10 Educators I’ve Never Met that I Need in order to Teach

(inspired Ocean Vong’s “ The 10 Books I Needed to Write my Novel”)

I’m trying to write my Book Love Foundation grant application, and they asked me about what books/people/magazines I’ve been learning from. I couldn’t fit this all into the word limit of the application, but I thought that others might find these educators to be as career changing as I have.

1. The Leaders of #Disrupt Texts

Finding the #DisruptTexts group was a turning point for my thinking and teaching. Tricia Ebarvia, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena Germán consistently use their time and energy to provide exceptional professional development for educators on what it means to be an anti-racist teacher. I particularly appreciate how the leaders of this group always push their thinking. For example, Tricia Ebarvia writes about her evolving ideas about the texts we use in the classroom in her article “Why Diverse Texts Are Not Enough.” Her evolving ideas have taught me that my thinking can’t stand still. I need to keep learning.

Also, I recently purchased Lorena Germán’s The Anti-Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook, and it is forcing me to work through my practice; I highly recommend it.

I hope the other women in this group will find publishing deals in the future (I believe Tricia Ebarvia is currently writing a book!), so I can continue to learn from them and support their contributions to my learning. I also admire how these women actively tag and lift up other educators. All of them reliably and consistently credit those who push their thinking.

2. Penny Kittle

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My whole journey started when a special education consultant put Book  Love into my hands. After I read it, I found energy and passion for my job that had been missing for quite a few years. I’ve seen Kittle speak twice at the Reading for the Love of It conference in Toronto, and I wish I could go to her upcoming session with Tricia Ebarvia.

3. The Leaders of #ClearTheAir

Through the leaders of #DisruptTexts, I found #ClearTheAir and all the branches of #ClearTheAir. These groups offer exceptionally moderated slow chats and book clubs. A lot of my progress on what it means to be anti-racist has been thanks to these folks. Last summer, I participated in a book chat about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire. #ClearTheAir gave me the chance to ask questions while I processed the book. They also challenged my thinking- again on their personal time. I haven’t been able to participate in all the chats, but I go back and read the books that the group has looked, and then I follow the threads to help me through my thinking.

4. Matthew R. Kay

I already mentioned Kay above, but I can’t say enough about his book Not Light, But Fire. Julia Torres from #DisruptTexts recommended it to me when I asked her for advice about keeping students safe during discussions about race. Through Kay, I’ve learned that “safe” doesn’t mean apolitical and that we need to feel safe to feel uncomfortable. Kay is also an amazing resource for how to have conversations in your classroom period. Kay taught me that you can’t just decide to have discussions about race and make it happen without careful planning and practice. Our conversational toolbox and techniques need to be practiced from day one of the school year. Kay has also been responsive on Twitter, and I’ve had the opportunity to ask him questions, an opportunity that I’m very grateful for.

5. Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher taught me to teach reading and writing, not assign reading and writing tasks. All of his books are marked up and dogeared. The other day I tore my room apart trying to find Write Like This, but I suspect that I’ve leant it to someone, and I’m probably never getting back! At the 2019 Reading for the Love of It conference I saw Gallagher speak, and I admired the way he shared his thinking that was still in progress. He isn’t afraid to adjust and change his ideas as he finds new information.

6. Vicki Vinton

Vicki Vinton’s books What Readers Really Do and Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading have fundamentally changed my reading instruction. I see my students as problem-solvers for their own reading now. Instead of answering questions that I have generated about a particular text, students learn to navigate the twists and turns of texts through the tracing of patterns and the generation of their own questions. Everytime we talk about a text now, my students have the opportunity to create meaning without the interference of questions and lectures that ask students to see only what I see. And let me tell you, this way is infinity more fun than my old way.

7. Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti

Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s books, Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing with Mentors, are a deep dive into the idea of mentor texts. Their books have helped me to provide students with a range of mentors which encourage student to make intentional choices in their own writing. O’Dell and Marchetti also run a website called “Moving Writers,” which consistently provides new ideas and mentor texts for teachers’ consideration. Ever since I picked up their book, I look forward to reading my students’ writing assignments because there is nothing the “same” or “boring” about them. Each piece is an original blend of craft moves that students have learned from their writing mentors.

