Where There is Reading, There is Freedom

Reading brings us together.
It forges relationships.
Creates community.
Grants us the courage to resist our enemies.
Provides comfort when we’re alone.
But above all, it gives us freedom.

Where there is reading, there is freedom.
A well-read human being is not bound by the restraints of the ignorant.
She is happy in her pursuit of wisdom.
He is joyful in his search of knowledge.
They are fruitful in their quest,
Because where reading abounds, there is the freedom to search, to explore, to experience.

Where there is reading, there is no program.
There is no machine or metric to tell you that a level, number, or letter
Will make you happier, wiser, or more knowledgable.
Instead, there is the horrid facsimile of reading—
Stripped of life and choice and quantified so hungry spreadsheets will be satisfied.

Where there is reading, there is humanity.
There is no fear of skin color, choice of clothing, country of origin, identity.
Reading compels us to look into mirrors, look through windows, walk through doors.
It eliminates fear and creates proximity.
It is the anti-phobia,
The heart and motivation of resistance.

This is where reading exists.
In classrooms full of books.
In pleasurable reading.
In the reading lives we adopt and share.
In the choices we gift our students.
In the reading identities that flourish and thrive and carry kids into a lifetime of joy.
In the tears that spill from young eyes when they connect with a story or character—
Tears that demonstrate the type of authentic close reading we want students to experience.

Where there is reading, there is freedom—
To express, to engage, to live.
Democracy demands a literate populace,
And we have the power to help reading spread like fire.

I challenge you to step up and offer your wisdom as guidance. We need educators who are willing to direct our young people to a lifelong love of reading, an act that will give light to a very dark world.

We are stronger because we are together. Today we are a chorus of voices, blending beautifully to promote this freedom that reading can bring, to nudge each other to a deeper understanding of our work with children. When we stand in our classrooms, welcoming students back for another year of learning, I hope this chorus resonates in your heart and mind.

We have freedom because we read. Our minds are not bound.

You are a spark. And I challenge you to spread the light.

**Today, along with Amy Ralph and Brian Smith, I spoke at the inaugural #NerdCampNC event at Lenoir-Rhyne University. This is the nerd talk I gave. I hope you find it meaningful.


A Defense of Writing Workshop: Choice, Challenge, Importance

“We write to discover what we want to say.” -Don Murray

Writing is hard. Here’s something else—writing is hard for me, too. When an idea forms and begins coalescing into a piece of writing, either in my mind or my notebook, I often struggle to find the right opening, the logical flow of my thinking, the beautiful words, the perfect metaphors, and the lyrical closing. I agonize over these pieces and often print unfinished pieces of writing, paste them in my notebook, and write around them, hoping to stimulate better thinking. I consult my own quickwrites and reactions for insight, and many times, I find ideas that make excellent additions to the unfinished piece. After revisiting a piece of writing multiple times and placing it into the hands of people I trust, I am able to get the words in the right order. The pieces I craft grow stronger and my ideas become deeper and more complex. Writing, thinking, reading, and community, it seems, form the foundation for confidence in the life of a writer.

For the past several years, I have followed the thinking of leaders in my field, teachers who want to inspire students to write from deep inside and develop authentic writing voice. Decades ago, Don Graves led a significant research study of elementary-age students, finding that choice, community, and feedback, both from peers and instructors, guided students to develop their most authentic writing. For the time, and honestly even now, it was cutting-edge, a direct result of questions the academic community had about the writing process, especially in regard to students. Nancie Atwell, in her seminal In the Middle, transitioned her traditional middle school classroom to a workshop classroom based on the ideas of Graves and his research team. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher beautifully articulated the conditions necessary for developing and sustaining writing workshop conditions in 180 Days. Linda Rief stretched Atwell’s ideas and combined them with her own original thinking to develop a workshop classroom with her 8th graders. Her books Seeking Diversity and ReadWriteTeach explore the challenges of a writing workshop with her middle grades students. I stand upon the shoulders of these magnificent educators in my own work with student writers, consulting their books and ideas to gain a deeper understanding of this important work we do with kids. I want to create an authentic environment for my students, so I do my best to create a space for students to choose their own writing topics and use their community (i.e. our classroom) to grow that writing.

Many times, though, students are subjected to a barrage of criticism about their writing, never gaining the confidence necessary to adopt a writerly life. Imagine, though, a classroom where students respond to poems, articles, independent reading, and images across a week; a classroom where kids read mentor texts and study craft moves alongside their teacher; a classroom where students choose the topics they want to explore through writing; a classroom where academic writing is founded upon authentic writing opportunities, and literary responses are meaningful and deliberate; a classroom where risk-taking is valued and failure is seen as a measure of growth; a classroom where the messy work of real writers is preferred above the writing completed for compliance. This is a writing workshop classroom.

My first few years of teaching were filled with attempts to get students to write and think like academics. I even found acronyms to help students remember the layers of good paragraphs, and after a while, drawers in my filing cabinet were filled with graphic organizers and worksheets to help students develop their best writing. Year after year, the writing was dry and lifeless, an arid wasteland of sentences and regurgitated ideas. When I came to understand how a writing workshop could inspire students to write from their hearts, I was thrilled to see many students identifying topics of interest and writing about them joyfully. Additionally, I did not abandon literary analysis. In our writing workshop, students wrote in response to poems, their independent reading, and whole-class texts. Kaylee’s notebook is full of character and idea analysis from her independent reading life, as well as fictional narratives she decided to craft based on books she read and loved. Because of her interest in intertextual relationships, Deanna crafted a memoir in verse, based on ideas she connected in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes and the novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins.  A writing workshop did not replace academic writing; instead, it enhanced it.

