The Professional Reading Lives of Teachers

“The point, I tell them and you, is to be in the game, to be at the table, to be a part of the conversation, to contribute what is yours to give to help all those who come along behind you – to not just be part of the story but to be one who helps write that story.” -Jim Burke, The English Teacher’s Companion

“The best teachers are the ones whose professional lives are as big as their teaching lives.” -Kelly Gallagher to me at NCTE 2015

The scope of education is broad. From grades K-12, students are immersed into worlds of literature, languages, history, mathematics, sciences, humanities, physical education, and the arts.  Students spend thirteen years of their lives studying content to cultivate their minds.  Each content area gives students another lens through which to see the world. Our classrooms should be places of conversation, writing, critical thinking, and collaboration; together with students, we should discuss the larger issues in our world, using each content area as a lens to view those issues.  Unless we, as teachers, devote time to establishing and maintaining a professional reading life, the impact we make will be limited. 

I truly believe that teachers want to challenge their students. As a neophyte in the teaching world, I was adamant that my students read rigorous literature.  I created multiple forms of assessments and handouts to distribute, certain that such activity would stimulate thought and provide a challenging learning experience for all my students.  I am continuing to grow as an educator and reflective practitioner; I see the error of my former practices and I’ve learned that more does not always equal better.  Giving students more information or more pieces to remember isn’t challenge, it’s an exercise in memory. We do have a responsibility to help students develop their memory skills, but that alone does not broaden the mind. Going over content in class, then providing a chance to work problems in notebooks or complete more of the same ideas in groups is not bad teaching, but when that comprises the preponderance of a teacher’s instructional practice, little is gained as far as mind cultivation goes. And students lose a year of true critical thinking.

The teacher provides the heartbeat for the classroom. Our decisions and talents guide our instruction, and if we expect a lot from our students, we must expect even more from ourselves. Last November, I traveled to the NCTE conference in Minneapolis, MN. My dear friend, Martha, and I waited in line to get autographs and speak briefly with Kelly Gallagher, one of the strong thinkers in English education. I had a copy of his newest book, In the Best Interest of Students, tucked under my arm, eagerly waiting for the moment he would sign it. When my turn came, I approached his table; he smiled as I walked up.  We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries; then I handed him my book. “How many years have you taught, Travis?” he asked as he inscribed the front page. “This is my 8th year,” I said. He smiled again, handed me my book, and said, “Well, Travis, I’m glad you’re here.  I’ve found that the best teachers are the ones whose professional lives are as big as their teaching lives.”  

Although we spoke briefly, his words left an indelible mark, one that haunts me as I write this blog post. Our professional lives are the significant force behind our students’ success. The words and voices of these professional writers linger in my mind long after each school day. As I wade through stacks of papers, consider novels for book talks, think about my students’ interests and how I can direct them to a more intense book love, the professional reading I have done provides a touchstone to direct my thinking.  At the foundation of every content area is literature that explains and extends the tenets of the subject. I know that we want what is best for our students, and in their best interest, it is important that we know the literature of our content areas and seek out other readings that will enhance what we already know.  

Our greatest professional obligation is to our students. All teachers are responsible for providing sound instruction and continuing their education.  I’ve often heard teachers say that their lessons have worked for years; why would they change? I hear their point, but I also hear an excuse for stagnation.  The professional reading life of a teacher requires responsibility, and it goes beyond an internet search for lesson plans and information about content. The internet is one of my larger resources, but it is not the only resource that informs my instruction.  At this point in my career, my lesson plans and instruction are formed by the professional voices I have read, my experience, and the content I know, as well as the process I use to deliver that instruction to my students.  There is so much talent among teachers, and I am confident that this talent can be further developed by reading the writing of professionals in our fields.     

My suggestion: find the strong voices and thinkers for your content area. Read the newest research about teaching your subject. Seek out conferences that will supply you with a deeper sense of your curriculum and renew your passion for teaching.  We prioritize what we value, and when we do not value reading or learning, it shows. Our instruction is a mixture of what we have read, and when our reading lives are shallow, so is our teaching.  It isn’t an insult; it’s the truth.

