Friday, September 11, 2015

Younger Readers' Book Club - list of recommended books #1

This is a list of novels/chapter books which have been recommended by other TELA members. I have included Kirkus reviews where available. The list at the beginning of the link indicates which TELA member gave the recommendation. I have I also included a handy link to Nancie Atwell's school book list.

Titles and Reviews          

Link to Nancie Atwell’s school book list (grouped by grade levels and gender):

Thursday, May 7, 2015

THE CASE HISTORY OF A POEM - from idea to Process Paper

A few months ago I had the unique privilege of working with Antonia, one of the students in new TELA member Kristen Koshelanyk's Grade 6 class. In working with her throughout the process of writing her poem, I was able to keep a record of every step. You will see the quick write that prompted the eventual poem. You will see her typed drafts. And finally I have included her PROCESS PAPER, which in this case was done orally (something I've been doing much more often).

I hope that this will clarify for some of you the questions you have about some of the changes I've made to teaching a six week Poetry Genre Study since I wrote that unit a few years ago, A word of caution: since I've been working with so many teachers recently, it's become apparent that there is no orthodoxy to any of the processes. We change things from class to class, student to student, depending on so many factors. I think that's part of the "fun."

Note that the Process Paper I have included in this example is one of many I've used over the years. They are constantly being adapted, from class to class.

Antonia's Poem - The Process Of Writing Poetry

I WAS HERE by Gayle Forman - a novel about suicide and depression

Just this past week we were sad to find out about the suicide deaths of two Gr. 12 students at Garden City Collegiate. As is often the case with real-life tragedy, as teachers we are faced with the difficult questions regarding how much/little do we do?In

When it comes to Teenage Depression, it is a topic that is often misunderstood - as I well know from personal experience. There is still stigma attached to mental illness, even in the 21st Century.

If you are one of those teachers who believes that education is one of the tools we have to help students with real-life problems they face TODAY (as opposed to "preparing them for the real world"), then this is a novel many of you might consider including in your classrooms. As well I think it's a great novel for "Inquiry Through Literature", a strategy many of our TELA group use as an extension of Literature Circles.

NOTE: Please be aware that there are a number of "f" bombs in the book, as well as one appropriately written sexual encounter.As always, I've included a Kirkus review. Even thought it's not a starred review, it's an excellent read.

I WAS HERE by Gayle Forman (288 pages)
Although this is not a starred review, I found it to be a very powerful read on suicide and depression. Be aware that there are a number of “f” bombs, and some sexual content.
Part tautly paced mystery, part psychological study of suicide and its aftereffects.
When Cody’s best friend, Meg, kills herself by downing cleaning fluid in a motel room, she tidily leaves behind a tip for the maid and time-delayed emails for Cody, her parents and the police. Cody’s devastated: After all, she and Meg were inseparable since kindergarten. That is, they were close until talented Meg escaped their dead-end town to attend college on a fellowship while Cody stayed behind. But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up what’s left of Meg’s life, she’s startled by how much doesn’t make sense: Why would someone so full of promise and life choose death? How much did Meg’s housemates know about her fateful decision? And why does Meg have an encrypted file on her computer? Seeking to justify the picture of the friend she thought she knew with the one she’s piecing together, Cody faces questions about their friendship, along with a growing attraction for Ben, the boy she believes broke Meg’s heart. Forman’s characters are all too human: Cody’s willingness to ignore what doesn’t fit her picture of Meg as she struggles to come to terms with her sadness and guilt rings true of those left behind to face the tragedy of suicide.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Art of Persuasion - notes from the work of Penny Kittle and Linda Rief, along with my commentary

Persuasion is an art form in writing. Both Penny Kittle and Linda Rief have developed genre studies that look at how we can teach this to students, while avoiding the limitations of the five-paragraph "essay" (not really) so often used in classrooms. By looking at both of these, I hope you will be able to "steal" the best of both worlds. And hopefully you'll be able to use my commentary as well, to scaffold on previous genre studies I've discussed in the past.