Interestingly enough, students prefer being told what to write. That takes a sizable chunk of the work out of it—well, for them, at least. In my writing workshop, I expect students to write beside different texts, and then, at a point in a grading period, choose one or several of those pieces and take them to the best draft possible. As the teacher, I do not decide what they write. During writing conferences, I listen to what students have to say about their work and ask them to read their work aloud to me. I want them to hear their writing because usually, when they read it aloud, they hear the mistakes and notice the gaps in the narrative, argumentative, and informational pieces they craft. I also ask them to read their work aloud to a peer editor or their group, using the power of community to strengthen and clarify their work. I tell students that all writers, including me, are in a constant state of revision—we are finished when we have our best work. Altogether, this is challenging for any writer. Jacob told me so one day during writing workshop. “I think I know what I want to write, but I’m not sure,” he said. Together, he and I went through his notebook and Google Drive, looking for seeds of writing that could be taken to a fuller draft. His notebook was full of ideas, ones that could be taken to a complete draft, but part of the challenge of a writing workshop is sifting through different ideas to find a focus. Eventually, he settled upon a story he had written about his sister. “I want to write part of it from the perspective of an object Mr. C,” he said a day later. “Didn’t Shaun Hutchinson do that in Violent Ends? Can I get the book and read that chapter to see how he did it?” As teachers, we want to stand on tables and cheer in moments like these. Because of mentor texts we had studied in class and his own independent reading life, he had seen how authors personify objects for purposes of narration. He read the mentor text (Violent Ends) to move his thinking forward. He later explained that this was one of the more difficult pieces he wrote, but it was one he was most proud of.

Students must be active participants in the writing process to develop strong writing skills. Daily immersion in authentic writing opportunities exercise the writing muscle. I believe that students should be writing about things that matter to them, but part of the challenge of a writing workshop for students is finding the writing that resonates with them. We study a host of mentor texts to stimulate thinking and probe our minds for the ideas that matter to us. Once students start filling their notebooks with writing, they have access to options for full drafts of writing. Below, I list several of the ways I help students exercise their writing muscles, unearthing the things that are meaningful to them.

Quickwrites—According to Linda Rief, quickwrites are bursts of writing where writers craft as quickly as they can for several minutes in response to a text (image, poem, article, etc.). Like everything in a writing workshop, I model the quickwriting process for students, showing them process and examples from inside my own notebook. I highlight good thinking that I unearth through my own writing. We quickwrite as often as we can. Sometimes this is in response to a poem, other times in response to an article, book chapter, or image that I know will move them as thinkers and writers.

Heart Maps—Georgia Heard’s brilliant heart maps are practical and critical for a classroom where writing matters. I ask students to draw an outline of a heart inside their notebooks (mine is on display under the document camera) and begin filling it with things that live inside their hearts. Throughout the year, I encourage students to add to their heart maps, especially if there is a book or a piece of writing that they grew to love. When students are looking for something to write about, I ask them to look at their heart maps for inspiration.

Responses to independent reading—Throughout a week of instruction, students should be responding to both the texts they study (such as poems, articles, mentor texts, etc.) and their independent reading. When I respond to books I am reading, I often find ideas that I want to explore further. I model this for students, demonstrating that a response, such as a question to a character’s actions, can nudge us further in analytical thinking and writing.

Writing beside a text—There is something beautiful about writing beside a text. Laying a poem down beside my notebook and looking at it as I begin crafting my response elevates my writing. My words are woven with those of the author. As a result, my thinking is elevated, too. Throughout the year, students and I cut out pieces of poems that resonate with us, or, perhaps are related to the books we are reading. We paste these in our notebooks and write beside those excerpts. Sometimes the writing we do beside a text becomes a new poem, a new story, or lines we use in other pieces of writing.

Choice and challenge frame the heart of a writing workshop. If we give students time to write and immerse them in a world of beautiful mentor texts, students will have the access they need to adopt a writerly life. I witnessed this on the last day of this past school year. Charlotte, a reticent student, stood beside one of the classroom windows for the last hour of the day, staring at nothing but a brick wall and a stone walkway. In the last fifteen minutes of school, a student rushed over to me.

“Mr. C, Charlotte is crying!”

“Is she ok?” I asked, quite concerned.

“She said she wants to talk to you.”

Charlotte walked over, rubbing her eyes, sobbing uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong, Charlotte?” I asked, as she wrapped her arms around me and continued sobbing.

When she finally gained enough composure to speak, she said: “I am never going to have another teacher like you. You helped me discover that I can write poems and songs and stories. I never thought I would be able to do that. No one else has asked me to do that. Ever. And you did. Now, I feel like I can write anything.”

This is why I teach writing the way I do. There are thousands of other students who are waiting to tell their stories and find their voices. Because Charlotte was allowed to participate in an authentic writing community, she discovered a talent she didn’t know she possessed. Don Murray was right when he said that we write to discover what we want to say. This discovery allows writers to find the writing that is meaningful to them, and although it is challenging to find that meaningful writing, it is well worth the rigor. I have had many students explain that participation in a writing workshop gave them confidence. Writing doesn’t get easier, but as students write and discover more of the things they want to say, they develop confidence in themselves as writers. A former student, Jonathan, told his teacher this past year that he wrote all year in my class, and even after an entire year of writing workshop, the process hadn’t gotten any easier. The process doesn’t ease, but our confidence does increase.