Our professional reading lives should be a light to others in our field, and together, we should build a community of thinkers, readers, and teachers to illuminate a path of understanding for our students. Should, in this case, is a saddening word, because when used, it indicates something that is probable, not what is happening.  We don’t need probability; we need responsibility. I challenge each teacher to begin a professional reading life, finding content-area literature that will enhance your teaching process.  As reflective practitioners, we must seek out the best resources to cultivate ourselves and our students.  If we aren’t strong readers, we won’t produce critical thinkers.  Competency on an end-of-grade test is not proof that we have produced strong students, it just proves that our students can take tests.

I realize that as teachers, we are pushed beyond reasonable limits at times.  We are responsible for lesson plans, paperwork, assessments, grades, meetings, committees, differentiation, and bringing rigor to our classrooms.  On top of that, we are parents, husbands, wives, children, community members, and leisure readers.  Asking you to pull professional reading into a life that is overflowing with responsibility is, I’m sure, another burden.  But if I didn’t believe it would work, I wouldn’t suggest it.  Finding time to peruse websites and books related to your content area, will make a significant difference in your teaching life and the success of your students.  No one appreciates the hard work of educators more than I do. I see the dedication of teachers, the meticulous lesson planning, the hope that each student will succeed.  Carving out time to read professional material can be challenging; I know from experience.  Finding even the smallest amounts of time, however, will enhance the great things you are already doing.  I have found the following suggestions to be helpful when looking to bring professional material into my reading life.

  1. Set aside time one day each week to read professional materials on websites, especially the national sites that have links to standards, lesson plans, and professional development. The information is free and it uses technology that most teachers already have in their classrooms.
  2. Find a professional book that correlates with a topic in your content area that you are passionate about. Determine how long it will take you to read it and set a personal goal for finishing.
  3. Reflect on your lesson plans and determine the type of professional material that would make your teaching even better.  Write those ideas on your lesson plans so you have a goal.
  4. Seek out a reading community in your school. Even if it’s just you and another teacher, it’s better than being alone. Read the book together and discuss how it can be used to inform your teaching.  
  5. Establish time for independent reading in your classroom. Read along with your students!

I have seen the benefit of my professional reading life in my classroom, and I am confident that you will see it in yours.  I want nothing more than to support what is already happening in our classes.  We are in this together and I know we are working toward the same goal.  So what do you say? Will you help me write the story of success for our students and for everyone else who comes along? I’d love it if you would.   



I have started a spreadsheet of professional reading. Currently, it includes books and websites.  These are professional resources.  You will not find books full of lesson plans, ready-to-go arts and crafts, or printables.  You will, however, find a wealth of knowledge from writers and thinkers from different disciplines. This is not a comprehensive list. As I continue reading and learning about different professional development books or websites, I’ll update the spreadsheet.  Just check back periodically to see if anything new has been added!

Professional Reading for Content Area Teachers

The Writer’s Workshop: Creating Community and Helping Students Find Their Voices

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

“…let that page come out of you–/Then, it will be true.” -from Theme for English B, by Langston Hughes

One of my fondest memories of childhood is the burning desire I had to tell stories, writing them on old notebook paper I found in my father’s plumbing shop.  The blue lines had faded into blurs, but it was on these pages that I began developing my craft as a writer.  I always felt that there was a story inside of me that I needed to tell, and as a 9th grader, I wrote my first book entitled The Silver Box. It was terrible. If memory serves, there was a woman whose husband died from some malady or unfortunate circumstance, which, I suppose, is the cause of every death recorded in the history of humankind.  Whatever the cause, one I can’t recall at this moment, my protagonist was distraught. She developed depression and angst until a cliched hero seduced her right out of her depression, and she wrote a beautiful poem that garnered such acclaim that she not only attained celebrity but also the power to overcome the death of her husband.

