Book Review: THE WRITE THING by Kwame Alexander

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Have you ever wanted to start a writing workshop in your classroom? Do you run a writing workshop that needs some…tweaking? THIS is your answer! Kwame Alexander’s The Write Thing: Kwame Alexander Engages Students in Writing Workshop and You Can Too is THE how-to guide to get started (or to change your boring routine). Kwame leads you personally through the steps to write, publish, and present student writing in a new way – with poetry. Why poetry? Kwame explains that question in chapter one of this fabulous new professional development book.

In The Write Thing, Kwame is right there with you all the way. As I read, I could hear his voice talking to me. Kwame’s Book-in-a-Day approach (2006) inspires new and veteran teachers alike to start and continue a student-led writing workshop and publishing “house” in the classroom. The book is organized into three essential parts, with features called “Kwame QuickTips”, “Solo Acts” (voices from other writers and teachers), “Lessons in Action” (plans), “KwameTime” videos, “You Can Too!” (reflection questions), and “Questions for Kwame.” You are never left alone in this writing PD. It’s like your own teacher preparation class, with Kwame as your teacher.

When I watched the “KwameTime” videos, he was in the room, guiding and encouraging me to use poetry to teach writing. In each chapter of The Write Thing, we read poetry, looked at possible mentor texts lists (organized by grade level), and used the writing workshop approach to help students learn to tell their own stories through writing, publishing, and presenting their work.

Kylene Beers wrote the foreword for The Write Thing, where she nudges the reader consider poetry as “the neglected genre” and to adopt a new vision for teaching – she asks teachers to use poetry at all times of the school year, not just during the designated month in the spring. I found myself reading this book straight through, but I will also take Kylene’s advice to slow down and “linger, muse, reread, mark…” I look forward to seeing students succeed as writers because of this book.

As a bonus, The Write Thing includes Appendices (A-D) that will make your teaching life easier. (What teacher doesn’t want that?) It’s ALL “write” there. Kwame Alexander is the “life force” (say Greg David and Priya Sitaraman) – “a captivating authentic leader who connected easily and deeply with (our) students during our writing workshops…”

If you’re a writing teacher, buy The Write Thing by Kwame Alexander. Start your school year with a fresh, new, exciting approach to writing class. Encourage your students to write and present their stories. And don’t forget, have fun!

 

IMWAYR: Breakout by Kate Messner

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I’m so lucky to have met many awesome authors in the last few years, and Kate Messner is one author I’ve followed closely. Her newest book, Breakout, released on June 5th, and I finally got my pre-ordered book in the mail today. I haven’t finished yet, but I wanted to share this post immediately so you can add this book to your “To Be Read” list.

Breakout is written as a collection of newspaper clippings, letters from the characters (mainly Nora Tucker, a middle school student journalist and Elidee, a new student at the school), poems, text messages, and other documents. This design choice is the main reason I think middle school students through adults are going to love this unusual story. The setting is summer vacation in the mountain town of Wolf Creek, and Nora wants to enjoy her break. But two inmates from the town’s prison break out (hence, the title) and the town and its residents are forever changed.

One of the main reasons I love this book so far is that I can see myself using it in my middle school — the story starts with a writing assignment for the students at Wolf Creek Middle School — and beyond. “How I See My Community” is the premise that is already changing as the story unfolds in the letters, texts, and transcripts of “recorded conversations.” I believe (as Kate Messner does) that all humans have stories to tell, and the author certainly weaves these characters’ stories together in an interesting way.

I have to get back to reading now (I won’t put this book down, I’m sure, until the last page). By the way, the end of the book provides book lists for further “thinking” texts, separated into age-appropriate categories for readers. Thank you, Kate! That’s a nice idea! If you want to read more about how Kate Messner created this book and her writing process, please visit her website. The Breakout section of her blog is interesting, informative, and inspiring for teachers, students, writers, and everyone else. Check it out here.

It’s Monday! What are YOU reading?

 

Reading Teacher Writes — Summer Plans Lead to a Fabulous Future

It’s been an interesting year here at Reading Teacher Writes. I got to live my dream of serving students and spreading book love as a school librarian in my fabulous middle school. The highlights of the year included

