom, etc. The other important difference between DonorsChoose and general fundraising sites like GoFundMe is that DonorsChoose does not directly give you money- people donate money and DonorsChoose orders and sends you the materials you asked for. This means that DonorsChoose might be a better route if you are looking for book club or whole-class sets as opposed to individual titles. It can also take awhile from the time you set up your project on DonorsChoose to the time you’ll actually get books in your hands, so plan well in advance if you’re looking for group or class sets for a unit or novel study.

Look for grants and outside funding.

There are a variety of grants and funding available to teachers if you are willing to invest the time to research, find them, and apply. You can find and use grant money to purchase books for your classroom. If you go this route, I recommend you first spend some time learning more about grant writing and looking at successful examples of grant letters & applications to understand what organizations are looking for from applicants.

Build each month with a book subscription box.

Subscription services like Book of the Month Club can make it possible to add
one new book a month to your library at a relatively low cost.
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I got my mom a Book of the Month Club subscription for Christmas a couple years ago, and she was so delighted with it that I ended up getting a subscription for myself. Every month I pay $14.99 for my choice out of five or six options, and if they don’t have anything I’m interested in for the month I can skip it and the credit saves for later. They recently added a YA section to their add-on books, meaning my saved credits have been merrily purchasing new books for me and my classroom. There are also YA-specific book boxes such as Uppercase, and increasingly I come across subscriptions for children’s book boxes (Amazon is offering one– I can’t speak to the quality, though). If you choose to go this route, it can be a great way to get fresh, newly-released reads into students’ hands, but be sure to compare your options before choosing a service. I chose to stick with Book of the Month over Uppercase because while Uppercase is specifically geared toward YA, you don’t get any choice in books each month- every subscriber gets the same surprise title, and I wasn’t willing to risk the monthly fee on books I may or may not end up enjoying, or that may or may not be appropriate for my students.

Sign up to receive ARCs.

Publishers will send free ARCs in exchange for posting reviews about the book on social media sites.
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This is another avenue of book collection that requires leg work, but publishing companies will send out ARCs, or Advanced Reader Copies, to people who are willing to read unpublished books and write reviews on social media and sites like Goodreads. The leg work exists in finding publishers and sites that offer these ARCs, and once you do there’s often some work involved in explaining why you would be a great candidate to receive ARCs. Because of the costs involved to the publisher, they won’t send these books to just anyone. It helps if you already talk about books on social media (book-stagram, anyone?), and if you play up the fact that you can likely get multiple student reviews out of a single ARC copy. Or, if you have any students who are heavily invested in their social media presence and could reach a lot of people, this could be an opportunity for them to seek out books and review them. Goodreads will host giveaways for ARCs, so that could be a good place to start your search.

Bring in the tech.

Sites like Epic! can give your students tons of access to books
if your district will shoulder the subscription cost!
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Let’s be real honest here- no eReader will ever compare to physically holding a book in your hands. It just won’t. However, you’re a teacher on a budget, and while sharing that power of a physical book with students is great, there are thousands of reading opportunities available to your students for free online. If you teach upper-middle or high school and want to get your students reading some classic literature, good news- you can find most ‘classics’ for free on the internet. If your students have library cards from their local libraries, they can often use those to login to the library’s website and check out eBooks from there. I’ve had students who will start by reading the free preview of an eBook through Google Books, and if they like it enough to continue reading past the free preview we work together to get our hands on a copy. If you have iPads or other tablets for students there are tons of book apps available, and your district may even have a subscription to services such as Epic! (elementary) or TumbleBooks (all grades). Technology also opens students up to different reading experiences such as news or magazine articles, blog posts, etc. and gives them a richer pool of reading material to choose from.

Accept that, at the end of the day, your library is an investment.

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For all of the suggestions I’ve given above for creating a low-cost classroom library, when it comes down to it you’re going to have to spend some money. I have a massive book addiction and young adult fic is my genre of choice, so I have no problems shelling out for new releases or popular titles. I read and enjoy them myself, then I stick them in my library. Even if you are not an avid reader of the books that you’re purchasing for your students, remember the investment you are making in their reading lives, and the dividends that will pay as you see them fall in love with texts and learn what good readers do.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have invested quite a few hundreds of dollars at this point into my own library (I consider this an inherited trait- I spent my childhood helping my own mother hide bags of classroom library purchases made at the local used bookstore from my dad’s inquisitive eyes). I just love books, love reading, and so the investment is worth it to me. If you aren’t willing to invest like I am, that’s okay, too- I recognize that not everyone can. Allow yourself time to build up what you can. Scrape and scrounge, jump on opportunities, go through those books the school librarian is removing from circulation, do the leg work to find the opportunities. Work with a colleague, especially one whose room is geographically close to yours. Build a shared library together that all of your students can enjoy. Building your dream classroom library is not easy, but it is so, so worth it.