One thing is certain: I was compelled to write, and although it turned out to be horrible prose, I had to get the story out on paper.  We only begin to get better as writers when we write something down and when we have the tenacity to accept feedback that will help us grow.  I’ve written multiple stories, poems, novel attempts, and blog posts since 9th grade, and with each one, my writing skills and voice have strengthened.  I still cringe when I ask someone to critique and edit my work, but if it stays in my hands, it will stagnate. Trying my hand at different genres of writing, including blogs, poetry, and prose, has increased my awareness of my own skills, my strengths and limitations as a writer. This awareness lends itself beautifully to the teaching of writing.

Students come into my classroom with varying gifts, ones that I have to utilize if I am going to help hone their skills as writers. I don’t want inane essays from them. I want vibrant, complex writing that has voice, and I want them to ache with caring about what they write. I have been guilty of asking students to write from their hearts, but not giving them a chance to develop their unique writing voices by writing about things that matter to them.  When writing comes from the heart, it becomes personal. I want students to write with feeling and conviction, but I know that a workshop environment includes a certain amount of risk: students have to feel comfortable sharing their ideas with their classmates and with me. This year, I knew I had to start differently. They needed to begin writing on day one, learning the language of writers and beginning to understand how to draft a piece of writing for an intended audience.  Together, we comprise the audience, the ones who will give them feedback and help strengthen their writing. We have to be a community.  To develop this feeling of community and demonstrate the risk I want them to take, I decided to share my own writing with the class, a daunting, yet necessary action to set the tone for a successful writing class.    

I took my cue from Penny Kittle, a writer and teacher who has inspired the preponderance of my methodology. She suggests using I’m From poems, a type of poetry that encourages students to think about where they come from, the things that make them who they are.  In the days leading up to class, I began crafting my poem, pulling from distant memories, heartache, joy, and hope. My goal was for them to begin establishing voice in their writing by selecting tones appropriate to their topics. Never before have I shared such an intimate work with my students, and I experienced the near palpable fear that comes from opening yourself up to new people, new students. I was confident, however, that this would help establish the environment conducive to writing and revising. It was a risk I was willing to take. (A copy of my poem can be found at the bottom of this post.)

Students were asked to access my poem on our class website. I read it aloud to them because I wanted them to hear the fluency of poetry. As a group we discussed tone and purpose. Embedded within my own poem were sections of grief and heartache, hope and resilience. I asked them where they noticed these tones in my writing, then asked them to prove their argument. We spent time conversing about the positive moments in my stanzas and the places where love and hope converge.  They noticed my voice in the poem, and although the conversation could have lasted longer, I wanted them to practice with writing their own poetry, finding their own unique writing voices.  

I only gave them ten minutes to write, but in those moments of quick writing, they found a voice; they found what mattered to them. One student wrote about her father, a man who wants nothing to do with her, but she was hopeful that they would cross paths again. Another student explained her frustration with her family, promising to make better choices as she learned to navigate the “ropes of life.” One young man explained how school was frustrating to him because he always seemed one step behind, but he stated that he was “from never giving up.” At this point in the year, building community is crucial.  I need students to see me as a fellow writer, as someone who is still working to cultivate his writing abilities.  My willingness to share personal work and invite them into my writing life creates community where students feel free to share their own stories and find their voices.

It has been a week since that poetry assignment, and since then we have started studying memoir, looking for the stories that we want to share. Students must find their writing voices in our classes, but if we fail to create a sense of community, they will not be willing to take risks.

We all have stories inside of us that we want to tell, and through writing, revision, more writing and more revision, I know each student will create a powerful narrative. Essays about symbolism, characterization, theme, and syntax are important; students will encounter such assignments as high school and college students. I am convinced, though, that unless we help them find their own stories, find the things that matter to them, they will not develop as writers.  