8. Sara K. Ahmed

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Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change:Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension was a beneficial and practical read for me. Ahmed outlines her thinking by grounding it in lessons that you can use in your classroom tomorrow. Ahmed has also been generous with her time and answered my questions on Twitter when I was first thinking through how to use her lessons in my classroom. Her book has had an impact on the way I start my year with my students, and as a result, it has an impact all year long.


Through the other two hashtags that I mentioned above, I found #THEBOOKCHAT run by Scott Bayer and Joel Garza. Currently, #THEBOOKCHAT is working with #ClearTheAir to run a slow chat on Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist. I’ve only been tracking with them for a year, but they’ve introduced me to so many books that I would have missed. After their discussions, they often provide resources for people who wish to use the books with their students. When I asked Garza about his use of Octavia Butler’s short story “Blood Child,” he emailed me a copy of the story. A story that my students are currently raving about because they are fascinated by it. 

10. #TeachLivingPoets

Melissa Smith runs #TeachLivingPoets, and she is responsible for introducing me to so many exciting poets. She moderates chats about poems and offers a ton of resources for using poetry in the classroom. I went from feeling obligated to include a couple of poems a year, to using poetry extensively throughout my course. #TeachLivingPoets has helped me to fall head over heels in love with words again.


The Novel Unit: Part 1

I have a colleague who consistently asks me questions that I can never answer on the spot. The answers come to me hours later, sometimes in the middle of the night. Today, he asked me how I would teach a novel. We only had two minutes to talk, and he knows me well enough by now that he didn’t expect me to answer right way, probably assuming that he would be subjected to one of my long rambling emails that may or may not go directly into his clutter box.  However, this is the first time I’ve fully developed my thinking about teaching a class novel, so I’ve turned my response into a multi-part blog post, which may or may not ramble.

There isn’t an easy formula for teaching a novel unit. In fact, the very teaching of the “novel unit” can cause some controversy in some English teacher circles with some being adamantly for it and others against it. My position is that students need to read books that are challenging, books that are at the right level and books that are “vacation books.” The only way this can be done is by providing a variety of reading opportunities where students are provided different levels of guidance and choice. So students should read independently, in small groups, AND as a class. There is no “or.” I think they need them all, which means that I need to dramatically shift the way I approach reading in my classroom.

Before I can address how I would approach a class novel, I need first to explain what I wouldn’t do. I’d like to remind everyone here that this is my best thinking about this right now. I realize that many people may approach this very differently and my post is not meant as a criticism, it is merely a reflection of what I want my students to be able to do when they are reading. My priority when teaching reading is to help readers love books and access them with a deep understanding without needing direct guidance. In short, I want them to read,  decide what they think about what they read on their own,  talk to other people about what they read and then decide if those conversations have shifted their thinking. What I don’t want them thinking about is what I, as their teacher, want them to notice in a book. I don’t want them to believe that my interpretation is the only interpretation that is worth investigating.

When I’m deciding what I want my students to learn, I have to be able to decide how I will know if they have learned it. In the past, my students’ ability to understand and interpret a novel was usually assessed through a literary essay. This is not how I would do this anymore.  Before anyone sends me an angry email, I am not advocating for the removal of the literary essay from the English classroom.  Literary essays are complex in terms of both form and content, so I would need to teach this genre of the essay using mentor texts which would be challenging to do while I am also teaching them the art of analysis and interpretation.  Students must be used to thinking and talking about texts in complex ways before they can begin to write about them. The real goal of a literary essay is to see the students’ thinking about what they’ve read, but if we already know what the content of their essay is going to be or should be is there really any thinking for them to do or have we done it all for them?

Another reason I recommend separating the literary essay from the novel unit is that when we teach both at the same time, the thinking suffers and the writing suffers.   This is because we are so concerned with having students analyze a book in essay form that we decide to control everything about the evaluation. We control the topics. We control the structure. We control the writing process. Both analysis and writing are creative acts so when we remove the creativity what we are left with is boring formulaic papers. And this isn’t good for anyone- not the students who have to write them, nor the teachers who have to read them.

