Wednesday, September 12, 2018

If I Had a Hammer

A hammer is a useful thing to know how to use. If you gave me a claw hammer and taught me to use it, I could do a lot of things: hang a picture, nail together a couple of boards, pry a nail out of something. Once I learned how to use a claw hammer, I might be able to figure out how to use other types of hammers—ball peen hammers, club hammers, sledge hammers—which would enable me to accomplish many more tasks.

As I added hammers to my toolbox, it would be useful to know what each is used for, its strengths and weaknesses, so if a hammering task arose, I could select the best hammer for the job.

But what if I needed to cut a 2x4 in half?

A hammer won’t be of any use in this situation. I would also need access to and understanding of saws—miter, jig, band, hack, hand, circular—so I would know which one would best meet my need.

A toolbox with only one tool in it isn’t much use. Having many tools but no knowledge of how and when to use them is equally useless. Likewise, if I never build anything myself, what’s the use of having tools at all?

These three points relate to much of what we do in the classroom. As we try to equip our students with what they need to accomplish our learning objectives, we have to consider these truths. 

A toolbox with only one tool in it isn’t much use. Sometimes we give our students a tool or strategy, hoping to help them but inadvertently limiting them. In writing, for instance, we might give students an organizational structure or template for writing an essay. When reading, we might provide them with a set of steps for annotating a text. For note-taking, we might teach them a format—Cornell Notes, for instance. Each of these tools is useful and worthwhile in some situations, but when we try to force every student to use the same tool in all circumstances, problems arise. A far better idea is to provide students with several strategies, multiple tools for their academic toolbox. There are many acceptable ways to organize almost any essay. Good readers use a number of annotation strategies to make sense of what they read. And sometimes two- or three-column notes, sketchnotes, graphic organizers, and traditional outlines are more useful than Cornell Notes for certain purposes.  

Having many tools but no knowledge of how and when to use them is equally useless. Suppose we fill our students’ toolboxes with strategies but don’t teach them what to do with them. Suppose we make all the decisions—use this tool for this and this one for this—rather than asking our students to select among a variety of tools and defend their decision. We should share with students the pros and cons of each tool as we introduce it and later let the students decide which to use for whatever task is at hand. I’m a believer that classrooms need to be full of strategic discussions: developing plans, testing hypotheses, creating blueprints for learning, and debriefing often. The teacher can’t be the one doing all the strategizing, though. When students develop the autonomy to determine which organizational structure matches what they have to say in their essay, which annotation method will work best for the type of text and purpose for reading, and which note-taking format will help them achieve their objective for taking notes, they have become independent learners who can handle whatever challenges the world of college or career throws at them. They are master craftsmen and craftswomen who can take charge of their own learning.  

If I never build anything myself, what’s the use of having tools at all? It’s sad when kids know how to take notes but never need to take them. It’s equally unfortunate to have reading skills but nothing to read, writing skills with no opportunity to try them out on real-world audiences. We need to make sure the tools we give our students are going to be used. With the best of intentions, we often circumvent the actual development of students’ skills by shouldering most of the cognitive work ourselves. We provide fill-in-the-blank essay templates for students who don’t need them. Or we decide not to assign writing at all. We summarize reading instead of asking students to work their way through it; equally shameful, we give study questions and reading guides that students can answer without having to actually read the text. We ask students to take notes for the sake of taking notes rather than taking notes that are necessary to accomplish a learning objective. It’s our obligation to provide students with reasons to use the tools we teach them, to give them something to build with those tools.

With some deliberate planning, we can become educators who equip our students with the right tools, teach them how and when to use them, and then give them reasons to dig into their toolboxes. Before we know it, our students will become handy in ways we never imagined, thinking of new things to build and collecting additional tools on their own to help them build them.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

How Do You Feel Today (about my class)?


English teachers have it rough. Socially, I mean. There’s rarely a week that goes by that I don’t meet someone who,  after discovering I am an English teacher, tells me about how much he hated English in school, all the assigned books he didn’t read, how he doesn’t know anything about grammar or spelling, and/or that he’s a terrible writer.

