Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Future without Triple Tasking?

I originally wrote this while we were still teaching abroad, but it still rings true for me.

A Future without Triple-Tasking?
Finding Creative Space in Bulgaria

It’s my second and last gray and white winter in Bulgaria. In a few months my husband and I will pack up our little red house and dive back into American life in a haze of jet lag. Working abroad has given me many unique opportunities - to perform in a Balkan dance show, to write a travel blog, to see the monasteries of Meteora and surf in Morocco. I’ve met the people and seen the places that were once just newsprint to me, and my worldview has changed. One of the biggest gifts I found overseas is space for creativity.

Last year I created a “Wall of Imagination” on one side of my classroom, filled with articles, photos, and ideas that showed creative thinking. Alongside a postcard of La Sagrada Familia under construction in Barcelona sat an article describing Google’s company policy of giving employees free time to do whatever they want.

I had to pick my students’ jaws up from the floor. Free time? To do whatever they want?

They were stunned, and I might have been too, a year before. Life at the American boarding school where I taught previously had a racing heartbeat. I learned to triple-task on day one, and my responsibilities only increased. I scooped time out of nights and weekends for creativity – baking for a poetry slam over lunch, waking at 1 a.m. to go over plans for special guest speakers, plopping into my cushioned computer chair before the sun poked over the California foothills and into my students’ dorm windows. My job environment both fulfilled and exhausted me.

In Bulgaria I suddenly found myself without the millions of stimuli I had grown so accustomed to. I taught my classes, tutored a few students who needed help, advised the literary journal and the cooking club. But using my double time skills, I could usually finish everything required of me in less than a regular working day. Plus, I didn’t know too many people, didn’t care to watch much T.V. in Bulgarian, could hardly figure out how to navigate the downtown at first. That unexpected phrase “I’m caught up” sprang to my lips for the first time in years, and I found myself with free time – that magical space Google gifts to its employees on a regular basis. At first I didn’t know what to do, but the answers came quickly.

Given a bit of lead for the first time in years, I found myself pursuing passions old and new. I learned to cook, began submitting travel features to magazine and websites, and turned my attention to the wider educational community. I published a lesson plan at readwritethink, visited other classrooms and polled teachers about best practices, ordered a book by Nancie Atwell and launched a 10th grade outside reading program. I decided to start a new faculty mentorship program to help solve our problem of high international turnover, and organized an in-service series on teaching with technology. A friend and I started a tradition of Sunday night potlucks to foster faculty community. I set up blogs for my courses and facilitated exchanges between my students and kids in Washington D.C. and Kentucky. I read for myself, and soon discovered new authors to share with my students. Suddenly, my free time filled up with my own dreams, instead of desperate naps and frantic finishing.

As one of the most successful companies in the world, Google has the financial power to fund free time in the hopes of fostering creativity. What might happen in our schools if teachers were occasionally given this same opportunity? An in-service devoted to brainstorming new ideas? An activities schedule reduced slightly to give everyone a bit more wiggle room? Mandatory homework free nights to give the doers and the graders a chance to pursue their own interests? Students at every school I’ve worked at have sometimes lamented their harried hours to me, saying “I got into this school because of the things I love to do, but now I don’t have time to do them.” What might we do to keep this from being true for our school populations – teachers and students – in an ever more competitive world? It’s not jumping through hoops that makes us who we are – it’s creating a circus of our own. 

I recently discovered that my old school has switched from seven classes a day to three, and added a block of free time for creative field trips every Wednesday. I hope more schools will follow their lead.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Public vs. Private - Why the Divide?

I have a secret.

It’s gotten me into trouble more than once with other teachers. Is it that I’m a bad teacher? That I don’t care about my students? That I don’t do everything I can to come up with engaging ideas for my classroom and to share those ideas with others?

As a young teacher, I joined the National Council of Teachers of English and attended my first annual conference in Pittsburgh. Inspired by presentations on graphic novels, storyboarding and poetry slams, I went home eager to teach with these new strategies, and to share my ideas at future conferences, giving back to the engaged teaching community I had just joined.