  • Kwame Alexander, poet and writer extraordinaire, visited our city and surprised one of our students (and his teachers) during the Rebound Bus Tour. Amazing! I cannot thank him enough — reading DOES change lives, and Kwame made it happen here!
  • Josh Funk gave his time for another wonderful, fun-filled Google Hangout. I always appreciate Josh’s friendship and willingness to entertain and inform our students.
  • Jess Keating sent us “The Curious Creative” magazine (online) each month, with articles, interviews, and activities for the curious science students (and teachers!).
  • I bought the books kids wanted, and I extended my knowledge and support of #WNDB (We Need Diverse Books).
  • I presented my PD series, “Picture Books are Perfect…” (my current passion) and led a PD/Book study at school using Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca’s book, Patterns of Power.
  • I wrote, and stopped writing, and started writing, many times over this year. It’s a daily struggle, but I’m planning to write much more in the near future.
  • My personal professional development is awesome– I am reading, reflecting, learning each day with my online/social PLN (Professional Learning Network)! My friends at #G2Great and #NCTE continue to inspire me to be the best teacher I can be.
  • Ralph Fletcher asked for our students’ contributions to his current writing project (our 6th graders have some great stories!). I thank him for the opportunity.

With just 4 days left of school, I planned my summer. Wow! I have a LOT to do. Number 1: Relax and enjoy my time. Number 2: Attend the most awesome PD ever! Number 3: Present PD more often and extend my offerings to a wider audience. Here are some of this summer’s plans (Who will join me?):

  • The Lead Learners (formerly All Write), Warsaw, IN
  • NErDCampMI, Parma, MI
  • Teachers Write – writing with the Facebook group, led by Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, and Jennifer Vincent
  • Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club – led by Penny Kittle and others

When I looked at my fall calendar, I found that filling up, too! The best year ever is coming! I look forward to many new opportunities:

  • NCTE Annual Convention, Houston, TX in November — I’m a Presenter! I’ll be at the round tables with many other amazing colleagues during the #whymiddlematters session,  “Writing From the Middle Level Classroom: Overcoming the Fear and the Seemingly Impossible.”
  • RSAC (Raising Student Achievement Conference), St. Charles, IL in December — I will spread the book love with a “Picture Books are Perfect” session.

YES, it’s been an interesting year here at Reading Teacher Writes. Thank you for joining me. If you haven’t joined me yet, please consider your upcoming year and include http://www.readingteacherwrites.org. Have a Fantastic Summer!

Reading Goals: Then and Now

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On October 18, 2017, I wrote a blog post about my reading goals/solutions for schools and for myself. Today, I revisit that post and update my goals; I look forward the future.

Make reading in school FUN again.

THEN: The fondest memories I have of school reading are of teachers who read aloud fantastic stories (using the voices of characters!) and showed us wonderful covers of beautiful books in well-stocked libraries, where we could choose what we wanted to read to take home. We got to use free time to peruse almanacs, maps, atlases, and we talked about the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not tales that grossed us out the most. Every year, my family saved money for the Scholastic Book Fair, because we would get new books to read and share. I was a good reader because I read. We read a lot.

NOW: The best part of being a school librarian is sharing a brand new book, just out of the box, with students in the room. “Look what I just received!” I yell across the room, so people in the hallways hear me. “Come and see!” As students gather around my counter, I show them the fresh titles to add to the collection, and bright eyes open wide. Students clamor to be the first to check out the best titles – the ones they’ve been waiting for – and the few minutes of time I spend book talking is FUN. The line forms at the checkout sign; I place books in readers’ hands. THAT’S what it’s all about. I still dream of a school where reading is the most important activity during reading class, and where students want to come to school, because it’s fun.

Make real reading a priority. Real reading.

THEN: That means no snippets of articles or excerpts of stories that have been torn apart and meticulously “leveled” back together to “help” children read. Real reading. That means real books — not basal readers. Real reading. That means real authors weaving their own creations and illustrators designing the pages to make readers say,”Ah! Wow! Awesome!” Real reading, where students are led to practice (at least 20 minutes a day, uninterrupted, in school) with the help of a qualified reading teacher and supports that are there and can be taken away so students can transfer their learning from one text to another. (Yes, this means direct instruction, led by a teacher, and not a computer monitor.)

NOW: Real reading is still my goal, and it’s a tough sell. Administration members (outside the school building) send emails, speak at meetings, and send reports, making sure all teachers know that we MUST follow the mandates “with fidelity.” We MUST account for the ISTEP scores of students. We MUST raise student achievement. Recently, there’s been a push with a big-name researcher to hold teachers accountable by following a certain plan, a certain program, or a certain method of teaching reading. If one does not comply, then shame on you! Some loud-speaking “experts” say that books are not necessary to learn to read, or computer programs teach just as well as teachers (or better), or independent reading time is just a frivolous dream and not worthy of adding to the school day. All of these issues are frustrating (and wrong!), and teachers continue to fight back, citing their own evidence, following researchers who care about kids, teaching children to read in spite of those mandates. Real reading is really needed — inside schools. Students count on us to help them learn, and we are letting them down with each failing grade/standardized assessment.

