Crossing over

The first week back to school after winter break is usually a tough one. Take for instance, my homeroom. One would have thought they had walked into a busy 20-something bar (minus the alcohol), with all the varying conversations, yelling over each other, and water bottles flipping so hard that they resembled hard-core bass being spun by a stocking-hat wearing D.J.

I was never a fan clubs in my 20s. In my mid-thirties, I have less patience for noise, especially at 7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday. But, I get it. Students needed to hug their friends, gossip about all that had happened in the 10 days since they last saw each other, and generally, be a kid. So, for 25 minutes, Club322 was open for business, that is until breakfast was over and we reverted back to Room 322, Literacy Class.

Engaging students after a break can, flip or flop (HGTV fans, get it?!). My goal – flip students from their vacation brains back to their engaged, critical-thinking school brains. Easy, right?!

Of course, nothing is easy when it comes to middle school students! I knew I had to “hook” them and I had just the tool – Kwame Alexander‘s fantastic novel, The Crossover. Seriously, if you have not read this one, I encourage beg you to do so.

Reasons why I love The Crossover (and why your students will too!)

  • It’s written in poems. Most students (and some teachers, including myself) struggle with writing poetry. Thus, teaching it usually makes me utter things like, “Ughhhhhhhh” – let me just say, the struggle has always been real. Until now.  The Crossover allows students the opportunity to read various types of poems, which obviously lends itself to teaching poetry – it’s a win-win for teachers! My students are so engaged in this book and I’m even learning that my spoken word is pretty on point (a student told me this, so it’s clearly true). I mean, just look at this poem and tell me you’re not dying to read more…img_6593
  • Sports. If you’re a middle schooler, chances are, you’re hype about some kind of sport. If you’re a middle school boy, that sport is probably basketball. The Crossover is about basketball, which will already appeal to many students. But of course, there are those who sit at their desks and glare at me, thinking, I hate sports, therefore I will hate this book. This is where I say, “Not so fast, because aside from basketball, this book also has…”
  • Drama!!!! Lots of drama. Back-stabbing friend/family drama. Girl/boy drama. Sports drama. Rivalry. Okay, now most (if not all) of my students are engaged.
  • Creative opportunities. I assigned a Poetry Book as an ongoing assignment while we read the novel. Alexander does a great job incorporating a variety of poems in this book, so why not use it as a teaching tool?! img_6592
  • Annotating text. My students have annotated and close read text this year, so poetry is a great way for them to practice utilizing those skills. I’m sure they’ll come in handy on some state-wide assessment later this spring, so this is my way of “teaching to the test” without “teaching to the test.”img_6594

I’m using Socratic Seminars with this novel – more about that in another blog post. So far, I’m pleased with how engaged my students are and I’m even more excited that my school got me a class set of Alexander’s novel, Booked! Some of my students spied this in the back of my room and can’t wait to get their hands on it. Now that’s what I call motivation!

How do you engage students after a long break?





Reading Logs

I’ve used a myriad of reading logs throughout my years of teaching, most of which went by the wayside and were eventually “deep-sixed” into the recycling bin.

In order to cultivate a classroom of readers, I knew that this year had to be different. I wanted to allow students to reflect on their reading and to hear what their peers were reading. I also wanted the reading log to be purposeful and not seem like “busy-work” to students.


The reading log I use (adapted from this reading log) asks students to create a reading goal for when they want to finish the book. I tell my students that if they do not reach their goal, it’s okay; however, I also want them to experience how amazing it feels to reach your goal. Already, many students have finished their book before their intended goal and they are super excited, proclaiming “I’m finished!!!” Having only been in school three weeks, seeing students finish one or two books so early in the school year makes me smile 🙂

I modeled how to fill out the reading log on the first day I showed it to students. The log requires students to add up the total number of pages they read each day. This was confusing for some of my lower-level learners, so extra modeling may be needed. After about 15 minutes of reading, I give students about four minutes to circle a sentence starter and write their reactions. They circle a different sentence starter for each day.

Afterwards, I allow two students to share what they wrote. This serves as a mini book-talk and I walk around the room Vanna White style showcasing their book. At the end of the week, students fill out the goal reflection portion on the back of the log. They add up the total number of pages read that week, which usually results in some students shocking themselves by how much they’ve read!

There is also a space for their grade (each day is worth 5 points) and teacher feedback. I tell my students the reading log should be an easy 100% as long as they follow directions, as I grade based upon thoughtfulness and completeness.

As the year progresses, I will likely change the sentence starters and make them more advanced. I may also increase the response length from 3-5 sentences to 5-7 sentences.

Keeping routines consistent is key for middle school students and the reading log is a fantastic way to hold students accountable for their learning!

Do you use reading logs? What do you find useful and effective with your students?

Library Battles

I’m two weeks into the school year and so far, it’s pretty great. For the first time ever, it feels as if I have my sh*t together. This is likely because I began planning and working on my classroom in late July. People who think teachers spend their summers relaxing should know that a teacher’s idea of “relaxing” is organizing his/her library for the upcoming school year. And laminating. Definitely laminating.

