Author Archives: The Teaching Factor

13 Young Adult Books With Teen Writers

Writing is a powerful thing. If we want to inspire students to write, we can use young adult fiction with protagonists who write to encourage and arouse the writers within all our students. I just finished reading Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light and found myself dog-earing so many pages with powerful passages and statements about a writer’s life.

“We think language as this tame thing that lives in neat garden beds, bound by rules and fences. Then someone shows it to you growing wild and beautiful, flowering vines consuming cities, erasing pavement and lines. Breaking though any fence that would try to contain it. Reclaiming. Reshaping. Reforming. In my life, I’ve never known anything else that felt so full of infinite possibility. Words make me feel strong. They make me feel powerful and alive. They make me feel like I can open doors. (Zentner (2021:264)

Here are 13 young adult books that offer teen protagonists who write:

Cash Pruitt is the protagonist in Jeff Zentner’s In The Wild Life by (2021). Cash loves his rural Tennessee hometown, his grandparents who raised him after his mother died of an overdose, and his best friend Delaney Doyle, a science genius whose boundless knowledge of the natural world fills him with wonder. Both children of an opioid-addicted parent, Delaney and Cash have a deep bond and when Delaney’s scientific discovery – a mold with powerful antibiotic properties – both are awarded scholarships at a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. Cash worries his grandfather, who has emphysema, will die while he is away at school, but accepts the scholarship. At school he takes a poetry class that shows him the power of language to reshape experiences of pain and fear into beauty. As in Zentner’s earlier works, grief is a central theme explored in many forms.

In the YA novel Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink (2021) Angel and Isaiah are two young Black teenagers living in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the days leading up to the Tulsa Race Riot and massacre. The two come together for a summer job running a mobile library, delivering books to poorer black areas. Despite early contention and philosophical differences (Angel is a follower of the more conservative Booker T. Washington; Isaiah prefers the teachings of the more revolutionary WEB De Bois) the two fall in love as the world around them begins to catch fire. Isaiah writes poetry throughout the story and it is great to see a young man use poetry as a form of expression.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (2018) using letter writing and journaling to understand Justyce McAllister, a good kid, an honor student, and always there to help a friend. None of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Jaqueline Woodson is an amazing young adult author who has powerful stories to tell. In her book From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (2010) addresses what it means to be a family. Melanin Sun has a lot to say. But sometimes it’s hard to speak his mind, so he fills up notebooks with his thoughts instead. He writes about his mom a lot–they’re about as close as they can be, because they have no other family. So when she suddenly tells him she’s gay, his world is turned upside down. And if that weren’t hard enough for him to accept, her girlfriend is white. Melanin Sun is angry and scared. How can his mom do this to him– is this the end of their closeness? What will his friends think? And can he let her girlfriend be part of their family?

The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annex” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2020) has won the National Book Award and the Printz Award. The book is told in poetry. Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.  With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (2018), Cath is a Simon Snow fan. For Cath, being a fan is her life―and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words.

Ava Dellaira’s  Love Letters to the Dead (2015) begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did.  Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more–though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her.  Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was–lovely and amazing and deeply flawed–can she begin to discover her own path

Newbery Medal Winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010) begins shortly after a fall-out with her best friend. Sixth grader Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes, and she doesn’t know what to do. The notes tell her that she must write a letter—a true story, and that she can’t share her mission with anyone. It would be easy to ignore the strange messages, except that whoever is leaving them has an uncanny ability to predict the future. If that is the case, then Miranda has a big problem—because the notes tell her that someone is going to die, and she might be too late to stop it. 

Eighteen-year-old Eliza Mirk is the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea in Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (2019). When a new boy at school tempts Eliza to live a life offline, everything she’s worked for begins to crumble. In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, Eliza is LadyConstellation, anonymous creator of a popular webcomic called Monstrous Sea. With millions of followers and fans throughout the world, Eliza’s persona is popular. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves her digital community. Then Wallace transfers to her school and Eliza begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile. But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart. 