A writing workshop is not an elementary endeavor; instead, it is a challenging task we set before our students and ourselves. Authentic writing requires patience and daily immersion, and in a writing workshop, students have the chance to develop authenticity as writers. There are days when students would much prefer I give them a prompt or story starter, or tell them what I want them to write. I always refuse. They need the struggle. They need to feel the writing process and know it for themselves. They need to participate in the work of real writers. Quickwrites, heart maps, reading responses, and mentor texts are just the beginning of a beautiful workshop framework. Lift your pen with me. Let us change our students’ writing lives with a pledge to authentic writing work.

Writing is hard. But it is worth the challenge.


For more ideas about writing workshop and developing authenticity, pick up a copy of Sparks in the Dark by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney.

The Least of These: Lighting a Spark for Change

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi

“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” Matthew 20:40

For several days, I have been at a loss for words. My social media accounts have been flooded with vicious imagery, filled with haunting stories and photographs of children who have been ripped from their families and detained in what has been euphemistically coined a “tent city”. I have read the statements of politicians and constituents, people who have waged war with semantics, defining separation, legality, and morality in terms of belief systems and political stances.  In many cases, moral imperatives have been eradicated in honor of fulfilling one’s duty to our country, which, ironically, has nothing to do with honor or duty. The soul of intellect and reason has fought against this inhuman act, especially in spite of the fact that this is supposedly “upholding the law,” a phrase used to placate guilt and justify horror. While watching these new atrocities unfold, especially the harrowing images of children crying, I began to feel an urgency, one that includes the need for using books as a catalyst for social change.

I’ve written considerably about the need for literacy and how we, as adults and teachers, can engender a love of reading in our children. Access to books, time to read them, and an environment where readers can thrive are elements that help students into readers. I’ve watched non-readers adopt readerly habits and join their classmates in academic conversation about characters, themes, and motives. Today, however, my mind shifts to another thought regarding literacy: Is what I’m doing enough to make these students not only readers, but also decent human beings, ones who will stand against the atrocity toward children that we are currently witnessing?

Giving students access to books, providing a well-stocked classroom library, and giving time to think, write, and talk about books are necessary elements of an effective classroom. Additionally, book talks are essential. Without them, many students have no access to the literary world. I have talked about a wide range of books for several years, especially on the first day of school. When kids enter my classroom, they know that books matter because books are everywhere. I surround my students with books that show characters in affirming, positive portrayals. Students, like all readers, need to see the rich diversity of the world represented in the literature they consume. But this is not enough—the national scene bears witness.

For years, students have read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, ones that tackle hard conversations about racism and inhumane treatment, yet we continue to see a racist and inhumane agenda touted as the “right thing to do.” What are the conversations around this book like? Do we talk about it only in terms of injustice of the past? Are no connections made between the past and the present? Are current events ignored? For years as a classroom teacher, I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, but I did so in the absence of beneficial contemporary connection. As my social awareness and consciousness have grown, I have abandoned practices that do not allow students opportunities to submerge beneath the rippling waters of a thought-provoking book. I am choosing to be part of a movement that pushes students to be better human beings.  

A rich reading life is necessary for the development of empathy. Volume matters, too. But in addition to variety and volume, students must be having conversations about these difficult issues. I want students to read and affect change in their world because of the books they read. I want them to use their reading lives as platforms to discuss the problems that plague our world. Literacy is not just a skill; it is a movement. Books and reading can be agents of change, but only if we use them for that purpose.

Because of these recent national events, where children, the least among us are being separated from their families, I am pledging to be more transparent about my reactions to my reading life, talking with students more openly about the way books affect me. I talk about books constantly, but students need to know how I have connected to these books and how they have moved me to create change in the world. If students can see how I am influenced by texts, I believe that they will emulate that behavior in the books that they read. Additionally, I will model, through writing, how stories have created change in my thinking, and I will share this writing with my students, asking that they write alongside me as we challenge our beliefs and thinking. We can teach students to love, respect, and fight for everyone. We can teach them that the books they read are microcosms of our world, giving them keen insight into the struggles of humanity and ways in which to respond to those struggles. We can teach them that writing helps them unravel their thinking. We can teach them that reading and writing are not mere subjects, but critical pieces of understanding and analyzing their world. And through that reading and writing, I know they will discover more of what they want to solve, write, and read, and understand. This is the beginning of social change, and it can start with our students, the youngest among us.

I believe that reading can change us, but I also believe that I have to model that change for my students. I am responsible for the readers in my classroom. I am responsible to give them good things to think about, lead them to great books, motivate them to read, and challenge them as thinkers. When they read, I want them to see the harrowing transgressions of corrupt people, as well as the beautiful triumphs of exquisite heroes. But I want them to use those books as agents of change, ones that call them to action in a world that is so often dark and oppressive.

 We can teach students to love, respect, and fight for everyone. We can teach them that the books they read are microcosms of our world, giving them keen insight into the struggles of humanity and ways in which to respond to those struggles. We can teach them that writing helps them unravel their thinking. We can teach them that reading and writing are not mere subjects, but critical pieces of understanding and analyzing their world. And through that reading and writing, I know they will discover more of what they want to solve, write, and read, and understand. This is the beginning of social change, and it can start with our students, the youngest among us.