Math teachers have it worse, perhaps. The whole world is proud to announce how much they hated math in school. They brag about how inept they are at computation and join in with others in the Great Mathematics Hate-athon.

I’m sure there are factions of science haters, social studies detesters, and even PE loathers out there. We’ve done a fantastic job in education of making students despise what we are trying to sell them and of making them feel incompetent at doing what we ask them to do.

I’m convinced that teachers should have two main goals for whatever they teach: to make their students enjoy the subject and to develop confidence in their abilities in that area. Teachers should strive to help students form positive dispositions about what they are learning and about themselves as learners.

In order to accomplish this lofty set of goals, we have to undo damage inflicted upon them by educators past and by societal norms about education. We have to erase the scars of bad grades, scathing comments, harsh criticisms, and failed attempts. We have to empower our students by helping them experience success. Setting each student up for excellence is key, and providing the type of feedback that ignites hope rather than quenching dreams is crucial.

We have to show our students that, though the world wants to convince them it’s not cool to read, write, solve math problems, or engage in other scholarly pursuits, there’s value and enjoyment in learning how to do these things. Reading can unlock worlds of experiences and can thrill you more than any movie or video game. Writing well can give you power over others, help you get your way in the world, provide an outlet for self-expression, and allow you to understand your own life more clearly. Math is everywhere, and being computationally helpless leaves you vulnerable to others who will take advantage of that weakness. Learning to think like a mathematician is important whether you’re hoping to make money, run a household, launch a business, invest wisely, shop ‘til you drop, or create something in the kitchen, the craft room, the workshop, the laboratory, or on the computer. Science is just cool. Every branch of science contains something that will blow your mind if you give it a chance. Social studies helps us make sense of the world we live in and gives us perspective beyond the here and the now. There is something life-changing lurking within the curriculum of every subject in the school day. We have to find those bits of awesome and introduce our students to them.

Dispositions are difficult to change, but I think we can make some progress if we follow several simple suggestions:

  • Stop taking ourselves so seriously. It’s school, not brain surgery.
  • On a similar note, don’t be afraid to have fun. No one should spend eight hours a day doing something that is miserable.
  • Celebrate successes—even tiny ones—and be gracious about failure.
  • Unleash curiosity. It’s okay to wonder and explore instead of always seeking the right answer.
  • Remember that no matter what the world says, the test is not as important as the learning leading up to it. Passing the test but hating the subject is still a failure in the long run.
  • Think like our students. Get to know what they like and how to reach them.
  • Let learning be its own reward. Ditch the extrinsic motivators. Trained seals work for treats, but they won’t keep working when the treat supply dries up.
  • Sell your subject. Use comedy, mystery, or drama but not horror. Fear is a bad motivator if we want more than compliance.
  • Play! Explore! Tinker! Laugh!
  • Build bridges of trust with students. Let them know we want to see them succeed and that we’ve got their backs.
  • Take moments to step away from the curriculum to share something interesting about the subject we are teaching: something we’ve read, a brain teaser, a brilliant quotation, a surprising bit of trivia, an anecdote, or other fascinating nugget.
  • Connect. Connect ideas. Connect with the students. Connect students with one another and maybe with students somewhere else. Let them make connections to their lives, to other things they are learning, and to the world they inhabit, the things they care about.   

We have to remember that our most reluctant students don’t see relevance in what they are learning, don’t believe in their own capabilities, and cannot foresee a future where it’s important that they know and do what we are asking of them. Even many of our high-achieving students choose to live in the world of compliance rather than of intellectual excitement.


If we teach every day as if our subjects matter and do all we can to ignite the excitement of learning in our students, we can make a difference in some kids’ lives. We can change the dispositions of many. We can open their eyes to possibilities that will impact their decisions to go to college, to pursue careers they never considered, to add to the body of knowledge in the world, or simply to continue curiously and courageously learning throughout their lives without apology. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Thinking For or Thinking With?

We have all done it: thinking for our students.

It happens all the time.  We hand out an assignment sheet and, as we go over it line-by-line with the students, we tell them what to highlight, underline, or place a star by.    