In Riley Redgate’s Final Draft (2018) the only sort of risk 18-year-old Laila Piedra enjoys is the peril she writes for the characters in her stories: epic sci-fi worlds full of quests, forbidden love, and robots. Her creative writing teacher has always told her she has a special talent. But three months before her graduation, he’s suddenly replaced–by Nadiya Nazarenko, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who is sadistically critical and perpetually unimpressed. At first, Nazarenko’s eccentric assignments seem absurd. But before long, Laila grows obsessed with gaining the woman’s approval. 

Natalie’s best friend, Zoe, is sure that the novel Natalie’s written is good enough to be published. But how can a twelve-year-old girl publish a book? Natalie’s mother is an editor for a big children’s publisher, but Natalie doesn’t want to ask for any favors. The School Story by Andrew Clements is 20 years old but a perfect read for 5th and 6th graders. Zoe’s brilliant idea is that Natalie can submit her manuscript under a pen name, with Zoe acting as her literary agent. Can Natalie and Zoe pull off their masquerade?

What happens if your notebook ends up in the wrong hands? Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) is about Harriet  M. Welsch, a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Despite being written decades ago, there are some key themes about friendship that are worth noting.

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Organizing A Day of Service for Students

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Looking ahead to the final day of school, my colleague came up with the idea of hosting a walk-a-thon for students to be outside and raise money for a community organization. Thinking about would everyone be able to walk, we expanded the day to offer multiple community service projects for 8th-grade students to help many community organizations. We wanted to end the year by taking time to focus on helping others and making a difference in the community. 

Many of the families in our school help to donate items when we hold school wide drives but community service is voluntary time, without compensation, spent on selfless acts which benefit the school or wider community. In addition to donating items like clothes, food, and toys, we wanted our students to serve the local or global community in a positive way. Many high schools require some community service hours for graduation but why not start sooner with young people. Community service fosters responsibility, understanding, and leadership.

The last day of school is actually a half day and students will have twenty minute periods. As a team, 80 minutes in total. Why not spend the final 80 minutes of team time participating in service projects? All of the activities will be held at school. After contacting community organizations and brainstorming possible service activities, using a Google Form students selected three activities they wished to participate in. Additionally, we asked the Parent Organization to get involved and they also donated pizza after the Day of Service for the 8th graders. 

Here are the activities we have planned: 

Dog Toys for Animal Shelters: Braid pull toys for animal shelter dogs at Incredible Pups Pet Rescue in Poughkeepsie.

Art for Osborn: Create works of art to share with the Osborn community. Brighten the day of a senior 

Meals on Main Street: Stock the mobile food pantry truck before it goes out to do a pop-up pantry.

Spice Care Packages for Afghan Families: Help organize spice care packages for local Afghan families

Sandwich Making: Prepare sandwiches for a local homeless shelter.

Soul Ryeders: Design drawstring bags and friendship rocks for kids going to summer camp 

Book Drive & Personalized Bookmarks: Curate books for donations to community centers and schools. Create personalized bookmarks to send messages of encouragement and reading to recipients. 

Book Swap: Work the First Annual RMS Book Swap, helping 6th and 7th graders pick summer reading books. 8th-grade RMS families have donated these books. 

School Supplies Drive & Organization: Help to organize school supplies to be distributed to students in need in the new school year. 

Moving Up Ceremony Graphic Design: Help make signage for Moving Up Ceremony

RMS Clean Up: Clean out lockers and help identify the lockers with graffiti that need cleaning

Make Fleece Blankets for Children Blythedale Hospital

Lastly, we asked every student to bring a box of dry cereal to be donated to a local community organization to distribute during the summer to the food insecure. Emailing families with the details and reminders helped us to collect donations of books, school supplies, cereal, and t-shirts to use for the dog toys. We are excited to kick off this Day of Service which we hope can be an annual event.