As an aside, if you are someone in a position to regularly buy newly released titles for your students, try to always buy new releases during the first week of their release- it helps the author a ton, as first-week sales are a huge marker of success on the part of the author and the publisher.

Remember: Build a core and then expand.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, do not feel like you have to go out and buy hundreds of books at once in your pursuit of the perfect classroom library. Start with a core of high-interest books (or whatever you can get your hands on) and build slowly from there. Your classroom library will be an ever-growing, ever-changing collection as you add and remove titles over the course of your teaching career. Start with what you can, listen to what your students want, and go from there.

Part 3 – Setting Up Your Library

Come back tomorrow for Part 3, where I will discuss classroom library setup and maintenance, different ways to organize your books, and that pesky problem of kids losing your books and what to do about it.

Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 1: Choosing Books

May 16, 2019 4 Comments

I can’t emphasize enough the impact of a good classroom library. There is nothing more powerful than instantly greeting a student who has just finished a book with, “Here is another one I think you’ll like,” or “I saw this book and thought of you.” If you work in an environment where your school library is less functional (or nonexistent), a class library is essential to getting kids reading.

I’m only a second-year teacher, but I have one of the largest classroom libraries in my middle school building, because I was lucky enough to grow up understanding and appreciating the value of books. While my library wasn’t cheap, there are a lot of ways to build a low-cost classroom library if you’re willing to invest a little time and cash, and the payoff of putting great books in the hands of students is beyond worth it. In the next few posts I’ll explore some ways to get an awesome classroom library growing in your classroom no matter what grade you teach.

Today I’ll explore how to choose books for your library that your students will love, even if you aren’t sure what’s currently popular with students in your grade level.

Get a Goodreads account.

If you haven’t signed up for Goodreads and you like reading even a little bit, you’re missing out! In addition to book reviews, content summaries, and author information, Goodreads has hundreds of user- and community-created lists of books your kids are sure to love, no matter what grade you teach. You can find lists based on genre, publication year, themes (diverse/ multicultural lit, divorced parents, latinx main character, etc.), and more. If you are unfamiliar with the latest, hottest lit for your grade level, this is the best place to start. Warning: you will be exposed to so many exciting titles that your wishlist will grow exponentially right before your eyes!

Peruse Amazon.

If you know one or two popular titles for your age group, Amazon can send you down a rabbit hole of similar titles and themes. Like Goodreads, Amazon allows you to preview content and reader reviews. You can also use the Amazon bestseller lists to discover what titles are most popular right now for your grade level.

Group by genre – especially non-fiction.

Make sure to include a core selection of titles from different genres. I have found, and have heard from other teachers, that student genre preferences can vary widely from class to class and year to year. Set yourself up for success in connecting students with books by being prepared with high-interest texts from a variety of genres. Also make it a point to hunt down high-interest non-fiction. This will be, perhaps, trickier than finding books for other genres, and you may want to plan to spend more money on these titles, but it is money well-spent to show students that not all non-fiction is dry and boring!

Connect with your content teachers & topics.

If you are a secondary teacher, reach out to other content-area teachers in your building to find out what sorts of topics are covered in the grade that you teach. If you are an elementary or self-contained teacher, you hopefully already have access to this information. You can use content-area topics to direct your book-buying, especially of non-fiction texts. For example, my 8th graders study U.S. history in their humanities class and take the Constitution test at the end of the year. I made sure to stock up on books about various topics in American history including wars, presidents, etc. 8th grade also does life science, so my science basket includes books on cells, genetics, animal life, and other biology topics.

Lean on your librarians.

If you are fortunate enough to have a good school librarian, she or he will be able to tell you what kids are checking out and reading. If you are less fortunate in that department, go talk to the teen or children’s desk librarian at the local public library- not only will they have the same information, but you can learn about programs on offer that may be of interest to your students, and you can find out what students need to do to sign up for a library card to encourage them through that process. It’s been my experience that librarians love to help classroom teachers, especially if it might mean more patronage for them down the road.

Join book-centric websites like Epic Reads or Book Riot.

I signed up for emails from both Epic Reads and Book Riot, and I’m sure there’s other similar large-scale book blogs out there. I get emails every few days with info on new releases, best-of lists, and all kinds of really good recommendations. I have connected with so many great YA reads through these emails that I may not have known about otherwise. I also tend to find out about popular or highly-anticipated new releases months in advance, allowing me to plan which books I want to pre-order and spread out my purchasing.