We read a poem or a passage of Shakespeare with our students and end up retelling it in our own words so the kids will understand it.

In the midst of a lecture, we stop to remind students, “Write this down.” Or, worse, we just give them a copy of the lecture notes so all they have to do is listen.

We ask leading questions in a class discussion: “Don’t you see how the writer is using harsh diction to convey the theme of man’s inhumanity to man?” “So you’d use the distributive property to make sure the numbers in the parenthesis can be added, right?” “Of course, this reminds you of what happened during the New Deal Era, doesn’t it?” “The thesis of the article is right here, isn’t it?”

We ask them to pay attention while we do things to model how it’s done without letting them try it on their own. Watch me dissect this earthworm. Watch as I paint an entire picture.  Lookee here as I annotate an entire article. Listen as I explain what the poem means. Follow along as I read aloud.

We make all kinds of personal connections with the content we teach so the kids will see how relevant it is to their lives.

Their lives? Wait a minute. Those examples are from our lives.

We do a lot of thinking for our students, but how much thinking do we do with them?

Thinking with students is not the same as thinking for them. Instead of bearing the entire cognitive load, we can shift some (or most, and eventually all) of it to them by teaching students how to do the thinking themselves.

Sometimes this can be done by modeling part of the process and letting them take ownership of the rest. I read a little to get you started, and then you take over. I show you what’s going on in my head as I read by doing a think-aloud for the first paragraph and then ask you to annotate your thinking on the next three before I check in with you. Watch me do a little; now let’s try it together. Next, try it on your own.

Another way to think with your students is to engage in strategy talks. Let’s consider the purpose for taking these notes. What might be a good format for notes, given that purpose? Why do you think so?

For students who need more note-taking scaffolding, consider recommending a few options for ways to set up the notes and explain why each format or organizational structure might be useful. Then, gradually release that responsibility to the students, asking them to recommend a format and explain their choice.

Instead of telling them what to highlight, ask students to highlight or underline the most important word or phrase in a paragraph of text and then explain their choice. In lieu of reading the instructions to them and explaining them, have them read a little, mark the key points, and explain their markings to a partner; then, ask a few students to explain to see if they have it.

Ask students to do a little thinking on their own, and provide them with feedback on their thinking instead of the right answers.  

Like a parent teaching a child how to do laundry or tie a shoe, we may have to be content with less-than-perfect attempts at the start. I’d rather have a student come up with a slightly-flawed paraphrase of a Shakespearean soliloquy on her own than spoon-feed her the “right” answer that I came up with. With time and practice, the white socks come out white, the shoes stay tied, and the students are able to comprehend Elizabethan English on their own.

Become a co-conspirator in your students’ missions for success. Guide them to make deliberate decisions as they learn. Offer encouragement and feedback. Be okay with imperfection. Celebrate successes as well as failures because it is through our struggles that we learn and improve.

It’s difficult to break the habit of thinking for other people. I work on it every day. The first step is realizing when you are doing it. Then, figure out a way to back off and let them do the work. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when they can do these things without your assistance, even without your presence, and when they can use those newly-developed thinking skills to figure out how to tackle fresh obstacles they encounter.

I could write several more paragraphs and provide you more examples of exactly how to do this, but I don’t want to do all the thinking for you. You understand the situation:  we think too much; we do all the work; we coddle and hand-hold without allowing time for them to practice independently; we teachersplain when we should leave the explaining to them; we provide the examples and connect the dots. When we catch ourselves doing this, how can we shift the thinking back to our students?


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In Defense of Turn and Talk

Several weeks ago at a literacy conference in Waco, I heard an impressive set of speakers talk for three days about reading and writing. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a barrage of tweets detailing many of my takeaways from this rich learning experience. My tweets and retweets were digital-age “Amens” as these literacy gurus preached about the importance of student choice in reading, providing authentic reading and writing experiences, ways teachers can support and promote reading, and growing students to become more literate, discerning citizens.