Numerous studies report the benefit of community service among teens. Researchers also found that community service enhanced students’ problem-solving skills, improved their ability to work within a team, and plan more effectively. Social emotional development is integrated through service and service learning programs. Participating in community service does widen a student’s world view and give them context for how the world around them functions. Students are building social emotional lifeskill like

  • Decision making 
  • Empathy 
  • Leadership 
  • Critical thinking 

New York Times Editorial Contest for Students

The the past five years The New York Times has hosted an editorial contest for middle and high school students. Students are asked to submit 500 word opinion editorial about an issue that matters to them. The newspaper’s website actually invites teenagers to share their opinions about questions NYT pose — and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes. The contest is a bit more formal and open to all students ages 10-19. You can find the complete rules to the student contest HERE.

This NYT writing contest is a great teaching tool for writing and reading units of study. Persuasive writing is a key standard and learning target within the Common Core and Next Generation Literacy Standards. We are ending the school year with a mini-inquiry into editorial writing. First, students were immersed in a variety of NYT student writing contest winners and then students will write their own 500 word editorial.

The assignment has been adapted from the contest requirements and I have provided students with a graphic organizer to help start their writing. The student’s editorial is based on a culminating social studies podcast project that my humanities colleagues have created:

Task: Create a podcast with a team of students (of no more than three) that finds a thread in history and follows that thread through. Explore a current events topic and trace the history of that topic throughout time.

What is a “Throughline”? 

A Throughline is a theme, plot, or characteristic that connects stories together. Throughlines help the viewer or reader do a few things: understand the theme/character better over time, layer experiences, make predictions, and become invested in the story.


For example: Take the enduring issue of inequality and the topic of Black representation in Congress. Look all the way back to Reconstruction to the first African American man in Congress and trace the story of Black representatives and senators throughout our history and discuss why this unequal representation exists.

Utilizing the research completed for the podcast project, students are taking a particular stance on their podcast project.

For example: If students are researching and creating a podcast on the similarities between George Floyd and Emmitt Till, their editorial might address how history repeats itself or the failures of the American justice system, students might write about how racism still exists and Black Lives Matter.

Each student brainstormed five different perspectives about their podcast topic. Together, social studies and English are working collaboratively to support student research, writing, speaking, listening, reading, and digital literacy skills. Research must be done, facts are collected, evidence is weighed and carefully selected. To strengthen an argument further, a counter point is added and debunked. Students are motivated by topics they have selected and are using their voice to persuade others.

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For Stranger Things Fans Who Want More

This weekend marks the final season of Stranger Things. The first part of final season was be released on Friday, May 27, 2022 and the second part of the finale will be released in July. This 80s ode sci-fi horror series was created by brothers, Ross and Matt Duffer and streams on Netflix. The series first aired in 2016 and centers around a group of “nerdy” friends living Hawkins, Indiana who love playing Dungeons and Dragons. Then they meet a girl with psychokinetic abilities and strange things happen keep happening. Think 80s films ET and War Games meets Goonies, the series is part adventure, investigative drama with supernatural elements and government conspiracies.

I have used Stranger Things episodes with in the media literacy course I teach in middle school to help teach storytelling, allusions, director moves, and suspense. There are many scenes that borrow from iconic films from the 1980s and pay homage to director like Steve Spielberg (ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and John Hughes (Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club), writers Stephen King (IT and “The Body” ie. Stand By Me) and RL Stine (The Goose Bumps Series).

The fourth and final season of Stranger Things does not disappoint. It has taken a clear horror turn clearly influenced by Body Snatchers, Poltergeist, and The Shining. Once you binge the first part of Season Four and have four weeks to wait for the July release of the final episodes, what are you going to watch, read and listen to when you want more. Lots more.

Well, here is a list of what you can read, watch, and listen to while you wait patiently.