Two years later I arrived, shiny and excited, to present on the Harkness discussion model at the CATE conference in Long Beach. As I went from session to panel to meal, chatting with other teachers, I realized I was an outsider. My colleagues at the conference were invisibly divided into two categories – public and private. Except, as far as I could tell, I was the only private school teacher there. I felt like one among hundreds. During the Q & A session of my Harkness presentation, when I let slip that I usually used the discussion model I was teaching with a group of 15 students, I felt awkward. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also caught a whiff of hostility. It began to feel like one against hundreds, instead of among. Embarrassed, I ad-libbed solutions to questions of how to apply my strategy to a classroom of 30 or more students. I felt I was losing my audience, as I suggested putting the students into two groups, or having half the students watch the other discuss a text in a fishbowl version of Harkness.  

That’s when I realized I did not fit in. That the worlds of public and private education in California split cleanly apart along a seam of class size, funding, and standards. That’s when I started dodging questions about my school during presentations and informal chat. I wanted to learn from my colleagues across the divide, and I felt I had ideas to share with them, so it was best just to keep my boarding school background secret.

When I first entered the profession, I learned from public school teachers through books like Educating Esme, Teacher Man, teacher; The One Who Made the Difference, The Freedom Writer’s Diary, Room 109, and I Read it But I Don’t Get It and lesson plan websites like Outta Ray’s Head and Web English Teacher. It didn’t occur to me to think that good strategies for teaching in public school would not apply to private school. Teaching was teaching, right? We’re all trying to do the same thing.

Summers spent at The Bread Loaf School of English, getting my Master of Arts in English with both private and public school teachers, confirmed my belief that teachers across regions, countries, levels and school formats could learn from each other. My best friends’ backgrounds varied – one, an education writer trying to influence policy in D.C., another a Teach for America alumna now working at a charter school, another a teacher and coach at a public high school in rural Durango, Colorado, another working at a private middle school in L.A., catering in part to the children of celebrities. These differences in background didn’t stop us from avid discussions of teaching methods over lunches and on the steps of our dorms at night. Halfway through the program, when I moved to Bulgaria to teach at an American school, I set up classroom exchanges between my students and the students of friends in a D.C. charter school and a Kentucky public school. The students, guided by us, learned about and from each other, sharing discussions through blogger blogs, facebook and e-mail.

It wasn’t always easy blurring the lines. I took one incredible class, “Discovering the Imagination,” in which the free form of the course material led to intense discussions. Three or four passionate public school teachers occasionally drew a line down the middle of the room, implying that the private school teachers had taken the easy way out. The atmosphere in the class turned toxic for weeks, as some of the private school teachers tried to defend their life choices and some of the public school teachers took out anger over too-big classes and too-few dollars on their classmates. I discussed the atmosphere with our brilliant and kind professor, an elementary school principle most passionate about engaging students’ creativity, often. It made both of us sad, and left both of us confused. What was to be gained from these battle lines? By the end of the summer, things had cooled down. I continued to share e-mails and ideas with the most vocal of the public school teachers in the class until she entered a PHD program a year or two later. She and I had realized early on that we were both on the same mission – to teach as well as we could, to bring passionate engagement into our students’ lives.  

Mixed together at Bread Loaf, teachers from every background find a way to share ideas, even when it’s hard, to the benefit of students across the world. So why, in California, can’t we blur the lines between CAIS (California Association of Independent Schools) and CATE (California Association of Teachers of English)? Why, when I presented again this year in Sacramento, did I have to brush off an interruption in the middle of my presentation to ask just exactly what my school demographic was and what my school looked like? Was that really the most relevant question as I presented strategies to help teenagers become more passionate about reading?

When we start breaking down the lines between teachers, maybe we’ll be able to start breaking down the lines between our students too.

I know it sometimes seems as if public and private school are worlds apart. But though we have different kinds of administrators, we have similar goals and probably similar passions. And our problems are not always so different.