One thing I didn’t tweet was an offhand comment made by one of the presenters. Just before he asked us to turn and talk with a neighbor about a question he posed, the speaker said, “Don’t you think we’ve kind of overdone ‘Turn and Talk’ in schools?” He said it as if the pair-share were some sort of plague spreading maliciously though classrooms, killing learning by forcing students to interact with one another. According to him, America’s teachers are Turn-and-Talking their students to death. Turn and Talk, he seemed to believe, is as passé as bottle flipping and fidget spinners.

As an educator who spends hours each week in classrooms, I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that we are asking students to talk with a neighbor too frequently or that the strategy is losing its power. The undisputed truth about classroom talk is that in most classrooms, teachers still do the majority of the talking. Full-class discussions usually involve only a fraction of the students and don’t give every kid the chance to work through the ideas on their own. The idea that we are asking our students to share too frequently seems absurd to me, but, having spent several days listening and agreeing with this particular literacy expert, I am trying to figure out where his opinion is coming from.

I’ve identified several ways Turn and Talk might go bad; let’s call them Turn and Talk Traps. Perhaps this student talk naysayer has experienced these pitfalls and is objecting based on his observations.

Making Turn and Talk a Thing: There’s a danger when using any learning strategy that the strategy itself may become something bigger than it ought to be. We make it a “thing” rather than just providing a topic, question, or prompt and asking our kids to talk with one another about it. When this happens, we risk the danger of making our strategies bigger than the learning they are supposed to facilitate. We turn them into elaborate productions.  We say things like, “Okay, kids, we are about to do a Turn and Talk,” as if we are saying, “Now it’s time to do a triple axel followed by a double lutz and a quadruple salchow.” Students don’t necessarily need to know the terminology behind every teacher move we make. Turning to a neighbor and talking about your learning can (and probably should) be a seamless part of our daily lessons, a habit we get into because we know that all our students—not just a few—deserve the opportunity to talk through and test out their ideas so they can develop complex understandings of their own and the learning will stick. Instead of “doing a Turn and Talk,” simply ask students to turn to a neighbor and talk. It’s really simple and effective.      

Nebulous Talk:  Another misstep is asking students to turn and talk without giving them direction or parameters for their discussion. This leaves them with uncertainty: What am I supposed to talk about? How long? When am I supposed to talk, and when am I supposed to listen? Who talks first? I’ve been guilty of stopping my lesson at what seems to be an appropriate spot and asking my students to discuss the content with their table neighbor. A handful of students talk while the others visit about their weekend or simply stare at one another, unsure of exactly what they are expected to say. Sometimes I’ve provided way too much time for my nebulous classroom talk so there is no sense of urgency about getting to the discussion. Student talk should be focused, succinct, and accompanied by clear expectations. Carefully planned questions can provide a spark for meaningful talk. Sentence frames and stems offer some structure and help students develop more sophisticated academic language. Talk can be timed; roles of each partner can be clarified. When the teacher has a clear plan for what is supposed to happen during this talk time, students don’t see this as an arduous add-on to their day.    

Turn and Talk Without a Follow Up: Paired student talk probably shouldn’t be an end in itself, but it can be meaningful as a lead-in to something else. For instance, posing a question to the entire class and allowing students to discuss it with a partner before opening it up to the full class gives students confidence to respond because they’ve tried their ideas out on a partner. Turn and Talk can precede student writing, aid students in summarizing and clarifying information in the midst of a lecture or video, serve as closure to a lesson (followed by a share-out of key takeaways), allow students to refine their own notes through comparison with another student’s, assist students in figuring out how to approach a problem, or help students set a personal goal or objective for the day. The way to make student talk worthwhile is to show students that it’s an integral part to their learning process and will improve their chances of success in our classrooms.

I’m sticking to my original stance. We haven’t done Turn and Talk to death. Perhaps we’ve done it poorly from time to time. When it’s done well—which isn’t that difficult to pull off with a little planning—paired student talk can be one of the most powerful tools for empowering students to make their learning meaningful, grow in their understanding, and clarify and reinforce their thinking. We could do a whole lot worse than making Turn and Talk our go-to strategy in the classroom.