For students to become decent writers, they have to be given varying types of writing assignments; otherwise, they have no chance of finding their voices. If we fail to create a community of writers in our classes, students will write, but only because we’ve asked them to.  Their essays, papers, and responses will lack vision and voice. As your students write this year, give them opportunities to explore who they are. Give them space and time to find the right word, to check with a friend, to build a sentence, to craft a paragraph.  Give them the chance to see you as a developing writer, still honing your skills as you write your heart out.  Let them see you as unafraid to take risks with your own writing, and your willingness to share drafts of your work.  Listen to their suggestions.  Make them a part of your writing community.  If they see you as a part of the community you have built, they’ll be more willing to take risks with and without you.  They’ll write their hearts out, too.  And they’ll find those voices that are yearning for freedom and purpose, those voices waiting for us to show them a way out.


I’m From by Mr. C

I’m from Hiddenite, a small place nestled in the hills of North Carolina,

Where old streets crumble and crack from years of use.

I’m from loving parents,

From ones who raised me to be my very best.

My preacher father,

And Sunday School mother

Built a home

That held what was sacred.

It was full of life, family, and love.


I’m from music and song,

The instruments and voices blending,

In church

Or a front porch,

And the hatred I had for music lessons and practice.

From sarcasm and wit,

And having my mouth smacked when I was smarter than my parents.


I’m from the outdoors, from travel.

Camping and fishing for days

In a beautiful wilderness,

Removed from civilization, with nothing but time

To enjoy family and the beauty of the woods.


I’m from an alcoholic grandfather

Who hardly knew I existed,

Who preferred verbal abuse instead of knowing

And understanding his family.

He was a man I never really knew.


I’m from teaching and learning,

Always determined to share the value of an educated mind.

I’m from wisdom and experience,

Of knowing that nothing is lost in despair

Unless you allow it to be.


But most of all…


I’m from books and reading,

From a solid belief that books are windows and doors

Into gorgeous worlds of imagination.

That through reading we will grow to understand

The world around us,

And the colors and differences that make up the faces

Of the human race,

Will be our strength, our story, our glory.

Fiction Does Not Mean Fake!

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” -Tim O’Brien, President’s Lecture, 1999

In March of this year, I presented at the North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented Conference in Winston-Salem, NC.  The conference is one of the highlights of my year, and if I can make it to that point, I know I will receive the rejuvenation I need to finish out the school year.  I co-presented with my dear friend, Cristi, on teaching Shakespeare.  At the end of the session, I was asked by an attendee how I would respond to an administrator if told I could not teach fiction.  I was speechless, but the attendee continued by stating that he was told by his administrator that students could get the skills necessary by reading nonfiction only.  Additionally, he stated that the principal was adamant that students read nonfiction to participate in real reading. I noted the implication: the principal viewed fiction as fake reading, implying that the imaginative storylines and characters were of no value in our assessment-obsessed culture. I know how this implication came into existence because I’ve misdefined fiction before. During my first year of teaching, I came up with a mnemonic device for remembering the definition: “Fiction,” I would say, “is fake. Nonfiction is not fake.”  It sounds ridiculous because these terms are multi-layered and complex, and they encompass more than fake and not fake. I eventually realized my own shortcomings, but there are still teachers and administrators who misunderstand the nature of fiction and nonfiction; they’re misrepresenting the study of literature and the humanities to the students in their classrooms.  The resonating power of good books is mitigated by misinformed ideas about what fiction has to offer, and as a result, the students lose opportunities to explore fiction as a reflection of the world.     

Further conversation with the attendee unearthed the sordid underbelly of this anti-fiction climate: common core standards and the fear of standardized assessment.  The obsession with testing can overtake a school if the leadership, both teachers and administrators, do not understand the influential power of reading fiction.  Informational texts comprise more than half of the 8th grade end-of-grade assessment, and by 12th grade, informational texts are expected to comprise 70% of students’ reading lives. (Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress).  Those percentages are significant and overwhelming, and the burden of instruction falls on the language arts teachers.  A 2012 article in The Washington Post entitled The Common Core’s 70 percent nonfiction standards and the end of reading? mourned the loss of fiction reading in our nation’s classrooms, stating that this was the best way to “make the kids who like reading hate reading.” With high percentages and the weight of standardized assessment, no wonder people see it as an invalid genre worthy of study.  No wonder it appears fake.      