Books have the capacity to change the world, and I am confident that my students have the power to affect that change because of their reading lives. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I know I’m not the only one. I stand upon the shoulders of writers, mentors, and thinkers, ones whose teaching lives have been built upon the beautiful social change that literacy can create. A reading life has no power if it does not stir within us a need for change. And if we do not act on that need for change, we do a disservice to the books we read and the least among us. I am being the change I want to see in the world by reading, writing, and talking. I am asking you to join me, and if you already share your connections to books transparently, inviting students to engage with their own independent reading as you do with yours, I salute you and ask that you continue this critical work. Together, we can empower our students and help them develop the agency necessary to affect social change. I believe it wholeheartedly. I believe literacy is the answer.

Because in the end, I know literacy can ignite a spark for change in our world.

A Reason to Read

My last class of the day had just dismissed, the last student shuffling out of my room. I grabbed a stack of paperwork I needed to give the school bookkeeper and made my way to the office. Passing through the media center, I turned my attention to a group of students who were congregated in one of the cozier areas of the library. Some were piled on the comfortable chairs, others were huddled on the carpet and rugs. Each student held a book, but none of them were reading. I stopped momentarily and the teacher looked at me, smiled, and said, “I just don’t have a group of readers this year.” I smiled and left. On my way back through, they were still holding books and still not reading. No desire to read seemed to exist within them at that moment.

I am often criticized for my viewpoints about reading instruction, mainly from those who are adamant that motivation to read should exist in every child. Honestly, I agree. It should. With the amount of resources available to schools through programs and grants, students should be surrounded by high-interest books, educators who are familiar with those titles, and time and space to read, write, think, and talk. Unfortunately, that balance is often forgotten as students grow into upper grades where time to read, write, think, and talk is replaced with activities and assignments that diminish the value of books and reading. Kids should come to our classes with a love of literacy, but often, they have no reason to read. It is a chore, an obstacle, and it is something you accomplish only in a reading or English classroom. Billy Collins would tell us that their only reason to read is to force a confession out of a piece of literature. Such a sad truth.

Each year students enter my classroom with mixed feelings about books and reading. Their attitudes teeter on the edge between disdain and curiosity: why do people keep telling me something I despise is so important? I ask students to complete an interest inventory at the beginning of the year that assesses their feelings about reading but also gives me a chance to know them as people, not just as students. These interest inventories are often filled with disheartening honesty and unfortunate truths—they believe reading is just not for them. I notice the abundant mentions of video games and that they enjoy hearing a book read aloud. They love stories, but they are reluctant to engage in the act of reading. Even though this appears disheartening, I still see rays of light.

Deep inside of everyone is a passion for story. People want to see a narrative arc embedded in all types of writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Essentially, we want to see characters (or people) involved in a conflict and seeking a resolution—the elements of stories, both real and imagined. Story is part of humanity, woven into the fabric of time and space, intricate pieces of experience that help us gauge our actions, provide a metric by which we live, and engage us in discourses that have endured for millenia. Story runs in our blood and exists in the narratives we weave each day through living. Knowing that this passion for story exists within all of us helps me leverage my work with students, especially when I invite them to experience books and reading. But, if I want them to fall in love with books, a rationale, one that lives deep within them, has to come alive.

If we want students to read, we have to give them a reason to do so. Explaining to students that reading is good for them is not a strong reason. Telling kids that our classes will give them the skills necessary for navigating difficult texts later in their lives is not true unless they are reading voluminously. And honestly, unless their reading lives originate from a place of love, students will not evaluate deeply or analyze carefully the words and phrases that constitute the books and passages they will encounter. I know because I have experienced both in my classroom: students whose literary analysis is based on compliance and those whose literary analysis is grounded in a love of reading. I’ve watched many students gravitate to more complex books because they had choice. I’ve seen many students tackle the challenging mentor texts and study pieces I hand them because close reading and analysis started from a place of love. I’ve expected students to read independently, select books that are increasingly difficult, talk about books, and listen during book talks throughout the week. I’ve read aloud to students from picture books and chapter books. Together we have laughed, mourned, and questioned because the characters have compelled our thinking and our hearts. Students want to read when it comes from a place deep inside, and they will if we give them a reason.

So how do we begin to give students a reason to read? I don’t know a perfect answer, but my success with reluctant readers is born from the courage to try something new and stand upon the shoulders of mentors whose writing and guidance has helped my practice. When students come into my class, I am genuinely curious about the things that engage or distance them when it comes to reading. What have teachers done to move them as readers? What classroom structures have helped promote and sustain their independent reading lives? My experience with gifted, struggling, and reluctant readers has led me to understand how the following strategies and ideas lead to joyful experiences with books.  