Invite teachers to attend professional development:

THEN: Conferences, workshops, classes, etc. that will enhance their skills in teaching reading. Build PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) where teachers can learn with other educators and support each other in the work. (Yes! It’s work. That’s okay.) Have teachers practice “best practices” in reading, and watch how they — and their students — grow.

NOW: I still promote author signings and events, conferences, and workshops. I am a life-long learner, and I love sharing my learning with others. My author friends and conference teammates are essential to my learning and my sharing – we promote authentic reading, writing, thinking, and learning. I invited teachers to travel with me to events and share in the joy of learning something new. I will continue traveling and connecting with others not only because I love it, but because I challenge myself to take those conversations and lessons back to the classroom, where kids are waiting.

Promote reading/literacy in each community in the nation.

THEN: (Not just for the affluent communities) Education is important, and reading is important for one to become an educated, intelligent citizen of our world. Be a reader yourself, spend time talking about reading, and spread the book love! (This is my favorite part of being a reader in the global community.)

NOW: I am officially a professional development presenter and speaker. This is my most important dream come true. I love it! I look forward to many adventures in the future, spreading book love and helping others to be as passionate as I am about reading, and teaching reading and writing. Another dream I’m following now is my friend’s dream to open an indie bookstore for our community – encouraging children and teens to “read locally, connect globally.” This is a wonderful way to spread the book love AND help our youth. I’m also researching and reading on my own, and I renewed my memberships to worthwhile organizations such as NCTE, ILA, and ALA. I continue to join Twitter chats, such as #kidlitwomen, #wndb, #tcrwp, and #g2great. We need intelligent citizens in our country who know how to read, write, and think. I will continue to find ways to lift up our youth and promote literacy. THIS is the time. THIS is the place. And as our school motto reads, “I am the one!

Review of Upcoming Book, REBOUND, by Kwame Alexander (04/02/18)

Rebound, the prequel to the Newbery-Winning title, The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, tells of childhood days of Charlie “Chuck” Bell (Josh and Jordan’s father). At the age of 12, Charlie had already experienced love and loss, carrying much baggage to his grandparent’s house in the summer of 1988. “It was the summer when Now and Laters cost a nickel, and The Fantastic Four a buck. When I met Harriet Tubman and the Harlem Globetrotters…”

Charlie retells his story for his sons (and the reader) of those not-so-and-absolutely glorious days — playing basketball with Roxie, his cousin, and Skinny, his best friend, in the summer heat, dealing with the heat from Grandpa and the weather, and wishing that he could be a Fantastic Four super hero star. Charlie gains knowledge about his family tree, about basketball moves (such as the crossover — get it?), and about consequences of getting into trouble. Charlie even changes his name — to Chuck (thanks, Grandpa) — that summer, and in a series of poetic episodes, finds out what it means to be a true star. He has to learn to REBOUND, on and off the court.

Kwame Alexander’s vocabulary lessons continue in Rebound, as well as his lessons about family, life, and love. I couldn’t tell how the stories would weave together at first, but Kwame expertly spins, twists, and turns the plot, and in the end, I yelled, “Swish!” out loud! Fans of Kwame Alexander’s rhythmic style will love the references to other works, including The Crossover, Solo, and the now-famous sing-along song, “Be A Star.”

Rebound IS the star of this spring’s book season. A MUST to add to your reading “Playbook.”

February 10th: Nonfiction 10 For 10 (nf10for10)

It’s February 10, 2018, and all the local news revolves around the deep snow and Winter Olympics, so I’m going to use the news for my theme. My nonfiction picture book “10 For 10” has me thinking about winter (#nf10for10).

The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty (Kenneth Libbrecht): Pair this nonfiction book with Snowflake Bentley (Jacqueline Briggs Martin) for a winter research project. Wilson Bentley discovered the beauty and wonder of intricate snowflakes. I enjoyed a look at individual flakes and wondered how they all pack together to create the chaos that is today’s weather. (I like reading about snowflakes better than looking at the snow outside.)

Secrets of Winter (A Shine-A-Light Book) (Carron Brown/Georgina Tee): My granddaughter and I carefully pulled up the papers on these pages to reveal fun secrets. What is winter like outside?

When Winter Comes (Nancy Van Laan): What happens to flowers, and fish, and deer when winter comes? This book allows us to snuggle under the warm covers and find out.

The Polar Bear (Jenni Desmond): Nonfiction facts AND a beautiful picture book. Just look at the cover — it pulls you in!