Rather than combine the literary essay with the novel unit, I would leave this type of essay to closer to the end of the course when students have read enough to pick a text that moves them to want to write and think deeply.  This, of course, means that students have to read — a lot.

The last time I taught ENG3U,  my students select their own texts and topics. Some wrote about Indian Horse by Richard Wagmese, some wrote about Secret Path by Gord Downy and Jeff Lemire, others wrote about poems that were weaved throughout the course. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t “rigorous” enough. That all my students should be writing about a novel because it is more difficult. However, which is the more complex task? Having students write an essay about Great Expectations with the essay topics generated by the teacher, or asking students to generate their own topics based on their thinking about a particular text? It may be more difficult to write an essay about a book that is hundreds of pages, but I am more interested in increasing the complexity of the task by requiring students to notice and name the patterns and points of significance that they see in texts. I’m not interested in seeing my thinking regurgitated back to me.

As a result of allowing students to perform the analysis of their choice, I learned more about my students both in terms of their thinking and their writing. This had the added benefit of being a much more interesting task to evaluate. For example, I had a student write about the function of the songs in Secret Path and another wrote about the significance of the word “glory” in Indian Horse. Neither of these essays was based on topics I would have considered.

If you are interested in learning more about the thinking behind separating the teaching of analysis from the novel unit, I highly recommend Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell. It’s an amazingly helpful book with practical teaching points for different types of analysis papers. My copy is always lent out!

Now that I’ve explored what I wouldn’t do with my novel unit, my next post will focus on a specific text and genre in order to finally answer the question I was actually asked!

Problem Based Reading

One of the perks of being a literacy coach is that people give me a lot of professional resources to read. I have a stack of 5 at home that I need to get through, but I’m pausing on this one book because it has me excited.

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton has changed the way I think about reading instruction. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher changed my writing instruction, but I still felt a little lost when it came to reading. Most of my frustration came from how students rely on me (or the internet) to interpret their reading for them. I wanted to get them thinking on their own,  revising their ideas,  and tracing patterns through their books, but for some reason, they always come back to me.

I stopped using question/answer sheets within a year or two of teaching because I hated them and my students hated them. I moved to QCharts and teaching students how to talk about books, but they still seemed to be dependent on me come analysis time.

Then I open up Vicki Vinton’s book. I felt like I was yelling “Yes!” for every page.

In the introduction, Vinton cites a study done by Education Trust which found that “‘many – if not most- assignments were over-scaffolded … [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them” (xvii).  Some of her advice contradicts how I was instructed to teach about reading. Remember “set the purpose” instruction for reading?  I was given a passage about a house, and I was told to read it like a thief and highlight important information. Then I was told to read it like a real estate agent and highlight important information. The goal of this model lesson was to help me see that readers pull out different ideas, so I, as the teacher,  would remember to set the purpose for reading, so students pull out the ideas I want them to pull out. This type of instruction will help students find the information that I want them to find, but will it help them understand a text when there is no one to direct their purpose? What if their purpose is simply to figure out what the text means?

Vinton observes that “Students are repeatedly asked to analyze particular aspects of a text – the development of a character, a text’s structure, an author’s choice of words – rather than to think more deeply about how those pieces all work together in complex and meaningful ways” (4). So the question, of course, is: How do we do this? Section Two of the book is dedicated to walking teachers through what problem-based reading instruction might look like in a classroom.

A few weeks ago, I was at Dundas Valley Secondary School in my friend and colleague Crystal Dumitru’s class. She is using Cherie Dimaline’s novel the Marrow Thieves with the students in her ENG 2P class. They were on the second chapter, so I asked Crystal if I could jump in and experiment a little, and, being the wonderfully accommodating human being that she is, she let me.

I decided to try the text know/wonder chart that Vinton outlines in her book. Before I get into what happened, I want to repeat Vinton’s caution: “It’s also important to note that the chart can outgrow its usefulness…, and that, as a scaffold, it should only be used as a temporary support” (95). The goal is always for the students to do the thinking on their own.