Personally, I feel that fiction reflects more truth than nonfiction because experience emanates from narrative writing. When authors create setting, characters, and plot, they are building bridges between their imagination and reality.  In Readicide, Kelly Gallagher (2009) alludes to Kenneth Burke, the philosopher who states that reading provides students with imaginative rehearsals for life (p. 66).  In other words, reading gives us a chance to experience part of life before we encounter it personally. For instance, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird gives a reader a chance to see life through the eyes of a child, and although precocious, that child shows us how racism can destroy innocence. When reading Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, a student learns to understand brokenness and abuse.  When reading Hamlet, young adults begin to understand existential angst, a concept they will encounter time and time again.  I agree that nonfiction is an important part of an English class, but reading only nonfiction gives our students a limited view of the world.     

I mentioned earlier my first year of teaching and the abysmal mnemonic device I created to help students differentiate fiction and nonfiction. In retrospect, I hindered their understanding by identifying the terms as opposites. For three more years, I continued to use this same device, becoming more confident in the definition I created.  I understood the nuances of fiction, the biases of nonfiction; however, I was not conveying this to my students, and my failure was illuminated as I read Michael Clay Thompson’s Classics in the Classroom. “Some of history’s greatest and most evil fictions have appeared in nonfiction works (Hitler’s Mein Kempf is an example), some of humanity’s truths have appeared in works of fiction, such as Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, or Les Miserables” (pp. 33-34) writes Thompson (1995) of these vast domains we try to simplify by using specious definitions.  I wasn’t only simplifying; I was destroying the beauty of truth that fiction possesses.  I was teaching my students that there are no lessons, no connections to be made with the books they read.  I didn’t mean to misrepresent the word, but my definition told a different story, and without any intention, I was contributing to the belief that fiction was not a real reading experience.  We must carefully avoid such mistakes.       

I return to Tim O’Brien’s philosophy about fiction often. Through a narrative, authors can convey truths by speaking about the struggles of being human. I believe in the power of good books. I believe that these imaginative rehearsals are what guide students through the toughest times in life.  By nature, people love stories, and if you have a great story to tell, people will listen. These stories include characters whose emotions reflect reality; they are the touchstones by which readers measure their actions and the actions of other people.  We are already connected to the characters in books before we pick them up because these stories are about people who are dealing with problems just like we are.  These books have the power to answer our questions, to assuage our fears, to offer us insight, to show us friendship, to repair the fragmented and broken pieces of ourselves. Our children are seeking answers; I want them to find quality answers to those questions. What better way but through fiction?   

Students need authenticity, and reading good books gives them the exposure to universal truths, to authentic interactions and feelings of people. I want the children in my classes to think in terms of literature, and as they grow into adults, I want that literature to develop and enhance their sense of humanity. I want them to develop empathy and love with their whole heart. Isn’t that what really matters? In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller (2009) stated that “reading is a university course in life…Through reading, we can witness all that is noble, beautiful, or horrifying about other human beings” (p. 151). Her words echo my feelings about the humanities, and after each novel, I now ask students what their books have taught them about the world and the people in it.  These books illuminate our world and expose truth, but students will only discover the beauty that books hold if they are allowed to read fiction.              

Fiction is not fake.

It’s real.



Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Assessment Governing Board, W. D. (2008). Reading Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. National Assessment Governing Board.

O’Brien, T. (1999). Writing vietnam . Retrieved from
Thompson, M.C. (1995). Classics in the classroom (2nd ed.). Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.   

Classroom Libraries: Sources of Instruction and Inspiration

“A good library will never be too neat or too dusty because somebody will always be in it taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.” -Lemony Snicket

“To build a library is to create a life. It’s never just a random collection of books.”-Carlos Maria Dominguez

There is something beautiful about a classroom library, especially if it is well-used.  Books are meticulously stacked with the best of intentions, but once students begin browsing the contents of the shelves, everything is moved out of place. I don’t mind because this is a tell-tale sign of the traffic my classroom library receives.  Anyone who comes into my classroom, into anyone’s classroom, can tell if students are using the library, and how often.  Neat rows and dust particles tell the stories; we don’t have to.