  1. Book Talks. Reluctant and struggling readers have no idea what types of books are available. Their understanding of books is generally limited to the titles that teachers bring into the classroom. A quality book talk, especially at the beginning of class each day, opens a world of engaging titles to your students. During book talks, I hold the book, give a brief summary, read a high interest part aloud, and discuss how this book made me feel. Emotion is an intrinsic piece of the human experience, and when we discuss books in a way that describes our feelings, we create a touchstone for others in our presence. Students go to art, especially music and lyrics, for an emotional response. Books have the same power, but only if we open that world to them.
  2. Read Alouds. A read aloud is a perfect opportunity for students to hear a seasoned reader read. Many times, instructors are responsible for dismantling the negative associations that students have with books, and reigniting that passion for story can occur when kids hear a book read aloud to them. It’s necessary to select a book that is high interest. It doesn’t need to be riddled with questions about main idea and supporting evidence; instead, it just needs to be a time of joy. I struggled to show students the joy that reading can bring, but a read aloud has the power to demonstrate how joyful books are.
  3. Choice. One of the most powerful ways to engage students in the act of reading is to give them choice. Freedom to choose reading materials gives students ownership of their learning. Whole-class and common texts have the potential to be powerful, but if students read only what the teacher prescribes, they read less. Inviting students into the learning process can begin with offering choices in their reading lives. When students choose their books, there is a great possibility of them reading voluminously and across a wide range of genres.
  4. Meaningful Extensions of Reading. The activities and assignments that students complete when finished reading or studying literature should emulate the things that real readers do when finished with a book. I do not ask students to create posters of their learning or provide a menu of activities to complete to demonstrate an understanding of a text. I provide extension assignments that deepen their understanding of the book and give them a chance to participate in the activities of real readers. I often ask them to turn and talk about their books, write a letter to a friend recommending the book, explore a big idea in their writing notebooks, discuss and write about how the book is a microcosm of the world, create I Am poems from a character’s perspective, and so on. I wasted time on packets and worksheets and posters for years. Now, I want my students to do what readers do—read, write, and talk.
  5. Surrounding students with books. When students enter my classroom, I want them to know that books matter. Students see books displayed on the ledge in front of my room, on countertops, on the bookshelves, and (especially on the first day) on their tables. I want them to see books everywhere and have access to the ones that catch their attention. We are influenced by the things we see each day. I want students to be influenced by books, and I make sure they are in plain sight all over my classroom.
  6. Time and space. Practice makes perfect, but only if we are intentional with our practice. Students need lots of time and plenty of space to read. Across a year, students should be reading voluminously, taking time to read and talk about their reading during class. Unless time and space are provided, students will not be motivated to read. My lesson plan includes a non-negotiable 15-20 minute reading block each day. We don’t read as a reward when we are finished with a classroom assignment. Reading is our classroom assignment. Setting aside time to read and space to talk about reading communicates to students that reading is important and valued in a classroom.

Joyful reading is sometimes born from struggle. Scrapes and scars tell the story of our lives, showing the world that we have experienced something hurtful, but in the end, we grew. It’s the experience, though, that gives us deeper appreciation. Sometimes, the same is true of reading. I never expect that students will gravitate immediately, but after time, I notice changes, especially when they are surrounded by conversations about books and time to read them.

There is no magic formula or high-interest activity that will create readers. The only way to create readers is to get students reading. I can never give my students a strong enough reason to read. They have to experience books first, and in time, a reason to read will swell within them, causing them to crave the written word. That is joy. And that is the reason to read. We live in narrative, structuring our lives and words on the stories of people before us. Books are the keys to unlocking a world of insight and imagination, but without a reason to read them, books, and their uniquely beautiful ideas, languish on the shelves. Moving students to read with purpose and passion does not start with a class activity or activating strategy. Reading is my activating strategyit engages the mind and the heart. And eventually, a reason to read grows.


Travis Recommends…Vol. 1, Issue 2

April was a busy month for me. I was blessed with the opportunity to visit two schools, work with several fabulous educators, and learn alongside students in two different states. I am always amazed at the passion and courage students display when they are driven by an internal fire that motivates them to learn. But what I usually see is an educator who has provided a class structure that promotes time for independent reading, writing, and conversation. The teachers who invited me into their classrooms taught me a tremendous amount, and I am a better educator and thinker because I interacted with them.   

Two books captured my heart during April. I hope you will find time and space to read them and share them with others. These books are splendid additions to your professional and personal collections. They will stretch your thinking, motivate your teaching life, invite you to question deeply held beliefs about people, education, instruction, and the things we hold sacred.

180 Days by Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle

180 Days

When I first heard about 180 Days, the newest book from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, I pre-ordered it immediately. As you can see from the many sticky notes, it probed my thinking at a deep level, forcing me to think about my own classroom and the reading and writing practices I implement. The format of the book is beautiful and there are gorgeous images from both teachers’ classrooms to supplement the amazing methodology they discuss. Please keep in mind that this is a detailed professional book. It is beautifully written, but you will want to read with a pen and sticky notes. Philosophy is beautifully woven into the strategies offered, and each chapter sheds light on the best ways to engage our students in reading and writing. As English teachers, engaging students in reading and writing is the first hurdle in getting them to think like academics. We want our students to have robust reading and writing lives, but if we do not engage their hearts and minds, our attempts will be in vain. When we plan with students in mind, we never go wrong. Kittle and Gallagher describe the activities, assignments, quick writes, and notebook work that engaged their students. Standing beside their thinking will never cause harm!

The book is divided into two sections: Planning Decisions and Discourses. The Planning Decisions section provides a deep look at the why of teaching. At the beginning of the book, Kittle and Gallagher describe their planning process, stating that they begin with their beliefs. I loved this so much because it encapsulates everything I believe about planning. When I meet with co-workers to plan or to vertically align curriculum, I never hear a statement about the things we believe. Usually, these planning decisions begin with books we hold sacred and the ways to make our lives as easy as possible. They do not start with kids. Penny and Kelly challenge that thinking and describe the processes and conversations that enabled them to reach the students in their classrooms.