The Art of Persuasion

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Blind - an Inquiry novel

Blind by Rachel DeWoskin is a novel I just read - it is available as an e-book from the Winnipeg Public Library. There are also four regular copies.

It is a slow-moving character novel, with great insight into what it FEELS like to be blind (see Kirkus review). If it weren't for a number of "F" bombs, I wouldn't have any concern with the age of the students reading it, although the subplot of a possible suicide means it's pretty heavy reading.

Blind - a novel for Inquiry by Rachel DeWoskin

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Three New Book Reviews

Here are three new book reviews. All three of them are probably best for Gr. 8 and up, with mature themes and some language "warnings". One of the titles, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, was recommended by Penny Kittle at the recent session she did in Winnipeg. Both Jenny Hall and I read it, and enjoyed it a lot. 

The other two I found on the Winnipeg Public Library's e-book list: both came with great Kirkus reviews, and deal with topics that related to Literature Through Inquiry (sexual identity; dealing with terminal illness). The first one is Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg and the other is Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor. I have included their book covers and their Kirkus reviews. And of course I both love a free book and reading them on my e-reader. 

Three new book reviews for Gr. 8 and older

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Expert Piece - "Texting on the Toilet"

I've worked with many of our TELA members using a variety of genres in writing, most notably: poetry, memoir/personal narrative, profiles, narrative essays, letters, editorials and feature stories. A relatively new genre that joined the fold is "Expert Pieces" - a form I first learned of from notable writer/educator Ralph Fletcher.  This past year we've tried this form in a number of classes, and I have quite a few student exemplars for anyone who would like to look at them. 

In the Winnipeg Free Press today (Sunday, May 25th), I finally found what I consider an excellent published exemplar of this genre. Now one could argue that this is really an essay in narrative form - and I agree - but it's also got the elements of what I've been teaching in an "expert piece." In fact the distinction between genres is often not very clear, and that's okay. Ultimately it comes down to audience and purpose - and whether or not our students achieve those goals in their writing.   

Texting on the Toilet - an "Expert Piece"

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reading Non-Fiction Text - Franki Silberson

I regularly receive e-mails "Choice Literacy" in their "Big Fresh News Letter". This month there is a great essay by Franki Silberson, which is part of her book The Joy of Planning: Designing Minilesson Cycles in Grades 3-6. I have been working with a number of teachers on how to improve students reading of expository (non-fiction) text, and in this essay she gives us a pretty good model of how to design mini-lessons to meet specific goals of instruction. Even though her examples are for younger students, I think you'll see how they can be applied to older ones as well.

Speechless by Jessica Robinson

Earlier in the school year, T.E.L.A. member Jessica Robinson shared a poem with me that was written by one of her students. She was very excited about it - not only because it is a beautifully written poem, but also because it confirmed for her the power of student voices. And  that clearly our students write best when they write about topics that matter.

At that time I encouraged Jess to write about this - and specifically to write about it using a style of essay I was using in many classes. As some of you know, I'm a huge proponent of eliminating the "Five Paragraph You-Know-What" and replacing it with the TRUE essay. In that regard, there are three qualities that need to be included (and ironically are the three qualities that many teachers have, in their wisdom, made "out of bounds" in student writing). They are:

  1. Written in narrative voice
  2. Written in first person
  3. Implied, never stated thesis ("respect the reader")
Now of course I'm biased, but attached is what I think is an amazing essay. Jess and I worked on it together, using the same process we would use in the classroom.

Chris Thorburn interview profile by Reid Hallson

I have been working with a number of teachers over the last couple of years on a "unit project" we've been calling the "Interview Profile." This is a project I began doing with my students way back in the last century. 