Think diversity…

One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard about literature is that it provides students both mirrors and windows: mirrors to access their own identity through a relationship with characters who are similar to them, and windows into other worlds and cultures that will increase their empathy and understanding of people from diverse backgrounds. Any good classroom library should include a variety of diverse stories and characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds, no matter how diverse (or not) the students in your class might be. A massive body of research and many organizations exist as a testament to the importance of diverse classroom libraries, but I think their power is best summed up by a comment from a colleague’s reluctant reader who read Angie Thomas’ stunning The Hate You Give for the first time: “I’ve never read a book where the characters talk like me and my family. I didn’t know books were like that.” You can use Goodreads lists to find age-appropriate books with diverse characters and stories. Initiatives like We Need Diverse Books can also be helpful places to look.

…and own voices, too.

Try to include own-voices authors- diverse authors from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as differently-abled and LGBT+ identities. Apart from encouraging diversity in publishing, inclusion of own-voices authors gives your students a richer reading experience by exposing them to a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Also, be wary of books with multicultural characters that were written by white authors- they can sometimes contain unfortunate stereotypes and well-intentioned but harmful misconceptions. Again, Goodreads lists can help you out.

Crush content concerns with Common Sense Media.

If you work in a school environment where you need to be extra careful about the content of books in your classroom, Common Sense Media can help you determine whether a book is appropriate for your students or contains any objectionable content. I personally feel that the site sets the bar almost too high for what content is appropriate for a given age, but that can be useful if your district is highly conservative about these things.

Don’t think you have to buy all at once- start with a solid core & build.

It takes time to build a strong library, so don’t feel like you have to rush in and spend hundreds of dollars right away, especially as a first-year teacher with other necessities to snag for your new classroom. I talked above about making sure you have a variety of genres; you may want to start as simple as one basket (or chunk of books) per genre. After perusing Goodreads and Amazon and book blogs, I started a long, long list of books I wanted to purchase, sorted them by genre, and then selected my top few must-have choices for each, keeping the rest of the list for future shopping opportunities.

Then, when you get your first group of students, survey them about their preferences, notice what books they prefer, and build your library around what your students are into. As student interests shift each year, as sales pop up, as books fall into your lap, you can accumulate little-by-little over the years until you build up a really well-stocked library.

Part 2 – Collecting Books

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of this series where I’ll discuss a boatload of different cost-effective ways to build your classroom library from the ground up.

#TechTuesday: Bring Blogging to Class with EduBlogs

May 14, 2019

One of my favorite school experiences was when my 8th-grade teacher encouraged us to create our own blogs on Xanga, an early-2000’s service that sadly went the way of Myspace- still around, but no longer relevant. I loved the experience because the creativity and the freedom to post about things that mattered to me were just fun.

Ah, the early 2000’s. Source

Hoping to recreate that experience and engage students in multimedia-inclusive writing, I scoured the internet for a student-friendly blogging service. I wanted the features available from traditional blogging platforms, including posting and commenting; however, the lack of adult oversight inherent in having students create independent accounts for commonly-used sites such as WordPress or Blogger left me wary. I wanted open communication between my students, but I needed to be able to moderate content. I also wanted to easily access students’ blogs in one place. A further challenge was to avoid platforms students might find childish, as middle schoolers (especially 8th-graders) can be sensitive to content that feels condescending.

Months after I began searching I randomly stumbled upon EduBlogs, which turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more.

Pros:

It’s authentic.

EduBlogs, a WordPress subsidiary, operates like any typical blogging service- in fact, the interface is pretty identical to WordPress, creating an authentic experience for students. The skills they learn by creating a blog through EduBlogs are directly transferable to WordPress and similar sites. Additionally, the site has that more ‘adult’ look I wanted for my students.

A side-by-side comparison of WordPress user interface (left) and EduBlogs user interface (right)

I can moderate & edit student posts.

EduBlogs offers me all the control and moderation I’d been looking for. With a free account, I’m able to moderate my students’ comments on each other’s posts. The free account does not allow me to moderate the actual posts before they go up, but that’s irrelevant- I have total access to student blogs and can edit or delete any of their posts with ease, essential when working with impulsive, emotional middle schoolers.

Students get creativity & freedom of design.

Students have creative freedom in setting up their blogs, including changes to theme, background photos, text colors, etc. Each blog becomes a reflection of the student, and students love making their blog their own space. This may lead to some… unconventional design choices, but while we talk together about the importance of presentation, these blogs are not meant to be professional and stuffy- I want my students to feel comfortable here. This is their space.

Just a few of my students’ customized blogs.

Grading & providing feedback is a breeze.