In the Discourses section, both educators delineate the essential questions they pose to students, and the narrative, informational, argumentative, and multi-genre writing projects that students complete. This part of the book includes detailed descriptions of their teaching process, and how they used mentor texts, small and large group conversations, writing conferences, and peer feedback to enhance the quality of student writing.

If you are a teacher who wants to change the reading and writing environment in your classroom, I encourage you to read this phenomenal book. I read it alongside a co-worker, and as we read, we met periodically to discuss our marginalia, thinking, and ideas for the next school year. There is a lot to digest in this book—deep thinking, complex ideas, lessons, strategies, and mentor texts—and reading alongside someone will only intensify the conversations about Kittle and Gallagher’s teaching.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

the poet x

This fabulous blend of poetry and prose slayed me with gorgeous lyricism and haunting sentences. Xiomara, a high school sophomore with a love of philosophy, is struggling to find her place among teenagers whose lives and intellect do not match her precocious understanding of the world. She thrusts her existential questions into writing, filling her notebook with keen insight. Her perceptive thinking catches the eye of her English teacher who invites Xiomara to an evening of spoken word poetry. Xiomara is elated; however, dogmatic ideologies, spawned by her mother’s deeply held religious beliefs, threaten to derail any chance of speaking power to the poems in her mind and notebook.

In addition to the issues at home, Xiomara is also caught into the beauty of a budding romance, one her mother will not approve of. This love interest encourages her work as a writer, and in ways, becomes a muse. I loved the feminist thread that ran through this novel—a young woman who unleashes her own power by writing herself to freedom and conquering the demons that try to dissuade her. She is a force to be reckoned with and in the end, she finds the fortitude to rise.

Please add these amazing titles to your to-read stack. I know that it is May, and as teachers, we find ourselves facing testing, more testing, deadlines, end-of-the-year minutiae, and bittersweet goodbyes with our students. Both of the books, however, will ignite your teaching and reading soul, refreshing your mind and heart as you look toward next school year. I encourage you to read it. And share your thinking.


P.S. Sparks in the Dark, my book with co-author Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd), will be available during the first week of June. I hope you will get a copy and learn alongside us as we work to affect the readers and writers in all of us!

Travis Recommends…

I am always excited to share books. My colleagues, family, and friends are the recipients of my most fervent book talks. When I finish a book, there are people I text immediately, sending them snapshots of the writing that spoke to me. I take pictures of paragraphs and whole pages, describing the parts that engaged my heart and deepened my thinking. In short, I love sharing my thinking about books with others because that is what readers do. When we read something we love, we want to write and talk about it. I would love to begin sharing part of my reading life with you, hopefully posting a blog like this one on a monthly basis. The three books in this post are ones I have read or re-read recently. I am confident that they will engage your readerly mind, compel your teaching heart, and inspire your students’ reading lives. #booklove

Moo by Sharon Creech

I love this whimsical, playful novel, and so will you. Even better, your students will adore it. Sharon Creech blends poetry and prose in this magnificent tale of Reena and her younger brother, Luke, whose parents move their family from New York to Maine. At first, the children have no idea what to make of the quaint, agrarian atmosphere, but soon, they make the acquaintance of Mrs. Falala, a curmudgeonly old woman whose antics are frustrating for Reena and Luke. Even worse, Mrs. Falala enlists their help to groom Zora, a prize cow, for the fair. Hilarity ensues, but not at the expense of rich character development, meaningful moments among characters, and an ending that proves how no one should be judged by their seemingly harsh exteriors. Creech’s masterful fusion of prose and poetry will captivate your students, and her use of spacing, font, and non-traditional poetry forms will move your students to write in her style. I know you and your students will fall in love with this book.

moo by sharon creech


The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Of the books I have read during spring break, this book is one of the first that I will share with students when we return to school. Wallace, a.k.a. Lolly, is in middle school, navigating the precarious nature of adolescence while recovering from his brother’s recent death. Jermaine, Lolly’s brother, was killed in gang-related activity, and Lolly finds himself battling the anger and bitterness that accompany the death of a loved one. Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend, Yvonne, begins bringing him large bags of Legos, stating that the store she works for was planning to throw them out. Lolly’s love for architecture and Legos compel him to build a massive structure, one that angers his mother because of the space it occupies in their apartment. So he moves it to one of the vacant rooms at his after-school program. Big Rose, a peer whose tendencies are annoying to Lolly at first, begins building her own Lego structure, and as their buildings and cities increase in size, so does their friendship and their understanding of the world around them. Layered with laughter, joy, sadness, grief, and the unbreakable bonds of family and friendship, this novel will capture a piece of your heart. I encourage you to join Lolly in his quest to understand the community in which he lives, to forgive the people who are dearest to him, and to seek answers to questions that haunt him.

stars beneath our feet by david moore


A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts

I have followed Kate Roberts’s work for several years, reading DIY Literacy, a book co-written with Maggie Beattie Roberts, and Falling In Love With Close Reading, co-written with Chris Lehman. This solo project is nothing short of gorgeous; it is a must-have for secondary English/language arts teachers.