  1. You cannot deny that 80s music comes to the forefront of the final season. Music is in every scene to build suspense, set the mood, and even parallel character development. TAMARA FUENTES writes for Cosmopolitan Magazine and provides links and background information on Season 4 Stranger Things Soundtrack.
  2. According to his publishers, R.L. Stine invented the teen horror genre with Fear Street, the bestselling teen horror series of all time. He also changed the face of children’s publishing with the mega-successful Goosebumps series, which went on to become a worldwide multimedia phenomenon. Guinness World Records cites Stine as the most prolific author of children’s horror fiction novels. If you haven’t read any of R.L. Stine’s books you might want to check them out.
  3. Think teen horror is too light and looking for something to scare the begeezies out of you? Check out Stephen King‘s short stories, books, and movies. He has since published over 50 books and has become one of the world’s most successful writers. King is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to the American Letters and the 2014 National Medal of Arts.
  4. Satan Panic in the 1980s. Season 4 Episode One introduces panic in the town of Hawkins, Indiana when two teens end up dead. One theory is that these teens were possessed by a demon. In fact, the popular game Dungeons and Dragons is criticized by mass media and hysteria as a demonic game that brainwashes children — sound familiar? This idea of teens brainwashed by games, music, and videos games continues to persist today. Back to Stranger Things Season 4. The Duffer Brothers are not making anything up. According to Vox.com, “one of the most famous, prolonged mass media scares in history, Satanic Panic was characterized at its peak by fearful media depictions of godless teenagers and the deviant music and media they consumed. This, in turn, led to a number of high-profile criminal cases that were heavily influenced by all the social hysteria.” Most people associate the Satanic Panic with so-called “satanic ritual abuse,” a rash of false allegations made against day care centers in the ’80s. Crime Reads gives more of the background on this panic that shook the world.
  5. Rewatch Stranger Things Season 1-4.
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Identity Choice Novels & Playlist

Students are reading books with themes of identity as our last unit this school year. Student outcomes include

  • Recognize how people and characters define themselves as individuals through multiple complex factors, including culture, family, peers, and environment, and that defining oneself is a complex process
  • Read texts of various lengths to analyze content and structure, and cite evidence
  • Respond to texts (orally and in writing) coherently and thoughtfully
  • Develop and support claims with textual information
  • Participate in small-group and whole-class discussions

Students selected from five (5) choice novels:

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson – Newbery Honor

Acclaimed author Renee Watson offers a powerful story about a girl striving for success in a world that too often seems like it’s trying to break her. Jade believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother tells her to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way, which Jade has. Every day she rides the bus away from her friends to the private school where she feels like an outsider. She’s tired of being singled out as someone who needs help or someone who people want to fix.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Nevin

Libby and Jack get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both angry, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – A National Book Award Winner. 

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world.  Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. She has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy. (Some mature topics throughout the book.)

The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor – National Book Award Finalist

Mason Buttle is the biggest, sweatiest kid in his grade, and everyone knows he can barely read or write. Mason’s learning disabilities are compounded by grief. Fifteen months ago, Mason’s best friend, Benny Kilmartin, turned up dead in the Buttle family’s orchard.  An investigation drags on, and Mason, honest as the day is long, can’t understand why Lieutenant Baird won’t believe the story Mason has told about that day.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri – 2021 Michael Printz Award

An autobiographical novel, middle-schooler Daniel, formerly Khosrou, tells his unimpressed and at times cruel classmates about his experience as an Iranian refugee.  Modeling his storytelling on Scheherazade and not beholden to a western mode, Daniel Nayeri writes a patchwork of memory and anecdote.  He layers stories upon stories to create a complex, hilarious, and devastating understanding of memory, family, and perspective. This book is a complex read due to the interweaving of stories in past and present and suggested for advanced readers. 

I created this identity playlist to help student meet learning targets and draw connections text to self, text to text, and text to world.

This is just a highlight of some of the slides. To get a copy of this playlist you can access HERE.

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One Pagers for Deeper Reading Comprehension

The One-Pager is a single-page response that shows a student’s understanding of the text. It is a way of making representation of one’s individual, unique understanding. It is a way to be creative and experimental and respond to reading imaginatively and honestly. The one pager assignment is a perfect summative assessment for students to showcase comprehension, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation skills. 

The requirements for the one pager are up to the teacher. I try to change up the one pager requirements with each assignment. Students complete two one-pager assignments in my class during the school year, I do not want to assign more than that because it loses it luster. Below are some examples of what students can include in their one pager. Also note the different one pager assignments I have shared in this blog post. 

Elements of the One Pager:

Write the title and author so that it stands out on the page.