This year about one fourth of my students speak English as their second language, though I am unequipped to help them. I was glad to see so many sessions at CATE Sacramento with advice for teaching ELLs, and to use the wonderful ESL websites dedicated public school teachers have crafted online. This year my 10th grade teaching team is working to incorporate English and history into a humanities curriculum, and it was with relief and gratitude that I attended a CATE session by two innovative public school teachers who have crafted a hugely successful Global Studies Program. Last year I wrote several lesson plans for NCTE’s readwritethink program about using blogs to host classroom content for absent students and to build student portfolios, strategies I like to think could be useful in many classrooms.

Teachers in public and private schools face different challenges in and around the classroom, but we are all trying to reach our students. Let’s share ideas whenever we can. With a liberal arts degree, a masters’ degree, and seven years of teaching experience, I am not considered qualified to teach in a public school, a fact that grates on me. Nevertheless, I have something to share and a never-ending desire to learn. I’d like to see CATE reach out for members into the thousands of private schools in this state – what have we got to lose by joining forces?  

Sunday, January 11, 2015

This I Believe!

A student reads a "This I Believe" essay at a live radio show put on by my 12th graders for the 8th graders. Several students had their essays published on NPR's This I Believe website.
Have you ever used NPR's "This I Believe" in your classroom? It's a pretty incredible series. NPR invited the world to write stories about what they care about the most, and then they recorded a lot of them and published many more online. It's a powerful way to get students thinking about what they really care about. NPR has a ton of wonderful classroom resources for the project here
I worked on this one with my twelfth graders, and decided to culminate the experience by having each class pick several performers to read aloud in a live radio-style show at our school. We invited younger students to come and listen, and no doubt it was a powerful experience for us all. Several of the students also submitted their stories to NPR and were selected for online publication.
I didn't submit the one I wrote, but here it is. I'll share it with you instead. 
The Power of Creativity

I teach English in a yellow building on a wooded campus on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, at the American College of Sofia. This is a country facing many struggles: big ones like E.U. sanctions and organized crime, and small ones like stray dogs and haphazard garbage collection. Its hope lies in members of the future generation, and their hope lies in the possibility of new ideas.

Last week my 12th graders debated a single question – what is the most vital issue for their generation? AIDS, drugs, violence, global warming, public education, the responses ranged as broadly as each new day’s frightening headlines. They went on to brainstorm possible solutions, but it was much easier to list problems than it was to solve them. Our conversation only strengthened my belief, that we need creativity in our world. We need the potential to create solutions where none exist, to bring beauty into spaces of despair - here in Bulgaria, and all over the world.

As a teacher, giving my students chances to be creative has always been my priority. I’ve seen them perform poem raps, cry while acting out the end of Death of a Salesman, illustrate graphic novels about teenage life, and publish children’s books touting environmentalism. They have scripted and storyboarded films, designed identity mandalas, and strutted the catwalk in a 1920s literature fashion show. It is more important to me to give them these opportunities than to teach them the difference between an appositive and a hanging modifier. I want my students to be dreaming thinkers, thinking dreamers.

Dreamers like Edi Rama, mayor of the capital of Albania, who hired designers to paint the communist-made concrete blocks of his city in a rainbow of colors, since he couldn’t afford to tear them down. Dreamers like Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, and Jane Goodall. Dreamers like that famous dreamer, Martin Luther King Jr., who saw a possibility others couldn’t see.

Who will be the next great dreamers? How can we help them learn to dream?

I keep a bumper sticker up in my classroom, a quote from Ghandi: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I try to teach the change I wish to see in the world, and I believe my actions will make a difference.

In December, I showed my husband’s 8th grade students how to cut snowflakes to decorate their room for Christmas. Why bother with such things in our schools? Maybe a student who can see a piece of delicate art in a white paper circle, will one day see a way to bring together divided peoples, a new method for creating energy, a cure for cancer in a lump of dirt. If we don’t teach them to see this potential in their world, who will?

If we value creativity, creativity will save us. This I Believe.

