Category Archives: Universal Design Learning (UDL)

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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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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Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) and Writing Instruction

I am currently participating in a study to understand more about Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) as a model for struggling writers. The goal is to teach the strategies that students need in order to write clearly and concisely. 

According to Graham, Harris, & McKeown, 2013, the SRSD approach consists of explicit teaching of:

  • general and specific writing strategies, such as:
    • using the right vocabulary,
    • being mindful of the intended reader,
    • creating interesting introductions and conclusions
  • the knowledge required to use these strategies;
  • ways to manage these strategies;
  • the writing process; and
  • one’s behaviour as a writer
    • self-regulation
    • self-instruction

Just like we teach students the habits of proficient readers, teachers need to articulate the habits of good writers. Writing researchers identified what good writers do: plan, monitor, evaluate, revise, and manage the writing process. These strategies should be taught explicitly for learners to apply them to a writing task. 

Elements of SRSD Instruction

Instructor modeling of strategies is essential to SRSD and must explicitly show learners how to create meaning. Graham and Harris (2005) describe a five-step process. By completing the following scaffolded instructional sequence, teachers can help learners gain confidence in the strategy and learn to use it automatically for more independent learning.

  1. Discuss It. Develop and activate background knowledge. Discuss when and how learners might use a strategy to accomplish specific writing tasks and goals. Talk about the benefits of becoming a more proficient and flexible writer. Address any negative self-talk or negative beliefs the learner holds, and ask the learner for a commitment to try to learn and use the strategy. Discuss how the learner should track progress to document the use and impact of the strategy.
  2. Model It. Model the strategy using think-alouds, self-talk, and self-instruction as you walk through the steps. Discuss afterwards how it might be made more effective and efficient for each individual, and have learners customize the strategy with personal self-statements. Ask students to set specific writing goals. Model the strategy more than once with various sample texts; for example, use a graphic organizer to demonstrate how to comprehend various texts of a similar genre (persuasive arguments or editorials). The Modeling stage is a key component for students. When students can read strong and poorly written writing and discuss it they are able to name and identify elements of good writing. Similarly, when teachers demonstrate writing and think aloud throughout the process, students are able to monitor their own thinking and improve their own writing.
  3. Make It Your Own. Strategies are composed of multiple steps, similar to a checklist. When steps are captured in a mnemonic or acrostic sentence, they are easier to remember. Paraphrasing or re-naming the steps in a mnemonic or creating a new mnemonic is fine, provided that the learner is able to remember the steps that the names represent. Customizing the checklist or mnemonic helps learners make it their own.
  4. Support It. Use the strategy as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. Instructors and other students can be supports, offering direct assistance, prompts, constructive feedback, and encouragement. When you introduce a new type of application (a new genre or writing frame, for example), it may be appropriate to model the strategy again. Learners can rely on charts and checklists too, as they learn the strategy and make it their own, but all of this should fade as learners become familiar enough with the strategy to set their goals, monitor their use of the strategy, and use self-statements independently.
  5. Independent Performance. Learners come to use the strategy independently across a variety of tasks. For example, learners may begin to draw graphic organizers without being prompted as a means to help them comprehend and plan.

Strategies like Acronyms are also helpful for students to remember the steps of the writing process and can act as a guide or checklist for students to write well. For example, the POW+TREE strategy helps writers approach an essay-writing task and check their work as they become more independent (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008).

POW, represents and emphasizes the importance of the planning process: 

Pick my idea and pay attention to prompt 

Organize

Write and say more

The TREE acronym is a memory and visualization tool that helps writers structure their essays: the Topic sentence is like the trunk of the tree that supports the whole argument; Reasons (at least three) are like the roots of the argument; Explain is a reminder to tell more about each reason; and finally, Ending is like the earth that wraps up the whole argument. Think sheets or graphic organizers shaped like stylized trees that learners write in as they brainstorm and plan can prompt the internalization of this strategy.

References

Graham, S. (2006). Strategy instruction and the teaching of writing: A metaanalysis. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 187–207). New York: Guilford Press.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (2005). Writing better: Effective strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. Available at http://www.all4ed.org/files/WritingNext.pdf.

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10 Strategies and Tools to Activate Knowledge

Understanding what your students already know is key to building initial knowledge that they need. Activating Prior Knowledge is important in students understanding, because it allows them and helps make connections to the new information. Using what students already know, helps teacher assist students with the learning process.

Most teachers utilize a K-W-L Chart for activating knowledge and in 2012 I wrote a blog post Beyond KWL Charts describing eight different strategies, I thought it was time for an update with some new strategies and tools that help “honor what students bring to the classroom and provides them with necessary context and connection to the purpose and payoff of what is to be learned. It is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy,” according to Jeffery D. Wilhelm, Adam Fachler, and Rachel Bear are the authors of the book Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must-Make Moves to Transform How We Teach–and How Students Learn.

KWHLAQ – These updated charts extend the range of a basic KWL chart to incorporate more metacognition, and follow-through towards continuing learning and related action. This chart includes How, Actions, and Questions alongside of the traditional what do you already know, what do you want to know, and what have your learned.