I can view all student posts in chronological order from my dashboard, making it easy to click through posts without having to open each student’s individual blog. In the same window I’m also able to view other students’ comments. I can even leave private comments only visible to the author, making feedback a breeze. Massive time-saver!

The dashboard blog post view allows me to easily click through the most recent student blog posts to grade and offer feedback. I can also view other students’ comments on a post.

Write with multimedia- 21st Century skills!

You can embed all sorts of media into posts, including photos, YouTube videos, and even Spotify playlists! Pretty much any media that you can grab a direct link to can be embedded. (Note: Using actual embed HTML code is a premium feature- a bit limiting, but not something my students and I have missed terribly). I try to model incorporating different types of media for my students in my own blog posts.

Embed a variety of media in blog posts for a 21st-Century writing experience.

Students can take their blogs with them!

EduBlogs offers support and instructions to optionally transfer ownership of student blogs to parents or students at the end of the school year. They even provide an informational letter you can send home to parents to help them decide if keeping the blog is something they want for their student. No more months of work down the drain when the school year ends!

Cons:

For the less tech-savvy, there’s a learning curve.

While I love EduBlogs’ authenticity, less-comfortable tech users may struggle to adapt to all of the features in the user interface. I am an experienced blogger and have used WordPress for years, so it was a seamless transition for me; I knew how to help students from day one. Someone less familiar with the setup of traditional blogging platforms may want to spend some time learning the site before using it with students. However, EduBlogs offers lots of useful videos, PDFs, forums, and instant chat to support teachers as they learn to navigate the site.

Student account creation needs some work.

A major missing feature I hope to see integrated in the future is account compatibility with either Google or Clever. I have found it simplest at this point to manually create my students’ accounts, but this is obviously time-consuming. You can have students create their own blog accounts and then join your class, but it’s not a perfect process and may end up giving students access to a separate blog that you can’t moderate. For my students, who are prone to interpersonal drama and for whom cyberbullying is a persistent issue, this wasn’t an acceptable tradeoff for any time savings.

How I Use It:

This year, I have used EduBlogs to have my students do book reviews and podcast reviews. Apart from that, students are required to post something on their blog once a week. I provide suggested prompts each week that are broad and high-interest, but students are not obligated to use these (though most do).

Next year, I want to expand my use to include more assignments such as reading responses, quick writes, etc. that are traditionally done in student notebooks or turned in directly to the teacher. I hope to encourage a more collaborative learning community where dialogue occurs between a student and their classmates, not just the student and me.

My Top 3 Tips for Using EduBlogs:

  • Set up student accounts in advance.
    • Use students’ first names or initials in the usernames you pick to easily ID student posts.
  • Post alongside your students!
    • I write a post responding to the suggested prompt I provide each week. This provide my students with an exemplar and allows me to model different features, and it’s a unique opportunity to connect with my students by sharing things about myself I wouldn’t normally have a chance to. Here’s an example of one of my teacher posts.
  • Let your students have fun with their blogs!
    • I require academic grammar and spelling on assignment posts such as book reviews, but when it comes to my students’ weekly posts I look solely at content and ignore grammar and spelling. Students feel free to use their standard internet language to communicate, and it allows them to open up and be more expressive with the content.
  • Bonus Tip: Prepare for memes.
    • Lots of memes. So many memes. Ah, middle school.

The REAL Truth About Choice Reading

May 13, 2019

So, I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am a total workshop junkie, but this school year was actually my first real go at it. Like many teachers when they initially hear about the free choice involved in workshop, I had a boatload of concerns about starting an independent free-choice reading program with my 8th-grade students.

I knew from my own school experience that I loved the days when my own 8th grade ELA teacher gave us a full period to enjoy a good book, but I was also an avid reader- a bookworm. Could I really expect to get all kids reading independently? Was it really okay not to worry about what ‘level’ books they picked for themselves? How would they be challenged? How would I hold them accountable? So many questions!

I decided to go with my gut, to envision the sort of classroom I would like to be a part of, and to have some faith in my students. Here is what I did, and what I found.

Read from day one.

I started the very first day of class by making sure a book entered every kid’s hands. I have an extensive classroom library, which I’ll discuss in a later post, but it enables me to get kids reading from day one even if the school library hasn’t opened for the year. I instantly create a culture of reading in my classroom- this is what we do here.

Show trust in your students as readers.

The other thing I did on day one is make a promise to my students. I promised my students that in my classroom, because their voice matters, I would trust them to make their own decisions about the texts that they would read and write that year. I explained that while we may engage in literature occasionally as a class or through book clubs, their independent reading would always be their choice.