When Students Own It

From left: Students line the balcony at a library slam, enjoy sushi at our baseball field slam, prepare the stage for a garden slam, and perform in a lunchtime poetry jam

I love the slam poetry unit. I've done it with tenth and eleventh graders, in American classrooms and abroad. It never fails to be a highlight of the year. I'm sure I will write more about it another time soon, but at the moment I want to write about a broader idea: giving students ownership over classroom culminations. Whether you are going to spend a month leading up to a reading festival, project open house, poetry slam, play performance, or something else, making the final moment a time to remember has everything to do with involving your students. 
Take our poetry slams as an example. I always divide the class into three committees - ambiance, judging and programs. The groups do research and meet occasionally in class, coming up with virtually all aspects of the project culmination. One class might end up performing poetry in a quietly lit library while eating burritos and examining gorgeous black and white programs while their favorite math teachers judge the show. Another might perform in a garden while students sit on blankets drinking smoothies, a panel of judges from the school administration in the front row. Bottom line, its their show. And no matter how hard I might have worked to prepare a fun environment for the culmination of a project, the fact that its their show is what really matters. They will always remember their poetry slam, because they made it what it was. 
I believe in giving students the chance to showcase their work in a fun environment - I'm all for having a project open house with food and inviting the whole grade, putting the best performers in a speech or poetry assignment on stage at lunch and inviting other classes, bringing in respected guests to watch play performances and creative storytelling festivals. And whenever possible, I want students to help craft the experience. After all, they'll remember the moment they emceed the poetry slam in their prom dress a lot longer than they'll remember my lesson on affect vs. effect (as much fun as that was!). 

Some of my Favorite Resources Online

A lot of teachers argue about whether or not to make use of other people's resources for the classroom. I'm all about originality, but I love to be inspired by other teachers, and I love to share my ideas. If I spend fifteen hours designing a project, I'd really like some other people to use it too! And my assumption is that others who post their ideas feel the same way.

Here is a little tour of some of my favorite English teaching resources online...

The Penguin Teachers Guides are exhaustive in their efforts to provide discussion questions, lesson ideas and projects. When they have a guide to a book I'm teaching, I virtually always print it out and highlight my favorite ideas to incorporate into my unit.

Web English Teacher is chock full of links to most every work in the canon, poetry and prose. I love to check out the links to projects, resources, vocabulary and much more related to whatever book I am teaching.

Outta Ray's Head is pretty old-school in its look. But I've had fun perusing the lessons and even submitting one of my own to share. There's a lot of fun material on the site that teachers have shared over the years.

Readwritethink has put together a wonderful site of lesson plans that rely on online resources for some part of the work. Each complete lesson contains all you need to implement it in the classroom the next day. You can search by grade level, type of lesson, or keyword. You might even find a lesson plan I put together for them!

Grammar Girl has helped me out a number of times, especially when I'm trying to explain something to a student who speaks English as their second language. She's got the quick fix for practically every common error out there.

What about you? Do you believe its ok to share ideas online? Or do you think ever classroom product should be your own original work?

The Call to Armchairs

Clockwise from top left: student-designed shirts promoting books for an outside reading festival, book cover projects, tallies in the May 2009 outside reading competition, the reading corner of one of my former classrooms 

Hearing the Call
When I first began teaching English, I didn’t have time for outside reading. It was all I could do just to get through my actual curriculum, staying up late into the night planning lessons to make the canon appealing: choral readings, outdoor play performances, multigenre projects and poetry slams. My students were just as busy, pleasure reading pushed aside on their nightstands by coffee cups enabling them to stay up studying, practicing their instruments, and taking preparatory SAT tests. When I left Appleby dormitory every Tuesday night at 11 pm, many of them were still working.
 In my second year teaching, I faced off with my Honors American Literature students.   
“Why are all our books about murder, suicide and adultery?” they asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, wisely.
It was a question I had asked myself since college. For some reason, the brightest literary minds through the generations have often chosen to grapple with the topics of death and betrayal, exploring them to reveal the human condition. Fed on a diet of only such literature, would my students learn to love it as I did, back when there was time to read before bed, and in the car, and on the weekends? Back when I had to use a carrier bag to get my books home from the public library? My students spent their time in the library on computers or chatting in hushed circles. I never bumped elbows with anyone back in the fiction section, on those rare occasions I made it there myself.