A Is For Axel: An Ice Skating Alphabet (Kurt Browning with Melanie Rose): Take a look at Olympic ice skating from a real expert — Kurt Browning skated for Canada and was a 4-Time Figure Skating Champion before writing this ABC book. Part of the alphabet series and appeals to any-age vocabulary buffs. (2nd edition, 2015)

A Kid’s Guide to the 2018 Winter Games (Jack L. Roberts): This book came out in July 2017, and prepared readers for events of the 2018 Winter Olympics, going on NOW. This title is COOL — it has colorful and interesting photographs, facts and figures, and even a medal tracker readers can use to record winners.

Best in Snow (April Pulley Sayre): Speaking of photographs, I could just sit and stare at April Pulley Sayre’s beautiful pictures all day. Her picture books’ photography shots are “best in show” for sure! This title shows the wonders of the snow and winter in the wild. I consider her books science-class must-haves, and it doesn’t hurt to tell you she’s a friend, does it? (By the way, I’ll just recommend her new title, Warbler Wave — coming out this week– while I’m at it!)

Over and Under the Snow (Kate Messner): Speaking of friends, let me also recommend the Over and Under books by Kate Messner. Her nonfiction books are beautiful and informative, and the research presented in them is packaged in an engaging picture-book style (my favorite format!). In this title, the reader discovers the wonder and activity that lies beneath the snow-covered ground.

Blizzard (John Rocco): Now that I’m an adult, I sure hope we don’t have to relive the Blizzard-of-’78-kind of snow again. I remember donning my one-piece snowsuit as a 10-year-old and heading out to the swing set in the back yard — my sister and I sat on TOP of it! We had so much fun while my dad and the neighbor walked all day to get groceries at the corner gas station. What a crazy week that was. John Rocco placed his memories in this picture book, which is just as fun to read as that old swing set was to sit on.

Now it’s time for YOU to read and share your #nf10for10. Picture books are the best!

Book Review: TBH, This is SO Awkward

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I read TBH, This is SO Awkward: A Novel in Text, by Lisa Greenwald, so I could keep in touch with the teenage trends. I never fit in while I was in middle school, so I don’t know why I thought I could go back in time now and relive the awkwardness. But I did. And I’m glad I read the book — it’s really going to become a recommended read for those pre-and-teen girls who like to text and want to talk about boys. Really. It just wasn’t “me.”

Lisa Greenwald creatively uses text-style writing and emojis to write this entire story, which is an accomplishment. The cover makes you want to pick it up off the shelf, for sure. It’s easy to read for middle and high schoolers, and there’s a glossary at the end of the book to help the rest of us. The story is about 3 BFFAE (Best Friends Forever and Ever), Cecily, Gabrielle, and Prianka, who live in the middle of the middle school drama and are thick as thieves — making mistakes concerning a new girl, mothers, boys, and the Valentine’s Day dance — all the while staying friends. Of course, they get mad at each other, but at the end of the day, these girls are nice, smart girls who are just trying to live through their middle school days (just like the rest of us did.)

If you like middle school, teen drama, mean girls, cute boys, and school dances, this book is a must-read. I think if I would have lived a different middle school life, I would have liked this book better. But that’s not Lisa Greenwald’s fault; her words-in-text send a needed message for today’s students: Be kind. Do good things. Stay BFFAE.

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

 

Reflection: Why is Reading Left Behind? 2 Years

I drafted these words for a blog post in March of 2016:

I read a post by Kelly Gallagher about the number of high school seniors who admitted that they had never read an entire book. Although I was saddened by this news, I would have to agree. School is a place where if students ACT like they are busy, teachers leave them alone. This should not be acceptable any more!

My main reading grade in my reading class comes from the motto: “Read During Reading Time.” I give my students, choice, time, opportunities (I have a huge classroom library) — all of the categories required to promote reading inside (and outside of) school. So why is reading left behind?

(I never published that post.)

Wow! These words still ring true today, at the Saturday workshop for Indiana Partnership for Young Writers at Butler University — and I still have the same question. Kelly Gallagher was the Visiting Scholar today, and the entire workshop I was picturing my past reading classrooms, reflecting on my teaching, and questioning why nothing has changed for students in school. I have always held the belief that students should, indeed, READ during reading class. I didn’t understand why people standing outside the classroom were looking for anything else inside — namely the teacher at the board teaching reading comprehension skills, with students “performing tasks” and “taking notes,” or completing a worksheet, or taking a test. I ended the draft above with a question: So why is reading left behind? What I meant (at the time) was that it seemed like activities that could be observed as students “being engaged” or “learning” were better indicators of “reading” than reading a book. It wasn’t the first time I heard about an observer reporting to some reading teacher, “Students were just reading.” I questioned (in my head), “What do you want them to do in reading class?”

