Response to “Some Books Are More Equal Than Others” (NYT 6/24)

I sent this response  to the NYTimes op-ed section, but it wasn’t chosen for publication.  Instead, I will share my thoughts here.

Response to Some Books are More Equal than Others

Like Claire Needell Hollander, I am often asked for summer reading advice.  Because I teach English at the #1-ranked STEM high school in the nation, friends and colleagues often email me for book suggestions for their own middle and high school students. Because I run a relatively well-known blog, I also receive countless emails from parents and teachers across the country who want advice about summer reading assignments.  I am always happy to share with them the summer reading assignment my 9th grade colleagues and I use for our students. For the past two years, my summer reading assignment has been a blend of fiction and nonfiction with a great degree of student choice.  Like Hollander, I believe that it is important for our students to read during the summer, but I know that it is important that they read both fiction and nonfiction.

We know that reading selection does matter, as Hollander points out in her essay.  Students do acquire verbal and world knowledge when reading classic literature like Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage”.  However, many students lack the background knowledge necessary to make the connection between the main character “donning blue” and his enlistment in the Union army.  And this is the problem I have with assigning dense classics as summer reading, rather than as part of a rich English class where students and teachers work alongside one another.

So how do we encourage students to read during the long summer months?  Hollander and I agree that nonfiction is all-too-frequently overlooked when it comes to summer reading assignments and that teachers need to reflect on the intention of their summer reading assignment.  But it is also important that part of that intent is to give students choice in their reading.  It is possible to this, without succumbing to the pressure of choosing a handful of classics for students to read, without support. Students should be encouraged to read fiction and nonfiction during the summer, while looking for the connections between the books they choose, and then making connections to the wider world.

My colleagues and I at HTHS have worked together, across disciplines, to develop the summer reading assignment for our incoming freshmen.  Our students come to us from over fifty towns and must apply for a spot in the 9th grade class. They are high-achievers but their academic backgrounds vary due to the number of middle schools they come from.  Because of this, we know that it is important to provide students with more than a required reading list of a title or two.  We also work together throughout the year as part of an integrated curriculum of Biology, Humanities, and Applications of Software, so we want our list to reflect that.  Our intention is to introduce students to real-world applications of the topics we will cover in class during the upcoming year while focusing on the importance of cross-curricular connections.

There is no written assignment for our summer reading.  Students are asked to read at least one fiction book and one nonfiction book, along with a One Book, One Class selection.  There are no notes, no written tests, and no book reports. Like Hollander, I believe that this only hinders students.  Instead, students are told that they will reflect on their reading throughout the school year, especially as they begin their Free Form Friday project (an initiative based on Google’s 20% Time).  Free Form Friday allows students to create a project centered on a topic of their choice as long as they can show the connection between their topic and our subject areas- Biology, Applications of Software, and Humanities.  This year’s projects included the effects of reading fiction on empathy, fashion and sociobiology, parkour, designing a better cardboard box, and designing and building a 3D scanner for under $60.  The project begins by asking students to draw connections between the books they chose to read over the summer.

Over the summer, students are asked to read Brian Christian’s “The Most Human Human” as part of our One Book, One Class initiative.  Mr. Christian is an alumnus of the school and his book is the ideal composite of cross-curricular connections between math, science, English, history, biology, linguistics, computer science, and much more.  His book inspired more than one Free Form Friday project this year, including a group that wrote the code for their own vocaloid program.  This is what we intended when we chose the book as our all-class read.

Students are also asked to read at least one fiction and one nonfiction book over the summer.  We provide a list of close to thirty titles that cover a variety of topics, genres, authors, and eras.  On the list, we also note which books are our personal favorites, which many students appreciate.  My students are high-achievers, and both they and their parents appreciate the list of suggestions, which cover a wide range of reading levels, from middle grade to adult books.

My colleagues and I hope that students begin to make connections between the books as they read, as the books are deliberately chosen.  For example, last year many students noted the similarities between Rick Yancey’s “The Monstrumologist”  (fiction) and Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (nonfiction).  Both books force the reader to ask themselves if it’s better to sacrifice one for the survival of many.  We frequently discuss the book selections in class, making connections to in-class reading and current events.  There is no right answer, and many times I am surprised and impressed by the ideas my students come up with!