I told my students that I trusted them to challenge themselves, but that I also understood that there were times when they may choose to read books they know are easy or just for fun. This is what real readers do. I told students that I didn’t care what level a book was, Lexile or otherwise. I also didn’t care if students reread books they love or enjoy- real readers do this, too. I didn’t care if students abandoned books on the path to finding a reading experience that was right for them. I am fond of reminding my students that life is too short for boring books when there are so many great ones out there waiting for you. Students were free to spend their reading time each day on magazines or news articles, though I explained that I expected them to read at least a handful of novels this year as it was necessary to build stamina and skill as readers.

As I spoke, students were turning to each other with raised eyebrows and wide eyes, unsure whether to take me seriously. When I finished explaining what reading looks like in my classroom, they gave me a literal standing ovation (looking back, this should probably have been my first clue that this group of students was highly overdramatic).

Create authentic accountability.

Despite my reassurances to students that it really didn’t matter what they read, so long as they read, I was still nervous. I didn’t want to have to go back on my word if I found that students were not actually reading, and I’d already encountered enough fake readers in my career to know that the struggle was real where that was concerned. I also wanted a way to assess students on CCSS reading standards using their independent reading. But every time I looked for independent reading assignments or projects on Teachers Pay Teachers or other sites, I always left with a bad vibe. Many projects seemed well-envisioned, creative, fun, and engaging, but I was looking for what real readers do with books, and I have never once sat down as an adult to create a playlist based on the main character’s emotions in chapter 3.

For the first chunk of the year, I took another leaf out of Nancie Atwell’s book and gave reading journals a try, giving each student their own Google Doc ‘journal’ and creating a master class list so all the students could write to each other. They had to write once a week and write to me every other week, but they could write to anyone they chose the rest of the time, and they had to reply if someone wrote to them. I gave students a prompt to answer in about a paragraph, and then the rest of their letter contained their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the text.

I learned so much about my students as readers through these letters, and I gained invaluable insight into the reading choices students were making. It was also a much more authentic form of assessment in that, beyond my standards-based prompt, students were authentically responding to their experience with a text, and doing so in an informal “friendly letter” style with other members of our reading community.

Trust the process.

It was through the reading letters that I began to see the fruits of trusting my students. Very early in the year, I had one student plugging his way through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. This series was far below his reading level, but I stuck to my guns and said nothing as I knew that anything that might be seen as going back on my word would permanently damage my students’ trust in me. I figured I’d give him another couple weeks and then broach the subject in a reading conference.

About a week later, I got a reading letter from the student, in which he stated, “I finally have a chance to re-read these books now that I’m old enough to understand the humor, and I just don’t get why anyone ever thought these books were funny.” In allowing him to have that reading experience, he was able to come to his own conclusions about the quality of the literature. That same student ended the year (voluntarily!) reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, a much higher level text. He got there because he came to it on his own.

That student is not my only success story. I’ve had kids this year chug their way through Pride and Prejudice, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and other high-level complex texts that most teachers have to beg students to pick up. These students were, as you might suspect, more motivated readers than the average 8th-grade student, but even my students who never pushed themselves to that level still read scores of books. I gave them time to read in class each day, I gave them choice, and I built the culture from day one so that they understood the importance of reading in my classroom. My mini-lessons focus on what real readers do, and I try as often as possible to show students the benefit of reading in their academic and personal lives.

Find other ways to incorporate non-fiction.

I work hard to make high-interest non-fiction texts available to my students, but non-fiction still does not tend to be a choice for many of my readers. I navigated around this by continuing to use non-fiction texts for mini-lessons, increasing my content literacy instruction in my science classes, and incorporating Article of the Week a la Kelly Gallagher every few Mondays (I alternate with podcasts and TED Talks for variety). I continue to book talk high-interest non-fiction regularly, but I also teach around it.

No, not every student will read.

I got outfoxed by a fake reader this year. This kid used every single trick in the book, from summarizing texts she’d read last year to claiming she “was reading something at home” to keeping an eBook open on her screen while she picked at her nails for 20 minutes. She tried One of Us is Lying early on, but found the rotating character perspectives too much to keep up with. She picked and prodded at a few other books, and finally seemed to find some success with novels in verse. I recommended every high-interest verse-format text I could find, and she enjoyed some Jason Reynolds for awhile, but to this day I’m still not sure she actually finished any of those books, either. Nonetheless, she still showed her requisite growth on our district benchmark come spring, and she’ll make her merry way off to 9th grade, still not a convert to the magical experience that is a great book.

I share this with you to admit and acknowledge that choice reading won’t be a magical silver bullet for every reader, no matter how much freedom and opportunity you give. It just won’t. I strived all year to reach this student, connect her with texts, get her friends to make recommendations for her, but none of it connected. She dutifully completed all her work, made average grades on assessments, and got along just fine, but she never got hooked on a rich reading experience. Some years, with some kids, I suspect that’s just the way things go.

