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How to Match Student Readers with Books they'll Love

You know when there's a book on your bedside table that isn't really working for you? It languishes as you read maybe one or two pages a night before falling asleep. Finally, you return it to the library, find something amazing, and devour it in one or two days, no matter how busy you are.

When it comes to independent reading, making sure our students are matched with the books they will fall in love with makes all the difference. But most kids who don't already love reading have no idea how to pick out a good book, so how can we make sure they find something they will want to read?

Is it really possible to match every student with a good book, every time? Or at least to try?

In short, yes. Though it sounds like an intimidating or even impossible task, there are systems you can put into place to help you a lot. And the more you get to know your students the easier it becomes. Plus, they'll begin passing their favorites along, realizing they can actually enjoy reading, and becoming more active participants in the process.

What begins by seeming impossible, will become one of your greatest joys in the classroom.

So let's talk about the systems. What follows are nine ways you can operate as a successful matchmaker. Use one or use them all!

#1 Host an incredible classroom library

It would be nice if we could all rely on beautifully stocked, thoughtfully displayed, conveniently located school libraries. But since we can't, having a classroom library that is full of highly readable books is a critical part of matching students with books they will love.

Hit half-price book stores, rummage sales, friends' old boxes of boxes, the thrift store, used book stores, and everything in between. Ask for money if you can. Start a Go Fund Me campaign if you need to. Work with your school librarian to pull some books from the school shelves if that's possible.

Here are a few titles I would try to include if I was starting a library right now:
  • The Outsiders
  • The Hate U Give
  • I am Not your Perfect Mexican Daughter
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • Ender's Game
  • Cinder
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go
  • The Foundation
  • Fangirl
  • Carry On
  • Eleanor & Park
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • The Alchemist
  • Into the Wild
  • Slam
  • The Book Thief
  • Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
  • The Hunger Games
  • Divergent
  • Persepolis
  • Maus
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  • Uglies
  • The Kite Runner
  • The Time Traveler's Wife
  • The History of Love
  • Sherlock Holmes

My friend Brynn Allison, of The Literary Maven, is constantly putting together lists of great book ideas. So if you are looking to build up your library consistently, stay tuned to her website as well. We also talk a lot about new and exciting books for students inside my Facebook group, Creative High School English, so feel free to join us there.

#2 Create displays that draw students in

How you arrange your books makes a big difference! Try to face a lot of book covers out so that students can see all the options, and when you have the time, craft a fun book display like the ones I featured in the spring in my "Classroom Library Hall of Fame." You'll see a lot of fun displays and set-ups in this post, it's definitely eye candy for English teachers. Students will be drawn to look at and discuss the books you feature in your displays, so be sure to put the cream of the crop out in the spotlight.

#3 Get a sense for your students' reading histories as school begins

Take a few minutes early in your reading program to survey your students somehow about what they like to read. Whether it's a questionnaire about their favorite books and genres, a one-pager about their own reading life and general interests, or a journalistic assignment in which they write up an article about their own reading history, find a way to discover what makes them tick as readers. Even if all you get is one title that they liked six years ago and the information that they're too busy working after school to read, you have a place to start and some important background about them.

#4 Take a break to PITCH

I first learned about this idea from Melissa Kruse of The Reading and Writing Haven when I was interviewing her for my podcast episode on book clubs. She called it a book commercial, while someone in my Facebook group recently called it a pitch. It's a great way to have students share what they are reading with the class.

Decide for yourself whether to choose a student who you know LOVES their book, or just randomly rotate through all the students. Then as a class opener or to kick off a reading chunk of class, invite the student to stand up and give an argument for why their book is awesome. (Students who don't like their books will need to be matched with a new one and given a pass to try again another day). Reinforce how helpful it is for students to share really specific reasons why they are enjoying the book, so that other students will know if they want to read it.

This practice helps generate momentum from within the student community. Certain books will pass from hand to hand quickly, and those matches will all begin to happen authentically without any help from you.

#5 Invite guest book talkers from the community

Inviting other teachers, parents, administrators, and other staff in to spend five minutes in your classroom talking about their favorite books (which you will just happen to have available for check out, based on your amazing foresight) is a great way to bring new titles into your rotation and help students to see that people besides their English teachers value reading.

I like to snap photos of my guests holding up their books and turn them into reading posters, as a nice visual reminder of the recommendations from within the community. (I also like snapping photos of students with books they recommend to turn into posters!).

#6 Visit your school library after hatching a plan with your librarian (if you have one... excuse me while I cry...)