Answer three (3) of the response questions from the question bank (see back) citing textual evidence to support your claims. – Sometimes I provide a question bank with higher level thinking questions for students to respond to where as if I am assigning the one pager later in the school year, I might have students create their own question and provide a short response answering the question. 

Pull out two (2) “notable quotes” or phrases that jump out at you, make you think or wonder, or remind you of something. 

The quotes must pertain to an aspect of the central idea/theme in the text. The quotes must emphasize key points to be remembered or used to explain the major concept. Write them down anywhere on your page.

Use different colors and/or writing styles to individualize each “quote” or phrase.

Include a visual image or illustration, which creates a visual focus; these images need to illustrate what pictures you have in your mind from reading.

Make a personal statement about what you have read–what does it mean to you personally? What is your opinion, final thought, big question or personal connection?

FILL THE PAPER UP with your words, images, and symbols. 

What Not to Do 

• Don’t merely summarize–you’re not retelling the story.

• Use unlined paper only, to keep from being restricted by lines.

• Don’t think half a page will do. Make it rich with “quotes” and images. 

Want More  . . . check out this blog post on NCTE providing more description and samples. My co-teacher provides specific students with PDF templates and checklists to help students with the visual layout of a one pager and also break down the assignment into smaller parts. 

Can one pagers be digital for your students who do not like or think they have artistic abilities, of course. Additionally, I have even had students work in groups to make collaborative one pagers for chapter notes when we are reading an whole class novel like Animal Farm. Working together helps break down the assignment into smaller pieces and also encourages discussion about the key elements of the reading and assignment. 

One pagers can be meaningful as an assessment tool, creative response to literature, and or check for understanding. One pagers are a powerful way to ask students to reflect upon what they have read. ISTE Standards for Students require students to be creative communicators as well as literate humans. One pagers are an invitation for teachers and students to consider alternative formats and opportunities to be creative communicators and design thinkers while at the same time, foster literacy learning in both a traditional and a blended learning environment

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Organizing A Day of Service for Middle School Students

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

WHAT?

My colleague and I are organizing be a day of service for our 8th grade students the last day of school. We want to end the year taking some time focusing on helping others and make a difference in the community. 

Day Of Service Activities At A Glance

Walk-a-thon: Walk and raise money for World Central Kitchen. WCK is first to the frontlines, providing meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises. 

Brook & Nature Center Clean-Up: Join others to keep trash our of the brook and Rye Nature Center.

Dog Toys for Animal Shelters: Braid pull toys for animal shelter dogs at Humane Society of Westchester.

Letters of Hope: Create works of art that share messages of hope, show compassion and promote healing for children in the Ukraine. 

WHY?

Numerous studies report the benefit of community service among teens. One study that analyzed data from the National Education Longitudinal Study found that students who are more civically engaged tend to perform better in school subjects such as reading, history, science and mathematics and are more apt to complete high school. Researchers also found that community service enhanced students’ problem-solving skills, improved their ability to work within a team and enabled them to plan more effectively.

Volunteering helps the teens gain new skills necessary for the job market such as leadership, communication skills, dependability, time management, and decision making.

HOW YOU CAN SET UP YOUR OWN DAY OF SERVICE

Consider ways that students can actively be involved in helping others. Students can pick up trash around the school, create a mural to inspire the community, or work with community based organizations. For examples, we wanted to plan activities that were low or no cost.

Students, teachers, and even the parent organization can meet to brainstorm project ideas. The following criteria should be considered in selecting projects:

  • Location: Convenience and proximity are important.
  • Money/resources/equipment required: Make sure that you have the necessary money, resources, and equipment before confirming a project.
  • Visibility in the community: Think about whether you want to work only for “well-known” agencies, those less known, or the neediest.
  • Constituency mix: Consider whether you want to concentrate on helping one segment of the community or offer a wide range of project types.
  • Number and size of projects: Consider your student population, you might want to organize several smaller projects. Keep in mind that too many volunteers for a project can lead to people standing around with nothing to do, and this will not be a good experience for them. We are going to have students complete a Google Form to sign up for projects of their choice and also cap certain projects.