This year Jamie Maclennan had his Grade 6 students engage in this project, and he came up with a great new idea I wish I had thought of years ago. Instead of constructing paragraphs the way I've always done, by figuring out what the paragraph is mainly about and then inserting quotes to put "meat on the bone", Jamie had his students "work backwards." What they did was isolate the best quotes from the interview, and then construct paragraphs around the quotes. As soon as he explained that to me, I could immediately see the advantages. He had his students differentiate between quotes which were more than just information. 

For example, in the profile of Winnipeg Jet Chris Thorburn, one such quote was:
“For me growing up, my hockey idol was Ron Francis. He was a local boy from the Sault and obviously very successful in the NHL. He was an easy guy to look up to.”From there you can see how his student Reid was then able to write his topic sentence and construct a great paragraph. 

If after checking out the exemplar you would like more information on the particulars of the project, just e-mail me with any questions you have|:

Also, I would encourage you if you're interested to contact me to get Reid's original profile. Because of limitations on our Blog, I wasn't able to post it the way he originally wrote it, with three olumns and use of quotes in a way I'm sure you'll want your students to use in the future.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"My Purrfect Alarm Clock" - A Narrative Essay Exemplar With Drafts

Recently, Jenny Hall introduced the "Narrative Essay" to her Gr. 8 class at Edmund Partridge. Using a similar approach to what Kelly Gallagher demonstrates in his video on Adolescent Writing (a video a number of us have watched together), Jenny had her class begin their attempt at narrative essays by identifying something that "bugged" them. Like the video, she began by modeling her own topic for them.

The students were then asked to complete their initial write ("draft zero") in class. One of those students is Sarah Anderson, and what I've included in this posting are her initial and final drafts in her essay, "My Purrfect Alarm Clock."

For many younger students, I wouldn't always try to "nudge" them into the larger issues that I would with High School students. Getting many of them to write a solid personal narrative about something that bugs them can be enough of a challenge. As you will see when you read Sarah's draft zero, it would have stood alone as a nice piece of personal narrative writing, but to become an essay I felt that it needed to have more of an "issue." Sarah is a strong student, and thus we thought her "draft zero" would be a great example of how to move from a minor irritation to a full-blown issue, while serving as a model for some of the other students who might be able to be challenged.

The first conference focused on exactly that - were there any issues that came to mind. To assist Sarah, and also to help the other students, we used her draft in a Whole-class conference. Students were able to suggest possible issues related to animal "problems", from the local issue of too many cats, to the hunting of dogs in the streets of Sochi, and  on to the giraffe in Denmark that was slaughtered and then fed to a lion in their zoo. This conference helped Sarah see where she might head with her piece.   

After that she went home and worked on her revision. After reading that draft, we then started to focus on how she could change that last part of the piece, where she switched from narrative voice to more of an expository one. I've tried to show students how much more effective their thesis can be when it's implied, not stated. For Sarah, as you'll see in her earlier revisions, she defaulted to that expository voice that TOLD her readers what she wanted them to believe. I challenged her to SHOW it instead, using that powerful narrative voice she had for the main part of the piece. I think her final revision has done just that.

I hope that by being able to compare the three initial drafts with her final piece you can show your students how they can develop a powerful essay using first person narrative voice, with an implied thesis. As many of you have heard from me before, this is the kind of essay that we REALLY would enjoy reading, and it's essentially the style you'll find in any collection of great essays (if you'd like I can send you a package of notes on the essay in history that support this idea).

Narrative Essay Draft Zero
Narrative Essay Draft One
Narrative Essay Draft Two
 My Purrfect Alarm Clock

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Re-tests, re-do's, revisions and zeroes

I remember when we first began looking at Formative and Summative Assessment, and how so many teachers were opposed to the idea of allowing students to re-do assignments and/or tests. The hue and cry was loud and clear: this was catering to a lowering of standards, and was definitely not the REAL WORLD.

I remember in particular a presentation by Damien Cooper; there were so many High School teachers who were especially oppositional. And over the years I came to realize that the people responsible for implementing this "new" approach to assessment may have overlooked the single-most important factor: namely, if your teaching style/philosophy/approach relied on one-shot testing for most or all of your summative assessment, and did not see learning as constant growth which benefits from feedback and revision, then this really did handcuff you as a teacher. Asking those teachers to give up their practices, like giving zeroes or penalizing "late" work, really wasn't fair unless they first bought into a new pedagogy.