If your school hasn't made the insane decision to cut the school library, get serious about using this resource. The librarian at the school where I work is a BOOK GENIUS. And so many librarians are. Get together with yours and get help in creating an incredible cart of good options for your students. Or talk with him or her about those few students you might still be having trouble matching after a month or two of school, then let those students browse the shelves with your librarian's guidance and recommendations. A quick trip to the library is never wasted time, as long as you have a plan for what to do with your students who already have a good book or choose a book in seconds. I like to have them write down a list of ten books they might enjoy in the future so they don't just start chatting in the entryway.

#7 Create an online venue for student reviews

I originally used Blogger to post pictures of the books my students were reading along with a paragraph review. Every once in a while I would pass out an index card and ask them to write the name of the novel they were reading and a short review including specifics about why they would or would not recommend it. Then I would type these into blogger as blog posts, building up a large library of student reviews. Now and then I would ask students to hop onto the blog and peruse others' reviews, making a list of books they might like based on others' reviews. This worked well, and students especially liked to see the little widget I put in the sidebar that allowed them to see little dots where they had readers around the world. Before long it was clear that people in dozens of countries were reading and benefitting from their reviews, which gave them a wonderful authentic audience beyond their own peers.

Another, perhaps easier, way to do this now that Instagram prevails would to have students write a short review in a colorful marker, snap a picture of it next to their book with their phone, and send it to you for a class Instagram book review feed. You could simply post it without retyping all the reviews (which was always a bit arduous, I'm not going to lie).

You could do something very similar with a private reading Facebook group, asking students to take one minute during class to post a picture of their book with three or four sentences about it and why they do or don't like it.

#8 TALK to them

OK, yes. This seems a little obvious. I almost forgot to include it, but it's definitely the most helpful way I match students with books. When students are reading quietly in your class, peek over your own book to see how things are going. Take note of students who are obviously not engaged or excited by their books. Then do a lap, checking in here and there. Walk around and peer over their shoulders for a few seconds, then quietly ask "how are you liking your book?" When they admit that they hate it, invite them over to your fabulous library for a few minutes and, based on whatever you know about them and whatever you can find out in those few minutes, help them choose a new book. You may be able to redirect four or five students a day in this way until all the other systems you have in place start to do it for you.

#9 Have "graduating" students create book review bookmarks

At the end of the year, have the students leaving your class create bookmarks featuring a little about themselves and a little about their absolute favorite book of the year. Photocopy these and use them both as bookmarks and as part of your library display bulletin boards or wall decor. Students rising up in the next year will see their older friends' recommendations and also see what students with similar interests enjoyed from your library.

I made you something! Sign up below to receive a fun set of posters for your independent reading library, and you'll also receive my weekly Friday e-mails full of creative teaching strategies.

The Perfect Theater Project for Any Play

I'm going to go out on a limb and say a performance project is the most engaging way to finish a theater unit. Plays were created to be performed! Sprinkle analysis into discussions, in-class essays, and projects throughout your theater units, but if you possibly can, I say finish with performance.

When I was in college I kept hearing about this amazing Shakespeare professor. She won the student-choice award for popularity over and over. Every Shakespeare class she taught finished with a performance, always in the same format. She would divide the students into groups, give each group an act to perform, and say good luck. At the end of a semester's worth of Shakespeare classes, each group, having rehearsed independently all term, would perform. The class would travel around campus watching each show, in order, until they had seen the whole play. 

My senior year I took the Shakespeare "Comedies and Histories" course for myself, and I got to perform the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream with my group. The project was just as intense, delightful, stressful, frustrating, and amazing as it sounded. It was enough to inspire me to do it with my own students just one year later when I began working as a teacher. 

The Creative ELA Teacher's Back-to-School Checklist

As you prepare for the first day, there is always so much to do. Setting up your room, finalizing your syllabi, getting your grade book set up, collecting your textbooks, attending gobs of meetings.

This post is not about those things!

Rather, it's a list of ideas for helping you put some creative structures in place early so that the many details of those busy first weeks don't overwhelm your desire to prioritize creativity. These are things you can consider and prepare for over the vacation and put into place as the year begins. 

Learn about Sketchnotes

Sketchnotes are growing in popularity but still a fresh strategy to offer your students. Take a little time to download a free sketchnoting activity or bookmark a great video about how to sketchnote now, so that as school opens you can introduce this strategy to your students and help guide them toward a more engaging way of taking notes on anything and everything that you study in class.

Designing a Syllabus Painlessly

When school begins, there is always SO MUCH to do. So much of it I love, but a few of the necessary activities just seem to drag on my time. I think we can all agree that watching the video on blood borne pathogens for the thousandth time is not an exciting launch to the year. 

But creating an inspiring classroom space and rolling out dynamic fall units is a blast. Shopping for new office supplies is not really an onerous task either...