One of my goals this year was to have a library that looked and felt inviting. To accomplish this, I did a few things:

1.) Labeled my books by genre/theme. Looking for books has never been easier when I have theme-coded bins. All of my Goosebumps books are in one place and if students want to read books about Middle School, there’s a bin for that. I recently added a LGBT book bin and plan to add a Scary Stories/Halloween in the coming week.

2.) Comfy Chairs. I acquired a gently used rug, a few bean-bags, a moon chair and a funky, multi-colored lamp. I have a rotation of students who read in the library daily so everyone gets a turn. Students are not only excited about the books they are reading, but they learn that reading is a pleasurable act.

While my Type-A library organizing has completely changed the vibe of silent reading time in my classes, I also attribute that to allowing students to read books regardless of book levels. In the past, my students were so focused on their book level and would be scared to stray from it. This meant they were possibly not reading the books they wanted to read, all because the book was not exactly a DRA 40, for instance.

When I told my students they could read books based on their interest, some of them actually cheered. I explained that sometimes they may be interested in a book that, once they begin reading, they find is too difficult. At that point, they can make a mature decision to choose another book. I highlighted the fact that I sometimes have to change my book after reading the first few chapters because it doesn’t hold my interest or it’s too difficult. Some real-life advice and the power of choice with middle schoolers is key.

Of course, I also step-in if I see a student who needs some guidance in this area, but for the most part, my students are really enjoying reading silently. In fact, many of them will ask me to get their books so they can read during times that are not SR times. If you’re a teacher, you know how HUGE this is (and when they ask, I of course, say “Yes,” while beaming a smile ear-to-ear!)

Speaking of books of interest, as stated above, I recently created a LGBT book bin. I read along with my students and was reading George. I gave a quick book talk about it (we also do this every day – more to come in a later post) and students were immediately calling “dibs” on the book when I finished. So I went home that night and ordered a good amount of LGBT books from Amazon. When they arrived a few days later, students were literally running to the LGBT book bin and proclaiming the book they wanted to read when they finished their current book. One student spied a book in the bin she desperately wanted to read, so she told me that she made a goal to finish her current book by Friday. Friday afternoon, she bounced up to me and proclaimed, “I’m finished!” Can I get a new book?”

So what are these books my students are fighting over? Here’s a list of few:

1.) George by: Alex Gino

A book about a fifth grade boy, George, who identifies as a girl.


2.) Being Jazz by: Jazz Jennings

My students saw this book and immediately knew who Jazz was. Little did I know, she has a television show! This is a great high-interest non-fiction read.



3.) Totally Joe by: James Howe

Joe comes to grips with his sexuality and questions gender roles in this middle grades book about being gay.



What books have your students fighting battles in the library? Share in the comments!

*Many of my library’s books and furniture were generously donated through DonorsChoose projects.

Up next on the blog: Pictures of my library and how I’m using bookmarks to help students track their reading.

  • Book talks and reading logs



Teaching the class novel

As a teacher of literacy, I have always enjoyed teaching whole-class novels. With novels, one can teach skills, vocabulary, writing, history – the list goes on and on! When the school year begins and students see the class novels lined up on my bookshelves, they ask me daily, “When are we going to get our books?” For me (and I would like to presume, many of my students) having a physical book to call their own is something magical; a feeling of ownership; a relationship with text.

However, choosing to teach the class novel brings up a myriad of questions for me:

  • Is “teaching” even the correct word to use when using a whole-class text? Shouldn’t students read it organically and have rich discussions about the book’s themes, characters, etc.?
  • How do I select books that everyone in the class will enjoy?
  • When do I use novels as anchor texts or for close reading
  • In a perfect world, each novel would correlate with a larger, interdisciplinary unit, but when will I have time to plan with my colleagues?


Thankfully, I am currently in a situation where I am able to create my own curriculum. I consider myself extremely lucky, especially because in the past, I have not had as much autonomy with what I teach.

Designing my own curriculum is fun – don’t get me wrong. I honestly enjoy it, especially since I can tweak it from year to year and class to class. However, I’m a perfectionist, so I’m constantly wondering how I can make things better.

One year, I used curriculum on Engage New York. Everything is laid out in modules and all of the resources are done for you. Day-by-day lessons are organized so all you have to do is review and print! The convenience of Engage NY is great, especially for new teachers. However, I often found that I was modifying the lessons extensively to meet the needs of my students. I also found that not all of the units were appealing to me or my students (The Lightning Thief is one of the novels used and this is quite a difficult text for nearly all of my sixth grade students).

There were pros and cons to Engage NY and I like that I can pull resources from there to supplement my teacher-created curriculum. (My students loved reading Steve Job’s commencement speech, which is a great resource for teaching students how to provide evidence to support claims.)

So will I teach novels this year? Definitely. However, the way in which I do so changes with every text and every class. I’ve had to scrap some of the novels I taught last year due to lack of student interest or reading levels.