What are your thoughts about incorporating student talk in your classroom? Turn to someone nearby and discuss that question for a minute. Afterwards, you can put some of these ideas into practice.      


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Planning to Seem Unplanned

Besides the Fletcher’s Corny Dog stand, the “Birds of the World” show was my favorite part of the Texas State Fair. Alas, as of 2013, the bird show is no more, but I spent many a memorable hour sitting in the band shell and marveling as Groucho the parrot sang a pitchy rendition of “How Much is That Doggie in the Window;” laughing as the red-legged seriema, Sluggo, slammed a rubber lizard, Mr. Bill, repeatedly on a rock to demonstrate how these birds tenderize their dinner; and ducking when the Harris’s hawk grazed the heads of the audience in its beeline from the top of the Texas Star Ferris wheel to the treat-holding trainer below.

One of the best moments in the show was when they pulled a volunteer out of the audience and put her in the perfect position to get a photo of the 10-foot wingspan of a California condor as it soared toward her from the back of the amphitheater. Just as the enormous bird was approaching, another bird on the stage escaped its enclosure, causing confusion which ended in the volunteer’s falling backward into a pool of water, soaking her clothes and hair. Half of the audience howled with laughter while the other half grimaced in sympathy at this poor soul whose day and expensive camera were ruined by this soggy mishap.

The host of the show expressed sympathy through suppressed laughter as he called one of the trainers to take the volunteer backstage and get her cleaned up. The hapless volunteer later reappeared on the stage on the way back to her seat, only to be startled by a runaway bird who chased her back into hiding. By the end of the show, of course, the “volunteer” took a bow with the rest of the cast and then began drying her hair and clothes to get ready for the next show that day.       

This shtick was a part of the “Birds of the World” show for probably the last five years of its 15-year residency, and it never got old. Of course, after the first year, the rabid fans like me were in on the joke, but it was fun to watch the reactions of the audience and the feigned surprise of the host and other show personnel. They had obviously planned carefully to make this stunt look completely unplanned.

This moment of faux mayhem required a cast member in disguise who had to blend in as a convincing member of the audience and act realistically frightened, two trained birds behaving as instructed, a latch that appeared to malfunction on cue, the proper placement of a person by an onstage water feature, a crew who would respond to the “accident” as if it were truly unexpected, and a host who could all of this orchestrate this and look believably surprised and horrified without breaking character. Planning and preparation were crucial to pull this off.  



I feel like we can learn something about teaching from the bird show’s antics. The best teachers plan to make aspects of their class appear unplanned. There’s a difference between “unplanned” and “chaotic,” however. What I think we should aim for is a degree of spontaneity so we ensure that our instruction has a feeling of improvised curiosity.  

There’s a big difference, for instance, between saying to your class, “As I was reading this last night, I found this sentence that I thought was interesting; let’s look at it,” and handing out a worksheet of sentences for students analyze grammatically. It seems more spontaneous to say, “I wonder what would happen if we played around with the word order here,” than it does to display a PowerPoint slide with sentences to reword. Reading a text aloud yourself seems more authentic than listening to a recording of someone else reading. Asking students what they wondered as they were reading the article is more genuine than providing them with a pre-printed page of questions. Soliciting ideas from students and modeling the writing of a draft of a paper is more engaging than displaying an already-written essay on the screen, especially one written by some other teacher. The read-aloud poem you share with your students becomes more interesting when you say, “I found this poem I think is really great,” than when you introduce it by saying, “Turn to page 12 in your poetry packet, and let’s find today’s Poem of the Day.” And allowing students to share the words they found challenging in a reading assignment and then to decide which ones are useful enough to put on a class word wall will increase buy-in better than giving them a list of important vocabulary words to memorize because the word wall is their list, not yours.  

I remember chemistry labs in high school where we were simply following a series of instructions to reach a predetermined outcome. I recall many Q&A sessions in school where the teacher clearly knew all the right answers already and was waiting for someone to respond to her predetermined specifications so that she could feign excitement as she said, “Exactly right! That is the theme of the story!” Though I know they were abundant,  I don’t remember any worksheets. . . because no one remembers worksheets. Ditto for study questions. None of these things seemed at all spontaneous or interesting to me (the student) or to the teacher, who (as I saw it) must have the world’s most boring job.   