That question in my head bothered me so much that I made it my teaching reading motto: READ DURING READING TIME. It WAS (and IS) what should be happening in reading classrooms. Period. In a published piece, I posted these words on my blog in October of 2017:

I attended the IRA (International Reading Association, now International Literacy Association) Annual Conference in Minneapolis in 2009. I remember rushing to a session on reading research that would explain how to improve student achievement in reading (my area of teaching). I was so excited; I sat on the edge of my seat with my notebook in hand. I heard about research that spanned 5 years, with over a thousand subjects. At the end of the presentation, the main presenter looked at the crowd and asked, “You know what we found?” (“What? Tell me!” I thought. I readied my pen to the paper.) He gave a long pause and studied the faces looking back at him, and he smiled.

He said, “The more you read, the better reader you become.” 

I gasped (I could hear it.), I thought to myself, “What? Duh! I knew that!” Reading creates better readers.

Obviously, this “kids-don’t-read-in-school” issue is still grinding on my nerves. Thank you, Kelly Gallagher, for reminding me again that reading creates better readers — and adding “better writers” — in middle school and high school. Here are the BIG IDEAS I took away from the workshop:

1. One MUST READ to become a good writer. Today we read quite a few texts, wrote about them, and shared with a partner.

2. We need to read and write with students in school every day. Every. Day.

3. There are 4 teaching moves that can help students to become better readers and writers: increase volume of reading, give choice in reading and writing class, model good reading and writing for our students, and confer with students about their reading and writing.

I promise I will not keep my thoughts in my head anymore. I love teaching reading, writing, and I love learning. I want my students to love reading, writing, and learning as much as I do.

 

 

This is NOT a review of THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE

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This is NOT a Valentine. It’s just a little note that tells readers they will enjoy this lovely picture book by Carter Higgins! Carter has taken all the Valentine-stereotypes and threw them out the school bus window, and shows us what Valentine messages really mean.

Valentines sparkle; they’re pink and glittery.
But you might like the brown in the mud puddle.
Valentines have cooties that tumble out when you open them.
“But if we both get cooties…then we can have cherry juice…together.”

This is NOT a Valentine. It’s a good book to share with someone in February…
or any other month you like.

Imagine…

 

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IMWAYR Review: The Youngest Marcher

I love learning about people and their real-life stories. I especially love the lesser-known stories of historical time periods. Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and we also remember other great names in Civil Rights history. Did you know that some famous Civil Rights activists were children? Today’s IMWAYR title should be shared widely. I share here to remind myself and others that children CAN and DO make a difference in our lives and in our communities.

The Youngest Marcher: The story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, by Cynthia Levinson will stay with me for a long time. I know the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s marches and speeches, and they have inspired me in the past. Last year when I read The MARCH Trilogy, I learned so much more from Representative John Lewis’ firsthand accounts and experiences. Now I am reminded (through a picture book — see, picture books teach all ages) that there were children arrested in May of 1963, one being Audrey Faye Hendricks, who was nine years old at the time. I thought, “NINE? They arrested 9-year-olds?” Yes, yes, they did, and by doing so, they filled the jails in Birmingham, Alabama. Amazing. Frightful. Inspiring.

I missed this book when it released in 2017, but I am so glad I have remedied that. I recommend that you buy this book and keep it — read it when you need a good story about children being brave and changing the world.

Picture Books Are For Everyone! January 12, 2018 Reviews

If you ever hear someone say picture books are just for kids, don’t listen! Read these picture books. You’ll be glad you opened your heart.

Wolf in the Snow, by Matthew Cordell. (Feiwel and Friends, 2017)

Matthew Cordell doesn’t need words to convey the message of empathy, love, and kindness in this Caldecott nominee for 2018. I felt so much — for the humans and the wolves — in this story about being lost in the snow. A small child waves goodbye to her school friends, and begins her walk home. A pack of wolves also sets out around the same time, with a little one struggling to keep up in the blowing snow. Both the small girl and the small wolf become lost as the pages turn white. What happened next pulled at my “mom” heartstrings.This is a MUST READ book for all ages.

 

Love, by Matt de la Peña. Illustrated by Loren Long. (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)

I LOVE this book! Love is NOT just red roses and pink hearts, and Matt de la Peña and Loren Long focus on the daily definitions of love in this beautiful new book. There is love when you play in the sprinklers, when you hide from parents who fight, when you fish with grandpa. There is love in flowers, laughter, and rain puddles. There is love, even when you cannot find love and you try, try, try. Enjoy the sounds, smells, and colors of LOVE and share the book, and your love, with everyone.