I always consult my library for mentor texts, the examples of great writing I want students to utilize as they develop their own writing craft and unique writing voice. When reading a book that I may add to my classroom library, I not only consider interest level, but also the paragraphs and passages that students could use as guides to inform their writing, to strengthen their developing abilities.  If I want students to fall in love with reading and develop great writing skills, my library must be filled with exceptional books.  

My classroom library is more than a showpiece. It is more than an accessory or an afterthought, more than a simple system of borrow and return.  My library is an anchor of instruction because it builds reference and context for conversation with students and other teachers.  It is a major source for book talks, reading suggestions, and mentor texts. Additionally, it is always askew, and each afternoon, in the quietude of my classroom, I straighten rows and reshelve books if necessary.  My library is personal because I have built it myself; I have identified (and continue to identify) books that I know will weave their way into the hearts of kids.  If I am responsible for cultivating the minds of my students, I have to build and cultivate a powerful classroom library and be knowledgeable of its contents.  When we know, and I mean really know, the books in our libraries, we have the power to transform student attitudes, a realization I came to last year.   

It is not pretense when I say that last school year was one of the most challenging of my career.  The students were apathetic and frustrating, and my greatest attempts to educate were fought against with an almost impregnable force.  At the start of the fourth nine weeks, I decided to give a reading and writing workshop a try; the results were phenomenal.  I spent hours curating my classroom library, and although many books were eliminated, I kept the ones that would have the most influence in students’ reading lives. Large gaps were left on the shelves, but I wasn’t curating my library to please an aesthetic; I knew time would close the gaps.  I took an assessment of the genres represented by the stacks of books on the countertops and floor and spent an entire afternoon reshelving the books and adding genre labels to each row.  The following day, students noticed the bookshelf first, and I gave them time to browse and select books if they wanted something other than the books they had gotten from the school library.  I worked like a fiend to add new books because this library meant something to me.  I had read Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and their seminal writings confirmed what I knew to be true about the power of student reading choices, as well as the paramount importance of a voluminous classroom library. Personally, I wanted the books of the library to comprise the preponderance of mentor texts I used for instruction.  I wanted students to see that conversations about character, plot, literary devices, and writing style were relevant to young adult fiction, the books that would appeal to their developing readership. We teach students to see literary conversation in limited contexts because we often discuss it when we are textbook-ing novels.  I wanted students to see that the literary conversations were transferrable, and the conversations they had about timeless characters, such as Guy Montag and Clarisse, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 could be transferred to Ryan Dean West of Winger, Andrew Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel. The conversations about plot in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, could be transferred to conversations about plot in I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. As I added to my classroom library, I kept in mind the conversations I would have with students to demonstrate how conversations about books can continue beyond the boundaries many English teachers create.

The day I introduced the reading and writing workshop approach, I talked with students about the power of reading, and how I was certain they would discover a love for books they did not know existed.  I drew their attention to the recently-curated bookshelf, and pointed out the different genres available in the library, as well as recent additions.  In my lesson plans, I reserved time for weekly book talks, and I made sure the books I chose to advertise were well-written and diverse. My students didn’t quite know what to make of the workshop approach at first, but after a week, they fell in love with the routine, and when asked to discuss their books, they had an unlimited supply of conversation. Between classes, students would congregate at the bookshelf to browse and recommend, and the number of students around the bookshelf grew.  Even the more reluctant readers were compelled by the atmosphere. Like grown-up readers, exciting conversation about a book sparked their interest, and wait-lists for popular books grew.  My greatest intentions could only reach so far, though.  One student, we’ll call him Logan, found the approach cumbersome, and his caustic comments, which had been brutal over the course of the year, peaked again at the mention of independent reading.