Want to include remote volunteer opportunities? This article from We Are Teachers with ten virtual volunteer opportunities for teens.

Have more ideas, share in the Comments section on this blog.

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Literary Travel Guides: A Student Assignment

I just finished reading (Me) Moth by Amber McBride. The debut YA novel-in-verse  is about a teen girl who is grieving the deaths of her family, and a teen boy, Sani who moved in with his mother and her new family.  Moth lost her family in an accident and although she lives with her aunt, she feels alone.

Until she meets Sani, a boy who is also searching for his roots. If he knows more about where he comes from, maybe he’ll be able to understand his ongoing depression. And if Moth can help him feel grounded, then perhaps she too will discover her own history.

Moth and Sani take a road trip that has them chasing ghosts and searching for ancestors. The way each moves forward is surprising, powerful, and unforgettable. This is a powerfully uplifting novel about identity, first love, and the ways that our memories and our roots steer us through the universe.

Half way through the book Moth lists the places she and Santi have planned to stop and visit on their road trip. The book continues with details about their road trip and the landmarks they explore. I love the idea of students creating a literary travel guide of the books they read.

So many of young adult books explore cities and the unique spots that’s propel the story. Consider the trip to Amsterdam Hazel and Augustus take in John Green’s Fault in our Stars trip or the importance of Central Park in New York City in The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, in Booked, author Richard Kreitner explores literary destinations filled with literary landmarks and destinations.

The assignment would require students to become the tour guides leading their fellow students on a trip through a young adult book they have read. Students are reading closely for the importance of setting in the story. Students might consider the following questions:

  1. How does place shape your understanding of a story?
  2. How do the places in your lives impact your life?
  3. How can place/setting impact the mood of a piece of writing?
  4. How does place/setting shape a character’s life?
  5. What works of literature have you read that you remember having an important setting?
  6. How does place/setting interact with other literary elements such as style, symbols and tone to create meaning for readers?

The final assignment might be a choice of a travel essay, brochure or even a television-style infomercial for their story. This project would entice would-be travelers to visit the both the physical place described in the story, as well as the literary world created by the author.

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Assessment Speed Dating

Formative Assessment is a constantly occurring process, a verb, a series of events in action, not a single tool or a static noun. — from Formative Assessment That Truly Informs Instruction (NCTE, 2013) 

Assessment is an integral part of instruction determining whether or not the goals of education are being met. It is used to measure the current knowledge that a student has. It is through assessment that teachers are continually asking:

“Am I teaching what I think I’m teaching?”

“Are students learning what they are suppose to be learning?”

A test, quiz, or assessment project is not just a grade to evaluate the students at the end of a unit but an ongoing evaluative tool for the teacher.  Teachers are engaged in assessment every minute that they are in the classroom. As teachers we are always observing, noting, and evaluating. There are three types of feedback and goal setting assessment tools that teachers need throughout a unit of inquiry:

Pre Assessment (Finding Out) – Pretests, inventories, KWL, checklists, observations, self-evaluations, questioning, mind mapping, anticipation guides

Pre Assessment allows student to demonstrate what they already know about what is being planned and what further instruction opportunities are needed or what requires reteaching or enhancement. Teachers can not just begin a lesson without taking a “temperature” of what the students know in the beginning.

Formative Assessment (Keeping Track and Checking Up) – Conferences, peer evaluations, observations, talkaround, questioning, exit cards, quiz, journal entry, self-evaluations

Formative assessment occurs concurrently with instruction and provides feedback to teachers and learners. Formative assessment can be formal and informal to frame meaningful performance goals.

Summative Assessment (Making Sure) – Unit Test, performance task, product and exhibition, demonstrations, portfolio review

Summative assessment shows what students have learned at the conclusion of an instructional unit and is evaluative.