And why would they?

I don't know how many of you are still dealing with this issue at your schools, but I thought that regardless, you might enjoy this very short video which Danielle Laurencelle recently forwarded to me. I suggest you take special note of when he talks about his perspective on do-overs in the REAL WORLD (by the way I hate that term, which implies that our students, almost all of whom are dealing with very real issues that matter a lot, live in some sort of fantasy existence where their problems are so minor).

My only concern is that in part two of the video (check that link on the side of the first part) he really focuses on memory testing as the assessment tool upon which he relies. For me, I substituted "synthesis projects" and "writing pieces" instead of tests.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Memoir and Process Paper from Johise Namwira

Many of us already understand the power of the Process Paper (not to mention the power of memoir). In the attachments that are included with this post, you will find the unedited memoir and Process Paper written by Johise Namwira. She is a Gr. 11 student in Danielle Laurencelle's Gr. 12 class. I had the privilege of not only reading her memoir and Process Paper, but also talking with her about it. It was truly a "teachable moment" for me (only I was the student in this case, and she was the teacher).

I would very much encourage you to first read the memoir - probably twice. Try to infer what she is trying to accomplish - and for fun, try to assess the grade you might give it. Then read the Process Paper and see how that may or may not influence your reaction to the piece.

Please feel free to post any reactions - Johise is anxious to check out the Blog, so she will have access to the comments. From what I found out about her over lunch, she would welcome any responses.

Johise Memoir

Johise Process Paper

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Helping Students Evaluate Online Video For Research

For those of you involved with Inquiry (especially through Literature), you are probably aware of the value of You Tube as a resource. In some cases, it can be used INSTEAD of primary resources - at other times, it can help students build schema PRIOR TO interviewing a primary source. For example, last year a student in Jenny Hall's class found some great You Tube videos on bullying in schools and then used that information for her interview with the school counselor and principal. Another one of her students found videos on "Police Interrogation Techniques" and then used that information when he went to the Winnipeg Police Department to interview detectives on their procedures (in fact he shared some information they weren't even aware of, like why some interrogators use sliding chairs, while the suspect is sitting in a stationary one.

I am attaching a link to a brief article in which the author outlines some of the key points he considers in having students use You Tube as a resource. Hope you find it useful.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Narrative Essays

Many of you are aware I've been pushing for a new look at essays, in order to move from the "Five Paragraph You-Know-What" to pieces that use craft, implied thesis and an awareness of a REAL audience. Just this past week I found two such essays on successive days in the Winnipeg Free Press. I hope as you read them you'll agree that this form is eminently more engaging than their more directed "in this essay" counterparts.

In addition, because the thesis in both cases is not "clearly stated" in the lead, I think you'll see that as a reader you are more respected by the writer - you can figure it out for yourselves. In that regard, I think both of these essays would also serve as excellent forms for practice in reading for the "Big Idea" - what the author wants the reader to get out of the essays.

The first one is entitled "A knock at the door changes everything", written by Scott Hailey who works with the Winnipeg Police Service's Community-support unit. Note that it's written in "second person" - I'd encourage classes to think about re-writing it in first person, then decide which is more effective.

A Knock at the Door Changes Everything

The second one is entitled "Learning to love the smudge" by Mary Agnes Welch. I love the informal voice that leaves me unprepared for her ultimate beliefs about her topic.

Learning to Love the Smudge

I'm not sure how long these sites remain active, so if you like them I'd suggest you copy them for yourselves instead of leaving them on the site.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Reviews For Grades 6 and up from Alyssa Rajotte's Gr. 6's at Leila North

Recently I asked Alyssa Rajotte if she could recommend some great books for younger readers (Grades 5, 6 and older). Instead of simply sending me a list, Alyssa surveyed her kids and they provided me with a great list of novels they have enjoyed. In almost every case they felt these titles were good for both boys and girls.