The irony was that independent reading was not a foreign concept to him. He was academically gifted, and I had required him to read challenging texts all year, as well as read one book independently each grading period.  We had studied Hamlet and Fahrenheit 451 intensively, and during class we would discuss the passages they read at home.  The difference, however, was in the expectation: the burden of reading was his responsibility, a stark contrast to the passivity of in-class discussion that many students rely on in school. Logan’s book selections were from the school library where he could find a shorter, simplistic books that were written for developing readers. I didn’t stop him, but I did observe.  The plot lines bored him. There were few ideas to ponder. His body language and facial expressions told the story of his interest in these books. In The Book Whisperer,  Miller mentioned the whispers she looked for in student reading inventories, the stories students were telling or trying to tell with the answers they provided. Logan’s reading inventory gave little information, and I quickly realized that the inventory was a reflection of his limited reading life: he didn’t know what books were out there because he didn’t read. He was so turned off to reading that book talks about some of the most exciting YA fiction were white noise to him. From conversation with him, I knew that the only reading he did was what was expected in class, and considering he was still not a reader after eight years of school, something was amiss.

I kept his reading interest inventory on my desk and would catch glimpses of the section about books and reading. His answer echoed the mini-manifestoes he had uttered in class, and I felt lost in my attempts to guide him to good books and a love of reading.  Maybe I was too late.  I looked again at the books he listed on the inventory as favorites: Night by Elie Wiesel and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. These books were gritty, truthful, and enlightening in their own right. He had turned down other books by these authors, but the way he wrote about them let me know he had read them. How could I reach him? I decided to do what Hermione, the intellectual hero of The Harry Potter series, habitually suggested: I went to the (classroom) library!

I scanned the shelves, especially the realistic fiction and nonfiction* sections, but nothing “spoke” to me. I spied Neal Shusterman’s Unwind in the dystopian section, and even though neither of Logan’s “favorites” were of that genre, I felt it would be a great choice. It was gritty, ethically challenging, and I felt it had truth to it that he would appreciate. If I handed it to him, I was certain he would flip through it and place it back on the shelf. The following day, I was teaching a mini-lesson on narrative beginnings, and I had already copied the resources I planned to use, but as I looked at the beginning of Unwind, I noticed the masterful beginning, especially Shusterman’s narrative hooks. It might not work, but if I could place the book in his hands as an assignment, he might make a deeper investment.    

I photocopied the first three pages of the book, and after independent reading the next day, I handed the beginning of Unwind to each student. I dreaded handing Logan his page because his facial expression and attitude would deflate the rest of the class. True to form, he looked at the handout with disgust, but I walked to the front of the room to deliver the instructions. In Book Love, Penny Kittle explained how she would ask her students to read a mentor text and mark their noticings, such as interesting words, transitions, sentences structures, and figurative language; then, these would be pulled into group and class conversation. I modeled this activity after her instructions, and after I explained the assignment to the students, I gave them space and time to work. Logan stared at the page for a moment, peered around the room at busy classmates, then sighed and began reading the text. As he read, I noticed that he sat up in his desk, leaning closer to the page in front of him. He underlined and wrote in the margins multiple times. During group discussions, he offered more insight about the beginning than anyone in his group, and when I visited his group to track the progress of their conversation, he asked me if I had a copy of the book. He wanted to read it! I made sure he had the only copy in the classroom library before he left.  When he came into class each day, I could see the amount of reading he had completed at home based on the placement of his bookmark. During his conferences, he managed the conversation; I didn’t have to pull information out of him. It wasn’t long until he asked me for the second book, and before the end of the year, he had read all four books of the series.

A classroom library has the power to transform. It has to be more than a collection of books students can read if they finish their assignments early or if they have spare time. Class time is the best time to read! As I choose texts to illustrate concepts or help students practice skills, I always look to my classroom library for inspiration because I want students to see reading skills come to life beyond the textbook and class sets of books I may provide. I am not against novel studies or textbooks, but I see the bigger value in a classroom library that informs instructional practice. Mentor texts are powerful tools if we use them to their fullest capacity. I wanted students to see how Neal Shusterman began Unwind and to practice writing using his sentence structure, characterization, and dialogue. In the end, I learned a beautiful lesson about mentor texts: they not only enhance writing skills, but they have the potential to engage students as they are seeking good books to read.