I like to focus my attention on the things that inspire and motivate me, and always find myself slow in getting around to typing up my syllabus. Can you relate?

Though I love creating courses, I have never been the best at summarizing them in a neat little package for my students on the syllabus. My initial go-round is usually four or five pages and even I can't honestly believe my students are going to read it, no matter how amazing I find my own unit descriptions. Ha. 

So I condense and condense, and pass it out on the first day. I give students a few minutes to look it over, and then I move on, because I've ridden the reading-the-syllabus-out-loud-on-the-first-day train and it is not one I care to board again. Talk about unengaged students! I far prefer first day activities like these.

So what to do about the syllabus? Well, I've come to the conclusion it is not worth spending hours and hours on. It needs to be clear, attractive, and set a nice tone for the class. It needs to exist so that parents and administrators who want to can look at it. But that's about it. 

So what should you put in this dynamic little document? 

Elements like these:
  • SHORT course description
  • Units of Study (no need to describe them in great depth)
  • Materials to collect for the class
  • Ways to contact the teacher or access course materials (Google classroom, class blog, Instagram, FB group, etc.)
  • Grading categories and policies (late work, rounding up or down, extra credit, etc.)
  • A short "About Me" section so you can introduce yourself to your students and their parents
  • A photo or two or three - of you, of something fun related to your class, of students' work in the past, of books, etc. 

I've taken the liberty of designing some editable syllabus templates for you, to speed up the process. If you decide to have me send this free download to you, just open the Powerpoint, and then you can edit all the information inside the categories, delete my photo, and add your own. Hopefully it will take you about ten minutes instead of hours. 

You can sign up below, and I hope you do. Then you can put your time in August into things like genius hour, launching an independent reading program, or designing your first escape room or murder mystery class.  

The First Day of School doesn't have to be Boring

Hello, my friend. Is it happening yet? Are you starting to dream about the first day of school?

It's such a strange day. The beginning of so much. And yet a weird sort of educational netherworld since no one is really expecting to do real work or have real conversations just yet.

It took me a long time to start enjoying the first day of school, but I'd like to save you those years of August angst that I went through and share some strategies in this post that can make your first day a chance to set the creative, engaging, empowering tone you want for the year.

I found out the hard way that going over the syllabus and reading my course expectations aloud is not the answer! Wait a minute, did I just hear you chuckle?  Yes, after many years of first days I know now that my syllabi will just never light a fuse under my students, no matter how much I play around with my fonts.

So what to do on the first day of school? How to kick the year off right? Syllabi must indeed be delivered, but what else can a creative teacher do, given that students haven't read any material or prepared for the class in any way?

Here are some of the best activities I've come up with over the years.

Make Attendance Interesting

Attendance can be a real drag. It eats up class time and it's so dull. That's why I flipped it to become a getting-to-know-you activity.

Every day for the first week and sporadically after that, I use attendance to ask a getting-to-know-you question. Instead of responding "here" when I call a student's name, he or she will answer my question, which is always short.

For example, I might say "When I call your name, tell me what country you'd like to fly to today if you could." If a student takes too long we just skip past them. By the end of attendance we've all learned a bit about each other and had WAY more fun than hearing the word "here" over and over. For a free printable poster of questions you can hang by your desk to use all year, just click here.  You'll join more than eight thousand other teachers who have already downloaded it.

Have a Classroom Scavenger Hunt

I bet you've given some thought to the layout of your classroom. Maybe you've got a writing contest bulletin board, a collection of maker materials, a costume corner, an outside reading library, a make-up material binder, a set of art supplies, an inbox for homework, etc. Instead of wandering the room and showing each of these to your students, create a scavenger hunt handout and let them race in partners to find everything themselves. Prizes wouldn't hurt anything. Your fabulous resources and organization will be a lot more memorable this way.

Sort your Students

The Harry Potter sorting is widely known these days (does everyone automatically think they'd be sorted into Gryffindor or is that just me?). A fun twist on it is to get to know your students by sorting them around the room.

Give a series of directions such as:

  • "Go to this side of the room if you prefer studying English and history, this side if you prefer math and science."
  • "Go to this side if you are an only child, this side if you have siblings."
  • "Go toward this corner if you prefer to read fantasy for fun, this corner for mystery, this corner for love stories, this corner for nonfiction."

As your students traipse around the room, ask follow-up questions. For example, you could ask who thinks they have the most siblings and get a few numbers, or call on several students to share their favorite book within the genre they have chosen.

If you'd like my handouts for this particular activity, you can check them out here.

Show the Power and Value of Community

I learned this first-day strategy at Phillips Exeter academy when I attended their Summer Humanities Institute. It's an amazing activity for teaching students the value of diverse voices in building a classroom community. If you plan to push students to value their own and each others' viewpoints as much as your own throughout the year, this is really great way to introduce this idea.