Book Reviews

Friday, November 22, 2013

Working with THEME

When it came to teaching the important elements of fiction, without a doubt the most challenging for me has been the idea of THEME. So it was sort of reassuring that in a recent posting (November 9th) from Brenda Power's Choice Literacy site, she had a number of articles that dealt with that exact issue.

The first link below is to an article by Franki Sibberson: "Using Picture Books to Teach Theme in Grades 3-6." 

Here is the link:

The second article is "Teaching Themes Through Keywords" by Aimee Buckner. Its link is:

The third article is one I found so interesting to read, not because of any great insight on how to teach the concept of theme, but mostly because it made me appreciate even more how much freedom we have as teachers in developing our lessons and activities. In this one two teachers share their experience in developing strategy lessons to teach Standard Five in their "Common Core" - how structure relates to theme.

Here's the link to that one:

A couple of great short stories

Many of you are always looking for great short stories, and I have found two new ones to add to the list. When it comes to anthologies, I've always found that those edited by Donald R. Gallo are the best, and these are no exception. They are in his collection entitled OWNING IT: STORIES ABOUT TEENS WITH DISABILITIES. There is one copy currently available at the WPL (I have it signed out right now). I also own a copy of the book. And there are other stories in this anthology that you might find interesting, so it's definitely worth the read.

Owning It: Stories About Teens with Disabilities

"Tic and Shout" is written by Gail Giles, and it deals with a High School boy living with Tourettes. Giles herself was once a remedial reading teacher, and  much of her original research came from a student she worked with who was living with this condition. I read this story to a couple of Gr. 8 classes and it was well received.

The second story is "Let's Hear It For Fire Team Bravo" by Robert Lipsyte. I thought this was an incredible story of a young man dealing with testicular cancer who joins with a strange team of "comrades" to fight the "enemy". Rich with metaphors and reference to an interesting poem written by "B. B. Goings" (who is not e.e. cummings). Great for character change and theme. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Character: Emerging and Changing (and some new thoughts on theme)

Character Emerging and Changing
(and some thoughts about Theme):

Recently Jessica at O.V. Jewett School asked me about how I would teach character emerging/changing.

‘Good question!’  I thought.

I  realized after some more consideration what a really good question it is. And here’s what I came up with, for better or worse.

I thought that perhaps the quickest and most effective way to SHOW, NOT TELL students would be via a movie. After all, a movie is a novel, but in 90 minutes to two hours, which is more like the time commitment of a short story. And of course there is the motivation of watching a movie in school, especially a good one.

After some research (Google – “great character movies for teens”) I decided on Freedom Writers. Mainly because I hadn’t seen it, and I could access it through my U.S. version of Netflix. And what a great movie it is, with powerful examples  of both “character emerging” and “character changing” (okay, so you do have to ignore the fact that she only seemed to teach one class a day, and also how her “low level” kids learned to write amazingly well without any instruction) .

If you’ve seen it you also know that while the main character (the teacher) has lots of “emerging”, in somewhat of a surprise the focus of the “character change” is actually one of the important but secondary characters.

I intend to take the kids back over the movie to identify the qualities that emerged in both the teacher and the above-mentioned student, then to focus on how the student’s character changed. In every case, I want them to support their ideas with EVIDENCE FROM THE TEXT.


After finishing the movie, I also inferred how clear it was to me that the Author’s Intended BIG IDEA/THEME of the movie was right where the student demonstrated her change. What a great teaching moment. Yet at the same time, for me, there were other powerful themes that I could connect with: the power of the written word;  the power of primary research (in the movie where they invite the woman who had  helped hide Anne Frank);  the idea of how kids often have so much more to offer than what they are labelled as, ability-wise.

And don't get me started on the other staff members who resist “different” approaches to learning!