For reliability and validity teachers should use a variety of assessments to provide enough helpful feedback to improve performance. Assessment should be used for guiding, self-reflection, instruction, nurturing, and used over multiple activities. In addition, students should be involved in daily or weekly evaluation of their progress. Rubrics and other scoring tools help evaluate understanding of content and skills that are used by both the teacher and the student for both specific tasks and long term progress. I never handout to students an assessment without also giving them the evaluation rubric at the same time so they know exactly what I am looking for when I evaluate their projects and assessments. Here are four criteria of quality feedback as defined by Grant Wiggins (1998): 

1. It must be timely.

2. It must be specific.

3. It must be understandable to the receiver.

4. It must allow the student to act on the feedback (refine, revise, practice, and retry).

It is easy to give tests and quizzes but in actuality, they are not always the most accurate evaluation tools. Teachers want to use a variety of assessments or data sources and teacher data mechanisms to help gain a more accurate picture of students knowledge and understanding.

To help my pre-service English teachers consider the various aspects of assessment, I created this Assessment Speed Dating Hyperdoc that walks teachers through various literacy based assessments in the English language Arts classroom and more.

The hyperdoc and speed dating template was inspired and adapted from Amanda Sandoval @historysandoval.

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Literature Circles: A Trusted Book Club Reading Strategy

I first learned about Literature Circles back in the day when I was studying to be a teacher. Literature circles are a form of book group that engage students by allowing them to respond to the text in a variety of ways and practice using reading comprehension strategies as identified by Harvey Daniels.

In literature circles the teacher chooses books that will interest students. Currently students are participating in an interdisciplinary unit on WW2 so they have a choice of six historical fiction and non fiction books about WW2, the Holocaust, and Japanese Internment to choose. Students selected the book they would like to read and were then organized into small groups of four to five for their book clubs and literature circles. During ELA class, students meet twice a week in book groups to discuss their reading. In order to hold each other accountable and encourage a productive book discussion student choose a given a role for the day. Rather than the teacher assigning the roles, the students select new roles for each book club meeting. The purpose for assigning students a role is to have each student engaged in a conversation about the section read. Students are the discussion leaders and respond to the text in a variety of ways and practice using reading comprehension strategies.

The Literature circle model is partly based on Piaget’s constructivist theory, and on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Piaget believed that learners construct knowledge through experiences. Building on Piaget’s initial theories, constructivists also believe that a child is an active learner and thinker, or a sense maker who is constructing his or her own knowledge by interacting with objects and ideas (Constructivist Education, n.d.). In literature circles there is specific role for each student and students must draw upon past experiences. Vygotsky’s theory of ZPD suggests that if children practice a new skill with the help of an adult or a slightly more capable peer then they gradually develop the ability to perform the skill without help or assistance. Literature circles engage students in active sense making and involve them in peer interactions like those expressed in the theory of ZPD.

When I first learned about Literature Circles student’s roles required them to complete an actual task or assignment and turn in to the teacher. Then a decade later, the tasked roles were removed and were said to deter students from reading engagement rather, it makes the reading assignment task oriented. Moving ahead with literature circles now, I find it important for students to complete the role requirements in their Reader’s Notebook. This scaffolding helps middle school students work on their reading comprehension and also have artifacts to bring to their weekly book discussions. The goal for a teacher is to help students become independent and self-regulated learners (Scharlach, 2008). Providing scaffolds and gradual release of responsibility helps students become independent and self-regulated learners.

I have created this slide deck for my students are you are free to get your own copy HERE. Each slide has a description of the different group roles and the tasks needed to complete for their preparation of the book club/literature circle meeting. There are five different roles and students do not repeat the roles but are to take on a new role with each book club meeting. I am also having each group submit their work on a Padlet to curate the group’s discussion reflections and group tasks to house all their work in one place and access for writing assignments and assessments.

Lee Araoz, the District Coordinator of Instructional Technology for Lawrence Public Schools in New York describes many ways to infuse technology into Literature Circles. He uses Padlet, Flipgrid, students create their own Quizizz, and Google Suite. The key is choice. Students choose their books, their group roles, and a technology platform to showcase their reading.

If you also use literature circles in your classroom I would love to know how it is going and what you have found woks well to support your students as readers and independent thinkers. Do you use role sheets and or infuse technology? What are the different roles you have found most successful for middle school students? You can share in the comments section of this blog.

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