I started our know/wonder chart by selecting a passage from Marrow Thieves that revealed information about the story and characters, but that also left the reader with questions:

I couldn’t have him mad at me; he was all I had left. I clambered out the window and folded upward to grasp the slats on the roof. I shimmied up, belly to the wood, butt pulled down tight. I lifted my head once, just high enough to look over the small peak in the center, just enough to see the first Recruiter lift a whistle to his mouth, insert it under his sandy moustache, and blow that high-pitched terror tone from our nightmares. Under the roof I heard Mitch start banging the plywood walls, screaming, ‘Tabernacle! Come get me, devils!’ (3).

I asked students to either tell me something they know as a result of that passage or a question they have as a result of the passage.  You can see their thinking on the chart.  We filled three of them! Often students found that a statement of knowledge resulted in a new question. The arrows indicate when a question was in response to knowledge or sometimes when we were able to find an answer.

First of all, they were amazingly good at this task. I couldn’t keep up with all the statements and questions. Second, I love how when a student makes an error in reading, this process helps them self-correct.

For example, one student claimed that the Recruiters were hunters, but other students disagreed. They thought it was more than that. So we turned the student’s statement into a question: “Who are the recruiters?” After we read the next passage, students were able to answer this question with evidence from the text.

The teacher’s only role here is to write down the know and wonder sides and ask students to explain their thinking using the text. I tried my best (and was mostly successful) to avoid making interpretations for them. One student raised her hand and started with “Well, on this page it says that…” My job was then to name what she did as a reader to make it more concrete for other students. The next time I was in the room, that same student had graduated to using sticky notes in her book (without any prompting from me). Sticky notes! An English teacher’s dream.

The hardest part of this whole activity was not reacting to their amazing answers- I definitely failed at this. I was basically bouncing around the room exclaiming at everything they said because I was so excited that we were having such a rich discussion about a book. I was even excited when a student had that “misreading” of the recruiters because I was able to practice how to help the student think a little deeper using the text.

We did this know/wonder chart for the first four chapters, and then I asked them to continue on their own for the fifth chapter. I will be back in this class tomorrow to see what they’ve been thinking about the book. My next step for the middle of the book would be to help them use the know/wonder charts to identify patterns or symbols that repeatedly appear on the know/wonder charts. We would then turn these into pattern tracing charts- which I will write about once I try it.

I’m very grateful to my colleague, Carolyn Venema, for putting this book into my hands (and lending me Vinton’s other book). I feel like I finally have the tools to teach my students to do the work of interpretation rather than telling them what they should notice and think. This type of reading instruction takes a different kind of preparation. You have to read the text and think about where the author may leave unanswered questions so you can select passages to work through with your class, but it is well worth the time and effort. I can’t wait to try this again.

Reading, Writing, and Creating Routines: Expecting More out of 75 minutes

For those who have been reading, you know that I’ve been reading a lot of work by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Their most recent book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents is a great place to start with for those who haven’t explored their work. A colleague brought me a (signed!) copy from a conference she went to this summer, and I instantly lost it to my husband who is a grade 6/7 teacher.  I read and follow their work because it is practical, sustainable, and reproducible.

I experimented with their class timing strategies in Emily Lackie’s class while teaching descriptive place writing. This wonderful teacher (who is a bundle of positivity energy) actually allowed me to teach her ENG 2P class during the second week of school. The timing strategies used by Gallagher and Kittle worked wonders in the first class, but I struggled with it in the second class. I think I made a key mistake in my lesson, which I’ve outlined below for those of you also experimenting with this teaching method.

Lesson Outline and Notes:

Book Talk

The 2-3 minute book talk in Emily’s class was easy because she already had an independent reading program established, and because my wonderful principal last year bought sets of high-interest books for classroom libraries (Thanks Geeta!). I book talked Dear Martin, They Both Die at the End, Sold, Ghost Boys and Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.  Normally I wouldn’t book talk all these at once, but it was their first time meeting me, so I wanted to them to know: I like books, and I want them to like books too.

Independent Reading

Thanks to the preplanning of their teacher and the new books, this 10 minutes was an easy sell in the first-period class. The last period class was a bit more of a challenge. I was met with sighs and groans and exclamations of “I hate reading!” My response of “You just haven’t found the right book yet” was met with rolled eyes. The temptation when met with this type of attitude towards reading is to let them read anything that is readily available in the classroom, but this only starts the “fake reading” cycle.  Teachers and librarians need to have an infinite amount of grit and patience as they try to “sell” books to students. I refuse to let students just grab whatever is available because I want them to be intentional about their reading choices. I’m not going to lie. This is difficult. Really difficult. Like, I sweated through my shirt difficult.