By asking students to choose from books like John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”; Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Catalyst”; Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”; Jarred Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”; Lauren Redniss’ “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout “; and Deborah Heigelman’s “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith”, amongst others, we are pushing students to make connections between the known and the unknown.  We are allowing them to choose the books that work for them, but we are also pushing them to step out of their comfort zone.  Come September, they will understand “Antigone” better for having read Neal Shusterman’s “Unwind” or  Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  All three books deal with heavy themes that include the sanctity of life.

Where Hollander and I differ is that I see value in students reading popular literature alongside nonfiction.  By reading popular books like “The Hunger Games” alongside nonfiction such as “The Diary of Anne Frank”, students are forced to consider themes like the power of dehumanization to justify inequality.  Then, while reading the newspaper in class, or studying imperialism history, or discussing eugenics in biology, or reading “Things Fall Apart” in English, this theme can be further explored.  Pairing fiction and nonfiction and empowering students to make connections between books will push them to make similar connections between the works they read independently and the classics read in class, or the articles they read in the newspaper, or the textbooks they use in science and history.

Any reading is good reading, as long as we make our intentions clear to students and hold them to a high standard.  Hard truths can be found in nonfiction, as Ms. Hollander points out, but they can also be found in fiction.  It is important for our students to read both in order to grow into critical readers who can comprehend, evaluate, and synthesize all kinds of texts.


Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I have no idea how to review Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity without giving away all the twists and turns of the plot.  So, I won’t be summarizing the book much, that’s for sure.

I avoided reading Code Name Verity for a few months, even though I had purchased a copy, because it was receiving so much praise. (Sometimes, I can be quite contrary).  When I taught 6th grade, we studied WWII and the Holocaust in literature, and it played a large part in our curriculum.  Because of this, I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.  I’m pretty picky when it comes to books set during the time period because there are so many choices.   But I finally sat down to read Wein’s book a few weeks ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I closed the cover.

I started the book and read a few pages here and there for about a week.  Be forewarned- this one starts slow.  So slow, that I considered abandoning it.  But when I did sit down and give it my full attention, I found that I was fascinated, even if it did move very slowly.  It took about 100 pages before I was completely sucked in. But at that point, I couldn’t stop reading.  I stayed up way past my bedtime, on a school night, and read the rest straight through.

Maggie Stiefvater said in her review that this book is unlike anything else she has read before.  I have to agree.  The book defies categorization.  It’s historical fiction but it’s immensely personal and internal.  It’s about WWII but it’s not really about the war.  Instead, it’s about two girls who join the war effort because it allows them to do what they love- fly, flirt, and gain power in some relationships.  It’s about friendship; true, never-dying, I’ll do anything for you friendship.  It’s about once-in-a-lifetime friendship and love.  It’s a haunting book that you will want to reread.

Code Name Verity isn’t perfect, but I expect to see it on many mock Printz lists at the end of the year.  It’s a slow book, and it’s not a typical YA.  I think it will appeal to adult readers and I plan to recommend it to some of my colleagues.  I also think my STEM students will love this one, because of the intense focus on pilots, engineering, planes, and and radios.  It would make a fabulous cross-curricular read, and I am thinking about ways to use it with my seniors during their 21st Century Human Condition unit.

Highly recommended for YA and adult readers.

#Bookaday for #SummerReading Fun

Want to share your summer reading with a community of readers?  Looking for books to add to your “to be read” pile?  Just want to talk about what you are reading?  Then check out #bookaday this summer!  Search the hashtag on Twitter and you can connect with teachers and librarians.

#Bookaday is no-pressure and lowkey, so it’s easy to pop in and out during the summer.  The hashtag was started by the wonderful, amazing Donalyn Miller aka The Book Whisperer.  Entering its 4th year, #bookaday gives readers a summer goal:  read one book per day.  This is an average, so you might read 3 picture books one day and then complete a YA novel over the next few days.  The goal is to aim for an average of one book per day.  And any book counts!  That means picture books, graphic novels, chapter books, middle grade, YA, and adult books are all fantastic!  You set your start and end date, so there’s no deadline pressure.  Some (lucky) folks are already out of school, so they’ve already started #bookaday.  I will jump in after school ends on June 18th.