BRAIN POURS/BRAIN DUMPS – Brainstorming comes in many forms and asks students to write down everything they remember about a topic or subject. This is similar to a free write where students write all the things that come to their mind or they are thinking about without worrying about spelling, punctuation, and proper usage.

CAPTION THIS – One of my favorite activities from Matt Miller of Ditch That Textbook, the teacher selects an image and students annotate, comment, and even write a story to describe what they see in the image.

PADLET – This platform is great for collaboration and curation of ideas and activities. I use Padlet with my grad students and middle school students to share ideas, explain concepts, and collaborate in the brainstorming process.

ANSWER GARDEN – Another great online tool to post a question to the class and have students respond in 140 or 170 characters, what is great about this platform is that it creates a word cloud of all the responses with the most repeated words larger than others.

ANTICIPATION GUIDES – An anticipation guide is a comprehension strategy in any content area that poses statements or questions for students about the larger themes and ideas presented in the unit. I use anticipation guide often prior to a reading unit to gauge students thinking about themes connected to the unit of study. You can preview the one I created on Google Forms on WW2 and the Holocaust

GALLERY WALK – During a gallery walk, students explore multiple texts or images that are placed around the room. I use this strategy for students to respond to a collection of quotations, images, and textual excerpts. This strategy requires students to physically move around the room, it can be engaging to kinesthetic learners. Texts should be displayed “gallery style,” in a way that allows students to disperse themselves around the room, with several students clustering around each particular text. Texts can be hung on walls or placed on tables. The most important factor is that the texts are spread far enough apart to reduce significant crowding. Students walk around the room to read or view the texts around the room and then respond or comment on poster paper, a graphic organizer, or later during a large class debrief.

GAMES like Kahoot, QuizletLive, Quizalize, Quizizz – Test what students already know about a topic or idea by asking a series of questions on a game platform. Students love these games and they are perfect to access prior knowledge with low stakes or can also be utilized at the end of the lesson to see what students learned.

SURVEYs/QUESTIONAIRES – Make a list of 10-15 statements related to the subject content, including commonly held misconceptions. Have students mark “true” or “false” next to each statement.

WORD WEBS – Provide students with a word web of key words and concepts related to the topic or concept to be learned. Ask students to circle the words they already know or write a sentence using a 4-5 of the words that explains the connections between the ideas presented in the word web.

Have more ideas that work well with your students, share in the comments section for our readers.

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Scaffolding for Learner Success

Scaffolding is an instructional approach that provides the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) for students as they develop proficiency. Stemming from Lev Vygotsky (1962) scaffolding or “collaborative dialogue” between the learner and the teacher allows students to move along a continuum of progress, from needing teacher support to eventually needing no teacher support. In the process of releasing responsibility to students, teachers scaffold or support using language and teaching tools that promotes growth and development.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (2019) suggest “the graduate release structure can be applied within a single lesson or across lessons. The purpose of the gradual release of responsibility model is to increase the learning that students transfer to independent practice, thus developing more skilled and agentive readers and writers.”  

There are three (3) steps in the gradual release of responsibility:

1 – The teacher models

2 – Students practice with others

3 – Students practice independently

In an effort to help teachers understand types of scaffolds and ways to utilize them for student academic support, I have created this gallery walk to explore. Each door provides a different type of scaffold with examples utilized with my middle school students. Three of the scaffolds include Screencasts, How-To Sheets, and Learning Centers.


A  screencast is a great way for students to learn new topics or listen to a review. Using the tool, screencastify,  plan and script an instructional screencast for teaching writing (writing an introduction, body, or counterclaim, etc). For a how-to video, click here.  This approach can address the needs of visual/auditory learners. Here are a few examples of ones created for 8th grade students on essay writing.

A teacher made how-to sheet can be a powerful tool for building student responsibility for learning. Simple, step-by-step directions for accomplishing a skill can enable students to move forward independently. The how-to sheet should focus on learning a specific skill to address the needs of visual learners. Check out this sample.

A teacher-made learning center can be used to re-teach or move beyond a certain skill. Learning centers guide students to grapple with core concepts and skills. Learning centers can address your kinesthetic learners.

What does scaffolding mean for teachers in a blended or online learning environment? Scaffolding can take several different forms. From breaking down larger assessments into subtasks to providing examples and encouraging reflection, the goal of scaffolding is to create opportunities for students to receive structured support and grow as learners. Providing examples, models, and checklists can be beneficial for all learners. Using graphic organizers to help break down assignments into smaller chunks allowing students the opportunity to reflect, question, and even reach out for help if they need it. Additionally, providing directions in written format, audio using an App like Mote: Voice Notes & Feedback for students to hear the directions or providing a screencast to review the directions as many times as needed and guides the students through the learning process.

Northern Illinois University’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center notes some additional ways students benefit from instructional scaffolding: 

  • Scaffolding challenges students through deep learning and discovery.
  • Scaffolding helps learners become better students.
  • Scaffolding increases the likelihood of student success. 
  • Scaffolding individualizes instruction.

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