Quick Write

The philosophy behind the quick write is the same as the thinking behind independent reading. Practice. Students need opportunities to practice both reading and writing without being assessed. They may return to pieces from their quick writes for future assessments or evaluations, but only if they want to further develop a piece.

To get the maximum use out of quick write time, I’ve started to use really short mentor texts to model an idea or a craft move. Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook has been a lifesaver this semester. For Emily’s class we were looking at descriptive place writing, so we based our quick write on the poem “Cities” by Catherine P.  We discussed the point of view and descriptive phrases in the poem and then students were offered  choices for their writing:

  1.  Write down anything this poem brings to mind for you.
  2. Borrow any phrase or line, letting the line lead your thinking as you write.
  3. Instead of the city, describe the country or some other location that holds significance for you.
  4. Describe the city or any other place that lets the reader know how much you like or dislike the place from the way you describe it. (Rief 98)

As students wrote, I turned on my document camera and wrote too. I happened to be inspired to write about my son’s bedroom (I recently found uneaten toast in his bed when I went to wash his sheets, so I had a lot of writing material). Writing in front of the students is key here, but I will leave that for another post.


This is where I think my lesson went sideways. A “mini-lesson” should be mini right? Max 20 minutes. Mine went on for 50. In the past I wouldn’t have considered this a problem; I taught right to the bell! However, what happened was that I deprived students of the chance to actually try the craft moves I was showing them while the techniques were still fresh in their minds. Next time, I would split up the three mentor passages I used over a series of days so that students could have more time to practice. I might even use one to spark a quick write for the next day. So keeping that in mind, this is how I taught description in my 50 minute “mini-lesson.”

The 50 minutes that should have been 20 minutes

We watched the first 3 minutes of the opening scene for the movie I Am Legend.

After we watch the scene a few times (I paused it on a few key moments and had them both look and listen), I ask them “How would you write this opening scene?” Of course, this is a complex question to throw at students the first time they are experimenting with descriptive place writing so we answered the question together.

First, I had them describe the atmosphere of the setting, and they gave me words like “lonely, desolate, creepy, apocalyptic.” Then we talked about the words we would use to describe the city: “decrepit, abandoned, overgrown, eerie, haunted.”  This gave us the opportunity to talk about how important word choice can be. The word “empty” tells us some information, but “abandoned” tells us so much more.

I could have stopped here and had students experiment with writing an opening like this scene, but I pressed on – this time using a passage from JK. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where everything was because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armour could walk.

I used this passage to show them how the author uses lists in order to help the reader understand how overwhelmed Harry felt when he first walked into Hogwarts.  We again discussed word choice, especially the word “rickety”- what a great word!

Once again, I could have (SHOULD have) stopped here and let them experiment, but I split them into groups and gave each group a different passage and asked them to highlight and underline the descriptive sections in the passages. They were able to point out the new things in the paragraphs that they discovered. The passage from the Hunger Games, for example, used a sentence fragment, so we talked about why the author used it. The passage from Coraline used the word “stunted” and students wanted a clearer idea about what that meant.

Overall, it went well. We talked about word choice, using lists for effect, similies, imagery, and sentence structure. But it was too much. I forgot to let them practice, and I doubt if all this information will transfer over to the next class.  They would have been better served if I allowed them to write a draft and then showed them subsequent craft moves that they could edit into their work.


When your lesson goes long, you miss the sharing of beautiful words. Normally during the last 3 minutes, I would share something I’d written or have students share a line or two from their own writing. I need to stick to my mini-lesson so this sharing can be done.

So there is one of my experiments with the Read, Write, Study, Create, Share model. I’m really going to work on the timing and implementation of my “mini-lessons”. 20 minutes max next time! Feel free to comment with your own experiences or suggestions.