These questions were still on my mind when I arrived, two years later, at my new job in Sofia, Bulgaria. Faced with some of the brightest young minds in the country, I wondered how to hook them on English language literature. Would The Crucible and The Canterbury Tales cut it? In search of answers, I ordered Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone. Soon I was reading stories of students in love with literature, ever eager for a new book. Atwell’s message was a call to armchairs – get the students books they love, sit them down, and let the magic happen.

I was ready for magic.

Modern Opinions
As a teacher, I often trust my instincts when it comes to what will help my students learn. After all, I remember what it’s like to be a teenager: always sleep-deprived, always busy, never doing enough to suit everyone. But my personal history is not my only resource when it comes to outside reading. Free choice reading curriculum is showing up all over the press.

Though other teacher-writers like Richard Kent have used free choice reading effectively as part of a student-centered curriculum, most in the educational community regard Nancie Atwell as the commander-in-chief of reading workshop.

In The Reading Zone, Atwell calls for an English classroom in which students define their own reading curriculum, guided by their teacher’s advice and mini-lessons. “I could no more pick the book that would invite a whole class to make friends with reading than I could decide who my students should grow up and marry” (Atwell 27). Her focus is on finding a wide variety of good choices for her students, helping them learn to get into the reading zone, and teaching them the skills they need to read and write well.

Donalyn Miller, “The Book Whisperer,” writes for Education World on encouraging reading, and takes a similar approach to Atwell. She lists four components of a successful program: proving reading role models, giving students plenty of time for reading, allowing them to choose their own books (with advice when wanted) and having access to a wide range of appealing literature (Delisio 1).  These ideas match pretty well with Atwell’s, though they don’t necessarily demand as full a shift from the traditional curriculum. All these components provide a challenge to busy teachers with crowded curricula, but they are not really complicated. It all boils down to this question: is there time for a different kind of reading?

The New York Times once ran a controversial article called “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” by Motoko Rich.  It features a teacher, Lorrie McNeill, who has embraced the free choice curriculum. McNeill built a classroom library and mimicked Atwell’s program of poetry mini-lessons and plenty of time for reading, then saw a big improvement in her students’ performance on their state reading exams. Though it was a well-balanced look at the ups and downs of this new trend in curriculum, Rich’s article sparked controversy across the internet, including a backlash against Atwell’s ideas. Some people worry about what will happen to common knowledge, to appreciation for great literature, if students can just read whatever they want.  The Times is no longer accepting comments on the article, but they put up 433 before cutting off the conversation. Sarah, of Long Island, wrote “I’m all for democracy in the classroom. But Captain Underpants? ‘Text Speak?’ I’m a member of ‘Generation Text,’ at 22 years old, but having these sad excuses for a handle on literacy is frankly embarrassing.” Greg, of North Carolina, wrote “…If we aren’t going to consider the quality of what is being read, then a love of reading is no more or less beneficial than a love of television-watching, slot-car racing, or pizza-eating.” It seemed to me these angry responses looked at the lowest common denominator: the student who read only the easiest literature, refusing all guidance and recommendation, never searching for something more as his or her skills improved. I needed to see for myself if this would really be the trend among my smart young students, but I doubted it.

I settled upon my own path, more like Miller’s, influenced by Atwell’s reading workshop, but without giving my classroom over to it completely. I would incorporate what I loved about Atwell – free choice of literature, book talks, and reading time in class – as one part of my curriculum, just as I had incorporated other interesting pedagogies throughout my career (Harkness discussions, literature circles, electronic portfolios). Every teacher’s classroom is a combination of what she discovers in the educational world – I might not be as extreme in my method as Atwell, but that was no reason to be angry with her.

Selling the Magic
I started my program small, requiring the students to read one free book first semester. I gathered a few of my favorites from the school library – Ender’s Game, Little Women, The Hobbit – the books I remembered loving as a teenager. Soon we were spending one afternoon a week curled up in the school foyer, reading.
Students showed sparks of enthusiasm; one combat-booted boy greeted me most days with “Are we reading today?” It seemed a good sign. At the end of the semester we held a reading festival. The students ordered pizza, decorated the room with posters about reading and presented a variety of artistic book-related projects. Everyone seemed happy with the way things were going, but I wanted more. I had already committed to the one book per semester phenomenon, but what would happen if I pushed the edge?