But for this one kid I failed to hook on reading, 28 other kids in my classroom regularly engaged with books and had at least one meaningful reading experience this year. They read, and they enjoyed it. They connected with texts and with each other. And at the end of the day, I’m willing to call that a success.

15 Reasons Why You Should Try NaNoWriMo With Your Students

May 12, 2019

National Novel Writing Month, an annual November event, encourages aspiring writers all over the world to write a novel in just 30 days. The success of hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world attempting to write 50,000 words in a month led to the creation of the Young Writers Program, a non-profit organization dedicated to getting kids writing their own novels by reaching for an age-appropriate word count goal during NaNoWriMo. There are enormous benefits to turning NaNoWriMo into a fiction-writing unit with your students. Here are a few:

#15: It’s free!

Not only are NaNoWriMo and the Young Writers Program free for participants, but the YWP comes with a free Common Core-aligned curriculum for grades K-12, making implementation easy no matter what grade you teach! You can also order one free class kit each year (around August) that includes a class progress chart, stickers, buttons, and more! (If they run out of free kits or you need more for additional classes, they’re only $5 each.)

#14: NaNo is an authentic writing experience for your students.

NaNoWriMo is about as authentic as you can get with student writing. With great writing pep talks presented by well-known published writers, students get to see what real noveling looks like. This is the first time many students start to understand just how much work goes into crafting the novels they read. The pep talks put students inside authors’ heads to see how they approach the process of drafting, revising, and pushing through the times when giving up is the most appealing option.

#13: Students are part of a dedicated community of writers.

The Young Writers Program website gives your class an online forum to chat about their progress and encourage each other. If students are over 13, they can connect with world-wide participants in the forums on the YWP and NaNoWriMo websites, allowing them to experience an organic, dedicated community of writers all working toward a shared goal. The NaNo community is also highly active on Twitter and YouTube, giving student even more opportunities to connect. This connection can be a powerful and motivating experience for students.

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#12: Did I mention the pep talks?

Several big-name authors across genres have lent their pens and voices to encouraging NaNo participants, including James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, Marissa Meyer, John Green, and so many more. The advice and motivation offered by these authors goes a long way in helping students stick with their novels and teaching them what the authentic process is like.

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#11: There are TONS of pre-made resources.

Tons of resources for NaNoWriMo participants have popped up over the years, making it even easier to plan and find materials for lessons during your unit. In a different post I’ll go into more detail on some of my favorite resources, but to get started, check out:

There are also, of course, free resources on the Young Writers Program website, including access to a free PDF of the Young Novelist Workbook for elementary, middle, and high school. In my own teaching, I used a combination of all of these resources, chose the ones that most fit the needs of my current students, and ended up with a rich curriculum.

#10: You can hit all the R.L. CCSS standards simultaneously!

If you’ve been looking for more ways to integrate your reading and writing instruction, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity. NaNoWriMo officially runs from November 1st through November 30th. In my classroom, we spend October planning and preparing to write our novels, so naturally it’s a perfect time to dive into the Common Core Reading Literature standards. We look at ways authors craft fiction so we can emulate experts and styles we enjoy. We look at how characters are introduced in stories to help us avoid boring, generic descriptions. We explore hooks, leads, conclusions, authors’ use of dialogue and detail to build a story, and how we can take all of these elements and use them to make our own writing stronger. This fiction study continues all the way through November, though reading instruction takes a backseat that month so students get more time in class to write.

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#9: NaNoWriMo fits with any model of writing instruction.

I adore writing workshop (and reading workshop- I’m a workshop junkie)! Short mini-lessons that focus directly on students’ needs as writers (and readers) followed by work time that is full of student voice and choice is, in my opinion, the perfect instructional model to get kids writing, reading, owning it, and improving. Throw in conferencing with students or small groups and workshop checks all the differentiation and personalization boxes, too. NaNoWriMo is a perfect complement to workshop, because students have plenty of time to write, get personalized support from me, and can work with one another to share ideas and offer support.

But even if you haven’t adopted workshop, NaNoWriMo still works for you. Traditional direct instruction, flipped or blended classroom, no matter what you’re doing, NaNoWriMo is a completely adaptable experience. You can pick and choose which elements to focus on and how to structure your teaching to best fit your style and your students.

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#8: The unit is completely adaptable.

Instructional method isn’t the only thing you can customize in your NaNoWriMo unit- the whole thing is completely customizable! I’ve seen kindergarten students work as a class to create a 250-word ‘novel,’ 5th-grade students write 5,000 words, and 8th grade students write 25k. The experience truly fits for any grade level and your unique students. You can also decide how much instructional time you want to invest, how much time you want to give your students to work in class vs. outside class, etc.