One of the lingering, most controversial issues among English teachers is the use of whole-class novels. Is the time used for whole-class text study beneficial when students could be reading books that are of interest to them? How can a teacher engage students in a core text study when there is such delight and vigor from watching students recapture a love of reading in reading workshop? Honestly, these questions have lingered in my mind for several years, especially when I abandoned whole-class novels several years ago in favor of a reading workshop model of teaching. My distaste for whole-class novels had developed in response to slow, painful trudge that accompanied the studies I had attempted. Engaging students in literature shouldn’t be this difficult, I thought. So I moved away from the whole-class novel idea and gravitated to a system that I knew would engage readers, increase their stamina, and provide them with a rich, satisfying reading experience.  And honestly, students read voluminously, reading conferences were saturated with students’ complex thinking, and the writing students produced about their independent reading was gorgeous. This was how a language arts classroom should work, I thought.

There is a remarkable beauty, however, to the idea of readers uniting around a single text, discussing the layers of meaning, the characters, and the ideas that nudge us further as readers, thinkers, and human beings. When readers share an experience, such as a whole-class novel, a different kind of community is formed. The novel becomes a touchstone, something that teachers and students can refer to all year. These thoughts moved to the forefront of my mind each year, and I wrestled with my feelings about whole-class novels, wondering if my students were missing a valuable piece of instruction because I had abandoned them.

Then I read Kate’s book. And I was ready to make a change.

If you use a workshop model and are missing the whole-class novel, or if you are using only core texts and are looking for new thinking to help rejuvenate your whole-class novel study, I encourage you to get a copy of Kate’s book and read it. Then read it again. Kate’s focus on skill development makes a novel study a manageable, less daunting idea. She guides you through her teaching journey, showing you step-by-step how to navigate the book with a balance of read aloud and independent reading, how to determine which skill(s) students further develop by reading a core text, and how to make the whole-class study a meaningful experience, as opposed to the trudge through words, something English teachers are too often familiar with. Her book resonates with power and inspiration. When you are finished, you will want to return to whole-class novels, or alter your methodology. Kate’s book radiates with possibility.

This is a professional book you need to prioritize. I encourage you to push it to the top of your to-read list. I know the things going on in your classroom are amazing. I know you are challenging students, nourishing their fledgling reading lives, and nudging them further in their work as readers and writers. But if you can stand beside of Kate’s thinking in A Novel Approach, possibility will be magnified within your classroom. Read this amazing book if you can. You won’t regret it.

a novel approach by kate roberts

Arm Me With Books

“One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” -Malala

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Who knows who might be the target of a well-read man?” -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Books are potent things.

I’ve written that sentence dozens of times, weaving it into blog posts, magazine articles I’ve been asked to write, and Sparks in the Dark, my forthcoming book with Todd Nesloney. I’ve scribbled it inside almost every notebook I’ve kept as a language arts teacher, a small sentence that houses so much truth and understanding. As students have fallen in love with books and have developed reading identities, the sentence has glimmered with new meaning, for me and my students. It’s beautiful to behold.  

There is a frightening narrative unfolding at this moment, one that advocates arming teachers in response to the horrific school shootings across the country. I propose a completely different, less violent option: arm teachers with books. I have witnessed the mesmerizing power that books have over my students. When they read something they love, they want to talk about it and write about. They also want to act, to do something in response to the things they read. I have watched students become social justice warriors. Armed with the beautiful ideas from books they read, my students want to seek change in their world, using their reading lives as ammunition. Most recently, one of my students humbled me because he proved to me that a strong reading life is a loaded gun, and with it, we have a chance to change others.

His name is Dane. When he entered my class in late August, I could sense his negative stance toward reading and writing. I am not inclined to appreciate reading and writing, he seemed to say with his posture, comments, and the honest answers he provided on his interest inventory. His perspective about language arts, especially a reading and writing workshop, was anything but positive, but I persisted.

In late October, I watched his attitude transform. I book-talked Dear Martin by Nic Stone, a gripping novel about social justice and the racial disparity that exists in our country. I read part of the book aloud, and Dane, who usually slouched in his seat during book talks, held onto every word I read from the book. His interest was piqued. He approached me during independent reading and asked if he could read the book, stating that he wanted a book where the main character looked like him and understood his experience. “Of course you can read it,” I said, smiling and secretly wanting to give him a giant hug. I was elated. I had refused to give up on him, and as a result, I had finally reached him.

After reading Dear Martin, he read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The March Trilogy by John Lewis, and When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds. Reading conferences with him were incisive and pleasant, and by January, he was writing in his notebook about big ideas and themes. Our conversations about author’s craft encouraged him to write poems much like Jason Reynolds’s poetry. I became inspired by his writing and ideas, and when I would leaf through his notebook, reading what he had written, I found myself nudging him further in his writing. “Tell me more,” I would write in the margins, knowing that stories and poems and letters had layers that more writing would unearth. Dane had fallen in love with words and reading. But his attitude and posture on this one day seemed to be telling me a completely different story.

During independent reading, his eyes were averted from the page, sharply focused on the blank space in front of him. With his right hand he twisted ringlets of his hair, and with his left hand, he fanned the pages of his book. I approached him. “Dane,” I said, “is everything ok?” “Yes, sir,” he responded. For a moment his eyes returned to the page, but almost immediately he resumed the same distant stare, focusing on empty space, mind anywhere but class. I didn’t press the issue.