In May, I decided to tap into the competitive nature of modern school life, and announced the first class-to-class outside reading competition. Of my two sections, whichever read the most in the month would earn a day off from class, with a party to substitute. The top three individual readers would also receive prizes. By the end of the first week, battle lines had been drawn. While one class was full of consistent readers, the other had two shooting stars competing for number one status. One student went over five hundred pages in the first week. Others turned eagerly to my shelves to replace their first book with their second, then their third. By the end of the month, both classes (of less than fifteen students) had surpassed ten thousand pages, with the top two individual winners reading over three thousand pages in just four weeks, while also keeping up with their other work at the most competitive school in Bulgaria. Suddenly new options opened to me. If kids could read three thousand pages in their second language in a month, just for fun and pride, I had been setting my sights too low.

 I felt the magic at my fingertips, and began crafting next year’s assignment and considering my book buying options. Over the summer I picked up a few sure hits at bookstores and combed the library for more. I began constructing what I hoped would be an irresistibly tempting reading wall at the back of my classroom. I spilled books across tables and shelves, hung suggestion lists and posters, and put up colorful sign-out sheets to help me keep track of my library.

Things took off on the first day of school, as I began pitching books like a used car salesman. The titles I promoted left my shelves immediately, while the others languished. Most kids wanted guidance; they wanted sure things at first.

“Will this be impossible to put down, like Harry Potter?” asked one student, holding up a copy of Dracula. 
“Not exactly like Harry Potter – it’s a challenge, but I think you’ll like it if you like to be scared.” He took it.

As I got to know the students’ tastes, my recommendations became more tailored, and the students began doing their own book talks, making their own recommendations. Nick Hornsby’s Slam, a story about a teenage boy whose girlfriend has a baby, passed quickly from hand to hand. So did The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Students pestered me to know when various titles would be back, and who had the sequels to the books they were reading. They asked me how they could find more English books in Bulgaria, and I told them about the English shelves at bookstores downtown and online delivery. I began asking the librarian for special orders: more L.M. Montgomery, more Phillip Pullman, and could she find the budget for Rocket Boys to please my young scientists? Before and after class, I joined students at the shelves or watched from my desk as they guided each other toward great books.

It was so easy to incorporate outside reading into our daily routine. The students had no trouble reading multiple books simultaneously: our joint curriculum, their individual curriculum. I knew how it would be from my own reading – one book is read sitting up, at a desk, the other, sprawled on a couch or a hammock or in the car on the way to visit family. But what I knew and they didn’t, was how much that car and couch time would enhance the desk time. I could see it happening already, as students began choosing harder books, books with increasing depth. A leap from Anne of Green Gables to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a realization in a book review that The Vampire Diaries was alright for a lazy Sunday, but totally predictable. My students were discovering the multiple possibilities enfolded in different kinds of books: escape, knowledge, philosophy, empathy, entertainment, stimulation.  As I explained to one student that the Paolo Coelho in his left hand would question his priorities in life and the Phillip Pullman in his right would sink him into a world of fantasy, his friend tapped the Coelho with a knowing “this one.” My students were proving right the high expectations I had for them back when I wondered over the negative comments on The New York Times article. 

These days, the outside reading program seems to run of its own accord. Every few weeks I bring a few unpopular books back to the library and search for new ones to both suit and stretch my students’ tastes. Every day the books rotate as students return new favorites or rejects and take out something else. Occasionally, I invite students to pitch a great book they’ve just finished, or I make my own plea for a favorite. Still no takers for Watership Down, but I know I’ll succeed someday. As my students read their vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension improve, and so does their love of literature. I hope, when they step out the doors of my classroom for the last time, they’ll find their way to the library for the rest of their lives. Out of the small pond and into the sea.