I start my unit in early October with brainstorming, novel planning, and fiction study. Then we write, write, write throughout the month of November. I let instruction take a bit of a back seat, and I focus mainly on lessons about adding descriptive details, what to do when writer’s block hits hard, how to write more authentic dialogue, and other topics that will help student meet their word counts and improve their writing mid-stream.

Once November ends and we have celebrated our writing accomplishments, I spend the weeks leading up to winter break on revision and coming up with a plan for the break with each student. Many students are still finishing their stories at this point, but teaching about revision gives students tools to be ready when they get there.

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In January I move on to other topics in workshop, but teach a short mini-lesson on revision or editing on Mondays followed by student work time. Last year, novels were due from students in mid-February. In the future, I might continue to do some lessons on revision and editing later into March and have the novels due at the beginning of April to give students more work time if they choose.

Ultimately, this unit took up about three months of instruction. That may sound like a lot, but it enabled me to cover the Reading Literature standards in a more authentic context (“Let’s look at what these other fiction writers did to create their stories so we can emulate it in our own novels.”). We covered a ton of different reading and writing topics and skills within this single unit- different methods of brainstorming, outlining a novel/ fiction story (plot structures), creating different types of characters (character archetypes, flat vs. round characters, dynamic vs. static characters, etc.), using descriptive language and imagery to paint a picture for the reader, varying sentence structure, writing strong dialogue, how to introduce characters, hooks/ leads, conclusions, different purposes and lenses for revision (what needs cut vs. added; what do I want the reader to know or experience), different topics in editing (homophones and other things the spell-checker won’t catch), and more. All of it is covered in an authentic context that connects back to reading instruction, which really helps students see the big picture of why good writers are also good readers.

But, if this much time on one unit is making your head spin or just isn’t feasible with your current curriculum, you can shorten it as much as you need to fit the time that you have. Students can brainstorm and plan their novels outside of class, focus on NaNo-related instruction or work-time 1-2 days a week in class during November, and then revise and edit outside of class if they choose. I have also run NaNoWriMo as a lunchtime and after-school club, which could give your avid writers an additional outlet and a chance to connect with fellow writers outside of their classes.

#7: Grammar and revision instruction take on new life.

I spend the weeks following NaNoWriMo on grammar and revision instruction. I think we can all acknowledge that grammar instruction and editing in generally is rarely any student’s favorite part of language arts. However, I have found that placing grammar and editing lessons after NaNoWriMo is highly successful in terms of student engagement. Students are motivated by the fact that they’ve just poured blood, sweat, and tears into crafting their stories for a month, and they really want to polish them up to their best possible versions. We explore how typos and grammatical issues can really pull the reader out of the story, and how important it is as writers to present our words in the best possible way. Students have plenty of pages of work on which to practice the skills they learn during instruction, and they are motivated to do the work on their pieces to improve them.

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#6: NaNoWriMo can undo years of ingrained bad writing beliefs.

I’m sure that like me, you’ve had a student or two adamantly insist to you that they are “not a writer” or “just not good at writing.” Every time I hear those words, I always feel so sad that the student’s previous learning experiences have led them to believe this about themselves. Somewhere along the way, someone- maybe a teacher, parent, or classmate- or some experience- a bad grade on an assignment that they threw their heart into, negative feedback that was inconsiderate of the personal nature of the student’s piece- has damaged this student’s perception of themselves as a writer.

From day one of my class, I try to remind my students as often as possible that each of them has a voice that is powerful and valuable, and that it is my hope to give them as much chance as possible to make their voices heard. NaNoWriMo is important to that because it creates a unique opportunity to remove fear from my students’ vocabulary- fear of not being good enough. Because the goal of NaNoWriMo is to meet a word count target, to write an entire novel in one month, there is little time to worry about the quality of writing. The focus of quantity over quality is not something that students are often exposed to in the writing they do in school.

Writing assignments often demand that students draft and turn in their best piece of work in one go. We rarely provide students the space to get all of their thoughts down on a page before going back and creating something meaningful with them, and because of this, students who need that additional time to process and create are often left behind. Rather than recognizing that there’s something wrong with the process, these students think there’s something wrong with them as writers.

NaNoWriMo shows students another way forward by teaching them that it’s okay if their first draft isn’t a polished masterpiece they’ve been taught it’s supposed to be. Students learn that it’s okay for their first draft to be a total dumpster fire- as long as they keep putting words on the page. Many authors in their pep talks or writing advice mention that writing a first draft is like filling the sandbox with sand; it is in the revision process where you build your sandcastle. This is a powerful mindset for students.