How Reading Will Change in My Classroom

I still have one whole school year before I will be in my classroom again, but I think about what will be different every day. This post is a list of promises to myself and my students about how reading will work in my classroom.

1.   My students will read. A lot.

2.    I will read. A lot. My new found love of audiobooks should make this easier. It makes the commute to work and household chores much more interesting!

3.   What I read will be diverse and representative of the students in my community. By community, I mean something more extensive than just the school. After all, the students who have been the center of the narratives we so often teach and the students who have been marginalized by those narratives, both need books and stories for different reasons. I will read for them to help them discover representations of themselves in literature, and to help them discover other voices that have been absent or silenced in their world. And I will also love those stories because that matters too. For more about representation in literature read Nic Stone’s “A Word for the Reluctant”and Benjamin Doxtdator’sBeyond Champions and Pirates”.  Side promise: Buy all of Nic Stone’s books. Students will love them.

4.   I will continue to question and experiment with which texts I will teach as whole class texts. As an English department, if we are going to mandate eight novels (out of hopefully 100s they read on their own), do those eight selections represent a range of voices and stories? Whose voice is missing? How might this text be problematic? Follow @triciaebarvia and #DisruptTexts for more guidance on this.

5.  I will not dispense my knowledge and insight about a book like a “gift” that I am bestowing on my students. Instead, I will coach them to discover their ideas by showing them how I make discoveries about the text and then give them time and space (with guidance and encouragement) to feel the thrill of discovery themselves.

6.    I will use a whole class novel, book clubs, and independent reading. We can do all of this and must to do it, I think, for our students to encounter a range of reading experiences. What do I do when I find a text difficult? How can I have a conversation about this book? How can I choose a book that I will like? Read @teachkate’s book A Novel Approach for more guidance on this topic.

7.   I will not teach the essay form and analysis at the same time. Students need to be able to analyze first before they can tackle this complicated form. If students are introduced to both simultaneously, the writing and the thinking suffer.  I think this promise means there will be another post about my writing promises.

8.   I will find a way for students to meaningfully reflect on and track their reading as a part of their learning. So often when I ask for their tracking and reflection, it is purely for me because I need to assess their progress, but there has to be a way to do this better. I think it’s my next research project.

9.   As an English department head I will spend as much money as I can on books, and then I will find more money! I will write grant applications, appeal to my community, spend a lot of time in used bookstores, and beg my principal for just a little more funding. I know this won’t always work, but it definitely won’t work if I accept the status quo.

10.   As an English department head, I will spend money not only on whole class texts but also on helping my teachers build their classroom libraries. Let’s buy the independent reading books our students want. I may only be able to make small contributions, but I think my budget spending needs to reflect the reading experiences I want our students to have: reading as a class, reading as a group, and independent reading.

So that’s my list. I’m sure I will think of more as the year begins. Feel free to comment with your own additions. Promises to keep.

Rethinking our Core Texts (Yes, I mean Shakespeare)

I don’t think we should be using Shakespeare as a core text for all four years of high school.

A colleague suggested I call this post-Shakespeare is Dead, and He Should Stay that Way, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it (even though it is more creative than my post title!). I already have teachers who send me articles and TED talks about why Shakespeare is important, so I wasn’t brave enough to use his clever title. Plus I don’t believe Shakespeare needs to be removed entirely. One whole class play during high school may be appropriate, and sonnets and famous soliloquies could always be texts for study. I want to rethink the 4-6 week unit on a Shakespearean play that happens every year.

It is important to note that I do not hate Shakespeare. I studied the Bard a lot during my undergraduate and graduate studies (by choice!). So I get it. Shakespeare’s work is fascinating, heartbreaking, hilarious, and entertaining. My reading life is made richer by his art. But that doesn’t mean he should be the only playwright we study during high school. Using the same author for four years sends an unintentional message about the value of storytellers to our students. In addition,  in many cases, the challenging nature of the reading masks the lack of critical thinking that often accompanies a Shakespeare unit.