We are the ones responsible for cultivating our classroom libraries.  When I walk into a classroom, I immediately look for the library. If it is dusty and neat, I understand the story of reading in that class.  A well-used library is unmistakable. My friend and mentor, Michael Clay Thompson, spoke eloquently in regards to reading and the responsibility of the educator. His books, especially Classics in the Classroom and The Heart of the Mind, have affected my teaching practice, and I continue to use classic literature in my classroom because of his persuasive prose. During one of his presentations I had the privilege of attending, he mentioned the enormous responsibility of teaching, and explained that if his students left his class and did not enjoy reading, he felt as though he had failed. We earn our stripes, he continued, by reaching the most difficult students. His words resonate in my mind constantly. I am the one responsible for building a love of reading in my students. I am the one responsible for giving them access to good books. I am the one responsible.

If not me, then who?

Classroom Bookshelf

*Nonfiction, I am aware, is a broad genre, and within it exist beautiful subgenres that should indeed have their own section in my library.  Unfortunately, the nonfiction section of my classroom library is very small, and as I have worked arduously to collect books of diverse genres, nonfiction seems to be one of the hardest to gather.  Please note that I am working to build a sufficient nonfiction section in my classroom.

Starting Here, Starting Now

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.” -Ray Bradbury

I felt compelled to write about reading and writing, to begin publishing my ideas in some form, but after years of professional reading, I sometimes wonder why I’m writing at all.  It seems that the greatest ideas about teaching reading and writing have been exposed through timeless authors and thinkers, those who left indelible marks on my childhood, who continue to influence my teaching career.  In the early hours of the morning, when I sit down with my writing notebook, the edges of my windows just beginning to glisten with the whispers of a new day, I simply reflect, eyeing the words on the pages through the steam of my coffee cup.  After several writing notebooks and embarrassing trudges through past entries, I began to see ideas emerge, and what I took for simple reflection coalesced into ideas for teaching. That’s why I’m writing. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

I obtained a degree in Literature and Language from UNC-Asheville in 2007 and began teaching in 2008.  My initial licensure was 9-12 English, but when I returned home from college, jobs were scarce.  I became a substitute teacher, and because of connections I made at a middle school, I was offered a job teaching 8th grade.  I was skeptical, but I took the job and fell in love with it.  The school received a grant in 2011, and I was given the opportunity to go to graduate school.  In 2013, I graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a Master’s in Instructional Technology, then furthered my career by beginning post-grad work in gifted education at Western Carolina University.  Learning is a passion of mine, but I want to use it to serve others.     

Later this month, I will start my 9th year of teaching, and with this new school year comes more newness than I am accustomed to. The first eight years of my career were dedicated to 8th grade English/Language Arts, but this year, I will be moving to 7th grade to teach ELA and social studies. New curriculum, new subject area, new grade level.  I begrudged this move intensely, but I owe these changes some credit; they encouraged me to write fervently, and with time, I began to see the ideas come to life that will comprise the initial posts of this blog.  I’m pleased that something good was able to burn through.

I’ve thought deeply about the teaching of English, including reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary.  I’ve thought about instructional practices, text sets, poetry, writing, mentor texts, and classroom libraries to name a few. My notebook has even become an exploration of religion and politics, and, with some refinement, I know I can turn them into quality instructional ideas. That’s what I hope to offer.

I am a teacher, a philosopher, a writer, and a dreamer. Like most teachers, I want to leave something behind, something I’ve touched and made better because I affected it.  If any of the ideas in my blog posts make a difference in your classroom, please let me know.  I love connecting with like-minded teachers, those who share a passion for education and the teaching of English.  

Have a great year!