In This Corner….”Junk Books” vs. the Classics!

I was reading some of the blogs in my Google Reader today and saw that Lois Lowry, one of my favorite authors, responded one more time to the NY Times article on reading workshop that created such a buzz this weekend.  While I respect Lowry and absolutely adore her work, I’m going to have to beg to differ with her opinion here:

“Those who feel that once we get kids to “enjoy” reading by way of Gossip Girls and its ilk, they will eventually move on, on their own, to the “classics”—-AIN’T. GONNA. HAPPEN.  They will move on to read popular novels, and there is nothing wrong with that. But not one of them will ever voluntarily pick up Joseph Conrad or Henry James or Virginia Woolf.”

Not so, Ms. Lowry!

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

First of all, we have to differentiate between the classics and good literature. There have been plenty of books published in the last 25 years that will someday be considered classics.  If kids are reading those then I am perfectly happy and consider those books just as important as the classics!  In this instance I will include both classics and those destined to be classics.  My students who sometimes begin reading “junk” books often move on to more “important” literature.  Keep in mind that literature is important in the eyes of adults.  For my students, their current “junk” book might be more important to them at this point in their life.  Maybe they finally found themselves in a character.  Or perhaps they learn to look at life from a different perspective.  Even “junk” can teach us something.  Plus, one man’s junk is another’s treasure, as we all know.

As for anecdotal evidence, I have seen it with my own eyes.  I have plenty of students each year who begin school reading what many would call junk.  Do I stop them?  Never!  That junk will be the reading material that opens their eyes to a world of possibilities- the world of reading.  All their lives they have been told no, don’t read this.  Don’t read that.  Only what we (parents, teachers) say is important counts.  You can’t be trusted to choose good books or read decent literature.

No wonder so many adolescents and tweens hate reading!  No one allows them to find their niche.  When I tell my students they can read anything they want they are overwhelmed at first.  For far too long they have been shut down and shut out of the conversation.  So they take advantage of the “whatever you want” aspect of my independent reading time.  Yes, Twilight is a popular choice with many of my reluctant readers. So are books like Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare and fluffy graphic novels like Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!. None of these are “great literature” or someday classics. In fact, many people would refer to them as junk books.

But in a few short months, those choices have led to new books, modern classics like Speak, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, and The Stand.  Why?  Because students have learned that reading is actually fun and enjoyable!  They know what they like- graphic novels, or realistic fiction about social issues, or horror.  It’s a natural progression as they seek out more and more books.

Does every student move on to the classics?  Of course not.  Not every student is starting at the same level.  But learning to enjoy reading means that they will read the classics someday or at the very least, the odds are better that they will!  It also means they are more likely to understand the books assigned in high school and college because they have built up their reading stamina.

Unlike the teacher in the article, I don’t have my students read the whole period, every period.  We do a few whole class novels (including Lowry’s <a href=”″>The Giver</a>).   My post from yesterday details my reading workshop and the way I teach whole-class novels and read alouds.  But my students do get to read books of their choice every day and my lesson plans revolve around those books 80% of the year.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So Ms. Lowry, we will have to agree to disagree here. Writers don’t write no junk in my eyes, because as teachers we never know which book will be the key that opens the door to the world of reading.  Whether it’s Gossip Girl or Virginia Woolf, all the keys fit the lock.

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading– The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs– We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources– Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

Back to School!

Some of you have already headed back to school, but I begin next week.  As I plan my blog posts for the next few days, I am wondering what you want to know!  Please answer the poll below and I will try to tailor my posts to the most popular choices!

Nic Bishop Marsupials

Pick up any of Nic Bishop’s amazing nonfiction books and you will realize it’s a gateway book.  Suddenly, your world will be opened to his world of nonfiction.  Bishop brings his knowledge of biology and life on earth to his books and also fills them with his own gorgeous photographs.   The result is a smart and beautiful books that kids and adults alike won’t want to put down.  I learn something new from all of his books and his newest title, on shelves next Tuesday, is no exception.

Nic Bishop Marsupials does not disappoint. I made the mistake of assuming it would focus only on the most well-known marsupials, like kangaroos and koalas. While these animals are mentioned, Bishop dives deeper into the world of marsupials, exposing his readers to weird and exotic marsupials that aren’t as well-known. My favorite? The numbat, which doesn’t even have a pouch like most marsupials!  Bishop offers biological information on many different marsupials from all over the world but the information is in an easy to digest format.  And I LOVE the formatting of the pages because it will fit in perfectly with my nonfiction unit in writing.  His use of techniques like bolded letters, different colors and size fonts for important information, and his fascinating photographs will serve as prime examples in my classroom later this year!

I also enjoyed his epilogue, where Bishop explained how he researched the book and how he took the pictures. Those two pages will be great to share with my middle schoolers this year during our research unit. It’s always my goal to share with them real authors doing research for real books, to impart to them the importance of research!

Nic Bishop Marsupials is a fantastic addition to any library. I know I’ll be running out to order a few more of his titles this month when school starts!



Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Incoming Sixth Grader Mindset

Inspired by Beloit College Mindset List, here is a look at the cultural touchstones that have shaped the lives of the students who will be entering my classroom this year.  I was inspired to do this after reading Beloit’s most recent list and realizing that my newest students were born the year I entered high school.  Talk about a wake-up call!