Reading Teacher Rather than Literature Teacher

I am willing to admit that I became a teacher for the wrong reasons. I wanted a job where I could talk about books all day because I loved reading so much. I thought I was going to be introducing my students to the wonder of literature, and the first few years were a bit rough as  I learned that my students didn’t come to their reading with the same passion as I did. Fortunately, those same students gave me a different reason to teach- them. Instead of “bestowing” my knowledge of great literature on them, I have the privilege of discovering texts with my students. As a result, I consider myself a reformed book snob. I have also become a teacher of reading and writing, rather than a teacher of literature.

If we estimate conservatively, the average student probably spends 16-20 weeks studying Shakespeare throughout high school. That is more time than many of our students spend reading on their own. However, the creation of an independent reader is much more important than any individual Shakespearean play. I can spend these weeks taking my students through a play because… it’s Shakespeare, or I can spend those four weeks nurturing the reading and writing lives of my students by helping them find the books they love and the authors to whom they can build their own allegiances.

Units of study should be designed around reading and writing skills, not around a text itself.  The skills must come first. Reading Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is not enough. So if skills are at the center of my teaching why would I use the same author to teach these skills every year?

The Danger of a Single Story- or Single Author

Years ago someone showed me Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk The Danger of a Single Story.

Her talk forced me to re-evaluate the texts I select for my students. Many teachers I talk to agree that our students should see themselves reflected in the literature they read, BUT we still keep teaching Shakespeare every year. That is my problem: the BUT.  Yes, students should read diverse types of literature, BUT not as a class; as a class, we read Shakespeare. Intentional or not our text selection tells students what types of stories are “worthy” of being read and conversely which stories are not worth intense classroom study.

Obviously, we won’t be able to cover the myriad of stories and voices that exist in literature, but I think we can at least attempt to introduce students to these voices. If you’re anything like me, you probably select one core class novel and one play. For most of my career, that play has been by Shakespeare. Which means half of the core texts I have selected for my students were by one author. One storyteller. One voice. I can no longer do this.

On Rigour and Shakespeare

When I ask teachers why they are using Shakespeare, they tell me that it is to prepare them because students will have to read it in grade 12 .  Teaching Shakespeare to prepare a student for Shakespeare mistakes teaching the play for teaching a skill. This does not prepare a student for studying Shakespeare. Reading stamina does.Resiliency does. Critical thinking does.

What happens when we give our students Shakespeare without building their stamina, resiliency and critical thinking? At best they rely on us to interpret the text; at worst- they cheat.

Of course, cheating is wrong, but I’ve started to reflect on what I can do to change my students’  dependency on “expert” interpretations of Shakespeare. Why don’t I have a plagiarism problem when I ask students to write about Richard Wagemese’s Indian Horse, Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner or, more recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give? Maybe it’s because students feel like there is still thinking to do with these texts. I’ve only had the opportunity to read these texts a couple of times, so I  cannot come up with ten essay topics to distribute to my studentsbut I can certainly guide students as they make observations and find patterns as they formulate their own claims about a text.

Yes, teaching students to analyze a text through tracing patterns and designing their own claims takes time. Building readers who will sustain their reading outside of the four walls of my classroom, and beyond their high school experience takes a lot of time.

But I think I may have just freed up a couple of weeks.

Court Tested Plays as Alternatives to Shakespeare (the list is still evolving)

Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway

Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

A Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

Highly Recommended Professional Reading

Beyond Literary Analysis: Teaching Students to Write with Passion and Authority about Any Text     by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Let them Read: Nurturing the Reading Lives of Our Students

I would say that there was a 5-6 year period during my teaching career where my students only read (or fake read) one novel a semester. We read a lot of other things: poems, articles, short stories, etc. However, I didn’t emphasize independent reading as much as I should have. I let other things distract me, but the truth remains. The only way to get better at reading is to read.

I see now that the lack of independent reading in my classes was really as a result of my low expectations. I believed my students were too tired, too busy, too stressed, too involved with their technology, too disengaged to read on their own. I try to be honest on this blog because I think exposing my misconceptions will help others reflect on their own, so I’ll share the worst of my faulty thinking. I believed that many of my students were too weak to read independently, and I didn’t think that I could get them interested in a book. For someone who loves books with a passion, I didn’t have enough faith in their power to engage.

Teachers do have the power to turn students into readers. I’ve seen it happen before my eyes- with students I doubted, with students who struggle to read, with students who told me that they “hate reading.” We can do it, but it is a lot of hard work and persistence.