The most memorable moments in school—not coincidentally, also the ones where the most learning occurred and stuck—were the ones where the teacher exhibited curiosity along with us, where the outcome didn’t seem predestined, and where the classroom seemed like a community of learners and discoverers.

Spontaneous teaching like this takes preparation and planning. Even the most experienced teachers flop more often than they soar when they try to wing it. Plan your questions carefully. Rehearse your instructions and explanations. Carefully orchestrate your openings, transitions, segues, and conclusions. But do what you can to make all of these things seem fresh and alive to your students—as if you are experiencing fresh curiosity right along with them as they learn.

Introducing the phrase “I wonder. . .” into your lessons is one way to begin

That host of the bird show did the same soggy volunteer routine four times a day throughout the run of the State Fair year after year, and he never let it become stale. Each new audience experienced it as if it were an entirely unplanned accident, which is what made it so brilliant. In the same way, we can create these brilliant moments of spontaneity in our classrooms with careful planning and consideration for what the learning experience looks like through the eyes of the learners.       


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Defining Your Vision for the Start of School

 I’m going to suggest that you do something in the next few days that you don’t have time for but that will make a huge positive difference for your school year.

I realize that the first day is looming around the corner. Your to-do list keeps getting longer. You’ve been professionally developed and have watched your required e-learning updates about school safety, sexual harassment, and ethical behavior. Some of you have decorated your classrooms with this year’s hottest Pinterest-approved styles while others are still awaiting the go-ahead to unpack boxes after the summer’s renovation. There are IEPs to gather and digest, seating charts to create, Google Classrooms to set up, and curriculum documents to study. The campus Xerox machine is working 24/7 (or, perhaps, has stopped working due to exhaustion). Conscientious students who’ve come in early to walk their schedules keep poking their heads into your classroom in hopes of getting a glimpse of their new teacher. You haven’t slept soundly in days because of that recurring nightmare where it’s the first day of classes and you can’t find your own classroom.

I know you’re going to balk at the idea of doing what I’m about to suggest—and I wouldn’t blame you—but I’m going to suggest it anyway:

Take 15 minutes sometime before the first day of school to sit down somewhere free of distractions and list the core beliefs that guide the work you do every day.


  
Think of these core beliefs as tiny statements of purpose, as mini mission statements. These are the how, the why, and the so what for everything you do in your job. Articulating what you believe helps you sift through all the debris to focus your attention on what really matters. When you have a decision to make, these core belief statements can guide you. Most important, writing these beliefs down increases the opportunity that you will actually put them into action.   

There’s no magic number of statements that should be on your core beliefs list. Try to keep your list manageable because I don’t want it to be overwhelming or unwieldy. I started out with a goal of 5 beliefs but ended up adding a few as I continued to think about it. Your list is not an unalterable document; it probably will (and should) evolve over time.

Here’s what I came up with during my 15 minutes of brainstorming:    
    
My Core Beliefs at This Moment (Subject to Revision Because, Well, Things Change)

1. Infuse joy into all you do in the classroom. Learning shouldn’t be a drudgery.     
2. Students should view their teachers as lifelong learners, readers, writers, problem solvers, and curious questioners.
3. Relationships matter more than you think.   
4. Strategic decisions about what goes on during class time can eliminate a lot of ineffective, soul-sucking work outside of class time.    
5. It’s every teacher’s job to teach students to read, write, think, speak, study, organize themselves, and be decent human beings. These transferable life skills matter more than content.  
6. Every student deserves the best education possible. That means high expectations in a safe, supportive environment.
7. Students don’t know how far they can go. It’s up to you to spot their potential, help them see it, too, and give them a nudge to get there.
8. When given the choice between pointing out something someone did wrong and pointing out what they are doing right, give your attention to what you’d like to see more of.   

I’m planning to print and post this list on the bulletin board next to my computer so I can see it often. On the days when I need some refocusing, I will revisit that list as a reminder to keep me on track. Perhaps you’ll want to do the same.