I love the #bookaday community because it is full of voracious readers.  I learn about new books and share the titles that I love with others.  We have great conversations and we cheer each other on.  By the time school starts again in September, I have a lengthy list of titles to share with me students. Some of those titles are books I read, and others are books recommended by members of the #bookaday community.  It’s fabulous!

Won’t you join us this summer?  #Bookaday is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to get started this year.  I’d love to see you join in, too!

Taking a Dip in the Nonfiction Pool….#SummerReading

Back in January, my history co-teacher brought up the idea of incorporating the NYTimes into our daily routine with the freshman class.  We wrote a grant proposal for our Parent-Teacher Association and they approved it, with our subscription beginning in February.  Today, we receive 16 copies of the paper daily and it has revolutionized our teaching. Every morning we get to school and skim the paper for an article to focus on that day.  We draw up an activity and the students read and respond to the article when they get to class.  This usually leads to a discussion and we’ve had some great ones.

At the beginning of our great experiment, many students were lacking in general background knowledge.  Today, they can speak about a variety of issues and have learned to evaluate writing for bias, opinion, facts, and much more.  They follow stories over extended periods of time and can have intelligent discussions about issues that include Syria, standardized testing, Facebook’s IPO, ancient artifact ownership, and concussions in sports.  Bringing the NYTimes into our class has afforded us many opportunities to make connections between the past and the present and I can’t imagine teaching without the paper now!

One of the most striking effects of adding the NYTimes to our curriculum is the sustained silent reading that my students participate in daily.  Unlike our independent reading time, this is a part of the day when every student is reading a longform nonfiction article.  Most of my students don’t spend a lot of time with nonfiction, so this daily exposure has been vital to their growth as students.  I was concerned about them regressing over the summer, when they don’t have the Times waiting for them when they wake up.  I am thrilled to share that The Learning Network at the NYTimes is launching its Third Annual Summer Reading Contest!

How does the contest work?  Every week students can comment and share an article that they read that week.  In their comment, they will explain why that particular article interested them in approximately 350 words.  Any article will do, from the Magazine section, or sports, or business, or opinions, or the arts, etc.  The editors will choose a few comments each week as winners and those comments will be highlighted in a separate post on the blog.  That’s like being published in the NYTimes!  Pretty good, if you ask me! (Some examples from last year can be found by scrolling down on this page.)

The best part is that the rules are pretty loose for this contest.  I love the fact that students can read anything they want in the paper.  They can even choose graphics, videos, and other forms of media as their article for the week!  And while the Times has a paywall, students can access 10 free articles each month.  Plus, any articles linked from the Learning Network blog don’t count towards the paywall cap!  That should provide more than enough opportunities for students who don’t have digital subscriptions to the paper.

The contest will begin on June 15 and run weekly through the summer.  I will be sharing with my students and posting reminders on our class Facebook page throughout the summer.  I will also post links to interesting articles each week, to give the more reluctant student readers a jumping off point for the week.  I’m really looking forward to this summer’s contest because I think it will encourage my students to continue reading the paper over the summer.  Hopefully, they will continue to improve their nonfiction skills.  And honestly, I really just want them to form a habit of reading the newspaper more often!  Whether they read one article per week or the entire paper, cover to cover, they will be practicing an important lifeskill.  They will also be building their background knowledge and forming opinions on current events.

What do you think?  Students from age 13-25 are invited to participate in the Third Annual Summer Reading Contest and I think it’s going to be great!  Do you read the newspaper often?  What about your students?  Do you think this contest will motivate them to give it a try?

A link to the rules

******The NYTimes is partnering with a variety of organizations today for a #SummerReading tweet-a-thon.  Be sure to follow the hashtag on Twitter!

Be sure to check the rest of my posts this week for other summer reading ideas.