When independent reading ended, I asked everyone to get their writing notebooks out and turn so they could see the board at the front of the room. Langston Hughes’s I, Too, Sing America and Andra Day’s Rise Up were the pieces of writing we would focus on for our quick write and discussion before students began using them as ways to see intertextual relationships with their independent reading. Dane turned so he could see the board, but once he saw the poem and song, he smiled and turned back around. There was definitely an issue, but I wasn’t sure what had prompted the lack of participation. I had not seen a negative attitude from him in quite some time. Where was the writer, the reader, the poet?

During the quick write, I decided to read over shoulders as opposed to writing with my students. I needed to figure out what was going on, confident that Dane’s writing would give me a window into his mind. When I looked at his work, I could tell that he was dutifully working in his notebook, but there was no joy. When I approached his group, he did not look up from his notebook, but as I turned to walk away, he said, “Mr. Crowder, can I talk to you after class?”

“Sure,” I said. “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, well, I just need to talk with you about a social justice issue.”

“I’ll be happy to talk to you,” I said.

And he went back to his notebook. For the remainder of class, he worked in his notebook, hardly speaking to the others in his group, intensely focused on the page in front of him. He was writing, but it was with purpose. Glancing over his shoulder as surreptitiously as possible, I noticed him working on Hughes’s I, Too, Sing America, writing his thoughts, and the personal connections he had made, around the poem, which he had pasted in his notebook. He was filling the page with vigor and attentiveness, channeling his ideas onto the lines, a mind consumed with something that had precipitated today’s class. He loved writing, but today he was on a mission. I was curious and worried.   

Class ended, students packed up their belongings and ushered out of my room. Dane walked to the front of the room and stood in front of me, seemingly searching for the right words. “So, something happened,” he said. “I just need to get it off my chest.”

“What’s up?” I asked, concern, I’m sure, apparent in my voice.

And he told me. He explained how earlier that morning at breakfast, a fellow 7th grader had approached him and said “What up, n——!” Repulsed at her language, he asked her to stop, but in reply, she commented that “y’all people say it all the time so why can’t I say it?” His attempts at explaining appropriate language were insufficient. Out of spite, she began saying it just to seek retaliation, wanting him to become angered. “But I didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to be the bigger person.”

As the day went on, his thinking sought the memory of the incident, dragging it to the forefront of his mind. By the time he reached language arts, and he saw that we were reading a poem by Langston Hughes, the experience from earlier that day was burdensome. And so he wanted to talk to me, the person who had suggested he read Dear Martin, the book that ignited his reading life. “I knew you’d understand,” he said.

“I don’t know what to do,” Dane continued. “Maybe I just needed to get it off my chest.” He started to leave, but I stopped him.

“Dane, do you remember what Justyce did?”

He smiled at me, recognizing the main character from Dear Martin. “Yeah.”

“Do you think that would help?”

“Are you telling me I need to write to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?”

“I’m not telling you to do anything, Dane. But do you think writing to Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks or Malcom X or John Lewis would help?”

He smiled at me and nodded. “I know what I want to tell him. Thanks, Mr. C. Can I have a note to my next class?”

I wrote him a note and watched him leave my room. The following morning he brought me the letter he had penned, written with conviction to MLK, Jr. There was a rich authenticity to his letter: there was a significant audience, as well as a beautiful purpose. “I showed it to my mom this morning, Mr. C. She sat down at the kitchen table and cried.” When he walked away, so did I.

He wrote:

Dear Martin,

I really do not know how to start, so I’m going to just jump right into it.

So it’s Black History Month, and I’m being really cautious. Some, not all, but some people are saying mean things. I feel like people are running over us. Well, not all people, but some. I want to put an end to this.

I wanna protest. Not sure if I can but I really want to.

Ok, so there was this girl who used the “N” word when she spoke to me this morning. I was so mad because then other people started using it. I felt like it got out of hand. I’m still angry. I really don’t know what to do. I just felt like I should come to you. I want to speak out. I want to say something but I don’t want to say something that will hurt someone. Or get me in trouble.

Maybe this will help.

Thank you so much,


Since writing his first letter to MLK, Jr., Dane’s writing has found a courage and intensity that it did not have before. He has written more letters to MLK, Jr., and they have become deeply honest, probing at issues he is trying his best to understand and overcome. But more importantly, Dane connected with a book and used it to leverage his feelings, ideas, and reactions. This is a social justice move, a civic action that all students need to participate in, and students like Dane are leading the way.

In a time when politicians and other leaders are advocating for arming teachers with guns, I am advocating for a completely different way to arm us. Give us books, ones that will change our students lives, give them a renewed purpose, and encourage them to crusade for change within their country and world. When students like Dane are moved by books and use them as sources of strength and resilience, I am emboldened by their noble act. Books are powerful things. And they change us.

Arm me with books, with gorgeous, riveting prose that will engage students in reading and civic action. Arm me with books, with lyrical poetry, inspiring imagery, and explorations of the human condition that expose all that is good, evil, and noble in this world. Books are potent, and with them, I can arm my students. Dane could have chosen a different strategy to deal with his anger, but he chose to use Nic Stone’s novel as a guide, as a mentor. A solitary book changed him and gave him a way to rise above the ignorance. I want this for all of my students.

Arm me with books. Because the pen is mightier than the sword.

And books will change hearts and minds.