I wish you a purposeful, productive, fulfilling year during which you keep your attention on the things that matter. Let me know how I can help.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Your Summer Reading Assignment

If you’re like me, you can’t wait for summer to begin so that you can turn off the alarm clock, take a break from workday worries, and relax with a good book. Of course, if you’re like me, then you’re a reader. Reading is a vital part of your life. It’s who you are. You’ve got a long list of books you’ve been planning to read for a while. You have a book recommendation at the ready whenever a friend, acquaintance, or total stranger is in need of something to read. 

Maybe you’re not one of those people who has a pile of books on the nightstand and gets a little nervous when you don’t know what you’re going to read next. Don’t stop reading this. What I have to say is for you, too.  

I’ve been going to the same dentist since I was four. Marilyn cleaned my teeth for 40 years until she retired a few years ago. (Fun fact: I was her patient on her first day of work at that office.) One of the best things about my twice-yearly visit to Marilyn was that she always asked me what I’d been reading, jotted down my book recommendations, and reported back to me six months later to let me know which ones she liked the best. The receptionist and office manager were also readers who also enjoyed my little book talks. We had a wonderful ongoing dialogue about what we had enjoyed reading. It actually made me look forward to going to the dentist.

Working with teens has shown me that the two most powerful ways to get reluctant readers to read are to recommend the perfect book to them and to have a peer recommend a book to them. Even students I have never met before perk up their attention when I ask them what sort of stories they like (usually, I ask what their favorite movies and tv shows are) and then give them a quick book talk about a book or two I know they will enjoy.

My friend Christine tells about her brother, who struggled in school and never willingly read anything until a teacher handed him a Stephen King book and said he might like it. He not only read that book but clamored for anything else King had written.   

There is power in a personalized book recommendation. I think there’s even more power in a book recommendation from someone who is not your English teacher. English teachers are supposed to like reading. But my orchestra director, math teacher, coach, and principal?  If they like it, maybe it’s worth looking at. . .

My summer reading challenge to you is to read some books you can talk with your students about. I have six suggestions for your summer reading:

1.  Read a book recommended to you by one of your students. Or poll the class as a whole to see what you ought to read.

2.  Read a young adult or middle grade book in a genre that you don’t normally read. If you gravitate toward realistic fiction, explore a popular new release in sci-fi or fantasy. If you’re a romance reader, read a sports book. If you like escapism, read something that is grittily realistic.  

3.  Read a book written for adults that you could recommend to a teenager. Some reluctant young readers who don’t gravitate to books targeted to teens find unexpected delight in a book written for a more mature audience.  

4.  Read a graphic novel. Most adults don’t even know these are a thing, yet teenagers flock to the graphic novel shelves in libraries. Search online for the best graphic novels or ask a librarian or bookseller for a recommendation. If you’re one of those teachers who has been telling kids they can’t read these because they aren’t “real books,” it’s time to enter the 21st century.   

5.  Read a young adult novel about a character or by an author whose life experience or background is not the same as yours but that might be similar to some of your students’. One of the best ways to connect with others is to experience life from their perspective. And a great way to connect with a student who may see you as someone who can’t possibly understand them is to talk with them about a book you enjoyed that might relate to their experiences. (Be careful, though, not to assume too much about a student’s experiences. The Hate U Give doesn’t tell the story of every African-American teenager; not every transgender student can relate to Lily and Dunkin; Amy Tan and Marie Lu don’t speak for every Asian-American; and many white, suburban high schoolers’ lives are not like those of the characters in John Green novels.)    

6.  Read an award-winning YA or middle-grade book. Some popular award lists include the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Maverick Awards (graphic novels), the Lone Star Awards (middle-grade), TAYSHAS List (young adult), Printz Awards (YA), and the William C. Morris Award (YA by a debut author).  

Enjoy your summer reading. I hope it gives you the opportunity to initiate a few conversations next year with your students. If you’ve never read YA before (or haven’t read it in decades), I think you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.


By the way, I’m always looking for recommendations, so if you read something you like, tell me about it. I will add it to the pile.