This got me thinking about those of you with whom I’ve shared my “formula” for getting kids to find and write about themes (personal and “author’s intended”). Why have so many kids struggled to go beyond “I CAN RELATE TO . . .” or “THIS REMINDS ME  OF . . .”

So here are my revised ideas on this. While I still feel that using “climax” to locate emotion and identify theme is a great way to help kids begin to infer theme, if I had to do it over again, when asking them to respond, I would now use the following steps:

1.       Once a theme has been identified, just write about it WITH LITTLE OR NO REFERENCE TO THE STORY OR THEIR OWN PERSONAL CONNECTIONS. Treat this more like an extended quick write. Let their minds take them wherever it might go. For example, if in this movie the theme I want to explore is the power of primary research, I would want to begin by having them “explore” that idea. Let them go – like my former student Kent once said, “the cool thing about responding in this class is that going off-topic is still on topic”. It could be something like this brief response:

In the movie, when they invite that lady who helped to hide Anne Frank, I couldn’t help but think about how much more meaningful research is when it is human. I am so frustrated with all those teachers who think that research means looking things up – and then they spend so much of their time worrying about which kids copied the work instead of “putting it in their own words.” What a joke that is – I know that even with all the technology teachers can now use for catching kids who copy (after they literally BEG them to do exactly that), smart kids are still beating the system and expending so much energy doing it – energy they could use for actually learning.

It’s the same when you talk to Admin about how you want resources for kids to do research. They immediately think that you mean computers and Google. And one of the funniest things (not ha ha) is how they all badmouth what is probably the best place to begin – Wikipedia. I have only met one librarian in all my years who understood what a great tool it is. Yeah, it is true anyone can put anything on an entry, but the links are fantastic, and a great starting point for REAL research. I guess they are worried about that other thing that really riles me: bibliographies. Like they are the most important thing we can teach kids about research. And of course you shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source – should you?

Yet they spend so much time teaching the form of the bibliography, as if that is the thing to learn. And suddenly what the students presumably WANTED to learn (and I would emphasize PRESUMABLY) is secondary to the “works cited” section – do they know how to do that properly, because after all, in University . . .

2.       Then have them bring it  back to the text.

Which brings me back to the movie. Those kids were involved in AUTHENTIC research, and I got goose bumps and tears when the old lady walks in to the classroom (and the fact that she’s the real person, at least I think she was, really added to it). Or when that girl gets so angry about finding out that Anne was actually captured and died – that really demonstrated to me that what they were learning was REAL and meaningful.

3.       And finally have them relate it to their own experiences (and remember that personal connections don’t have to be personal  - they can be based on things the student has read, seen in movies or TV, or heard about in the world. I was reminded of how crucial this is recently in Jenny Hall’s class when Sarah, the student who is living with Cerebral  Palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, responded to Peter Sieruta’s great short story, Being Alive. I thought it was so awesome that in her response she DIDN’T make the obvious theme connection to Kenny, the boy in the wheelchair. That really showed us how she understood that theme is more than “it reminds me of . . .”

Saturday, October 19, 2013

For The Love Of Reading - Syd Korsunsky

A look back at my early teaching career and how I arrived at the "Twenty Or So Things I Believe About Readers Workshop."

For The Love Of Reading

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Blog Basics

Hey Everyone!

OK, now that we've got the ball rolling, I have attached the instructions to work the blog. The steps are pretty simple. I have left them as bare bones (just-the-facts ma'am kinda stuff). In this document, I have included:

  • How to create a post (writing an article to publish on the blog)
  • How to create a Googledoc (longer article or document that will be attached as a link)
  • How to attach the Googledoc to a blog post
Feel free to leave comments right in the document if clarification is needed and I will add detail.

Click on the link below for these instructions.

(To leave comments, highlight the section that needs clarification and click on the comment icon - little gray dialogue box - to insert a comment).

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Another article that looks at a University department which has dropped traditional grading.

Stanford Drops Letter Grades