Books to Bask In This Summer

Summer time used to mean spending hours at the bookstore one July night, waiting in line for the newest Harry Potter book. I would spend the whole winter counting down to the release day, usually with a widget on my desktop.  When I had the book in my hand I would settle in to read it as fast as possible, usually starting the book on the ride home.  I’d bask in the book while sitting outside, or in the patch of sunlight on my bedroom floor. That was summer reading for many years of my life.  Once the last book was published, I began searching out other “summer reads”.  It’s nice to have a new book to look forward to during the summer months. To this day, I keep track of summer releases and pick a few that I will definitely read, in order to keep the excitement alive.  I share the list of books I plan to bask in this summer with my students, many of whom have their own lists of books to be released.

Today I am at BEA (BookExpo America), one of my favorite days of the year.  I get to meet with authors and publicists, and sometimes I even get to see fellow bloggers.  But the best part is coming home with books that I can’t wait to read.  Those books usually make it to my “must read immediately” list.  And there are always a few that make it to me “must hand out to my students so they can pass it around all summer” list.  The hardest decision is when a book is on both lists!

Many of the books I pick up today will be ARCs, or advance review copies, of titles coming out later this summer or in the fall.  These ARCs serve a dual purpose- they help me choose books for my curriculum and they help get my students excited about reading.  Students love to be able to read (and sometimes review) books before the general public and I love giving them the opportunity to do so.  But even if you can’t get ahold of these books in ARC form, you certainly can get them later this summer.  I’ve made a list of some soon-to-be-released books that I think you will want to get your hands on this summer.

To get the summer started for those of you already out of school (so jealous!), I have Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne. Out this week, Laybourne’s novel sounds like a modern-day Lord of the Flies set in a big-box store. I love disaster novels so this one is right up my alley!

Also out this week is Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, which sounds like a great addition to my senior English curriculum. I read a starred review in one of the trade review magazines and I already ordered my copy.

I’m dying to read Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, which will be released on August 7th. Stead is the author of one of my favorite books, When You Reach Me) . She’s also the author of First Light, one of the first books I reviewed when I started this blog!  Her newest book sounds like a great summer read and it’s already on my e-reader, courtesy of Netgalley.

Another book I am dying to read this summer is Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown. I’ve enjoyed all of Brown’s books because she writes teens so well and so realistically. I’m looking forward to curling up with her newest novel, which deals with the pressures of OCD and the desire for perfection. Perfect Escape will be released July 10th.

On August 14th, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece will be released. I’ve had the pleasure of already reading this title, courtesy of the publisher, and you will not want to miss this one. I cried through half of the book, but upon finishing it I felt content. The writing is brilliant and the story will punch you in the gut.

Of course, you know I will also be reading a few professional development books this summer. Number one on my list is Lucy Calkins’ Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement. Lucy is one of my teaching gurus and I know her newest book will inspire me in new ways. I’ve already begun to work with the Common Core, but Calkins is a genius and her Reading and Writing Project is my favorite curriculum design. There are a bunch of us on Twitter who are planning to read this one and share our thoughts with each other over the summer. Now that’s real professional development!

And finally, when school starts up again in September, we can look forward to Maggie Stiefvater’s newest offering. I love, love, love her Printz-Award winning novel, The Scorpio Races, and I know I will also love The Raven Boys. Stiefvater’s writing is evocative and lyrical, and it wouldn’t shock to see The Raven Boys on a few award lists next fall. This is one ARC I am hoping to get my hands on before September!

Do you have specific “summer books” that you look forward to reading every year? What will you read this year?

Making Time for Summer Reading, or Why Audiobooks Are Awesome!

“But I don’t have time to read!  I have cello lessons, concert choir, soccer practice, volunteering at the hospital, and family obligations.  Plus, I go to camp for a month.”  The refrain rings across the room, from student to student, as they lament the many reasons they won’t be able to read over the summer.  The litany of activities changes from one student to the next, but all of my awesome students are super busy all of the time. I’m so proud of everything they do, but I also want them to take the time to read.  We all know why reading is important, but I want them to have some time to relax and just lose themselves in another, pressure-free world.

When my students make excuses for not reading, I tell them there’s a foolproof way to make time for reading in their day.  They are usually astounded when I tell them that I recommend audiobooks.