Here’s a look at novels I used last year:

Here’s a list of novels I am contemplating for this year:

Some of the books listed will be in literature circles, so students will have a choice as to what they prefer to read. I enjoy starting off the year with Freak the Mighty because it’s high interest (and there’s a movie!) This year, I want to offer more of a variety in the types of stories my students are reading. The Red Pencil, a story about a young Sudanese girl, Amira, who struggles with her village being attacked and the journey to a refugee camp, will hopefully lead to rich discussions about worldly events.

While I’m still in the planning stages of the upcoming school year, I like to think that each year is better and that through novels, my students not only learn skills (theme, character development, etc.), but I also hope that they come to appreciate the stories that are being told. And maybe, learn something about the world or themselves along the way.

What are your favorite novels to teach? Tell me in the comments!


YA Book Review: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story

This week I went into school to set up my classroom library. I wanted to get a head start on my room this year so that when I actually go back (August 15!), I can focus on other things and not spend hours laminating, decorating and freaking out about bulletin boards.

One of my goals with my library this year is to organize my books by genre and content, one of those categories being 9/11.

I stated in a previous blogpost how I really want books to do the talking when it comes to the topic of 9/11. I honestly did not know how many children’s books there were on the subject!


In Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story Baskin does something unique in that she describes the days and hours leading up to 9/11. This is done from the viewpoints of a few characters (none of whom ever interact with each other). There’s the family in Shanksville, PA which details the story of the demise of Flight 93; the boy in Brooklyn who can see the destruction from his classroom window; the Muslim family in Columbus, Ohio; and a girl in California whose mother is scheduled to have a business meeting in the towers.

All of these stories give background into what life was life for many Americans prior to 9/11. Then, the reader witnesses what each character goes through during the time of the tragedy. I especially liked the varying points of views, which show students that people all process tragedy differently.

This is definitely one to add to your classroom library or read aloud and have discussions about how people dealt with the events during and after. What were there motivations? Do people still act this way today?

You might be surprised at what your students think.


YA Book Review: The Crossover

Do yourself a favor and pick up Kwame Alexander’s book, The Crossover, ASAP!

I ordered a class set of this novel (without having read it prior) because I heard it was phenomenal. When it’s the end of the school year and book lists are due (along with report cards, supply lists, etc.) I do not always have time to devote to selecting the next year’s novels.


I am beyond happy that my students will have the pleasure of reading this book, and for a few reasons:

1.) It’s written as a series of poems that tell a story. This makes the task of reading a book less daunting for those reluctant readers.

2.) It’s broken up into three parts. Again, this makes the entire book seem less of a chore for students, but it also provides a pre-determined reading guide if you like to assign sections to students.

3.) It’s about basketball. How many of your middle school students aspire to be NBA players?! This book not only appeals to sports fanatics, but has sub-plots (love, jealousy, etc.) that any teen can relate to.

4.) Boys will love it. Boys are usually a tough crowd when it comes to books. Not only are the main characters boys in Crossover, but the book is centered around family and friend relationships that boys can closely relate to.

This is my first time reading anything by Kwame Alexander and I’m definitely excited to read other works by him. Whenever I do a unit on poetry, students moan and groan. Perhaps this school year they will hum a different tune.

YA Book Review – Towers Falling

Each year I struggle with a way to teach 9/11. While some school districts have made a place for it in the curriculum, many have not. I was surprised last year when some of my students did not know what 9/11 was. But then I thought, Wait…these kids were born after 9/11. Them not knowing makes sense – this is history we’re dealing with.

Teaching in Philadelphia, a city so close to New York, one may assume that students are more familiar with this monumental event in history. However, that is not the case, as my sixth graders quickly informed me last year. While some knew the basics of 9/11 and others knew quite a bit, many had questions. I soon found myself abandoning the day’s original lesson and Googling lesson plans appropriate for my students. Teaching 9/11 “off-the-cuff” is not ideal and I didn’t feel like it was something I should just wing.

So this year, I wanted to be prepared and work 9/11 into my curriculum. And not just for one day either. While there are a myriad of lesson plans out there, as a literacy teacher, I’m all about novels and working them into my curriculum in any way possible. So I was stoked when I heard that author Jewell Parker Rhodes penned a novel about 9/11 that is geared specifically toward middle school students.

Towers Falling, describes how Deja, a homeless girl living in Brooklyn, learns about 9/11. In the book, she befriends Ben and Sabeen, whose knowledge of 9/11 surpasses Deja’s unintentional ignorance of the subject. The story follows Deja and her friends as they work together on school projects about 9/11 in which their teachers encourage them to think critically. Along the way, the three children learn about history and that even though they are all different, they are also the same.


I love this book for many reasons – the diversity, how relatable it is for inner-city students and the realness  the aftermath 9/11 still has on many people.

While I will always remember exactly what I was doing the moment I learned about the towers falling, I recognize that my students came into this world post-9/11. If this part of America’s history is not in your curriculum, I encourage you to check out this book and at the very least, read it aloud or share it with your students.

How do you teach 9/11 to your students? I’d love to hear about it!