In the end, for me at least, the public debate over the canon versus personal choice is a fruitless one. Why can’t we give students both?  If we can capture their imagination with one, soon there will be room for all. Students who already enjoyed the canonical texts of the English curriculum will fall for Tolkien, Rand, and Rowling; students entranced by Asimov, Pullman and Alcott will suddenly find Orwell and Dickinson a little easier, a little more interesting.  Every book helps. 

Assessment and Posterity
In Bulgaria, I am not allowed to weight “outside reading” as more than five percent of final grades. Students don’t care. I spend as much energy and enthusiasm on this minor part of the grade as I would if it were worth fifty percent, and so dothey. It’s not about the grade.

But of course, to keep outside reading a vibrant part of the curriculum, teachers need strategies to keep track of student progress. One easy way is to check in every other week on a simple class chart. Ask students to write their names, the books they’ve read and are reading, and the total pages they’ve read so far. This simple check-in system lends itself well to honoring top readers. I create a top ten readers chart after each check-in, and students race to the bulletin board to see which student is “winning.” I offer a prize and certificate to anyone who gets into the “One Thousand Pages Plus Club” over the course of the term. 

When the quarter ends, students submit a reading log of the books they have read, signed off on by their guardians. For each book, they write a one-page review, focusing on what they did and didn’t like, favorite characters and the author’s style.  After giving them their grades, I compile the best reviews into a class binder or turn them into posters, so students choosing their next books can see what their classmates thought of them. Almost everyone earns an A – their enthusiasm for their books carries them on to read the required five hundred pages per quarter with no trouble, and to write about them enthusiastically and thoroughly. Maybe next year I’ll make it one thousand.


Whether Atwell and her ideas terrify or delight you, there is surely some benefit in students reading what they love. How much they read what they love, and how much they read what English experts love, is up to every teacher. There are a bevy of strategies to promote literature to teenagers, and the best salesman is someone who loves to read – you.


Atwell, Nancie. The Reading Zone. New York: Scholastic, 2007.
Delesio, Ellen. “The Book Whisperer: Inspiring Kids to Read.” Education World Online. 5/11/09.
Rich, Motoko. “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” The New York Times Online. 5/11/09.

Popular books to include in your class library

Science Fiction
  • Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card
  • The Foundation Series, By Isaac Asimov
  • The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
  • The His Dark Materials Series, by Phillip Pullman
  • Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini
  • The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R. Tolkien
Popular Fiction with Girls/Women as Protagonists:
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells
  • The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
  • Memoirs of A Geisha, by Arthur Golden
  • Persepolis, by Marjane Satropi
  • Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
  • Anne of Green Gables Series, by L.M. Montgomery
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Popular Fiction with Boys/Men as Protagonists:
  • Slam, by Nick Hornsby
  • Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelson
  • The Things they Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
  • The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho
  • Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
  • Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
  • Anne Frank; The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Fun Ways to Promote Outside Reading to your Students

  • Invite teachers, parents, or other community members to do guest book talks
  • Create a tic-tac-toe or Bingo card with book titles, and offer a prize to anyone who reads all the books in one row
  • Have a competition between several classes to see who can read the most, or an individual competition among all students
  • Put up certificates in a wall of fame for anyone who reads over 1,000 or 5,000 pages
  • Put on a book festival in which each student creates a project about his/her favorite book – have food and music, invite other classes
  • Create a “Favorite Reads” blog and post student reviews of their favorite books for future classes (see ours at
  • Compile a “Favorite Reads” binder with top student reading logs
  • Spend a whole class period in the library encouraging students to explore every area – fiction and nonfiction
  • Connect outside reading books to the curriculum, giving short book talks when a book relates to the class material. For example, pitch Into the Wild while reading Walden, The Things They Carried while reading A Farewell to Arms, Slam while reading The Scarlet Letter. If you’re having students create graphic novel pages from a text or as an autobiographical project, pitch Maus and Persepolis on the day you introduce the assignment. 
  • Assign or invite students to interview parents or teachers about their favorite books and create recommendation posters to put up
  • Bring in the Book Review section of your paper for students to browse