My favorite video to show students in early November comes from John Green. [Note: One curse word at 1:00] He talks about how it takes him three years to write a novel from start to finish, which opens students’ eyes to the fact that the limited time provided in school means that they don’t usually get an opportunity to take their drafts to a professional level. Students finally understand that the problem is not with their writing ability, but with the limited time they are given to exercise it. And because NaNoWriMo emphasizes quantity over quality for those 30 days, students feel empowered to let their words out without stressing about whether those words are “good enough.”

#5: Your student will write. A LOT.

Because the focus is quantity over quality during NaNoWriMo, students are empowered to write freely without fear of whether their words are the right ones, so the volume of writing naturally increases. The external motivation of a word count goal also propels students forward, especially competitive students. There are also tons of activities to motivate your writers to write more during NaNo. One of my favorites is word sprints, where students compete to reach some sort of writing metric (who can write the most words in X minutes, who can write XXX words first, etc.). I’ll give students an optional prompt to help get their brains going (“Write a scene where a character finds an unusual item”), and then I just step back and let them write. And write. And write.

In November, an administrator could’ve walked into my classroom on any given day of the week and been greeted by the sound of silence broken only by furious key-tapping. Students are so motivated to reach their goal and write their stories that they required very little from me to start and continue writing. The daily pep talks, the excitement of getting to color in their progress on the class progress chart, and fun sites like Fighter’s Block and Written Kitten also added immediate external motivation for students to write more.

#4: It’s fun!

My students had a lot of fun during NaNoWriMo! The word sprints were engaging, checking in with their classmates each day to compare word counts added a fun competitive element, and they just genuinely enjoyed writing their stories. Students told me that they often spent hours on the phone with each other at home talking through writer’s block and sharing opinions on plot points and characters. The Fighter’s Block site gamified the process of writing, which was appealing to many of my students who struggled with staring down a blank page. The zany, wacky prompts and challenges we found from various website inspired all sorts of creative ideas for my students. It was just a blast from start to finish. They genuinely enjoyed writing their novels.

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#3: Students end up with a real, published novel.

In keeping with the authentic nature of NaNoWriMo, students can get actual, published copies of their novels! The Young Writer’s Program partners with Blurb, a self-publishing company, to offer discounts to young novelists. The base price for a 5×8 trade paperback novel is super affordable, and my students’ novels ranged in cost from $3.50 – $7 depending on the length/ number of pages. Students can upload their own cover art, decide how to arrange the pages and what fonts to use, etc. The novels can be ordered through the Blurb website as many times as students and their families wish. The books look completely authentic, and even come with their own unique ISBN numbers and barcodes on the back. My school ordered a copy of each student’s novel for our school library for other students to check out, which was a really cool experience for our authors.

Blurb comes with free proprietary software to help you lay out and upload the novels for publishing. The first year I did this for my students (which was as painfully time-consuming as you might expect), but I think in the future I will set aside 1-2 days of class time and let students take care of this themselves with support from me. You can also upload .ePub files to Blurb, so presumably other software such as Apple iBooks Author would work, but I can’t say for sure- worth trying out, depending on what your software your district supports.

I also feel it’s worth noting that scores of teens have successfully published novels through the traditional publishing route – while the chances are slim, if a student produces something truly special, it could be worth exploring!

No matter how you choose to publish, printing students’ novels is far more cost-friendly than many people think, and the sense of pride and accomplishment students feel when their physical novels arrive is unparalleled.

My students’ novels, class of 2018-19

#2: NaNoWriMo improves students’ self-confidence.

Through the NaNoWriMo experience students grow exponentially as writers, and perhaps more importantly, they begin to see themselves as writers. They come away from this project with an understanding that they can persevere and achieve difficult goals- first by reaching their word count, then by sticking through the revision process to create a final published product. Students believe in themselves. As a result, for the whole rest of the school year it is so much easier to get my students to take risks as writers, because they have already seen the payoff and learned what they are capable of creating. No longer do I hear students say, “I’m just not good at writing.” My students know and believe that they are authors.

#1: Your students are already authors full of stories waiting to come out.

Perhaps the most important reason to give your students a chance to participate in NaNoWriMo is that they all have stories inside them- whether they realize it or not. By guiding students through the brainstorming and planning process and then giving students room, space, and voice to write, stories evolve. My students wrote everything from realistic fiction to fantasy to romance to sci-fi to noir mystery to dystopian. I learned about my students through their writing, and they learned about themselves as writers. Now, because of this project, students’ stories are sitting published in our school library, waiting to be shared with other readers for years to come. Take a chance on NaNoWriMo this November and give your young authors the opportunity to share their stories with the world!