Start with a beanbag (a ball will cause you no end of trouble!). Tell your students you are going to start a story, then throw the beanbag to someone else, who will continue the story, and on and on. Let them know that the second-to-last person will bring the story to a close, and the very last person will need to retell the whole story, but everyone can help. Ask students to be respectful as they choose the content of their section of the story if you think this reminder is necessary in your school.

The story will be amazing. It will feature twists and turns you never expected when you started it. The last person will be stressed out at first, but quickly reassured by the help that comes from every direction in remembering all the small details.

After you finish, ask your students why they think you did this. Help them to realize how rich and amazing the story they created together was, and how much it helped the last person that they all worked together on the retelling. Let them know that you could never have created such an amazing story alone. Focus on what this means for group discussions, group work, workshop, partner collaboration, etc. Students don't automatically realize the value of collaboration and discussion, and I find it really helps to start the year off by talking about it front and center.

Let Students Tell you What Matters on your Syllabus

Yes, you need to pass out your syllabus, course expectations, academic honesty policy, etc. Whatever you use to guide your course, the first day is a logical time to pass it out. What you DO NOT need to do (a mistake I still regret from that arduous first first day) is to read the entire thing out loud.

Put your students in partners and let them go through your papers and pick what they think are the three most important things. Have them create a mural across one chalkboard or whiteboard with what they would say really matters about your course.

Or have everyone choose just one vital point and then call on partners randomly to share what seems most important to them. Let them teach it back to you just for five minutes - you set a tone for active learning right away, and perhaps even more importantly for you, you avoid that terrible, awful experience I call "the glaze," in which your students simply stop seeing and hearing you.

By the way, if you'd like a little help with your syllabus creation, I've made two fun customizable syllabi you can use. Just sign up for the free download and you can plug in your own info for a quick and easy, attractively designed syllabus.

Name Cards

I LOVE this first day activity. Ever since I invented it, I have never failed to do it. I print the name of each student in a large font size on the bottom half of a piece of card stock. Each section gets its own color (first period - blue, etc.).

I pass these out and have everyone fold them into table tent name cards to sit on their desks. Then we take ten minutes to decorate them. I ask every student to make a few drawings or add a few words and quotations to represent themselves. Finally, I take a photo of each student holding up his or her name card. I study these photos and I can always get my students' names down within forty-eight hours (I used to struggle for weeks!).

This year I upped the ante a bit and turned the name card activity into an introduction of the one-pager concept. Students can actually design one-pagers about themselves embedded right into their name tents. That way every time you use the cards, students are learning about each other and you are getting to know them better.

As a bonus, I keep the table tents and use them to randomize seating every once in a while throughout the year if I feel like we are in a rut. I simply lay out the cards wherever I want them before students come in, and they sit where they find their name cards.

I hope these activities help you get your year off to a GREAT start. And I hope you decide to share your results, inspiration, and struggles with our growing community over in Creative High School English on Facebook.

Episode 041: Teacher Mindset & Happiness with Angela Watson

Creative teachers are not immune to the time struggles that all teachers face. When you want to engage students at the highest levels, there are a lot of extra items to fit into your day. Writing a quick lesson plan, a basic project handout, or a slapdash series of bellringers is not going to cut it for you.

No, I know you are the kind of teacher who orders expensive books by innovators like Kelly Gallagher and John Spencer with your own money and then reads them in your free time. The kind who finds time to listen to teacher podcasts and share ideas in teacher Facebook groups. The kind who wakes up in the night wondering how to reach that one class that just isn't getting it.

Well, my friend, I am excited to share today's podcast with you. I believe it is possible to adjust your mindset and find happiness in the teaching profession despite the incredible time pressures that sometimes seem unsolvable. And I believe Angela Watson, today's guest, can help. She devotes her days to helping teachers find a path that truly works for them, and she has so much insight on this subject. I found myself constantly nodding along and frantically jotting notes as we spoke, because not only does she understand the pressures teacher face, but she has simple, doable solutions that you can try out right away.

I love that about her.

Teacherpreneurship 101: The Big Picture Beginner's Guide

Summer at last. Aaaah. No doubt you are redesigning some units, meeting up with teacher friends at a conference or a coffee shop to share ideas, and reading a new novel or two for your choice reading library. But hopefully you are also getting some time to recharge your batteries.

Still, for some, all the free time leaves an itch for new challenges. Is this the summer Teachers Pay Teachers is calling your name? If so, read on. If not, may I recommend you head over to one of my favorite posts, "The Best Youtube Channels for English Teachers," and read that instead?
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