1. Most students were born in 1998.

2. Computers have always been able to beat humans. (Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov in 1996).

3. The Lion King has always been a Broadway musical, not an animated movie.

4.  Mamma Mia has always been on Broadway.

5. Mother Teresa, Carl Sagan, Jonathan Larson, Princess Di, Ella Fitzgerald, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G. have always been dead.

6. Animal cloning has always been possible.

7. OJ Simpson has always been a suspected murder, not a football player.

8. Women’s softball has always been an Olympic event.

9. There has always been scientific evidence of life on Mars.

10. Lance Armstrong has always been a cancer survivor.

11. Hong Kong has always been independent of Great Britain.

12. Harry Potter has always been in their libraries and bookstores.

13. Pokemon has always been a part of their pop culture lives.

14. Joe Camel has never been a part of Camel advertisements.

15. America has been involved in a war in Iraq for most of their lives.

16. The Chicago Bulls have never won an NBA championship.

17. The internet has always been available in their homes.

18. Cell phones are ubiquitous in their lives and always have been.

19. Animal Kingdom has been one of Disney’s parks for as long as they can remember.

20. Woodstock was a concert that happened in 1999.

21. The Euro has been legal currency for 90% of their lives.

22. Wayne Gretzky has always been retired.

23. Their parents have used digital cameras for most of their lives.

24. The country of Zaire has never existed.

25. Rap music has always been easily heard on mainstream radio.

26. High-stakes testing has always been part of their academic lives.

27. Cable TV has always had hundreds of channels.

28. Flat-screen TVs have always been readily available to the average consumer.

29. Movies have always been available on DVD.

30. Ebay has always existed.

31. There have always been 24-hour news stations.

32. The Grateful Dead have always been broken up.

33. Woolworths has always been defunct.

34. The Simpsons has always been on TV.

35. They have always been able to google information.

36. The world population surpassed 6 billion by their third birthday.

37. They’ve been downloading music from the internet since before they entered kindergarten.

38. Many of them own their own iPods and have since they were eight or nine.

39. The Human Genome Project was completed during their lifetime.

40. Tiger Woods has always been golfing.

41. Y2K did not cause the world to end.

42. George Bush was president for most of their lives.

43. September 11th is only a vague memory for most of them, as they were not even in school yet.

44. Wikipedia has always been their go-to for research.

45. They’ve been watching American Idol for most of their lives.

46. The know who Al-Quaeda are, but have never heard of the Cold War.

47. The watched the space shuttle Columbia disintegrate upon reentering the atmosphere but only know about the Challenger disaster from history books.

48. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a governor who used to be in movies, not an actor who became governor.

49. Hurricane Katrina and the 2006 tsunami are the greatest natural disasters they have experienced.  They were able to watch live, 24-hour coverage of both on their televisions and computers.

50. Most of them have their own screen names, Myspace and Facebook profiles, and email addresses.

The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson

I love Mary Pearson. Every time I read one of her books I am transported to a new world and closing the book doesn’t always bring me back to reality. Pearson manages to snatch you away from your world and plop you down amidst the strangest of circumstances, yet they are always believable.

The Miles Between is a hard book to describe without giving too much away. Des (Destiny) Faraday rarely stays in one place very long- she moves around from boarding school to boarding school. As such, she has learned that it is best not to get attached to people in her life because they will only leave you in the end, just like her parents. But something is different on October 19th….something is in the air. When Des finds a car at her disposal she throws caution to the wind and ends up inviting three of her classmates on a road trip. In search of “one fair day”, the unlikely friends set out towards Langdon, a two hour drive. Along the way they learn a lot more about themselves and each other.

Des is an interesting character. I have to be honest here and say she actually drove me crazy for most of the book. I didn’t find her very likable and was mostly annoyed by her. Yet I couldn’t put the book down. There was something about her that drew me to her and her story. And Pearson has done a phenomenal job here, leading you down one path and then WHAM! The ending slams into you out of nowhere. It brought tears to my eyes, no lie.

This is a great read. I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to my 6th graders, though it’s definitely on a higher level than most middle grade books. I don’t think they would have a problem understanding the store and even connecting with Des and her friends, but I would handsell it to my higher readers. The adventures the foursome go on are funny, touching, and even sad at times. However, I found myself laughing more than crying. When the I finished the book I kept thinking about it even hours later. I’m thrilled to add The Miles Between to my classroom library this fall.

The ARC of The Miles Between has been on quite a road trip this summer. I was thrilled to get a chance to participate in this awesome blog tour (thanks Kristine!). The book traveled around my town for a few days in my purse and I never remembered to take it out for a picture. Oops! I was too enthralled in the story, I tell ya! However, before mailing it off to the editor in New York I snapped a picture of the ARC visiting my monarch butterfly caterpillars. I was changing their milkweed and realized that the monarchs are such a huge part of my life and classroom during this time of the year that it only made sense to take a picture of my backyard, milkweed, and caterpillars! (Plus, my town doesn’t have the biggest, weirdest, smallest, etc anything).

CIMG4651You can see one 3rd instar caterpillar on the second leaf from the bottom!

Monarch Enrichment Class

I spent the last few days working on the curriculum for my enrichment class.  This year each teacher will teach a 30 minute enrichment period on a topic they are passionate about.  I love the idea and am thrilled to delve deeper into the monarchs with my classes!  I will teach the class 4 times, to a different class each marking period.

I decided to focus a lot on the area of Mexico where the Monarchs migrate.  That means looking at the Aztecs and Mayans, modern-day Michoacan, and the monarch’s effects on the culture.  I’ve come up with a rough outline of the class, seen below.