“But that’s not reading!” they cry.  Usually they tell me that past teachers, or their parents, once told them that listening to books doesn’t count as reading.  I list the many, many reasons that audiobooks count as real reading and we discuss the benefits of audiobooks.  For my busy students, audiobooks can provide an easy way to get som extra reading done when they are driving to a swim meet, sitting in the car, or training for cross country.

Many libraries allow patrons to borrow audiobooks and many of those books can be downloaded onto ipods or smartphones.  But for teens, SYNC offers an amazing (FREE!) deal over the summer.  Every week, beginning in June, they will offer two free book downloads.  Each week, they offer a classic novel and a current YA novel, connected by theme.  I plan to link to the downloads each week via my Facebook page, which may of my students will follow even during the summer months.  Be sure to tell your students, too!

Download links will be posted The featured titles are listed below:

June 14-20:The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch (Scholastic Audiobooks) and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, adapt. by Frank Galati (L.A. Theatre Works)

June 21- 27:Irises by Francisco X. Stork (Listening Library) and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Tantor Media)

June 28-July 4:The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (Listening Library) and Tales from the Arabian Nights by Andrew Lang (Naxos Audio)

July 5-11: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (AudioGo) and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (AudioGo)

July 12-18:Guys Read: Funny Business by Jon Scieszka (Harper Audio) and The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories by Mark Twain (Recorded Books)

July 19-25:Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter (Oasis Audio) and Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (AudioGo)

July 26-Aug. 1:Pinned by Alfred C. Martino (Listen & Live Audio); and a title to be announced (Brilliance Audio)

Aug. 2-8:Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Hachette Audio) and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Blackstone Audio)

Aug. 9-15:Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, (Harper Audio) and Dead Men Kill by L. Ron Hubbard (Galaxy Press)

Aug. 16-22:The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Bolinda Audio) and The Call of the Wild by Jack London(Naxos Audio)

*list courtesy of SYNC


How awesome is that list?  I plan to download a few books myself and may hold onto them until later in the school year.  Once you download the books, you can play them at any time.  A few of my former sophomores know that there are a few books on the list that they may read during junior year, so they plan to download them over the summer.  That way, they can listen to the audiobooks during the school year, either a review or supplement to the text reading.

Are you an audiobook listener?  Do you have any recommendations? Or, do your students listen to audiobooks?

Making Summer Reading Plans

In order to encourage summer reading, I make a summer reading plan and share it with my students.  I then encourage them to do the same.  My summer reading plan isn’t set in stone- I make a list of books I want to read over the summer. The list is usually very long and I start adding books during the winter, when I am overwhelmed by the number of titles I want to read.   I may read all of the books on the list or I may only read a few over the few months that I am not in school.  The idea is, it gives me a starting point for my reading so I don’t waste time staring at my all-too-overflowing shelves.

Sharing my summer reading plan also helps my students because it gives them ideas for their own lists.  I fully admit that I am maybe too connected to the world of children’s lit (What? You can’t rattle off release dates from memory?).  I know for a fact that I am more connected than many of my students.  For many of them, they may have read a book or an author a few years ago and then lost track.  At one time they knew they wanted to read the next book in the series or another book by that author, but then life got in the way.  By sharing my plan, I hope to jog their memory so that they can add the newest Rick Riordan, or Ellen Hopkins, or Lois Lowry book to their own summer reading plans.

This year I think I will try sharing my summer reading plan digitally.  I have a class Facebook page that many students in my school follow, plus a few alumni.  Every week I post #fridayreads and students share what they are reading at that moment.  I think that by sharing my summer reading plan on the Facebook page, I can conserve some of that hard-to-come-by teaching time during the last week of school while giving my students a way to access my summer reading plan all summer long.  Plus, the comment feature on the Facebook page will allow the students to share their own plans, which is fabulous.  Social reading is so important and I love when students get ideas from each other!

I’ve already started my summer reading plan for this year.  I won’t share the entire(-ly too long) list here, but I will share a few books that I am really looking forward to reading:

The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic
Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement
A Dog’s Purpose
Soldier Dogs
Imagine: How Creativity Works
The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places
The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska
The Diviners
Finnikin of the Rock
Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard
Never Fall Down

What are you planning to read this summer?  How are you encouraging your students to read over the summer?