Below you will find the strategies and techniques to encourage and develop the reading life of your students. I have curated this list from books, articles, and the teachers who invite me into their classrooms. I know this list is not exhaustive, so feel free to add your strategies in the comments. The number one resource I recommend for learning more about how to encourage/expect/demand that students read is Penny Kittle’s Book Love. This book brought about a dramatic shift in my practice and teaching philosophy. You will notice that I reference Kittle a lot throughout the recommendations below.

Don’t Make Students Write Every Time they Read.

I know this isn’t really a strategy, but it is the number one piece of advice I’ve come across when talking to teachers of successful independent reading programs. Think about your own reading life. How much would you read if you had to record every connection you made while reading, or if you had to stop after every 20 minutes of reading and write a summary? I guarantee that I would abandon my reading and watch Netflix instead. This is not to say that students shouldn’t write about their independent reading, but writing should not be the sole purpose of reading.

Book Talks

Many readers select their reading based on the recommendations of others. Personally, I’m an avid Goodreads user, and I take contests like Canada Reads very seriously (and sometimes a little too personally). Emerging readers have not developed these strategies to find books. They’ve often had the experience where their teacher takes them to the library and tells them to pick a book. They wander until their time is up at which point they snatch the book closest to them and then pretend to read for the next two weeks until they return to the library to start the cycle all over again.In a book talk the presenter (teacher/student/community member) gives a 2 min talk in which they explain the basic premise of the book and do one of the following:

  • Read a Passage.
  • Set the context for the book.
  • Talk about the main character.
  • End your talk by sharing your impression of the book as a whole.

Rules of Book Talk:

  • No Spoilers.
  • Only talk about books you’ve read.
  • Only talk about books you love.
  • Do it every day! Or at least routinely

Reading Lists
Students need to set goals for their reading, and reflect on the variety of books in their reading lives. Reading trackers are not reading journals. They are simply a place for students to set goals and later share those goals with their teacher during a reading conference. Try these reading trackers created by Stephanie Rotkas: Student Reading, Classroom Reading.

Students should also keep two different lists in their notebooks. They should keep a list of books they’ve read so that they can reflect on them at different points in the semester. They should also keep a “read next” list, so they never have to wander the library for 30-minutes library again! (Unless of course, they are wandering to add to their “read next” list!)

Reading Conferences

I try to have reading conferences with 3-4 students a week. Check out Penny Kittle ’s list of questions that you could ask readers at different stages. The list also includes a transcript of a reading conference with a student. 

Student Recommendations Shelf
Keep a shelf in your room reserved for student recommendations. Students will listen to their peers. Penny Kittle has students actually write recommendations for the book inside the front pages of the book itself!

During Independent Reading, Students Read What They Like
I had a student ask me if they could read a Manga novel the other day and I hesitated. Does Manga “count”?  It does.  It is where the student is at right now. Once he has enjoyed a couple of those, I may introduce him to some graphic novels that will expose him to the different genres within the graphic novel form. Think of a reading life as a roller coaster full of dips and heights. Students may try something complex and then return to something with less complexity. Our reading lives are not a permanent hike up a mountain where we increasingly read more complicated books until we conquer a “worthy” piece of literature.

Book Series

When trying to connect a reader to a book, consider recommending a series of books. Students become fans of a series are more likely to sustain their reading.Check out Goodreads list of YA Series here.

Teacher Reading

Encourage your colleagues to share what they are reading outside their classroom doors.Consider displaying three books at all times in your classroom: the book you just read, the book you are currently reading, and the book you will read next. Start a faculty book club and announce those meetings for the whole school to hear. Students need to see all the adults in their lives reading.

Reading Reflections

At a couple of points during the semester, stop and have your students reflect on their reading.First, have them rank the books they have read in order of complexity. Have them explain their thinking behind the ranking of their reading.Second, have them reflect on their growth as readers through an analysis of their reading. Take a look at Kittle’s analysis of her reading as an example.

Spine Poetry

Make poetry with books! This gives the library wander a purpose, and you never know what they will discover. You can find the process for spine poetry here.

Happy Reading!